As settlers and the population flowed toward the central states, grasslands became vulnerable.
Prairie-dwelling birds took the hardest hits, including the Greater Prairie Chicken and Henlow’s Sparrow. Kansas and Nebraska, recently followed by the Prairie Pothole region became pilot program areas for the focus of major birding organizations.
Science based bird-friendly protocols were developed for beef production to promote holistic management of private lands and farmers were at the forefront to help save our birds. This work has spread out to grain farms, assisting with the health of our water supply, soil health, and carbon sequestration. These practices will improve the outcome for several critical species, including the Northern Bobwhite, Baird’s Sparrow, Lesser Prairie Chicken, Bobolink, and more.
Tallgrass prairie is the most fertile and arable of grasslands, which make them so attractive for farming. Conversion of these critical grasslands for the production of ethanol has been the most harmful since 2005, when the U.S. became the largest producer.
Half of the original shortgrass prairie remains, which isn’t as useful for cropland due to being less arable and wet. Instead, overgrazing and energy production is taking them away for the specialist grassland birds.
Mixed grass prairie, which comprises most of the Northern Great Plains and breeding bird locales, including waterfowl and shorebirds, as well as honeybees and monarch butterflies, has the most significant losses due to row crops.
The American Southwest and West Texas Plains have not escaped harm. The driest of all regions in the U.S. is wet compared to other world locations. Winter resident birds, like the beloved Burrowing Owl, two out of three longspurs, and both meadowlarks are seeing drastic declines there.
As the planet warms, some specialist grassland birds simply will not survive. Even if they move north, they may not find suitable land to overwinter, breed, and forage. More than 40 percent of these birds are highly vulnerable to climate change under our 3 degree Celsius mean global temperature yearly rise, or simply, 5 degrees Fahrenheit. If we cut that in half, less than 10 percent of our grassland birds will be vulnerable.
Top areas for conservation work include the Oklahoma Panhandle, which should continue to provide good habitat for birds even with rising temperatures, as well as the Northern Great Plains.
Both Oklahoma and Kansas Flint Hill ecosystems represent top priority needs.
The best and current course of action is through adequate land management and continually expanding the Farm Bill via access to wildlife programs and additional funding. There are over 900 million acres of farms and ranches.
Imperiled species are found and identified at the state level, and state wildlife grants are obtained through the Federal government, which is why biologists are overseeing plants, birds, and other animals and taking counts on them.
Bequeathing tracts of land is also critical for the livelihood and strength of these programs. Contact Audubon, ABA, or the Nature Conservancy for more information.
Keep your eyes on the ground and your head in the clouds. Happy birding!