This World Water Day, Audubon is launching a new initiative in the Lower Mississippi River region, identifying nearly 50 million acres across multiple states as the most important places for birds and people.
From Missouri to the Gulf of Mexico, climate change is bringing extreme weather that threatens the birds and people that call this region home. The forests, wetlands, floodplains, and barrier islands that have historically buffered communities in this region from storms and flooding are rapidly disappearing.
To meet this challenge, Audubon has created this conservation blueprint to focus on the Lower Mississippi River region, defined here as the section of the Mississippi River Basin and watersheds stretching from the confluence of the Missouri River at St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico. Audubon has prioritized nearly 40 percent of the region, from wetlands to pine woods and prairies, in need of futureproofing—areas to restore, maintain, or adapt to accommodate for climate change and other stressors.
As the fourth-largest river system in the world and a major North American flyway, the Mississippi River serves as a hemispheric superhighway for migrating birds, and for shipping and commerce. The river contributes $400 billion to the U.S. economy each year and provides a home for over 12 million people within the basin.
Over 350 species of birds use parts or all of the Mississippi River basin during the course of their annual life cycle, 20 percent of which are listed as continental or regional birds of conservation concern. This includes migratory shorebirds like the Least Tern that nests along the Gulf Coast and on sandy river flats in Missouri and Mississippi, and the Prothonotary Warbler that nests in tree cavities throughout the region’s floodplain forests.
In the last century, the Lower Mississippi River valley has lost over 80 percent of its forested wetlands. Without these critical habitats to absorb more frequent and intense flooding driven by climate change, our communities and economy are at increasingly at risk. By 2030, river flood risk across the entire Mississippi Basin is expected to threaten $4.2 billion in GDP annually. This flood risk disproportionately affects low-income communities, communities of color, and Tribal Nations and Indigenous communities.
As climate threats grow and human development continues to expand in urban and suburban areas throughout the watershed, we must reconnect the landscape and improve management on protected lands to protect both birds and people.
To identify the most important areas for birds and people in this region, we overlaid maps of the habitats that 16 priority birds need with data on projected climate impacts, the locations of socially vulnerable communities, and valuable areas for carbon sequestration.
As a result, we created an interactive map of the habitats we’ve prioritized across the region based on their importance to maintain, adapt, or restore in response to climate change and other threats. This map is available online for the conservation community to use as decision-support tool. Using this map as our guide, Audubon will deploy natural infrastructure solutions that restore and enhance ecosystems like wetlands and floodplains, to help make communities and ecosystems more resilient to the impacts of climate change.
Audubon is building on decades of work throughout the region, from the on-the-ground science and conservation at our centers and sanctuaries, to our advocacy efforts on key issues like clean energy, water management, and coastal restoration. For example, Audubon has been a leader on efforts to restore coastal habitat along the Gulf of Mexico and important habitats for migratory species in the Mississippi River Delta. For nearly 10 years, the Audubon Center at Riverlands has partnered with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers St. Louis District to discover how we can better manage the 49,000 acres of Corps-owned floodplain forests along the Mississippi and Illinois rivers for birds.
Now with a regional lens, we are scaling up our commitment to the Lower Mississippi River to produce lasting results for birds and communities across this important part of the ecosystem.