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Kirtland's Warbler Success Story Might Help The Future Of The Endangered Species Act


Any day now, a songbird called the Kirtland's warbler is slated to come off the endangered species list. This success story comes as the Trump administration has proposed stripping protections built into that law. Those behind the Kirtland's renaissance say the Endangered Species Act not only works, but they think their public-private model can be a template to help other fragile species. Susan Bence of member station WUWM in Milwaukee reports.


SUSAN BENCE, BYLINE: The morning sun is just peeking over the horizon in northern Wisconsin as Kandace Glanville begins her daily routine. The recent college grad has spent the summer tracking Kirtland's warblers that nest on a few parcels here. Glanville listens and watches for males; the ones that sing.

KANDACE GLANVILLE: Yeah. Basically, I'm looking to see if he's carrying food or if he meets up with a female, and she's got food. If you follow the male enough, sometimes a female just shows up too.

BENCE: The yellow-breasted songbird measures no more than six inches from beak to tail. It forages on insects, larvae and the occasional blueberry. The warblers winter in the Bahamas and travel to the Midwest to nest, mostly in Michigan and Wisconsin. By the time the Endangered Species Act came on the scene in 1973, the warbler was on the brink of extinction, numbering fewer than 400. Glanville says one of the reasons for this is they nest on the ground, tucked beneath young pine trees.

GLANVILLE: Like these little depressions around the jack pines - they'll, like, nest up, like, against one of those, like, shelves right there.

BENCE: A different species called the brown-headed cowbird takes advantage of the nest location, waiting until the warbler flies off for food, then swoops in and lays her eggs in the nest, leaving the Kirtland's warbler to raise both its own and the cowbird's young. And the young jack pines hosting the nests are increasingly scarce. Emily Vogelgesang works with Huron Pines Conservancy in Michigan, where most of the warblers summer.

EMILY VOGELGESANG: We didn't know enough about what it needed at the time. So a lot of time in the '70s to early 2000s was spent figuring out how to best manage the land.

BENCE: Now the population has soared above 4,000. And while the species awaits de-listing, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says without continued human involvement, the birds' numbers would nosedive again. Vogelgesang says it's an official designation - conservation reliant.

VOGELGESANG: There are a lot of plans being put into place across its breeding range to provide that jack pine habitat that these picky birds like to live on.

BENCE: Shawn Graff with the American Bird Conservancy is helping raise the estimated $2 million a year needed to help the birds. Graff thinks the public-private model is working.

SHAWN GRAFF: This model of partners agreeing to a long-term commitment for the management and then the idea that you need a source of funding, whether that be an endowment or active fundraising by key partners.

BENCE: Chelsea Sorbo works for Sand Valley Golf Course in central Wisconsin.

CHELSEA SORBO: Growing up in this area, I didn't know the potential of the land. I never learned about it. I never knew about the endangered species around here.

BENCE: Now Sorbo is helping transition golf course land to native habitat, including growing jack pines for the warblers. The birds' supporters say people like Sorbo, coupled with long-range planning and funding, can bolster an otherwise uncertain future for this warbler and other fragile species.

For NPR News, I'm Susan Bence.

(SOUNDBITE OF PORCELAIN RAFT'S "GIOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.