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Groups sue to save Eastern Black Rail

Black Rail
A Black Rail stands in a swamp in Brazoria County, Texas. Photo by Agami Photo Agency/Shutterstock

The Center for Biological Diversity and Healthy Gulf sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on June 30 for failing to designate critical habitat for the Eastern Black Rail. The rail needs healthy and intact wetland habitat to survive.

In February 2022, the two groups also said they were filing a suit to change the bird’s status from threatened to endangered. 

“Without protections for coastal wetlands, these birds are completely at the mercy of polluters, land developers, and dangerously rising seas,” said Kristine Akland, a staff attorney at the Center. “By refusing to protect the places where Eastern Black Rails live, the Service is steering these fascinating birds toward extinction.”

In denying habitat protections, the Service claimed that designating critical habitat would expose the species to threats from “overzealous birders.” But compared to coastal development and climate change, disturbance by birders is a non-existent threat.

Eastern Black Rails once lived across much of the eastern United States, but the rapid disappearance of wetlands has caused a steep decline in their populations. Sea-level rise and more frequent extreme weather events — both associated with climate change — put the rail’s habitat at further risk.

“Without protection of its critical habitat, the Black Rail will continue on a downward path toward extinction,” said Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of Healthy Gulf. “The Fish and Wildlife Service needs to comply with the law and designate critical habitat for the Black Rail to ensure its survival.”

The Center and Healthy Gulf sued the Service in March 2020 for its long delay in finalizing Endangered Species Act protections for Eastern Black Rails. In October 2020 — more than 10 years after the Center petitioned for the species’ protection — the agency finally listed the Eastern Black Rail as threatened. It found that the bird will likely be extinct by 2068, primarily because of the destruction of wetland habitat by urban and agricultural sprawl.

The species is also threatened by a proposed liquified natural gas facility, which is expected to destroy much of the habitat of Louisiana’s largest, and possibly only, rail population. The Center and Healthy Gulf are also working to halt this project and protect this area.

The Eastern Black Rail is a small, elusive, and vulnerable marsh bird that historically occurred in populations across the eastern half of the United States. Over the past 25 years, its presence has declined by more than 90% because of threats from habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation. Now the Eastern Black Rail is thought to occur only irregularly along the eastern coastline, a fraction of the Gulf Coast, and in a very limited number of freshwater wetlands on the Great Plains.

The lawsuit was filed in the District Court for the District of Columbia.

Thanks to the Center for Biological Diversity for providing this news.

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