Northern Pintails. Mark Duffy/Alamy

Meet Eight Birds That Depend on the Farm Bill

From North Carolina forests to California rice fields, the farm bill is a powerful tool for protecting and restoring avian habitat. As Congress begins rewriting the legislation, birders should pay close attention.

Birds thrive in places with abundant food and shelter, like national wildlife refuges, state forests, and other large, wild tracts of public land. But with more than two-thirds of the Lower 48 privately owned, the fate of North American birds is tied to what happens on our nation’s 914 million acres of farms and ranches and 300 million acres of private woodlands. And the largest federal funding source for conservation on those lands is the U.S. farm bill.

“You have to work with private landowners to be successful when you’re talking about migratory bird habitat. There’s no way around that,” says Julie Grogan-Brown, Audubon policy manager for working lands. “And the farm bill is really the federal mechanism for working directly with those landowners.”

First passed in 1933 and reauthorized roughly every five years, the farm bill is immense in its scope, with provisions for crop insurance, food assistance for low-income Americans, rural economic development, and much more. Every farm bill since 1985 has also included voluntary conservation programs that provide landowners with funding and expert guidance to set aside acreage or make improvements on working lands to benefit wildlife habitat, soil health, and water quality.

Those programs are a boon for birds, and they’ve helped to stabilize once-plunging populations of many forest and grassland species. Despite such successes, the latest version of the bill, a $956 billion behemoth passed in 2014, for the first time reduced conservation funding, to $57.6 billion from $62 billion. It also put a 24-million-acre cap on the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to withdraw land from production for 10 to 15 years and cover it with grasses or other habitat. According to the most recent data, as of March 2016 23.8 million acres were enrolled.

The current bill expires at the end of 2018, and Congress is expected to introduce a new draft of the legislation this spring. Conservation groups are calling for increased funding for programs they say have proven effective in protecting wildlife and helping to keep farmers in business. “We stand united in saying that cuts to farm bill conservation programs must come to an end, and that we now must reverse these cuts and bring conservation investments in line with resource need and producer demand,” Audubon and 25 other conservation, farming, and wildlife groups wrote to Congress in September.

As lawmakers begin hammering out the 2018 farm bill, scores of species across the country have a big stake in the outcome. The lands affected by the farm bill might be privately owned, but as these eight birds show, the benefits of restoring and protecting habitat extend far beyond a single fence line.

Henslow’s Sparrow

The farm bill gave Henslow’s Sparrow a break it desperately needed. As more and more of the bashful grassland bird’s habitat was developed or plowed under, its population plummeted by eight percent every year, a steeper decline than any other songbird. That changed when the 1985 farm bill established the Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, which pays farmers to temporarily plant some acres in wildlife habitat instead of crops. Within a few years, the Henslow’s Sparrow population took off. “It’s almost entirely driven by CRP,” says Jim Herkert, executive director of the Illinois Audubon Society, who has studied the species for three decades. His research shows the bird is now about 10 times more abundant in Illinois than in the 1970s and 80s, and its numbers swelled three times faster in counties with heavy CRP enrollment.

Some grassland dwellers prefer fields occasionally disturbed by fire or grazing, but Henslow’s Sparrow inhabits tall grass with a thick, tangled understory—the kind of field that develops over the 10 to 15 years of a CRP lease. “If you were designing a conservation program for Henslow’s Sparrow, it would look a heck of a lot like CRP,” Herkert says.

The bird is still declining in some parts of its breeding range, which stretches from Oklahoma through the Great Lakes region and patches of Atlantic Coast. And tracking Henslow’s numbers is tough, due to its secretive behavior and difficult-to-detect song, which Sibley’s guide describes as a “feeble hiccup.” But on the whole, Henslow’s Sparrow numbers have ticked up in the past decade, and Herkert has little doubt about why. “CRP was responsible for keeping them off the endangered species list,” he says. “It’s that important.”

Black-necked Stilt

California’s Central Valley is aptly called the nation’s “breadbasket,” but that agricultural abundance has come at an ecological cost. More than 90 percent of the region’s wetlands have been drained for farming and development, and by the 1980s, the Valley’s bird population was less than 15 percent of its historic size. It’s one reason North American shorebird populations have, on average, fallen about 70 percent since 1973.

Audubon California and the California Rice Commission are partnering on an innovative approach to restore habitat and bird numbers, encouraging rice growers to manage their land such that it mimics historic wetlands. Audubon and partners recommend practices that benefit birds, and monitor their responses. They’ve found, for example, that keeping rainy-season floodwaters on fields longer into the winter, instead of draining them in January, attracts more than three times as many shorebirds per acre.

