At the turn of the century, least terns were almost annihilated by market hunters for the millinery trade, with as many as 100,000 killed each year. They received full protection in 1913 and had come back strongly by the 1920s. In recent decades, however, increasing destruction of nesting habitat caused another precipitous decline. The population now numbers 5,000 to 7,000 birds.
Arkansas nesting habitat is threatened by manipulations of river flows. Reduced flows allow encroachment of woody vegetation, eliminating some bare sandbars. High flows during nesting wash away eggs and drown chicks. Nests are also lost to dredging operations, trampling by cattle, all-terrain vehicle use, storms and predation.
Unlike most endangered species, the least tern has been given a second chance for survival. Do we have the wisdom to pull it once again from the brink of extinction: Time will tell.