Conserving Wild Birds and Their Habitats throughout the Americas

BIRD CONSERVATION NEWS TIP-SHEET 10/10/07 Steve Holmer, 202/234-7181 ext. 216, sholmer@abcbirds.org, www.abcbirds.org

  1. Will Gov. Schwarzenegger Protect Endangered Condors by Banning Lead Ammunition?
  2. Scientists Call for New Plan to Protect Spotted Owl
  3. Court to Rule on Tower Safeguards on Gulf Coast
  4. Oil and Gas Drilling Plans Threaten Sage-Grouse in Colorado and Wyoming
  5. Legislation Introduced to Tackle Threat of Invasive Species
  6. How Will Conservation Fare in Final Farm and Spending Bills?
  7. Bristol Bay Stripped of Longstanding Protections
  8. International Cooperation Drives Yucatan Conservation Project
  9. International Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels Attracts Greater U.S. Attention
  10. Restoration Effort Underway for Northern Bobwhite


1. Will Gov. Schwarzenegger Protect Endangered Condors by Banning Lead Ammunition? On September 4, the California Senate passed legislation to ban lead ammunition that is poisoning endangered California Condors. The bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Pedro Nava, requires the use of non-toxic ammunition for hunting deer and wild pigs within the condor's range, and will prevent the birds from consuming lead fragments when they scavenge unrecovered carcasses. The measure also creates a program that subsidizes coupons for lead-free copper bullets for hunters venturing into condor territory. "American Bird Conservancy applauds the California Senate's action, and urges Governor Schwarzenegger to sign the lead ammunition ban into law to protect the California Condor," said Michael Fry, American Bird Conservancy's Director of Conservation Advocacy. "With alternative ammunition now available for hunting that doesn't use lead, there is no logical basis on which to oppose this ban." There have been 276 documented cases of lead poisoning of California Condors. Five condors recently suffered from acute lead poisoning after feeding on a pig carcass killed by hunters near the Pinnacles National Monument, where condors have been recently released into the wild. Another condor died of lead poisoning in a separate incident near Bittercreek National Wildlife Refuge in central California. In 2006, biologists trapped 11 condors at Pinnacles National Monument after they were seen feeding on squirrels shot with lead ammunition. They were captured and temporarily housed at the Los Angeles Zoo while their blood was tested for traces of lead and they were x-rayed to identify lead fragments in their digestive tracts. A decision on the ban will be made at the Commission's November 1 meeting. Contact Michael Fry, mfry@abcbirds.org.

2. Scientists Call for New Plan to Protect Spotted Owl A draft recovery plan for the owl and new plans to boost logging in the owl's old growth forest habitat in the Pacific Northwest are generating considerable controversy. Scientists on the owl recovery team complained that political interference had undermined the draft plan. This plan claimed that the invasion of the Barred Owl into Spotted Owl territory was a greater threat to the species than habitat loss, and was used to justify a concurrent proposal to reduce critical habitat for the owl by 22%. The recovery team members' concerns were confirmed when the draft owl recovery plan failed scientific peer review. Two scientific societies hired by the administration to review the draft plan The American Ornithologists' Union and the Society for Conservation Biology, found that, "The recovery team failed to make use of the best available science, and, in fact, appears to have selectively cited from the available science to justify a reduction in habitat protection." The reviewers concluded that the plan would fail to restore owl populations and would likely cause the species to be uplisted from Threatened to Endangered. A third review by The Wildlife Society confirmed this finding, and concluded that the recovery plan was fundamentally flawed and needed to be completely redone. In response to this rebuke from the scientific community, an additional 30 days were added to the comment period on the owl recovery plan. Related decisions to greatly reduce Critical Habitat for the owl and Marbled Murrelet also had their comment periods reopened. ABC wrote a comment letter that was endorsed by many Bird Conservation Alliance members. The comments are available at www.abcbirds.org/spottedowl.htm. Two letters from 113 scientists and 23 members of Congress urged Secretary of Interior Dirk Kempthorne to withdraw the spotted owl draft recovery plan and critical habitat proposal. For additional background see The Washington Post's Scientists See Politics in Spotted Owl Plan by Juliet Eilperin, and McClatchy Newspaper's Protection plan for owls not worth a hoot? by Les Blumenthal, and Feathering the Nest by The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Contact Steve Holmer, ABC, sholmer@abcbirds.org.

