PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – The Center for Biological Diversity and Audubon Society of Portland announced Thursday they are teaming up to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in response to the level of protection given to the streaked horned lark, a small, ground-dwelling songbird with distinctive feathers or “horns,” on its head that’s found in Oregon and Washington.
On Oct. 27, the animal activist groups filed a formal notice stating their intent to sue the USFW after the federal agency reaffirmed its decision to list the streaked horned lark as a “threatened” species in April. The decision was made in response to the Center for Biological Diversity’s successful challenge of the listing in 2019. The species, CBD staff attorney Ryan Shannon said, should instead be designated as “endangered,” which will afford the animal more protection.
“This tiny bird with feathery horns is rapidly losing the little habitat it has left,” Shannon said. “The streaked horned lark is one of the most endangered birds in western Oregon and Washington and absolutely should have been given full endangered status and protections.”
One of the biggest threats facing the streaked horned lark is crop conversion in the Willamette Valley, the notice states. Local farmers have reportedly moved away crops like grass seed, which mimic the bird’s natural habitat, and have replaced the grasses with crops like wheat, grapes, blueberries and hazelnuts. As a result, the bird’s regional populations have reportedly dwindled to between 1,170 and 1,610 birds.
Conservation Director for the Portland Audubon Bob Sallinger said that the bird’s population is nearing extinction because of the USFW’s decision to keep it on the threatened species list. This designation allows farmers to continue swapping out crops that would otherwise benefit the larks. As a result, the groups say, the lark’s suitable grass-farm habitat has declined by more than 100,000 acres since 2005.
“It is long past time that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stepped up to its responsibility to protect this bird,” Sallinger said. “For far too long the focus has been on shielding known threats from liability under the Endangered Species Act. Instead of stepping up, the Service has again doubled down on a failed approach even as the streaked horned lark edges closer and closer to extinction.”
While the animal activist groups have cited that local farmers have been uncooperative in addressing the issue themselves, the USFW stated in its April decision that voluntary conservation efforts from private landowners is a viable solution to the problem.
“Supporting landowners’ ongoing activities that create or maintain lark habitat, while also encouraging the voluntary conservation of the species on these private lands, is likely to result in more net positive conservation outcomes at the population level,” the USFW stated in its April decision.
The streaked horned lark is a small, ground-dwelling songbird with distinctive feathered “horns,” on its head. Generally pale brown with yellow washes in the male’s face, adults have a black bib, black whisker marks, and black tail feathers with white margins in addition to its “horns.” They are part of a growing list of species that are imperiled by loss of prairies in the Willamette Valley and Puget Trough to urban and agricultural sprawl, including the Fender’s blue butterfly, Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly, Willamette daisy, Kincaid’s lupine and others.
Formerly a common nesting species in prairies west of the Cascade Mountains from southern British Columbia through Washington and Oregon, the lark was so abundant around Puget Sound that it was considered a nuisance by turn-of-the-century golfers.
With the conversion of once-extensive prairies in the Willamette Valley and Puget Trough to agricultural fields and cities, the lark lost most of its habitat and has dwindled to an estimated 1,170 to 1,610 birds, and likely far fewer. This is well below the threshold considered adequate to represent a viable population.
The lark is unique among prairie species, many of which are also imperiled, in that it needs open ground created by floods and fire that have largely disappeared. In the absence of natural habitats, it is now primarily found in anthropogenic ones, including grass seed fields, airports and bombing ranges on Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
“It is long past time that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stepped up to its responsibility to protect this bird,” said Bob Sallinger, conservation director for Portland Audubon. “For far too long the focus has been on shielding known threats from liability under the Endangered Species Act. Instead of stepping up, the Service has again doubled down on a failed approach even as the streaked horned lark edges closer and closer to extinction.”
The Service first listed the lark as threatened with a special rule in 2013, arguing exempting agricultural activities regardless of their impact on larks was necessary to ensure cooperation from producers and to avoid incentivizing conversion from grass seed to other crops.
After five years of continued conversion of grass seed to other crops, and little to no cooperation from farmers, the Center successfully challenged the threatened listing in 2019. However, the Service doubled-down in the 2022 finding and expanded the exemption to include Washington even though grass seed is not commonly grown in the state. In their finding, the Service acknowledged the conversion of grass seed to other crops that don’t support larks continues.
The streaked horned lark is part of a growing list of plants and animals that are threatened by loss of prairie lands in the Willamette Valley and Puget due to urban and agricultural growth. Other local imperiled species include the Fender’s blue butterfly, the Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly, the Willamette daisy and the Kincaid’s lupine.