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A small black bird with red eyes walks in the marsh grasses.
Information icon Eastern black rail. Photo © Tom Johnson, used with permission, The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Eastern black rail final listing as a threatened species

What action is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service taking?

The Service is finalizing a rule to protect the eastern black rail, a small secretive marsh bird native to the United States, as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Partially migratory, the eastern black rail is historically known to exist in 35 states east of the Rocky Mountains, Puerto Rico, Canada, Brazil and several countries in the Caribbean and Central America. It is one of four subspecies of black rail that live in salt, brackish and freshwater marshes. The California black rail subspecies, confined to central and southern California, western Arizona and Mexico, is not included in this listing. Two other black rail subspecies that occur in South America are likewise not included in this listing.

Why is the Service listing the bird as threatened under the ESA?

The ESA describes two categories of species of plants and animals that need protection: threatened and endangered. An endangered animal or plant is one that is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range; a threatened animal or plant is one that is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.

After careful examination of the eastern black rail’s past, present and projected future conditions, the Service determined the bird meets the definition of a threatened species under the ESA. Throughout the past 10 to 20 years, reports indicate that populations have declined by 75 percent or greater with a relatively small total population remaining across the eastern United States. Additionally, the subspecies’ ability to respond to threats and stressors in its environment has been compromised. As we consider the future risk factors to the eastern black rail, we recognize that a complex interaction of factors have synergistic effects on the subspecies as a whole and will continue to affect the species’ overall viability.

The eastern black rail is not being listed as endangered because its current condition still provides resiliency, redundancy and representation such that it is not currently at risk of extinction.

What does the Service mean by “foreseeable future”?

The term foreseeable future extends only so far into the future as the Service can reasonably determine that the conditions potentially posing a danger of extinction in the foreseeable future are probable. Foreseeable future is described on a case-by-case basis, using the best available data, and takes into account considerations such as the species’ life-history characteristics, threat projection timeframes and environmental variability. Based on projections from population models, the Service was able to assess the threats facing the eastern black rail and to make reliable predictions regarding the species’ response to them 25-50 years out.

How did the Service arrive at this finding?

The Service conducted a thorough review of the subspecies via a Species Status Assessment (SSA). The SSA, produced with input from many partners, underwent independent peer and partner review. It provides a biological risk assessment using the best available scientific and commercial information on threats to a species and evaluates a species’ current condition. The SSA also forecasts a species’ future status under varying scenarios and forms the foundational basis for a species’ recovery plan, should it become listed.

The SSA conducted for the eastern black rail showed that it is in decline and will continue to decline unless the Service and its partners collaborate to conserve it and restore populations.

What threats were identified for the eastern black rail?

The primary threats to the eastern black rail are habitat loss and destruction, incompatible land management, sea-level rise and tidal flooding, and increasing storm intensity and frequency. More detailed information regarding these threats can be found in the species profile.

How will ESA protections benefit the eastern black rail?

Greater recognition of threats and conservation opportunities

Listing under the ESA generates greater public awareness about the threats and conservation opportunities. It also inspires actions by diverse partners, including federal, state, tribal and local agencies; industry; conservation groups; and individuals.

Targeted protections

Under the ESA, federal agencies must ensure actions they approve, fund or carry out do not jeopardize the continued existence of a listed species or destroy its critical habitat. In addition, the ESA protects listed species and their habitats by prohibiting “take” and interstate or international trade in listed species (including their parts and products), except under federal permit. Take is defined by the ESA as, “to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect or attempt to engage in any such conduct.” Harm is defined as, “an act which actually kills or injures wildlife.” Such an act may include significant habitat modification or degradation where it actually kills or injures wildlife by significantly impairing essential behavioral patterns, including breeding, feeding or sheltering.

Inspired recovery efforts

The ESA also requires the Service to develop and implement recovery plans for the conservation of threatened and endangered species. Recovery plans outline actions that are needed to improve the species’ status so it no longer requires protection under the ESA. The Service develops and implements these plans in partnership with species experts; federal, state and local agencies; tribes; non-governmental organizations; academia; and other stakeholders. With this final listing action, we invite those who are interested in participating in the subspecies’ recovery efforts to contact us.

Is the Service designating critical habitat for the eastern black rail?

The Service determined that designating critical habitat for the eastern black rail is not prudent. Under our regulations, designation of critical habitat is not prudent when one or both of the following situations exist:

  1. The species is threatened by taking or other human activity, and identification of critical habitat can be expected to increase the degree of threat to the species, or
  2. such designation of critical habitat would not be beneficial to the species. We recognize that designation of critical habitat can provide benefits to listed species; however, for the eastern black rail, increased threats outweigh the benefits.

