Listing the Red Knot Under the ESA

Red Knots and Horseshoe Crabs by Gregory Breese, FWS

Red Knots and Horseshoe Crabs by Gregory Breese, FWS


To list or not to list: that is the controversial question facing the Red Knot today. Conservation groups, including ABC, believe that listing the knot's rufa subspecies under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) now will provide crucial help in protecting this declining shorebird from extinction. Regulators appear to feel otherwise.

In response to three separate Emergency Listing Petitions filed on behalf of the knot by conservation groups, including ABC, FWS released a decision in September that placed the knot on the ESA Candidate List. This would seem like a good thing, moving the bird one step closer to listing. The reality is otherwise. Species can languish on the Candidate List for years, consigned to a waiting room without end for wildlife in need of immediate protection. For example, the Greater Sage-Grouse has stagnated on the list since 2001 and the Lesser Prairie-Chicken since 1998. During this time they have received no ESA protection. A suite of birds in Guam, including the Guam Broadbill, Guam Cardinal Honey-eater, and Guam White-throated Ground-Dove, went extinct while waiting for ESA protection on the Candidate List.


The rufa Red Knot winters in Tierra del Fuego and elsewhere in South America, and breeds in Arctic Canada. Each year the entire population stops over in Delaware Bay to feed on horseshoe crab eggs to fuel the second part of its journey north. Some scientists have stated that the rate at which the knot is declining could spell extinction in as little as five years. While this may be a worst case scenario, it is clear that with every passing year that the knot goes unprotected, it becomes potentially harder and harder to implement conservation measures to prevent its extinction. Waiting to be listed for as long as the sage-grouse, prairie-chicken, or the suite of Guam birds would be disastrous.


So what should the government do? There is ample evidence to show that the knot needs to be put on the ESA list immediately, and FWS should do just that. There is no requirement for a species to be placed on the Candidate List before it is given ESA protection.


FWS assigns a priority rating to each Candidate Species from one (the highest) to 14. The knot received a rating of seven, half-way down the list that now numbers 279 species, subspecies, or distinct population segments of all taxa. FWS has officially recognized that the knot needs protection, but stated that listing is precluded by other, higher priority activities. This is the real crux of the matter. In the Red Knot, we have a bird symptomatic of a system that is in dire need of repair, a system where regulators acknowledge that action should be taken but are unable to act because their staff and budgets simply can't be stretched that far.


Recent efforts by House regulators to further weaken the Endangered Species Act are clearly not the answer. What is needed is a rejuvenated act that provides funding levels sufficient to address the problem. Without this change, FWS will not be able to address its Candidate species before it becomes too late for many of them.

In the meantime, ABC and our partners in the Bird Conservation Alliance continue to successfully fight for the Red Knot at the state and regional level. Without federal action, however, these measures are continually at risk from pressure brought by opposing interests. Horseshoe crab fishing groups are attempting to overturn take restrictions imposed on the Atlantic states that protect the crab population in Delaware Bay and thereby safeguard the food supply for the knot. ABC is fighting hard against the same groups to have a two year horseshoe crab fishing moratorium imposed by the State of Delaware.


We have made great strides in stemming the hemorrhaging of the Red Knot population that began in the early 1990s, but the long-term future of the species is far from assured. To that end, following the FWS denial of the Emergency Listing Petitions, a coalition of groups, including ABC, Defenders of Wildlife, New Jersey Audubon, and the National Audubon Society, have sued the service to list the rufa Red Knot under the ESA. We hope that this action will be enough to remove the knot from the purgatory of the Candidate List and begin immediate federal endangered species protection.