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?
GIS is an acronym that stands for Geographic Information Science, or Geographic Information System. This powerful technology enables Bird Conservancy Biologists to answer research questions, design scientific surveys, and measure the impacts of conservation projects on bird populations at a landscape scale.
Effective conservation requires understanding when and where species face limiting factors. For nomadic birds collecting this data can be extremely challenging. Bird Conservancy is testing out Motus for tracking the winter movements for an uncommon Colorado bird, the Brown-capped Rosy-Finch.
Bird Conservancy of the Rockies researchers are developing a network of automated radio telemetry stations to study the movement of grassland birds. This work will help fill in missing information about where these birds go during migration, and will ultimately help managers better conserve important grasslands for the birds to use into the future.
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.
Every year, our friends at Rocky Mountain Raptor Program in Fort Collins, CO receive over 300 injured, sick and orphaned birds. They are nursed back to health and more than 80% of them are released back into the wild. Last fall, bird banders at our Barr Lake State Park station enjoyed the opportunity to meet one of the recipients of their kindness in person!
We had a banner year at our banding station at Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area in Scotts Bluff County, Nebraska. 2020 proved to be our busiest season there to date. We set new highs for total banded birds and added several new species that had never been banded there before. All of this was while simultaneously adapting to meet health and safety guidelines that enabled visitors to experience bird banding firsthand in a safe way.
Each summer, migratory birds like the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher fly thousands of miles between their summer breeding grounds and wintering locations. An impressive feat under any circumstances, 2020’s fall migration brought particularly difficult challenges including record-breaking wildfires, air pollution, and extreme temperature and weather events. Sadly, many of these little international travelers did not survive.
The cultural heritage of those that tend the land and call it home—from ranchers to Indigenous Peoples to ejidos—is closely tied to the fate of grasslands. Rural communities and economies depend on healthy grasslands and the services they provide which include aquifer recharge, productive rangelands, outdoor recreation and more. Despite their importance, the plight of grasslands has been largely overlooked, but a new initiative has launched which aims to chart a better future for this precious resource.