BCRs facilitate communication among bird conservation initiatives and systematically and scientifically apportion North America into conservation units. They promote new and expanded partnerships and identify overlapping or conflicting conservation priorities. Id. There is a growing belief that BCRs should function as the primary units to resolve biological foundation issues, to design landscape configurations of sustainable bird habitats, and to originate priority projects. Id. at Joint Ventures and Bird Conservation Regions: Evolving Roles for Bird Conservation.
The wherewithal to implement a regional approach to bird management, which is ultimately coordinated with a continental plan, grows out of the successful response to the crash in duck and geese populations in North America during the 1970s through the early 1980s. These species are of significant interest to sportsmen, the organizations they support, such as Ducks Unlimited, and the state wildlife agencies supported by sportsmen’s licenses. Ducks and geese are also a favorite of the wildlife watching public, but the “watching” constituency, that now far outnumber hunters, does not have institutionalized equivalent to hunting licenses and duck stamps to fund nongame species management. Consequently, wildlife management and funding generally focus on game-bird species.
The states and the federal government are the country’s wildlife trustees, although traditionally most wildlife management and protection has been conducted by the states. The federal government enforces federal statutes, manages federal lands, and administers federal monies generated or appropriated for wildlife. But it is the states, most of which now face severely dwindling budgets, that independently (despite the migratory nature of birds) manage wildlife.
States cooperate to varying degrees, subject to their individual goals and budgets. In the past, states have formally and informally coordinated efforts in the interest of migratory game birds. One example is the extensive coordination efforts of the various waterfowl flyway councils. Flyway councils were established to coordinate game limits and habitat management for various waterfowl species. Yet, despite the flyway councils’ efforts, in 1985 many waterfowl populations were at record lows as a result of wetland and grassland loss, drought, and other factors. The wetlands that waterfowl depend on for survival were disappearing at a rate of sixty acres per hour during the 1970s and early 1980s. Upper Mississippi River & Great Lakes Region Joint Venture, North American Bird Conservation Initiatives.
In 1986, in response to plummeting waterfowl populations, a strategic plan, the North American Waterfowl Management Plan (North American Waterfowl Plan), was signed by Canada and the United States; Mexico joined in 1994. The plan’s focal species included ten species of ducks, arctic breeding geese, and a sea duck. The plan recognized that a broad coalition of partners—private (Ducks Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy), governmental (states, federal agencies), and coalitions (informal associations that ultimately took form as Partners in Flight and the National Bird Conservation Initiative)—would have to work together closely. Gregory J. Soulliere, Role of the Upper Mississippi River and Great Lakes Region Joint Venture and Synopsis of Bird Conservation Initiatives (Mar. 2005)(Soulliere, Mississippi and Great Lakes Joint Venture).
The North American Waterfowl Plan was designed to allow all parties to work from “a single song sheet” to restore waterfowl populations through habitat protection, restoration, and enhancement. It had three prongs: (1) conserving landscapes to sustain waterfowl populations (wintering habitat, migration habitat, and breeding habitat), (2) broadening partnerships to achieve coordination and efficiencies, and (3) strengthening the biological foundations of waterfowl conservation (improving the science). In 1989, Congress passed the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, 16 U.S.C. § 4401, which recognized the goals of the North American Waterfowl Plan and created a grant program to help achieve its goals,
The Plan worked. By 2000, implementation of the North American Waterfowl Plan was showing dramatic success. One major factor in the population turnabouts is the fact precipitation increased significantly in the 1990s and between 2000 and 2010—that is, the drought conditions ended. However, changes in land use and management practices encouraged by the North American Waterfowl Plan also contributed greatly to population recoveries. By 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that there were 37.3 million breeding ducks, an increase of 11 percent above historical averages. Redhead ducks reached a record high and estimates for Green-winged Teal were the second highest on record. Wood Ducks have responded well to nest-box programs throughout their range: populations increased by more than 200 percent in the last forty years. North American Bird Conservation Initiative, U.S. Committee, TheState of the Birds, United States of America 2009 (U.S. Dept. of the Interior 2009) 20. Plan activities influenced over 15.7 million acres of breeding, migration, and wintering habitat in North America. North American Waterfowl Management Plan 2012: People Conserving Waterfowl and Wetlands (2012). The 2011 breeding population index of ducks was among the largest ever recorded, and the size of the duck and goose hunting harvest rebounded to that of the 1970s—a baseline period for the original plan. North American Waterfowl Management Plan 2012 Draft.
