Saturday, March 25, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Threatened status for Pacific Northwest songbird draws lawsuit by bird lovers

In addition to challenging Fish and Wildlife's listing of the streaked horned lark as threatened rather than endangered, conservationists blasted exemptions given to agriculture.

PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) — Time is running out for the streaked horned lark, prompting the Audubon Society of Portland and the Center for Biological Diversity to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife on Tuesday to list the species as endangered — rather than threatened, its current status — under the Endangered Species Act.

Streaked horned larks are small, ground-dwelling songbirds with wispy feather tufts or horns that stick out from their heads. But the black-bibbed critters have now lost most of their habitat throughout the Willamette Valley and Puget Lowlands due to development, according to the center, leading to dwindling populations to an estimated 1,170 birds or fewer.

“Protecting streaked horned larks as endangered is the only way to prevent them from disappearing forever,” said Ryan Shannon, a senior attorney at the center, in a statement. “These beautiful birds are at extinction’s doorstep. They need the strongest protections they can get.”

The center’s lawsuit follows the Fish and Wildlife’s decision to list the lark as threatened in April 2022, granting the species fewer protections than those with an endangered status.

The lawsuit also challenges a rule attached to the threatened listing that exempts agricultural activities from liability under the Endangered Species Act, a rule the center says was enacted although crop conversion is one of the leading threats to the lark. However, Fish and Wildlife first listed the lark as threatened with the special rule in 2013, arguing that exempting agricultural activities from the Endangered Species Act was necessary to gain cooperation from farmers and to avoid incentivizing conversion from grass seed to crops that are unhospitable for the birds.

Nonetheless, farmers converted grass seed fields to other crops, prompting the center to file suit over the threatened listing in 2018. The next year, Chief U.S. District Judge Michael Mosman entered judgment in favor of the center and remanded to Fish and Wildlife for reconsideration. Instead, the agency maintained its position in 2022 and added Washington state to the exemption.

“The weight of scientific evidence clearly points to a bird that should be listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act,” said Joe Liebezeit, staff scientist and avian conservation manager at Portland Audubon, in a statement. “We need to give this bird a fighting chance to recover from extinction’s doorstep.”

A Fish and Wildlife spokesperson declined to comment, citing pending litigation.

In its April 2022 listing, Fish and Wildlife openly responded to comments about the agricultural exemption, as well as to a comment pushing to list the species as endangered. The agency said that while the birds are affected by “stressors including agriculture, airport management, military operations, dredged material placement and recreation,” the species “retains multiple populations in high and moderate condition” across all regions in a variety of habitats.

“While the subspecies has shown variable abundance across the range, both from location-to-location and year-to-year, each representative region has at least eight redundant populations. Negative influence factors on the subspecies have not fluctuated much for the last 20 years and are not of a scope or magnitude such that the subspecies is currently in danger of extinction," Fish and Wildlife wrote.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.