The Service has concerns that identifying such areas may attract birders seeking out these shy and elusive birds, placing additional stress on the subspecies. Trespassing has been documented on private lands and in areas on public lands specifically closed to the public to protect nesting eastern black rails. Trespassing may not only disturb the bird but can also result in trampling of the bird’s habitat, as well as eggs and nests. Inadvertent habitat destruction is a valid concern, as is the potential for purposeful habitat destruction.

We acknowledge that general location information is provided within the rule, and more specific location information can be found through other sources. However, we maintain that designation of critical habitat would more widely publicize the potential locations of the eastern black rail and its essential habitat to individuals, thereby exacerbating the threat of disturbance, habitat destruction or other harm from humans.

Why can’t I find detailed sightings information on eBird for the eastern black rail?

The Service received several comments suggesting we work with eBird to add the eastern black rail to eBird’s Sensitive Species List. eBird has recently been altered to better protect sensitive species, restricting data output while continuing to allow flow of information into their data base. eBird’s goal is to connect birders with researchers and conservationists, freely providing high-quality information on bird sightings that can be used for science and actionable conservation. However, open-access data can be a risk for birds that are targeted for exploitation—either through capture, killing or significant disturbance. With these dangers in mind, eBird has developed a customized display system that allows sensitive species to be reported by birders worldwide without fear of harm to them.

Since eastern black rails occur internationally, what does this mean for the countries where it occurs?

The ESA requires the Service to list species as endangered or threatened regardless of which country the species lives in. Benefits to the species include prohibitions on certain activities including import, export, take, commercial activity, interstate commerce and foreign commerce. By regulating these activities, the United States ensures people under the jurisdiction of the United States do not contribute to the further decline of listed species.

Although the ESA’s prohibitions regarding listed species apply only to people subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, the ESA can generate conservation benefits such as increased awareness of listed species, research efforts to address conservation needs, or funding for conservation of the species in its range countries. The ESA also provides for limited financial assistance to develop and manage programs to conserve listed species in foreign countries, encourages conservation programs for such species, and allows for assistance for programs, such as personnel and training.

What is the 4(d) rule that is being finalized for the species?

Along with finalizing the listing of the eastern black rail as a threatened species under the ESA, the Service is finalizing a rule under the ESA’s Section 4(d) that would tailor protections for the bird. The Service is committed to using flexibilities inherent in the ESA to reduce regulatory burdens on private citizens and businesses without decreasing necessary protections for our most at-risk species. Referred to as a 4(d) rule, the Service uses this authority to incentivize conservation actions and streamline the regulatory process. A 4(d) rule clarifies what forms of “take” are prohibited and what forms are not, but it does not in any way remove or alter the consultation requirements under section 7 of the ESA for listed species. Check out a summary of the final 4(d) rule, its prohibitions and exceptions.

Are there protected lands providing habitat for the species? If so, where are those lands, and who owns them?

Yes. There are protected conservation areas throughout the range of the eastern black rail. These conservation areas are a mix of state, federal, county, city, non-governmental and private ownership. There are also numerous National Wildlife Refuges that play an important role in the conservation of the eastern black rail, including Quivira National Wildlife Refuge in Kansas and San Bernard and Brazoria National Wildlife Refuges in Texas.

In general, the eastern black rail will benefit from continued surveys, monitoring and research. Protecting habitats where the subspecies is known to occur and providing adequate buffer for those areas will also be beneficial for the subspecies. As threats from flooding and other environmental changes narrow the available habitat for the subspecies, safeguarding the habitats known to harbor populations of the eastern black rail is of increased importance.

What will a Recovery Plan entail, and when will it be available?

Recovery planning includes the development of a recovery plan shortly after a species is listed. Revisions of the plan may be done to address continuing or new threats to the species, as new substantive information becomes available. The recovery plan identifies recovery criteria for when a species may be ready for downlisting from endangered to threatened or delisted. It also identifies methods for monitoring recovery progress. Recovery plans also establish a framework for agencies to coordinate their recovery efforts and provide estimates of the cost of implementing recovery tasks. Recovery teams, composed of species experts, federal and state agencies, nongovernmental organizations and stakeholders, are often established to develop recovery plans. When completed for the eastern black rail, the draft recovery plan and the final recovery plan will be available on the Service’s website.

What conservation efforts are currently being undertaken for the eastern black rail?

