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Western meadowlark C-listed: North Dakota state bird added to conservation list

Stock Photo The western meadowlark, North Dakota’s state bird, is now on the Game and Fish Department Conservation Priority List.

JAMESTOWN — The North Dakota Game and Fish Department has added the state bird, the western meadowlark, to the state’s updated 2014 Conservation Priority List.

Game and Fish Conservation Section Supervisor Steve Dyke said the majority of the species on the list — which has grown to 112 this year, up from 100 on the original 2005 list — are suffering population declines because of a statewide decrease in habitat.

Wetlands and grasslands have been lost due to increased agricultural production and less participation in the Conservation Reserve Program. CRP land is land that has been pulled or protected from agriculture production by landowners who sign multiyear contracts with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency and receive payments for letting those acres go fallow.

“We see wetland losses in all areas of the state. Certainly the eastern third of the state is probably a little more problematic than the rest right now,” Dyke said. “We see wetland drainage in all aspects of the state. We’re seeing loss of grasslands and that Central Coteau area of the state where we had a lot of CRP that’s been taken out in the Coteau area.”

In a report published in the Game and Fish Department’s official publication, North Dakota Outdoors, conservation biologist Sandra Johnson said the western meadowlark’s population has been declining since monitoring began in 1966, but the biggest drop has been in eastern North Dakota.

“Once you leave the Red River Valley heading west, you really don’t start to see an abundance of western meadowlarks until you hit the Missouri Coteau where we still have grass,” Johnson said in the report. “If we continue to lose more and more grass in North Dakota, then we are going to see fewer and fewer meadowlarks.”

The updated list is part of a federally required revision to the State Wildlife Action Plan. The U.S. Department of the Interior began offering funds to states through the State Wildlife Grant program in 2004-05 and requires a revision to the SWAP every 10 years.

Dyke said the state has an October 2015 deadline to finish updating the 456-page SWAP.

“We convene the various experts in the state, not just Game and Fish but outside agencies … agencies that have biological expertise in range and distribution of a whole host of different species,” Dyke said. “We ask them what they think is declining or maybe on the downward trend, and if it’s worthy of putting on our list and conversely the opposite: Are we seeing trending upward or that potentially could be taken off the list? So it’s a fairly wide range of experts that we engage in the process.”

The new conservation list includes 46 birds, 22 fish, 21 mammals, 10 mussels, nine reptiles, two amphibians and two insects. Aside from the meadowlark, 16 other species were added to the list while five other species, including the gray wolf, have been removed from the list. Dyke said the removal of the gray wolf was not due to an increase in numbers in North Dakota, where it is still losing habitat, but because of its population rebound in mountainous areas in the West.

Species on the list are divided into three levels. Level I species have the highest level of conservation priority because of declining populations in their range and funding is not readily available for conservation outside of the State Wildlife Grants program. The greater sage grouse and the red-headed woodpecker are among 34 Level I species.

Level II species are still at high risk, but a substantial amount of funding outside State Wildlife Grants is available for them. The western meadowlark is among the 44 Level II species, which also includes the endangered piping plover and the national bird, the bald eagle. The bald eagle was removed from the endangered species list in 2007 but remains a conservation priority.

Level III species have a moderate need for conservation efforts and are believed to do little if any mating in North Dakota. The endangered whooping crane and the peregrine falcon are Level III species. The peregrine falcon was listed as endangered from 1970 to 1999, but continues to be monitored.

Conservation needs support

Dyke said the biggest obstacle to overcome the loss of habitat is to increase incentives for private landowners — who own more than 90 percent of land in the state — to set aside land for CRP or other conservation measures.

“Right now with a lot of the incentives being taken away from the farm bill and whatnot, we’ve got a big part of the carrot that’s been taken away,” he said. “We’re somewhat relegated to a pretty small pot of money to work with. There are some CRP contracts that are being renewed, but I wouldn’t point to any large, particular area of the state where there’s probably more of it ongoing then not, but again, I guess the CRP program — where we’re seeing re-enrollments in the program — would probably be the closest thing I see as a major effort of restoration or preservation.”

Another obstacle the department faces is the decline in federal funding for the State Wildlife Grants program. Dyke said the public can assist in conservation efforts by being aware of the problem and by contacting the state’s congressional delegation in regard to maintaining the program.

“We’ve seen the program’s budget severely cut the last three to five years,” Dyke said. “We’ve seen reference that the program may be on the chopping block all together. So, certainly support from the public would be good.”

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