At first glance, the dry sagebrush steppe in eastern Washington may seem barren, but listen closely and you’ll hear much more than meets the eye. That’s because this open shrubby landscape is home to a songbird population that will rival any a cappella group. From the Brewer’s Sparrow to the Sage Thrasher, songbirds across the West have relied on this habitat for generations. Rapid development and an agricultural land grab, however, has erased more than 50 percent of the native landscape, leaving scientists and birders scrambling to understand how local songbirds are coping. And with more than 21 bird species in the ecosystem listed as a conservation priority, there’s no time to waste.
The chapters and state offices attempting to monitor these songbird populations were once each using their own disjointed (and sometimes out-of-date) database to survey the regions—making collaboration almost impossible. But thanks to the ArcGIS platform launched by the Environmental Systems Research Institute (Esri), Audubon’s chapter and state members, national team of scientific experts, and binocular-wielding citizen scientists can now systematically share and compile real-time data on sagebrush songbirds. That’s good for the people doing the research, and for the birds who stand to benefit.
The first step was assessing the problem. Audubon Washington and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife worked together under Esri’s guidance to put sagebrush songbirds on the map. . .literally. Dozens of volunteers and on-the-ground birders took to the shrubland to record what they saw—cattle grazing, brush fires, erosion, and a whole lot of birds.
By charting sagebrush habitat crucial to songbirds across the region, Audubon can now identify and focus conservation efforts on the ecosystem’s most vulnerable areas. “This is a totally new paradigm of collaboration,” David Gadsden, a program leader for Esri’s Nonprofit Program, says. The data is also being used by state agencies, like the WDFW, to better manage the region’s resources and help protect wildlife.
Esri’s recent case study of the sagebrush songbird survey underscores the relationship between cutting edge technology and conservation. Since its founding Esri has put cartography to work for the environment, including donating more than $11 million in technology to help Audubon achieve its mission to restore and conserve natural ecosystems.
And Gadsden is confident the sagebrush songbird survey is just the tip of the iceberg for what ArcGIS can do for conservation. “By providing the most accurate information in a discoverable and accurate way across a partnership, you can make better, defensible decisions more quickly. You can advocate more effectively with more precision about the places that matter,” Gadsden says.