The Service has had tremendous support from its partners. The Atlantic Eastern Black Rail Working Group, initiated by The College of William and Mary’s Center for Conservation Biology, coordinated eastern black rail surveys and developed an assessment of the subspecies. Comprised of state and federal agencies, universities and nonprofit staff, the working group exchanges ideas, focuses research and develops approaches to eastern black rail conservation. Lead coordination of the Atlantic Flyway branch of the Black Rail Working Group has transitioned to the Atlantic Coast Joint Venture (ACJV).

The ACJV, focusing efforts on coastal marsh habitat, has adopted three flagship species to direct conservation action. One of those flagship species is the eastern black rail. As part of this initiative, the ACJV Black Rail Working Group has drafted population goals for the eastern black rail and is developing goals for habitat protection within the Atlantic Flyway. In addition, the ACJV recently coordinated the development of a Salt Marsh Bird Conservation Plan and finalized a Black Rail Conservation Plan. The first plan identifies stressors to Atlantic Coast tidal marshes and the efforts needed to conserve these habitats to maintain wildlife populations. The black rail conservation plan outlines goals and priority strategies for conservation of the eastern black rail in its habitats along the Atlantic Coast and Florida Gulf Coast.

The Gulf Coast Joint Venture (GCJV) has listed the eastern black rail as a priority species since 2007. The subspecies has been given consideration during review of North American Wetland Conservation grant applications – as are all priority species. Eastern black rails are believed to benefit from coastal marsh habitat delivery efforts of GCJV partners, including North American Wetland Conservation Act projects, Coastal Wetland Planning Protection and Restoration Act projects, the Service’s Coastal Program projects, and management actions on state and federal refuges and wildlife management areas.

The Texas Black Rail Working Group was initiated by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in partnership with the Texas Comptroller’s Office in November 2016. The main purpose of the group is to provide a forum for collaboration between researchers and stakeholders, share information about what is known about the species, identify information needs, and support conservation actions. The group held two in-person meetings (one in 2017 and one in 2018) and produced two newsletters and a conservation planning report.

Additionally, a symposium was held at the 43rd annual Waterbird Society meeting in November 2019 focusing on black rail ecology and conservation. The symposium provided updates on recent research investigating the life history of the black rail species, its habitat use, status and trends and conservation strategies. This symposium built on information that was presented at the 2016 Waterbird Society symposium focused on the eastern black rail subspecies. The Waterbird Society is an international scientific, not-for-profit organization dedicated to the study and conservation of waterbirds. The society was created to establish better communication and coordination among the growing number of people studying and monitoring aquatic birds and to contribute to the protection and management of stressed populations or habitats of these species.

What can I do to help conserve the eastern black rail?

People can help bolster the eastern black rail’s habitat and population status in several ways:

  • The eastern black rail benefits from programs to preserve and enhance wetlands. Buying Federal Duck Stamps can help protect these important habitats. Funds raised from the sale of Federal Duck Stamps go toward the acquisition or lease of habitat for the National Wildlife Refuge System. Duck Stamps – while required for waterfowl hunters as an annual license – are also voluntarily purchased by birders, outdoor enthusiasts and fans of national wildlife refuges who understand the value of preserving some of the most diverse and important wildlife habitats in our nation. Stamp sales raise nearly $40 million each year.
  • Encourage additional survey work for the subspecies and undertake efforts to protect habitat where it is found.
  • Support groups that are providing a forum for collaboration between researchers and stakeholders and share information about the subspecies, identify information needs, and support conservation actions.
  • Birders - follow the American Birding Association’s Code of Birding Ethics and don’t use recordings to attract eastern black rails, unless part of a formalized study. The use of recordings can stress birds or potentially expose them to danger. Exercise restraint and caution during observation, photography, sound recording, or filming.

How can the public view information that was used in preparing the final rule listing the eastern black rail as a threatened species?

The final rule is available on regulations.gov (search for Docket No. FWS–R4–ES–2018–0057) and the South Carolina Ecological Services Field Office. Comments and materials the Service received, as well as supporting documentation used in preparing the rule, are available for public inspection at regulations.gov. Comments, materials, and documentation can be made available by contacting: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, South Carolina Ecological Services Field Office, 176 Croghan Spur Road, Suite 200, Charleston, SC 29407; telephone 843–727–4707; facsimile 843–300–0204; email charleston@fws.gov.

Contact

Tom McCoy, Field Supervisor, South Carolina Ecological Services Field Office

176 Croghan Spur Road, Suite 200
Charleston, SC 29407;

Phone: 843–727–4707
Fax: 843–300–0204. Persons who use a telecommunications device for the deaf (TDD) may call the Federal Relay Service at 800–877–8339.

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