The Cerulean Warbler population has dropped almost 82 percent throughout its U.S. range over the last 40 years, making it the fastest declining warbler in the country. The rate of decline has quickened and the threats to its survival, particularly from mountain removal mining, have worsened while the groups' petition has been pending before the FWS.
The FWS decision comes after the groups sued the agency in February 2006 for repeatedly violating deadline requirements under the Act. In June, the FWS settled that case by promising to render a final decision by November 30. The decision was entered into the Federal Register today.
"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 Audubon. He said the bird has declined an average of 6 percent per year over the last eight years, compared to an annual average of 4.3 percent from 1966 to 2004.
"It's a tragedy that the Fish and Wildlife Service won't step up and act now, before this songbird moves any closer toward extinction," said DJ Gerken, staff attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization representing the conservation groups.
Since the petition was filed, new information has come to light about the increasing loss and fragmentation of the Cerulean's eastern forest habitat from mountaintop removal mining. This form of surface mining is expected to increase dramatically in the core of the Cerulean's range where the bird has already suffered drastic population declines – 80 percent in the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia, and 65 percent in the Ohio Hills in Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
A multi-agency environmental study of mountaintop mining in four states (WV, TN, KY, VA) found that between 1992 and 2012, some 1.4 million acres of forests will be lost, more than half due to mountaintop mining. The study noted that this loss of habitat for forest birds with core breeding areas in the Appalachian coal fields has "extreme ecological significance in that habitats required by these species for successful breeding are limited in the eastern United States." The Partners in Flight program has identified 15 songbirds with habitat in these forests as priority species for conservation, with the Cerulean as the highest priority. Ceruleans will be the most affected because they favor the steep slopes and ridge tops targeted by mountaintop removal. More than 70 percent of breeding Cerulean Warblers are found in the Ohio Hills and Cumberland Plateau regions targeted by mountaintop mining.
In 2000, 28 groups throughout the East petitioned the FWS to list the Cerulean as threatened, citing the precipitous decline in population and the growing threats to its summer breeding habitat in higher-elevation deciduous forests, including logging, sprawl development and mountaintop removal mining. FWS biologists at one time considered the bird a 'candidate species,' and found in 2002 that the groups' petition warranted further study. However, the agency, which has continually come under fire for ignoring its own scientists' analysis in favor of politically expedient decisions, evaded issuing a final determination until forced by the court.
"The FWS decision not to list the Cerulean Warbler is just one more example of the administration's blatant disregard for science," said Caroline Kennedy, senior director of field conservation with Defenders of Wildlife. "Any delay in taking the steps necessary to protect the warbler and its habitat only propel the songbird closer to extinction."
"The Southern Appalachians form the southernmost range for the Cerulean, one of the songbirds most cherished by the growing number of birders who come to the mountains of western North Carolina," said Bob Gale, Ecologist for the Western North Carolina Alliance. "The federal government is shirking its responsibility to do everything possible to keep this bird from disappearing from our mountains altogether."
The conservation groups said they will continue their efforts to protect the Cerulean Warbler, including a possible legal challenge to the agency decision, continued tracking and documentation of the bird's population, advocating improved logging practices that do the least damage to Cerulean habitat, and seeking habitat protection on national forest lands.