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Kirtland's warbler's first step off a branch as it takes flight.

Photo courtesy of Ashley Hannah


Kirtland's Warbler

Questions and Answers about the
Proposal to Remove Kirtland’s Warbler from the List of Endangered Species


1. What action is the Service taking with the Kirtland’s warbler?
The Service is proposing to remove Endangered Species Act protection for the Kirtland’s warbler. The proposed rule to delist the Kirtland’s warbler published in the Federal Register on April 12, 2018. Before making a final decision on the delisting proposal, the Service must gather and analyze public comments and any new information. Publication of the proposed rule opens a 90-day public comment period, which closes on July 11, 2018.


2. What is the Kirtland’s warbler?
The Kirtland’s warbler is a small songbird that nests in young jack pine forests in northern Michigan, Wisconsin and Ontario, Canada. This warbler has one of the most geographically restricted breeding distributions of any bird in the continental United States. The exact habitat it uses for nesting within jack pine forests is very specific and depends on disturbance, which historically was wildfire. The Kirtland’s warbler nesting range was probably always limited in extent. Similarly, the known wintering range is primarily restricted to The Bahamas.


3. Why was the Kirtland’s warbler listed as endangered?
Biologists, naturalists and bird watchers were concerned about Kirtland’s warbler numbers beginning in the 1940s, based on nest observations. To track population numbers, researchers organized the first rangewide census in 1951, a census that was repeated every 10 years until 1971, when annual surveys began. Surveys are conducted in the breeding season, when males can be heard singing to demarcate their territories. The number is roughly equivalent to the number of breeding pairs. In 1951 and 1961, the total population was about 1,000 (432 and 502 singing males respectively). The 1971 census documented a 60 percent population decline when only 203 singing males were counted for a total population of about 400. Birders and biologists were alarmed and deeply concerned that the species could not maintain itself.


The concern of the birding and scientific community supported by nesting and census data led the Service to include the Kirtland’s warbler on the list of endangered species in 1967 under the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966. When the Endangered Species Act was passed into law in 1973, the Kirtland’s warbler was on the initial list of endangered and threatened species.


4. What caused the Kirtland’s warbler population decline?

The Kirtland’s warbler population declined primarily for two reasons: loss of nesting habitat and brood parasitism caused by the spread of brown-headed cowbirds, which significantly reduced nesting success.


Kirtland’s warblers require large stands of young, dense jack pine forest at least 80 acres in size, but they prefer stands of 300 to 400 acres, or larger. Historically, large wildfires resulted in the abundance of such stands in a mosaic across the warbler’s historical breeding range, (Wisconsin, Michigan and Ontario, Canada). Fire suppression and large-scale timber harvest in the early 1900s substantially reduced the size and amount of young jack pine stands available for Kirtland’s warbler to nest.


In addition to habitat loss, brown-headed cowbirds expanded their range from the prairies of the Great Plains to the entire lower 48 states. Brown-headed cowbirds are “brood parasites,” which means they lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. Kirtland’s warblers do not recognize the cowbird eggs and incubate them as their own. Cowbird eggs hatch faster than other species’ eggs, giving cowbird nestlings a head start in getting food from the parents. Young cowbirds also develop at a faster pace than their nest mates, and they sometimes toss out eggs and young nestlings or smother them in the bottom of the nest. The result for Kirtland’s warblers was a reduction in the numbers of young produced.


5. Why is the Service proposing to delist the Kirtland’s warbler?

Thanks to the efforts of many partners, threats to the Kirtland’s warbler have been significantly reduced and measures are in place for its long-term survival. The current Kirtland’s warbler population is estimated to be over 2,300 pairs – more than double the recovery goal. The Kirtland’s warbler population continues to grow and has exceeded recovery goals for the past 16 years.


However, the Kirtland’s warbler remains a conservation-reliant species. Because this warbler needs large, young jack pine stands for nesting and is susceptible to cowbird parasitism, its survival depends on continued land management that mimics natural wildfire, and on cowbird control. Recovery of the Kirtland’s warbler is testament to over 50 years of successful management resulting from long-term collaboration effort among many agencies, organizations, industry and individuals. This collaboration continues and the conservation community is in place to address the needs of the species into the foreseeable future without protections provided by the Endangered Species Act.


6. How was the Kirtland’s warbler successfully recovered?

Habitat management for Kirtland’s warbler began in 1957 when Michigan started managing state forest land for the warbler. The U.S. Forest Service followed suit and developed a management plan for the species that was approved in 1962. It was clear that providing more breeding habitat in the appropriate amounts and configurations would be necessary to increase the Kirtland's warbler population.


After the 1971 census documented a 60 percent decline in nesting warblers, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and U.S. Forest Service formed a Kirtland's Warbler Advisory Committee that included the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Michigan Audubon Society. One outcome of the Committee was the start of a program in 1972 to reduce cowbird parasitism in the principal nesting areas. The major agency in this effort was the Service with contributions from the Michigan DNR, Michigan Audubon Society, and U.S. Forest Service. Systematic cowbird trapping in 1972 was an outstanding success and was expanded to virtually all nesting areas.


After listing the Kirtland’s warbler as endangered, a recovery team was formed that included state and federal agencies and multiple partners. The team prepared the first Kirtland's Warbler Recovery Plan, which outlined steps to increase the species' population. The U.S. Forest Service and Michigan DNR developed an intensive habitat management plan to implement the nesting habitat management phase of the recovery plan. During the mid-1970s, some 134,000 acres of jack pine were designated for management as Kirtland's warbler nesting habitat within Michigan state forests and national forests. The Kirtland’s Warbler Wildlife Management Area, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was established in 1980 adjacent to Michigan state forest land designated for Kirtland’s warbler management. Additional state forest and national forest lands were added through the 2000’s to bring the total public land specifically managed for the Kirtland's warbler to more than 210,000 acres.


