On Endangered Species Day, a Closer Look at the Kirtland's Warbler

[image-1] More than 99 percent of all animal species that have ever lived on Earth are extinct. They are gone forever, residing only in biology textbooks (sometimes) and historical footnotes now. You and I will never see a great auk in the wild; the last member of its species was killed in 1844 by a man in Scotland who thought it was a witch.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature listed 3,079 endangered animal species five years ago (up from 1,102 in 1998). Some of them are on their way to extinction, and many have been impacted directly by human-influence climate change. Others still are "in recovery" and being led back to good population health.

Today is Endangered Species Day, and it would be a shame if we didn't take a moment to think about these ramifications.

We turn now to the Kirtland's warbler, a songbird that passes through northwest Ohio and southern Michigan in spring and ultimately resides in northern Michigan in the summer. There are only maybe 5,000 Kirtland's warblers on the planet; the species nearly went extinct a few decades ago. Birdwatchers describe the Kirtland's as a remarkably rare sight in the wild; even those who've dedicated their free time to birds may spend a lifetime in Ohio without ever seeing one.

Since the mid-70s, conservationists have worked tirelessly to preserve and grow the Kirtland's warbler population. The bird enjoys jack pine trees and saplings, and 20th-century humans were not known for actively expanding the forests of the U.S. By running controlled burns (to rejuvenate tree populations) and manicuring the bird's natural habitat, the number of Kirtland's in the U.S. doubled in the last decade. There were only a few hundred Kirtland's warblers in the 1970s, and we decided to help them out.

From the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service:

Due to many dedicated people, the Kirtland’s warbler has met the recovery population goal. However, as a conservation-reliant species, the continued success of Kirtland’s warbler is dependent on annual habitat management and cowbird control. It is hoped that soon, provisions can be made to ensure that these management activities are continued into the future, allowing Kirtland’s warblers to be removed from the list of threatened and endangered species. Once these commitments are in place, we can be assured that Kirtland’s warbler will continue to search out young jack pine forests each spring for generations to come.

But why?

The argument for the Kirtland's and for the protection of all other endangered species is that we, as humans, have forcefully taken on a role as stewards of the planet. Our civilization's culture is such that we learn from a very early age that humans run the show here. We kill other animals and eat them, we domesticate the cute ones, and we generally use this place for our own ends. To stretch that logic a bit further, and to grow a conscience a bit late in the game, the big idea here is that we're now responsible for these species' futures. If we've decided to commandeer this planet, then it's up to us to make sure that everyone thrives.

It's also just good business, if you don't care for the moralizing.

The Endangered Species Act, a series of laws passed in the 1970s to protect animals and plants, is itself endangered. The laws have directly led to the preservation of bald eagles and whooping cranes — and their habitats. It also played a role in the Kirtland's warbler recovery plan. But President Donald Trump's promise to strip away federal regulatory policies leads environmentalists to believe that his administration may take aim at the ESA.

It's not hard to imagine, and it's a good thought experiment to consider. ESA protections play an important role in the global ecosystem, and the U.S. still has a shot at being a leader in conservation efforts.

As the great migratory season continues onward — with warblers flocking en masse to their North American breeding grounds, stopping here and there along the north shore  — you may, with a little luck, see a Kirtland's warbler. But even if you don't, it's heartening to know that they're still out there.

(This story has been updated to more accurately describe the Kirtland's warbler breeding habitat.)