Songbird Recovery Prompts Likely Species Delisting

WASHINGTON (CN) – Prodded by a cattlemen’s association lawsuit, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to remove the black-capped vireo from the Endangered Species List due to recovery.

The black-capped vireo, just 4.5 inches long, is the smallest member of the vireo family in the United States. The little songbird, which overwinters in northern Mexico, nests and raises its young in the scrubby oak and low vegetation that is typical of its home rangeland in Texas and Oklahoma. The oak and shrub brushlands of these regions are often cleared for grazing, and the cattle also clear woody vegetation by intense grazing, the agency said.

Habitat loss is one of the threats to this bird’s survival, and it is compounded by nest invasion from brown-headed cowbirds, which lay their eggs in the vireos’ nests. The cowbird eggs hatch sooner than the vireos’ and the cowbird chick is much bigger. Usually the cowbird is the only nestling to fledge from such nests, the agency said.

When the vireo was listed in 1987 as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act, only around 350 birds survived in a few scattered populations. After the vireo was listed, the agency partnered with the U.S. Army, private landowners and non-governmental organizations to help the birds through the use of prescribed fires, conservation easements and managing the cowbirds, the agency said.

“The commitment and follow-through from Fort Hood, Fort Sill, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, private landowners and others over the last 30 years have been critical in bringing the vireo back from the brink of extinction,” the Service’s Southwest Regional Director, Dr. Benjamin N. Tuggle, said. “Today’s announcement illustrates exactly how the ESA works to protect species on the brink of extinction and to successfully recover them.”

Now there are 5,200 known birds and an estimated population of 14,000 across their breeding range, according to the agency.

The recovery is extolled by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) conservation group, one of the agency’s most frequent petitioners and complainants on behalf of imperiled species. “The beautiful black-capped vireo is yet another victory for the Endangered Species Act, which has been more than 99 percent successful at saving species from extinction and has put hundreds of others on the road to recovery,” the Center’s endangered species director, Noah Greenwald, said. “With the strong protections of the Endangered Species Act and concerted effort, endangered species like the vireo can be saved.”

While the CBD often provides the impetus for compelling the agency to meet its statutory deadlines mandated by the ESA, in this case the action was spurred by the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association, the Texas Farm Bureau and others who petitioned the agency in July 2012 to downlist the birds from endangered to threatened status based on the agency’s own 2007 status review of the species that made that recommendation.

In September 2013, more than a year later, the agency responded to the petition with its 90-day review, mandated by the ESA to be made within 90 days of receipt of a petition, which found that downlisting the species to threatened status was appropriate.

In November 2015, the petitioners filed a lawsuit through the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLS) to compel the agency to make its 12-month finding on the species, which is mandated by the ESA to be completed within 12 months of receipt of the petition.

“It’s a serious matter when the federal government ignores its own scientific findings, and fails to delist or downlist species that no longer need ESA protection or are incorrectly classified,” PLF attorney Daniel A. Himebaugh said when the lawsuit was announced. “This isn’t an academic issue. Real harm is caused to real people. Ranchers who enter into agreements with the government to graze cattle on public land may be required to abide by restrictions that make their operations less productive in order to protect a species’ habitat. Farmers might be required to forgo planting in certain areas that encompass part of a protected species’ range, or the government might limit the delivery of irrigation water. Such damaging restrictions are, by definition, arbitrary and unnecessary if they are imposed for the purpose of protecting a species that does not qualify for protection under the ESA.”

The action published Thursday, more than four years after the petition, represents both the 12-month review and the resulting delisting proposal, since the agency has now determined that the threats have been reduced and the species has recovered to such an extent that it no longer meets the definition of an endangered species or a threatened species.

While the CBD often pushes the agency to meet its listing obligations in a timelier manner, this case demonstrates that the long-lamented funding restraints the agency faces also impact its ability to remove species that have recovered.

“We’re thrilled that the Endangered Species Act has secured a future for the black-capped vireo,” CBD’s Greenwald said. “We can save more species if we fully fund and implement the Endangered Species Act.” Greenwald cited a recent study he co-authored that found that “the current appropriation for recovery of endangered species is roughly 3.5 percent of what is needed to fully recover all currently listed species.”

Comments on the delisting proposal are due Feb. 13, 2017.