For many of us, hearing the song of the western meadowlark is one of the first signs of spring. Today, the population of the western meadowlark – North Dakota’s State Bird – has declined by half since 1967. It is listed as a “species of conservation priority” by the N.D. Game and Fish Department. The meadowlark isn’t the only species in decline. The journal Science reports more than half of North America’s grassland birds have disappeared since 1970 due to habitat loss and other factors.

During those same decades, North American waterfowl populations have grown by more than 50 percent, and a recent report by the North American Bird Conservation Initiative recognizes private philanthropy conservation groups like Ducks Unlimited (DU) as a positive influence. DU works with partners, especially farmers and ranchers, to find sustainable conservation programs that improve a producer’s operation from a business perspective while also providing critical wildlife habitat. Participation in these voluntary programs benefits grassland birds, other wildlife and the community at large.

Theodore Roosevelt started the wildlife refuge system in 1903 with a concern for the survival of birds across our great nation. He acknowledged how important North Dakota was to birds when he designated Stump Lake and Chase Lake as the first bird sanctuaries. The federal government establishing Farm Bill conservation programs was also critical. The North Dakota Outdoor Heritage Fund has helped DU and others create new working-lands conservation programs. The willingness of innovative producers to voluntarily implement conservation practices on their land is what makes it all work.

Although waterfowl populations remain relatively high today, we also know grassland loss continues and wetlands are vulnerable to drainage. Conservation partners are working to help producers adopt practices that retain wetlands on farmland to improve water quality and soil health, as well as control flooding.

We are building on the conservation legacy and tenacious spirit of Theodore Roosevelt with programs that benefit both producers and birds. To keep the meadowlark’s song on our landscape for future generations, we need to maintain a serious dedication to practical and productive habitat partnerships between conservation and agriculture.