Collaborative Monitoring of Landbirds to Inform Landscape-level Management

This map shows the geographic coverage of breeding landbird sampling in 2011. Each Bird Conservation Region is a sampling unit and is further stratified by state boundary, land ownership (e.g., US Forest Service unit), or in some cases major landscape feature (e.g., large rivers, such as the Upper Missouri River and its tributaries). Map prepared by Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory

Birds are sensitive to environmental change. The history of bird conservation is ripe with examples of birds signaling landscape change or environmental contaminants. In fact, birds often show population-level responses to change more quickly than many other species groups. Monitoring patterns in bird distribution and abundance can, therefore, serve as an early indication of environmental shifts. Climate change appears to be no exception, as an analysis of Christmas Bird Count data revealed some birds, such as pine siskin and pygmy nuthatch, are wintering farther north, presumably in response to warming conditions.

We are monitoring the distribution and abundance of breeding landbirds across all or portions of five states and six Bird Conservation Regions in the mountains and prairies of the western United States. Bird Conservation Regions were established and defined by the North American Bird Conservation Initiative as the scale most relevant to bird populations.

Our point level information is being used by numerous project partners to develop maps of predicted distribution, occupancy, and abundance based on environmental correlates. As conditions change, information gathered through this program can be used to identify areas of greatest change in species distribution and may help to identify those factors driving observed change. Managers, then, will have information on the most critical areas to conserve or manage proactively for species occurrence, thus leading to persistence of birds and bird diversity as we experience long-term changes in precipitation, temperature, and other climate-driven factors.

How Partners Are Using Monitoring Data

Identification of priority habitat for long-billed curlews will be used to focus conservation efforts for this species as part of a new long-billed curlew habitat initiative in Bird Conservation Region 10, Montana. Partners are using data collected through this program to develop spatial tools like this curlew map to prioritize conservation action. Map prepared by Intermountain West Joint Venture and American Bird Conservancy

The Intermountain West Joint Venture and American Bird Conservancy are using these data in development and refinement of a species-habitat relational database that can be used to identify priority habitats for conservation for sensitive species. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and Montana Natural Heritage Program are using these data, with other data sets available, in models of habitat potential that are included in Montana’s Crucial Areas Planning System (CAPS).

CAPS is a spatial tool designed to identify areas of high resource value to the state and is available online to developers, county planners and other land use planners. The value of CAPS, or any model-based tool, is intrinsically linked to the quality of the data defining the models. Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory is pioneering methods to develop occupancy-based habitat models, which are more refined than models based on presence only data. Our intent is to develop predictive occupancy-habitat models for priority species in Bird Conservation Region 10 (Northern Rockies) and other regions within the next 12 to 18 months.

Sampling of Grassland, Sagebrush, and Riparian Systems

Grassland and sagebrush systems have traditionally been undersampled in bird monitoring programs leading to a lack of basic information on species distribution in these systems. Grasslands and sagebrush are also the systems most likely to be converted to agriculture, developed for energy or housing, or experience other anthropogenic changes. Grassland and sagebrush-associated birds are, not coincidentally, showing some of the steepest declines in population trend.

Riparian areas are one of the systems most threatened by subdivision development yet riparian and wetland areas support the highest diversity of birds of any system. The Great Northern LCC is supporting sampling in areas where it is most critical to develop robust estimates of species occurrence and habitat associations.

Trained surveyors record all bird species seen or heard on each 6-minute point count conducted within selected sample grids. Project wide, 290 species were recorded in 2010. We calculated density estimates for 150 species, including 59 priority species, and occupancy estimates for 149 species, including 75 priority species. Photo courtesy of Susan Leonard, Montana Natural Heritage Program

New Partnerships Integrate Monitoring into Conservation Planning

In addition to providing useful tools and information for managing bird populations and habitats, this monitoring program is galvanizing state-based conservation partnerships. The Montana Bird Conservation Partnership is working on species initiatives designed to conserve priority habitats using a strategic habitat conservation framework. Monitoring information is critical for developing the initial tools for biological planning and conservation design, all components for successfully targeting habitat conservation in areas most important to species persistence. Monitoring to evaluate success of conservation action is equally important.

A newly formed Idaho Bird Conservation Partnership is using this monitoring program as a springboard to developing a coordinated approach to bird conservation in Idaho. Partnerships like these have proven to be powerful constructs for affecting management response to resource issues. As climate change becomes a more evident reality, engaged partnerships will become even more critical for conserving our natural legacy.

Male savanna sparrow, a grassland species, with invertebrate prey. Photo courtesy of John Carlson

This article was contributed by Catherine Wightman, Bird Conservation Coordinator, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. More information on the monitoring program, including a new peer-reviewed methods paper and summary data, or the partnerships can be found at Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory and Montana Bird Conservation Partnership.

Products from this project will be available on the GNLCC's Landscape Conservation Management and Analysis Portal.