Last month the USFWS released in advance its massive obituary for one of the most-studied birds in the world: Status of the Red Knot (Calidris canutus rufa) in the Western Hemisphere
Warning! This is a 287-page pdf. That is not as offputting as it might seem, since much is supporting material, 18 pages of citations for instance, and 25 pages of habitat maps. It is also lavishly illustrated.
For the impatient reader, the actual status of the bird is baldly stated in the first paragraph of the Executive Summary:
The population of the rufa subspecies of the red knot Calidris canutus, which breeds in the central Canadian arctic and mainly winters in Tierra del Fuego, has declined dramatically over the past twenty years. Previously estimated at 100,000-150,000 . . . .
. . . . Counts show that the main Tierra del Fuego wintering population dropped from 67,546 in 1985 to 51,255 in 2000, 29,271 in 2002, 31,568 in 2004, but only 17,653 in 2005 and 17,211 in 2006.
In other words, with allowances for imperfections of methodology, in 2000 the bird’s numbers had declined to one third of historically normal levels, and by 2006 to something like one ninth of those levels. 89% wiped out. That is why most conservation groups predict it really has five years left or less. What is remarkable is that the FWs has finally recognized the severity of the situation. Not that they plan to do anything about it, mind you.
Red knots are among the great migrators, and the rufa subspecies undertakes each year the longest trip of the bunch, as can be seen in this simplified representation of the migration of the the six currently recognized subspecies, where the circles represent relative numbers:
They make the long trip in stages, most famously stopping off at Delaware Bay to double their weight on the feast of horseshoe crab eggs before proceeding north to breed. Or at least they used to.
It is notable that a document devoted to finding the reasons for the red knot’s decline has variously worded reiterations of the following statement scattered all throughout its text:
The main identified threat to the rufa population is the reduced availability of horseshoe crabs eggs in Delaware Bay arising from elevated harvest of adult crabs for bait in the conch and eel fishing industries.
The report does examine, exhaustively, dozens of other contributing factors.
Some are obvious and well-documented, such as oil spills and habitat destruction and disturbance at various locations. As the numbers continue to plummet, and conditions to deteriorate in even one of the locales critical to the bird, solitary incidents become more significant. In April, 1300 red knots were found dead in Uruguay, the presumed victims of a lethal algal bloom. That is roughly six percent of the population, gone in one event spanning at most a few days.
This is not a good time to be dependent on the health of several widely dispersed habitats.
Others are less clear, such as the probable increase in predation by raptors following the elimination of DDT and the subsequent rise in raptor numbers. Still and all,
If it is proved that there are factors that lead knots to arrive late in Delaware Bay and/or in poor condition, this does not diminish the importance of the Delaware Bay food resource. If anything, it is increased because it is of critical importance in enabling the birds to recover quickly and reach the breeding grounds on time and in good reproductive condition.
Then perhaps we should start with Delaware Bay? There isn’t space enough to go into the sorry history of interstate squabbling. When one state tried to impose restrictions on crabbing, fishermen would simply land on another shore.
Perhaps the federal government could do something? Perhaps it could take the bird under the protection of the ESA?
They simply refuse. At one point, believe it or not, they used an uptick in numbers for one season as sufficient evidence to deny the bird was in any trouble. (A favored trick pulled out for use in the case of coho salmon and many others: Ignore twenty years of observation and use one statistical outlier to justify the position you have already arrived at through political calculation.) Here is Jamie Rappaport Clark, former Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, on that decision:
No biologist worth their degree would suggest a species is on the path to recovery based on one year’s population count.
It is monumentally irresponsible to use data from one field season to suggest the bird is secure. Their decision is a political one, pure and simple.
The Bush administration’s actions make one wonder just how close to extinction an animal must be before it will act. This species is literally disappearing before our eyes and still the Bush administration refuses to take any steps to save it.
