BIRD CONSERVANCY OF THE ROCKIES
Message from the Director and Board Chair
2020 is one for the history books!
Our year began with excitement about celebrating our roots with Bald Eagles and Barr Lake, and looking ahead with a clear vision for a bright future. Then the COVID-19 fog rolled in. Our staff, volunteers and board members were put to the test. How would we share our passion and expertise with others under this cloud? How could we connect on a personal level in a time of physical distancing? Was it even possible to safely do our work?
Partnerships and ingenuity were our lighthouses. Our scientists worked with partners to safeguard the health of our staff and the communities where we work. We successfully delivered a field season that advanced our understanding of birds across the landscape. Our private lands biologists found new ways to engage landowners—relationships that typically start with a handshake! Whether on the phone or through physically-distanced outdoor visits, they delivered conservation aimed at converting cultivated land back to grasslands, conserving water and improving rangeland health. Their perseverance and resilience embody the heart and soul of our organization.
Our environmental educators, who draw energy and enjoyment from seeing others inspired by nature, quickly adapted to provide those experiences remotely. They created programs for people of all ages to explore close to home—in their yards, local parks and neighborhoods. In-person, small group programs were carefully reinstated while meeting health and safety requirements. Whether virtual or limited in-person, these programs filled our educator’s hearts while imparting knowledge and enjoyment during a difficult time.
The scourge of racial injustice at every level of society served as a wake-up call to our own scientific and conservation community. We must widen the circle to ensure Black, Indigenous, people of color, diverse abilities, orientations and other underrepresented groups are included and have a voice. We are committed to making Bird Conservancy of the Rockies reflect the communities where we work and that we serve, expanding our reach to underserved audiences and creating opportunities for participation.
Thank you for persevering with us, tuning in and supporting our mission. Your participation and friendship lifted the fog and affirmed the importance of our work. Your gifts ensured our resiliency when we needed it most. You gave us hope and helped retain our talented staff for the future. You are making the future bright for people, birds and land. We look forward to 2021 and beyond with you.
2020 Stories and Accomplishments
Using technology to track grassland bird migration
Bird Conservancy of the Rockies and partners are developing a network of automated radio telemetry stations to span the Great Plains and Chihuahuan Desert geography. This exciting project combines technological advances with avian research and conservation efforts across the full annual cycle of grassland birds.
The stations are part of the Motus Wildlife Tracking Network and are able to detect birds wearing tiny coded radio transmitter tags as they pass by the stations during migration. Each station can detect tagged birds at great distances, even up to 15 miles away. This large-scale regional network of stations will gather data that can be shared with researchers to address knowledge gaps in the migratory pathways and nonbreeding ecology of high priority grassland birds.
In the summer of 2020, we installed two Motus stations in Colorado: one at Soapstone Prairie Natural Area, north of Fort Collins, and another station at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, near Denver. An additional 20 stations are planned on the Great Plains, as well as on the wintering grounds in Chihuahua, Mexico, all part of a much-larger network being built through the Partners in Flight (PIF) Motus Initiative .
2020 Science Highlights
A Safe and Successful Field Season
In spite of a global pandemic, Bird Conservancy and partners safely and successfully conducted our 13th consecutive year of landbird monitoring for the Integrated Monitoring in Bird Conservation Regions (IMBCR) program. Crew leaders and field technicians followed a Covid-19 safety protocol based on local and national guidelines and partner input, and not a single incidence of Covid-19 was reported. 98 percent of the 2020 sampling effort was achieved, with 259,263 individual birds representing 348 different species detected across 849,707 square miles. Data collected through IMBCR are essential to understanding changes in bird populations over time and over large spatial and temporal scales. With large-scale declines of avian populations and the loss, fragmentation and degradation of native habitats, monitoring is increasingly critical to help guide applied conservation on-the-ground.
Monitoring Beyond Borders
2020 marked a milestone with over 1 million acres being actively monitored for bird responses to restoration and management activities on public and private lands, from Montana to Mexico. The Sustainable Grazing Network (SGN) is a voluntary network of ranchlands in Northern Mexico that supports grassland bird habitat. Nearly 30 priority grassland bird species overwinter in the Chihuahuan Desert, making it critical to understand their populations and distribution in the region. Since 2013, Bird Conservancy and our partners at IMC-Vida Silvestre have worked to maintain, enhance and restore SGN grasslands through a science-based, working lands and adaptive-management approach. We have implemented over 270 range and habitat projects there, such as range management infrastructure improvements to support planned grazing. Habitat restoration and enhancements include shrub control and sub-soil aeration.