So far, the Waterbird Habitat Enhancement Program—one of several efforts within the Regional Conservation Partnership Program—has provided $7 million in farm bill funds to improve habitat on 100,000 acres of Valley rice fields. “These programs have been hugely successful at getting conservation acres on the ground and to enhance rice fields as habitat for birds like the Black-necked Stilt,” says Khara Strum, conservation project manager for Audubon California.

Stilts are year-round residents, and they’re among the most frequent visitors to the flooded rice fields. Their numbers haven’t fallen as fast as other shorebirds, but farm bill programs also aim to maintain healthy bird populations, not just rescue species from the brink. “We’re doing these things now so it doesn’t get to that point,” Strum says.

Golden Eagle

Left ungrazed, the grasses in Audubon California’s Bobcat Ranch—6,800 acres of rolling coastal rangeland covered mostly by blue-oak savanna—would build up a thick layer of thatch, blotting out sunlight and suffocating habitat for grassland birds. Antelope and elk used to solve that problem. Now it’s hungry heifers. “As best we can, we’re trying to use cattle to emulate what native ungulates may have done in the past in these grassland systems,” says ranch manager Dash Weidhofer.

The farm bill’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program has given Weidhofer the tools he needs to move the roughly 500 cattle across the landscape in a way that benefits birds. The program paid for a water trough that lures the herd highlands they’d otherwise be too lazy to graze, and for fencing that enables Weidhofer to rotate the animals around the property and keep them out of a wetland restoration project. At least five Audubon sanctuaries that have used farm bill funds to make habitat improvements for birds, including sites in Arizona, Nebraska, and South Carolina. 

At Bobcat Ranch, the result is a diversity of habitats that supports a variety of birds, including Burrowing Owls, Lewis’s Woodpeckers, Grasshopper Sparrows, and Western Meadowlarks. Grazing is especially good for Golden Eagles because it prevents the buildup of thatch where mice and other tasty critters could hide, Weidhofer says. He recently saw four of the giant raptors perched on the same pine snag. “They’re just a magnificent, giant bird,” he says. “It was pretty epic.”

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Northern Bobwhite

You can still hear the Northern Bobwhite quail singing its name—bob-white!—in a variety of habitats across 36 states, from Texas prairie to Indiana fencerows and Georgia pine plantations. But don’t mistake the bird’s broad range for abundance: Its population plunged by 85 percent from 1967 to 2014, with an estimated 5.8 million individuals in the wild today.

“In every state in which bobwhites historically occurred, they have been declining for the long term, or are already gone,” says Don McKenzie, director of the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative, established in 2002 to coordinate state recovery plans for the plump game birds. “Every day I wish we’d have gotten our act together about 20 years sooner,” he adds.

Conservationists could never set aside enough public land to reverse that decline, McKenzie says, so farm bill programs focused on private, working lands are essential to the bird’s recovery. Scientists with the initiative conclude that if they could achieve the ambitious goal of implementing conservation programs—thinning forests, protecting prairie, and paying row-crop farmers to plant native grasses—on all the lands where habitat restoration has a good chance of succeeding, it would grow the bobwhite population by an astounding 55 million birds, says McKenzie. “When habitat conditions are right, bobwhites can flourish,” he says. “And if we do this right, everything we do should be just as valuable for declining grassland birds, pollinators, and butterflies.”

Golden-winged Warbler

Golden-winged Warblers might seem picky about nesting sites. But the habitat they prefer—brushy openings surrounded by more mature forest in Appalachia and the Great Lakes region—was once pretty easy to come by, thanks to farmers who cleared homesteads in the woods, fires that sparked forest regeneration, and beavers that temporarily flooded valleys. With increased development and fire suppression, however, those early successional forests lost ground, and, since the 1960s, Golden-wingeds have declined by two-thirds.

The Working Lands for Wildlife program is focusing on reversing that downturn. The five-year-old program connects stewardship-minded landowners with experts who can identify farm bill funding to implement bird-friendly forest management practices, such as timber harvests and prescribed burns. “Without a federal incentive program, that’s all going to be out-of-pocket, and in a lot of cases, that’s a deal-breaker for landowners,” says Mike Burger, director of conservation and science for Audubon New York. So far the program has restored 16,000 acres of warbler habitat, and it’s aiming to nearly double that by 2021.

That’s not only good for Golden-wingeds—it also creates a mosaic of habitat and a more diverse forest that can better withstand invasive species and climate change. “It’s just part of being a healthy forest,” Burger says.

