Historically, conservation has focused on public lands. But 70 percent of land in the United States is privately owned. Many states are working with private groups such as Audubon and Ducks Unlimited to survey species, work with landowners and develop education and management plans.
FORT EDWARD, New York -- Mike Morgan trained his binoculars on a dark, V-shaped form teetering above dry tassels of tall grass in a hilltop hayfield.
"There's a raptor flying very low," he said. "Northern harrier."
Morgan, a wildlife ecologist for Audubon New York, was surveying winter birds on farmland soon to be subdivided into hundreds of housing lots. The development will sit in the middle of a 13,000-acre (5,200-hectare) rural region known among birders as the Fort Edward grasslands, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) north of Albany.
The area is a favorite winter birding spot where harriers, sharp-shinned hawks, short-eared owls and other grassland species are plentiful. But since it's private land, the habitat is at risk of being lost to development.
A new program being launched by the New York state Department of Environmental Conservation is designed to preserve imperiled habitat on private land like this, although Morgan, who's coordinating the program, says it's unlikely to help when a landowner is intent on selling to developers as this one is.
The state program is funded by a $600,000 (euro463,000) grant from the federal Landowner Incentive Program, initiated in 2002 by the Bush administration and overseen by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. To date, Congress has provided more than $112 million (euro86.5 million) for the program. Most of that has gone to developing programs unique to each state.
In exchange for a five-year commitment to preserve the habitat, landowners will be paid $55 (euro42) to $60 (euro46) per acre (0.4 hectare) and given a customized land-management plan. Landowners who aren't chosen to receive reimbursements can still receive guidance on how to enhance their land for wildlife.
New York hopes to include about 2,000 acres (800 hectares) in the program this year, Morgan said.
"The financial incentive can help influence a landowner who's already leaning toward conservation," Morgan said. "But it probably won't help when a landowner is just looking to cash out and get off the farm."
Participation in the program is voluntary and competitive. Each state determines what type of habitat to target and invites applications from landowners. Applicants judged to have the most significant habitat are chosen.
"For long-term conservation, this won't do the entire job," because landowners are free to back out, Morgan said. "It's just one of a number of different strategies."
More than 100 applications have been received from landowners in targeted areas around the state, and selections will be made before the spring breeding season, Morgan said.
"The flexibility in the program has created a lot of room for innovation across the country," said Tim Male, ecologist for the national nonprofit group Environmental Defense. "It gives states the leeway to prioritize and determine how they'll spend the money."
Many states are working with private groups such as Audubon and Ducks Unlimited to survey species, work with landowners and develop education and management plans.
Historically, conservation has focused on public lands. But 70 percent of land in the United States is privately owned; east of the Mississippi, 90 percent is privately owned, said Male. "For 50 percent of endangered species, their recovery depends on action being taken on private land."
Protecting species doesn't mean simply preventing development, Male said. It means managing the land to maintain or improve critical habitat.
For instance, prescribed burning may be used to create food sources and nesting habitat for Southern pineland species. For the endangered bog turtle in the Northeast, habitat is enhanced by cattle grazing in marshy pastures.
In 2006, the Fish and Wildlife Service provided about $19 million (euro15 million) in Landowner Incentive Program funding for 37 states.
--Alabama is using LIP funding to restore aquatic and cave species such as the endangered gray bat.
--Mississippi developed a bottomland hardwood restoration handbook, and is creating conservation easements, doing prescribed burns, and conducting workshops and other outreach efforts for landowners.
--In Nebraska, LIP funding will be used to restore more than 10,000 acres (4,000 hectares) of prairie on private lands.
--Maine's projects include preservation of piping plover and least tern habitat on private beaches.
--Michigan is giving financial and technical assistance to more than 400 landowners in focus areas which include grasslands, wetlands, river ecosystems, jack pine forest, pine barrens, and conifer forest.
--In Minnesota, projects include removing invasive trees to improve timber rattlesnake bluff habitat.
In New York, the Landowner Incentive Program is focusing on grasslands. Audubon New York will work with landowners to develop management plans, which typically include mowing fields after birds have finished nesting.
According to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the populations of certain grassland birds have declined by as much as 99 percent in New York since 1966. Henslow's sparrow has completely vanished from parts of its former range in eastern Canada and New England, and is nearly gone from New York. The loggerhead shrike has been extirpated from the Northeastern United States and reintroductions are being attempted in Canada, Morgan said
Other affected species include the grasshopper sparrow, vesper sparrow, upland sandpiper, horned lark, eastern meadowlark, savannah sparrow, northern harrier, and bobolink.
"The population of grassland birds is declining everywhere," Morgan said. "So when we preserve habitat here, it makes a big difference for the overall population."
One landowner who hopes to participate in the program is Gail Miller, who owns a 180-acre (72-hectare) farm at the eastern end of Lake Ontario near Watertown.
"My family came here after the War of 1812," Miller said. "I feel the farm was a gift from my ancestors. My sister and I could be very wealthy if we cut it up and sell it off, but we'd like to pass that on to the next generation."
The area is seeing a big push for development, with the expansion of nearby Fort Drum. Miller wants to keep the farm as grassland, but paying taxes on it will become an issue when she retires.
"This program seems like a terrific partnership between the supporters of wildlife and the private landowners," Miller said. "You don't make a fortune in this program, but it may pay the taxes and help people hang onto these farms and protect wildlife at the same time."
Audubon New York: http://ny.audubon.org/
Federal program: http://www.doi.gov/initiatives/landowner--incentive--program.html
NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation: http://www.dec.state.ny.us/
Source: Associated Press