Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, June 21, 2016

Contact: Collette Adkins, (651) 955-3821,

Analysis: 85 Percent of Continental U.S. Birds Protected by Endangered Species Act Have
Increased or Stabilized Since Being Protected

Recovering Birds Include Interior Least Tern, Northern Great Plains Piping Plover, Bald Eagle

WASHINGTON— Eighty-five percent of continental United States birds protected under the Endangered Species Act increased or stabilized their population size since being protected, according to a new report by the Center for Biological Diversity. The average population increase was 624 percent. 

Average Recovery of Birds
Northern Great Plains piping plover
Northern Great Plains piping plover by Steven Tucker, USFWS. Photos are available for media use.

A Wild Success: A Systematic Review of Bird Recovery Under the Endangered Species Act is the first-ever study to examine the year-by-year population size of all 120 bird species protected under the Endangered Species Act. Drawing on more than 1,800 scientific population surveys, the analysis concludes that the Act has recovered imperiled birds at the rate and magnitude intended by its congressional creators and administrative overseers.

Among the birds improving in the Great Plains are the northern Great Plains piping plover (up 180 percent since 1986) and the whooping crane (up 923 percent since 1967).

“The Endangered Species Act has been a massive success saving America’s most imperiled birds, not just in the Great Plains but across the country,” said Collette Adkins, an attorney and biologist at the Center.

Key findings of the report:

  • 85 percent of continental U.S. birds increased their population size or stabilized since being protected under the Endangered Species Act.
  • The average population increase was 624 percent.
  • 61 percent of Pacific Island (Hawaii, Guam, Palau and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianna Islands) birds have increased their population size or stabilized since being protected under the Endangered Species Act. The weaker performance is due to lower funding levels, smaller population sizes at the time of Endangered Species Act listing, and more species being threatened by difficult to manage invasive predators and diseases.
  • Few birds were expected to recover by 2015 because they have been protected under the Act for just 36 years on average, while their federal recovery plans estimate 63 years is needed.
  • Birds are recovering at the rate expected by federal recovery plans.
  • Endangered birds fared much better than unprotected birds, which on average declined 24 percent since 1974. This is because endangered birds are being actively managed, while common birds generally are not.

Among the Great Plains birds in today’s report:

Interior least tern — Before being protected as endangered in 1985, the smallest of the North American terns, which prefers nesting on sandbars in major rivers like the Missouri and Mississippi, had seen its numbers plummet below 2,000 birds due to the spread of invasive plants and unnatural changes to river flows caused by dams. Endangered Species Act protections helped restore more natural river-flow conditions, and the tern’s population increased to nearly 14,000 by 2012.

Northern Great Plains piping plover — The populations of this energetic shorebird plummeted in the 20th century due to increased development and recreational uses of shorelines, with even relatively remote nesting sites on inland lakes damaged by intrusive water-control practices. Protected as endangered in 1985, its populations rebounded from only 525 breeding pairs in 1986 to nearly 1,500 by 2008.

Bald eagle When our national bird was protected as endangered in 1967, it had been extirpated from virtually all of the nation’s central plain and prairie states, from the Dakotas to Oklahoma. But with federal protections in place and DDT banned, the number of breeding bald eagle pairs across that region increased to more than 350 by 2007, when the species was declared recovered. 

Whooping crane — By the time whooping cranes were protected as endangered in 1967, unregulated hunting and habitat destruction had dropped the population of America’s tallest bird to just 43 individuals in the wild and seven captive birds. Intensive conservation efforts in both the United States and Canada, together with the designation and protection of critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act — including in Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma — helped the wild population increase to 440 wild and 161 captive birds by 2014.

Read more in the report and about other Endangered Species Act successes here.  

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

Go back