Kirtland’s warbler a true success story

MARQUETTE – The recovery of some species listed under the Endangered Species Act could be strengthened by its delisting, according to federal wildlife officials.

Congress approved the act in1973 “to protect and recover imperiled species and the ecosystems upon which they depend,” according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

One of the most imperiled species in Michigan for many years was the Kirtland’s warbler, a bird that numbered only 167 singing males in the late 1980s. It’s also a bird that depends heavily on a specific type of habitat.

According to the FWS, The bird nests only in young jack pine forests, about 80 acres in size, with trees between 5 and 16 feet tall and spaced to allow sunlight to the ground for their nests. The trees also must grow in a certain type of sandy soil found only in a few locations.

Jack pine relies on fires to release its seeds and regenerate, and modern fire protection and suppression efforts, as well as forest management practices, resulted in a drastic decline of warbler nesting habitat, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Another problem the warblers face is the brown-headed cowbird, which lays its eggs in the nests of other birds. The cowbird chicks then outcompete the other chicks for food.

However, habitat management favoring jack pines suitable for the warblers and the live-trapping of cowbirds have brought back the species.

Dan Kennedy, endangered species coordinator with the DNR, said the state Kirtland’s warbler population reached its recovery goal of 1,000 singing males in 2001. In fact, in 2012 more than 2,000 singing males were counted.

Counts are performed by the DNR, the USFWS, the U.S. Forest Service and volunteers, Kennedy said.

“It’s a large effort,” he said. “It’s not just one organization.”

That success has led to the possibility of the Kirtland’s warbler being removed from the endangered species list.

Kennedy said there has been talk for at least the past five years about removal since the warbler reached the recovery goal. The goal for any endangered species is to be delisted, he said.

Kennedy said last year, the DNR, USFWS and USFS started work on a new plan focused on the question of where future conservation efforts should go.

He said he two main focuses of Kirtland’s warbler conservation are habitat and cowbird management. However, they won’t happen on their own.

“The main thing is the Kirtland’s warbler is a conservation-reliant species,” Kennedy said. “It depends on us for survival.”

Philip Huber, forest biologist with the Huron-Manistee National Forest, said the USFS in 2011 signed a memorandum of agreement with the USFWS and the DNR to plan for the continued survival of the warbler if it is delisted.

“We need to continue to do that to keep the population stable and climbing,” Huber said.

He said the USFS manages Upper Peninsula lands in the Hiawatha and Ottawa national forests as well as the Baraga Plains for Kirtland’s warblers. The Huron-Manistee National Forest in the northern Lower Peninsula also is managed for the species. However, Huber said 95 percent of the warblers center on the Mio-Grayling area to nest.

The USFWS will make the final determination whether the warbler is delisted, a process that can take two to three years, said Christie Deloria-Sheffield, a biologist with the USFWS.

Deloria-Sheffield said the service needs assurance from the various agencies involved in Kirtland’s warbler conservation that efforts will go on after delisting.

She said one major hurdle is continued funding for the cowbird-trapping program.

“Once the Endangered Species Act funding is gone, then will there be any funding or partner to work with that plan?” she said.

The Gaylord -based group Huron Pines is working to raise funds for that purpose.

Abigail Ertel, Kirtland’s warbler coordinator for Huron Pines, said a recovery team, the Kirtland’s Warbler Alliance, has a goal of providing long-term supplemental money to fill in funding gaps if the species is delisted. This fund would be separate from state and federal funds and is a grass-roots effort to raise $4 million, she said.

Large donors and corporate support is being sought, Ertel said. The public can also donate to the cause by visiting and finding the Huron Pines page. There they can donate to the Crowdrise Holiday Challenge, the goal of which is to raise $10,000 by Jan. 9, Ertel said.

“The recovery of the species has been going on for 40 years,” Ertel said. “It’s just a really great example of how the Endangered Species Act can work and be a success, and working with conservation partners can be successful.”

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is