Hundreds of thousands of Snow Geese stage at Montana’s Freezout Lake each spring on their northward journey. The Long-billed Curlew, an icon of the American West, proudly performs its undulating breeding flights across our extensive grasslands. Male Sage Grouse dance and drum for mates each spring on leks scattered throughout our sagebrush landscape. Common Loons return each spring from the coasts to breed on the cool, deep lakes of northwestern Montana. Black swifts carefully lay a solitary egg on a rocky ledge hidden behind our waterfalls. Hundreds of Golden Eagles and other raptors migrate each year along the Rocky Mountain Front. These are just some of the wonders of Montana’s bird life that are appreciated each year by our residents. In fact, Montana boasts the largest proportion of resident birders in the nation – 40% of Montana’s citizens engage in bird watching activities.
Montana’s spectacular and diverse assemblage of birds is also the foundation for an active and engaged bird conservation partnership working to maintain our legacy of wild places and wildlife. At the national level, scientists are characterizing patterns in bird populations to help guide conservation action. Recently this analysis has been translated to the State of the Birds Report series (http://www.stateofthebirds.org). Below we summarize some national trends that are relevant to Montana and are guiding many actions of the Montana Bird Conservation Partnership.
Grasslands are home to our Nation’s fastest declining birds. Common birds, such as Western Meadowlarks and Bobolinks, are declining by 38-77%. Those birds that winter in Mexico are showing the steepest declines, up to 68-91%. This includes Sprague’s Pipit, Lark Bunting, and McCown’s Longspur. Popular game birds such as Sharp-tailed Grouse and Northern Pintail that require grasslands for some or all of their life cycle are also declining. Climate change is expected to exacerbate these trends. Most of these lands are in private ownership, suggesting landowner incentive programs and conservation easements might provide the greatest conservation opportunities.
Aridlands, which include sagebrush landscapes in Montana, are facing loss and degradation of habitat for a unique suite of birds. Approximately 45% of sagebrush habitat has been converted to other uses, primarily agriculture and urban development. This has led to declining populations in 76% of aridland-obligate birds. In Montana, this includes Greater Sage Grouse, Brewer’s Sparrow, and Sage Sparrow. Climate change is expected to result in warmer, drier conditions for aridland birds. Nationally, most aridlands are in public ownership; however, in Montana much of our sagebrush habitat is in private ownership. Conservation strategies usually differ by land ownership and may need to be regionally-based for this community type.
Forests are key to the future of birds and our natural resources. Although up to 33% of forest-breeding birds are showing declines, populations of western forest-breeding birds tend to be relatively stable. A few exceptions are those birds with small ranges or specialized habitat requirements such as White-headed Woodpeckers, Pinyon Jay, Plumbeous Vireo, and Olive-sided Flycatcher. Forests will likely be more resilient to climate change and they are primarily in public ownership.
Wetlands restoration is a model for bird conservation. Partnership-based programs focused on wetlands conservation received significant support from conservation and sportsmen communities starting in the mid-1970’s. The North American Wetland Conservation Act (NAWCA) program alone has delivered over $4.2 billion in on-the-ground wetland conservation. Programs like NAWCA have resulted in steady increases in populations of many waterfowl and other wetland-associated birds. Minor adjustments to these programs may help to reverse current declines for marsh-nesting species such as Franklin’s Gulls and Black Terns. Climate change, however, is expected to degrade wetlands, affecting birds and other wildlife.
Although many of these trends are discouraging, there are achievable solutions and reasons for optimism. The Montana Bird Conservation Partnership’s response is to frame a pro-active strategy, learning from past successes and failures. In part, this means adapting the wetland conservation strategy for other landscapes. It also involves focusing on common species and species groups that are showing disturbing patterns, in addition to birds that are already rare or at-risk. This will allow us to identify problems and seek solutions before species become listed as Threatened or Endangered. Details on MBCP projects and actions can be found throughout these web pages.