The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took action Tuesday to protect an increasingly rare shorebird that stops twice a year in South Carolina on a multi-continental journey between Canada and South America.
After 15 months of consideration, the service listed the rufa red knot as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. Service officials said listing the rufa subspecies of the red knot will better protect the bird, which like some other long-distance migratory birds, is dropping in numbers.
Climate change, habitat destruction and dwindling food sources – particularly fewer horseshoe crab eggs – are among the reasons for the red knot’s decline.
Standing 10 inches long with a 22-inch wingspan, these robin-size birds eat horseshoe crab eggs along beaches from the South to the Northeast during the spring while on their way north to Canada to nest. They stop back through in the fall while flying to South America to spend the winter.
“The red knot is an amazing creature,” Fish and Wildlife Service chief Dan Ashe said during a news conference. “It has one of these truly mystical magical migrations, a round-trip journey that is as much as 18,000 miles from breeding areas in the Canadian Arctic to Tierra Del Fuego at the southern tip of South America.”
Tuesday’s action prompted questions about whether listing the red knot could affect the harvest of horseshoe crabs for medical research. South Carolina, like other states, allows researchers to take blood from horseshoe crabs for research, but the creatures must be returned to the water within a day.
“Saving the red knot will certainly require stricter restrictions on harvest of horseshoe crabs for both bait and the medical industry, highlighting how connected the world we live in is,” said Mollie Matteson, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, which supports listing the red knot as threatened.
Fish and Wildlife officials, however, said they did not think the use of horseshoe crabs in medical research is affecting red knot populations. Greater concerns are about other commercial harvests in the Northeast.
Red knots are reddish gray birds that not only migrate through South Carolina but also live here year round, choosing to spend winters and summers in the Palmetto State, federal and state biologists said. The rufa subspecies of the red knot is being listed.
Many of those that migrate are found most commonly during the spring at Kiawah Island near Charleston and in nearby areas, state and federal biologists said. Some 8,000 red knots have been seen congregating in the Kiawah Island area during the spring, said Felicia Sanders, a biologist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
Overall, red knots are down in population in the United States – some by about 75 percent in certain parts of their range since the 1980s, the service said. While some populations have stabilized more recently, Ashe said the species still needs protection as climate changes and people continue to modify the species’ habitat.
Under the Endangered Species Act, an animal or plant listed as threatened is considered likely to dwindle enough to be listed as endangered. An endangered designation means there is the threat a species will become extinct in all or part of its range.
The service’s listing provides further protection against killing red knots or removing the species from the wild. It could require more study before development occurs along beaches or beach renourishment projects are launched.
Private landowners sometimes balk at Endangered Species Act protection because it can limit the use of their property, but federal officials said Tuesday they expect the designation would have more impact on beach renourishment projects in South Carolina
The red knot’s plight isn’t unique. Some shorebirds that migrate from Canada to the U.S. South and South America have experienced “alarming declines” of 50 percent to 90 percent during the past 30 years, according to the service.
At the same time, Tuesday’s announcement comes as the federal government is proposing to list the northern long-eared bat, also found in South Carolina, as endangered. No decision has been made on that species yet.