Birds, © James P. Blair / National Geographic Stock

Preserving Grace and Beauty in Our Skies

Mary Beth Beetham, Director of Legislative Affairs

Migratory birds play many integral roles in healthy natural systems, including predators, prey, seed dispersers and pollinators, and are actively appreciated and enjoyed by millions of people across the country each year. The Migratory Bird Management program has been entrusted with the massive assignment of protecting our nation’s incredible migratory birds, but it is already underfunded for its task. The fiscal cliff or a poorly crafted end-of-the-year budget agreement could trigger more funding cuts that will severely hamper this conservation and protection work and bring even more challenges for these amazing creatures that already struggle with disease, habitat loss and the effects of climate change.

Snow Geese

Snow geese stop at Sacramento NWR during their migration route (Credit: George Lamson)

Bird-watching is also a boon to the economy. In 2011, nearly 47 million people participated in bird-watching activities in the U.S. Nature-based tourism in Texas’ Lower Rio Grande Valley, for example, is centered around enthusiasts who come to see the nearly 500 bird species recorded there. The tourism was recently found to generate $463 million per year in economic benefits for the four surrounding counties [PDF]. The 2006 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation reports that birding generated over $82 billion in total industry output, as well as 671,000 jobs and $11 billion in local, state and federal tax revenue. The reports are done every six years, so the economic information for 2012 will soon be available.

More than 1,000 species of birds occupy an array of habitats across the U.S., and 251 of them are listed under the Endangered Species Act or are of conservation concern. The first State of the Birds report in 2009 documented broad declines in U.S. bird populations; nearly all native Hawaiian birds have plummeted to the verge of extinction, as well as 39 percent of ocean birds, half of coastal shorebirds, 30 percent of arid land birds and 40 percent of grassland birds.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 protects these important avian species. It implements four international treaties for birds common to the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Japan and the former Soviet Union. Except as allowed by regulations, the Act makes it unlawful to pursue, hunt, kill, capture, possess, buy, sell or trade any migratory birds, their parts, products or features such as nests or eggs. In the U.S., the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Migratory Bird Management program enforces these regulations — it protects, manages and regulates all activities associated with migratory birds. This vital program is divided into five parts, all of which could be crippled by further budget cuts triggered by the fiscal cliff or an overall budget agreement, resulting in a huge impact on our nation’s migratory birds.

red knot

A red knot at Sunset Beach, North Carolina (Credit: Dick Daniels)

Knowing Who’s There and Protecting Them
The largest piece of the program is Conservation and Monitoring. As part of it, FWS surveys, assesses and monitors bird populations so that management actions can be based on sound scientific information. It also helps scientists understand the influence that factors such as climate change and energy development can have on bird populations.

The program also pursues strategic conservation efforts for high-priority focal species that have been selected for more intensive work, including red knot (which has declined by 75 percent in the last 20 years), Laysan albatross (which has declined by 32 percent where most of its population is found), American woodcock, long-billed curlew, American and black oystercatcher, tri-colored blackbird, Sprague’s pipit, cerulean warbler, painted bunting and black-footed albatross.

This part of the program also helps cities protect birds in urban and suburban areas by teaching cities how to reduce the chances of bird collisions with buildings, towers and other man-made structures, and improving habitats directly through its Urban Treaties initiative.

Keeping Birds Healthy
Diseases like botulism, avian cholera and influenza and West Nile virus have become a greater threat to wild bird populations as they are subjected to the added stresses of climate change, habitat fragmentation and factors like the increased use of pesticides. These diseases can also become greater problems for society as a whole if transmitted to humans or poultry. Under the Avian Health and Disease program, FWS works to protect the health of wild birds by establishing baselines for health, identifying current and emerging disease risks, investigating infectious and non-infectious diseases and doing everything possible to prevent diseases and be prepared to manage outbreaks.

Regulating Use
Under the Permits program, FWS regulates activities related to migratory birds, a well as bald and golden eagles, making sure that protected birds are only taken for the limited number of allowed reasons like scientific study, falconry, rehabilitation, education and religious use of eagles by Tribes.

Greater Sandhill Crane

A greater sandhill crane visits Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon during the fall migration (Credit: Roger Baker, USFWS)

Protecting Habitat
The Federal Duck Stamp program oversees the design and sale of the annual Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp or Duck Stamp. Funds raised by the Duck Stamp are deposited in the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund and used to purchase and protect habitat for waterfowl. In fact, since 1934, Duck Stamps have raised more than $750 million, which has allowed FWS to protect more than 5.3 million acres of habitat. Waterfowl hunters 16 and older are required to possess a valid stamp, but non-hunters can also buy them to support wetlands conservation.

Hands Across North America
Lastly, the North American Waterfowl Management/Joint Ventures program administers an international plan between the U.S., Canada and Mexico for waterfowl management across all of North America. The plan is implemented on the ground by 21 regional Joint Venture partnerships between federal, state and local governments, businesses and conservation groups. This program has several great accomplishments to its name, including permanent protection of two million acres of working forest lands in the Northwest, initiation of the San Francisco Bay wetland restoration project (the largest project of its kind on the West Coast), improvement of long leaf pine restoration in the Southeast and development of a grassland plan to conserve birds in the Chihuahuan Desert.

Please let your members of Congress know that  you support a balanced approach to address the budget deficit — one that does not include further cuts to important and beneficial wildlife conservation programs like the Migratory Bird Management Program.


One Response to “Preserving Grace and Beauty in Our Skies”

  1. Ingrid

    Dear Mary Beth,

    As a wildlife photographer and former volunteer wildlife rehabilitator I’ve spent a lot of time on refuge lands and am deeply concerned about the problems surrounding the funding shortfalls. I’ve read your recent posts on the budgetary subject, and wonder if there is any prospect of reviving a campaign for alternative funding streams from non-consumptive users?

    A fellow photographer and I (he also works with Burrowing Owl conservation) summarized our collective thoughts on why an alternative to the Duck Stamp — a birder-photographer-wildlife-watcher “Conservation Stamp” — deserves renewed consideration in the current political and fiscal climate, particularly given the figures you cite about our large numbers and what that could mean for refuge revenue.

    Our initial foray here is simply to float the idea to members of our communities, like-minded wildlife advocates, to see how much support there is for a paradigm shift of this nature. If you care to take a look, the preliminary endeavor is at this link:

    Thank you for all you do on behalf of our wildlife and our wild lands.

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