Leading Bird Group Critical of Compromises in Streaked Horned Lark ESA Listing;Fewer than 2,000 Birds Remain

Streaked Horned Lark by Jim Leonard

(Washington, DC, October 4, 2013) The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) yesterday finalized designation of the Streaked Horned Lark as Threatened, pursuant to the Endangered Species Act (ESA). American Bird Conservancy (ABC), a leading bird conservation group, called the action an important, but insufficient, first step.

ABC expressed concern that the Final Rule exempts habitat for approximately half the lark's population, which occurs on agricultural land, under that Act's “4(d)” Rule. Additionally, it designates only 4,629 acres of land in western Oregon and Washington as Critical Habitat—as compared to the 12,159 acres of Critical Habitat designated in the original Proposed Rule on Oct. 11, 2012.

“This ruling results in continued risk to the future conservation of the Streaked Horned Lark,” said Bob Altman, American Bird Conservancy's Pacific Northwest Coordinator. “A 4(d) Rule can be an effective tool for listed species conservation, but not when there are blanket exemptions for an allowance of take of birds from a population in significant decline. This also represents a missed opportunity to develop more proactive conservation programs with landowners.”

The Oct. 2012 proposal to list the Streaked Horned Lark noted that the prairies of South Puget Sound and western Oregon historically favored by the bird are part of one of the rarest ecosystems in the United States, with a 90–95 percent reduction over the past century.

The Streaked Horned Lark is a distinctive and highly restricted subspecies of the more widespread Horned Lark. Its range is contracting from both the north and the south and has already been extirpated as a breeding species throughout much of its range. Small remaining populations in South Puget Sound and along the southern Washington coast are declining precipitously, in some places at rates as high as 40 percent per year, raising concerns about extinction in the near future. In the Willamette Valley, Breeding Bird Survey data indicate the population of larks is declining at a rate of approximately five percent per year. Only between 1,100 and 1,600 Streaked Horned Larks are left on the planet.

Factors causing declines include reduced prairie habitat quality and nest failure due to agricultural practices such as mowing and spraying. Predation is also a major cause of mortality among adults and juveniles, especially by mammals closely associated with rural residential areas such as striped skunks, raccoons, feral and domestic cats, and dogs.

Altman concluded that “It is disappointing that the FWS failed to act in proportion with the urgency needed to protect a bird with such a small population and a well-documented precipitous decline. Immediate and strong conservation actions are needed on both public and private lands, rather than maintenance of the status quo for 80 percent of the population. Formal conservation agreements such as Habitat Conservation Plans and Safe Harbor Agreements as part of the 4(d) Rule could have facilitated essential conservation actions by agricultural landowners. However, with the 4(d) Rule exemptions, landowners lack an incentive to take actions that could prevent further population decline."

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