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Monday, November 7, 2011

THE ENDANGERED RED-EYED VIREO, REVISITED


Some years ago, I sent off to the venerable Connecticut Warbler an article entitled Saving the Red-eyed Vireo.  After receiving no review or reply of any kind, we at BCR decided to publish the paper in our own Contributions series (http://www.birdconservationresearch.org/pdf/pub_15_saving_red_eyed.pdf), where it has since received enormous worldwide readership.  The paper is a popularized version of a scholarly work, entitled Endangered Species, Provincialism and a Continental Approach to Bird Conservation (http://www.birdconservationresearch.org/pdf/pub_7_endangered_2.pdf), which appeared in the journal Avian Conservation and Ecology.  Even now, six years after its initial appearance, this paper remains among the journal's most frequently downloaded. 

These articles asked the question, what should our conservation priorities be at the regional level in light of continental concerns and local practicalities?  I argued that we in the Northeast live in one of the most well preserved examples of the temperate forest biome (one of limited distribution to begin with) left on the planet, and this is where we must focus our limited conservation resources.  It is the seat of our greatest regional biodiversity and the one for which we can exert our greatest worldwide conservation impact.  I further demonstrated by examining state endangered species programs that, instead of using this kind of approach, states were often disappating efforts into programs where little consequential conservation gain was likely to be achieved.

The rub with this kind of viewpoint was that it identified investing conservation efforts into species like northeastern grassland birds as non-viable enterprises, especially in light of these species being ones with enormous continental distributions and having population increases over large parts of their range.  This view sent conservation colleagues into veritable interplanetary orbit from which many have still not come down (although, interestingly, other papers making similar arguments have since appeared, and the wording of local conservation documents has subtly shifted to acknowledge that the previous paradigm of attempting to save everything was as full of holes as swiss cheese).  In short, although the penalty for initially doing so was great, at some point someone needed to point our that the emperor really didn't have any clothes.  Otherwise, the emperor was going to have a long, cold winter.

At the regional level we do tend to become myopic toward larger issues because we see only what is around us.  I myself have been as guilty of this as any of my colleagues.  Indeed, back in the 1970s I was one of the architects of the "lets save everything approach" in Connecticut which has since, unfortunately, evolved into an entrenched, inertia-ridden bureaucracy of naive thinking.  It took an extended tour of duty in the remote tropical Pacific, where there were real endangered species to deal with and real ecological triage decisions to make, for me to see the world through new, more realistic eyes.

So, back to our friend the Red-eyed Vireo: it is presently a species with immense regional populations because its core habitat is extensive and improving in character.  It is also one with a distinct Achilles' heel- it lives in a globally endangered biome and really prefers only a portion of this biome- interiors of mature, oak-dominated forests.  It may be thought of as a keystone species whose well being reflects the larger well being of the ecosystem as a whole. 

In southern New England, we are presently blessed with a landscape that is 2/3 forested, and the forests are assuming an old growth character not seen here since Pilgrim times.  This convergence of characteristics has made our forest bird community immensely viable, as is evidenced by the local success of the Red-eyed Vireo.  How long this confluence of abundance and quality can persist is another matter, however.  Our region has now passed the point at which forest is expanding in distribution.  In fact, it is now in decline and the remaining cover is becoming increasingly fragmented as urbanization proceeds.  This means that if we are to preserve sufficiently extensive examples of unbroken forest to ensure the long term viability of its forest bird communities, the time to act is now.

But, in case you haven't noticed, land in southern New England is very expensive.  The amount of capital required to purchase substantial acerages is enormous.  Several years back, I did battle with the forces of darkness (i.e. big developers) in Old Saybrook, CT, arguing that a tract of 1000 acres of coastal forest was disproportionately valuable to New England bird communities because of the high density of winter residents it supported.  Although my arguments contributed to slowing the tract's development, to my knowledge the vast sum of money required to wrestle the land from the hands of developers has yet to be raised.

The question then becomes what are we doing squandering our limited time and resources blowing out a few candles in the kitchen when the whole house is starting to burn down?  If we are to preserve our premier ecosystem in southern New England, we must keep our eyes clearly focused on our goal.

R.J. Craig

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