Starting in 1998, building on the success of the North American Waterfowl Plan, continental conservation plans were developed for landbirds, shorebirds, and waterbirds (colonial nesting waterbirds, wading bird, and secretive marsh birds). The need for continental plans, facilitated by region-based management, is best illustrated by the birds themselves. In the middle of the country lies the Eastern Tall Grass Prairies Bird Conservation Region—known as North American BCR No. 22 (BCR 22). The greater prairie chicken, cerulean warbler, and Henslow’s sparrow are BCR 22 watch list and focal species. A “watch list” species is a species that is dangerously dwindling in numbers and is a priority species for wildlife managers in the establishment of sustainable habitat. A “focal” species is a species that can represent suites (a group of species) who respond similarly to management actions. Soulliere, Mississippi and Great Lakes Joint Venture.
The greater prairie chicken is a charismatic game bird (albeit not a game bird in all states it inhabits). In Native American lore, the greater prairie chicken was considered the bird who taught other animals to dance. National Audubon Society Birds, Greater Prairie-Chicken.
A grassland grouse, the prairie chicken is known for the male’s booming ground displays in the first two weeks of April that take place on traditional display or booming grounds called leks. Leks are typically elevated open areas where grassland vegetation is short, visibility is good, and the booming can be heard at great distances. Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service, Ecology and Management of the Greater Prairie-Chicken (Publication E 969). The booming is an amplified hum—a vibration that can be both felt and heard at significant distances. If the reader does not have an opportunity to experience this display in the wild, the Wikipedia entry for greater prairie chicken includes video of the male booming display.
The prairie chicken has a barred feather pattern of brown, buff, blackish, and white colorations. Its pinnae or “ear feathers,” elongated feathers on the back of its neck stand erect during sexual displays. Underneath the pinnae are featherless areas of skin call typannm or “air sacs” that reinflate during sexual displays. During the display, the male erects the pinnae above his head, inflates the air sacs on the sides of his neck, lowers his wings, rapidly stamps his feet, and calls. In addition to booming, a series of crows, caws, and cackles can be heard from males throughout the display ground. Short vertical flights called flutter-jumps often occur in conjunction with booming. In the presence of a female, the male may perform a nuptial bow with wings spread, pinnae erect, and bill lowered to the ground.
Leks are located in areas near taller grasses where male prairie chickens can escape if threatened and to which the females return to nest in dense grass cover. Other important components of prairie chicken habitat are the presence of forbes and insects, the birds primary food, and the mast (the fruit of forest trees like acorns and other nuts) of oak savanna that grow along waterways in the plains region of the Midwest—an important autumn food.
Oak savanna and forest lands of BCR 22 are important to another species—equally fascinating but much less visible—the cerulean warbler, a neotropic migrating songbird that spends its time on the North American continent in deciduous hardwood forest canopies that have tall, large-diameter trees and diverse vertical structure. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Cerulean Warbler Species of Concern Fact Sheet. During the breeding season, the bright cerulean blue males sing high in mature trees. The females build open-cup nests on the middle and upper branches of deciduous forest trees, 30–60 feet above the ground. Nests are often located over an open space but are concealed from above by clumps of leaves from other branches. The females leaves the nest “bungee jumping” style—she drops from the side of the nest, keeping her wings folded to her sides, and opens her wings to fly only when she is well below the nest. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Cerulean Warbler.
