East's vanishing forests take a songbird with them

Cerulean warblers have declined by 70 percent since 1966. But Fish and Wildlife says it can't take steps now.

A little blue bird is sending a dire message to mankind.

But the US government says it is in no position to heed the warning.

Bird-watchers have long lamented the gradual disappearance of the cerulean warbler, a colorful songbird that once was easily spotted in deep forests throughout much of the Eastern half of the US.

Its numbers have declined by 70 percent since 1966. And ornithologists say that unless something is done to prevent further degradation of old-growth forests in the US and South America, the tiny cerulean warbler's song may fall silent forever.

"Right now, there is no law or regulation specifically protecting the cerulean's forest habitat," says Douglas Ruley, a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which is based in Charlottesville, Va. "If the destruction of these forests continues, we will lose this bird in our lifetime."

Last fall, a coalition of 28 environmental groups asked the US Fish and Wildlife Service to list the cerulean warbler as a threatened species. Including the bird on the endangered species list would trigger federal protection, including safeguards to critical forest habitat under pressure from lumbering and development.

But the Fish and Wildlife Service says it is unable to even read the group's petition, let alone take action to protect the struggling species.

Since December, the service has confined its efforts - and its $6.3 million budget - to carrying out court-ordered actions in scores of lawsuits initiated by various environmental groups. The suits involve designating critical habitat for plants and animals already on the endangered species list. The net result is that there is no staff or money left to consider placing new plants and animals on the endangered species list, officials say.

"We have a literal flood of litigation against us," says Hugh Vickery, a spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service. He says the legal logjam has stripped the agency of any discretion in determining how to respond to cases like that of the cerulean warbler.

"We don't want to do this," Mr. Vickery says. "It is not a choice, it is reality."

It is also a situation likely to trigger more litigation and an even bigger logjam.

Mr. Ruley says the cerulean warbler coalition is considering filing its own suit to force the government to protect the songbird.

"The cerulean warbler is really a good example of what we should be doing," he says. "Recognizing that a species is headed toward the brink, we should get in there and arrest the decline by maintaining adequate forests for the birds."

He adds, "If you do it now, you can do it more effectively and efficiently than if you wait until the species is on the brink."

Cerulean warblers migrate between the Eastern US in the summer and the slopes of the Andes Mountains in South America during the North American winter.

The birds prefer to build their nests in old-growth forests with tall canopies that offer camouflage and protection from predators. Logging and development have reduced such undisturbed nesting areas in the US.

In addition, the birds are under pressure in South America, where the forested mountain slopes they prefer in Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru are being denuded and replanted with coca plants for the illicit cocaine trade.

Conservationists hope that if the US government takes a leading role in protecting cerulean warblers, it will help trigger international efforts to save the embattled birds.

Marty Bergoffen of the Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project in Asheville, N.C., says the US government's first action must be to preserve and restore large tracts of mature forest. "We have an ecosystem tottering on the brink, and the cerulean warbler is an indicator of that," he says.

Mr. Bergoffen adds that many decades ago cerulean warblers were a common sight in American forests, particularly in the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys. But he says those days are gone.

"I have friends who like to watch birds who have been looking for the past 10 years and haven't seen a cerulean warbler."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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