A Call to Action for Waterfowl

Guided by the latest science, the North American Waterfowl Management Plan gets an update to meet the challenges of tomorrow

© Scott Fink

By Jim Devries, Ph.D. 

As I sat down to write this article, I don’t think I fully grasped the challenge ahead of me. Throughout my career I have been involved with the North American Waterfowl Management Plan (NAWMP) in one way or another—a fact I’ve come to appreciate more and more as I look back over my 27 years with Ducks Unlimited. Many people may have never heard of the plan or understand how transformational it has been to continental waterfowl habitat conservation, including the operations of Ducks Unlimited. In this article, I will discuss the history of the plan, its many benefits for waterfowl, and how recent updates are keeping it relevant. 

The Plan

So, what is NAWMP? I’ll start by casting back to the mid-1980s, a time when breeding waterfowl populations hit their lowest numbers since counts began 30 years earlier. Waterfowl populations were experiencing a 10-year decrease that was causing great concern in the hunting and waterfowl management communities, along with concurrent trends in habitat degradation on critically important breeding, migration, and wintering grounds. But the waterfowl community is well connected throughout North America, and key individuals were working behind the scenes to bring forward a visionary strategy to address the plight of waterfowl and their habitats. On May 14, 1986, the Canadian minister of the environment and US secretary of the interior signed the North American Waterfowl Management Plan—an international partnership agreement to address the challenges facing North America’s waterfowl. Completing the continental scope, Mexico signed on in 1994. 

Subtitled “A Strategy for Cooperation,” the plan laid out a vision for continental-scale conservation and restoration of waterfowl habitat based on assessments of biological needs, desires for hunting and other recreational uses, and a principle of shared responsibility for stewardship of waterfowl populations and their habitat. Most important, the plan envisioned conservation efforts led by regional “joint venture” partnerships comprising government agencies, conservation organizations, private businesses, and individuals. Within their regions, these joint ventures were charged with identifying limiting factors for waterfowl populations, creating plans to conserve and restore habitat sufficient to meet population objectives, and seeking broad-based public-private partnerships to get the work done. Thus, the plan crystallized a continental conservation vision linking waterfowl populations to the habitat needed to sustain them throughout their annual cycles.

Full Text To read the entire 2018 NAWMP update, go to nawmp.org/document/2018-nawmp-update-english.

Paying for the Plan

Another crucial step came in 1989, when the US government passed the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA), which provides funding, on a proposal basis, for wetland and wetland-dependent bird conservation under NAWMP. In recognition of the international nature of benefits provided by waterfowl and other wetland birds, NAWCA mandates that approximately half its funds be directed to important conservation in Canada and Mexico. Further, the act encourages partnerships by requiring at least one matching nonfederal US dollar for every dollar granted (and a Canadian-source match for funds going to Canada), thus leveraging broad-based support for every project. 

In the years since, NAWMP has grown and matured. It has been tested by science, and its focus on bringing partners together where wetland and waterfowl objectives benefit wetland-dependent species has been adopted generally as a model for bird conservation in North America. The seven original joint ventures have expanded to 22, covering much of the continent.

 

Ducks Unlimited’s Role

From the beginning, Ducks Unlimited has been a core nongovernmental partner in all joint ventures covering important waterfowl breeding, migration, and wintering habitat. Being one of the only waterfowl- and wetland-focused conservation organizations operating in all three countries, DU is well positioned to leverage matching funds for NAWCA grants. This is especially true given the broad-based connections DU has across the United States, which provide opportunities to access NAWCA funds for not only local conservation needs but also matching grants to Canada and Mexico. Since 1989, NAWCA has granted $1.7 billion to fund more than 2,900 conservation projects across North America, conserving 30 million acres of wetlands and associated habitats. Indeed, NAWMP and NAWCA have been the catalysts for much of the waterfowl conservation work that has occurred over the past 33 years, and Ducks Unlimited has been an active participant in much of it. Today, this model is recognized worldwide as one of the most successful international wildlife conservation initiatives ever. 

Revisions and Updates

No plan of this scale survives a generation unless it remains relevant to changing social values, priorities, and prevailing economic and political realities. The last three decades have seen dramatic changes in all these areas. Since its inception, periodic evaluations and updates to the plan and to joint venture conservation strategies have maintained an adaptive cycle of tracking accomplishments and applying lessons learned through science and conservation delivery experience. 

