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Karl Blankenship is editor of the Bay Journal and executive director of Bay Journal Media. He has served as editor of the Bay Journal since its inception in 1991. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Marsh-dependent black rail nominated for federal listing as a threatened species

Sea level rise and loss of wetlands have nearly eliminated the bird from Chesapeake region

  • October 10, 2018

The diminutive Eastern black rail, an elusive marsh-dwelling bird that has nearly disappeared from the fringes of the Chesapeake Bay in recent decades, may be headed to the federal endangered species list.A bird bander holds a black rail. (Woody Woodrow / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing the bird, whose population has been in sharp decline all along the East Coast, as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in a notice that appeared in the Federal Register on Tuesday.

A threatened listing means the bird could become endangered throughout all or a significant portion of its range in the foreseeable future. The decision would not affect other black rail subspecies that are found in California and South

“We have determined that habitat loss and destruction, sea level rise and tidal flooding, incompatible land management, and increasing storm intensity and frequency are the primary threats to this subspecies,” the service said in its proposal.

Black rails have been losing ground for a century as the wetlands they depend on have been drained or developed, but in recent decades the birds have increasingly been squeezed out as their nests are more frequently inundated by storms and increasingly high tides as sea level rises.

The sparrow-sized birds are already listed as endangered in Maryland, Virginia and several other states along the Atlantic Coast. Recent surveys by the Center for Conservation Biology in Virginia and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources have found that black rails have nearly disappeared in Virginia and their numbers have declined by 90 percent in the last quarter century in Maryland, where only a handful are found today.

As recently as the early 1990s, the black rail was one of the most common species of rail encountered in marshes around the Bay. Birders from around the world visited Elliott Island in Maryland’s Dorchester County to hear the nocturnal birds (they are rarely seen), but they have not been reported there in years.

Black rails have already disappeared from New England, and the Fish and Wildlife Service said the number of birds along the remainder of the East Coast and the Gulf Coast of Florida was between 355 and 815. The agency estimated that 1,300 black rails were in Texas prior to Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

“We’re relieved that this fascinating and secretive bird is getting the protection it desperately needs to survive,” said Stephanie Kurose, an endangered species advocate for the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, which petitioned for the listing in 2010. “For too long we’ve been plowing and paving over wetlands that not only provide crucial habitat for the survival of rails and thousands of other wildlife species, but also protect us against flooding and clean our water.”

She added that the black rail is “yet another example of all that we stand to lose if we don’t do more to curb emissions and curb climate change.”

The service said the action, if finalized after a public comment period that ends Dec.10, would prevent activities such as fire management, haying and mowing in areas where the birds are known to be found during nesting and breeding seasons and post-breeding flightless molt periods.

The proposal and information on how to submit comments can be found at by searching under docket number FWS–R4–ES–2018–0057.

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About Karl Blankenship

Karl Blankenship is editor of the Bay Journal and executive director of Bay Journal Media. He has served as editor of the Bay Journal since its inception in 1991. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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