Saving Species on the Brink

Three success stories show just how far we’ll go to protect birds from extinction. 

As we agonize over ongoing extinctions, we also need to remember how far and how quickly we’ve come in avoiding them, and how we’ve saved species once on the brink such as the wood duck, great egret, snowy egret, wild turkey, eastern bluebird, American alligator, fisher, gray wolf, and pronghorn, to mention just a few.

Northern Spotted Owl
Consider the protracted spotted-owl wars in the Pacific Northwest. The bird is still declining, politicians are still bloviating, the timber cartel is still suing. But what’s so encouraging about the wars is that they’re happening. Moreover, the bird may now have a future. In June 2011 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hatched its revised recovery plan, and in November 2012 it nearly doubled critical habitat.

While the plan hasn’t inspired environmentalists to handsprings, Seattle Audubon Society director Shawn Cantrell says this: “It’s telling that, unlike the other plans, no [green] group has challenged this one in court. We’d like to see some things added and changed, but overall we’re pleased. We’re taking two steps forward and one step back, but under the previous administration it was one step forward and five steps back. Now there’s a willingness to let career biologists make the decisions.”

Henslow’s Sparrow
When we “picked” bison off the landscape we confirmed John Muir’s maxim. It turns out they’re “hitched” to Henslow’s sparrows. Originally, the bird was restricted to prairie. Then, with the clearing of land, it expanded east. But mechanized agriculture, forest succession, and development of farmland soon sent it into steep decline. When the conventional management practice of burning prairies wasn’t producing the desired results, researchers tried light mowing that simulated grazing by bison. Unlike cattle, bison maintained prairie habitat by feeding casually and moving on. Bison reintroduction has even been part of Henslow’s sparrow management, and the birds have responded well.

Eminent field guide editor, author, and Audubon field editor Kenn Kaufman warns that if no one pays attention, Henslow’s sparrows could be in lots bigger trouble. Happily, we are paying attention. “With better survey work we’ve found thriving populations in places they weren’t traditionally known,” he says. “I was more concerned about these birds 10 years ago than I am now.”

Bobwhite Quail
The Northern Bobwhite Quail Habitat Initiative—a cooperative venture by the federal Farm Service Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 32 state fish and wildlife agencies, sportsmen’s groups, and landowners—is reversing the decline of bobwhite quail (from an estimated 31 million 40 years ago to about 5.5 million today). The main work will be repairing degraded habitat and limiting stocking of the game-farm birds that have bred hardiness out of wild populations. The herculean effort does bring our priorities into question. (If Florida grasshopper sparrows were bigger, held for pointing dogs, and went well with white wine, they’d be doing fine.) Still, it’s a model for what needs to be done for all imperiled species, and it teaches that Muir’s maxim works just as well in reverse: When we replace a single thing in nature we find it hitched to everything else. In the process of recovering bobwhites, we’re recovering Henslow’s sparrows along with hundreds of other grassland and prairie parts.