Interview with Doug Ryan, Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act Program Coordinator, US Fish and Wildlife Service Division of Bird Habitat Conservation

Interviewed by Melissa Normann, Rainforest Alliance

“The Act has helped to move Neotropical migratory bird conservation into the forefront of wildlife conservation. Migratory birds serve as important flagship species for conservation as a whole, and especially for international cooperation.”

Since its inception in 2000, the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act (NMBCA) of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service has supported bird conservation projects in the United States and Canada, and Latin America and the Caribbean, a region where some five billion birds of more than 350 species spend their winters. NMBCA funds projects that benefit migratory bird populations such as habitat restoration, research and monitoring, law enforcement, and outreach and education. Between 2002 and 2007, NMBCA supported 225 projects managed by partners in 34 countries, and in 2008, the Act provided $4.5 million in support to 37 migratory bird conservation projects in 20 countries. We spoke with Doug Ryan, NMBCA program coordinator, about the Act’s successes and impacts in the region and how it hopes to increase its investment in the coming years.

Question: The populations of an estimated 127 species of migratory birds are in persistent decline, and 60 species have experienced significant population declines greater than 45% over the last 40 years. What are some of the major threats facing migratory birds today?

Ryan: Habitat loss and fragmentation is still the largest threat to migratory birds, and the Act is helping to directly address this by funding habitat protection and restoration projects. Other threats include collisions with communication towers, buildings, and other structures, invasive species, and contaminants, which are very difficult to measure but may be reducing bird populations by limiting nesting success, for example.

In conservation, we have to be flexible and willing and able to change our approach when necessary. There are emerging threats that we were not concerned about even five years ago, like biofuels. For example, the high price of corn in the Midwestern United States has encouraged many farmers to participate less and less in programs that maintain bird habitat on their land. In Argentina’s pampas region, we are seeing increasing amounts of land devoted to soybean production.

And of course, there is the threat of climate change. There are going to be habitat shifts in both elevation and latitude, but there will also be more subtle effects like changes in the sea currents and wind patterns upon which migrants depend for their annual migrations. We are already seeing changes in phenology, or the timing of recurring natural events. For example, the arrival of shorebirds that migrate to the Arctic during the spring season is carefully timed to coincide with the hatching of certain kinds of insects. Some of these processes are beginning to offset and cause problems, although we’re not sure how serious at this point. We would like to know more about all of these issues and hopefully we will as soon as possible so that we can adjust our program as necessary.

Bird - Photo Courtesy of Bill Schmoker.comQ: The NMBCA proposal deadline is November 13, 2008. What advice would you give potential applicants in developing their proposals?

Ryan: The Act that guides our work is very broadly worded — it covers hundreds of bird species throughout the western hemisphere and almost any kind of conservation activity that would benefit these birds. For example, we fund projects dealing with bird habitat conservation and restoration, research and monitoring of bird populations, and even a few law enforcement projects. Another very important focus is community outreach and education work. So we’re hard-pressed to find a conservation activity that’s not eligible for funding. However, this is a very competitive program — funding is limited and we receive far more excellent proposals than we are able to fund.

Regarding advice to potential applicants — the most important thing is to carefully read our Web site, which is available in Spanish, Portuguese and English. An important reference is our “Proposal Application Overview” page, where there is a list of 10 criteria that ask questions such as “Is the project located in important breeding and non-breeding areas for Neotropical migrants?”, “Are natural resources in the project area under threat?” and more. Applicants should carefully read that list of criteria because it is used by our review committee to evaluate project proposals.

Q: Is the money allocated to the Act spread evenly across the region, or is the money concentrated in a particular area?

Ryan: This is a competitive grants program and we select the very best proposals that we receive — we want to support the projects that have the highest conservation benefit for as many species as possible. There is no formula, but to a certain extent the ecology of migratory birds helps to guide where we fund projects. For example, it is a biological fact that Mexico is a very important country for Neotropical migratory birds because so many birds migrate there in very large numbers. There is also some focus on making sure that we fund activities that span entire migratory flyways. That said, it is important to point out that we do fund projects in almost every country in the hemisphere.

Bird - Photo Courtesy of Bill Schmoker.comQ: There is a new bill in the United States Senate that seeks to reauthorize the existing Act at significantly higher funding levels. Why is it important to increase the level of funding?

Ryan: Through its partners, the Act has been very successful in conserving migratory birds. Given the decline of migrants, it’s important to continue funding migratory bird and habitat conservation projects across their range. Birds provide important ecosystem services in the form of pollination, and in the United States, they are an important source of revenue for many states. A United States Fish and Wildlife Service survey of wildlife-associated recreational activities in 2006 found that a total of 48 million people interacted with birds in some way — primarily through bird watching, but this also included bird feeding and hunting. Further, it is estimated that $46 billion dollars was spent on wildlife associated recreation, the vast majority of which can be attributed to birds.

Q: What are some of the Act’s major successes to date?

Ryan: I think that the Act has helped to move Neotropical migratory bird conservation into the forefront of wildlife conservation. Migratory birds serve as important flagship species for conservation as a whole, and especially for international cooperation. The Act has helped to better inform bird conservation activities because we’ve funded important research and monitoring projects that have gathered a lot of information about where these birds migrate to, when, and what habitats and sites are important to them.

Thanks to the work of our partners, we have made important advances in conserving priority bird conservation sites. For example, our partners in Chiapas, Mexico understand that the El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve is a very important over-wintering area for many Neotropical migrants, especially songbirds, as well as many resident species. We have supported important projects in that site, as well as in other priority sites in Mexico, by funding sustainable forestry and shade coffee projects within the buffer zone of El Triunfo.

Another example is that following the establishment of an Important Bird Area network in the northern Andes, our partners continued to support protection and management efforts in key sites in Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru and also continued to conduct outreach and education efforts to gain the support of local community members.

Q: How does NMBCA coordinate with and support international bird conservation initiatives?

Ryan: We ask applicants to tell us why their project site and activities are important for bird conservation. One way to demonstrate this could be to indicate whether the project site has been identified as a priority for bird conservation by initiatives such as the North American Bird Conservation Initiative, the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network, or the Important Bird Areas program of BirdLife International, among others. That tells our reviewers that it is internationally recognized as an important site and that a particular proposal would be doing important work.

Beyond that, we see the Act as one mechanism that can support the implementation of international bird conservation initiatives. By funding the work of these initiatives, the Act indirectly fosters international collaborations by helping these programs to continue. We have supported projects that collect and compile baseline data that help to inform the work of these initiatives. This serves as a form of strategic planning for the Act, as well as for the initiatives themselves.

Q: Do you see an increase in collaboration between migratory bird conservationists in North, Central and South America and the Caribbean?

Ryan: There is a level of international cooperation underway now that didn’t exist in the years past, and there are some exciting examples. The Eco-Index is a fantastic tool for the Act and for our partners because it’s the perfect way to find out what’s happening in conservation throughout the hemisphere, and for conservationists to collaborate with each other.

Another is the Southern Wings program that the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies is promoting. In the United States, the individual states have a major role in wildlife conservation, and some states, Missouri and Wisconsin for example, understand that they share large numbers of species with countries in Latin America and the Caribbean and are beginning to work with colleagues there. Southern Wings aims to foster this type of international cooperation. Another example is the International Alliances program of the National Audubon Society, which connects their state offices and partners with colleagues in the tropics to create a flyway-wide approach to bird conservation. We’re excited about these initiatives, and we hope to support more of these kinds of partnerships.


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