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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Rapai

This is no time for a victory lap ... The job's not done.

We wake up from our holiday food coma to celebrate because today is the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Endangered Species Act. And even though we should be out getting some exercise after all that food and drink, we can't take anything more than half a victory lap. Allow us to explain.

If it had not been for the Endangered Species Act, it's unlikely we would not be here today to celebrate the accomplishments of the Kirtland's Warbler Recovery Team. The ESA provided money, personnel and (most importantly) a framework to bring the Kirtland's Warbler back from the brink of extinction. It took a little time for the Recovery Team to figure it out, but once the team started building the habitat the KW wanted, the population responded. The result: The Kirtland's Warbler was removed from the Endangered Species List in October 2019.

But there's a flaw with the Endangered Species Act that simply could not have been anticipated back in 1973: Unless something changes, most species on the Endangered Species List are likely to exist there forever. That's because they rely on human intervention for their very survival. Congress designed the Endangered Species Act to be the equivalent of first aid, not life support. Congress did not anticipate that some species would need ongoing support so they failed to set up a mechanism to support recovered species. One of those recovered species that needs that continuing support is our very own Kirtland's Warbler.

The Kirtland's Warbler Recovery Team is often cited as a model for endangered species recovery, and there's a good reason why: About a decade ago the Recovery Team began to look into the future to anticipate where conservation efforts might go. The warbler's population was looking good and the handwriting was on the wall. The ESA would require delisting. The Kirtland's Warbler would be the first conservation reliant species to be removed from the ESL.

So, how do you deal with a recovered species that still needs help? The first step was to create a framework to shift from a recovery team to a conservation team. Unlike a recovery team, a conservation team is not required by law. Nevertheless, it was created as an acknowledgement that we can't just walk away and let the work of the past 50 years slowly reverse itself.

If you've been reading these essays for a while, you know the jack pine ecosystem is fire dependent. Everything that exists in the ecosystem is built to either burn or recover from fire. Unfortunately, there are too many people and too much property for us to allow fire to run across the landscape. So it remains the responsibility of us humans to harvest mature trees 100 acres or more at a time and replant those areas with young jack pine trees, in a specific pattern that mimics the randomness of fire, in order to create acceptable habitat.

So here we sit, 50 years later. The Kirtland's Warbler is no longer considered an endangered species but its future is still far from secure. The sense of urgency was reduced with delisting, and we're starting to see the result. The state and federal agencies responsible for KW conservation have shifted their focus away from the KW, which has allowed the number of new acres planted for the KW to decline. We are now to the point where we are nearly 10,000 acres below habitat goals.

Based on recent developments, it's clear that the agencies know they have created a problem for themselves and are working hard to find solutions. But they don't have a magic wand, which means it's going to take a decade or more to build enough acres to meet their goals. As a result, we can anticipate the KW's population to experience a significant dip in the 2025 census.

So, here we are today with a whole new set of issues. The Kirtland's Warbler Recovery Team was blessed with people who were talented and blessed with equal parts determination and vision. Their work brought us to this point, but now it's up to the Conservation Team, which we are part of, to face a new set of challenges that will take us into the next 50 years.

Half a lap. The job's not done.

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