After Facing Extinction, This Midwestern Bird is Now Soaring Off Endangered Species List

The interior least tern, a bird which survived waves of attacks from dam building, hat making, and more, can now be classified as an Endangered Species Act success story as its numbers have increased 900% over 35 years.

It was announced on the 12th by the Fish and Wildlife Service that it would now leave the Endangered Species List, having returned to around 480 breeding colonies, along 2,800 miles of riverways, in 18 states across the Great Plains and the Lower Mississippi Valley.

“Dozens of states, federal agencies, tribes, businesses and conservation groups have worked tirelessly over the course of three decades to successfully recover these birds,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Aurelia Skipwith said in a statement.

Weighing just two ounces, the interior least tern is the smallest member of the tern family. In the 19th century, the bird was often hunted for its plumage as part of the demand for its feathers to crown women’s hats, a booming industry that reduced numbers of all manner of birds.

As if that weren’t enough, dam and levee construction to control the mighty rivers of the Midwest wiped out a lot of nesting habitat along the banks of the Missouri and Mississippi.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had a major role to play in the tern’s recovery story, as they altered river management strategies that had once destroyed the tern’s nesting sites, and used dredged river material to build habitat on the banks that couldn’t be reclaimed.

“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is absolutely honored to play a role in a partnership that serves as a model for the potential delisting of other species in the future,” said Major General Diana Holland, Commander of the Mississippi Valley Division of the Corps.

“For over 30 years, we have partnered with the Service to monitor, conserve and recover this endangered species along the Lower Mississippi River. That partnership demonstrates that, through collaboration, we can protect and recover an endangered species while continuing to provide critical navigation and flood control benefits to the nation.”

While normally the removal of an animal from the Endangered Species Act list is met with opposition and condemnation by conservation groups, most accepted that the tern population was healthy and that landowners and farmers no longer need to be dragged into legal battles on its behalf, and the tern will still be protected under the Migratory Bird Act.

In a study of American wildlife recovering through intervention of the federal Endangered Species Act, 99% of those that were in a situation to benefit from the complete effects of the ESA, i.e. not extinct in the wild, recovered to pre-Endangered levels—a total of 271 species.