High-severity fires have occurred for millennia, but historically were isolated to cool, moist forests that burned infrequently. Due to the practice of fire suppression that has become common in modern times, today’s fires are fed by over a century’s worth of accumulated fuel. Further, a warming, drying climate in the American West has dried the fuel, and expanding human development and recreation have increased ignition sources – the proverbial match in the tinderbox. These factors allow high-severity fires to burn indiscriminately across forest types. Projections vary, but all agree that the number of acres burned by these fires that are extreme in both size and intensity – now known as megafires – will increase in coming decades. Let’s take a look at what these modern wildfires mean for wildlife, and birds in particular.
The forests of the American West have long been sculpted by fire. Modern human expansion and land management practices often suppress natural fires, an in the absence of natural fire, forest conditions have been changing. Modern “megafires” are largely a result of these changes. But what were forests like before the “megafire” era? And how can our understanding of historical fire regimes improve our management practices today?
The Private Lands Wildlife Biologist (PLWB) program is a crucial pillar in Bird Conservancy’s three-pronged approach to avian conservation through science, education, and stewardship. Our PLWBs work across the western Great Plains and eastern Rocky Mountains, often in rural and remote communities. Their jobs are complex, challenging, and incredibly rewarding. Recently, several of our current Private Lands Wildlife Biologists (PLWBs) visited with their predecessors to hear their reflections on how working as a PLWB for Bird Conservancy influenced their future career path, capturing insights that to inform our current cohort of biologists and seeking inspiration after all the challenges of working in people-centric conservation during a global pandemic.
The past year of pandemic life has been a struggle for most us in many ways. For a field biologist who truly values time outdoors and in nature, the transition to telework and isolation is particularly impactful. But forced solitude leads to unexpected new perspectives, including a stronger connection to the land, nature, and community.
Ever notice what appear to be small ponds on the grasslands during spring? These are ‘playa lakes’ — temporary wetlands that dot the prairies of the western Great Plains. Playas are shallow depressions lined with clay soil that holds rain water. Healthy playas are a win-win for water conservation and birds. They benefit people by helping replenish groundwater, filtering water and assisting with flood control. They also provide wildlife habitat and important stopover points for migrating birds. Over the years, many playas have become degraded and are disappearing from the landscape. However, with proper restoration and management, playas can return to their full potential.
With over 70% of landownership in the Great Plains and Intermountain West being privately owned, landowners are one of the keys to conservation of wildlife habitat. Many at-risk bird species use private lands during their annual life-cycle. Our Private Lands Wildlife biologists work assist landowners in navigating the complex process for securing funding for management plans, habitat enhancements, and infrastructure improvements on working lands through USDA Farm Bill. By targeting the specific needs of local stakeholders and geographic areas, we not only make funding more accessible, but we use the resources more efficiently to ensure conservation is happening where it’s needed most.
The U.S. and Canada have lost almost 3 billion birds since 1970. Grassland bird species suffered the steepest declines, losing an estimated 53% of their population, or more than 720 million birds. Established in 1985, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is one of the USDA’s largest voluntary conservation programs within the Farm Bill, and it’s also very important to birds that rely on grassland habitat. Unfortunately, enrollment in the program is declining, but our private lands stewardship program works to provide landowners with viable options to keep their fields in grassland habitat beyond CRP.
LandPKS (Potential Knowledge System) is a mobile phone app that makes digital soil and vegetation data and knowledge available in the palm of your hand. Bird Conservancy of the Rockies is excited to have helped develop a new LandPKS Habitat module specifically designed for ranchers, farmers, wildlife conservationists, educators and other land managers who are interested in using innovative technology to understand their landscape values and enhance wildlife habitat on their lands.