During migration, cerulean warblers pass through the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys to southern United States, flying across the Gulf of Mexico to the highlands of Central America and on to South America, a 2,500 mile trip. They winter in broad-leaved evergreen forests within a narrow band of middle elevations in the Andes Mountains of northern South America from Columbia to Peru and Venezuela. The warbler eats mostly insects, including bees, wasps, caterpillars, and weevils from the base of leaves and the foliage of many different tree species.
The Eastern Tall Grass habitat of BCR 22 is also home to the Henslow’s sparrow. The Henslow’s sparrow, a very small, famously inconspicuous bird, breeds in weedy grassland. It is reluctant to take flight when threatened, preferring to flee by running through the grass. Its preferred habitat is large, flat fields with no woody plants, and with tall, dense grass, a dense litter layer, and standing dead vegetation. Its nest is an open bowl of loosely woven dry grasses, placed in a layer of grass litter just off the ground. The sparrow’s traditional breeding ground includes the Great Lakes region west to eastern portions of Oklahoma and Kansas. The species winters in coastal areas from South Carolina, south for Florida, and west to Texas. It too relies on insects as food.
The grassland ecosystem on which Henslow’s sparrow depends is considered among the most endangered ecosystem in North America. T. R. Cooper, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Status Assessment and Conservation Plan for the Henslow’s Sparrow (Ammodramus henslowii) (2012). Unfortunately, nearly all of the sparrow’s native prairie habitat has been lost (some estimates are as high as 99.9 percent loss), and—to a lesser degree—there has been a subsequent decline in acreage and suitability of the hayfields and pastures the species has secondarily occupied. Lori Pruitt, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 1996, Henslow’s Sparrow Status Assessment (1996). Grasslands created by enrolling former crop lands in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), 16 U.S.C. 3811, appear to be important, or to have potential importance, to Henslow’s sparrow populations in several states. Because of the uncertain future of these lands beyond the ten-year CRP lease, it remains to be seen if CRP land will stabilize the species’ population at more than a local scale. There is a need to evaluate the potential for improving grassland management practices, particularly on publicly owned lands, which currently support most large, persistent populations of Henslow’s sparrow. Resources managers seek to incorporate grassland bird management into agricultural programs, particularly the CRP, and innovative agricultural practices, such as rotational grazing. Pruitt, Henslow’s Sparrow.
As noted, all three species eat insects. The pesticides used to support agriculture target the very insects these species require.
Not one of these three species, all of whom are BCR 22 watch list and focal species, are listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The two songbirds, the warbler, and the sparrow, are categorized as Species of Concern, an informal term utilized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for species determined not to be candidate species for threatened or endangered listing but believed to be in need of concentrated conservation actions. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Region 3 Decision on Status Recommendation for Henslow’s Sparrow (1997). Hence, not one of the three species has the protection and restoration goals provided by the federal Endangered Species Act. The two migrants, the warbler and the sparrow, are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act migratory bird conservation planning and management mandates. 16 U.S.C. §§ 703-712. The prairie chicken, however, travels 100 miles at most, generally does not migrate, and is thus considered nonmigratory and has no federal protection. Nonetheless, all three birds variably have protected status in the states that form the land base for BCR 22. For example, Illinois has listed the greater prairie chicken as endangered status and the cerulean warbler as threatened. Illinois Endangered Species Protection Board, Checklist of Endangered and Threatened Animals and Plants of Illinois (2011).
The greater prairie chicken, due mostly to its charisma but also because it is a gamebird, has large partnering private organizations and governmental agencies working on its behalf. For instance, starting in the 1960s and continuing into the 1980s, the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, based Society of Tympanuchus Cupido Pinnatus, Ltd, known to be a fund-raising powerhouse, acquired lands in conjunction with the Dane County Conservation League to secure the future of the bird in Wisconsin. The Society continues to provide the lifeblood necessary for the bird’s survival in Wisconsin both in the form of advocacy and funding, and has expanded its reach on behalf of the bird nationwide.
Wildlife managers consider the greater prairie chicken to be a keystone species; its need for large areas of grassland causes it to be a surrogate for all grassland bird species. Under the umbrella of BCR 22, the protection, restoration, and enhancement of the charismatic greater prairie chicken’s habitat can support and be coordinated with conservation efforts for the elusive little grassland sparrow and the tiny oak savanna loving warbler.
