North Dakota's cherished state bird is in decline
Sadly, folks around North Dakota don't hear as many meadowlarks as they once did. When the prairie blooms, the silence can be striking for people who've grown up hearing the meadowlark's song every spring.
"So many people tell us, 'You know, we just don't hear meadowlarks anymore,'" says Kevin Kading, the private lands coordinator for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. "That silence out there catches people's attention."
Since 1970, our nation has lost 53% of its grassland bird populations. That's 720 million birds, and includes the western meadowlark, which is declining at a rate of 1.3%.
New partnerships create new opportunities
The North Dakota Game and Fish Department has been tracking the decline of meadowlarks and other grassland birds and their habitat over the decades. About five years after updating North Dakota Wildlife Action Plan, they determined a more focused and intentional grasslands conservation effort was necessary.
The agency partnered with other organizations that shared concerns about the decline of prairie habitat and wildlife species, and the Meadowlark Initiative was born.
With resources from partner organizations, the initiative's vision is "to promote and create healthy, thriving grasslands that provide biodiversity and prosperity for wildlife, pollinators, ranching operations, and communities by supporting ranching, establishing grasslands, offsetting developmental impact, promoting societal benefits, and advancing science and education."
The ranching and grassland connection
"We expect a possible 50% decline in meadowlarks over the next 45 years," says Heather Husband, who serves as the Meadowlark Initiative’s coordinator and works for the North Dakota Natural Resources Trust. "Along with that decline in grasslands, we've also seen a decline in ranching operations. The awareness of declining grassland diversity and declining ranching operations are intertwined. Partnering these issues has a holistic mutual benefit, where we can increase profitability and sustainability with regenerative agriculture while improving wildlife habitat."
Loss of habitat and heritage
Habitat loss is the largest contributing factor in the decline in grassland bird populations. North Dakota’s prairie lands have shrunk significantly. Currently, 72% of native prairie has been converted to other uses, specifically row crop agriculture, which has negative environmental implications.
The prairie is a living ecosystem, and all its plant, animal, insect and microbial species co-evolved to thrive in this system. For example, Meadowlarks thrive on insects and seeds only found in prairie grasslands and don't find adequate food on corn or soy farms.
People are also reading…
The impacts aren’t only surface-level. Removing native prairie grasses, with their 15-foot root systems and stores of carbon, destabilizes the soil and increases the risk of erosion and runoff.
North Dakota has also lost 60% of its nearly 5 million acres of natural wetland habitat, a staggering loss for wildlife and a threat to water quality.
Ranchers play a significant role
Few people know more about the relationship between native prairie grasses and healthy ecosystems than a rancher, and ranchers are increasingly hard to find in North Dakota. The number of cattle ranches in North Dakota is declining along with the meadowlarks. The loss of healthy prairie habitat, meadowlarks and the state's ranching heritage has been felt across the state.
Prairies evolved with natural management by herds of bison, and occasional wildfires, which are essential for different species' life cycles.
"If we don't have the ranchers," says Kading, "we don't have the grasslands, and we don't have the grassland birds. Those ranches are important for carbon sequestration, preventing soil erosion and preserving biodiversity on the landscape."
A significant component of the Meadowlark Initiative is connecting ranchers with resources to manage their native grasslands. Husband's primary focus is being the "one-stop shop," as she says, for people trying to figure out which partner or program can best help them. "I listen to their vision, stories or concerns for their land and what they want to do out there and then connect them with partners that'll be the best fit for them."
Meadowlark Initiative sparks interest across the state
The Meadowlark Initiative is already popular and gaining traction.
Husband says the waitlist for land management programs is growing.
Kading has seen an increase in interest in more suburban areas, too. "Since launching, more people have been interested in pollinators and backyard habitat work," he says. "That effort is important and speaks to that society and community benefit."
Kading and Husband are focused on spreading the excitement for the Meadowlark Initiative and connecting people with partners and programs that fit their needs.
"There are more national efforts to bring awareness to the importance of grasslands," says Kading. "We can keep birds off the endangered species list, keep ranchers on the landscape, sequester carbon and improve air and water quality."