Possible extinction of Bicknell’s thrush tied to global climate change

Bicknell’s Thrush on East Mountain. Photo by Steve Faccio. Used with permission from the Vermont Center for Ecostudies

The fate of a drab, little bird that roosts in the Green Mountains could have far-reaching implications on the future of the economy and endangered species in the United States.

The federal government has begun the process to decide whether to list the Bicknell’s thrush, a Northeastern mountain songbird, as endangered. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is reviewing scientific material on the thrush, and the initial public comment period on the thrush’s status ended Oct. 31. The Vermont-based Center for Biological Diversity first petitioned the federal government to list the bird as endangered.

But the threats the thrush faces will prove difficult to overcome, even with an endangered designation. Conservationists warn the bird faces extinction unless the U.S. government can slow climate change and greatly curb mercury emissions from Midwestern power plants. A recovery plan for the bird may require a fundamental reworking of a fossil fuel-based economy. Environmentalists argue that the federal government is obligated to undertake such actions under the provisions of the Endangered Species Act.

The Bicknell’s thrush has been faring so poorly because of the shrinking of its already scarce habitat, said Mollie Matteson, conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. The bird generally favors high-elevation nesting grounds on the timberlines of mountain ranges in the Northeastern United States, including mountains in Bennington and Rutland counties. And even there it only finds a sliver of land, with just the right mix of balsam firs, suitable for nesting.

But that ideal habitat is shrinking dramatically because of climate change, Matteson said. Even if the climate warms 2 degrees, the center estimates, the thrush’s habitat could shrink as much as 66 percent. As the New England climate warms, environmentalists warn that hardwoods will overtake the firs on the alpine timberline, displacing the Bicknell’s thrush.

“It’s literally going to be pushed right off the mountain,” Matteson said.

Climate change won’t just affect the birds in the summer. The thrush overwinters in tropical Caribbean forests, and climate change models predict those forests are going to dry in the coming years. That habitat is already facing degradation because of deforestation and development in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Matteson said.

“Its wintering habitat is even more constrained than its breeding habitat,” she said.

The Bicknell’s thrush population is also most likely faring poorly because of power plant emissions from the Midwest, said Jim Shallow, conservation and policy director for Audubon Vermont. Recent blood samples of the birds show elevated levels of mercury, which could affect the reproductive health of the species, he said. To save the bird, the federal government will need either to phase out coal power plants or install more scrubbing technology that would curb emissions. Either solution would be an expensive proposition, but Shallow argues they would be worth it because mercury emissions impact all species.

“There would be human benefits, as well,” Shallow said.

Few expect the process to evaluate the Bicknell’s thrush to go quickly, and Shallow warns it could stretch on for decades. One hurdle is that little is really known about the bird. While first discovered in the late 19th century, it was long considered a subspecies of the gray-cheeked thrush. Genetic testing finally confirmed the bird was a unique species in 1995. Scientists have long known the bird was in trouble, but they have needed to learn more about the bird to petition the government to protect it.

“We need to have a better handle on the life cycle dynamics for the bird,” Shallow said.

The process to protect the thrush also will move slowly because of what is expected to be a monumental legal fight. An endangered species listing most likely will mean environmentalists will need to sue to compel the U.S. government to tighten regulations on greenhouse gas emissions in general, and mercury emissions, in particular. If recent history is any indication, such a call would be vigorously opposed by both power plant operators and the federal government for the overwhelming costs involved, said Matteson.

“What needs to be done to save the species is enormous,” said Matteson.

The federal government so far has resisted arguments that it must regulate greenhouse gas emissions because of the Endangered Species Act. The Obama administration angered environmentalists earlier this year when it refused to incorporate greenhouse gas standards into a proposal to protect the endangered polar bear, and the Center for Biological Diversity previously sued the government for delaying the process to list two threatened Arctic seal species as endangered because the seals’ main threat would be climate change.

While Matteson believes the thrush is another species that can only be saved if climate change is addressed, not everyone is so sure. Vermont Fish and Wildlife coordinator Steve Parren believes the argument that the birds will lose their timberline habitat due to climate change is a bit of a stretch. Wind shear is just as important a factor as temperature to block hardwoods from overtaking firs on the ridgeline, he said.

While Parren understands why environmentalists are focusing on the thrush to spark the conversation about climate change, he says the same case could be made for any number of animals. Ultimately, environmental regulators are going to have a hard time mitigating climate change for all species, he said.

“It’s going to be fascinating in a horrible way,” Parren said.

