On a cool September morning, a national wildlife refuge manager looks out over a wetland. That summer, staff members had managed water levels to encourage the growth of plant foods that ducks need for their journey south. Did they get it right? Will the birds come?
Months earlier, on an April afternoon, in a windowless meeting room, upper management is boisterously discussing the years budget. There is disagreement about funding distribution. What is the costbenefit ratio of wetland management on refuges in the region? Are we managing for waterfowl, shorebirds and wading birds in the right places?
On a cold January evening, over dinner after a presentationfilled day, several biologists are debating the effectiveness of waterbird habitat conservation within the flyway. Can we identify the most important stopover sites for waterfowl and shorebirds as they migrate? Is there enough food at each site to refuel the birds for their next longdistance flight?
These are questions we ask as conservation biologists. They appear to be separate when we contemplate them, but actually they are interdependent. It is difficult to know the answer to one without the answer to another. In 2007as a small group of biologists in the Mississippi and Atlantic Flyways sought methods to inform decisions about managing local wetlands, allocating regional resources and ensuring strategic habitat conservation at the flyway scaleit became apparent that answering such questions would require an integrated approach. From this, the Integrated Waterbird Management and Monitoring (IWMM) initiative was conceived.
During the past two years, waterbird (waterfowl, shorebird and wading bird) use and habitat conditions have been monitored on almost 400 refuge, state and private wetlands. The data will be used in a multiscaled adaptive management framework to inform models designed to provide decision support to local, regional and flyway managers. While the models, protocols and partnerships are in early development, the IWMM initiative is progressing to become operational by 2013.
What we, as wetland managers, do for one waterbird group generally affects another waterbird group. We need to integrate our management for waterbirds. The IWMM regional model will help managers evaluate a field stations contribution toward flyway objectives and adjust management for emerging threats such as climate change.
Data from a wetland will inform local habitat management decisions and provide input to broader models. Regional analyses will assess the contribution of wetlands and identify waterbird priorities at that scale. Flyway information will assess species priorities and identify conservation needs within a region or landscape conservation cooperative.
Effective monitoring and management of waterbirds requires collaboration by partners. The Refuge System and the Migratory Bird Program have worked to incorporate flyway councils, joint ventures and nonprofits such as Ducks Unlimited. U.S.
Geological Survey personnel and contractors have contributed modeling expertise. Last fall, temporary biological technicians in the Northeast, Midwest and Southeast Regions worked with state biologists to identify important wetlands and assist with data collection in seven locales.
As a young biologist collecting waterfowl and shorebird data at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia, I asked the senior biologist about sharing our waterbird data with others who were collecting similar data. I wanted a landscape context to waterbird habitat management at our refuge. I thought my information would be much more meaningful if I could compare it with that from other wetlandsnot only nearby wetlands but within the larger flyway. The senior biologist chuckled at my naïve daydreaming. Standardized protocols, centralized storage of data from multiple sites, geographic information systems (GIS) and decision models were not commonplace then.
Now, two decades later, I am excited to be working on the IWMM initiative with other daydreaming biologists. Young people just beginning their wildlife careers and seasoned biologists alike are striving to develop an integrated approach to link data with the decisions made at the local, regional and flyway levels within an adaptive management framework for waterfowl and shorebirds.
Jennifer Casey is an assistant regional biologist for the Northeast Region. More information about the Integrated Waterbird Management and Monitoring (IWMM) initiative is available at http://iwmmprogram.ning.com.