A View of Bird Habitat Conservation from the Fiscal Cliff

IWJV Coordinator Dave Smith and IWJV's Sage Grouse Initiative Technical Lead Jeremy Maestas' passion for conservation comes from a lifetime as sportsmen.

“What if…birds had bank accounts?”     - Lucinda Williams, from the song “What If” on her album West, 2007.

A spooky thought hit me recently: The future of bird conservation is inextricably linked to the economics of our country. Jeremy Maestas, the IWJV's Sage Grouse Initiative Technical Lead, and I were exploring the future of bird conservation while driving across northern Montana, simultaneously exhausted and energized from three days of hunting late-season pheasants in the river bottoms and frozen prairie marshes of a forgotten land. Images of the final day - brilliant blue skies, cackling roosters, a Peregrine Falcon repeatedly driving hen pheasants into cattail crash landings, and the swoop of a Snowy Owl across the native prairie – were fresh as the afternoon faded to black.

It was mid-December, back in the day when many of us thought that New Year’s Eve 2012 would be marked by a colossal fiscal cliff budget deal that brought some certainty to our Nation’s economic picture. That, of course, didn’t happen. The looming debate over the debt ceiling, spending reductions, entitlement reform, and the expiration of a continuing resolution hangs like a dark cloud over the daily work of JV partners as they strive to conserve enough of the right habitat in the right places to give our kids and grandkids the opportunity that Jeremy and I had that fine winter day. The federal programs at the core of voluntary habitat conservation are caught in the crossfire. The North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) appropriation declined by 25% from fiscal year 2010 to 2012 and the program’s authorization has expired. The Farm Bill received an extension in the fiscal cliff deal through September 30, 2013 but the 113th Congress is faced with the daunting task of taking up a new Farm Bill amidst tremendous fiscal challenges. The future of our bedrock private lands programs – the Wetlands Reserve Program, Conservation Reserve Program, Grassland Reserve Program, and Farm and Ranchland Protection Program  – is murky at best. So where do we go with habitat conservation in these challenging times? The wringing of hands, albeit justified, is not productive. Here are a few thoughts on the economics that traverse our enterprise:

  1. Innovation in Hard Times: Recall that perhaps the most important wildlife conservation program of the last century, the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Program created by the Pittman-Robertson Act, was signed into law during the depths of the Great Depression, on September 2, 1937. Seventy-five years later, the program is largely responsible for the restoration of white-tailed deer, elk, wild turkeys, pronghorn, pheasants, and many other game species, and has resulted in productive wildlife habitat that supports many nongame species. Hard times can yield great ideas.
  2. Working Lands Conservation: The global population is expected to increase to over 9 billion people by 2050, resulting in a need for 70% more agricultural production. Experts predict the global demand will be met mostly through increases in agricultural yield, rather than by increases in agricultural land. The escalating pressure to feed the world will put more demands on land and water in the West, especially wetlands. This reality necessitates a hard look at how we can maintain both wetland habitat and a profitable agricultural sector that strengthens the economy. Working lands conservation, at least in our JV, provides a golden opportunity to meet wetland wildlife objectives and continue the production of food and fiber. Agricultural water use by ranchers, through flood-irrigation, is the lifeblood for wetland birds in intermountain valleys such as Cokeville Meadows, Warner Valley, San Luis Valley, and the Little Snake. We can have wildlife conservation and agricultural production: on the same lands, using the same water, supporting the same communities. We simply must follow the path of collaboration and continue building a shared vision with ranchers that make their living in these iconic landscapes.
  3. Conservation Triage: We are developing the science to facilitate targeted wildlife conservation, thereby getting more for the dollar than would have been possible through our old ways, often coined "random acts of environmental kindness." The Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) is a bold example of this new paradigm, influencing 75% of the grouse population by working in core areas that comprise only 25% of the occupied range of the species. The sooner we learn to practice conservation triage, focusing our wildlife conservation resources in the most important places and accepting the loss of habitats in other areas, the better our chances of maintaining wildlife populations at desired levels.
  4. Championing Proven Programs: The key federal habitat conservation programs - NAWCA, Farm Bill programsPartners for Fish and Wildlife Program, and Joint Ventures – are mostly 20 to 30 years old. These programs have endured when others have flamed out, e.g., the Landowner Incentive Program and Private Stewardship Grants. Now comes the hard part: sustaining proven constructs beyond a quarter century when there’s always something new and shiny on the horizon. Add our society’s frenetic pace and social media-geared attention span to the mix and we clearly have some challenges. The future of these programs will likely be determined by our resolve to work beyond our traditional camps – hunters, birdwatchers, ranchers, energy developers, etc. – and build alliances that champion solid appropriations and healthy adaptations. In that way, our treasured conservation programs will grow, evolve, and stand the test of time.

A friend of mine, Fred Holmes, is a landowner in the Central Valley of California who restored over 600 acres of wetlands on his rice farm over a couple decades. At 92 years old, Fred still cherishes the birds and habitats of his home place and has always been fond of a saying that applies in today’s economics-driven conservation world: "There are no problems, only opportunities." Collaboration isn’t a luxury in these times - it is essential. If we hold true to our Joint Venture values and tackle our opportunities in partnership-based fashion, we may emerge from these economic times stronger, more diverse, and more effective at landscape conservation than at any point in history!


Also in the Winter, 2013 issue of Conservation Roundup: