Rapidly Declining Songbird Won’t See Federal Protections Anytime Soon

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has delayed its decision on the Saltmarsh Sparrow’s endangered status to 2023. Scientists say that might be too late.

Greg Shriver and Chris Elphick have spent the last decade agonizing over the Saltmarsh Sparrow’s extinction. Both ecologists began studying the scrappy, sherbert-faced bird in the mid-2000s to better understand how its nesting habits revolve around the shoreline grasses and ebbing tides of the Atlantic. Both soon realized that their uniquely adapted subject wouldn’t survive the next century, due to intensifying flooding, predation, and development along its East Coast range.

Elphick and Shriver’s analyses showed a yearly 9 percent decline in the sparrow’s population—enough, they believed, to warrant consideration for federal protections. So, in 2017, they took all the evidence they’d amassed with the Saltmarsh Habitat and Avian Research Program and made their case with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). The agency agreed to kick off the decision-making process in 2019; but last month it suddenly switched course and said it would put off reviewing the sparrow for an endangered species listing until 2023, according to scientists present at the announcement.

“The 2023 time will allow us to incorporate additional information about management efforts that are at an early stage,” confirms Meagan Racey, public affairs specialist for USFWS, Northeast Region. She adds that the agency may reconsider the revised schedule if circumstances around the species become more urgent.

The data USFWS is looking for will come from the Atlantic Coast Joint Venture, an independent network of federal and state wildlife departments, nonprofits like Audubon, and researchers like Shriver and Elphick focused on protecting marine marshes and their birds. The initiative, which launched back in 2016, is funded by the agency but holds no clout when it comes to endangered species listings, says Aimee Weldon, its coordinator.

This summer the venture will release an action plan that outlines ways to help Saltmarsh Sparrows cope with sea level rise on the most affected parts of the coast. USFWS says it will wrap the venture’s suggestions, which include building tide gates, digging connector creeks to drain floodwaters, and shaping restoration around shifts in the bird’s habitat, along with a pending business plan, into its own work to establish a Saltmarsh Sparrow program. Whether that vision will actually be funded and executed before 2023 still remains a question. “We have had a lot of discussions,” Elphick says. “But in terms of actually spending money to do anything, we haven’t witnessed much.”

Experts like Shriver and Elphick contend that the extended timeline makes the sparrow’s situation more precarious, pointing out that the species is  already classified as endangered by the IUCN Red List (a nominal label only). “There won’t be any new information by 2023,” says Shriver, who recently co-authored a paper on how nest predators are wiping out New Jersey's largest Saltmarsh Sparrow population. “We will have just lost more birds.” He thinks the agency is trying to punt the verdict to an administration that will be less hostile to expanding the endangered species list.

The four-year window also has other limitations. For one, Elphick says, it doesn’t give USFWS enough time to weigh outcomes from field testing and pilot projects. “Cutting down trees to see if marshes will migrate inland, raising entire nesting sites—you don’t collect immediate results,” he explains. “Maybe we can wait another decade for that insight, but Saltmarsh Sparrows could be extinct in a decade and a half.”

With so many uncertainties in the pending proposals and plans, the Endangered Species Act, in many scientists’ opinion, is still the clearest answer for the bird’s myriad problems. “While I have confidence in the Atlantic Coast Joint Venture, the Saltmarsh Sparrow needs a broader, concerted conservation effort,” says Walker Golder, Audubon’s Atlantic Flyway program director. He notes that a listing will lead to more wherewithal and attention for restoration; without it, conservationists don't have the power to respond quickly to threats such as sea level rise, predation, and habitat loss.

Like in New York City, for example. In 2015 birders discovered that one of the few Saltmarsh Sparrow nesting spots in the area had been flattened by a contractor hired by the parks department. The landscape never was replanted, and the breeding population never returned. “An endangered-species status would protect these kinds of saltmarshes,” Alison Kocek, an ornithologist who was banding the inhabitants at the site, said at the time. “If we lose another one, we don’t know what will happen.”

Weldon agrees that every last stronghold is valuable. “We need to work very fast. Even if we don’t have the time, we’re going to try and throw everything we can at [the Saltmarsh Sparrow’s decline],” she says. Elphick and his colleagues are mobilizing, too, in spite of the USFWS setback: They’re running a species-wide survey in 2021 to learn just how many individuals are left between Florida and Maine.

And if the sparrow is past redemption—what then? “If we aren’t successful in saving the species, our efforts will still be important for other tidal marsh birds,” Weldon says. But knowing there's a law that could prevent that outcome just waiting in the wings will continue to frustrate researchers over these next four years.