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Songbird Needs Protection From Sea Level Rise, Group Tells Feds

Center for Biological Diversity petitions to put saltmarsh sparrow on Endangered Species list

May 2024

Adult saltmarsh sparrow perched in saltmarsh cordgrass. (Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

by Charlie Paullin, Virginia Mercury

An environmental organization is asking the federal government to list the saltmarsh sparrow, a bird living on wetlands on the east coast, including Virginia, for protection under the Endangered Species Act due to expected losses from sea level rise and human development.

The Center for Biological Diversity’s petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the saltmarsh sparrow population dwindled from 212,000 in 1998 to 60,000 in 2012. That number was expected to be 28,215 in 2020, according to projections from the 2012 survey.

“The fate of these frisky little songbirds is inextricably tied to our ability to protect the tidal marshes they call home,” Stephanie Kurose, deputy director of government affairs at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “Saltmarsh sparrows are creeping dangerously close to extinction and could disappear within the next 50 years.”

The sparrows were abundant in Virginia in the early 1900s, according to the petition. There are two kinds — a northern and southern — with the southern, which has more striping on its back and a darker crown, breeding in Maryland and Virginia.

The birds reside primarily between Virginia and Maine with trips as far south as Florida for the winter. The birds feed on insects and build nests on higher wetlands away from taller structures like trees and buildings.

According to the petition, sea level rise is causing flood waters to consume wetlands and is preventing the accumulation of sediment for the sparrows to build their nests on. Human development in coastal areas further deprives wetlands of dirt buildup, as heat stress also stunts the growth of vegetation that can be used to protect the birds from predators.

“Between 2030 and 2060, a tipping point will be reached after which the spring tide will come too early and too high, essentially ensuring that saltmarsh sparrows, which exist nowhere else on Earth, will be entirely unable to reproduce and will slip into extinction,” the petition states.

Separate research from the Center for Conservation Biology found that the rising tides may also pose harsher winters for the sparrows’ wetland habitats, thereby pushing the birds more inland where more food may be available.

In order to be listed as a protected species under the Endangered Species Act, there must be a demonstration of at least one of five hardships: loss of habitat, overuse for commercial, science and research purposes; disease or predation; a lack of existing regulatory protections in place; or other natural or manmade factors affecting its continued existence.

Under the regulation component, the petition states there are no federal protections of the animal in place, and the only state protections are in Massachusetts and Maine. In Virginia, the Department of Conservation and Recreation does list the species as “rare” in its Natural Heritage Resources of Virginia document.

But just as important as protection of the species is ensuring their habitat remains intact, the petition adds.

Even though the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Sackett v. the United States Environmental Protection Agency last year scaled back federal protections of wetlands, protection of the habitat for the saltmarsh sparrow is still overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers because their homes have the surface water connection needed for federal jurisdictional oversight.

All states, including Virginia, have additional protections for wetlands, the petition notes.

The Atlantic Coast Joint Venture created a Saltmarsh Sparrow Conservation Plan, recently updated in 2023, that identifies a goal of having 30,875 acres of tidal marshland in 2069 to meet the goals of having 1,753, or 7%, of the species in Virginia, while accounting for sea level rise on nesting survival rate.

According to the 2020 Virginia Coastal Resilience Master Plan, about 36,000 acres, or 19% of Virginia’s tidal wetlands are projected to become open water by 2040. That loss is projected to grow to 93,000 or a 49% loss by 2060.

The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources is working with several partner agencies to study study whether the habitat the sparrows use in the winter is the same as where they nest in spring since, “Virginia is one of the few places where this species both winters and breeds,” agency spokesperson Shelby Crouch said by email.

While the Department of Environmental Quality’s Coastal Zone Management program has acquired land that is potential habitat for the saltmarsh sparrow, in January 2022, DWR purchased more than 8,600 acres in Accomack County on the Eastern Shore to support climate resilience and wildlife habitat.

That area is where the species primarily are now after previously also living on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay in Gloucester County.

“Those were strategically important purchases,” Watts said. One way to help the species is through creating more space for wetlands to move inland as the seas rise, the main threat in the state, Watts said.

“It would be a domino effect,” Watts added, by seeing other species dwindle if the sparrow is gone.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment, has 90 days to respond to the petition.

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.