The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today released its annual status report on plants and animals that are candidates for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

In it, the service upgraded the "priority" of the red knot, a bird that has attracted major interest in this region, but it is still refusing to list the bird.

The red knot is a small shorebird with one of the longest migrations on the planet — from its feeding grounds at the tip of South American to its summer nesting grounds in the Arctic. It stops partway through this epic flight on the beaches of the Delaware Bay to refuel on lipid-rich horseshoe crab eggs.

But the birds' numbers have declined precipitously in recent years. Biologists blame a shortage of crab eggs, due to previous overharvesting.

Crabs are used as bait for conch and eel, edible delicacies in Asia. Limits on the harvest are now in effect, but a restricted number of males is still being taken from the bay.

Groups have filed four petitions to have the agency list the red knot on an emergency basis. All have been declined.
The agency has listed the red knot as a "candidate" species — one that is eligible for listing. And in its current review the agency acknowledges that the threats to the bird, which is a subspecies, are "severe enough that it puts the viability of the knot at substantial risk and is therefore of a high magnitude."

FWS spokeswoman Diana Weaver said the current priority upgrade — from a 6 to a 3 — was based on a continued decline in the population (15 percent since last year).  She said a priority number of 3 is the highest a subspecies can have.

However, all the species with a priority of a 1 or a 2 would have to be listed before a 3 would be considered, she said. Currently, the list has no species with a priority of 1.  It has 99 species with a priority of 2, but 34 of those are being proposed for listing in the current filing.

"Basically, the service is admitting that the red knot desperately needs help, yet is once again refusing to actually offer any help," said Caroline Kennedy, of the national nonprofit, Defenders of Wildlife. "The failure to list the red knot makes the management actions regarding horseshoe crab harvest levels of Maryland, Delaware and Virginia, even more critical."

Margaret O'Gorman, of the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey, said, "Needless to say, we are pleased that the priority has been upgraded. However, the only way that the species is going to recover is when it receives the full protection of the law."

Darin Schroeder, of the American Bird Conservancy, noted that the agency has "once again confirmed that the red knot is increasingly threatened with extinction and deserving of heightened conservation measures, particularly immediate reductions in the commercial harvest of their primary food source – horseshoe crabs."

The bird's population on Delaware Bay numbered as many as 100,000 two decades ago. Last spring, they numbered about 15,000. Computer models say the bird could go extinct as early as 2010.

The bay stopover is important not just for red knots. Every spring, it becomes a magnet for birdwatchers who want to witness what some call the "Serengeti" of the east coast, one of the most important bird congregations in the world. Yet shorebird numbers on the bay have dropped from 1.5 million in 1988 to between 300,000 and 400,000 last year.

The FWS complete notice and list of proposed and candidate species appears in today's Federal Register and can be found here.