Bird Alliance of Oregon Joins Lawsuit to Protect Streaked Horned Lark as Endangered

by Joe Liebezeit, Interim Statewide Conservation Director

This January, Bird Alliance of Oregon joined the Center for Biological Diversity and sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to protect Streaked Horned Larks, once abundant in Washington and Oregon, as endangered.

In April 2022, USFWS listed Streaked Horned Larks as threatened instead of endangered, granting the birds fewer protections and leaving them on a path to extinction. This new lawsuit challenges this decision and a rule attached to the threatened listing that exempted all agricultural activities from liability under the Endangered Species Act. This rule was enacted despite the fact that crop conversion is one of the leading threats to the already rare birds in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

Two Streaked Horned Larks standing on the ground.
Streaked Horned Lark, photo by Scott Carpenter

Streaked Horned Larks are small, ground-dwelling songbirds with conspicuous feather tufts, or “horns,” on their heads. Generally pale brown, with a yellow wash on the male’s face, adults have a black bib, black whisker marks, and black tail feathers with white margins in addition to its “horns.”

Formerly a common nesting species in prairies west of the Cascade Mountains from southern British Columbia through Washington and Oregon, the larks lost most of their habitat to floodplain control, urban development, and conversion of extensive prairies in the Willamette Valley and Puget Lowlands to agricultural fields. The population has now dwindled to an estimated 1,170 to 1,610 birds, possibly far fewer.

Streaked Horned Larks are emblematic of the overall decrease in a number of grassland bird species in western Oregon. A 2010 Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife study documented declines in Western Meadowlark and Oregon Vesper Sparrow in the Willamette Valley. Streaked Horned Larks are unique in that they need open ground created by a flood and fire regime that has largely disappeared. In the absence of natural short-grass prairie habitats, the birds are now primarily found in human-modified areas, including grass-seed fields, airports, and the bombing ranges on Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

USFWS first listed the larks as threatened with a special rule in 2013. The agency argued that exempting agricultural activities from the Endangered Species Act, regardless of the harm to larks, was necessary to ensure cooperation from farmers and to avoid incentivizing conversion from grass seed to other crops that don’t provide suitable habitat for the larks.

Streaked Horned Lark, photo by David-Maloney-USFWS

After farmers continued to convert grass-seed fields to other crops, the Center for Biological Diversity successfully challenged the threatened listing in 2019. However, USFWS doubled down in 2022 and expanded the exemption to include Washington, even though grass seed is not commonly grown in the state. In its finding, USFWS acknowledged that the conversion of grass seed to crops that don’t support larks continues.

We need to give this bird a fighting chance to recover from extinction’s doorstep. Stay tuned for updates on the status of this lawsuit.