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As lawmakers get back to work they should take a moment to walk outside and look up — at the birds whose fate is intertwined with our own. As we emerge from the hottest year on record, the fact that North America’s bird population has declined by three billion since 1970, a loss of more than one in four birds, is not only staggering. It’s a climate warning that none of us can ignore.
The good news is that what’s good for birds is good for us. Four important actions Congress should take this year will go a long way toward protecting our birds, our natural resources, and our communities.
Step one is to defend our vulnerable coastlines that are getting hammered by extreme weather and sea level rise. That means updating the 40-year-old Coastal Barrier Resources Act, which protects undeveloped beaches, wetlands, and other coastal areas, ensuring that coastal birds like American Oystercatchers, Red Knots, and Piping Plovers can nest, feed, and rest safely. A 2019 study showed that the law has reduced flood damage in nearby communities by 25%, saving federal taxpayers nearly $10 billion over 25 years.
Protecting our coastlines also requires passage of the bipartisan Resilient Coasts and Estuaries Act, which would strengthen federal efforts to protect coastal and estuary habitats and require the designation of five new National Estuarine Research Reserves. The bill would bring much-needed resources directly to coastal communities, and support local economies that depend on these natural areas — from the St. Louis River in Minnesota and the Thorne River in Alaska, to Scarborough Marsh in Maine and San Elijo Lagoon in California.
Step two is to ensure that we conserve migratory birds wherever they travel. Passing bipartisan legislation to improve and update the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act offers a common-sense way to recover and protect more than 350 bird species that migrate between the U.S., Canada, Latin America, and the Caribbean every year.
This includes beloved songbirds and shorebirds which have suffered some of the largest population declines due to habitat loss. Protecting migratory birds is also one of our smartest ecological investments. For every $1 provided by the U.S. government, $5 is spent on conservation by on-the-ground partners across the Western Hemisphere.
Step three is to make the necessary investments in our nation’s freshwater resources. Our river systems don’t just supply our homes and farms with water; they are critical to resident and migratory bird populations, including waterfowl.
By increasing investment in restoration programs, water conservation efforts, and watershed management, Congress can ensure that water flows remain plentiful and sustaining for farms, residential drinking water, and the birds and other wildlife whose survival depends on access to clean water. This includes quickly passing Fiscal Year 2024 appropriations bills that meet the agreements stipulated in the Fiscal Responsibility Act and rejecting partisan policy riders.
Finally, this year’s effort to pass the Farm Bill must continue to invest in voluntary programs that incentivize America’s farmers, ranchers, and foresters to conserve their lands. Implementing sustainable, climate smart agriculture and forestry practices will help to protect birds and mitigate climate change.
Grassland birds in the U.S. are among the most endangered: 25% of the three billion birds we’ve lost were grassland birds — and of those remaining, 70% are vulnerable to habitat loss and climate change. Robust funding for voluntary conservation programs is a victory for farmers and birds.
Our feathered friends aren’t just symbols of the ecological balance we need to restore. Their songs brighten our lives, mark changing seasons, and provide wonder and joy. That’s why 96 million Americans partake in bird-watching, a tremendous economic engine that so many communities and businesses benefit from and rely on. There is much work to be done, but these common-sense, bipartisan measures can begin bending the curve of bird declines across the western hemisphere — if Congress will help them take flight.