Partnering with Tribes to Improve a Critical Ecosystem
With support from a 2009 Innovation Grant, 74 students, tribal members, and other adults came together to identify sustainable methods for managing grasslands in Washington and on reservation land.
Historically, Washington’s methods of “managing” its rich grasslands – overgrazing, draining wetlands, and conversion to cropland – have yielded disastrous results, with seventy percent of this unique habitat lost, a steep decline in quality of the remainder, and concurrent loss of grassland wildlife populations. In this project, Audubon Washington partnered with the Yakama Nation and members of the Kalispel tribe to develop new guidelines for managing their grasslands. With four groups of volunteers – Yakama and Kalispel Reservation scientists, tribal members, reservation-area students, and non-tribal adults in reservation areas, they collected data on bird usage of grasslands on the Yakama and Kalispel reservations. Yakama scientists then used these data to create new written land management guidelines for the Yakama Nation: the “Lateral C Bobolink Management Plan.” These guidelines will allow grassland birds to nest and will produce healthier livestock forage.
The project’s conservation target was grassland birds, specifically Bobolinks, which have declined dramatically in recent years and often lose nesting habitat because of mowing or grazing. Following are some of the project’s accomplishments:
1. 74 citizen-scientists conducted bird population assessments at nine field sites.
2. Audubon Washington aimed to recruit 15 students to help with monitoring – in all, 40 students from five local students ended up participating in one or more field surveys. Half of those were Hispanic, Native American, African American (and one Chinese exchange student), and half were white. Project leaders were also delighted that Yakama volunteers were enthusiastic enough about the project that they did nine weeks of monitoring instead of the six expected.
3. Data gathered during 836 field hours were used by tribal resource managers to support alternative approaches to haying and mowing.
4. The Yakama and Kalispel Tribes requested a five-year period of monitoring to establish Bobolink breeding success. Yakima Valley Audubon volunteers will monitor changes from implementation of the Management Plan.
5. A Yakama tribal member, a graduate student in grassland bird ecology, worked with students in the field and became an important role model.
The students who participated in the field surveys provided enthusiasm and energy. Project leaders felt they had achieved their goal, which was to recruit local students, with an emphasis on Yakama tribal members, in order to expose them to real-world biological field activities and data collection, and to encourage them to consider work in the scientific and technical fields. Most of the students had little or no experience in outdoor activities, such as camping or fishing, so this field experience was valuable to them in terms of exposing them to the natural world and career possibilities. Another extremely valuable aspect of the Grassland Project was the mentoring and role modeling provided by the Yakama Nation and Audubon staff and volunteers.
Last fall, with further support from a TogetherGreen Conservation Leadership fellowship, Audubon Washington and the Yakama Nation partnered on a poster at the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association national conference. They promoted the replacement of verbal guidelines for grassland management with the new written management guidelines, and talked about the tourism opportunities for Tribes from arising from birding enthusiasts.