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US Bird News Roundup

10 items of the good, the bad and the ugly…

States and Communities Tackle Light Pollution Harmful to Migratory Birds

Communities are starting to attack the problem of light pollution, which is harmful to migratory birds, through voluntary programs and also through legislation. Inspired by Audubon Minnesota’s voluntary Lights Out program, the state of Minnesota recently enacted a law requiring all state-owned and leased buildings (totaling more than 5,000) to turn off their lights after midnight during spring and fall migration seasons. ABC is currently working with the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, which is considering an ordinance requiring all commercial buildings to turn off lights after 9 pm, or one hour after the close of regular business.

Detroit Audubon’s Project Safe Passage inspired Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm to proclaim spring and fall migration periods as Safe Passage Great Lakes Days in Michigan, since 2006. This March, the Michigan House of Representatives passed HR 31, a resolution to encourage the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the Michigan Public Service Commission to promote Project Safe Passage.

Arizona was the first state to take action to address this problem in 1989. Cities and counties in northern Arizona, which has a significant tourism industry based on astronomy and star gazing, passed the first legislation in the United States to reduce “skyglow”. Chicago started the first voluntary Lights Out project in the United States, spurred by increasing bird mortality caused by the growing number of tall buildings. Now, all tall buildings in the downtown area dim lights for five months each year, saving an estimated 10,000 birds annually, as well as significant amounts of electricity.

“Many people didn’t understand why the birds were dying. Once they learned it was due to the lights, they were happy to help,” said Linda Day Harrison, President of BW Phillips Realty Partners, and a member of the Building Owners and Managers Association of Chicago. Lights Out programs now exist in many cities, including Toronto, Houston, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Indianapolis, and Boston.

Skyglow, also called light waste or light pollution, is light which is carelessly or deliberately emitted upwards from poorly aimed or badly designed lamps. This unnecessary lighting is responsible for an array of problems, including the deaths of thousands of migrating birds each year.

Many bird species migrate at night, orienting to stars and the Earth’s magnetic field. Artificial lights can confuse the migrants, particularly on overcast nights when stars are not visible and birds fly low. Birds in large numbers will circle buildings, towers, and other lighted structures until they collide with the structure or each other, or drop from exhaustion. To compound the problem, some lights used to mark towers and bridges for airplane navigation were recently shown to also disrupt birds’ magnetic orientation – a double whammy.

We hope that these examples of communities taking action will inspire similar efforts across the country, until Lights Out is no longer the exception but the rule. The popularity of the Earth Hour anti-global warming campaign www.earthhour.org raises the possibility that global efforts to save energy could also save millions of birds. For more information, contact Christine Sheppard, ABC, csheppard@abcbirds.org. Salt Marsh Birds Threatened by Sea-Level Rise

Species of marsh birds such as the Clapper Rail, Virginia Rail, Willet, Seaside Sparrow and Marsh Wren could experience 80% population declines in the Chesapeake Bay region if sea-levels rise by three to six feet by the year 2100. The analysis by the Center for Conservation Biology of the College of William and Mary found that sea-level rise will be particularly harmful to Black Rail, Saltmarsh Sparrow, and Henslow’s Sparrow that rely solely on irregularly flooded high marsh. The scientists’ simulation found that many of the known breeding sites of these species would be completely inundated by rising waters.

Sea-level rise is a particularly acute problem for the Chesapeake Bay, which is already losing marshland twice as fast as the global average due to natural subsidence caused by movement in the North American plate. The region supports about 30% of the salt marsh along the Atlantic Coast, and 60% of the salt marsh north of the Carolinas.

The researchers simulated the loss of marshes from rising ocean waters, which are currently predicted to globally rise between a two and six feet by the end of this century. One question that remains is whether any sort of effective mitigation can be achieved that allows the salt marshes to move further inland. Many of these same areas are now developed and may demand hard barriers to keep the ocean at bay. This could squeeze salt marsh habitat out of existence, and with it, the many bird species that have evolved there. For more information see www.ccb-wm.org.

