Ken Rosenberg, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, American Bird Conservancy; and
Bob Ford, Partners in Flight US National Coordinator
Thirty years ago, Partners in Flight emerged as a significant catalyst to the changing landscape of wildlife management and conservation. Our simple mission of proactive, voluntary, science-based conservation for common birds before they require costly Endangered Species Act listing provided a mechanism to implement new concepts in Conservation Biology, such as the importance of reducing habitat fragmentation and full annual cycle migratory connectivity. Our broad network engaged agencies, NGOs, academics, and industry to identify and remove conservation bottlenecks across a hemisphere of species’ movements. PIF’s motto “keeping common birds common” resonated with decision-makers and funders.
Many in the wildlife professional community began to see “nongame” conservation in a different light. Instead of small-scale projects, such as supplementing habitats with nest boxes or hacking endangered raptors, bird conservation became identified with complex challenges that could only be solved with large-landscape conservation planning combined with active management on the ground. Gary Myers, Director of Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency at the time, said it simply and well, “birds are just like ducks”— meaning that population declines of Neotropical migrants and other birds could be addressed just like we have with ducks, by understanding population dynamics and habitats across landscapes, and by implementing science-based objectives with dedicated funding.
Although best known for its species assessment process and database, continental and regional landbird conservation plans, and the launching of International (now World) Migratory Bird Day, PIF’s influence on the bird-conservation landscape has been much more far-ranging. Below are just a few of the conservation mainstays that owe their origins to PIF priorities and people:
- Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act (NMBCA) was enacted in 2000 as a migratory bird equivalent of the North American Wetlands Conservation Act and is a primary source of funding for full life-cycle bird conservation, especially internationally. July 2020 will mark the Act’s 20th anniversary. NMBCA was recently bumped to $5,000,000, but still is funded at a small fraction of what is needed to conserve nearly 400 species of neotropical migratory birds.
- State Wildlife Grants program and Action Plans (SWAPs) began with participation of state nongame biologists in PIF regional Working Groups, and the bird Species of Greatest Conservation Need in SWAPS were largely derived from PIF species assessment database.
- The USFWS Migratory Bird Program, especially regional Migratory Bird Programs, expanded in scope and importance – many regional FWS biologists came out of original PIF network. The Birds of Conservation Concern list for non-listed species also came largely from PIF database.
- Migratory Bird Joint Ventures (JVs), a highly successful model of private-public partnerships for on-the-ground habitat conservation, expanded to “All Birds” and filled in “white spaces” in geography, thanks to the vision of David Pashley.
- Large growth in private lands habitat conservation programs in the Farm Bill, and across federal and state agencies, are focused in part on high-priority PIF species—grassland birds, sage-grouse, Cerulean and Golden-winged Warblers, which all share habitats with important game species.
Largely due to these sea-changes in the way birds are managed, initiated and promoted by PIF, we have seen a trajectory towards recovery of endangered species and voluntary proactive conservation as an alternative to listing; some examples:
- Remarkable recovery of Bald Eagle and Peregrine to the point of delisting, and associated increase across the board in raptor populations
- Kirtland’s Warbler recovery and delisting—shift to voluntary, partnership-driven management of this conservation-reliant species
- Cerulean Warbler and others have been precluded from listing precisely because of the proactive, non-regulatory partnership-driven conservation approach that PIF has provided.
Partners in Flight’s 30th anniversary is a time to renew our commitment to cutting-edge science and the implementation of new and creative ideas to halt population declines of many species. The technology available to gain and transfer knowledge, from satellite tracking to eBird, has no parallel in history. The ability to act on that knowledge and implement conservation is always difficult, but it can be achieved. As news of 3 billion birds lost from the North American avifauna still echoes, Partners in Flight can, once again, be a catalyst for change. Please join us in reimagining bird conservation for the next 30 years.