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Dwindling Native Grasslands and Climate Change Among Threats to Rare Bird
DENVER-WildEarth Guardians filed suit today against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) over the agency’s failure to issue an Endangered Species Act finding for the imperiled Sprague’s pipit under a legally mandated deadline. The bird is native to a vast swath of the Great Plains and southwestern U.S.
“Sprague’s pipits range over 700 million acres of grassland in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico,” stated Lauren McCain, WildEarth Guardians’ Prairie Protection Director. “Yet, the bird is struggling to survive having lost 80% of its population.”
The Sprague’s pipit 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.
WildEarth Guardians’ suit, filed today, challenges the Service’s failure to provide a finding within 90-days of receiving the group’s petition, as is required by the Endangered Species Act. The group filed its case in federal court in Denver. The Sprague’s pipit range includes Colorado.
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.
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. In a March press statement Salazar stated, “Birds today are a bellwether of the health of land, water and ecosystems,” and added, “We must work together now to ensure we never hear the deafening silence in our forests, fields and backyards that Rachel Carson warned us about.”
“Given Secretary Salazar’s interest in doing more for our imperiled birds, we are optimistic that Sprague’s pipits will get the federal protection they desperately need,” stated McCain of WildEarth Guardians. “However, the Secretary and the Service must act promptly to prevent species extinctions, in accordance with the Endangered Species Act.”
Other species the WildEarth Guardians petitioned in October 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.
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 also be harmed by herbicides aimed at non-native thistles.
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.
White-sided jackrabbit - occurs in just one small area in New Mexico but historically ranging 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.
Six freshwater mussels - occur in the southeastern U.S.
New Mexico meadow jumping mouse - exists in Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico, but is gone from 74% of the places it historically occurred.
Sonoran desert tortoise - ranges across southern Arizona and Sonora, Mexico and has declined by 51% since 1987.
So far, the Service has issued findings for the jackrabbit and salamander; in both cases, the agency agreed with WildEarth Guardians that these species merit a full review to determine whether they warrant federal protection. In addition, the Service designated the jumping mouse as a candidate for federal protection.
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.
“Climate change affects us all. We must use every tool in the toolshed to fight the climate crisis, including the Endangered Species Act,” stated McCain.
All of the Western Ark petitions are in-depth and detailed. To obtain the Sprague’s pipit petition, as well as other Western Ark petitions, photos, and other information, contact Lauren McCain at firstname.lastname@example.org or (720) 563-9306.