Along with habitat management, the cowbird control program continued throughout the known nesting areas.


In response to these actions, the population increased, and the warbler’s range expanded outside of the northern Lower Peninsula to areas in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Wisconsin, and Ontario. Currently, the Kirtland’s warbler population of over 2,300 singing males is more than double the recovery goal identified in the Kirtland’s Warbler Recovery Plan. The population has exceeded recovery goals for the past 16 years and continues to increase and expand its range.


7. How did the Service determine that the Kirtland’s warbler is recovered?

The Kirtland’s warbler recovery plan includes a “recovery criterion” that identifies when the warbler should be considered for removal from the List of Endangered and Threatened Species. The recovery criterion states that the Kirtland’s warbler may be considered recovered when a self-sustaining population has been re-established throughout its known range at a minimum level of 1,000 pairs. This numerical criterion has been reached and exceed for the last 16 years.


In addition to reaching the numerical criterion in the recovery plan, continued recovery of the Kirtland’s warbler requires that management of pervasive and recurrent threats is assured into the foreseeable future. To address future management needs, the Service, Michigan DNR and U.S. Forest Service developed the Kirtland’s Warbler Breeding Range Conservation Plan in 2015. The conservation plan guides management efforts and outlines the strategy for future cooperative Kirtland’s warbler conservation. In April 2016, these three partners renewed a Memorandum of Understanding committing the agencies to continue collaborative Kirtland’s warbler conservation regardless of the species’ legal protection. In addition, Kirtland’s warbler conservation actions are included in the U.S. Forest Service’s land and resource management plans, which guide management priorities for the Huron-Manistee, Hiawatha, and Ottawa National Forests. Additionally, the Service and Michigan DNR developed a Memorandum of Agreement to set up a process for managing funds to help address long-term conservation needs, specifically brown-headed cowbird control.


Commitments by these management agencies through the Memorandum of Agreement and Memorandum of Understanding assure that habitat management and brown-headed cowbird control will continue at sufficient levels to ensure continued stable population numbers. These conservation assurances provide the final components that are needed to remove protections of the Endangered Species Act. Given these commitments and the successful track record of proactive conservation actions carried out by cooperating agencies over a 50-year period, we expect conservation efforts will continue to support a healthy, viable population of the Kirtland’s warbler after delisting and into the foreseeable future.


8. What is the current range of the Kirtland’s warbler?

The Kirtland’s warbler’s breeding range has expanded outside of Michigan’s northern Lower Peninsula to areas in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Wisconsin and Ontario, Canada.


Kirtland’s warblers are not evenly distributed across their breeding range. The core of their breeding range is concentrated in five counties in northern Lower Michigan (Ogemaw, Crawford, Oscoda, Alcona and Iosco), where nearly 85 percent of the singing males were recorded between 2000 and 2015.


In Wisconsin, Kirtland’s warbler nesting was documented for the first time in 2007. Since then, the population has grown and geographically expanded over the last decade. There were 53 individuals and 20 nests observed in 2017. Nesting has been documented in Adams, Marinette and Bayfield counties.


Kirtland’s warblers migrate to and spend winter mostly within The Bahamas. The Bahamas is an archipelago of about 700 low-lying islands that stretches more than 650 miles from near the eastern coast of Florida to the southeastern tip of Cuba.


9. Will the Kirtland’s warbler population status still be monitored if it is delisted?

Yes, the Endangered Species Act requires the Service, in cooperation with states, to monitor a species for a minimum of five years after delisting, to ensure that it remains stable. The Service will issue a draft post-delisting monitoring plan for public and peer review and comment. This plan would continue the established method of population monitoring of the warbler for a minimum of five years after delisting.


10. Where can I go to see a Kirtland’s warbler?

Guided Kirtland's warbler tours are available from the U.S. Forest Service and Michigan Audubon Society in Michigan. Information about the tours is available at www.fws.gov/midwest/eastlansing/te/kiwa/tour.html.


11. How can I comment on the proposed rule or provide additional information about the Kirtland’s warbler?

You may submit comments or additional information by one of the following methods:


1) Electronically:
Go to the Federal eRulemaking Portal: http://www.regulations.gov. In the search box, enter FWS–R3–ES–2018–0005, which is the docket number for this rulemaking. Then, click on the Search button. On the resulting page, in the Search panel on the left side of the screen, under the Document Type heading, click on the Proposed Rules link to locate this document. You may submit a comment by clicking on “Comment Now!”


(2) By hard copy:
Submit by U.S. mail or hand-delivery to:


Public Comments Processing
Attn: FWS–R3–ES–2018–0005
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
MS: BPHC; 5275 Leesburg Pike,
Falls Church, VA 22041–3803.


We request that you send comments only by the methods described above. We will post all comments on http://www.regulations.gov. This generally means that we will post any personal information you provide us.


12. How can I learn more about Kirtland’s warbler and the proposed rule to delist?

The proposed rule to delist the Kirtland’s warbler and supporting documents are available on http://www.regulations.gov. In the Search box, enter FWS–R3–ES–2018–0005, which is the docket number for this rulemaking.


Additional information is online at www.fws.gov/midwest/endangered/birds/Kirtland or you may contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Michigan Field Office at:

Scott Hicks, Field Supervisor
Michigan Ecological Services Field Office
2651 Coolidge Road, Suite 101
East Lansing, MI 48823
Telephone 517–351–2555; Facsimile 517–351–1443.


If you use a telecommunications device for the deaf (TDD), please call the Federal Relay Service at 800–877–8339.

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