Another study has found that as much as half of California could be occupied by new bird communities by 2070, according to PRBO Conservation Science and other researchers. While the movement of individual species as result of climate change is already being documented, this study broke new ground by determining that entire new assemblages of birds are likely to result, with uncertain consequences. The study found that: “Predator-prey or competitive interactions may become affected as species assemblages are reshuffled in new ways…this may result in the decline or extirpation of species as they adjust or adapt to changing climates.”

For more information see www.prbo.org. Citizens Rally behind Legislation to Halt Mountaintop Mining

Representatives Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Dave Riechert (R-WA) have introduced legislation that could bring an end to the environmentally devastating process of mountaintop coal mining. The bill, H.R. 1310, would amend the Clean Water Act to clarify the definition of “fill material” and prevent mountaintop mining waste from being dumped into nearby valleys. The bill currently has 155 cosponsors. Senators Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Lamar Alexander (R-TN) have introduced a companion bill in the Senate, S. 696, “The Appalachia Restoration Act”, which accomplishes the same task. If the legislation passes and is signed into law, it would force the Army Corps of Engineers to re-evaluate how it issues permits for mountaintop mining.

“This legislation is essential to keep mountaintop mining operations from inflicting irrevocable damage to mountain forest and riparian ecosystems that many bird species depend on,” said Darin Schroeder, American Bird Conservancy’s Vice President of Conservation Advocacy. “By taking action today, citizens can help the Cerulean Warbler and other bird species of conservation concern.”

Citizens are being encouraged to contact their lawmakers and urge them to cosponsor the legislation by visiting ABC’s automated citizen action system www.abcbirds.org/action.

Mountaintop removal/valley fill coal mining is America’s most destructive mining practice. Entire tops of mountains are removed to access coal seams, and millions of tons of rock and fill are dumped into surrounding valleys, burying streams and their aquatic life, and decimating forests. More than 1,200 miles of streams and river valleys in Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee have been buried by mountaintop mining activities so far.

The most notable bird species harmed by this practice is the Cerulean Warbler, which prefers mature forests on ridgetops, and whose core breeding range falls within the Appalachian coalfield region. Since surveys began the 1960s, the Cerulean Warbler population has declined by 70%. Many other bird species that rely on interior forests in the region are also impacted.

Fortunately, mountaintop mining is facing growing public opposition and government scrutiny. New legislation could put an end to the destruction, and the Environmental Protection Agency is finally taking a closer look at new mining applications. Last week, the EPA sent a letter asking the Army Corps of Engineers to halt one of the largest mountaintop removal operations in West Virginia. EPA also announced that it would review another 79 proposed permits. The EPA’s initial reviews of the projects found that they would cause water quality impacts, requiring a more detailed review under the Clean Water Act.

“This long overdue oversight is a welcome step in the right direction,” said Schroeder. There are better alternatives to generating power than by burning carbon-heavy coal, and other means to create jobs in the region. Currently nearly a million acres of degraded mine lands in Appalachia need to be reforested. Thousands of jobs can be created by carrying out this work, with the long-term benefits of expanding wildlife habitat, particularly interior forests, and providing clean water supplies.

George Fenwick, ABC’s President, recently published a blog on the Huffington Post, Green Forest Works for Appalachia: A Win-Win-Win for Jobs, Forests, and Birds which discusses this green jobs restoration opportunity.ABC Works to Include AZE in the Convention on Biological Diversity

In October 2010, government leaders from around the world will meet in Nagoya, Japan to discuss numerous conservation topics at the tenth Conference to the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity. Though the United States has yet to join, the Convention provides an unprecedented opportunity to focus the international community on the plight of the world’s most threatened species.

Through the Alliance for Zero Extinction (AZE), ABC and other leading conservation organizations are working with the global scientific and conservation community to help ensure the maximum benefit for the rarest species through the implementation of the Convention. By providing feedback to the Secretariat, ABC is aiming to challenge governments to better protect their biodiversity and to aid countries to better monitor their success towards the 2010 biodiversity target. Defining measurements to chart progress of biodiversity preservation is an enormous challenge due to the diversity of organisms worldwide. By protecting sites that are the last refuges of critically endangered and endangered species, AZE offers a simple, straightforward method of protecting global biodiversity.

