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A small black bird flies over a lush green marsh
Information icon Eastern black rail in flight – Texas, April 2016. Photo © Jesse Huth, used with permission, Huth Avian Services.

Service finalizes listing the eastern black rail as threatened under the Endangered Species Act

Regional partnerships swing into high gear to stave off further losses and protect vital habitats across rail’s range

The eastern black rail, a small, secretive marsh bird 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, will be listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The final listing includes a rule that will help ensure beneficial conservation actions continue, while minimizing impacts to landowners and other stakeholders. Critical habitat designation for the eastern black rail was deemed not prudent.

“The wide-ranging nature of the eastern black rail gives us the opportunity to work with an incredible diversity of partners on behalf of its recovery,” said Service Regional Director Leo Miranda. “We look forward to continuing our close partnerships with groups like the Eastern Black Rail Working Group to address the threats to these secretive marsh birds and put them on the path toward recovery.”

Populations of this sparrow-sized marsh bird with slate gray plumage and piercing red eyes have declined over 75 percent during the last 10-20 years. The primary factors driving population declines of eastern black rails are habitat loss and destruction, sea level rise, tidal flooding, incompatible land management and increasing storm intensity and frequency.

Conservation partnerships with diverse stakeholders and groups across the eastern black rail’s range are central to better understanding and addressing these challenges. The Eastern Black Rail Working Group, led by the Atlantic Coast Joint Venture, is identifying stressors to habitat and supporting site-specific priority actions. These measures include using water control structures to enhance existing habitats and create new ones, using prescribed fire to control woody vegetation, and developing best management practices for providing habitat in agricultural landscapes.

Findings in the species status assessment detail both population declines and relatively small total populations of rails remaining across the eastern United States. The geographic range of the eastern black rail is still relatively widespread, however. There are an estimated 355-815 breeding pairs along the Atlantic Coast from New Jersey south to the Gulf Coast of Florida and an estimated 1,300 individuals in protected areas along the mid to upper Texas coast. While there are no true population estimates for interior states such as Colorado, Kansas or Oklahoma, there are known small populations in Colorado and Kansas, where the rail breeds in the spring and summer.

The Service is committed to using the inherent flexibilities in the ESA to reduce potential impacts to private citizens and businesses without decreasing necessary protections for our most at risk species. The Service uses 4(d) rules under the ESA to incentivize positive 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 remove or alter the consultation requirements under section 7 of the ESA. Check out a summary of the finalized 4(d) for the eastern black rail, its prohibitions and exceptions.

The Service determined that designating critical habitat for the eastern black rail was not prudent, and invited comments on this decision. The rare and elusive nature of the eastern black rail makes them highly sought after by birders, and while not a frequent occurrence, instances of trespassing by individuals seeking out the bird have been documented on private lands and in areas on public lands closed to public access to protect nesting eastern black rails. Acknowledging the many benefits that listed species receive from critical habitat designations, the Service determined that those benefits did not outweigh the increased threats from making location information readily available.

The Service proposed listing the eastern black rail under the ESA on October 9, 2018. The rule finalizing the eastern black rail listing as a threatened species under the ESA and the species-specific 4(d) rule becomes effective on November 9, 2020. The rule, comments and materials the Service received, as well as supporting documentation used in preparing the rule, are available for public inspection on regulations.gov; search for Docket No. FWS–R4–ES–2018–0057. 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; or facsimile 843–300–0204. Persons who use a telecommunications device for the deaf (TDD) may call the Federal Relay Service at (800) 877–8339.

For more information visit our Frequently Asked Questions.

Contact

  • Jennifer Koches, jennifer_koches@fws.gov, 843-300-0424 (Southeastern states)
  • Meagan Racey, meagan_racey@fws.gov, 413-253-8558 (Northeastern states)
  • Georgia Parham, georgia_parham@fws.gov, 812-334-4261 x 1203 (Midwestern states)
  • Aubry Buzek, aubry_buzek@fws.gov, 512-962-0289 (Southwestern states)
  • Joe Szuszwalak, joseph_szuszwalak@fws.gov, 303-236-4336 (Western states)

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. For more information on our work and the people who can make it happen, visit fws.gov. Connect with the Service on Facebook, follow our tweets, watch the YouTube Channel and download photos from Flickr.

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