Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Kirtland's warbler = caribou--if you discount science, law, and reason

Recently a federal judge blocked a plan to drill for natural gas in a Michigan forest. This, of course, made some folks quite upset:

"Frankly, if it would lower the price of gas I put in my tank I’d serve those warblers at my next barbeque, along with some tasty caribou steaks and some polar bear filets."

Ed Morrissey of hotair.com is obviously a lot more reasonable guy than "pilgrim," but he too found fault with the ruling.

You will notice that Morrissey quotes the portion of John Cornyn's essay mentioning "Alaskan development" of oil resources. Coupled with "pilgrim's" desire for caribou steaks, there is an implication that preservation of the Kirtland's warbler in Michigan is analogous to caribou management in Alaska.

How preposterous. Just take a look at the webpage the Michigan Department of Natural Resources has on the warbler and compare that to the similar page the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has on caribou.

From the caribou page:

"The world population is about 5 million. Caribou in Alaska are distributed in 32 herds (or populations)... There are approximately 950,000 wild caribou in Alaska (including some herds that are shared by Alaska and Canada's Yukon Territory)."

Okay, and now let's check in with the Kirtland's warbler:

"The endangered Kirtland's warbler is one of the rarest members of the wood warbler (Parulidae) family....Nesting population size is estimated annually by counting the singing male Kirtland's warblers...The primary recovery objective is to establish and sustain a Kirtland's warbler population throughout its known range at a minimum level of 1,000 pairs using adaptive management techniques."

And the site has this nice little graphic to remind you that the estimated population of Kirtland's warblers in the whole world is shockingly small (remember they only count "singing males;" if there was one willing female for every crooning cock that's still fewer than three thousand birds.)

So that's a pretty big difference between caribou and Kirtland's warblers. There are millions of caribou, almost a million just in the forty-ninth state, and the species is very widely distributed. On the other hand, there are literally just a few hundred Kirtland's warblers, all confined to a small part of Michigan.

At least when they nest. And that brings up yet another difference. Again from the caribou information, note that it says "some herds" of these deer are shared by Alaska and Canada. Many caribou, however, confine their range just to the United States, such as the Western Arctic herd which has almost half a million animals and inhabits the land west of the pipeline and north of the Yukon River. In other words, we could do a whole lot of good or ill for caribou without the involvement of any other nation.

Not so the little warbler, as the Michigan DNR makes clear:

"The winter range of the Kirtland's warbler was discovered in 1879 when a specimen was collected on Andros Island in the Bahama Islands archipelago. All sightings or collections of wintering Kirtland's warblers since then have been in the Bahamas and in the Turks, Caicos, and Hispaniola islands." (Emphasis mine).

So unlike the Western Arctic caribou herd, the Kirtland's warbler depends on the actions of countries other than ours for its continued existence. Since I'm an American, I say the warbler depends on what the Bahamians do, but conversely, a Bahamian could say the future of this little songbird depends on how the Americans manage Michigan's jack pine forests. The yahoo article I linked above notes that the lawsuit was filed by two environmental groups plus the grandson of the man who originally donated much of the forest tract; I'm a bit surprised they didn't find a group of birdwatchers who regularly travel to the West Indies to join in the suit. That would have hammered home the point that Kirtland's warbler survival is an issue in international conservation.

On last aspect of this that I'd like to touch on. Going back to the yahoo article, notice this bit:

"U.S. District Judge David Lawson of Detroit ruled Thursday the agency had acted "arbitrarily and capriciously" in 2005 by giving Savoy Energy LP of Traverse City a permit to drill an exploratory well... the judge ruled the Forest Service didn't consider how degrading the area could harm tourism, and said the agency did a "woefully inadequate" job of evaluating how the drilling might affect the Kirtland's warbler, an endangered songbird that nests in the area."

You have surely seen, as exemplified by "pilgrim's" post, that often when a judge gives a ruling like this, those opposed immediately jump to the conclusion that the man in the robe is an activist wacko. But you know what? Regardless of whether you think a judge got it right or wrong, he's got a job to do, which is interpret the law and give a fair ruling. And if the U.S. Forest Service did a sloppy job, if they didn't do the due diligence necessary under the Endangered Species Act and other legislation, it's the responsibility of the judge hearing the suit to call them on it. Judge Lawson's use of phrases like "woefully inadequate" and "arbitrary and capricious" suggests that he is convinced the agency didn't do its homework. If he's correct, then the ruling he issued isn't activism. It's the bench doing what it's supposed to do.

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