The U.S. Military Could Wipe Out This Tiny Pacific Island Bird

A planned Defense Department training site in the Northern Marianas threatens to destroy the Tinian monarch’s last bit of habitat.

A Tinian monarch. (Photo: Devon Pike/Wikimedia Commons)

Jan 6, 2016· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

In 2004, the United States government declared that a tiny and imperiled Pacific island bird called the Tinian monarch had pulled back from the brink of extinction and removed it from the endangered species list.

A little over a decade later, that rare success story appears to be at risk. The new threat? The U.S. government.

The Department of Defense has proposed a major new training site on Tinian, the 39-square-mile Mariana island on which the bird lives. If approved, the live-fire training complex—a place where the military could practice weapons targeting—would remove about 2,000 acres of Tinian monarch habitat and take over one-eighth of the island.

That could have quite an impact on the birds, which have lost much of their habitat to deforestation, development, and planting of nonnative trees, according to a 2014 report from the U.S. Forest Service.

“The military will be removing habitat that cannot otherwise be restored,” said Tara Easter, a scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, which in 2013 petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to return the Tinian monarch to the protection of the Endangered Species Act. “Those birds they’re displacing can’t go anywhere else because the island is so small and so much is already inhabited.”

Last September the FWS agreed with the center’s petition and said the species may once again qualify for protection.

That announcement—the first step in a multiyear process that would be necessary to protect the species—was opposed by Tinian politician Jude Hofschneider, who in November said the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands had taken steps to protect the species by translocating 49 birds to a nearby island. Another 50 would follow this year, he said.

“There’s no guarantee that those translocations are going to work,” Easter said. “Tinian monarchs are notoriously difficult to handle in captivity and relocate because they’re solitary and extremely territorial. It shouldn’t prevent listing, because no one really knows if that is going to be an effective conservation method.”

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Hofschneider, who did not respond to a request for comment, also said the population of Tinian monarchs has soared in recent years to more than 90,000, a number based on a 2013 survey of Tinian’s wildlife conducted by the Department of the Navy. However, the conservation organization BirdLife International uses data from one year earlier to place the population much lower, at between 20,000 and 50,000 individuals.

Aside from habitat loss, Easter said she is worried about the introduction of invasive species such as the brown tree snake, which sneaks aboard military transport vehicles and has devastated bird populations on nearby Guam. “A lot of people have already seen brown tree snakes on Tinian and are really worried about a mass introduction and what that would mean,” she said. “They haven’t been able to handle it on Guam, and they wouldn’t be able to on Tinian either.”

Easter said she hopes an Endangered Species Act designation could help revise the military’s proposals before it’s too late for the Tinian monarch. “That protection is really, really crucial to make sure that their populations don’t plummet again as a result of these activities,” she said. “I think if they were denied that protection, then the military could go forward with their plans right now.”

The Department of Defense, meanwhile, has not yet secured funding for the base but last month said that it will conduct new studies of the islands and that it expects no delays in its plans.