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State of the Birds Report

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Opportunities for Improving Conservation

Private landowners face a gauntlet of challenges to provide for their families as well as for their communities and country by producing food, fiber (such as wood or cotton), and energy. And the pressure on private lands to produce will only become greater. The planet’s population is expected to grow to 9 billion people by 2050, and increased food demands will require 70% more agricultural production.

This pressure will affect birds, because some of the best existing wildlife habitat is on private lands. The human settlement patterns of this country established farms and ranches on lands near water and flat lands with rich soil at low elevations. These lands also now provide the greatest opportunities to restore wildlife habitat.

Greater Prairie-Chickens rely heavily on privately
owned grassland habitat. Photo by John W.

Unlike our vast public lands, which can be managed under broad agency mandates and missions, private lands management cannot be steered by top-down directives. Private lands are managed based on the economic decisions of individual landowners. But working lands and habitat conservation can complement, and even strengthen, each other. The success stories highlighted in this report demonstrate that private lands conservation actions, assisted by programs and initiatives from government agencies and private groups, can result in real and meaningful victories for birds, while making sustainable economic sense for the landowner.

No “one size fits all” program will work for every landowner or every conservation goal. But a suite of programs, policies, and partnerships across our nation’s varied landscapes can empower landowners to choose what’s right for them. Based on these successes, the bird conservation community seeks to improve opportunities for private lands conservation by: (1) retaining and strengthening conservation provisions in the Farm Bill; (2) enhancing other successful government programs and initiatives that provide assistance and foster partnerships; and (3) increasing support for nongovernmental organizations and partnerships that leverage funding and protect land.

1. Keep Conservation Strong in the Farm Bill

By far, the Farm Bill is the largest source of conservation dollars available to U.S. landowners via the bill’s roughly 20 conservation provisions. As shown in this report, grassland and wetland birds are among those most reliant on private lands for healthy populations. During recent times of difficult economic decision-making, however, these vital conservation provisions are in danger of suffering major reductions or even disappearing completely. For example, cuts have reduced the overall funding for Farm Bill conservation by more than $3 billion over the past five years, leaving thousands of landowners unable to enroll new land in conservation programs despite overwhelming demand. Abandoning the course of conservation on private working landscapes can have dire consequences for our nation’s bird and wildlife populations, as well as for our air and water quality.

As future versions of the Farm Bill are debated, effective conservation measures
can be strengthened and expanded.

Fund incentive programs to meet demand:
Demand for popular Farm Bill conservation programs among landowners often far outstrips supply and available funding. Acreage caps for programs are often exhausted within days, or even hours; sometimes a third or more of eligible applications are left unfunded. Ending disproportionate cuts to Farm Bill conservation funding will close the gap in the substantial unmet landowner demand for conservation programs on private lands.

Reconnect crop insurance subsidies to conservation compliance:
The 1985 Farm Bill included a Conservation Compliance measure whereby farmers agreed to provide basic protections for soil and wetlands when they voluntarily accepted taxpayer support through Farm Bill programs. However, in 1996 the Conservation Compliance requirement was removed for crop insurance, and farmers had an economic incentive to plant erodible land without a conservation plan and drain new wetlands without risk of losing crop insurance benefits. Re-establishing basic conservation eligibility requirements for crop insurance subsidies, and implementing new provisions like Sodsaver (see page 35) that reduce incentives for plowing native prairie for crops, will ensure that taxpayers see the most efficient use of Farm Bill dollars, and scarce remaining natural habitats are preserved. 

Strategically target conservation for priority species: New applications
of Farm Bill programs focus scarce funding on individual species of concern, with cost-efficient, quick results. One new targeted conservation project—Working Lands for Wildlife—engages farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners in the restoration and protection of habitat for seven priority wildlife species, including Golden-winged Warbler, Greater Sage-Grouse, Lesser Prairie-Chicken, and Southwestern Willow Flycatcher. Expanding targeted conservation initiatives—with focused outcomes and monitoring for results—to other at-risk species and habitats could be an efficient and effective use of taxpayer dollars.