Affirming Conservation Investment
Grasslands are imperiled ecosystems and many grassland bird populations continue to decline precipitously. In North America, large-scale conversion of native grassland to row-crop agriculture since is thought to be a major driver. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) provides financial incentives for private landowners to convert cropland to perennial grass cover. These “renewal” conservation approaches integrate science, habitat restoration and ‘working’ landscapes to jointly maximize human well-being and biodiversity outcomes. Using Integrated Monitoring in Bird Conservation Regions (IMBCR) data, we studied if CRP on the Great Plains could mitigate the loss of native habitat and serve as refugia for grassland bird biodiversity. CRP was shown to create conditions that in part replicate native prairie landscapes, providing suitable habitat, and offsetting the grassland bird declines caused by habitat loss.
Toward resilient and sustainable grasslands for birds, wildlife and people
Across North America, scientists estimate we have lost approximately three billion birds in the past 50 years. Grassland birds have suffered the steepest losses, with a population decline of 720 million birds. The situation for some species is severe, exceeding 80% cumulative losses. This includes iconic species such as Sprague’s Pipit, Baird’s Sparrow, Mountain Plover, Chestnut-collared Longspur and Lesser Prairie-Chicken. The primary causes are habitat loss and degradation. This is not entirely surprising, since an average of two million acres of grassland are lost each year to development, agricultural conversion, and other land uses.
Prosperous grasslands are also critical to people for everything from food to fiber, to cultural identity. Rural communities and economies depend on healthy grasslands and the services they provide which include aquifer recharge, productive rangelands, outdoor recreation and more. The cultural heritage of those that tend the land and call it home—from ranchers to Indigenous Peoples to ejidos—is also closely tied to these landscapes.
Despite their importance, the plight of grasslands has been largely overlooked. In 2020, Bird Conservancy helped launch a new initiative which aims to chart a better future for this precious resource. The Central Grasslands Roadmap brings together over 200 organizations representing eight diverse sectors to share and leverage best practices, spur research and innovation, and support policy and funding initiatives across the Central Flyway. The effort dovetails perfectly with Bird Conservancy’s avian monitoring, research and private lands stewardship programs across western North America by advancing bird conservation through habitat restoration and improvement, supporting biodiversity, increasing productivity and building resiliency.
Enhancing the Visitor Experience
at our Environmental Learning Center
2020 kicked off the first of many planned improvements at our Environmental Learning Center (ELC) at Barr Lake. Through a generous grant from Adams County Open Space, the landscape around the Old Stone House was first in a series of planned upgrades designed to enhance the visitor experience and functionality of our facilities for educational programming.
The goal was to improve the habitat for wildlife and people, a space where visitors could enjoy native plants and learn how to create bird-friendly oases in their own lives. This and other planned improvements are part of our vision to provide an inspiration point to connect with birds, nature and Colorado’s iconic Front Range landscape.
Four distinct areas feature native grasses, trees, shrubs and forbs. Habitat types demonstrated include grasslands, shrublands, forests and wetlands. Drought-tolerant plants were selected to provide seeds and habitat for beneficial insects. We eagerly await summer to see how our new plants will fill in and provide enjoyment for people, and habitat and a haven for birds and other wildlife.
2020 Education Highlights
Adapt and Thrive
Our educational programs aim to build support for bird conservation, raise the next generation of decision makers and scientists, and increase participation in and exposure to bird conservation science. But how do you achieve this when everyone is staying home? Naturally, it’s time to adapt and evolve. We swiftly transitioned to a virtual world, delivering online programs on topics like bird I.D., avian migration, land stewardship, bird-friendly living, native plants, the science of conservation, and much more. Our geographic “reach” ranged from local school groups to viewers from overseas! Later, in-person programs were modified to meet health & safety guidelines, enabling us to offer outdoor experiences for small groups and families at a time when people needed it most.
