Signup for our emails

   Please leave this field empty


Prairie Songbird One Step Closer to Federal Protection

Dwindling Grasslands and Inadequate Protections Among Threats to Sprague's Pipit

WASHINGTON DC-The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) issued a decision in today’s Federal Register that the Sprague’s pipit, a grassland bird that ranges over 700 million acres in North America, may warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act. The decision was in response to a petition and subsequent lawsuit by WildEarth Guardians, a western U.S. conservation group. The next step will be a full status review conducted by the Service to determine if it will propose the bird for federal protection.

“We’re pleased that the Sprague’s pipit has made it over the first hurdle toward federal protection. This rare prairie songbird is rapidly slipping away and needs the protections provided under the Endangered Species Act,” stated Lauren McCain of WildEarth Guardians.

This songbird is native to a vast swath of the Great Plains and southwestern U.S. It is part of WildEarth Guardians’ “Western Ark” project launched last October to call attention to the wide variety of endangered species not yet protected under the Endangered Species Act and to gain federal protection for those species. The Service’s findings on Western Ark petitions have thus far all been positive.

Like the Sprague’s pipit, most of these species are affected by climate change. Climate change is altering wildlife habitat faster than these sensitive species can adapt.

“As our leaders head toward climate talks in Copenhagen, they should remember that climate change affects us all - from the pipit to the polar bear. We must use every tool in the toolshed to fight the climate crisis, including the Endangered Species Act,” stated McCain.

Scientists consider the Sprague’s pipit to be one of the most rapidly declining songbirds in North America. A major problem is that the bird depends on one of the world’s most endangered habitats: our native grasslands. Sprague’s pipits have lost up to 99% of their breeding grounds in the Northern Great Plains. Specific threats include habitat fragmentation, disturbance from road building and other construction, oil and gas development, the loss of native grassland to cropland, pesticide applications on cropland, non-native livestock grazing, the loss of bison who maintained the bird’s preferred habitat, increase of woody plants and exotic weeds, our suppression of natural grassland fires, and drought. Climate change is expected to worsen these threats and has likely already contributed to habitat degradation. In today’s finding, the Service recognized that habitat loss and decline, as well as a lack of legal protections from threats such as energy development and agriculture, appear to threaten the Sprague’s pipit.

The State of the Birds Report 2009 issued in March by Cornell University and several government agencies, including the Fish and Wildlife Service, concluded that grassland and arid-land birds are experiencing the most rapid declines among the country’s birds. The report listed Sprague’s pipits as a “bird in trouble.” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who is responsible for Endangered Species Act listing decisions, has acknowledged the need to protect America’s birds.

Other species the WildEarth Guardians petitioned in October 2008 as part of its Western Ark project included:

Chihuahua scurfpea - a plant with two current populations containing a total of 300 individuals, located in New Mexico and Arizona. Threatened by herbicide in the U.S., it appears to be gone from Mexico. It was historically used as medicine. A decision on this plant is expected next week.

Wright’s marsh thistle - now occurs only in New Mexico because its wetland habitat is threatened by water diversion and agriculture. While the Wright’s marsh thistle is native, it can be harmed by herbicides aimed at non-native thistles. In response to WildEarth Guardians’ petition, the Service is now conducting a full status review on this plant.

Jemez Mountains salamander - restricted to the Jemez Mountains in northern New Mexico. The Jemez Mountains are ranked as the area in New Mexico most vulnerable to climate change, with this salamander identified as a likely victim. In response to WildEarth Guardians’ petition, the Service is now conducting a full status review on this animal.

White-sided jackrabbit - occurs in just one small area in New Mexico but historically ranged through southern Mexico. Its numbers have sharply declined in past decades, with the most recent estimates for the U.S. at 150 or fewer jackrabbits. Surveys in the 1990s counted only five jackrabbits per year. This jackrabbit depends on rare desert grasslands. In response to WildEarth Guardians’ petition, the Service is now conducting a full status review on this animal.

Six freshwater mussels - occur in the southeastern U.S. WildEarth Guardians is currently in court to obtain findings for these species.

New Mexico meadow jumping mouse - exists in Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico, but is gone from 74% of the places it historically occurred. This mammal is now a candidate for Endangered Species Act protection.

Sonoran desert tortoise - ranges across southern Arizona and Sonora, Mexico and has declined by 51% since 1987. In response to a petition from WildEarth Guardians and Western Watersheds Project, the Service is now conducting a full status review on this animal.

All of the Western Ark petitions are in-depth and detailed. To obtain the Sprague’s pipit petition or finding, as well as other Western Ark petitions, photos, and other information, contact Lauren McCain at or (720) 563-9306.


All active news articles