Local timber industry collaborate to recover Michigan’s Kirtland’s warbler bird, resulting in removal from endangered list

Today there are more than 2,000 nesting pairs of Kirtland’s warblers in Michigan, which was enough for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove the bird from the federal list of endangered species in October this year.

At its low-point in the mid-1907s, only 167 nesting pairs of warblers were counted in the world, with 20 males found in Michigan’s nearly million-acre Huron-Manistee National Forest.

A recovery effort was undertaken by the local timber industry, federal and Michigan wildlife management agencies, and conservation groups to bring the population of the Michigan-centric species back to a healthier number. The Detroit Free Press reports that these birds require very specific conditions — large stands of young, dense jack pine forest. If the trees are older, the birds, for some reason, won’t use them. Forest fires in the past provided the turnover of jack pine stands warblers required, but human fire suppression efforts, along with attacks on the birds’ nest by parasitic cowbirds, which often nudge a warbler’s egg out of a nest and lay its own, decimated Kirtland’s warbler populations.

According to Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources Director Dan Eichinger, the recovery effort didn’t begin with state and federal agencies.

“This story has its nexis with people who love birds — private citizens who wanted to do something really cool for a very special bird that is totally unique to the state of Michigan,” he said in the article.

Federal and state agencies partnered with private foresters to harvest the older jack pine stands and replant them with younger stands to accomplish with forestry what fires were no longer doing.

Steigerwaldt, a forestry company in Tomahawk, Wisconsin, is undertaking these efforts on lands managed by Georgia-based Timberland Investment Resources. The bird’s nesting range has now extended into the Upper Peninsula, Wisconsin and Ontario.

“We are reforesting and planting jack pine, making sure there’s kind of an open landscape,” explained Steigerwaldt senior vice president Tom Hittle in the article. “We were able to do that, along with landowner objectives for forest management and timber production compatible with the industry.

“A big part of that is just getting the stakeholders at the table early on, which is what happened here. And understanding the biology but also understanding what we can do on the ground from a forest management perspective — understanding how we mesh that with industry and make it viable for all of the stakeholders.”

William Rapai, chairman of the nonprofit Kirtland’s Warbler Alliance based in Okemos, celebrated the bird’s de-listing but said that stakeholders who helped make it possible can’t simply walk away.

“This species requires continual maintenance and ongoing habitat management,” he said.

Rapai also offered a number of ways individuals can support the Kirtland’s warbler’s ongoing recovery, which includes supporting businesses that support the bird’s recovery, property owners determining if their land could help support the habitat, and birders sending photos of when and where they spot Kirtland’s warblers to ebird.org.

Oregon has its own endangered species success stories – in 2012 the bald eagle was removed from the Oregon list of endangered species and in 2015 the Oregon chub became the first fish to ever be delisted due to recovery efforts. More recently, five private timber companies in Oregon signed conservation agreements with the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the Pacific fisher on nearly two million acres of forestland in Oregon.