Lawsuit Launched to Protect Streaked Horned Larks as Endangered

PORTLAND, Ore.— The Center for Biological Diversity and Bird Alliance of Oregon filed a formal notice today of their intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to better protect the streaked horned lark, a rare bird found in Washington and Oregon.

In April, the Service decided to list the streaked horned lark as threatened instead of endangered, affording it fewer protections. The groups plan to challenge this decision and a “special rule” attached to the threatened listing that exempted all agricultural activities even though crop conversion is one of the leading threats to the rare bird in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

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

“This tiny bird with feathery horns is rapidly losing the little habitat it has left,” said Ryan Shannon, a staff attorney at the Center. “The streaked horned lark is one of the most endangered birds in western Oregon and Washington and absolutely should have been given full endangered status and protections.”

Formerly a common nesting species in prairies west of the Cascade Mountains from southern British Columbia through Washington and Oregon, the lark was so abundant around Puget Sound that it was considered a nuisance by turn-of-the-century golfers.

With the conversion of once-extensive prairies in the Willamette Valley and Puget Trough to agricultural fields and cities, the lark lost most of its habitat and has dwindled to an estimated 1,170 to 1,610 birds, and likely far fewer. This is well below the threshold considered adequate to represent a viable population.

The lark is unique among prairie species, many of which are also imperiled, in that it needs open ground created by floods and fire that have largely disappeared. In the absence of natural habitats, it is now primarily found in anthropogenic ones, including grass seed fields, airports and bombing ranges on Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

“It is long past time that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stepped up to its responsibility to protect this bird,” said Bob Sallinger, conservation director for Bird Alliance of Oregon. “For far too long the focus has been on shielding known threats from liability under the Endangered Species Act. Instead of stepping up, the Service has again doubled down on a failed approach even as the streaked horned lark edges closer and closer to extinction.”

The Service first listed the lark as threatened with a special rule in 2013, arguing exempting agricultural activities regardless of their impact on larks was necessary to ensure cooperation from producers and to avoid incentivizing conversion from grass seed to other crops.

After five years of continued conversion of grass seed to other crops, and little to no cooperation from farmers, the Center successfully challenged the threatened listing in 2019. However, the Service doubled-down in the 2022 finding and expanded the exemption to include Washington even though grass seed is not commonly grown in the state. In their finding, the Service acknowledged the conversion of grass seed to other crops that don’t support larks continues.

The streaked horned lark is a small, ground-dwelling songbird with conspicuous feather tufts, or “horns,” on its head. Generally pale brown with yellow washes in the male’s face, adults have a black bib, black whisker marks, and black tail feathers with white margins in addition to its “horns.” They are part of a growing list of species that are imperiled by loss of prairies in the Willamette Valley and Puget Trough to urban and agricultural sprawl, including the Fender’s blue butterfly, Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly, Willamette daisy, Kincaid’s lupine and others.


Bob Sallinger, Bird Alliance of Oregon, (503) 380-9728,

Ryan Shannon, Center for Biological Diversity, (971) 717-6407,

Bird Alliance of Oregon is a nonprofit conservation organization with more than 16,000 members in Oregon. Bird Alliance of Oregon’s mission is to inspire all people to love and protect wild birds, wildlife and the natural environment on which life depends.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.