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State of the Birds Report

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Wetlands


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                  At a Glance

• Three-quarters of remaining wetlands are on private lands, making them vital to wetland bird conservation.

• More than half of the U.S. historic wetland habitat base of 220 million acres has been lost.

• The Wetlands Reserve Program has restored 2.6 million acres of private wetlands habitat.

• Wetlands sustain waterfowl populations and therefore duck hunting, which contributes more than $2.3 billion in total economic output.

• Landowners and their communities see several benefits from wetlands conservation, such as flood mitigation and improved water quality.

 

Wetland photo by Jason Johnson, USDA-NRCS, Iowa   
Restoring marginal cropland on my farm that should have never been cleared has been one of the most fulfilling events in my farming career. It has been good for my business but great for the ducks.
George Dunklin, Jr., Mississippi Alluvial Valley landowner


Wetland Birds on Private Lands

Private lands are essential to wetland birds and wetland conservation, as three quarters of wetlands in the U.S. occur on private lands. And birds, by their abundance and distribution across regions and seasons, are effective indicators of the health of our nation's wetlands. More than 75% of both the breeding and wintering distributions of American Black Ducks, Blue-winged Teal, Northern Pintails, and Wood Ducks are on private wetlands. Herons, egrets, grebes, and rails also all depend on private wetlands throughout the year. Landowners and their communities likewise depend on wetlands, which provide flood mitigation, coastal buffering, ground water replenishment, improved water quality, and wetland-based recreation.

Conservation Successes 


Funding from Farm Bill programs (such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program), Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation stamps (also known as duck stamps), and the North American Wetlands Conservation Act has enabled public-private partnerships to conserve millions of acres on private lands for birds.

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  A Gulf Coast wetlands complex east of Corpus Christi, Texas—consisting of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding privately owned wetlands—provides winter habitat for the only remaining wild population of Whooping Cranes. In 2012, The Nature Conservancy, with additional funding from the Whooping Crane Conservation Association, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and other private donors and foundations, purchased a conservation easement on more than 100 acres at the Falcon Point Ranch to protect this prime parcel of coastal real estate (and important crane wintering habitat) from development.  
  Whooping Crane by Roy Brown; www.flickr.com/people/rbinv   

The Wetland Reserve Program—a Farm Bill provision that provides financial incentives for farmers and landowners to convert croplands in drained areas back into wetlands—has restored 2.6 million acres of private wetlands across the nation. In the Mississippi Alluvial Valley, more than 650,000 WRP acres from southern Illinois to Louisiana play a key role in sustaining bird populations. The valley, which retains only 20% of its original bottomland forested wetlands, is largely in private ownership and dominated by agriculture. WRP-conserved wetlands provide essential breeding habitat for waterbirds such as Wood Duck, White Ibis, and Hooded Merganser, wintering habitat for 3.5 to 4.5 million waterfowl every winter, and migratory stopover habitat for shorebirds such as Blacknecked Stilt and Greater Yellowlegs. WRP benefits human residents of the valley, too, as wetlands restored through the program have helped reduce the extent of natural flooding by as much as 88%.

In the Central Valley of California, winter-flooded wetlands support 5 to 7 million waterfowl, as well as large populations of shorebirds, rails, and bitterns. In this region, more than 90% of the original winter wetlands have been lost or highly altered, and only 400,000 acres are left today—more than 60% of which are privately owned and managed. Wetland restoration efforts here, combined with the presence of wetland-type habitat provided by ricelands, have allowed the White-faced Ibis to bounce back from near extirpation.

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Blue-winged Teal by Ducks Unlimited


Conservation Challenges

Wetlands habitat is vital for breeding, migrating, and wintering birds. More than half of our nation's historic wetland habitat base of 220 million acres has been lost, with losses exceeding 80% in some regions. Although substantial acres of wetlands have been restored and conserved through programs such as WRP, many of these gains have been offset recently. Wetland protections from the Clean Water Act have been reversed. Increasing crop prices have spurred a new wave of draining and converting wetlands for agricultural production. Residential development and urban expansion is impacting wetlands as well. Due to these pressures on our nation’s already greatly reduced supply of wetlands, a diverse mix of programs is needed to encourage and support private landowners who conserve wetlands.

In the Prairie Pothole Region of the northern Great Plains, nearly 90% of the land is in private ownership, and 40% to 90% of native wetlands have been drained, primarily for agricultural production. The key challenge here involves protecting small wetlands amid large expanses of grassy cover to support the productivity of prairie–wetland breeding birds. Prairie Pothole wetlands provide breeding habitat for dozens of waterbird species, such as Black Terns. This region is known as the “Duck Factory,” because the shallow-water basins provide protein-rich invertebrate food resources for nesting females and growing ducklings. The eastern Dakotas alone supported more than 10 million breeding dabbling ducks in recent years. Successful waterfowl breeding here is dependent on the private landowners who are stewards of so much of this habitat. Farm Bill Conservation Reserve Program payments to farmers and landowners provide economic compensation for reserving lands from planting that are not typically the most productive for growing crops. CRP lands in the Prairie Pothole Region have produced a net increase of 2 million waterfowl per year, or a 30% increase in breeding production, over the past two decades. Because duck production in the Prairie Pothole region is critical to the sustainability of North American waterfowl populations, protecting breeding habitat helps sustain the sport of duck hunting, which contributes more than $2.3 billion in total economic output and more than 27,000 jobs to the U.S. economy. “CRP is a strategy in many parts of the country for growing the economy for this reason: habitat is also tied to an expansion of outdoor recreation and it is an enormous opportunity for rural America,” said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) at 20 Years 

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This map shows more than 13,000 WRP projects on 2.6 million acres. These sites closely match habitats used by important waterfowl species, such as Wood Duck. (Breeding season distribution shown at left. Brighter areas on map indicate higher probability of occupancy. Occupancy estimates were based on bird observations from eBird and characteristics of the local environment from remote sensing data.)  


Along the Gulf Coast, marshes from Mobile Bay, Alabama, to the Rio Grande in Texas are being lost. Historically, the amount of coastal marsh fluctuated due to elemental factors (such as amount of sediment deposited in deltas), but recently the trend has been completely downward, with net wetland loss in the region currently estimated at about 10,000 acres per year. While there are many important publicly owned lands across this region, most land is privately owned. These coastal marsh wetlands constitute a continentally important habitat for migratory birds. Up to 13 million waterfowl winter here, including about 90% of the continental population of Mottled Ducks. Gulf Coast wetlands provide breeding, winter, and migration habitat to nearly every wading bird species, including Roseate Spoonbill and Wood Stork.

 

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