Craig Idlebrook

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  • “Ultimately, environmental regulators are going to have a hard time mitigating climate change for all species, he said.” … That’s obvious – we won’t even mitigate human caused environmental damage to save the species Homo Homo Sapiens.

  • At the end of the day it’s about protecting our only source of food, water, air and shelter – aka the physical environment … or the very temporary monetary profits of a few.

  • Guy Page

    Vermonters concerned about Bicknell’s thrush, the climate change-storm connection, etc. etc. would do well to act locally by supporting the most effective single act that will reduce Vermont Co2 emissions: support the continued operation of Vermont Yankee. According to MIT professor Richard Lester, closing Vermont Yankee would result in a 30% rise in power-related Co2 emissions from VT if its 620 MW are replaced by and large by natural gas power, which (good intentions about renewables notwithstanding) seems to be the actual, real-world trend. Furthermore the existence of an instate, low-cost, 24/7, reliable, non-carbon-emitting power generator would speed Vermont’s hoped-for transition from internal combustion cars to plug-ins. The Plug-In revolution will work best if there is carbon-free, low-cost, reliable, over-night power available in HUGE quantities. Right now there is ONE potential source of overnight power with those qualities: nuclear. (Hydro doesn’t count because of existing transmission shortcomings; perhaps that might change, but until then it’s a “bird in the bush” and nuclear, esp. VY, is a “bird in the hand.”) I must say that I do not find the hand-wringing about global warming credible when it comes from anti-VY folks. Vermont can make a huge contribution to the climate change right now: drop its opposition to VY’s continued operation.

    Those who say VY is not really carbon-free because the fuel mining and refining process is carbon-intensive are ignoring the rather obvious fact that every power generation system is carbon-intensive at some phase in its life cycle, including hydro, wind, and solar, and that nuclear power has a Co2 life cycle that is as small, or smaller, than those other low-carbon power producers. Face facts, along with environmentalists like Stewart Brand – nuclear power is a worthwhile, available solution to climate change.

  • Rob Pforzheimer

    Timberline, high elevation, industrial wind projects are destroying the Bicknell thrush’s habitat more than climate change, which wind turbines do nothing to alleviate.

  • Steve Wright

    Matteson, Shallow and Parren are all competent–more than competent–scientists. I believe their assessment is accurate and if so, why does the State of Vermont continue to advocate blowing up Bicknell’s thrush breeding habitat and calling that “climate change action?”

    Yes, folks, that is precisely what Vermont is doing and no pleading, reasoning, offering of alternatives or anything yet attempted seems to sway our governor (who owns stock in oil/gas companies and drives a Ford Expedition, hardly climate-correct behavior).

    Of course we must reduce our use of fossil fuels. The place to begin is here, Vermont, where we have a modicum of influence and control over how it gets done–by voting. We don’t shape policy in West Virginia or Brazil. We shape policy here, at home.

    And building wind turbines on our ridgelines–or anywhere else for that matter–does not get at the issue of emissions reduction. It’s only a feel-good pretend approach here. And it is arguably the most landscape-damaging so-called renewable source. (Yes, big hydro also has its problems).

    Vermont’s home-grown emissions–92.6% of them–come from transportation, home/structural heating (with oil/gas), various construction processes and agricultural operations. ONLY 4% OF VERMONT’S EMISSIONS COMES FROM ELECTRICAL GENERATION OR GRID PURCHASES!

    If emissions were trout and you wanted some for breakfast, where would you ‘fish’?

    We have allowed ourselves to be euchered into thinking we are doing the right thing when in fact we are tearing up the very habitat we should be protecting–for humans and thrushes and myriad other species.

    I would speculate, due to the silence of the larger environmental community on habitat destruction–the very issue on which they should be screaming–that we mountain advocates are viewed as climate deniers, opposed to the development of renewable energy facilities: that we represent a threat to effective climate change action.

    Such an assumption is/would be a grievous error.

    We are believers in the fundamental notion that an intact and functioning habitat is the first best defense against climate change. We believe that one must focus–concurrently–on reduction of emissions at their origin. See above list. We believe Vermonters can have healthy mountains AND effective climate change action strategies.

    In Vermont, if we all agree that emissions reduction is the most effective long-term defense against climate change then we must get serious about doing just that. Let’s attack our profligate use of the automobile. Let’s move more quickly to tighten our human-built structures (job benefits here).

    I believe most Vermonters will support such an approach. I believe the advocates–all advocates–of an aggressive, effective strategy to reduce emissions can work together to that end: real climate change action for real results.

    Let’s get on with it, now!

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