Since 1970, we've lost nearly one-third of North American birds

Since 1970, we've lost nearly one-third of North American birds
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For those concerned about the environment, the news hasn’t been encouraging of late. A staggering 53 environmental policies have been reversed with another 32 rollbacks in progress, as part of the Trump administration’s unrelenting efforts to erode environmental regulations in the U.S. Although proponents assert that rollbacks are afforded by a healthy and improving environment, a growing number of signals indicate that isn’t the case.

The most recent signal of environmental degradation comes in winged form. According to a study published last week in Science, populations of North American birds have declined by 29 percent since 1970 — more than one in four birds lost. The international team of scientists analyzed decades of bird surveys including the USGS Breeding Bird Survey and Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count, and corroborated findings using innovative methods that extract bird data from NEXRAD radar. Significant losses span every biome, with grasslands showing the steepest bird declines and total losses of 53 percent. Our forests support 1 billion fewer birds than 50 years ago. Even birds regarded as common, like red-winged blackbirds, dark-eyed juncos and meadowlarks, have experienced massive losses.

The magnitude and scale of bird declines provide a clear and strong signal of a problem. Not only do birds deliver important ecosystem services, such as pest control and pollination, but they are powerful indicators of environmental health. In the same way that coal miners once looked to canaries as sentinels of dangerous conditions, we can look at the current bird crisis as evidence that we need to strengthen, not erode, our efforts to protect the environment — not only for birds, but for our sake. The reality is that when we protect birds and their habitats, we derive many co-benefits that support human health and wellbeing, the economy and healthy environments. What is good for birds is usually good for people too.

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It’s not too late to act. History shows that when we invest in conservation, we get strong returns. The 2019 State of the Birds Report, released this week, provides several such examples, from a 1,000 percent increase in populations of the Federally Endangered Kirtland’s Warbler in Michigan to a doubling of the once-declining populations of Emperor Goose in Alaska. Likewise, populations of waterfowl and raptors, alike, have increased by over 50 percent since 1970. But making those investments is the key first step, and most state and federal agencies tasked with conserving wildlife and the habitats on which they depend are woefully underfunded.

Fortunately, there is a solution on the horizon with the introduction of the bipartisan bill called Recovering America’s Wildlife Act. This act will direct $1.3 billion in existing federal revenue to state fish and wildlife agencies for the management of over 12,000 species of conservation concern. Not only will the act come at no additional cost to taxpayers, but it stands to save money by way of preventive action that avoids future listings of species under the Endangered Species Act. As reported in the State of the Birds Report, the Act’s investments in green infrastructure, like wetlands, will restore habitats, keep our waters clean, prevent floods, capture carbon and provide recreational opportunities — activities that are expected to generate $2.50 in local economic activity for every $1 invested. In total, the act should grow local economies by an estimated $3 billion and 25,000 thousand jobs.

The steep decline of birds is alarming, yes, but the sky is not falling yet. By supporting the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act and other conservation measures, we have the opportunity to better conserve birds and protect the healthy and clean environments that all species, we included, require.

Amanda D. Rodewald is the Garvin professor and senior director of conservation science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, faculty in the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University and faculty fellow at Cornell University's Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. Views expressed in this column are hers alone and do not represent those of these institutions