AUTHOR BLOG: Saving Saltmarsh Sparrows will help other species, too

Chris Elphick

Linked paper: Evaluating a focal-species approach for tidal marsh bird conservation in the northeastern United States by B.T. Klingbeil, J.B. Cohen, M.D. Correll, C.R. Field, T.P. Hodgman, A.I. Kovach, B.J. Olsen, W.G. Shriver, W.A. Wiest, and C.S. Elphick, The Condor: Ornithological Applications 120:4, November 2018.

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Salt marshes in the northeastern USA are getting wetter, increasing the risk that the nests of marsh-breeding birds will be flooded during high tides. Photo credit: Chris Elphick

Saltmarsh Sparrows are in trouble. They are found only in the eastern USA and—as their name suggests—occur only in salt marshes, nesting primarily in the higher elevation portions that are dominated by saltmeadow cordgrass (Spartina patens) and where the risk of nests flooding is lowest. With rising sea levels and increasing storm surges, however, that risk is rising. Since the 1990s, the global population of Saltmarsh Sparrows has declined by about 75%, and demographic studies suggest that extinction is likely by mid-century. Marshes are also changing, with a shift towards vegetation characteristic of wetter conditions, supporting the idea that sea level rise is responsible and that flooding risk for the birds is increasing.

The good news is that people are starting to take notice. The species is considered globally endangered by BirdLife International, it is being assessed for listing under the US Endangered Species Act (ESA), and it is the subject of considerable attention by the Atlantic Coast Joint Venture, which represents most of the key management agencies in states where the species occurs.

Saltmarsh Sparrows, of course, are not the only birds that use salt marshes in eastern North America. Black Rails have already disappeared from much of the East and were recently proposed for ESA listing; Clapper Rails and Nelson’s Sparrows are also declining in the northeastern USA, the only region for which there are comprehensive, large-scale surveys; and other salt marsh specialists nest in similar conditions and will potentially face a similar fate in coming decades.

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Conservation for Saltmarsh Sparrows (right) is likely to benefit most other salt marsh specialist birds nesting in the northeastern USA. An exception is Nelson’s Sparrow (left), which has limited range overlap and will require separate conservation actions. Photo credit: Chris Elphick

A key question, then, is whether conservation focused on Saltmarsh Sparrows will also benefit these other species. Conservation biologists have long debated the pros and cons of management focused on individual species. Arguably, centering conservation on an individual species can help garner conservation support that will have ecosystem-wide benefits. At the same time, if the chosen species does not adequately represent the entire suite of species (or other ecosystem properties) that one wants to protect, then the endeavor will fail. In our new paper, we set out to test whether Saltmarsh Sparrows can play this role.

Using the conservation planning software MARXAN, we prioritized salt marsh patches for five bird species that nest in salt marshes across the ten states in which Saltmarsh Sparrows breed.  These species are those most dependent on salt marshes and most likely to be affected by changes to the habitat. (Black Rail, the sixth species in this group, is now so rare in these states that it was not included.) We found that land protection scenarios focused on Saltmarsh Sparrows are more effective at protecting the entire suite of species than scenarios focused on any of the other individual species. Conserving areas that support the bulk of the current Saltmarsh Sparrow population will also protect large (>50,000) populations of all other species except Nelson’s Sparrow. Similar planning based on Clapper Rails—the other declining species—performed much worse, while multispecies combinations performed no better. Nelson’s Sparrow would not be protected well by prioritizing based on any of the proxy species considered, which is not surprising, given the limited overlap between the range of this species and the other four.

Of course, showing that conservation focused on Saltmarsh Sparrows will benefit other salt marsh specialist birds is only a partial answer to the question of whether they are a good focal species for long-term conservation of salt marshes. Birds that use these marshes outside the breeding season, other types of organisms, and the full range of other ecosystem services that marshes provide also warrant consideration. It is clear, however, that work designed to protect sparrows has good potential to benefit some of the other high-priority conservation targets. And given the reliance of Saltmarsh Sparrows on high-elevation marsh—the portion of the system that seems to be most vulnerable to losses due to sea level rise—it appears likely that other organisms that use this habitat will also benefit.