Red Knot Populations Plummeting Due to Government Inaction

Federal Government's Violations of Endangered Species Act Prompt Conservationists' Notice of Intent to Sue Over Declining Shorebird

(5/17/2006) - Washington, DC – A coalition of conservation groups sent a letter Tuesday to Acting Secretary of the Interior Lynn Scarlett that serves as the groups' Notice of Intent to Sue the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (the Service) for violations of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The notice stems from two emergency petitions to list the red knot (Calidris canutus rufa) filed by the groups last summer. It alleges that the Service violated the ESA on two counts: once when they denied the request to list the red knot on an emergency basis and again by failing to issue a 90-day finding on the merits of listing the knot. The letter states that the Service failed to rely solely on the best scientific and commercial data available when making their decisions.

There is a wealth of scientific information that illustrates the drastic decline of the red knot, including a 2004 scientific study that predicts the extinction of the red knot as soon as 2010 if current trends are not averted. In addition to the information received in the listing petitions, the Service had access to further comprehensive data contained in a draft status assessment, which the Service itself had commissioned.

"The failure to act to protect red knots is inexcusable," said Caroline Kennedy, Director of Field Conservation for Defenders of Wildlife. "These birds are on the brink of extinction and any further delay protecting them may push them over the brink."

In late December, when the Service denied the request for an emergency listing, they listed several factors to justify their denial, including a proposal pending before the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) to institute a two-year moratorium on the horseshoe crab harvest in Delaware Bay. The Service also noted that the states of New Jersey and Delaware were independently considering instituting their own, state-wide two-year moratoriums on horseshoe crab harvest beginning in 2006. These moratoriums were not in effect at the time of the Services' denial (in fact the ASMFC recently voted to only restrict the harvest to male horse shoe crabs) and therefore the Service violated the Administrative Procedures Act and the ESA by considering factors other than those prescribed by the act.

Additionally, the Service also noted in its denial of the petition that the birds stopping in Delaware Bay "seemed to have a relatively good year" since the number of birds that observed in the Delaware Bay seemed to have increase slightly from 2004 to 2005. The denial makes no mention of the myriad data available to the Service that strongly suggests that the red knot population is experiencing a long-term downward trend. The Service violated Section 4(b)(1)(A) of the ESA, which mandates that they only rely on the best scientific and commercial data available when deciding whether to list a species.

"The science showing that the red knot is on the brink of winking out is clear and compelling," said Perry Plumart, Director of Conservation Advocacy for American Bird Conservancy. "The Fish and Wildlife Service needs to list the red knot based on the facts and science now."

"Given the particularly grave circumstances facing this species and the wealth of information available, the Fish and Wildlife Service's failure to adhere to the law is inexcusable and should be rectified immediately," said Susan Kraham, Director of Policy and Counsel to the President of the New Jersey Audubon Society. "The science in this case clearly demonstrates the need for emergency listing and importantly, the dire need for a habitat conservation plan under the act." 

"Protection of the red knot, horseshoe crabs and other irreplaceable living resources of Delaware Bay depends on enforcement of the country's environmental laws," said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society. "If the agencies won't enforce them, we will go to court to insure they act."

The declines in the red knot population have been caused by over-fishing of horseshoe crabs, whose eggs form the mainstay of the knot's diet during its migration through Delaware Bay. Prior to the dramatic increase in the take of horseshoe crabs in the 1990s to supply the bait for the burgeoning eel and conch fishery, a plentiful supply of eggs allowed the knots to feed briefly in the bay and nearly double their weight. Such weight is necessary to successfully complete a nonstop flight to their Canadian arctic breeding grounds. If the red knot is listed under the ESA, federal agencies would have to consult with FWS on the impacts of fishery and beach management decisions on the red knot. 


Defenders of Wildlife is recognized as one of the nation's most progressive advocates for wildlife and its habitat. With more than 490,000 members and supporters, Defenders of Wildlife is an effective leader on endangered species issues.



William Lutz, (202) 772-0269
Jared Saylor, (202) 772-3255
Perry Plumart, (202) 285-6965