Recovered Midwestern bird soars off endangered species list

FILE - In this Saturday, May 1, 2010 file photo, a least tern checks her two eggs on the beach in Gulfport, Miss. The interior least tern, a hardy Midwestern bird that survived a craze for its plumage and dam-building that destroyed much of its habitat, has soared off the endangered species list. Federal officials said Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2020, that 35 years of legal protection and habitat restoration efforts had brought the tern back from the brink of extinction. (AP Photo/Dave Martin File)
FILE - In this Saturday, May 1, 2010 file photo, a least tern checks her two eggs on the beach in Gulfport, Miss. The interior least tern, a hardy Midwestern bird that survived a craze for its plumage and dam-building that destroyed much of its habitat, has soared off the endangered species list. Federal officials said Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2020, that 35 years of legal protection and habitat restoration efforts had brought the tern back from the brink of extinction. (AP Photo/Dave Martin File) (AP2010)

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. – The interior least tern, a hardy Midwestern bird that survived a craze for its plumage and dam-building that destroyed much of its habitat, has soared off the endangered species list.

Federal officials said Tuesday that 35 years of legal protection and habitat restoration efforts had brought the tern back from the brink of extinction.

“Dozens of states, federal agencies, tribes, businesses and conservation groups have worked tirelessly over the course of three decades to successfully recover these birds,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Aurelia Skipwith said.

The smallest members of the tern family, weighing less than 2 ounces (56 grams), they feed mostly on small fish and build nests on the ground. While most least terns are considered seabirds, some species live by rivers, lakes and wetlands.

Their most important nesting areas are along more than 2,800 miles (4,500 kilometers) of river channels in the Great Plains and the Lower Mississippi Valley. They migrate to the Caribbean and South America for the winter.

Their numbers plummeted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when their feathers became a popular feature of women's hats.

Then came a wave of dam and levee construction and other engineering measures to control Middle America's great rivers — particularly the Missouri and the Mississippi. Those structures wiped out much of the bird's shoreline habitat.

When listed as endangered in 1985 as a distinct population segment, fewer than 2,000 interior least terns remained, along with a few dozen nesting sites.