Region-based continental management, as illustrated by the cerulean warbler, necessitates international coordination. Building on the success of the North American Waterfowl Plan, the idea of integrated international bird management emerged in the fall of 1998 at meetings of the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, in particular the Association’s Director’s Forum in September 1998. At sessions to update the North American Waterfowl Plan, work began on a framework for delineating ecologically based all-bird conservation units—the BCRs. The ecological framework was adopted by the United States, Mexico and Canada as part of the review and refinement of a draft North American Bird Conservation Initiative (NABCI).
The NABCI is a strategic framework to foster coordination among all bird conservation initiatives with the aim of conserving the full spectrum of North American’s avian resources; it was crafted and is updated by representatives of state, provincial, and federal agencies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). A Proposed Framework for Delineating Ecologically-based Planning, Implementation, and Evaluation Units for Cooperative Bird Conservation in the U.S. (1998). The continental plans, coordinated by NABCI include: the North American Waterfowl Plan 1998, the North American Landbird Conservation Plan 2004, the U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan 2001, and the North American Waterbird Conservation Plan 2002.
A major player in the development of continental plans is a coalition known as Partners in Flight (PIF). In the late 1990s, bird conservationists became increasingly concerned about significant population declines for several songbird species, in particular neotropical migrants. Congress responded by passing the “Mitchell Amendment” (Public Law 100-653 (102 Stat 3825)) to the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act of 1980 (Nongame Act). 16 U.S.C. §§ 2901–2911. The law, which went into effect in 2001, requires the Department of the Interior to “monitor and assess migratory nongame birds, determine the effects of environmental change and human activities, identify those candidates for endangered species listing, identify appropriate actions, and report to Congress . . . at five-year intervals on actions taken.” Building on the legislative momentum, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation led a consortium of NGOs, research and academic institutions, private conservation groups and state and federal government agencies in forming PIF to conserve nongame land birds in the United States. PIF’s guiding principles include restoring populations of the most imperiled avian species and preventing other birds from becoming endangered—“keeping common birds common.” PIF has been integral to generating the continental land bird plans as well as at least fifty-eight regional plans. Soulliere, Mississippi and Great Lakes Joint Venture.
In the United States, implementation of continental plans and regional plans falls primarily to twenty-one geographic-based and three species-based entities known as Joint Ventures. Joint Ventures, supported by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), are self-directed, regional partnerships of public and private organizations and individuals, originally established to carry out the North American Waterfowl Plan, now implement multiple bird conservation plans using an integrated approach. www.nabci-us.org/images/najvmap4-10-2.jpg.
In 2002, the FWS issued guidance for the Joint Ventures’ partnered bird conservation efforts. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Joint Venture Administration, Director’s Order No. 146 (2002). Five functional elements must now be included in the operation of a Joint Venture to receive FWS financial support: coordination; planning; project development and implementation; monitoring evaluation, and applied research; and communications and outreach. The guidance envisions partners with varied resources and expertise working together, achieving common goals and efficiencies. Each Joint Venture has an administrative coordinator’s office, a science team, and a board made up of representatives of each partner—the states, federal agencies, tribes, and NGOs engaged in wildlife management in the geographic region. Soulliere, Mississippi and Great Lakes Joint Venture.
For example, at over 240 million acres, the Upper Mississippi River and Great Lakes Region Joint Venture (Upper Mississippi Great Lakes JV) is one of the largest and most diverse Joint Venture regions in the United States. The administration region encompasses all or portions of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Nearly all (93 percent) of the Upper Mississippi Great Lakes JV is contained within three BCRs: BCR 12—the “Boreal Hardwood Transition,” BCR 23—the “Prairie Hardwood Transition,” and BCR 22—the “Eastern Tall Grass Prairie.” Upper Mississippi River & Great Lakes Region Joint Venture, Background.
