USFWS Proposes to List the Eastern Black Rail as Threatened Under the Endangered Species Act

October 30, 2018

Eastern Black Rail, Copyright Tom Johnson Macaulay Library,

On October 9, 2018, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) published a 12-Month Petition Finding and Threatened Species Status for the Eastern Black Rail with a Section 4(d) Rule (FR-2018-10-09, Vol. 83., No. 195) under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). After reviewing the best available scientific information, USFWS has determined that the eastern black rail meets the definition of threatened since it will likely become endangered through all or a significant portion of its range in the next 25-50 years, given current population trends.

Background of the Eastern Black Rail

The eastern black rail (Laterallus jamaicensis jamaicensis) is a secretive marsh bird that inhabits saltwater, brackish, and freshwater marshes across the eastern United States. Spotting a black rail is highly unlikely; virtually all are detected by their distinctive kik-e-doo calls. The males typically sing at night, compounding the difficulties of detecting one. Dense, wet sedge meadows are the preferred habitat, but migrants may use other wetlands. They typically eat insects, seeds, and aquatic invertebrates (Ohio Department of Natural Resources, 2018).

While the majority of the population inhabit the Atlantic Coast (Cornell Lab of Ornithology), the subspecies is partially migratory and highly localized, known to occur in 36 states, including the Midwest (IL, IA, MI, MN, MS, OH, and WI). Populations have declined significantly over the past 20 years, including 90% declines along the Atlantic Coast. The 2016 population estimates along the eastern coast were between 355-815 breeding pairs. An additional 1,300 individuals were estimated to inhabit the upper Texas coast, a noted stronghold for the population prior to Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Population estimates for interior states are lacking, but small populations in Colorado and Kansas are known to breed in spring and summer.

Primary threats to the eastern black rail include wetland habitat loss and conversion; land management practices that result in fire suppression or inappropriately timed fire applications; grazing, haying, and mowing; and impoundment of wetlands. Additionally, projected sea level rise, tidal flooding, and increased storm intensity and frequency are anticipated to significantly impact eastern black rail populations and their habitat.

Petition to List the Species

Currently, the eastern black rail is protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 and is state-listed in seven U.S. states. The USFWS petitioned to list this species in 2010 under the ESA, publishing a 90-day finding that the listing may be warranted in 2011. As a result of a settlement agreement in 2013, USFWS was required to complete a review of the subspecies and submit a 12-month finding to the Federal Register by September 30, 2018. Thus, USFWS is proposing to list the eastern black rail as threatened with a Section 4(d) Rule. The 4(d) Rule contains species-specific conservation measures for the eastern black rail. These measures will include seasonal fire restrictions and seasonal agricultural restrictions in wetlands where eastern black rails are present. USFWS is not designating critical habitat for this species at this time due to the sensitivity of this species. Protection for this species under the ESA will provide conservation measures, implement recovery actions, and protect this species from harmful practices. Continued surveys, research, monitoring, and habitat conservation are expected to benefit the eastern black rail.

USFWS is accepting public comments on the threats of taking or other human activity, including the impacts of birders to the eastern black rail and its habitat, and the extent to which critical habitat designation might increase those threats. Comments will be received until December 10, 2018, and requests for public hearings will be received until November 23, 2018. The official Federal Register can be accessed here. 

The listing will likely impact seasonal activities for coastal projects. If you have project-specific questions, please call EnviroScience at (800) 940-4025 or email Ann Gilmore at AGilmore @