The class of 1967 50 years later.
On March 11, 1967, the Apache trout (Oncorhynchus apache) became one of 78 species to first gain official federal protection as endangered species. Known endearingly by many wildlife biologists as the "Class of '67," this group included many iconic species such as the grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis), California condor (Gymnogyps californianus), whooping crane (Grus americana), and bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), which was successfully recovered and removed from the endangered species list in 2007. The original group helped pave passage of the 1973 Endangered Species Act, a landmark legislation that not only devoted federal resources for species recovery but also introduced the now ubiquitous phrase "endangered species" into the modern lexicon, heightening the collective conscience.
Of the original species listed in 1967, only four--the Caribbean monk seal (Monachus tropicalis), dusky seaside sparrow (Ammodramus maritimus nigrescens), longjaw cisco (Coregonus alpenae), and blue pike (Stizostedion vitreum glaucum)--have been officially declared extinct. Many others have seen remarkable recovery progress. For instance, thanks to intensive cooperative efforts between the Service and the people for which it is named, the Apache trout was upgraded to threatened status in 1975; it is soon likely to become the first sport fish removed from federal protection altogether due to recovery.
Coordination between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and another tribe, the Cowlitz Indian Tribe--as well as the states of Oregon and Washington and others--has focused on recovery of the Columbia white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus leucurus). White-tailed deer are common enough throughout the country, but the Columbian white-tailed, one of 16 subpopulations in the United States, is the only deer to roam west of the Cascade mountain range in the Pacific Northwest. As the case with so many other species, agricultural activities, logging, and development decimated much of the deer's habitat and dramatically reduced its numbers.
Fortunately, efforts to improve the deer's plight have been successful thanks largely to the efforts of various partners and the Service's National Wildlife Refuge System. Primarily led by a unit of the Willapa National Wildlife Complex near the mouth of the Columbia River in Washington, deer relocation has been a major component of the recovery program's success.
"Through relocation, we've been able to triple the range of the deer," says Paul Meyers, a wildlife biologist at the Service's Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge.
But Meyers notes there are "unknowns."
"One of the most pressing challenges to recovery efforts is the potential future flooding of the lands that the deer are located on," he says. "If you look at sea level models over the next 50 years, these lands are projected to be underwater.
We haven't been able to find a place for these deer outside of the floodplains."
In the meantime, at least, the outlook for the subspecies is good. The Douglas County population--one of the two populations of Columbian white-tailed deer--was removed from federal protection in 2003. The Lower Columbia River population, which numbered only 450 individuals in 1967, has since more than doubled in size and was reclassified as threatened last year.
"We began our focus on recovery through a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Tribal Grant in 2008, which we believe forged a positive path toward partnership and recovery," said chairman of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe William Iyall at the time of the Columbia River population was upgraded to the less critical status. "We long for the day and will continue to do our part to see Columbian white-tailed deer fully restored and delisted from the endangered species list."
Another remarkable recovery story, and one of the most dramatic successes to emerge from the Class of '67, is that of the Kirtland's warbler (Setophaga kirtlandii), a songbird that winters in the Bahamas and spends spring and summer months primarily in Michigan's northeastern Lower Peninsula. Often referred to as the "jack pine warbler," the bird depends on breeding habitat that consists of large stands of dense, young jack pine growing in glacial outwash sands. But, with human population expansion into northern Michigan in the early 1900s and the subsequent advent of large-scale fire suppression, which inhibited the ecosystem's natural regeneration, warbler habitat became severely limited.
Additionally, expansion of agriculture and logging into Michigan brought with it brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater), "nest parasites" that lay eggs in the nests of unsuspecting host birds who then go on to raise the cowbird chicks as their own. "Nest parasitism was so high, that in the 1960s and '70s, nearly 70 percent of all warbler nests contained at least one cowbird egg," says Chris Mensing, a biologist in the Service's Michigan Ecological Services Field Office. "On average, less than one Kirtland's warbler chick would hatch and fledge."
This phenomenon, in conjunction with the decimation of young jack pine habitat, nearly rendered the warbler extinct. A 1961 census of all singing males revealed only 502 birds. The situation continued to worsen for the bird over the next few years--a 1971 survey found only 201 singing males, with a range that had been reduced to just a few townships in Michigan's northern Lower Peninsula.
Fortunately, thanks to its 1967 listing and the protections of the Endangered Species Act that soon followed, the bird became the focus of two major recovery programs.
First, the U.S. Forest Service and Michigan Department of Natural Resources developed a habitat program that would manage jack pine stands on a 50-year rotation. "As the jack pine matures and becomes commercially viable, it can be sold, cut, and reforested at a density and configuration needed to support breeding Kirtland's warblers, mimicking tree regeneration after a wildfire," says Mensing.
Second, the Service initiated a brown-headed cowbird control program to remove cowbirds from active warbler nesting areas, reducing the threat of nest parasitism.
Vital to these recovery actions was the collaborative efforts among the land management and conservation community. As one of the first species with a formal recovery team and recovery plan, the bird became the beneficiary of a long-standing partnership in which scientists, NGOs, private citizens, and resource agencies continually explored ways to prevent extinction and facilitate recovery.
Today, the Kirtland's warbler population has reached record levels. The 2015 census counted 2,365 singing males--10 times the number of individuals that existed when the species was listed as endangered and a number that far surpasses the official recovery plan goal of 1,000 pairs. Additionally, Mensing says the warbler's range has expanded into the Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Wisconsin, and Ontario, and that nest parasitism has been effectively eliminated.
"Through the efforts and commitments of the agencies and the partnerships, we are close to securing longterm conservation for this species, at which point we could look to remove the bird from the endangered species list altogether," says Mensing.
However, one significant challenge is that the Kirtland's warbler is a "conservation-reliant" species. "If we were to stop the habitat management program, and likewise if we stopped cowbird control, those threats would immediately start impacting the survival of the species," says Mensing. "Eventually the habitat would no longer be suitable for nesting and nest parasitism would threaten reproduction."
Complicating matters for the warbler, and likely all other life, is the daunting reality of a changing climate.
"We do have concerns on what climate change would mean for the survival of Kirtland's warblers both on their wintering grounds and breeding grounds," says Mensing.
According to Mensing, rising sea levels in the Bahamas could lead to increased development of upland interior areas that would encroach on vital wintering habitat, and changing precipitation patterns may alter fruit production, which is crucial for the fitness of birds returning to their breeding grounds. And the species' breeding grounds are expected to receive less rainfall and be subjected to increased temperatures, which could adversely affect young jack pine forests that are sensitive to heat and drought conditions. Furthermore, changes in the timing of food availability and insect emergence as a result of climate change could lead to increased stresses to the bird during critical nesting and migration periods.
Such circumstances illustrate not only the increasingly complex challenges associated with species conservation, but also the special urgency and the constant and ceaseless fight--that these efforts signify. Lifting species from the brink of extinction is a tremendous undertaking. While the future is unknown, 50 years of focused conservation has provided a hopeful outlook for many among the Class of '67.
Last updated: March 9, 2017
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Ben Ikenson is a freelance writer based out of Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Caption: The comeback of the Apache trout in Arizona is a great example of success resulting from a private-public-tribal conservation partnership. Credit: USFWS
Caption: After being blindfolded, netted, and sedated, a Columbian white-tailed deer is airlifted a short distance from Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge to Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Tim Jewett/USFWS
Caption: A Columbian white-tailed deer is released at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge.
Caption: The 2015 census of all singing Kirtland's warbler males revealed 2,365 birds, a record high for the species.
Caption: A Kirtland's warbler nest with young. A brown-headed cowbird control program has significantly reduced the threat of nest parasitism and allowed the Kirtland's warbler population to grow.
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|Title Annotation:||Ecological Services; protection of endangered species of 1967|
|Publication:||Endangered Species Bulletin|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2017|
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