Using ecological planning units (BCRs) and population goals from continental and regional conservation plans, in 2007, the Upper Mississippi Great Lakes JV published its Waterfowl Habitat, Landbird Habitat, Shorebird Habitat, and Waterbird Habitat conservation strategies and its overall implementation strategy for these plans. The Upper Mississippi Great Lakes JV implements these strategies in a manner that is consistent with the following goals and objectives:
- Prioritize regional bird species based on habitat threats, declining abundance, small population size or limited distribution, and socio-economic importance.
- Identify factors limiting populations of regional bird species of greatest concern and use new technologies and decision tools to target conservation effort.
- Identify management or monitoring “focal” bird species that can represent suites (a group of species) who respond similarly to management actions,
- Develop the necessary landscape design and specific habitat objectives to achieve target bird populations within the JV and promote management that links habitat programs to population objectives at multiple scales.
- Continue to support and help prioritize bird population and habitat inventory, monitoring, and research work focused on JV goals and assumptions.
- Refine JV goals and objectives on the basis of learning from monitoring and assessment (practice adaptive management).
As impressive as the numbers are—dollars spent and acres “influenced” or “manipulated”—one of the goals of the Upper Mississippi Great Lakes JV is to encourage a shift in how conservation results are measured to a focus on population influence or habitat characteristics strongly linked to population performance rather than reporting acres manipulated and dollars spent. Soulliere, Mississippi and Great Lakes JointVenture.
Advances in technology and computer power have not been lost on wildlife management. Improved computer modeling and data gathering have greatly enhanced the work of wildlife scientists and managers. Technology has increased the Joint Venture’s ability to report results in terms of population performance and desired habitat characteristics. In the event management efforts fall short of goals and objectives, the enhanced data capabilities will facilitate the ability to refine efforts—a practice that has come to be known as adaptive management. These capabilities are available to all Joint Venture partners, including budget-strapped state agencies unable to keep up with technological advances in the science or in management practices.
Funding flows from three federal statutes and one federal initiative that govern the Upper Mississippi Great Lakes JV. The first, the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) of 1989 was passed, in part, to support activities associated with implementation of the North American Waterfowl Plan. In December 2002, Congress reauthorized the NAWCA and expanded its scope to include the conservation of all habitats and birds associated with wetland ecosystems. Upper Mississippi River & Great Lakes Region Joint Venture, Grants. Funds from NAWCA are used to acquire, restore, or enhance wetland and associated upland habitats in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. NAWCA funds must be matched by nonfederal partners at least at a 1:1 ratio. As of 2010, the NAWCA program leveraged over $1.08 billion in NAWCA funds with $2.24 billion in partner contributions—influencing 25.9 million acres of habitat. Upper Mississippi River & Great Lakes Region Joint Venture, Grants. The term “influencing” means acquiring, restoring, or enhancing habitat, be it through agreement, easement, or purchase.
Second is the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act (NMBCA) of 2000, 16 U.S.C. § 6101, which created a federal grants program that supports the conservation of neotropical migratory bird populations through voluntary public-private partnerships in the United State, Canada, and countries in the Caribbean and Latin America. By law, 75 percent of NMBCA funds available each year must be spent on projects outside of the United States. Upper Mississippi River & Great Lakes Region Joint Venture, Grants, supra.
NMBCA projects may include activities that support habitat conservation, research and monitoring, law enforcement, and outreach and education focused on neotropical migratory birds. NMBCA projects are required to have a 3:1 ratio of nonfederal match to NMBCA funds. As of 2010, $35 million in NMBCA funds leveraged $150 million of partner funds to support more than 300 projects in more than thirty countries, impacting more than 3 million acres of migratory bird habitat. Id.
Third, the Joint Ventures are a line item in the Department of the Interior’s Migratory Bird Program’s budget pursuant to the Migratory Bird Treat Act’s legal mandate for migratory bird conservation planning and management. The one federal initiative is the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, started in 2009. In FY2010, $65 million was allocated to the FWS, of which $2 million was distributed to the Upper Mississippi Great Lakes JV and the Atlantic Coast JV through the Great Lakes Watershed Habitat and Species Restoration Initiatives. The goal of this initiative is to protect and restore migratory bird habitat within Great Lakes watersheds through a competitive, partnership-based grants program. Although $2 million may seem insignificant, it is important funding for state agencies with tight budgets.