3. Court to Rule on Tower Safeguards on Gulf Coast On September 11, ABC and a coalition of other conservation groups, represented by Earthjustice, argued before a federal appeals court that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) should implement regulations aimed at reducing the number of birds killed in collisions with cellular and television towers in the Gulf Coast region. The lights from communication towers disorient birds during nighttime migration, killing between five and 50 million birds each year, according to FWS estimates. In spite of these figures and FWS recommendations, the FCC has not acted. "The FCC has refused for decades to comply with federal wildlife conservation laws, handing out tower licenses with virtually no regard for their ecological impact," said Jennifer Chavez, attorney for Earthjustice. The migratory bird populations that transit the Gulf Coast region, where more than 5,000 towers dot the 1,000-mile stretch from Port Isabel, Texas to Tampa Bay, Florida, are especially at risk. The hearing was the final opportunity for both sides to argue the case before the matter is decided by a panel of judges. "American Bird Conservancy strongly believes the court should hold the FCC accountable for their persistent disregard of our nation's well-established wildlife protection laws," said Darin Schroeder, ABC's Executive Director of Conservation Advocacy. "It's time the FCC understand they should be concerned about protecting our nation's ecological heritage and wildlife resources." There is no set date for a decision on the case. Contact Darin Schroeder, ABC, dschroeder@abcbirds.org.

4. Oil and Gas Drilling Plans Threaten Sage-Grouse in Colorado and Wyoming The Greater Sage-Grouse is in trouble. Sage-grouse range and distribution have decreased by 56%, while overall abundance has been reduced by as much as 93% from presumed historic levels. Myriad land uses harm sage-grouse, including oil and gas extraction, and particularly coalbed methane development. Recent research in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming found that sage-grouse lek counts in coalbed methane development fields declined by 82%, whereas leks outside these development fields declined by 12%. Sage-grouse populations in the Powder River Basin have suffered sharp declines over the last decade. It is becoming apparent that sage-grouse are being driven from energy production areas. Despite this evidence, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) recently approved the Atlantic Rim project--2,000 coalbed methane and conventional gas wells in a sensitive Wyoming landscape, with only token wildlife protection. Field surveys found 88 sage-grouse leks in the project area, which are likely to disappear if the project proceeds. This project uses the same sage-grouse measures that have been used on the Pinedale Anticline and Jonah Fields, where BLM-funded research predicts sage-grouse will be extirpated within 19 years. Roan Plateau Now Threatened The Roan Plateau of Colorado, featuring a wide array of habitats, including sagebrush, is threatened by gas and oil drilling. Despite its unique character, and strong local opposition to energy development, BLM is planning to lease the public lands of the plateau to oil and gas development. The region has been heavily-impacted by the drilling boom on western federal lands. There are already more than 5,000 wells in place on Colorado's Western Slope, and up to ten times that many are being planned. Across the sagebrush steppe, an estimated 107,000 new oil and gas wells will be drilled in Colorado, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming in the next 15-20 years, likely resulting in over 1,000,000 acres being disturbed by energy development. The Roan drilling plan is currently being reviewed by the state of Colorado, which may seek to limit the size of the project or mitigate its environmental impacts. Colorado Representatives John Salazar and Mark Udall sought to prohibit the BLM from leasing the plateau. Their request was not included in the House Interior Appropriations Bill.

