On March 22, 2021, Audubon Great Lakes, the regional office of the National Audubon Society, announced the release of an ambitious new report titled, Audubon’s Vision: Restoring the Great Lakes for Birds and People. It offers a blueprint for how to best restore indispensable coastal areas to address the threats facing the Great Lakes region.
As the largest freshwater ecosystem on the planet, the Great Lakes provide drinking water to 40 million people and its coastal habitats support over 350 bird species. As climate change, coastal development, and invasive species threaten these communities and habitats, Audubon is ready with a bold plan.
“Healthy birds mean healthy communities, yet Audubon’s science tells us that regional populations of marsh birds have been declining,” said Michelle Parker, Executive Director and Vice President, Audubon Great Lakes.
“Securing a bright future for the birds and people of the Great Lakes region has never been more important. With this strategy, Audubon Great Lakes has the science and tools in hand to restore the Great Lakes, bring back declining bird populations, and set the region on a path to long-term environmental health and resilience,” she added.
Over the past half century, human activity surrounding the Great Lakes basin has significantly degraded habitats and water quality, and as a result, many marsh bird populations are in steep decline, with some regional population declines like the Black Tern as high as 80 percent in recent decades.
Given the urgent need to protect and restore remaining coastal wetlands for birds and people, Audubon is investing in cutting-edge science to prioritize coastal wetlands for conservation action, studying the impact of climate change on birds, and developing a range of conservation management tools.
“We know that what is good for birds is good for entire ecosystems. When you restore wetland habitat, bird populations rebound and you improve water quality, alleviate flooding, and support a myriad of other wildlife species,” continued Parker.
Audubon scientists utilized spatial prioritization to identify the 12 highest-priority coastal regions for 14 key species of marsh birds, water quality and coastal resiliency among the eight states within the Great Lakes region. The report outlines Audubon’s conservation efforts, which includes 8 state-based, 12 region-wide and 42 projects to restore or protect the highest priority 300,000 acres of habitat for birds and people over the next decade.
The areas that have been identified as the highest priorities in the Great Lakes region include the St. Louis River Estuary, Green Bay, the Calumet Region, St. Mary’s River, Detroit and Lake St. Clair, Saginaw Bay, Western Lake Erie Basin, Buffalo, Rochester, Sodus Bay, and Eastern Lake Ontario.
Recent studies show that North America has lost more than a quarter of its bird population in the last 50 years and Audubon science says two-thirds of species are at risk of extinction moving forward because of climate change.
“Investing in coastal watersheds now, especially wetlands will create strongholds for bird populations in the future, mitigate water-quality impacts in both urban and rural areas, and make the region more resilient to climate change,” said Nat Miller, Conservation Director Audubon Great Lakes and Mississippi Flyway. “From active restoration and stewardship work to informing land management, we are fully committed to restoring Great Lakes ecosystem for future generations.”
“Flooding and rapid lake level fluctuation are unique and significant climate threats to birds in the Great Lakes region,” added Miller. “We continue to see increasingly variable Great Lakes water levels and more frequent, intense storms, which pose significant threats to beach-nesting birds like endangered Piping Plovers and wetlands-nesting birds like Black Terns. The time to act is now.”
The good news is Audubon is already seeing signs of early success from coastal restoration. In places like Calumet in Illinois and in Indiana, where Audubon has empowered its network, built partnerships and restored wetland habitat, Audubon Great Lakes is seeing early signs of population stabilization, and even recovery in eight of the species of greatest concern like the Common Gallinule and Least Bittern.
The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GRLI), the premier Great Lakes federal restoration program, which guides billions of dollars to critical, science-based, large-scale coastal wetland restoration projects and conservation programs to benefit people, and birds and other wildlife of the Great Lakes, makes much of Audubon Great Lakes restoration work possible. The GRLI Act became law earlier this year, allowing Congress to increase the program’s funding incrementally from 300 million to 475 million by 2026.
Through this strategic vision, Audubon is committed to securing a brighter future for the bird and human communities of the Great Lakes region. By implementing priority projects and programs focusing on restoration, conservation, research and stewardship, Audubon addresses the recovery and population health of declining species.
Least Bittern photo is courtesy of Peter Brannon / Audubon Photography Awards.