Once nearly extinct, songbird coming off endangered list

A Kirtland’s warbler perches on a jack pine in 2008 near Mio, Mich.

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — The federal government said Tuesday it will remove the Kirtland’s warbler from its list of protected species, finding that the small, yellow-bellied songbird had recovered more than half a century after being designated as endangered.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service credited teamwork among numerous agencies and nonprofit groups for the survival of the warbler, which had fallen victim to its own narrow habitat demands and competition from the predatory brown-headed cowbird. The same measures that overcame those threats will be needed in the future to prevent backsliding, officials said.

“The job now is to ensure that this species continues to have a healthy population,” said Dan Kennedy, endangered species coordinator for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Officials announced the decision at a news conference in East Lansing, Michigan. It takes effect Nov. 8.

Biologists describe Kirtland’s warblers as among the most geographically limited birds in the continental U.S. They nest on the ground beneath young jack pines in northern Michigan, parts of Wisconsin and the Canadian province of Ontario. If the trees get too old or large, they’re no longer suitable as habitat.

Historically, wildfires swept through the region every few decades, burning down overgrown jack pines and popping open cones whose seeds produced new trees. But modern fire suppression tactics disrupted the cycle, and warbler-friendly territory shrank. To enlarge it, agencies developed a system of logging overgrown pine stands and replanting new ones to imitate what nature previously did.

Listed as endangered in 1967, the population of Kirtland’s warblers later hit a record low of only 167 pairs. But the tide eventually turned. Numbers rose steadily in the 1990s and have been above the recovery goal of 1,000 pairs for 17 years. The latest census put the species at about 2,300 pairs.

“While scientists have watched a massive decline leading to 3 billion fewer birds across the country, Endangered Species Act protections have resulted in a more than 10-fold increase in the Kirtland’s warbler,” said Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Kirtland’s warbler recovery is a clear signal the Endangered Species Act works.”

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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