The Endangered Species Act Is for the Birds

Two new reports find that the majority of protected avian species have benefited from the wildlife law.
A wood stork standing in water near an immature roseate spoonbill at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. (Photo: Joel Sartore/National Geographic/Getty Images)
Aug 1, 2016· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

The Endangered Species Act has been a boon for birds.

That’s the message from two new reports that find the majority of birds have benefited from the act’s protection. The first report, issued by the Center for Biological Diversity, looked at birds that have been protected for at least 10 years and found that 85 percent of bird species in the continental U.S. have either stabilized or seen population increases since they were first listed. The second report, released by the American Bird Conservancy, examined species that had been protected at least five years and concluded that 78 percent experienced population growth.

The reports come at a time when the Endangered Species Act is under legislative attack. Just this month the United States House of Representatives passed an appropriations bill that would, if also passed by the Senate, force the removal of the gray wolf and other species from the endangered species list. More than 100 such attempts to weaken the act have been made by the 114th Congress since 2015, according to a recent tally by Defenders of Wildlife.

“That’s why I think it’s so important that people understand that as an investment, we’re getting the results we’d hoped for from the Endangered Species Act,” said Steve Holmer, senior policy advisor for the American Bird Conservancy and the author of the group’s report.

Among the successes cited in the reports are the wood stork, which has increased from 5,000 birds in 1978 to about 10,000 nesting pairs today; the Kirtland’s warbler, which saw the number of males of the species grow from 167 in 1974 to more than 2,300 last year; and the peregrine falcon, which was delisted in 1999.

Although the Endangered Species Act has had great success with mainland birds, those in Hawaii and other Pacific islands haven’t been doing as well. The reports found that only 61 percent of protected species there are stable or increasing.

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“Hawaii is a long way from Washington, and the old saying ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ rings true,” said Loyal Mehrhoff, endangered species recovery director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “We just are not on Congress’ or the administration’s to-do list.” He added that even the people of Hawaii don’t have a high level of awareness about the state’s endangered species because the birds and other animals live in such remote locations. “As a result, there is not a lot of focus on saving species that you never see.” The American Bird Conservancy calculated that Hawaiian birds receive less than 7 percent of federal conservation funding even though they represent more than 28 percent of all listed bird species.

Even with the lesser success of Hawaiian species, the Center for Biological Diversity calculated that ESA-listed species have increased their populations an average of 624 percent since protections for each species were enacted.

With such healthy population increases, the question remains why relatively few bird species have been considered recovered and therefore removed from the endangered species list. “Recovering and delisting a species is not just a numbers game,” said Brian Hires of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Office of Public Affairs. Other factors that must be considered prior to delisting include habitat preservation, mitigation of ongoing threats, reintroductions into historic ranges, and other management policies that will help prevent population declines after protections are lifted.

Beyond that, it’s also a lot of work to delist a species, and Holmer said that effort is often needed elsewhere. “When you have birds that are critically endangered, that needs to be the immediate focus,” he said.