Region-wide Bird Data Informs Conservation

Why Count Birds?

Many species of grassland birds unique to the western Great Plains are in steep decline. To better understand the causes of these declines, we need information about the distribution, abundance, and habitat that the species use across their range. This information helps conservation partners understand how to best manage wildlife populations and where to target conservation actions to reverse species declines. For example, we can demonstrate how ranchers can maintain habitat to support birds and work with them to improve habitat. Unfortunately, large-scale, long-term surveys of landbirds, that are needed to address landscape-level conservation are difficult to implement. They require deploying large, highly-trained field crews to survey locations across a wide landscape during a short window in early spring.

A Collaborative Solution

Lark Bunting

Lark Bunting. Photo courtesy of Bill Schmoker.

To address these challenges, Playa Lakes Joint Venture (PLJV) is working with many partners, including our management board, to fund the Integrated Monitoring in Bird Conservation Regions (IMBCR) program across our six states. The important work of implementation is executed by Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, also a board member. This program, IMBCR for PLJV, provides much-needed, scientifically defensible estimates of bird distribution and abundance across large regions that can be used by conservation organizations, state and federal agencies, and energy companies to target and evaluate habitat projects throughout the region.

In 2015, to disperse costs and secure the stability of the program, we began developing a large partnership of entities that can use high-quality bird data. In this way, no one entity bears a high burden of the financial cost, and if one entity has budget problems, the entire program will not collapse for lack of funding. We envision all partners contributing a portion of the necessary funding and committing to agreements for three to ten years. Our goal is to have so many partners that financial commitments by individual partners are significantly below expected proportional costs.

Here’s an overview of how it works:

  • PLJV acts as a broker—managing funding, contracts and use of data by partners.
  • Bird Conservancy of the Rockies executes most aspects of the program—from hiring and training high-quality field workers to posting summary results.
  • IMBCR for PLJV is part of the larger program which provides estimates of regional bird distribution and abundance across 12 western states.
  • Program cost for the PLJV region is spread among many partners.
  • Approximately 300 stratified-random grids are sampled each year.
  • To date, 282 species, 269 of greatest conservation need, have been detected.
  • Density and occupancy estimates help partners target and evaluate conservation.
  • Advisory committee, representing the partnership, guides data modeling and management questions.

Sample Sites

A unique feature of the IMBCR program is that the sample sites are randomly selected using a spatially balanced sampling design which allows for model inference across the entire landscape. A square kilometer grid is placed over the entire PLJV area and the area is subdivided into strata. Sample sites are randomly selected from within each stratum. IMBCR has a hierarchical design, so the data collected at smaller scales can be aggregated to make inferences about impacts at the larger scale. One reason this can be done is because data points are not tied to habitat types or conditions, which can change and interrupt the continuity of the data, but rather, are tied to physical features (e.g., rivers) or political boundaries (e.g., states). Within these strata, all vegetation types may be sampled.

Monitoring on Private Lands

IMBCR field scientist counts birds at a survey location.

IMBCR field scientist counts birds at a survey location.

To create an accurate picture of bird populations, surveys are conducted everywhere birds are found across the PLJV landscape. Researchers use a computer program to randomly select square kilometer survey locations, including on private lands. Since 97 percent of the land within the PLJV region is privately owned, landowner participation is critical for getting an accurate picture of bird populations and informing successful, voluntary conservation efforts across the region.

Bird Conservancy of the Rockies contacts landowners or managers in the survey areas by mail early in the year. The correspondence includes a permission request letter and provides information about the IMBCR program, a map showing the exact survey locations on the property and a self-addressed stamped return card. The return card provides a quick and easy way for the landowner to provide information about the survey location, and most importantly, give their consent to access the property. If a return card is not received, Bird Conservancy staff attempt to contact landowners by phone to seek permission.

After obtaining landowner permission to access a survey location, one or two field technicians visit the site once a year for a few hours in the morning. They walk to specific points within the survey location, collect habitat data, count birds and record those numbers for analysis and comparison with other years’ data. In the fall, each landowner receives a list of every bird species observed at the survey points.

Data Applications

During the 2017 field season, 221 bird species were detected in the PLJV region, of which 130 are on the PLJV watch list. There were 18 species for which we can complete density and occupancy estimates and 12 additional species for which we can complete occupancy estimates. The IMBCR data will allow us to create:

  • Distribution maps and population estimates that are useful in all aspects of bird conservation;
  • Habitat modeling that provides land managers with information needed to guide conservation efforts, such as preferred local habitat conditions to inform managers on “what to do” when managing habitat;
  • GIS data that can be paired with bird data to guide  landscape-level planning; and
  • Habitat models that can be used to create predictive distribution maps which will inform long-term conservation planning and habitat projects.

Program Deliverables

The state-of-the-art sampling design of IMBCR addresses the conservation and management needs of a broad range of stakeholders, including government entities and private industries at both local and regional scales. Protocols are managed to help partners collect data under a consistent framework, and partners meet annually to discuss program outcomes. An annual accomplishments report, including density and occupancy estimates at both local and regional scales, is also provided.

Current Funding

Coordinated data collection throughout the six PLJV states (353 sample grids) began in 2016. The total annual cost of the program is about $400,000: $367,000 for sampling plus $33,000 for GIS modeling to inform habitat conservation. The program is mostly funded through 2021 by regional and national partners, including Colorado Parks & Wildlife, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks & Tourism, Nebraska Game & Parks Commission, Audubon New Mexico, New Mexico Department of Game & Fish, Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, USDA Farm Service Agency, USDA Forest Service, Great Plains Landscape Conservation Cooperative (US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS), and federal aid via the Wildlife Restoration Act (also known as the Pittman-Robertson Act). The Migratory Bird Program (USFWS Southwest Region) provides funding to support PLJV’s work on this program.

Contact Us

For information about IMBCR for PLJV or to become a part of the program, contact:

Anne Bartuszevige, Conservation Science Director
Playa Lakes Joint Venture


For information about Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, survey areas, the larger IMBCR program and how data are gathered and used, contact:

Matthew McLaren, IMBCR Coordinator
Bird Conservancy of the Rockies

970-482-1707 x 22

For information about private property access and landowner concerns, contact:

Erin Youngberg, Landowner Liaison
Bird Conservancy of the Rockies

970-482-1707 x 33