Recently, the scientific body that recommends indicators to the Convention, the Biodiversity Indicator Partnership, adopted AZE as a sub-indicator under ‘Coverage of Protected Areas’. The inclusion of AZE will make the convention’s targets both more achievable and more focused. Some countries such as Brazil and Colombia are already working to protect these sites and their species, which are typically endemic to a given country and a source of national pride.

ABC has contributed to the protection of many AZE sites and species throughout Latin America, predominately through a network of private reserves. The economic value from tourism, carbon sequestration, and watershed protection are further incentives to safeguard these areas. Now that the Convention is poised to adopt AZE as an indicator, this proven strategy will likely be a centerpiece for the continued protection of most imperiled species in the Americas. For more information, contact Mike Parr, ABC, mparr@abcbirds.org. US Taking Action to Enforce the Migratory Bird Treaty Act

In two separate cases, oil giant ExxonMobil and PacificCorp, a major electric utility, recently pleaded guilty to killing eagles and other migratory birds, and will pay fines that will be used to support a wildlife rehabilitation center in Colorado, and to fund raptor research and conservation projects in Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, and Montana.

ExxonMobil was convicted under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) of failing to protect 85 birds from entering and dying in open oil tanks and pits at oil production fields in five states between 2004 and 2009. The company will have to pay $600,000 in fines and spend $2.5 million modifying the oil facilities to prevent future injury to birds. They will also donate $40,000 to the Pauline S. Schneegas Wildlife Foundation near Silt, Colorado, which received some of the oiled birds.

PacificCorp similarly pleaded guilty under the MBTA to electrocuting 232 Golden Eagles and other migratory birds on its power lines in Wyoming between 2007 and 2009. The company has agreed to pay $1,410,000 in fines and restitution, and spend an additional $9.1 million to repair or replace equipment to protect migratory birds from future electrocution. The agreement with PacificCorp follows years of failure by the utility to use readily available techniques to prevent raptor electrocutions.

Funds from the fine will be distributed to conservation organizations, including HawkWatch International, Wildlife Heritage Foundation of Wyoming, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Murie Audubon Society of Casper, Wyoming, and the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society for projects to conserve raptors and eagles.

“Both of these cases represent a welcome and significant change in attitude by the Department of Justice, which has often been reluctant to prosecute wildlife kills under the MBTA in the past,” said Michael Fry, ABC’s Director of Conservation Advocacy. “ABC hopes that these cases will bring about a marked change in the behavior of utility and oil companies operating in the West, where neglect has frequently killed protected birds.” Contact Michael Fry, ABC, mfry@abcbirds.org. EPA Registers Harmful Rodenticide, Opens Door to Bird Poisonings

Conservationists are concerned over a recent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) decision to register the poison Rozol (chemical name chlorophacinone) to kill prairie dogs. This chemical has been registered in the past to kill pest rodents such as mice and rats, but this new use could also lead to large numbers of birds of prey being poisoned after they feed on the poisoned animals. Landowners are supposed to pick up carcasses found above ground, but animals can die up to three weeks after application, so many prairie dogs will likely be missed, eaten by scavengers before they can be collected, or preyed on before they succumb to the poison.

The Ferruginous Hawk is a species of particular concern in this area, and the black-footed ferret, one of the most endangered mammals in the world, preys exclusively upon prairie dogs. The ferret is listed under the Endangered Species Act, but EPA has failed to undertake mandatory consultations with FWS scientists to ensure that they are not harmed by this new use of Rozol. In addition, EPA has failed to consider the secondary poisoning effects of Rozol on migratory birds.

ABC met in person with EPA officials to object to their handling of the registration process, and Audubon of Kansas wrote a detailed letter to the EPA about its concern with the widespread use of Rozol throughout the Great Plains. Their comment noted that eagles, hawks, swift foxes, badgers, coyotes, and black-footed ferrets all face the prospect of secondary poisoning from Rozol on millions of acres.

There are other rodenticides, such as zinc phosphide, already registered for use on prairie dogs, that have little to no risk of secondary poisoning when used according to label instructions. ABC believes that, given the risks to endangered species and predatory birds, and the availability of an acceptable alternative, the use of Rozol for prairie dogs should be discontinued. Contact Michael Fry, ABC, mfry@abcbirds.org. Selenium a Threat to Ducks at the Great Salt Lake

The State of Utah recently proposed a new rule on the discharge of selenium into the Great Salt Lake to protect nesting waterfowl. The rule was prompted by mining activities and agricultural runoff, which have the potential to increase selenium concentrations to toxic levels over the next few years.

Selenium contamination of wetlands has been a problem in much of the arid West due to its presence in agricultural drainage and irrigation runoff. In 1982, deformed duck embryos at Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge in California caused the closure of the refuge. Ever since, FWS has carefully monitored selenium buildup in rivers and wetlands throughout the United States.

Utah has proposed a selenium limit of ten parts per million in the Great Salt Lake, which lab studies have shown will protect 90% of mallard eggs. However, FWS stated that this level needs to be halved to protect 100% of duck embryos, as required under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

The Great Salt Lake is an ABC-designated Globally Important Bird Area because of its significance as a stopover site for millions of migrating waterbirds, including ducks, shorebirds, and grebes, but this case goes beyond the health of the lake itself. The Utah decision will set a precedent for selenium discharges throughout the United States, including California’s Central Valley, the Salton Sea, and discharges from mountaintop coal mining in Appalachia (see article on page 15). In 2005, EPA approved selenium discharges from mountaintop coal mining over the objections of FWS and USDA Forest Service scientists. This decision allowed the continued mining and discharge into rivers without costly cleanup of the selenium contamination.

The EPA Office of Water must now make a decision on the Utah rule, which is expected before the end of 2009. Contact Michael Fry, ABC, mfry@abcbirds.org. Contaminants Plague Osprey in Chesapeake Bay

Research is finding that environmental contaminants are still a potential threat to Ospreys in the Chesapeake Bay, which supports the world’s largest concentration of the species with more than 2,000 pairs. Barnett Rattner and his U.S. Geological Survey coworkers examined Osprey eggs in the bay for DDT and other organochlorine pesticides. They found DDT and its metabolites to be at less than half the levels reported in the 1960s and ‘70s, but total organochlorine concentrations in eggs were only slightly lower than those reported in the 1970s. After publication of Rachel Carson’s landmark book Silent Spring, almost all organochlorines, including DDT were banned, but their presence is still felt.

Of growing concern is another group of chemicals that occur in the environment as a result of the use of flame retardants. Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are similar in many ways to organochlorines, and have been linked to toxic effects in human and animal studies. PBDEs were detected in Chesapeake Bay Osprey eggs by Rattner and his colleagues. ABC’s Pesticides and Birds Program Director, Moira McKernan, has studied the effects of PBDEs in bird eggs, and concludes that the chemical levels Rattner recorded would be lethal to developing embryos.

A recent study found that a mixture of flame retardants caused egg shell thinning in captive American Kestrels, which affected their reproductive success. Birds exposed to the highest dose laid fewer fertile eggs ten days later than non-exposed birds, and produced fewer hatchlings and fledglings. These effects are similar to those of DDT on predatory raptors, and may be contributing to the decline of American Kestrels.

Most mixtures of PBDEs have been voluntarily withdrawn from the market, and they are banned in California, but this group of chemicals is persistent in the environment, and Ospreys, Kestrels, and other birds are likely to be exposed for many years to come.

Although Osprey populations are currently at near record high levels, ABC’s Casey Lott had this word of caution: “Current success does not predict the future for recovering bird species such as the Osprey and Peregrine Falcon that accumulate contaminants in their systems. It is essential to continue monitoring populations so we know that previous recovery efforts are not being reversed. If we stop monitoring, how will we detect the next DDT?”

For more information, contact Moira McKernan, ABC, mmckernan@abcbirds.org. Big Wins for Birds on National Forests

A federal judge has struck down the 2008 forest planning regulations that eliminated a key wildlife protection provision known as “viability”. The Wildlife Viability Requirement of the National Forest Management Act of 1976 provides important protection for the hundreds of bird species that inhabit the 193 million-acre U.S. National Forest System. This rule requires that as the Forest Service develops plans for each National Forest, it must maintain “viable populations” of native vertebrates across their range. Viability has been instrumental in protecting habitat for Northern Spotted Owls, and Black-backed and Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. Because viability has proven to be one of the strongest wildlife protection rules for National Forests, it is a frequent target of interests seeking to eliminate environmental safeguards.