5. Legislation Introduced to Tackle Threat of Invasive Species To address the ever-expanding threat that invasive species pose to many birds, U.S. Congressman Ron Kind (D-WI) introduced legislation to identify harmful, non-native species, and to establish priorities for preserving native birds, fish, other wildlife, and their habitats. HR 767, the Refuge Ecology Protection, Assistance, and Immediate Response Act, provides matching grants for projects that manage harmful non-native species, detect early infestations, and restore native species and habitats. This legislation would provide rapid response capability to states by making emergency funds available for controlling invasive species outbreaks and long-term monitoring of project sites. The need for this legislation could not be greater. Under current law, native fish and wildlife are not directly protected from harmful non-native species on federal or any other lands. Significant portions of the land and water under federal jurisdiction, especially wildlife refuges, are infested with harmful, non-native species, which are able to spread unchecked to adjacent private and public lands and waters. On Midway Atoll, for example, invasive golden crown-beard is quickly choking the island and contributing to nesting failures of Laysan Albatrosses. Cheatgrass has taken over tens of millions of acres of sagebrush, eliminating habitat for sage-grouse and other sagebrush-dependent species. ABC will advocate for passage of this important legislation when it is considered by the House Natural Resources Committee. For more information, contact Darin Schroeder, ABC, dschroeder@abcbirds.org.

6. How Will Conservation Fare in Final Farm and Spending Bills? This fall Congress is expected to negotiate final versions of the Farm Bill and the Interior Appropriations bill that include important conservation programs beneficial to birds and other wildlife. The House of Representatives has passed a $286 billion, five-year Farm Bill that provides a slight increase to conservation programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman, Tom Harkin (D-IA), has promised to increase funding for conservation programs 'far above' House numbers. The outcome of this debate will be decided by a House-Senate conference committee. The House approved Interior Appropriations bill includes a 20% funding increase for the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act (NMBCA). This grant program helps migratory songbirds by conserving their dwindling habitats in Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. "The Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act is proving to be very effective and should be expanded," said ABC's Darin Schroeder. "ABC is asking members of the Interior Appropriations conference committee to fully fund the program." State and Tribal Wildlife Grants will receive $72 million, a $4.5 million increase over this year's budget. Projects supported by this program protect and restore important lands and waters, collect information on imperiled wildlife, and develop partnerships with landowners to protect declining species and habitats on public and private lands. In Alabama, a landowner incentive program will focus on longleaf pine ecosystem restoration and in Arizona conservation projects will benefit 108 at-risk riparian and native grassland species including the Ferruginous Hawk. In Nevada and Oregon technical support and funding to private landowners will help restore sage-grouse habitats. ABC is urging Congress to support these increases when the final Interior Appropriations spending bill is negotiated with the Senate. ABC also continues to seek dedicated funds to clean up lead contamination on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, which is at the heart of a new Marine National Monument designated by President Bush in 2006. These funds are not currently included in the bill. You can help by contacting your Representative and Senators to urge their support for these essential programs. Contact Darin Schroeder, dschroeder@abcbirds.org.

7. Bristol Bay Stripped of Longstanding Protections On January 7, 2007, President Bush lifted the prohibition on selling oil leases in Bristol Bay, Alaska. The Minerals Management Service (MMS) has proposed beginning lease sales in 2011, but opposition to the drilling plan is mounting. Bristol Bay hosts one of the world's highest densities of breeding seabirds. It is also a staging ground and wintering area for tens of millions of seabirds, endangered marine mammals, and other wildlife. Forty percent of the total U.S. fisheries catch, including the world's largest wild run of sockeye salmon, comes from Bristol Bay. The bay's richness was recognized as too important to risk in 1989, after the Exxon Valdez disaster. First, Congress included Bristol Bay in a moratorium on funding oil exploration. President George H. W. Bush then affirmed the congressional protection by withdrawing the area from consideration for leasing in 1990. Because of these prohibitions, the Department of Interior negotiated a repurchase for the leases that had already been sold. However, in 2003, Congress removed a huge swath of the bay from the moratorium. In 2007, President Bush re-opened the bay for offshore oil and gas drilling; now oil leases may be sold for the area, provided that the guidelines of the National Environmental Policy Act are followed and environmental assessments are conducted. A report just released by MMS, after a meeting of agency experts to plan research, concluded that significant analysis of environmental impacts was needed because "…current information is insufficient to address oil and gas leasing issues." Oil spills are more than a remote possibility; federal studies predict one or more major oil spills if this area is developed. Harsh weather and sea ice would make cleaning up spills doubly difficult, even if they could be contained quickly. The proposed pipeline for the project runs directly through key habitat for declining Steller's Eider, federally listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The Alaska Marine Conservation Council, local fishermen and communities, and the World Wildlife Fund are actively trying to block these lease sales. Legislation has been introduced in the House and Senate to permanently prevent drilling in the area, but protection is not yet secure. Contact Jessica Hardesty, ABC, jhardesty@abcbirds.org.