Many Farm Bill programs reward landowners for responsible stewardship of natural resources, which in turn pays dividends in ecological services for neighboring communities. The Farm Bill’s Conservation Reserve Program alone has resulted in cleaner water, with 623 million pounds of nitrogen and 124 million pounds of phosphorous intercepted and kept from our nation’s waterways; reduced greenhouse gas accumulation, with 51 million metric tons of carbon dioxide sequestered and kept from our planet’s atmosphere; and more abundant wildlife, with a 30% increase in waterfowl breeding production in the Dakotas and Montana. Photo by Jim Ringelman. 


2. Empower Community-based Conservation through Partnerships

Conservation is strongest when grassroots community efforts are seeded at state and local levels. Besides the Farm Bill, numerous government programs and initiatives offer voluntary financial and technical assistance to millions of private landowners, often through regional partnerships among agencies and private organizations and through matching grants that leverage government funding.

Reauthorize and fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund:
Since 1965 the Land and Water Conservation Fund has turned $3.5 billion of matching grants into more than $7 billion of habitat and outdoor recreation projects nationwide. LWCF funds are used to conserve working farms, ranches, and forests; preserve natural areas and wildlife habitat; safeguard clean water in rivers and watersheds; and directly support local economies and jobs through outdoor recreation. The LWCF has enabled locally led conservation efforts to successfully work with private landowners on key conservation land acquisitions, such as ecologically sensitive bluffs and lowlands along Indiana’s Wabash River and riparian habitat on a former ranch along the Devils River in Texas. Full funding and reauthorization of LWCF will stimulate our nation’s economy, create jobs, and shore up our infrastructure.

Marking fences prevents sage-grouse
collisions. Photo by Jeremy R. Roberts,
Conservation Media.

Expand availability of technical assistance for private landowners: Many private landowners are willing to take conservation actions on their lands, but they do not have the knowledge or equipment to do so. Technical assistance from consulting biologists can come from a variety of sources: Natural Resources Conservation Service field office staff, state university cooperative extension offices, U.S. Forest Service State and Private Forestry programs, and private conservation organizations. Technical assistance field biologists are often funded through cooperative public–private partnerships among federal, state, and private conservation partners. If the ambitious goals for habitat and bird conservation are to be achieved, then expanded funding for broader technical assistance will be essential.

Leverage government dollars with private dollars to multiply conservation impacts: As federal and state budgets get tighter, government conservation dollars will need to go further, and private conservation groups can make that happen. Migratory Bird Joint Ventures across the country are facilitating bird conservation on private lands through effective use of Farm Bill programs and matching grants under the North American Wetland Conservation Act. More of this kind of public–private collaborative conservation partnership would be fostered through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, a proposal in drafts of the Farm Bill that would create a competitive process for allocating funding to private partners that design and execute local projects for soil, water, and wildlife conservation. Passing the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, and creating more partnerships like it, would allow government and private conservation organizations to achieve more together than they could on their own.


The Finger Lakes Land Trust is using public–private partnerships to stretch public conservation funds further in upstate New York. For example, the town of Canandaigua wanted to preserve its rural character, but town open-space funds weren't enough to protect the area's scenic lake-view farmlands from development. So the town partnered with the Finger Lakes Land Trust—and accessed matching grants from New York's Farmland Protection Program—to pool funds and buy conservation easements from two farms totaling more than 200 acres on the west side of Canandaigua Lake. Photo by Nigel P. Kent. 


3. Support Private Organizations that Grow Conservation Beyond Government Budgets

Conservation programs that are solely government-funded can only do so much. Privately funded organizations also play vital roles in preserving habitat (see sidebar, Land Trusts). Government policy and partnership can enhance the effectiveness of these private conservation efforts.

Extend tax incentives for conservation easements: Many private conservation organizations, such as Ducks Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy, work closely with private landowners who want to be sure their land is preserved and never developed. Often, these landowners are willing to donate conservation easements on their land in order to realize a tax deduction. The American Taxpayer Relief Act that Congress passed on January 1, 2013, extended enhanced deductibility for another year. Multi-year, or permanent, extension of enhanced deductibility would provide private organizations with long-term stability in planning conservation strategies with potential easement donors.

