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Open Mic: Dispatches from the NAOC

At the Mic: Terry Rich

From August 16-20, 2016, two thousand ornithological professionals, students, and enthusiasts working across the Western Hemisphere gathered in Washington, D.C. for the largest-ever North American Ornithological Congress (http://naoc2016.cvent.com). This event, held every four years, includes lectures, workshops, roundtable discussions, and interactive sessions and symposia about everything from population and community ecology to modeling and social media.

naocAlthough past Congresses have focused on biology and ecology, this year Terry Rich and Kenn Kaufman organized a full-day symposium entitled, Understanding and Engaging America’s Birdwatchers: What is the Path to Conservation Action? The objective: explore what we know and what we need to know about the estimated 47,000,000 people interested in birds in the United States. Why does this huge group of people seems to have little or no effect on the public policies, and, hence, public budgets devoted to bird conservation?

There is a surprising amount of disconnect between people who are interested in birds, conservation needs, and bird conservation policy. At no time in history have we had a better scientific foundation for bird conservation. Ornithology, vulnerability assessments, land use planning, strategic conservation, and public-private partnerships for bird conservation all continue to advance through unprecedented levels of data collection and analysis, and collaboration. At the same time, the number of birders in the United States continues to increase. However, public funding (within the 50 state wildlife agencies and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) for bird and habitat conservation is, at best flat, and more frequently declining.

So the question is: why is there this huge disconnect between what people value–birds–and the policies, and budget priorities of the public institutions with the responsibility for bird conservation? Perhaps these millions don’t know about the need. Perhaps they do know and they believe they are taking appropriate actions. If so, what are these actions? Perhaps the appropriate mechanisms and institutional support for a bird conservation constituency have not been developed. Are the public agencies, private NGOs, and public-private partnership such as Migratory Bird Joint Venturesand the North American Bird Conservation Initiative working to the extent they “should” in fostering a bird conservation community? Who is trying to change policies in, e.g., the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the 50 state wildlife agencies? Why don’t these agencies “do the right thing” and increase their staffing and operational funding to meet the well-defined needs? Can NGOs such as the American Birding Association, American Bird Conservancy, and National Audubon Society muster a larger bird conservation initiative in the U.S., or are they inevitably bound by the need to build their own memberships? If so, who will lead? If not, who will?

20160818_164129Presenters included Terry, Kenn, and Drew Lanham (all on ABA board), Jennie Duberstein (Sonoran Joint Venture), Alia Dietsch (Ohio State University), David Scott (Texas A&M), Ashley Dayer (Virginia Tech), George Fenwick (American Bird Conservancy), Holly Miller (U.S. Geological Survey), Chuck Hagner (BirdWatching Magazine), Connie Sanchez (National Audubon Society), Caren B. Cooper (North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences), John Rowden (National Audubon Society), Carrie A. Samis (DelMarva Discovery Center), Ron Regan (Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies), and John Fitzpatrick (Cornell Lab of Ornithology).

The symposium was very well attended and generated a lot of feedback. Of course, this is just a piece of what needs to happen to understand how motivate more birders to political action. ABA itself will continue to consider the options we have in house – like the Duck Stamp initiative, Young Birder outreach, and Birders’ Exchange. But we will also be watching for opportunities with the North American Bird Conservation Initiative (http://www.nabci-us.org/), Partners in Flight (http://www.partnersinflight.org/), the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (http://www.fishwildlife.org/), and other partnerships to leverage resources to increase bird conservation policies in the U.S. We also envision presenting similar symposia in the future to other large conferences, such as The Wildlife Society and the Society for Conservation Biology. The challenge and opportunity is for us to ensure that all these birders see ABA as their first choice among organizations to join, and for other bird organizations to see the ABA as a valuable partner!

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Terry Rich, of Boise, Idaho, is a former National Coordinator of Partners in Flight and a board member of the American Birding Association.

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