New York State
Ornithological Association

For the birders and birds of the Empire State

ConservationPosted 12/31/09
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Grassland Management and Protection
by Joan Collins, NYSOA Conservation Committee
Published in the July 2009 issue of NY Birders

According to the 2009 State of the Birds Report released by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, grassland birds are among the fastest and most consistently declining birds in North America. Fifty-five percent of grassland species are showing significant declines likely because only about 2% of the tall-grass prairie that existed in the early 1800s still remains. While the traditional habitats most commonly considered to be grasslands are the tall and short-grass prairies of the Midwest, some of the common landcover types in New York also provide habitat for grassland birds. These include hayfields, pastures, fallow fields, and other agricultural lands, as well as recently abandoned agricultural fields, landfills, airports, and a variety of other uses that maintain the land cover in very early successional stages. In other words, grassland habitat in New York is primarily the result of human activity. Although birds may settle in these alternative grasslands, frequent haying, and overgrazing can create “ecological traps” where birds try to nest but fail to raise their young. Farmland conservation programs provide the best hope for grassland birds and other wildlife.

Over the past 40 years, Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) data for New York show steep (and alarming) population declines: Northern Harrier > 74%, Upland Sandpiper > 93%, Grasshopper Sparrow > 97%, and Henslow’s Sparrow > 99%. Additionally, other grassland species in decline in New York include: Short-eared Owl, Loggerhead Shrike (likely extirpated as a breeder in New York State), Horned Lark, Sedge Wren, Vesper Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Bobolink, and Eastern Meadowlark. The primary cause of grassland species decline in the northeastern United States is abandonment of agricultural lands, causing habitat loss as land reverts to later successional stages, or development. Remaining potential habitat is also being lost or severely degraded by intensified agricultural practices such as conversion to row crops or increasingly early and frequent mowing of hayfields.

Since most grassland habitat in the United States is privately owned, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is offering grants for landowners to enhance or restore critical grassland habitat for wildlife through its Landowner Incentive Program (LIP). In New York, the LIP funds, totaling $300,000, are available through the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). The DEC is beginning the second round of awards for the Landowner Incentive Program. Last year, during the first round, 14 applications were accepted, representing a total of 1,200 acres with a range of 45 to 100 acres each. Audubon New York supports the Landowner Incentive Program by helping to develop management plans for enrolled properties, and monitors the birds found on the property. Private landowners who own 10 or more grassland acres could be eligible for grants. Landowners who are awarded grants receive technical guidance and financial incentives for the protection of grassland species on their land at the rate of $55 to $60 per acre per year.

LIP Grassland Focus Areas Map

Partners in the grassland conservation effort have identified 8 focus areas within New York (map below) where the greatest results can be achieved by grassland conservation initiatives such as the Landowner Incentive Program.

To learn more about the program and obtain an application form, visit the Landowner Incentive Program page on the DEC website. For questions or comments regarding the program, contact the DEC by or call (518) 402-8910. Mike Morgan of Audubon New York can also be contacted for information by or by phone at (607) 254-2487. The deadline for pre-application submission is Aug. 1, 2009.

For those interested in detailed information on grassland management, Audubon New York recently released a new guide titled Plan for Conserving Grassland Birds in New York, written by Michael Morgan and Michael Burger, completed under contract with the NYS DEC. This groundbreaking assessment finds that private landowners and farmland preservation hold the key to the future survival of grassland species. Audubon New York’s comprehensive plan will help guide new and ongoing efforts to curb the precipitous decline of grassland birds in the State. The plan can be found on the Audubon New York web site.

The successful collaboration between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, Audubon New York, and private landowners will provide significant benefits for species that inhabit New York’s grasslands.

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