The western meadowlark’s bright yellow belly, dark chevron at its neck, and its flute-like trill make it one of the most recognizable of North Dakota birds. But meadowlarks are not as easy to find in our grasslands and prairies as they once were. This iconic bird, listed as the North Dakota state bird in 1947, has declined precipitously over the past 50 years.
Sadly, meadowlarks are not the only birds in steep decline. A major new study in the journal Science showed that we have lost nearly three billion birds worldwide since 1970, a decline of 29 percent. The staggering, widespread losses affect common species — like the meadowlark — that play important roles in food webs.
This study is more evidence that are facing a looming wildlife crisis. Roughly one-third of America’s fish and wildlife species already face an elevated risk of extinction. State fish and wildlife agencies are closely tracking 12,000 species that need conservation assistance. This is the North American element of a worldwide crisis. According to a recent United Nations report, more than one million species could vanish in the coming decades. Here in the United States, the key drivers of wildlife declines are habitat loss, invasive species, disease, and the impacts of a shifting climate.
The Science bird study, despite its grim findings, has one important bright spot. Even as most categories of birds declined, waterfowl flourished, increasing by 53 percent since 1970. Birds that live in wetlands gained 13 percent as category — while birds in other habitat types saw losses overall. The message here is that conservation funding matters. Ducks, geese, and other wetlands birds have benefited from decades of on-the-ground habitat efforts funded by waterfowl hunters. Hunters support wetlands conservation every time they purchase duck stamps, gear, guns and ammunition.
Grassland birds, including meadowlarks, were found to have some of the biggest declines as many native grasslands have been plowed under to make room for row-crop agriculture in recent decades. North Dakota Game and Fish Department does what it can to help meadowlarks with the limited money available and the bird is listed as one of its 115 species of concern. The Farm Bill does fund important programs that help protect native grasslands, but the rapid decline of grasslands birds as a category make it clear that much more needs to be done.
The bipartisan Recovering America’s Wildlife Act would provide the kind of consistent, dedicated funding that has helped waterfowl and other wildlife in decline. The bill would provide nearly $1.4 billion each year to states and tribes to help conserve the 12,000 species they have identified as needing assistance.
The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act would give North Dakota an estimated $13.2 million annually for proactive, voluntary efforts that would prevent declining species like the meadowlark from needing the more extensive — and expensive — protections of the Endangered Species Act. A proactive approach will keep the meadowlark, and many other species in decline off the Endangered Species List, while giving more certainty to North Dakota’s major economic engines.
Nearly 150 representatives from both sides of the aisle have already signed onto this commonsense, cost-effective bill. Rep. Armstrong should join them — and show North Dakotans that, even in these divided times, Congress can still work together on something that will allow our children’s children to hear the flute-like song of the meadowlark.
John Bradley is executive director of the North Dakota Wildlife Federation.