Endangered Bird Battles Back From Brink of Extinction

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (CN) – Down to only 350 birds when it was listed as an endangered species, a southwestern songbird’s numbers have soared through conservation efforts, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Friday.

The black-capped vireo. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The agency noted estimates that the black-capped vireo’s population now stands around 14,000 in its announcement of the final delisting action for the species, which removes the vireo from the federal list of endangered species.

The tiny vireo, less than five inches long, has made its remarkable recovery due to “robust conservation efforts” since the bird’s listing in 1987 under the Endangered Species Act, the agency said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service, or FWS, joined with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, two military installations, The Nature Conservancy, Environmental Defense Fund, Mexico, private landowners and others to implement a recovery plan for these important insect-eating birds.

“The delisting of the black-capped vireo clearly illustrates the value of the service’s partnership-driven approach to conservation,” FWS Southwest Regional Director Amy Lueders said in a statement. “By working with our partners including Fort Hood, Fort Sill, the states of Texas and Oklahoma, private landowners and others we were able to conserve a North American songbird that once perched on the brink of extinction for future generations to enjoy.”

One of the conservation partners, The Nature Conservancy, has a long history of working for the vireo’s conservation, according to the group’s associate director of field science in Texas, Rich Kostecke.

“In 1992, we began a 19-year collaboration with the Army at Fort Hood, Texas, to assist them with monitoring and management of the vireo and its habitat. This collaboration produced much of the foundational science related to the demography and population dynamics of the vireo, as well as on cowbird management,” Kostecke told Courthouse News via email.

He continued, “Since at least 1990, the vireo has also been one of several significant drivers of our land protection work across west Texas and the Texas Hill Country. Our Dolan Falls, Independence Creek, and Love Creek preserves each harbor populations of the vireo that are considered to be resilient or manageable, and hence critical to the continued existence of the species. We also hold conservation easements on over 100,000 acres of private (and public) lands that provide habitat for the vireo.” (Parentheses in original.)

The black-capped vireo was threatened by habitat destruction due to grazing compounded by nest invasion from the brown-headed cowbirds, which lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. The cowbird eggs usually hatch before the other eggs and the nestlings are larger, which generally results in the cowbird being the only nestling to survive.

Vireo recovery efforts concentrated on the use of prescribed fire management, conservation easements and management of the cowbirds, according to FWS.

While conservation and environmental groups often petition and sue to push FWS to act on behalf of at-risk species, in this case the agency was prodded to remove the endangered-species listing for the vireo by cattle organizations. They sued in 2015 through the Pacific Legal Foundation when their 2012 petition to downlist the birds from endangered to threatened status went unanswered, according to a December 2016 delisting proposal.

The cattle groups expressed frustration that the agency was not acting on the timeline demands of its own five-year species review from 2007, which had made the recommendation to downlist the vireo.

Both FWS and the National Marine Fisheries Service, the two federal agencies tasked with management of imperiled terrestrial and marine species under the Endangered Species Act, perennially struggle with budget constraints while attempting to implement the mandates of the act in a timely manner, both for getting imperiled species listed and for downlisting or delisting species that have improved.

Now, however, both the conservationists and the cattle organizations can celebrate not just an improvement in the black-capped vireo’s status, but a recovery, which also signals a win-win for the birds, the partners and the land.

“Anytime we are able to successfully recover an imperiled species and see it removed from the endangered species list is cause for celebration,” Carter Smith, executive director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said in a statement. “What made it all work were the tireless efforts and dedication of multiple public and private partners, particularly the commitment of private landowners who labored diligently to restore and enhance habitats to benefit the vireos and a host of other native species in the process. The conservation lesson learned here is that marriage of good partnerships and good land stewardship produces results we can all be proud of.”

Work with the conservation partners is expected to continue under the FWS post-delisting monitoring plan for a 12-year period. The plan “provides a strategy for identifying and responding to any future population declines or habitat loss,” the agency said.

The Nature Conservancy’s Kostecke said there is “broad consensus among the agencies and organizations involved in the recovery of the vireo that conservation work for the species is not complete.”

“In some instances, active management for the species will need to continue, and continued monitoring is essentially to ensure that recovery gains are not lost. The Nature Conservancy has committed to continue to manage and protect habitat for the vireo on our preserves, and we have also committed to be actively engaged in the post delisting monitoring effort,” he said.

The delisting of the black-capped vireo is effective 30 days after the expected publication date of April 16.

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