8. International Cooperation Drives Yucatan Conservation Project Conservation groups in the U.S. and Mexico have joined together to protect 111,000 acres of bird habitat in the northeastern Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. The project will combine conservation easements, bird research and monitoring, and improved grassland management. Over 540 bird species occur on the peninsula, of which more than 200 are neotropical migrants. Fourteen species are endemics, found only on the Yucatan Peninsula, and 15 are migrant species that are shared with the Central Hardwoods region. For transient species moving from breeding to wintering grounds, the coastal and inland forests of the northeast portion of the peninsula provide an important stopover site. In addition to the birds that flock to the Yucatan each year are tens of thousands of visitors, attracted to the peninsula's tropical climate, white-sand beaches, and Mayan archeological sites. Tourism-related development is now spreading rapidly in several directions from the resort community of Cancun and the forests on which both resident and migrant birds depend are squarely in its path. During the last five years, massive investments in tourism development projects, many with golf courses and marinas, have totaled $2.5 billion in the state of Quintana Roo alone. As a result of this ongoing development, land use modifications are about to destroy the majority of natural habitat in the northeastern portion of the peninsula. Pollution from increased agricultural pressures and a reduction in water quality and availability are beginning to negatively impact the quality of life in the region. For a copy of the conservation plan developed by the U.S.-based Central Hardwoods Joint Venture and the Yucatan Peninsula Alliance for Birds (AAPY) contact ABC's Jane Fitzgerald, jfitzgerald@abcbirds.org.

9. International Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels Attracts Greater U.S. Attention There is growing interest among government agencies, the Administration, and Congress in signing the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP), a broad international agreement on seabirds. ABC is advocating strongly for the United States to become a signatory to this treaty. ACAP urges members to minimize seabird bycatch by fishermen, protect the birds' nesting and foraging areas, and confront other threats that jeopardize species listed under the agreement. The agreement is notable both because of its multifaceted approach to species conservation and because it provides a forum for international collaboration among fishing nations. Eleven countries have already agreed to participate. There are important reasons for the U.S. to sign on to ACAP. No matter how good our seabird stewardship, solving the problem of seabird bycatch requires concerted action throughout the species' ranges. Signing will also facilitate the listing of U.S. seabirds, such as the Laysan and Black-footed Albatrosses, under the treaty, allowing them to benefit from international conservation actions. Finally, becoming signatories would send a strong signal internationally that the U.S. is committed to seabird conservation. Visit www.acap.aq, or contact Jessica Hardesty, ABC's Seabird Program Director, jhardesty@abcbirds.org.

10. Restoration Effort Underway for Northern Bobwhite The Northern Bobwhite, like many other species of grassland birds, has declined by more than 65% over the past several decades, disappearing from many landscapes where it was once abundant. Restoration of bobwhite populations can best begin where remnant populations still exist, private lands incentive programs are available, and landowners are willing to volunteer to undertake habitat improvements on behalf of bobwhite recovery goals. One area that scores this trifecta is a 160,000-acre grassland bird focal area in Fulton County, Arkansas, in the Central Hardwoods Bird Conservation Region. Since 2002, several thousand acres have been improved in Fulton County, and more landowners are signing up for help with habitat improvements each year. The bobwhite population has already begun to increase, along with other priority grassland birds such as the Bachman's Sparrow, Field Sparrow, Yellow-breasted Chat, and Orchard Oriole. This project demonstrates that the land still has potential, and that wildlife managers can restore bobwhites in diverse landscapes." Contact Jane Fitzgerald, ABC, jfitzgerald@abcbirds.org.