Big conservation bucks aimed at little bird

The federal government is working to rescue the dwindling population of golden-winged warblers across the Great Lakes states in a last-ditch effort to keep the little bird off the endangered species list.

The golden-winged warbler is the object of a multimillion-dollar habitat protection effort by the federal Department of Agriculture. DL NEWSPAPERS/Brian Basham

The federal government is working to rescue the dwindling population of golden-winged warblers across the Great Lakes states in a last-ditch effort to keep the little bird off the endangered species list.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced this week that it will pump $10 million into the effort to improve private land habitat for the warbler, which has been declining rapidly across North America for more than 45 years.

The American Bird Conservancy and Natural Resources Conservation Service are heading the effort with financial help from the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Fund and a long list of public and private partner landowners.

The golden-winged warbler favors very specific kinds of young forests for nesting - shrubby wetlands, upland shrub lands such as abandoned fields, and recently burned or logged forests. In centuries past, wildfires would create the patchwork of open and forested lands that the warblers needed. Now, much of that land simply grows into dense, scruffy shrub land that the birds can’t use.

The coalition wants to make habitat changes across about 12,000 acres within a few years, using methods such as logging, prescribed burns and mowing or brushing, among other efforts.


“The immediate goal is to stop the decline, then try to rebuild their numbers,” Peter Dieser, golden-winged warbler public land project leader for the American Bird Conservancy, told the News Tribune.

The group already has been working in Minnesota with help from a state conservation grant, with more than 2,000 acres of habitat work on public land and another 1,500 acres on private land over the past year, Dieser said.

Minnesota has most

The golden-winged warbler nests across Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan as well as northeastern states and into Canada. Their numbers have held up better across Minnesota forests, which may be the summer home to half the birds that remain.

But across the rest of their range, golden-winged warblers haves suffered one of the steepest population declines of any songbird species in history, bird experts say. The bird already is listed as threatened in Canada. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to decide by 2017 if the warbler warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has listed it a species of “greatest conservation need” mostly because of its decline in other states.

But supporters of the habitat program hope to do enough good to forestall endangered status or, worse, extinction of the species.

“Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin have the largest remaining breeding population of the (golden-winged warbler) and habitat management actions there are considered critical to rebuilding populations rapidly,” said Dr. George Fenwick, president of American Bird Conservancy.

The biggest problem, Fenwick and others note, is the loss of young forest. But other factors include urban sprawl, competition from other bird species and loss of habitat in their wintering grounds in Central America and South America.


Fenwick called the golden-winged warbler the “poster child” of so-called early successional forest habitat needs. But other species, including woodcock, lynx, bobcat and moose may benefit from the work being done.

Recent studies using tiny radio transmitters placed on female warblers show that, after nesting, the warblers quickly move into older, mature forests, making a mix of habitat critical.

The Minnesota efforts are focusing on a swath of forest from Roseau County in the northwest to Pine County in the east-central portion of the state; it includes Aitkin, Itasca, Carlton and St. Louis counties. Habitat improvement efforts in recent years on land owned by paper companies appear to have shown success at increasing golden-winged warbler numbers.

“We want to expand on that to more private and public landowners; that’s where the program is going,” Dieser said.

The project is expected to create new breeding habitat for an estimated 1,180 pairs of golden-winged warblers and eventually result in an increase of 16,000 of the birds over four years. That’s still only a small increase in the estimated 414,000 warblers that migrate each year, down from numbers that once numbered in the millions.

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John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at
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