The fate of a rare sooty-brown sea bird now hinges on dueling survey techniques. A petition to list the Ashy Storm Petrel as an endangered species was denied on Aug. 18, following a 12-month review process headed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “The decision relied on an incomplete and selective use of the science,” says Shaye Wolf—a biologist who studies the petrel, and helped draft the petition for the San Francisco-based Center for Biologic Diversity. “This pushes the species one step further towards extinction,” she says.
Flocks of Petrels frequent the Monterey Bay during late fall, and San Francisco’s Farallon Islands serve as a critical breeding habitat, along with other small islands along the coast of Central California.
Yet most petrel habitats are over-run with non-native rats and stray cats, which eat young birds and eggs, says Wolf. Non-native mice provide food for predatory owls, which no longer migrate due to continual source of food. Along with the owls, exploding gull populations devour petrels. Lights from squid fishing boats also lure the birds, killing hundreds of the nocturnal petrels each year.
Along with raising ocean temperatures and acidity levels, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recognized these many menaces in their decision. “But these threats will not result in significant cumulative impacts to the species,” says Randy Brown, Acting Field Supervisor at the Arcata Fish and Wildlife Office.
Population estimates are also controversial. Studies indicate Ashy Storm Petrels will face near extinction within 50 years unless non-native predators are removed, and abnormally large populations of native predators are reduced. Estimates of population declines have ranged widely, with a recent study indicating 76 percent declines.
Yet Brown is hesitant to jump to conclusions. He says the numbers of Ashy Storm Petrels went up during a two-year span in the late 1990s. The birds later diminished, but only to levels observed before the population spike. It’s indeed a paradox, but the petrel population remained relatively consistent during the survey, says Brown, even despite the statistical declines.
These types of debates are all too common when it comes to endangered species classification, says Wolf, and variation is not a good reason to deny protection. Other species have been listed despite similar population data. The Xantus’ Murrelet—a small sea bird that also nests on California’s islands—was offered protection in 2004 when accounts of a 30-70 percent decline were presented to U.S. Fish and Wildlife.
Wolf also believes the Ashy Storm Petrel decision is reminiscent of flawed Bush Administration policies. “The Bush Administration tried to stall a lot. Environmental groups had to go to court at every step,” says Wolf.
To keep the petrel decision moving forward, the Center for Biologic Diversity filed two lawsuits. Wolf says her team has not yet decided whether it will challenge the final decision, but other cases are in motion over animals denied protection.
According to an Inspector General’s Report released in December, political interference was identified in 20 former imperiled species decisions—most made by Julie A. MacDonald, former deputy assistant secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks under the Bush Administration.
An average of eight species per year were granted endangered classification during the George W. Bush Administration, in contrast to 50 species during the Clinton and senior Bush administrations.
Brown says Fish and Wildlife will continue monitoring petrels. He also refers to the more progressive stance taken by the newly confirmed agency director Sue Hamilton. In a recent e-mail to staff members she writes: “At the turn of this new century, we find our fish and wildlife resources pushed to the breaking point from such stressors as habitat fragmentation, genetic isolation, invasive species, unnatural wildfires … Added to this is the overarching threat posed by climate change … My expectation is that we as a Service will respond boldly to these challenges … In so doing, we must ground our actions and decisions in science … and we must collaborate with four partners in the public and private sectors.”
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