Bird Banding Breakthroughs
As with other educational programs, operating a network of bird banding stations that “enable the public to see wild birds up close and experience science in action” is tough to do during a pandemic. Keeping staff, volunteers and visitors safe while still delivering a banding station season required similar quick-thinking and new procedures. Among those was enabling ‘virtual visits’ to our banding stations with partners like Denver Audubon, using technology to connect with people remotely. Meanwhile, safety guidelines and local health protocols guided our staffing operations and in-person visits. In the end, we successfully and safely gathered valuable data about resident and migratory birds while simultaneously providing the kinds of life-changing experiences that come from seeing a bird in the hand.
Nebraska’s tourism slogan is “Honestly, it’s not for everyone.” But Western Nebraska has been a part of our family since 2007, reaching 1-in-3 kids on the panhandle through our place-based programs and experiences. In addition to bird banding station field trips, we offer in-class programs, professional development for educators, and family and community science programs such as annual BioBlitzes. The pandemic pause provided an opportunity for renewed investment in our Nebraska program planning, even as the team adjusted to safely delivering in-person fall programs. Our bird banding stations at Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area and Chadron State Park not only welcomed many visitors, but had a record-setting year in terms of birds banded!
Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility (DEIA)
2020 was a year of reckoning. The impacts of the pandemic exacerbated many social and economic inequalities that were already deeply impactful. Traumatic events sparked major movements seeking real change. The birding world was not spared in this long overdue moment of introspection. An incident in Central Park brought into stark contrast the roles of race, privilege and who has access to and feels comfortable in our parks and natural areas. The subsequent creation of Black Birders Week sought to promote diversity and challenge racism in the outdoors.
We believe that birds and their habitats are natural wonders to be appreciated by all. We also recognize that more than sentiment is needed—that change requires real commitment and concrete actions. In 2020, we formed a DEIA committee consisting of staff and board to spur intentional and thoughtful progress to promote diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice in our organization.
Using Denver Foundation’s Inclusiveness Project as a guide, we commit to moving beyond our past history, implicit biases and organizational culture to greatly expand and improve our prior efforts to engage historically-underserved audiences of all types. We are integrating these principles of practice into every aspect of our work.
As we reflect on a difficult year, we do so with the hope of a better future that we can build together. We welcome feedback and suggestions as we navigate our collaborative path forward. Please contact us to discuss opportunities to partner with and support this work, or simply to share your ideas and thoughts.
In 2020, our Stewardship team broadened our footprint to deliver habitat conservation with 12 Private Lands Wildlife Biologists in six U.S. states. When deciding where to expand our footprint, we considered factors such as which birds are most in need of conservation and where on the landscape they occur.
We answered these questions using recent research from our Science team, which found avian species occupancy and richness increased across the landscape in response to forest thinning. These data helped inform the location of a second Private Lands Wildlife Biologist (PLWB) in Cañon City, Colorado where we will help Front Range landowners create more heterogeneous forest structure on their property for the benefit of forest-obligate birds, forest health and wildfire mitigation.
Explore the Map! Click a pin to view land stewardship project highlights from 2020.
Next, original research by Bird Conservancy’s Science team documented that the Conservation Reserve Program, a program administered by the USDA Farm Service Agency which provides rental rate incentives for producers to convert marginal cropland back to grass, also provides critical habitat for several declining grassland bird species. Armed with this information and with the critical support of a NFWF Restore grant and private family foundation, we added two PLWBs in eastern Colorado to help landowners re-enroll their fields into CRP or transition to other land uses that provide permanent grass cover for agriculture and wildlife. Additionally, we backfilled five existing PLWB positions this year, and are thrilled to have such a strong team working to conserve birds and their habitats.
2020 Stewardship Highlights
X Marks the Spot: Targeting Funding for Increased Impact
Many at-risk bird species use private lands during their annual life-cycle, making private landowners critical partners. Funding through USDA Farm Bill programs helps support conservation improvements on private lands, but the process is competitive and resources limited. In 2020, our Private Lands Wildlife biologists overcame these challenges by securing targeted, community-driven funding and providing technical support for dozens of projects on privately-owned land for the benefit of agriculture and bird habitat. . Among these were a cost share for reseeding roughly 4,000 acres of cropland back to perennial grass cover in western Dawson County, MT. Further south in Colorado along the San Luis Valley’s Rio Grande River corridor, we partnered with the Intermountain West Joint Venture to upgrade irrigation structures, which will better manage water to flood irrigate approximately 2,000 acres of wet meadows used by species such as migrating Greater Sandhill Crane and White-faced Ibis. Success builds excitement, and we are looking forward to seeing how landowner interest in these areas builds as a result of these targeted funding programs.
