Warbler's Listing Cuts Coffee Growers a Break


     WASHINGTON (CN) - Puerto Rico's elfin-woods warbler has been listed under the Endangered Species Act with an exemption for coffee growers and a proposed 27,000 acres of critical habitat. The bird was first identified as a candidate species for listing in 1982.
     The warbler's listing success is due to a settlement agreement between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its most frequent litigant, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD). The 2011 settlement mandated that the agency work through a backlog of hundreds of listing determinations through a multi-year work plan.
     "With the help of the Endangered Species Act, the elfin-woods warbler will recover, like other Puerto Rican birds before it," Jaclyn Lopez, CBD's Florida director, said. "The Endangered Species Act has an excellent track record at increasing or stabilizing populations of birds like the Puerto Rican parrot, yellow-shouldered blackbird and Puerto Rican plain pigeon."
     Because the tiny warbler has been listed as a threatened species under the ESA, a special Section 4(d) exemption is permitted under the act, which is not an option for species listed as endangered. Basically, the 4(d) exemption allows harm or mortality to individuals in the protected species for activities that will ultimately provide conservation benefits to the species as a whole.
     In this case, coffee growers who are converting their plantations from sun-grown to shade-grown are exempted from prohibitions on harming the warblers because shade-grown plantations provide more useable habitat for the birds. Likewise, reforestation and activities that remove invasive species and replant native species in riparian buffer zones are also exempted because these activities provide connective corridors for the birds from farmed to forested areas.
     The combination of rapid urban growth and the deforestation required for sun-grown coffee plantations has squeezed the diminutive warbler into two verified small isolated populations. Surveys found less than 2,000 warblers, according to the agency's September 2015 proposed rule.
     Along with the final listing rule published Wednesday, the agency has proposed 27,125 acres of critical habitat in a separate rule. Critical habitat is defined under the act as areas within the occupied range of the protected species that contain features essential to the conservation of the species, which may require special management, or areas outside the occupied range that have been determined to be essential to the conservation of the species, according to the action.
     The ESA requires the agency to designate critical habitat at the time a species is listed, "to the maximum extent prudent and determinable...after taking into consideration the economic impact, national security impact and other relevant impacts" of specifying particular areas as critical habitat, the agency noted. However, this is not the first time a critical habitat designation has been delayed.
     "After a Congressional moratorium on listing new species ended in 1996, we faced a huge backlog of species needing to be proposed for listing as threatened or endangered. For this reason, we have assigned a relatively low priority to designating critical habitat because we believe that a more effective use of our limited staff and funding has been to place imperiled species on the List of Endangered and Threatened Species," the agency said.
     The critical habitat proposal includes a draft economic analysis, and the agency requests public comments and information on the analysis as well as the proposal.
     The listing is effective July 22. Comments and information on the draft economic analysis or critical habitat proposal are due Aug. 22.