WASHINGTON (CN) – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed Puerto Rico’s elfin-woods warbler for threatened status under the Endangered Species Act due to habitat loss and hurricane threat. Wednesday’s action is in accordance with a 2011 settlement agreement between the agency and environmental groups headed by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), which mandates the agency make listing determinations for hundreds of species within a six year period. The warbler has been in listing limbo since 1982 due to lack of information and higher listing priorities.
The warbler is found in only two forested areas in Puerto Rico, on the summits of mountains in dense stands of short, small diameter twisted trees and shrubs. The surrounding urban areas have grown by more than 2000 percent between 1936 and 1988, according to the action. Extensive surveys have found only an estimated 1800 warblers.
“This tiny bird represents wild Puerto Rico, and its population decline reflects unchecked habitat destruction and fragmentation,” Jaclyn Lopez, CBD’s Florida director, said.
Because the bird is proposed for a threatened listing status, the agency is also proposing an exemption from prohibitions on harming the warblers for activities that will ultimately help to conserve them. This type of Section 4(d) exemption under the ESA is not allowed if a species is listed as endangered.
The conversion of sun-grown coffee to shade-grown plantations, with the removal of invasive species and hand-harvesting outside the peak nesting season, would qualify for the exemption although the conversion period would disrupt and possibly harm some warblers. Similarly, the restoration of riparian buffer zones by planting native vegetation and removing exotic species, and reforestation efforts to extend habitat and create connective corridors between forested and agricultural areas that could sustain the birds, would also qualify for the exemption. Sun-grown coffee plantations require deforestation and removal of habitat that elfin-woods warblers need, while shade-grown coffee plantations provide habitat for the warbler.
“We will work closely with the commonwealth, federal agencies, and private landowners to suggest best management practices that not only will help this bird recover, but also enhance the environment, which is also good for other wildlife and people,” Cindy Dohner, the Service’s Southeast Regional Director, said. “We hope we can encourage actions that will help conserve this Puerto Rican treasure.”
Because the warblers are only found in two areas, it is possible that the elfin-woods warbler could experience local extinction from catastrophic weather events, such as hurricanes. Climate change studies predict an increase in hurricane intensity in the Atlantic, with higher wind speeds and more rain, according to the action. Though there is no specific documentation that hurricanes are a main cause of warbler population declines, it is possible that they caused the local extinction of the species from the Carite Commonwealth Forest, which was a known site for the birds up to 15 years ago.
Comments on the listing proposal and the Section 4(d) exemption are due Nov. 30 and public hearing requests are due by Nov. 16.
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