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The Mountain-Prairie Region


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
134 Union Boulevard
Lakewood, Colorado 80228

March 31, 2000
Terry Sexson, 303-236-7917, x. 429
Karen Gleason 303-236-7917, x.431
John Cornely 303-236-8145, x. 688
Larry Gamble 303-236-7400, x. 261

Service Denies USDA Request to Experimentally Poison 2 Million Blackbirds,
Citing Lack of Scientific Efficacy and Potential Risk to Other Bird Species

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today denied an application for a scientific collecting permit, submitted by USDA under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), to kill an unprecedented 2 million blackbirds as part of an experiment to reduce damage to commercially grown sunflowers, a favorite blackbird food during late-summer and fall. The experiment, proposed by USDA Animal, Plant, Health Inspection Service (APHIS) - Wildlife Services, formerly known as Animal Damage Control, would use pesticide-laced rice strewn in corn stubble fields to attract and kill six species of blackbirds as they migrate north in the spring through sunflower-producing areas in east-central South Dakota.

After reconsideration of the APHIS application, which was originally denied in February, Service biologists have determined there is not sufficient scientific data to support the request. Based on information submitted with the application, along with an Environmental Assessment issued by APHIS in March, the Service found no scientific evidence to suggest that killing the blackbirds in the spring would have any effect on reducing the late-summer and fall blackbird population, nor result in any reduction of damage to ripening sunflowers.

In addition, because the experiment would use a lethal baiting and control method which has also proven to attract many types of birds, Service biologists are concerned about the potential risk to other types of migratory birds legally protected under the MBTA. Of particular concern to Service biologists is the potential risk to grassland bird species throughout the northern Great Plains; as a group, grassland bird populations in the United States are declining at a faster rate than any other bird species group. Grassland song birds potentially at risk would include declining populations of Baird’s sparrow, grasshopper sparrow, and lark sparrow.

"We can’t permit an experimental action to kill migratory birds, when there is no adequate scientific basis to measure whether it will actually reduce sunflower damage," said Ralph Morgenweck, Director of the Service’s Mountain-Prairie Region. "In addition, the potential risk of significant mortality to non-target species has not been scientifically assessed or excluded."

"While our mission is to conserve and protect wildlife, we would like to support sunflower growers in finding legal and effective ways to control the problem of blackbird damage to their crops," added John Cornely, Migratory Bird Coordinator for the Mountain-Prairie Region. "Farmers need to have methods that will work for them."

The Service has worked cooperatively with APHIS since the early 1990's to reduce cattails on National Wildlife Refuges and Wetland Protection Areas that are adjacent to private land used for commercial sunflower production. This practice effectively reduces the roost areas available for blackbirds, so fewer are attracted to the sunflower fields.

The Service will also spend about $120,000 this fiscal year to contract with research scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to address issues related to baiting of birds in the fall. These researchers will collect data which will improve the ability of resource agencies to evaluate risk to non-target birds.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting and enhancing fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 93-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System which encompasses more than 520 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands and other special management areas. It also operates 66 national fish hatcheries, 64 fish and wildlife management assistance offices, 64 fishery resource offices and 78 ecological services field stations. The agency enforces federal and international wildlife laws; administers the Endangered Species Act; manages migratory bird populations; restores nationally significant fisheries; conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands; and helps state, tribal, and foreign governments with their conservation efforts. The Service also oversees the Federal Aid program, which distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state fish and wildlife agencies.

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