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On the State of the Birds

March 27, 2009
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I didn’t intend for my post two weeks ago on the paradox of Duck Stamps and bird conservation efforts by the US Department of the Interior to publish the week before the DoI unveiled it’s ambitious State of the Birds in conjunction with several prestigious bird minded non-profit organizations. I merely meant to comment on Salazar’s announcement that, at the time, suggested fund allotment for wetlands conservation indicated a commitment to the status quo with regard to wildlands conservation efforts; a status quo that while undeniably worthwhile, leaves a lot of birds and habitats hanging in the interests of appealing to the “traditional” outdoorsman, the folks Mike Bergin of 10,000 Birds refers to as the “hook and bullet set”.

Leave it to Salazar and Obama to set me straight, as the State of the Birds initiative goes further than Salazar indicated the week before, building on the success of wetlands restoration projects and using them as a jumping off point to bring attention to other aspects of public lands conservation beyond wetlands. Arid lands and eastern forests are specifically mentioned. Hawaii is finally given it’s due, which is really saying something as for so many North American birders it’s forgotten as outside the ABA area (I admit to being somewhat guilty there as well). I mean, we’re talking about protecting birds for birds sake, rather then as glorified targets. This is an enormous sea change and, even though it came out last week, I wanted to take a little time to think about its ramifications.

Ultimately the project is about habitats rather than species, so enthusiasts of herps and mammals and bugs and plants should be encouraged as well. Birds are flashy and noticeable to those not tuned in to nature and therefore an excellent focal point for conservation movements that need public support, or at least, don’t need to incur public wrath at perceived wasteful spending. Using the “State of the Birds” is good marketing approach for any number of projects. It’s instant credibility in many circles in a way that fish or mollusks might not be. Frankly, I couldn’t be happier about this new approach.

But at the risk of sounding like a broken record, we need more than just government attention. A big part of the reason wetlands and waterfowl projects have been so successful is because Duck Stamps and Pittman Robertson Taxes have allowed an entire segment of the interested public to help fund the projects that are needed to protect wildlife they’re specifically concerned about. These initiatives are there rain or shine, regardless of political will or who happens to be in charge at the time. And better, hunters and fishermen are proud of them and what their money does.

While it’s nice that the gaze of the government has finally deigned to look our way for once, we can’t expect that future administrations will feel the same. That’s why it’s crucial, now more than ever, that there is put in place a way for private funding to funnel to these projects. Currently the State of the Birds completely fails here. Under “What You Can Do” the suggestion is only to get involved with citizen science. With respect to the organizations involved, submitting sightings to eBird or participating in a CBC isn’t even close to enough, and, to be honest, is kind of weak on the idea front. It’s guilty of preaching to the choir because it’s easy for us to get involved, we already know about these issues and in many cases have been fighting for them for years, but without specifics such admonitions can only overwhelm potential new allies. Besides, these are old ideas, we need new ones.

We need something like the duck stamp program or the Pittman Robertson Act specifically for birders and nature enthusiasts. Maine is on the right track with their birder banding program, it’s important more people to be able to show off that they’re helping and every state should follow suit. Our legislators should levy a small percentage tax on binoculars and scopes that goes to projects mentioned in the State of the Birds. We can afford it. Publishers should advertise on field guides that a percentage of the profits goes to these programs. How much would that encourage new birders, knowing that they’re immediately making a difference upon introduction of their new hobby?

The State of the Birds launch and media attention is great, but it’s only the beginning and we shouldn’t be lulled into thinking that it can or will continue beyond the Obama administration unless we birders make a concerted effort to lay the groundwork for its maintenance. If the report makes anything clear it’s that the pressures facing birds, and all non-game wildlife, are not going away any time soon. But with a little effort and outreach, there’s a unique opportunity to make sure that we, and the actions we take now, won’t either.

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2 Comments
  1. John permalink
    March 27, 2009 1:38 pm

    I think that a binocular or field guide tax could become a dedicated stream of revenue for non-game conservation, assuming there is sufficient market for those products to create a fund. It would parallel similar fees for hunting without the problems inherent in creating a “birding license.”

  2. Nate permalink
    March 27, 2009 2:11 pm

    @john- I agree. It doesn’t have to be a lot, just enough to know people are making a difference. I think the will would be there, we just need to find a way to make it happen.

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