Support landowner-driven conservation partnerships: Private landowners can play a critical role in developing and leading collaborative conservation initiatives in their communities. The Blackfoot Challenge in western Montana offers a successful model of collaborative conservation where public agencies, conservation groups, and private landowners work together to conserve natural resources and their rural way of life. By partnering with The Nature Conservancy and Plum Creek Timber Company, the Blackfoot Challenge leveraged $10 million of private funding with $80 million in Land and Water Conservation Fund money and other federal and state funding to protect 89,000 acres of working forest and ranch land with conservation easements as one of the tools. Baseline funding for federal assistance programs that incentivize voluntary, private landowner conservation and maintain strong agricultural economies should be retained, if not increased due to the high conservation return on dollars invested.

Tax incentives have been an important
consideration for landowners who have
partnered with Ducks Unlimited on conservation
easements that protect more than 360,000
acres of waterfowl habitat. Hooded Merganser
by Gerrit Vyn.
Monitoring is Key to Evaluating Conservation Success 

Monitoring birds and habitat change provides metrics for measuring and evaluating conservation outcomes. Effective monitoring helps to promote and improve science-based land management by allowing landowners and other managers to adapt to changing conditions and ensuring the right practices are occurring in the right places to maximize the benefits to birds. While broad-based citizen-science programs such as eBird are providing ever-more detailed information on changing bird distributions and populations, more rigorous bird monitoring, tied explicitly to the planning, funding, and implementation of conservation programs, will be essential for evaluating their success and supporting the adaptive management feedback loop.

Values beyond birds can be included in these analyses, even for bird-focused conservation efforts. Conservation benefits extend into a full suite of ecosystem
services, many of which benefit the people who rely on private lands––these include increased water retention during periods of drought, reduced impacts from natural flooding, carbon sequestration and reduced greenhouse gas accumulation in our atmosphere, cleaner air and water, even a meadow horizon for watching a sunset or a forest for children's explorations.

Aldo Leopold recognized all of this when he described the uniquely American land ethic. "Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and aesthetically as well as what is economically expedient,” Leopold wrote. “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community."


  Eastern forest, grasslands, and western forest habitats have the highest acreage of private protected lands conserved by land trusts and other private groups.   
  In 2006 The Conservation Fund purchased nearly 6,000 acres of forest from Wausau Paper Company at the mouth of the Brule River in Wisconsin. This forest, which is habitat for nearly 200 bird species, was at risk of being sold off for development. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources later bought the land and incorporated it into the Brule River State Forest. Photo by Coldsnap Photography.   

Private Protected Lands and Land Trusts:
Securing Important Bird Habitat in Key Places   

Although only 2% of private lands are formally protected for conservation purposes through direct ownership or easement, the more than 24 million acres managed by land trusts and other conservation organizations form a network of private protected lands nearly as large as the entire National Park Service system in the contiguous 48 states.

Many of these private protected lands are conserved by land trusts. Land trusts are nonprofit groups that can provide willing landowners with a buyer for land of high conservation value or for conservation easements that protect against future development on their land. According to the Land Trust Alliance, there are more than 1,700 active land trusts throughout the U.S, ranging from national organizations like The Nature Conservancy and The Conservation Fund to small local land trusts that work only in their communities.

Private protected lands conserved by land trusts and other groups are not distributed evenly across all habitat types. Eastern forests, grasslands, and western forests have the highest acreage of private protected lands. But other habitats stand out for the high importance of their private protected lands as habitat. Mexican pine-oak, boreal, and western forests all have relatively high proportions of bird distributions on private protected lands.

Some parcels of private protected lands are among America’s best-known birding sites, such as The Nature Conservancy’s Ramsey Canyon Preserve in Arizona and Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary in Nebraska. Most private protected lands are in large, working landscapes, such as the Flint Hills Legacy Conservation area, Dakota Grassland Conservation Area, and Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area. These landscapes combine extensive private lands (many protected by conservation easements) with smaller parcels of public lands. These strong public–private partnerships, and the willingness of private landowners to participate in bold initiatives, demonstrate the kind of landscape-level conservation vision and action that will be essential to preserving bird populations for future generations. 


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