Scientist Blasts Bicknell’s Thrush Decision As Political

Bicknell’s thrush nests in a balsam fir. Photo by Kent McFarland/Vermont Center for Ecostudies.

A scientist at the Center for Biodiversity blasted as “absolutely political” a decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to keep the Bicknell’s thrush off the federal list of endangered species.

The Bicknell’s is a rare songbird that breeds in spruce-fir habitat at high elevations in the Adirondacks, New England, and southeastern Canada.

The Center for Biodiversity petitioned F&WS in 2010 to designate the thrush as endangered or threatened. In a decision Wednesday, the federal agency rejected that request. It likewise rejected endangered or threatened status for twenty-four other species.

Mollie Matteson, a senior scientist at the center, called the decision “disappointing, but not surprising,” given the antipathy toward the Endangered Species Act exhibited by the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress.

“It’s pretty much war against the Endangered Species Act right now,” she remarked.

What’s more, a major threat to the Bicknell’s thrush (as well as to many of the other twenty-four species) is climate change. When running for office, President Donald Trump derided climate change as a hoax.

Matteson said the Center for Biodiversity had hoped to force the federal government to take steps to mitigate climate change to protect wildlife species.

“Climate change is a huge issue,” she told the Explorer. “Every year that we wait to deal with it puts the Bicknell’s thrush at risk as well as other species and our ecological systems.”

Matteson said much of the Bicknell’s breeding habitat is expected to vanish over the next century.

In its decision, the Fish and Wildlife Service looked ahead only thirty years, arguing that climate-change models beyond that timeframe are unreliable and that the long-range impacts to the Bicknell’s are too unpredictable.

The F&WS also analyzed other threats, such as deforestation on its winter grounds in the Caribbean, and concluded “that the Bicknell’s thrush is likely to remain at a sufficiently low risk of extinction that it will not become in danger of extinction in the foreseeable future (i.e., approximately 30 years) and thus does not meet the definition of a threatened species under the Act.”

The Explorer asked Meagan Racey, a spokeswoman for the F&WS, to respond to the suggestion that the agency’s decision was influenced by political considerations. She replied with a lengthy email that read, in part: “In making our determinations, we are held to the standards defined in the act itself: a species must either be in danger of extinction now (endangered) or at risk of becoming so in the foreseeable future (threatened). The administration reviews all decisions, but the science is undertaken by career federal biologists, who make the determination whether or not a species merits listing.”

Racey noted that the agency recently determined that some species do warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act, including the candy darter, trispot darter, Sonoyta mud turtle, and Guadalupe fescue.

A recent study by the Vermont Center for Ecostudies  says the Bicknell’s thrush has one of the smallest populations of passerine species in the United States and Canada. The study estimates that there are 71,300 Bicknell’s specimens in the United States. Even taking into account Canada, it says the global population is less than 120,000. In comparison, the populations of two related species, the veery and the gray-cheeked thrush, are approximately 11 million and 15 million, respectively.

The White Mountains of New Hampshire has the largest population of Bicknell’s thrush in the United States—some 26,400 specimens, according to the study. The Adirondack population is estimated to be 17,600, about a quarter of the U.S. total.

The Fish and Wildlife decision could be appealed to federal court. Matteson said the Center for Biological Diversity will evaluate that option.

Click here to read the service’s news release on the Bicknell’s thrush.

Click the link below to read the service’s full decision pertaining to all the species.

FWS decision

Click here to read the center’s news release on the full decision.


About Phil Brown

Phil Brown edited the Adirondack Explorer from 1999 until his retirement in 2018. He continues to explore the park and to write for the publication and website.

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