Since its inception during the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, Ducks Unlimited has understood that migratory birds know no borders. DU’s founders in the United States understood that multi-national investment in the prairie potholes of Canada was needed to ensure waterfowl populations thrived. The importance of cross-border cooperation is evident in the recent report “Decline of North American avifauna“ published in the journal Science (September 19).
Evidence of a widespread loss of nearly 3 billion birds since 1970 is alarming not just for the United States, but for all of North America. While the report did not explore causes, it is clear that loss of habitat is central to the discussion and conservation efforts should be a particular area of focus if we hope to reverse this trend.
Ducks Unlimited was founded on the principle of conserving wetlands and associated upland habitat to ensure healthy waterfowl populations. However, what we have found over more than 80 years as a leader in habitat conservation and restoration is that these conservation efforts not only benefit waterfowl, but many other species of wildlife, people and communities as well.
The Science report correctly pointed out that waterfowl populations are up 56% since the 1970s – a testament to the hard work of waterfowl hunter-conservationists to restore and protect habitat for the birds that are so important to our natural resource heritage.
Although waterfowl populations are high today, we also know that wetlands are more vulnerable to drainage and loss due to continued ambiguity related to interpretations of the Clean Water Act and the ever-present pressures from a growing population. We also know that in the vast North American Great Plains nearly 50% of native grasslands have been lost and rates of loss continue at more than 1% annually, equating to thousands of acres of native grassland lost every year. Such losses, risks and lack of protection of wetlands and grasslands do not bode well for birds of all species, and even waterfowl populations remain vulnerable to steep future declines should no action be taken to conserve and protect their habitat.
Working closely with state, federal and corporate partners, Ducks Unlimited’s conservation mission is to protect and restore wetlands and associated habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife, and we recognize our work also benefits people. Notably, our work benefits many bird species for which significant population declines were indicated in the Science report.
Many species of waterfowl nest in prairie grasslands with high densities of wetlands. These same grasslands provide habitat for the group of birds that have declined most precipitously – grassland nesting species of songbirds. While we are pleased our work – supported by hunters, farmers, ranchers and many conservation partners – benefits a great diversity of bird species, it is clear all of us must do much, much more, to restore and maintain healthy bird populations. If we want to ensure future generations are able to witness flocks of migrant waterfowl on a cool fall morning, hear the wonderful song of the western meadowlark or witness the remarkable courtship flights of Sprague’s pipits on a sunny spring morning in the northern Great Plains, we must do more.
We must recognize that suitable habitat is essential for all species of birds and other wildlife. Given that basic premise, and some understanding of habitat requirements, the professional natural resource management community must continue collaborating to develop science-based, landscape-level conservation models working in partnership with private landowners.
Ducks Unlimited works extensively with ranchers, wheat and rice producers, forestland owners and others to find sustainable approaches that benefit their production and bottom line, while simultaneously providing essential habitat to a wide variety of birds. Often such work entails development of agricultural best practices that retain wetlands on farmland to improve water quality, while also promoting soil health. We also work with owners of forested wetland systems to protect and manage those habitats to the benefit of the landowner, and importantly, a host of migratory bird species.
Across Canada, the United States and Mexico, DU also partners with state, provincial and federal agencies to protect, restore and manage habitat on lands in the public trust. Public lands are anchors of habitat for birds, including waterfowl. They serve as points around which conservation can focus on key habitats on private lands – and taken together, the public-private habitat complexes can, and do, meet the needs of migratory birds. However, given the report in Science, we reiterate that it is clear we must do more.
There are many ways individuals can do more to benefit conservation of migratory birds and other wildlife in North America. Supporting habitat-focused conservation organizations, developing habitat in backyards or participating in citizen science are all great actions.
However, we respectfully suggest that the single most important action may well be to contact your elected officials to state your support for importance conservation legislation. Existing legislation like the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (https://www.fws.gov/birds/grants/north-american-wetland-conservation-act.php), Neoptropical Migratory Bird Act (https://www.fws.gov/birds/grants/neotropical-migratory-bird-conservation-act.php) and Farm Bill conservation provisions (https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/national/programs/farmbill/) must be funded annually and must be reauthorized if we want this downward trend in bird populations to reverse. Contact your legislators and tell them this funding is critical to conservation of birds and other wildlife that are part of the natural resource heritage of North America.
Importantly, the Recover America’s Wildlife Act (RAWA) (HR3742) has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives. RAWA would make available significant new funding that state fish and wildlife agencies would use to protect, restore and manage habitat for birds and other wildlife following their science-based state wildlife action plans. Waterfowl populations are healthy today in part because hunters asked Congress to create the Migratory Bird Habitat Conservation Stamp (aka Duck Stamp) in 1937 (https://www.fws.gov/birds/get-involved/duck-stamp.php). In addition, the North American Wetlands Conservation Act was passed in 1991 because of the support of engaged and passionate conservationists who asked their elected officials to pass this legislation.
We can restore bird populations to their former abundance – but only if conservation-minded people get involved with their local conservation groups and contact their elected officials to express support for legislation that promotes science-based habitat conservation. Conservation of habitat happens through active, effective conservation partnerships that engage private landowners, agriculture, forestry, state and federal natural resource agencies, non-governmental organizations and people – all of us. That is the path forward –join us as we elevate our collective conservation efforts and accelerate our mission to restore habitat to the benefit of our bird populations, other wildlife and people.