Why Endangered Status Might Not Help Bicknell’s

Polar bears and Bicknell's thrush. Courtesy of Larry Master, Master Images

The Bicknell’s thrush is getting a lot of press since the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced it will consider protecting the little brown bird under the Endangered Species Act.

But what nobody is talking about is that the Endangered Species Act, as currently applied by the Obama administration, appears unlikely to protect the songbird from the thing that endangers it most: climate change.

As temperatures have risen across the Northeast, Bicknell’s thrush are disappearing from lower Adirondack mountains, including 3,350-foot Kempshall Mountain, near Long Lake. The migrants winter in Hispaniola and nest almost exclusively on high slopes in New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. “A 3°C increase in growing season temperatures could eliminate nearly all Bicknell’s thrush habitat in the Northeast,” according to a 2010 action plan by the International Bicknell’s Thrush Conservation Group.

To understand why a law designed to protect a depleted species might not be employed to protect that species from its leading threat, start with the polar bear, the first creature listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act because of the projected impact of global warming.

When the polar bear was listed in 2008, the Bush administration issued a special rule under the Endangered Species Act that exempted greenhouse gas emissions, even though greenhouse gases are what’s melting the polar bear’s Arctic sea ice habitat. The Obama administration has adopted that same rule.

“Greenhouse emissions are not just magically exempt from the Endangered Species Act,” argues Kassie Siegel, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, a Tucson-based nonprofit that has petitioned the Fish & Wildlife Service to list the Bicknell’s thrush, polar bear and many other species on the brink of extinction. “[Federal] agencies take steps to reduce things like pesticides, mercury, DDT, things that accumulate in the air and water and harm species. And there’s no reason why the act can’t work the same way for greenhouse emissions.”

The Center for Biological Diversity has challenged the polar bear special rule in court. Last year a federal judge determined that “climate modeling does not currently allow the agency to draw a causal connection between the greenhouse gas emissions from a specific source and the impact on a particular polar bear.” [Quote added post press.] However, he also said the Fish & Wildlife Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act when it failed to assess whether the rule warranted a full environmental impact statement. The judge sent the matter back to the federal government for environmental review, to be completed by the end of this year.

“There’s no reason Obama can’t just reverse the policy,” Siegel says.

Of course there’s much more at stake than the fate of a bear or a thrush. If the Fish & Wildlife Service were to require greenhouse controls for even one species, the central organizing principles of the country’s energy policy might have to shift. But as unprecedented numbers of species face climate-driven extinction, the agency is under pressure to develop some sort of response. [Post press addition:] To be clear, the Endangered Species Act dictates that each species be assessed on a case-by-case basis; the polar bear special rule applies only to the polar bear, but it has caused conservationists to question how the federal government will address climate threats to other species.

Congress passed the Endangered Species Act in 1973, before the risks of anthropogenic climate change were well understood. Still, Siegel thinks the law provides a viable tool to mitigate global warming, but not the only tool.

“The Clean Air Act is really our number one environmental statute in the U.S. for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It took a decade of litigation to get the Environmental Protection Agency to use the Clean Air Act to reduce emissions,” she says.

“Because the government has been so slow and so reluctant to address the problem people don’t realize how much our existing environmental laws have to offer. We have the most successful domestic environmental laws in the world. They can help solve the problem if we just use them.”

The Fish & Wildlife Service is expected to decide within a year whether to protect Bicknell’s thrush as threatened or endangered. If listed, the bird will join a small but growing club of officially recognized climate-threatened species, including the polar bear and two types of Caribbean coral. Also under petition or consideration are several species of ice seals, pika (like Bicknell’s a mountaintop dweller), wolverine, several species of penguins, clownfish (Nemo) and damselfish. Some scientists estimate that climate is driving as many as a million species to extinction globally.

For a full account of the dilemma of Bicknell’s thrush and other Adirondack montane birds, see Mary Thill’s June 2012 story “The Last Refuge.”

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