Big Goals for a Small Bird

April 23, 2012

WCS and partners will work to increase habitat in Montana, North Dakota, and Southern Saskatchewan for the Sprague’s pipit, one of the most endangered grassland birds in North America.

The high-pitched chirps of the Sprague’s pipit once rang out across the Great Plains, but today, this squeaky birdsong is scarcely heard. The pipit has become one of the most endangered grassland birds in North America. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, it's lost more than 97 percent of its suitable habitat.

To help change the fate of the Sprague’s pipit, a consortium of conservation groups have stepped in. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently awarded funding to WCS, in partnership with the American Prairie Reserve, World Wildlife Fund-US, Nature Conservancy Canada, and The Nature Conservancy, to maintain and restore parts of the bird’s turf in northern Montana, North Dakota, and southern Saskatchewan. The funding comes as part of a new 2012 Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation grants program initiative.

As a group, grassland birds are the most imperiled in North America. Neotropical grassland birds—those that migrate south of the U.S.—face particular risk of extinction, due to widespread habitat loss and fragmentation, as well as overgrazing by livestock. Though Sprague’s pipit was once a common bird within its U.S. range, the large swaths of native grasses it requires for breeding have largely disappeared.

Over the next five to six years, the conservation partners aim to increase the habitat for Sprague’s pipits in the U.S. by at least 1 percent, to a total of 5,000 acres. Plans include improving habitat through grazing deferment, planting native grasses, and working with ranchers and agencies on conservation and management options.

The project is designed to maximize win-wins between conservationists and livestock producers. In areas deferred from grazing, the available forage will increase—an important protection for domestic animals in case of drought. This measure will also allow grasses to recover between periods of grazing. Reseeding of crested wheat fields can also provide more nutrition to grazing animals.

“Grassland birds in general, and the Sprague's pipit in particular, are disappearing as large grassland habitats are lost,” said Dr. Steve Zack, Coordinator of Bird Conservation for WCS. “Working with ranchers on managing grazing with wildlife in mind will go a long way toward keeping the Great Plains vibrant with singing birds and many other native species.”

In related work, WCS has partnered with the U.S. National Park Service to study Sprague’s pipit migration. The researchers are affixing the birds with tiny archival geolocator tags that record their paths between breeding and wintering areas. Such information will help conservationists prioritize areas for habitat enhancement or restoration.

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