Two other FWS programs are available to serve as additional resources for Joint Venture efforts. The FWS self-directed partnership program, the Landscape Conservation Cooperatives (LCC), is available to the Joint Ventures to facilitate management and science cooperation. Bird Habitat Joint Ventures and Landscape Conservation Cooperatives, Distinct and Complementary Programs Playing a Critical Role in Conservation. This cooperative habitat landscape effort is all-species based. The LCC may be able to provide additional funding for Joint Venture projects, bring additional science, management, and technology expertise to bear, as well as ensure that management for nonavian species is properly coordinated with research and management under the Joint Venture conservation strategies.
The Joint Ventures may also benefit from the resources of the FWS’s Climate Science Centers. The Department of the Interior operates a National Climate Change and Wildlife Center at the headquarters of the U.S. Geological Service. The Department has expanded the scope and geographic reach of its climate science efforts by establishing eight regional Climate Science Centers that will provide scientific information, tools, and techniques that land, water, wildlife, and cultural resources managers and other interested parties can apply to anticipate, monitor, and adapt to climate and ecologically driven responses at regional-to-local scales. As part of the Joint Venture synergy, these resources are to be available to state agencies, tribes, and other partners for cooperative projects. Id.
An example of the effectiveness of this cooperative approach is the wildlife component (including birds) of the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts Report, a comprehensive planning document and report assessing anticipated climate change impacts in the state. The bird portion of the wildlife component was coordinated by the Upper Mississippi Great Lakes JV to incorporate Joint Venture conservation strategies. The Upper Midwest and Great Lakes Landscape Conservation Cooperative provided crucial funding to the partnering agencies for the generation of the Wisconsin report.
What does all of this mean for our three species in their BCR 22 habitat scattered over seven states? The Upper Mississippi Great Lakes JV Landbird Conservation Strategy (all three species are considered land birds) calls for more research to determine the health and viability of existing populations for all three species and indicates that for populations to recover, habitat conditions must improve to support a 100 percent population increase or an average of annual increase of 5 percent over a fifteen-year period for all three species. Upper Mississippi River and Great Lakes Joint Venture, Landbird Habitat Conservation Strategy. The warbler needs habitat with sufficient forest canopy for nesting and breeding. The forest savanna needs to produce ample mast to provide important autumn food for the prairie chicken. The prairie chicken and sparrow need grasslands with both short, variable, and tall, dense grasses. The prairie chicken needs his dance floor of elevated short grassland. They all need areas that are minimally impacted by pesticides.
The region-based approach allows the state listing of these species to protect existing birds and facilitate population-wide and continental recovery where no federal protections exist. The Joint Venture’s mandate to partner and cooperate to implement region-based strategies allows federal resources to be brought to bear where dwindling state resources cannot keep up. The integration of federal and state resources in the region-based approach allows all levels of management to address the immense challenges of climate change. Such integration allows resource managers to take a very serious look at the CPR program, the current mainstay of these species, and determine means by which agriculture conservation incentive programs can be enhanced to be of even greater benefit to these species. The integrated region-based approach can provide for the development of an ever-improving centralized knowledge base and facilitate strategic conservation design and planning that scale from continental to local. Last but not least, the region-based approach allows wildlife managers and advocates to take full advantage of the charisma of one species to help a suite of species that share habitat and respond similarly to management actions.
The ecological planning unit, or BCR, allows resource managers to garner evidence and focus resources needed to protect, restore and enhance the dispersion of areas throughout the region that show the very best promise for the birds—in BCR 22, that includes a four-and-a-half-inch, brilliant, blue warbler that migrates 2,500 miles, a sparrow who is the harbinger of our lost prairie, and a grouse that teaches other animals to dance.