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AP: As imperiled species recover, some pose threat to others

A captured merlin is held near Lake Michigan, near Glen Arbor, Mich., June 27, 2022, to be fitted with a leg band and tracking device. The mission will enhance knowledge of the species and help wildlife managers determine how to prevent the recovering population of merlins from attacking endangered piping plovers at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. (AP Photo/John Flesher)

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The all-formats team of John Flesher, Christina Larson and Patrick Whittle reported exclusively on a little-noticed ripple effect of saving endangered wildlife: Some formerly imperiled species such as bald eagles, gray seals and merlin falcons are harming the recovery of others in dire shape by outcompeting them for food and living space.

The package grew from a weekly meeting of AP’s Global Environment Team,where science writer Christina Larson noted a source’s observation that great cormorants nesting on New England beaches were struggling. Bald eagles,themselves sliding toward extinction decades ago,were harassing the cormorants, preventing chicks from hatching.

Environment writers Patrick Whittle and John Flesher chimed in with other examples of resurgent victims-turned-troublemakers: wild turkeys accused of displacing upper Midwest ruffed grouse to the frustration of hunters; gray seals feasting on prized East Coast ocean fish; merlins gobbling tiny piping plovers on Great Lakes shores.

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In photo at left, Zachary Bordner, an intern with the Smithsonian National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, prepares a robotic great horned owl used to lure merlins for capture so they can be banded and fitted with tracking devices near Glen Arbor, Mich., June 27, 2022. At right, fellow Smithsonian intern Tim Baerwald holds a captured merlin fitted with a leg band and tracking device. The mission will enhance knowledge of the species and help wildlife managers determine how to prevent the recovering population of merlins from attacking endangered piping plovers at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. – AP Photo / John Flesher

Studying scientific papers and interviewing experts,the reporters found the pattern was showing up repeatedly. It didn’t mean conservation laws and programs were flawed,biologists said, but it showed that rescuing individual species wasn’t always enough — ecosystems need protection as well.

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A piping plover walks on the sand at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Glen Haven, Mich., May 30, 2019. The plovers are threatened by the recovery of the region’s merlin population. – AP / John Flesher

To illustrate the situation,Flesher visited Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore near Traverse City,Michigan. He joined two Smithsonian scientists who used a stuffed,robotic owl to lure a merlin into a net so they could attach a tiny backpack tracking unit. The mission would help determine whether relocating the small falcons would help save plovers.

Flesher,Larson and Whittle teamed up on the text story, with Flesher also delivering photos and video footage. Detroit video journalist Mike Householder produced the video piece with clips from Flesher’s field reporting and other material.

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