As a result of this recent court decision, the Forest Service has reverted to a forest planning rule issued in 2000 that is itself embroiled in a legal challenge by conservation groups, in part because it weakens the viability standard. The Obama Administration has indicated that it will now develop a new planning rule. Meanwhile, Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI) has introduced the America’s Wildlife Heritage Act (H.R. 2807) in the House of Representatives that would enshrine the viability rule into law, and also apply it to the U.S. Public Lands System managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

In other good news for National Forests, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced the Obama Administration will support “roadless area” conservation, and issued a directive limiting projects in roadless areas for one year to enable a final policy to be developed. This interim protection is necessary until court challenges to the Roadless Area Conservation Rule of 2001, which protected 58.5 million acres of undeveloped National Forests from commercial logging and road building, can all be resolved.

The Ninth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals brought this resolution closer with an August ruling that previous efforts to replace the Roadless Rule had been illegal.

Roadless areas are lands exceeding 5,000 acres within National Forests that are devoid of roads, and where the impacts of development have been minimal. Scientists have found that these areas have the highest degree of ecological integrity within the forests, and are where wildlife demonstrates the greatest resilience to natural disturbances and external threats. Species that require mature forests such as the Spotted Owl and Northern Goshawk benefit, as do neotropical migrant species that rely on interior forests, such as the Kentucky and Blue-winged Warblers.

Some of the most important roadless areas at stake are in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, an ABC-designated Globally Important Bird Area that is home to some 300 bird species, including the Marbled Murrelet, Northern Goshawk, and a population of more than 10,000 Bald Eagles. This temperate rainforest also stores vast amounts of carbon, but was excluded from protections of the 2001 Roadless Rule, opening it up to a number of logging projects. The Obama Administration is now considering whether the Tongass’ roadless areas should again be protected. In what conservationists hope is a sole exception to the time-out, Secretary Vilsack recently released one small roadless area logging project on the Tongass. Contact Steve Holmer, ABC, sholmer@abcbirds.org. New Greater Sage-Grouse Numbers May Influence FWS Listing Decision, Threaten Wind Energy Development

A new FWS report heightens potential conflicts with Wyoming’s burgeoning wind industry and Greater Sage-Grouse conservation. New survey results show average declines in sage-grouse populations on their breeding grounds of 30% between 2006 and 2008, and researchers are expecting the trend to continue in 2009. Although the new survey numbers are down, they are more than double the population in the mid-1990s, and still up from 2002-2003 numbers.

Three listing petitions to include the Greater Sage-Grouse under the Endangered Species Act have been filed. In 2005, the Bush Administration issued a decision that the species did not warrant listing, but that decision was later overturned in court for failure to consider the best science (see Bird Calls Vol. 12, No. 2), and FWS now has until February 26, 2010 to issue a new decision.

Once widespread over much of western North America, the Greater Sage-Grouse has suffered a huge range contraction over the past 200 years due to urbanization and agricultural development that have eliminated most of its sagebrush habitat. Recent, additional threats include drought, coalbed methane extraction, and the development of wind power. It is now found primarily in eastern Montana, Wyoming, northwestern Colorado, Utah, southern Idaho, Nevada, southeastern Oregon, and northeastern California. There is also an isolated population in central Washington.

Listing would almost certainly impact the development of wind farms, whose footprints destroy breeding sites and whose turbines disturb courtship behavior, and would also affect cattle grazing and methane extraction operations. Conflicts with the sage-grouse have already caused one company, Houston-based Horizon Wind Energy, to pull out of a wind farm construction project in Wyoming, and in a July letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, the American Wind Energy Association, Interwest Energy Alliance, and Renewable Northwest Project wrote that placing core sage-grouse areas off-limits to wind development would result in the loss of more than $20 billion in capital investment. Contact Gavin Shire, ABC, gshire@abcbirds.org.

4th July 2014