Young Forest on Private Lands Helps Bring Back Kirtland’s Warbler

From the Iosco County News-Herald

Habitat created by private landowners is key to bringing back beleaguered species such as Kirtland's warbler and New England cottontail

LANSING – Bird enthusiasts from around the world travel to northern Michigan in hopes of catching sight of a Kirtland’s warbler, a small songbird once poised on the brink of extinction.

Kirtland's warbler

Thanks in large part to private landowners' habitat creation efforts, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently announced that the Kirtland's warbler no longer requires protection under the Endangered Species Act./David Kenyon, MI DNR

Now the species is thriving thanks to decades of effort by a diverse group of dedicated conservation partners. Due to the species’ remarkable recovery, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently announced that it no longer warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

“The effort to recover the Kirtland’s warbler is a shining example of what it takes to save imperiled species,” said Margaret Everson, principal deputy director of USFWS. “Truly dedicated partners have worked together for decades to recover this songbird. I thank them for their efforts and applaud this historic conservation success.”

Kirtland’s warblers nest only in young jack pine stands in Michigan, Wisconsin and Ontario. They overwinter in the Bahamas. The species’ population dipped to a low of 167 pairs in 1974 and again in 1987 before starting a steady climb toward recovery.

“Kirtland’s warbler was one of the first species in the United States to be put on the federal list of endangered and threatened species, and today’s action by the U.S. Department of the Interior marks the latest chapter in a remarkable wildlife success story,” said Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Director Dan Eichinger on Tuesday, Oct. 8. “The bird’s recovery provides dramatic testimony to what conservation organizations, governments and businesses can accomplish when they come together for the good of the resource.

“We are grateful for the partnership of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Forest Service in this effort. I sincerely believe conservation is a team sport, and today’s announcement is a big win for natural resources in Michigan and for all those involved.”

Volunteers planting jack pines

Following a timber harvest, volunteers plant jack pine seedlings to create young forest habitat needed for breeding by Kirtland's warblers./David Kenyon, MI DNR

Historically, wildfires were the most important factor for establishing the natural jack pine forests that Kirtland’s warblers need for breeding habitat, according to the DNR. Modern wildfire suppression greatly diminished the natural disturbance that once generated Kirtland’s warbler breeding habitat.

In the absence of wildfire, land managers had to take an active role in mimicking natural processes that regularly occurred within the jack pine ecosystem. This is primarily done through large-scale timber harvesting and human-assisted reforestation.

Today, the sale of jack pine timber on sites where reforestation will occur is critical to managing Kirtland’s warbler breeding habitat. Timber receipts offset the cost of replanting jack pine needed to support a viable population of nesting Kirtland’s warblers that would not otherwise be feasible through conservation dollars.

“Private forest owners are proud partners in this major milestone and committed to the long-term health of the Kirtland’s warbler,” said Dave Tenny, founding president and CEO of the National Alliance of Forest Owners.

Tenney added: “Private forest owners are an essential part of conservation success – 360 million acres of working forests across the country are privately owned. We proudly work with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and conservation partners to develop and implement smart management decisions that support a wide range of wildlife across the country.”

The Kirtland’s Warbler Breeding Range Conservation Plan was developed in 2015 and is now the guiding management strategy for the species. Additionally, funding and other commitments to habitat management and controlling parasitic cowbirds ensure continued conservation actions in the absence of ESA protections.

To find out more about the road to recovery for the Kirtland’s warbler, including a recovery timeline, long-term breeding range conservation plan and a look at the warbler’s habitat needs, click here.