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A Legacy of Success

April 18th, 2018|


By Eric Sprague, Director of Forest Conservation

During a 1987 census in north-central Michigan, wildlife biologists were able to hear the Kirtland’s warbler song only 167 times. (Editor’s Note: Hear it in the Instagram post in this article.) This marked a low point for the bird’s population. It had been declining since 1967, when it was among the first 75 wildlife species to gain protections under the precursor to the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Today, due to a unique conservation story, the Kirtland’s warbler is poised to be the first songbird ever delisted.

The Kirtland’s warbler has highly specialized breeding habitat requirements: young, dense and expansive jack pine forest. Natural, low-intensity fires historically created patches of this young forest. Wildfires burned the bigger, older trees and cleared the understory to create space for jack pine seeds to thrive. But, modern fire suppression policies have interrupted this cycle — no fire has meant no young trees, and no young Kirtland’s warblers.

In absence of fire, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR), U.S. Forest Service and other land managers have been working with the local forest industry to cut older jack pine stands and then replant young jack pine across the breeding range of the warbler. The forest management mimics that effects of fire while also providing funding for the conservation effort and supporting local jobs. The proceeds from the state-sponsored timber sales are pooled into a restoration fund and used to support the overall conservation effort.

The vulnerability of Kirtland’s warblers, and their unique dependence on jack pine forests, had been on American Forests’ radar since before 1980. When our American ReLeaf program was launched in 1990, American Forests began investing in bringing back the Kirtland’s warbler by restoring its habitat. In fact, our first-ever project was to restore jack pine on the AuSable State Forest in Michigan. Since then, American Forests has planted more than 4.6 million jack pines on more than 4,200 acres.

This nationally unique public-private restoration effort has brought the Kirtland’s warbler population back from the brink. The current population is now over 2,000 pairs, more than double the recovery goal. Last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to remove the species from the federal Endangered Species List.

This is a great achievement for the Kirtland’s warbler, but also underscores the importance of the ESA. The ESA has kept 98% of listed species from going extinct. These protections give state, federal and private partners the space to develop complex restoration strategies.

Of course, challenges still remain for the Kirtland’s warbler. Because large scale reintroduction of wildfire is not reasonable, forest management will be required to continually create new breeding habitat every year.

The jack pine timber market has enhanced the conservation effort, but it isn’t a silver bullet. Jack pine prices can fluctuate and the tree is not as sought after as other species like red pine. In addition to habitat needs, the conservation effort supports brown-headed cowbird control. Cowbirds lay their eggs in Kirtland’s warbler nests, and the cowbirds then outcompete warbler nestlings for food.

To ensure the ultimate success of the Kirtland’s warbler, American Forests and the Michigan DNR are in the second year of a five-year partnership that will plant 5 million jack pine trees on more than 3,000 acres of managed state forest land. The tree planting will create the next young forests for the warbler. The partnership helps to fill funding gaps and ensure that the species will remain secure.

Our investment is focused on future habitat needs too. Since 1951, 98 percent of all singing males have been found in Michigan. However, as the population grows, the Kirtland’s warbler is slowly expanding its range into northern Michigan, Wisconsin and Ontario. As temperatures and precipitation changes due to climate change, the need for jack pine restoration will also grow. American Forests is currently partnering with Simcoe County, Ontario, and the Canadian Wildlife Service to implement the first-ever Kirtland’s warbler habitat restoration in Canada.

April 18th, 2018|0 Comments

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