Yellow-billed Loon Endangered, Nearly

Yellow-billed Loon. Photo: Ted Swen, USFWS
Yellow-billed Loon. Photo: Ted Swen, USFWS

On March 25th, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) published a finding that the Yellow-billed Loon warrants listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The finding was a response to a 2004 petition brought by the Center for Biological Diversity. As with many other recent FWS ESA findings, the agency states that the listing of the loon is currently precluded due to other higher priority listing actions, so it is not likely to be added to the list of species protected under the Act any time soon. Instead, it will remain on the Candidate List along with the Greater Sage-Grouse, Kittlitz’s Murrelet, Red Knot, and several other species for which funds are not currently available to complete the listing process.


The finding comes at the end of a thorough status review completed by FWS following a 2007 finding that listing may be warranted. The loon relies on undisturbed and unpolluted Arctic lakes for nesting, and 75% of its range falls within the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, parts of which are being leased out for oil and gas exploration, and potentially, development (e.g. 1.45 million acres leased out in 1999 and 2002).


FWS states that loons may respond to human disturbance ocurring up to a mile away. The species is also vulnerable to drowning in gill nets and to oil pollution on its wintering grounds along the Pacific coasts of China, Japan, the Korean peninsula, Canada, and the U.S. - where is occasionally reaches as far south as California. The species has a small global population of perhaps as few as 16,500 birds (of which fewer than 5,000 are found in the United States), and a slow reproductive rate (it is monogamous, raises a single brood of just one or two chicks each year, and only reaching sexual maturity at six or seven years of age). It is therefore especially vulnerable to human impacts.


The effects of climate change on permafrost, potentially accelerated by oil development at sensitive sites, may also present a threat to nesting loons if melting results in breaches in the banks of nesting lakes. There is also some small scale subsistence hunting of the species, which, at eight to 13 pounds, provides salty seal-like meat, and its skin can be used to make tool bags. According to a State of Alaska letter to FWS with information for the status review, Inupiaq oral tradition warns of the sharp bills of these birds which are rumored to have caused the demise of unwary hunters by piercing the skins of their kayaks. Interestingly, in 2007, the Resource Development Council of Alaska mounted a campaign to prevent the species being listed, perhaps an indication that the listing is indeed needed.