Press Room

Audubon Report Identifies Priority Conservation Areas for Disappearing North American Grassland Birds

America’s ranchers will play a key role in protecting grassland birds and the places they need in a fragmented and climate-vulnerable landscape.

DALLAS — Today, the National Audubon Society published its North American Grasslands & Birds Report, a comprehensive analysis of climate change vulnerabilities and land-use threats facing grassland bird species dependent on the tallgrass, mixed grass, and shortgrass prairies in the United States and Canada as well as the Chihuahuan grasslands in Mexico.

Under the current carbon emissions scenario, nearly half (42 percent) of grassland bird species will become highly vulnerable by the end of this century. That number drops to one in twelve (8 percent) grassland bird species, if the emissions reductions surpass targets set by the Paris Climate Agreement.[1]

To help prioritize conservation action across this imperiled ecosystem, the report identifies “climate strongholds” in North America that will provide the best habitat for declining grassland birds under all climate change scenarios and ongoing land conversion.

“Each year more and more of North America’s grasslands and prairies disappear under the plow while our changing climate will only further squeeze the birds of this misunderstood landscape,” said Brian Trusty, vice president of the Central Flyway for National Audubon Society.

“The good news is that we know exactly where we need to focus, who we need to work with, and how we can save this irreplaceable and quickly vanishing ecosystem.”

The North American Grasslands & Birds Report begins with a peer-reviewed assessment of the vulnerability of 38 grassland bird species under three different climate change scenarios representing a 1.5°C, 2.0°C and 3.0°C increase in global mean temperature. Each species was given a vulnerability score: neutral, low, moderate and high, based on how much habitat the species was projected to lose vs. its adaptive capacity to make up for those losses. Underscoring the urgent need to reduce emissions and protect existing habitat, three species are considered highly vulnerable under any scenario: Henslow’s Sparrow, McCown’s Longspur and Baird’s Sparrow.

“For grassland birds to have the best shot at survival, we need to get serious about climate change and immediately reduce carbon pollution. At the same time we can protect and restore grassland habitat in climate strongholds, which are places we know birds will need in the future,” said Dr. Chad Wilsey, vice president of conservation science for Audubon and lead author of the North American Grasslands & Birds Report. We have to act now because the fates of grassland birds will ultimately foreshadow the fate of the grasslands themselves and the people and other wildlife who depend on them,” said Wilsey.

Furthermore, the report identifies Grassland Climate and Land-use Strongholds (GCLUs), key regions within North American grasslands that would retain climate suitability in all three climate scenarios as well as high land use suitability for grassland birds, based on 21st-century land-use change projections.[2] The report also identified Vulnerable Grassland Climate Strongholds (VGCSs) as areas with high climate suitability but high risk of conversion to unsuitable land uses (e.g. croplands, urban areas, bare ground or forests). These categorizations can be used to inform and guide conservation efforts.

For example, Audubon’s own high-priority regions for continued and expanded efforts in grassland bird conservation will include:

  1. Prairie Potholes Region and surrounding grasslands of Northern Great Plains (Dakotas, Montana, and southern Canada) are breeding grounds for grassland birds, including Bobolink, Western Meadowlark, and Chestnut-collared Longspur.
  2. Shortgrass prairie corridor forming the western half of the Southern Great Plains region (New Mexico, Texas, Colorado), including grassland birds such as Lark Bunting, Horned Lark, Loggerhead Shrike, Chestnut-collared Longspur, McCown’s Longspur, Mountain Plover, Western Meadowlark.
  3. Gulf Coast Prairie (Texas), vulnerable grasslands home to birds like Sprague’s Pipit, Dickcissel, and the endangered Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken, a subspecies of Greater Prairie-Chicken found only on the Gulf Coast Prairie.
  4. Chihuahuan grasslands (northeastern Mexico), wintering grounds for 85 percent of grassland birds found in Northern Great Plains, including Chestnut-collared Longspur, McCown’s Longspur, Baird’s Sparrow, Sprague’s Pipit, Horned Lark, Savannah Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow and Mountain Plover.

“Grassland birds are down but they’re not out, and by working together with the American rancher we’re going to give them the best possible chance to succeed,” said Trusty.

Since 84 percent of the remaining grasslands are privately owned, Audubon’s grasslands conservation strategy will focus on four key approaches:

  1. Technical support from Audubon staff to private landowners and ranchers to assist their transition to bird-friendly management practices via Habitat Management Plans (HMPs), which are tailored to improve property-specific bird and grassland conservation.
  2. Enhancement and protection of critical grassland bird habitat through financial incentives and acquisition of voluntary term or permanent conservation easements.
  3. Catalyzing market-based incentives for grassland conservation by empowering consumers to invest in healthy grasslands through Audubon’s Conservation Ranching Initiative certification and promote emerging markets that invest in natural climate solutions, like soil sequestration. Currently, Audubon’s Conservation Ranching Initiative includes 68 ranches totaling nearly 2 million acres across 12 states.
  4. Supporting incentives for grassland bird habitat protection and reduction of land use conversion through conservation-minded federal and state policies like the Farm Bill and adequately funded State Wildlife Action Plans.

By the Numbers

  • Only 11 percent of tallgrass prairie, 24 percent of mixed grass and 54 percent of shortgrass prairie that once covered North America remain.
  • Less than nine percent of remaining grasslands have any form of protection—only five percent of it by the federal government.
  • Eighty-four percent of remaining grasslands are on private lands.
  • Eighty-five percent of grassland bird species that breed on Northern Great Plains spend their winters in Chihuahuan grasslands, but only five percent of Chihuahuan desert remains suitable wintering habitat.

To learn more about the findings and recommendations in Audubon's North American Grasslands & Birds Report, please read the executive summary here

About Audubon 

The National Audubon Society protects birds and the places they need, today and tomorrow, throughout the Americas using science, advocacy, education and on-the-ground conservation. Audubon's state programs, nature centers, chapters and partners have an unparalleled wingspan that reaches millions of people each year to inform, inspire and unite diverse communities in conservation action. Since 1905, Audubon's vision has been a world in which people and wildlife thrive. Audubon is a nonprofit conservation organization. Learn more how to help at www.audubon.org and follow us on Twitter and Instagram at @audubonsociety.

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Contact: Nicolas Gonzalez, ngonzalez@audubon.org, (212) 979-3068.

 

[1] Wilsey, C., L. Taylor, B. Bateman, C. Jensen, N. Michel, A. Panjabi, and G. Langham (2019). Climate policy action needed to reduce vulnerability of conservation-reliant grassland birds in North America. Conservation Science and Practice

[2] Grand, J., C. Wilsey, J. X. Wu, and N. L. Michel (2019). The future of North American grassland birds: Incorporating persistent and emergent threats into full annual cycle conservation priorities. Conservation Science and Practice

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