Land PKS: Integrating bird habitat relationships into an existing phone application
New tools combined with existing technologies are constantly bridging the gap between data accessibility and land management. Smartphones are essentially computers that fit in our pocket, making them powerful platforms for software such as the LandPKS (Potential Knowledge System). This mobile phone app, originally created by the USDA-Agricultural Research Service, makes digital soil and vegetation information readily available. It’s widely used in arid environments around the globe to collect soil, vegetation and other data. Bird Conservancy is excited to have partnered with the Nature Conservancy and others to 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. The module includes detailed guidance about habitat preferences for over 25 bird species, as well as plants, reptiles and mammals. LandPKS and this habitat module are available for download on Google Android and Apple iPhone.
Community and Conservation Leadership
Riley, his wife Jimmie, and the Kammerer family live in Piedmont, South Dakota. His family has raised beef cattle on the operation for 138 years. Riley is dedicated to the continuation of his family’s ranching heritage in context with the region where they live. He is an active member of his community, serving on the local fire department, participating in landowner networking groups, and is a board member for South Dakota Grasslands Coalition. Bird Conservancy connected with Riley through the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office in Sturgis, South Dakota, where our Private Lands Wildlife Biologist, Jenn Lutze is based. Last year, Jenn began working with him on a Conservation Stewardship Program project on his property, providing technical support, resources and helping identify funding opportunities. The collaboration includes a prescribed grazing plan, and adding infrastructure improvements like additional fencing to add flexibility to Riley’s grazing options, ultimately helping promote pasture biodiversity and increase productivity.
From atop one of the tallest hills on the property, one can see the beautiful mixed-grass prairie, his neighbors’ ranches, and hear the songbirds. You can also see the construction of new homes moving in. Every year, Rapid City’s urban footprint expands, threatening his family’s livelihood. Concerned about unchecked growth and recognizing the need for conservation, Riley is working with his neighbors to buy land when he can, helping slow development. They are also looking at other options, such as Conservation easements with land trusts that balance the needs of working lands with wildlife habitat management goals.
Such innovative partnerships create win-win solutions that enable farmers and ranchers to continue working and living on the landscape, ensuring family traditions continue to the next generation while also conserving critical bird habitat. Riley Kammerer is a shining example of how ranchers can steward their land to benefit livestock production while meeting conservation goals through proactive, voluntary conservation measures. Working alongside landowners like Riley and partners like NRCS and South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, with shared goals, we can help conserve some of the last remaining intact grasslands in North America, vital areas for grassland breeding birds, all of which are in steep population declines.
Ensuring a Thriving Conservancy
Making our 20/20 vision a reality!
For more than 30 years, Bird Conservancy of the Rockies has been a leader in bird conservation across the West. Our success is in no small part due to strong partnerships, our collaborative approach and the generosity of people just like you. Ensuring a strong organization for the future is a vital component of our strategic plan, which emphasizes sustainable and adaptive operations, investing in our people and infrastructure, and diversifying our funding streams. Similar to many of our colleagues, our financial performance was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
We had to cancel most of our in-person educational programming, some of our scientific monitoring, and various other programs due to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) COVID-19 mandated travel and safety restrictions. Our conservation efforts continued where possible while applying CDC safety standards and reducing costs. All Bird Conservancy fulltime staff were retained during the pandemic because the organization received funding through the Payroll Protection Program (PPP) which helped cover staff salaries and benefits.
Despite all of the challenges 2020 presented the organization, we managed to have positive net income thanks to our generous donors, management cost saving efforts and the receipt of PPP funding. Your continued support of Bird Conservancy will help the organization to remain resilient during challenging times. Thank you for being a part of our story – past, present and future!
The financial information provided here is a 2020 summary. Detailed annual financial statements are available for download here.