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State of the Birds Report

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A Model for Conservation on Public Lands



• All of our nation’s 46 waterfowl
species and many other wetland
birds depend on a network of National Wildlife Refuges and other
publicly protected wetlands during
all or part of their life cycle.

• Wetland birds often congregate
in the highest quality habitats,
such as National Wildlife Refuges
and other public lands.

• According to the USFWS, National
Wildlife Refuges in the Prairie Pothole Region account for less than 2% of the landscape yet produce nearly 23% of the region’s waterfowl.

• The NPS Everglades National Park and adjacent public lands and waters in Florida protect the nation’s largest freshwater marsh system, providing essential habitat for significant resident and wintering marsh bird communities.

• Wetland bird populations have increased steadily as a result of focused and ongoing wetland habitat protection, restoration, and management.

Image: Wood Duck by Gerrit Vyn  
Public land acquisition, including the establishment of National Wildlife Refuges, has targeted wetland and waterfowl conservation since the 1930s, contributing to recovery of bird populations.


Wetland Birds on Public Lands

Millions of ducks and geese gather on public wetlands every year, providing tremendous recreational opportunities for hunters and bird watchers. In the mostly arid western U.S., large protected wetlands around Great Salt Lake and the Salton Sea support millions of migratory and wintering shorebirds and waterfowl and breeding marsh birds. These include species of high conservation concern such as Clark’s Grebe, Snowy Plover, and Yuma Clapper Rail.

All federal land agencies manage some wetlands. The USFWS and many state wildlife agencies prioritize wetlands for acquisition and management because of their value for waterfowl. These wetlands are typically managed in an integrated manner that provides habitat to benefit other birds and wildlife.

At Everglades National Park and adjacent public lands in Florida, the NPS protects the largest extent of freshwater marsh in North America, supporting millions of wetland birds. BLM manages boreal forest wetlands and wet arctic tundra in Alaska that are essential for nesting waterfowl, loons, and shorebirds.

Wetland birds often congregate in the highest quality habitats. Public lands generally have greater infrastructure and management capacity to improve wetland quality and thus can support more wetland birds on fewer acres than on nonpublic lands lacking such infrastructure.

For example, in the Prairie Pothole Region, considered the "duck factory" for North America, National Wildlife Refuges account for less than 2% of the landscape, yet they are responsible for producing nearly 23% of the region’s waterfowl.

Conservation Successes

The overall health of waterfowl and other wetland-dependent bird populations in the U.S. reflects the huge investment in wetlands conservation by federal and state agencies over the past 30 years.

Since the 1930s, the USFWS has targeted the acquisition, enhancement, and restoration of wetlands and associated habitats to conserve waterfowl and other migratory bird populations. Since 1934, Federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamps ("Duck Stamps") have generated funds to purchase or lease more than 5.3 million acres of wetland habitat, now protected in the National Wildlife Refuge System.

Since 1989, the North American Wetlands Conservation Act has provided funds to federal and state agencies in the U.S. to acquire, enhance, and restore an estimated 2.9 million acres of wetlands and associated uplands for birds.

The National Wildlife Refuge System includes nearly 7,000 Waterfowl Production Areas (WPAs) that preserve vital wetlands and grasslands for millions of nesting waterfowl and other wildlife.

These WPAs preserve more than 677,000 acres of wetlands nationwide. Incorporated into the refuge system in 1966, nearly 95 percent of WPAs are in the Prairie Pothole Region. The 1991 requirement for nontoxic shot has greatly contributed to the recovery and health of waterfowl throughout the United States.

Goose Pond State Fish and Wildlife Area once was the largest cornfield in Indiana. In 2005, the state of Indiana acquired it and restored marsh habitat. It now supports many species, including breeding Blue-winged Teal and Black-crowned Night-Herons, and thousands of migrating waterbirds and waterfowl such as Sandhill Crane, Great Egret, sandpipers, and ducks. Hunters, anglers, bird watchers, and photographers now enjoy this productive wetland.

American Bittern by
Gerrit Vyn
Conservation Challenges


Freshwater is vital to the productivity of marshes and other freshwater wetlands, but it is also highly valued in agricultural and urban landscapes. The demand for freshwater by multiple constituencies creates a management challenge. On publicly protected wetlands, managing water levels to benefit birds can be difficult if water is diverted or depleted in the surrounding landscape. 

 A related challenge is the need to better protect mosaics of temporary and seasonally flooded wetlands such as playa wetlands for migrating shorebirds that need to rest and refuel as they approach breeding destinations. Additionally, the overall supply of freshwater is predicted to decrease in the future because of climate change.

 Nonnative plants have invaded wetlands, causing profound changes in wetland composition, structure, and function, which can have a negative impact on many species of birds. For example, bird diversity is lower in wetlands dominated by purple loosestrife, which has invaded many wetlands throughout the Midwest.

Most publicly owned wetlands are protected from development, but may be affected directly by other uses (e.g., contaminant runoff and sedimentation, grazing effects, dredging, disturbance). Such incompatible uses degrade the value of this habitat for wetland birds. A conservation priority on public lands is to increase the protection level of marshes.

Waterfowl are fortunate to have strong, proactive federal programs that preserve wetlands. Pesticide use for mosquito control in wetlands should be carefully managed to avoid wildlife impacts such as the spread of disease.

Continued investment in wetland conservation and management will be needed to maintain healthy populations of birds in the face of growing threats such as water diversions, intensified conversion of wetlands in urban and agricultural landscapes, and loss of federal protections for isolated wetlands.



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