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“State Of the Birds 2017” Identifies Benefits For Agriculture, Forestry And Conservation

The State of the Birds 2017 report, released yesterday by the North American Bird Conservation Initiative (NABCI), documents the many benefits the Farm Bill—America’s single largest source of conservation funding for private lands—has delivered to birds, farmers, and rural communities.

For more than three decades, the Farm Bill has been an effective tool for wildlife conservation, sustaining essential habitat for more than 100 species.

For farmers and forest owners including hunting preserve operators, the bill provides a safety net that helps keep working lands from being developed. As the 2018 Farm Bill is debated for reauthorization in Congress, the report calls attention to the benefits of investing in conservation on private lands, which make up nearly 70 percent of the land area in the contiguous United States.

“For more than twenty years, the Farm Bill has provided widespread conservation benefits for our nation’s farmers, ranchers, sportsmen and all who enjoy clean drinking water, flood protection, and healthy wildlife populations,” said Ducks Unlimited Chief Scientist Tom Moorman. “Millions of acres of working lands are conserved through Farm Bill conservation programs that ensure long-term sustainability and productivity of the land that supports waterfowl and many other species of fish and wildlife.”

It’s a striking record of success. Before 1990, for instance, wetland birds and waterfowl were on the decline, trending downward by 10 percent a year. Since wetland easements were added to the Farm Bill, those populations have soared 51 percent.

Grasslands and forest birds have benefited as well. “There’s no doubt that the Farm Bill’s conservation provisions have helped to stabilize populations of grassland birds, which had suffered a nearly 50 percent drop before grassland easements were introduced in 2003,” said Kenneth V. Rosenberg of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and the report’s team leader. “Since that time, we’ve seen an encouraging 3 percent increase in numbers.” The report documents a similar turnaround in forest bird populations, which had dropped 19 percent before the Farm Bill’s Forestry Title was introduced in 1990.

State of the Birds is a regular report published by NABCI’s US Committee, a coalition of 28 state and federal agencies, nonprofit organizations, and bird-focused partnerships. Scientists, government agencies, and bird conservation groups use the State of the Birds as a resource in decision-making about conservation research, policies, and programs. Last year, NABCI’s State of North America’s Birds Report found that more than one-third of North America’s bird species require urgent conservation action.

Farm Bill programs support many kinds of partnerships with private landowners. As documented in the 2017 report, that approach pays off in many ways. Here are a few examples of what the Farm Bill gets done:

It keeps birds off the Endangered Species List. Voluntary, incentive-based habitat-restoration projects funded by the Farm Bill made it possible to avoid listing the Greater Sage-Grouse as endangered in 2015.

Through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, the Sage Grouse Initiative has worked with 1,300 ranchers across the West to improve more than 5 million acres of sagebrush habitat—an area twice as large as Yellowstone National Park.

Sage Grouse

These voluntary, incentive-based programs influenced the 2015 decision not to list the Greater Sage-Grouse as endangered. “Without these (Farm Bill) lands…sage-grouse would go extinct in two of the three sub-populations,” said scientist Andrew Shirk.

The Farm Bill also promotes public-private partnerships and supports restoration vital to forest birds. In the South, Farm Bill Forestry programs have increased longleaf pine forests by 50 percent, providing valuable habitat and keeping forests from being converted to other uses.

For example, Farm Bill forestry programs have grown the South’s longleaf pine forests by 50 percent to 4.7 million acres, providing a source of timber that keeps working forests working while providing habitat for 35 bird species, including the northern bobwhite quail.

“Farm Bill conservation programs, such as the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, get on-the-ground work done for species of greatest concern such as the northern bobwhite,” said Steve Holmer, vice president of policy at American Bird Conservancy. “The 2018 Farm Bill will hopefully build on this success by fully supporting these conservation programs.”

The program also creates eco-benefits for the entire farm by improving soil health and even providing pest control. In a study of rural farm areas in Wisconsin and Michigan, grassland plots within crop landscapes doubled the numbers of grassland birds and increased the rates of predation of insect pest eggs by 30 percent.

State of the Birds 2017 also identifies four top conservation priorities for the 2018 Farm Bill, representing the unified voice of NABCI’s broad coalition:

  1. Increase funding for the voluntary, incentive-based conservation programs that support farmers and ranchers financially while also supporting our natural infrastructure of grasslands and wetlands.
  2. Improve the impact of Farm Bill conservation programs on priority wildlife species, drawing on input from individual states.
  3. Enhance Farm Bill public-private partnerships. Partner biologist positions hold the key to matching landowners with conservation programs that best fit the landowners’ wildlife and land-use goals.
  4. Support the use of science, including monitoring and evaluation of Farm Bill conservation programs over time, to maximize the bill’s effectiveness and return on investment.

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