Conservationists sue federal government to save songbird rapidly disappearing from Eastern forests

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- National Audubon Society, Defenders of Wildlife among those filing suit Doug Ruley SELC Senior Attorney, 828.285.9125 Greg Butcher National Audubon Society, 202.861.2242 x 3034 Cindy Hoffman Defenders of Wildlife, 202.682.9400 x 155 Tracy Davids So. App. Biodiversity Project, 828.258.2667 Bob Gale Western North Carolina Alliance, 828.258.8737 Mark Donham Hartwood, 618.564.3367 Asheville, NC – Five conservation groups representing almost 1 million members filed suit today against Interior Secretary Gale Norton and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for ignoring their petition to add the Cerulean Warbler to the nation's list of threatened species. The groups filed their petition more than five years ago, and repeatedly have sought to compel the agency to follow the legal requirements for responding to such citizen petitions. In the intervening years, the rate of the bird's decline appears to have quickened, and threats to bird's survival have worsened. The National Audubon Society, Defenders of Wildlife, Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project, Western North Carolina Alliance and Heartwood filed suit in District Court in Washington D.C. They are among the 28 conservation groups from across the East that petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in 2000 to list the bird as threatened and designate critical habitat for its long-term survival. The Cerulean Warbler population has dropped almost 82% throughout its U.S. range over the last 40 years, making it the fastest declining warbler in the country. Known for its bright blue plumage and distinctive song, the Cerulean breeds in the summer in eastern forests and migrates to South America for winter. Once common, it has grown increasingly rare as forest habitat in both hemispheres has been destroyed and fragmented by logging, surface mining and development. In the U.S., the worst of the Cerulean's decline has been in the core of its range – 80% in the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia, and 65% in the Ohio Hills in Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. "The birding community is greatly concerned because the Cerulean has been declining throughout its range for such a long period of time," said Greg Butcher, Ph.D., Director of Bird Conservation with the National Audubon Society. He said the bird has declined an average of 6% per year over the last eight years, compared to an annual average of 4.3% from 1966 to 2004. "We need to catch the Cerulean in its rapid fall before it hits endangered status," said Doug Ruley, Senior Attorney in the Asheville, N.C., office of the Southern Environmental Law Center, a nonprofit organization representing the groups. "There is no excuse for the agency to have stalled this long." Under the Endangered Species Act, the FWS is required to determine within 90 days whether a citizen petition presents enough information that a listing may be warranted. If that is the case, the agency then has 12 months to determine whether the petition is 1) warranted, 2) warranted but precluded by other pending proposals, or 3) not warranted. Over the past five years, the groups sent the agency three separate notices of their intent to sue for missing various deadlines. In October 2003, FWS issued its long-overdue 90-day response, finding that the Cerulean may in fact warrant threatened status; it has yet to issue the 12-month determination, now many years late. "We owe it to our children and grandchildren to be good stewards of the land and leave behind a legacy of protecting endangered species and the places they call home," said Tracy Davids, Director of Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project, an Asheville, N.C. citizen group that protects native wildlife in the region. "The Endangered Species Act has been successful in preventing the extinction of the Carolina Northern Flying Squirrel from western North Carolina, and many other animals and plants native to the region. It must be fully enforced by citizens like us when the government fails to do so." The primary threat to the Cerulean Warbler is habitat degradation and forest fragmentation. In the U.S., the songbirds nest in the interior of contiguous forest tracts and need large areas of mature, undisturbed forest to reproduce successfully. The loss and fragmentation of these forests to mining, including mountain top mining, logging, agricultural clearing, sprawl and other development are likely causes of the species' dramatic decline. Similarly, the Cerulean's winter habitat in the forests of the Andes and northern South America is being destroyed for the production of coffee beans and coca as demand for these products grows. The groups' original petition said that listing the Cerulean Warbler as a threatened species is the conservative approach to reversing the bird's decline. Under the Endangered Species Act, the FWS would develop a recovery plan for the threatened bird, ensuring coordination among land-use agencies to protect Cerulean habitat. Once the Cerulean is listed, the FWS would be required to ensure that federal actions would not drive the species closer to extinction or impede its eventual recovery. Moreover, formally listing the Cerulean would provide the U.S. government and conservation organizations more opportunity for cooperation with their South American counterparts to protect Andean forests. The Cerulean would be the first warbler listed as threatened under the Act. Three other species of warbler found in the U.S. on the list – Bachman's, Kirtland's, and golden-cheeked – are endangered. Unfortunately, the Bachman's was likely extinct by the time it was listed and so did not benefit from protection under the Act. The Kirtlands' warbler, on the other hand, has increased since it was listed. Dr. Butcher, of Audubon, said the Cerulean has virtually disappeared from the bottomland hardwood wetlands along the Mississippi River watershed where it was once abundant. Now it is being threatened in its mountain habitat. “It’s a one-two punch for this bird, really,” he said. “If we can’t maintain these eastern forests for the Cerulean and all those other species that depend on them, you just have to worry for all of us.”