A new program for counting birds relies on random data-collection-points across a landscape — some on public land, some on private. Ranchers shudder when there’s talk a critter might be listed as threatened or endangered; rules sometimes are imposed that impact or impede operations. This new bird-count program finds that bird populations may exist in larger numbers than assumed. In other words, allowing bird-counters on private land today can keep regulators off the land in the future.
This is Playa Country — a weekly look at the wildlife, wetlands and prairies of the western Great Plains, and the people who manage them — brought to you by Playa Lakes Joint Venture, an organization dedicated to conserving birds and bird habitat.
We’re learning about bird-population surveys, and how these surveys can benefit landowners. The Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory — now known as Bird Conservancy of the Rockies — along with others, devised a new program for counting birds. The survey protocol relies on random data-collection-points across a landscape — some on public land and some on private. Ranchers shudder when there’s talk a critter might be listed as a threatened or endangered species. Rules sometimes are imposed that impact or impede ranching activities. Experience shows that this new way of counting birds finds that particular species may exist in larger numbers than assumed. In other words, allowing bird-counters onto private land today can keep regulators off it in the future.
Biologist Chris White of Bird Conservancy of the Rockies says, in the past the decision to list a bird was made without all the facts. “A lot of times you can anecdotally feel like, ‘Well, I think these birds are in decline or there’s not as many of these individuals or this habitat.’ And then you can try and do something about that. But what we’re trying to do is provide hard scientific evidence of how different birds are doing.”
“Most of the times that we do the counting of birds we find out that there’s a lot more out there.” That’s Mike Carter. He directs Playa Lakes Joint Venture. Mike provides a good example how good data gathering helps keep birds OFF threatened or endangered species lists.
“The Clinton administration wanted to list Mountain Plover and it caused people to do lots of work and lots of counting, and we found out there’s a lot more Mountain Plovers out there than we ever thought — and the bird hasn’t been listed.”
Bird Conservancy of the Rockies and others have deployed this new way of counting birds for some eight years. Playa Lakes Joint Venture is extending the bird population survey, according to Conservation Science director Anne Bartuszevige.
“We’ve wanted to have this program in our region for a number of years now, and so just in this last year we’ve made it a priority to initiate this monitoring program in our region. We’re looking for answers specific to the shortgrass and mixed-grass prairie areas.”
Answers specific to shortgrass and mixed-grass prairie areas, for a very important reason. Some grassland birds have suffered scary population declines since the 1960s. In some cases, half a species’ population has been lost. Scientists say some bird declines started levelling-off around 1990. Some of that resulted from conservation efforts undertaken by Farm Bill programs of the ’90s. Biologist Nick Van Lanen with Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, says habitat managers have needed better tools to understand what landscape features will help hold populations steady.
“A land manager can say, ‘Okay, if we can maintain 20 percent sagebrush cover on the landscape, we’re still going to be in this happy zone of occupancy for X, Y and Z species.’ Similarly, they can say, ‘If we could increase grass by five centimeters or grass cover by 10 percent then we could expect more individual of a particular species.”
Playa Country, a weekly show about the wildlife, people and landscapes of the western Great Plains. Made possible by the Playa Lakes and Rainwater Basin Joint Ventures.
Original broadcast: September 2015