Yellow-billed loons won't get help from the federal government

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service just consigned the yellow-billed loon to purgatory.  

Yellow-billed loons are the biggest species of loon in the world and can boast wing spans of up to a five-feet.  The loon breeds in the tundra wetlands of Alaska, Canada and Russia; wintering along the west coast as far south as California. The species has a global population of approximately 16,000 individuals, of which about 4,000 breed in Alaska.  The majority of Alaskan yellow-billed loons breed in the Western Arctic, in areas recently opened up to oil and gas development, such as near Teshekpuk Lake and along the Colville River.  Loons are also threatened by overharvest throughout their range.

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In 2004 NRDC, the Center for Biological Diversity, Pacific Environment, Trustees for Alaska, and other groups filed a petition to protect the yellow-billed loon under the Endangered Species Act.

Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that, while yellow-billed loons are in danger of extinction and qualify for protection under the Endangered Species Act, they would be classified as a “warranted but precluded” species and be put on the Service’s “candidate list” for later action.  In other words, the Service decided there are other, higher priority species it needs to list first and the loon will just have to wait its turn.  The extensive use of “warranted but precluded” findings is one of the biggest problems with the Endangered Species Act.

There are currently 251 other “candidates” for listing, many of whom got on the candidate listing just like the loon did. On average, candidate species can wait for protection for decades and dozens have gone extinct while on the candidate list.  In fact, some have referred to the candidate list as “extinction’s waiting room.”  This is all the more ironic considering how much effort the Fish and Wildlife Service puts into making “warranted but precluded” findings.  Today’s decision on the yellow-billed loon runs 150 pages. 

In another bit of irony, it was just last week that the Fish and Wildlife Service issued a report expressing concern over the decline of bird populations in the United States.  Announcing the report, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said:

Just as they were when Rachel Carson published Silent Spring nearly 50 years ago, birds today are a bellwether of the health of land, water and ecosystems….From shorebirds in New England to warblers in Michigan to songbirds in Hawaii, we are seeing disturbing downward population trends that should set off environmental alarm bells. We must work together now to ensure we never hear the deafening silence in our forests, fields and backyards that Rachel Carson warned us about.

Yet today’s decision means that, for now at least, one species of bird will be not be getting the additional protection that the federal government says it deserves.