Wood Stork

In 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service downgraded the Wood Stork to threatened status after 30 years on the endangered list, the decision reflected growing coastal colonies of the striking birds in Georgia and the Carolinas. But the birds were losing ground elsewhere. “You haven’t gained anything in those coastal marshes,” says Brad Cornell, Audubon Florida’s Southwest Florida policy associate. “It’s just that the birds couldn’t make a living anymore in the Everglades.”

Development drained away half the historic Everglades and shriveled the population of wading birds nesting in the region by 90 percent. A century ago about 100,000 Wood Storks nested in the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in the western Everglades. Today there are only about 1,000 nesting pairs in the entire Everglades, and storks have nested in Corkscrew Swamp just three times in the past decade.

One important tool to restore habitat for Wood Storks and other waders is the wetland component of the farm bill’s Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP). Permanent and 30-year conservation easements provide participating farmers and ranchers with payments to cover all or most of their land’s value and the cost of restoration. Those payments can help secure economic survival for a farm that might otherwise be sold to developers.

About 182,000 acres of Florida wetlands—the vast majority within the historical Everglades—are under easement through ACEP and its predecessor. And as managers piece together a planned 100,000 acres of easements for the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area, announced in 2012, ACEP will likely be tapped to protect habitat from development while allowing its continued use for agriculture. Cornell is optimistic about the bird-producing potential of these protected working wetlands when they’re coupled with a decades-long Everglades restoration effort. “The combination of farm bill programs and restoration programs is what’s going to bring wetlands back for wading birds like storks,” he says.

Lesser Prairie-Chicken

Who doesn’t love trees? Lesser Prairie-Chickens, that’s who. These quirky-looking grouse, adapted to short grasslands on the southern Great Plains, avoid areas with even two percent tree cover, and won’t nest within a quarter mile of one—likely because they make good perches for prairie-chicken predators, like Red-tailed Hawks, Prairie Falcons, and other raptors. Periodic wildfires once kept junipers, mesquite, and other trees in check along the prairie’s edge, but today they’re expanding into open areas. For a bird that’s lost 85 percent of its historic range, the trees are like an invading army. The thirsty intruders also suck up valuable water that ranchers, grasses, and cattle need.

But the farm bill has mounted a counterattack. Funding through the Working Lands for Wildlife Program—a partnership between the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and the FWS—enables landowners to undertake tree-removal projects, prescribed burns, sustainable grazing management, and other tools to maintain prairie habitat for the birds. “When we remove those trees and reset succession, we not only remove that direct threat to the birds, but we also increase the productivity from an agricultural perspective,” says Tim Griffiths, western region coordinator for Working Lands for Wildlife, which also funnels farm bill funds to help other at-risk species, including Golden-winged Warbler, Greater Sage-Grouse, and Southwestern Willow Flycatcher.

Almost all of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken’s remaining habitat is privately owned, so its future depends on the success of conservation practices on ranches and other working lands. “We have this incredible resource through the farm bill to accelerate implementation of those practices,” Griffiths says. Since 2010 the initiative has conserved prairie-chicken habitat on more than a million acres.

Northern Pintail

The Prairie Pothole region of the upper Great Plains may have lost more than half the shallow glacial wetlands it’s named for, but it still produces more than half of North America’s waterfowl. Farm bill conservation programs play an important role in fueling this duck factory; researchers say the Conservation Reserve Program, which protects the region’s grasslands, alone is responsible for about 2 million additional Prairie Pothole ducks per year.

The U.S. FWS’s “duck stamp” program plays a vital and visible role in waterfowl conservation, “but when it comes to the landscape connectivity needed to maintain the continental population of ducks, everything comes back to the farm bill,” says Marshall Johnson, executive director of Audubon Dakota.

Recently, however, mismanagement has kept the farm bill from fulfilling its promise. A series of reports from the Agriculture Department’s watchdog office have shown that some Prairie Pothole farmers that benefit from farm bill programs continued to drain wetlands. That’s bad news for Northern Pintails, which use temporary, shallow wetlands that have been disappearing from the eastern Dakotas. While most duck populations have increased over the past few decades, the number of pintails has shrunk by about 70 percent since 1955, according to an annual U.S. FWS survey

Restoring the region’s grasslands and wetlands and preserving what’s left is a priority for conservationists; farm bill programs, properly enforced, are some of the most powerful tools available to help Northern Pintails and other species. “The farm bill has the ability to support and sustain family farms and support and sustain ecosystems and wild bird populations,” Johnson says. “It has that opportunity.”