In this tradition, the plan underwent a re-visioning process in 2012 in response to a growing recognition that, in addition to continued habitat concerns, societal change is challenging the essential connections that have historically sustained conservation efforts. Declining numbers of hunters and a growing disconnect between people and nature are eroding traditional sources and levels of support. Thus, to maintain and grow support, specific objectives were added to the plan to increase the number of hunters and to engage and grow a diverse audience of outdoorsmen and women and other segments of the general public that value and actively support wetlands and waterfowl conservation. 

The waterfowl management community has been adapting to incorporate these “human dimensions” objectives. An important step in this process was initiated in 2016 with a series of national public opinion surveys in the United States and Canada focused on the values and opinions of waterfowlers, bird-watchers, and the general public. Respondents were asked about their thoughts relative to hunting, outdoor recreation, wetlands, and conservation. 

The surveys were implemented by a team of federal, state, and provincial agencies; conservation groups; and universities. The results provide a fascinating look into the ways that different segments of society value the products of conservation efforts. This information helps establish a basis for strategic actions to address the plan’s human dimensions objectives (for more information on the survey results, see “Waterfowl, Wetlands, and People” in the July/August 2019 issue of Ducks Unlimited). What is clear from the surveys is that waterfowlers, bird-watchers, and a large percentage of the general public all recognize the value of wetlands—but for many different reasons. In spite of any differences, most people agree that wetlands have value and require conservation support. This speaks to the potential to engage traditional and nontraditional sources of support for habitat conservation that serves both waterfowl and human populations. 

Recent Accomplishments

The 2018 NAWMP update provides the first review of accomplishments toward the new objectives, highlighting some of the early approaches to maintaining and increasing hunter numbers and engaging broader sources of support for conservation. For example, the Rainwater Basin and Upper Mississippi River/Great Lakes Region Joint Ventures have begun to include opportunity for hunter access, recruitment, and participation, in addition to biological considerations, when identifying locations for priority habitat conservation. 

In another example, members of the San Francisco Bay Joint Venture recognized that providing waterfowl habitat in an urban landscape that has a high cost of living would require strong public support. They polled residents in the Bay Area and learned that birds and other wildlife were highly valued components of the local environment. The joint venture used this information to develop key messages during a successful 2016 campaign supporting a parcel tax ballot initiative that generated$25 million annually for wetland restoration and public access. 

New Challenges and Opportunities

Despite years of successful work under the plan, the challenges facing waterfowl conservation in North America are still formidable. Demands for food and fiber to support a growing world population will continue to put pressure on habitats. Wetland loss continues in many parts of North America. Water management decisions and rice management practices on key waterfowl wintering areas threaten carrying capacity for bird populations. Climate change is impacting wetland persistence in key breeding areas, sea-level rise in coastal wetlands, and drought in California and elsewhere. But it is also clear that we can adapt to these challenges, as the waterfowl management community has done throughout its history. The potential for increasing support for wetland and waterfowl conservation is vast, but we must be smart and innovative about how we address any opportunities. 

The 2018 update to the North American Waterfowl Management Plan recognizes that “Waterfowl conservation is about much more than waterfowl. It has natural links to clean water, clean air, and maintaining the food and energy systems that sustain us all.” Wetlands and associated habitats recharge groundwater, sequester and store carbon, improve water quality by cycling nutrients, provide habitat for insects beneficial to agriculture, reduce runoff and flooding, and provide places for recreational and spiritual enjoyment. 

New opportunities for engaging people with wetlands conservation abound. For example, the US and Canadian governments, along with the insurance industry, recognize and promote the inclusion of natural or “green” infrastructure, such as wetlands, as a solution to help manage chronic and growing problems with flooding. Further, a growing demand for sustainably sourced food is creating opportunities to highlight the maintenance and restoration of wetlands as part of certifiable commodity production systems. Tapping into shifting societal values like these will have important implications for wetland and waterfowl conservation. 

The scope and extent of NAWMP, its evolution, and DU’s role as a partner is complex, but it’s very much a productive and impactful relationship. I’ve spent most of my years working on projects related to the plan, applying biological science to understand whether we are getting what we expect from our habitat conservation activities, and adapting our programs in light of the results. The success of the plan is grounded in its commitment to this cycle of science-based review, adaptation, and updates. Consideration of objectives related to the needs of people along with objectives regarding waterfowl and habitat, as outlined in the 2018 update, presents a new challenge—one that applies social science as a way of understanding our progress. Ducks Unlimited in all three countries is helping to lead the way in exploring this new territory.