The excuse now? Pick one: several are on offer on a rotating basis. Some time is even spent in the new status report enumerating the reasons, like the incredible passage below which concludes with the observation that other species are in greater need, and there aren’t the resources to do anything anyway. Read this:
1. Inadequacies of the Federal and Regional Regulatory System
The existing regulatory system creates a number of problems for the conservation of red knots stopping over in Delaware Bay in that different agencies have jurisdiction over the protection of horseshoe crabs (and their eggs) on the one hand and red knots on the other. The birds are under the legal jurisdiction of the USFWS, and the horseshoe crabs are under the legal jurisdiction of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) which has the authority to set quotas for adoption by the states. The ASMFC is overseen by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) which has ultimate responsibility for the management and conservation of living marine resources. Presently NMFS has limited it involvement to participating in the ASMFC subcommittees and has not taken any regulatory action to protect crabs or birds. Individual states have authority to implement more restrictive harvest regulations than those set by the ASMFC and have done so on numerous occasions.
The ASMFC has promulgated a horseshoe crab management plan to conserve the horseshoe crab resource based on the current commercial uses of the crab for bait and for the biomedical industry, and the competing needs of migratory shorebirds and the federally-listed, (threatened) loggerhead turtle. The protection of the adult horseshoe crab population as food source for the loggerhead turtle is specifically identified in the plan with the recognition that the plan should be coordinated with the federal agencies having jurisdiction over the turtle population. Migratory shorebirds, and specifically the red knot, and their reliance on horseshoe crab eggs are also identified and discussed in the management plan. The plan specifically protects the food resource of the loggerhead turtle pursuant to Section 7(a)(2) of the ESA; the food resource of the red knot is not similarly protected. Although the ASMFC does not have direct legal jurisdiction to protect the food resource for the red knot, it has taken steps to improve horseshoe crab egg availability including decreasing harvest quotas, more efficient use of crabs as bait and facilitating a horseshoe crab sanctuary at the mouth of Delaware Bay.
In contrast the USFWS does have authority to protect the birds under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (40 Stat. 755; 16 U.S.C. 703-712) (MBTA) which provides that no migratory bird can be taken, killed or possessed unless in accordance with the provisions of the Treaty. The MBTA is the only current federal protection provided for the red knot. The MBTA prohibits “take” of any migratory bird, which is defined as: “to pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or attempt to pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect.” However, other than for nesting sites, which are not located in the United States, the MBTA provides no authority for protection of habitat or food resources. Human disturbance is cited as one of the major threats to red knots throughout it migratory range within the United States. Therefore, the MBTA provides inadequate protection to the red knot in that it does not afford red knots protection from human disturbance on migratory and wintering areas or ensure protection of food resources.
Under the Endangered Species Act 1973, a species may be designated as threatened or endangered. However, this may be precluded through lack of resources if there are species of higher conservation priority. Therefore species whose listing is warranted may receive none of the benefits of listing including those involving little or no cost. This is a shortcoming that needs to be addressed.
Where to begin? For starters, the “higher priority” argument. For one thing, doesn’t a population crash of 90% suggest urgent priority? For another, what exactly are these higher priority species? What exactly has been done for them in the last seven years?
It is necessary to mention here that while there is certainly a point in delineating the bureaucratic labyrinth as it effects red knots, crabs, turtles, etc., it is also true that the FWS loves nothing more than spending time in its published assessments, especially habitat designations, bitching about the very things it is supposed to do instead of doing them. It’s hard work.
What are we to make of a government agency that thinks part of its job is publishing elaborate excuses as to why it done hasn’t its job?
I think many people believe the FWS should act as an advocate for fish and wildlife interests, not make excuses for itself and publish eulogies and post-mortems.
While we’re on the subject, is it really good enough to release a 287-page pdf? Why is it left to BirdLife and other advocacy groups to put the information out to the public in understandable form? Why is that not part of the function of the FWS?
USFWS Red Knot page
Requiescat in Pace