Strategic Habitat Conservation
Conserving the Nature of America


Strategic Habitat Conservation


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Shining a Spotlight on Tallgrass Prairie and Big Rivers Surrogate Species

Spotted sandpiper. Credit: USFWS.
Spotted sandpiper. Credit: USFWS.

The USFWS Midwest Region has recently selected a suite of surrogate species to focus conservation efforts throughout the Eastern Tallgrass Prairie and Big Rivers (ETPBR) Landscape Conservation Cooperative (LCC) geography.

The selection process began with a thorough review of all Federal Trust species of conservation concern, in direct partnership with state and tribal partners and guided by an inter-agency steering committee. Partners worked with taxonomic experts to select umbrella and indicator species that will help to prioritize future conservation work, promote greater efficiency, and ultimately benefit a broad range of species throughout the ETPBR LCC. The resulting list of surrogate species includes 21 species in 12 groups, encompassing grassland, wetland, and riverine habitats—functioning as a streamlined list of strategic priorities intended to benefit hundreds of other species of conservation concern.

The identification of these species builds on and complements the foundational work of the LCC, which is dedicated to addressing the conservation challenges of this predominantly agricultural landscape that stretches across the nation’s heartland from southwest Ohio westward to parts of eastern Kansas, Oklahoma and Nebraska, and northward into segments of Iowa, South Dakota and Minnesota.

The ETPBR LCC partnership is working to realize a common vision of ecologically thriving lands and waters, managed cooperatively for current and future generations. The goal is a landscape that supports functional tallgrass prairie and big rivers natural communities embedded within healthy and productive agricultural and urban systems.

The challenge, says LCC Co-Chair Charlie Wooley, Deputy Regional Director for the Service’s Midwest Region, is finding the appropriate balance between two often-competing realities.

“The landscape is centered on the Corn Belt, and its farms must continue to help feed the world. But these same agricultural lands must also help sustain fish, wildlife and other natural resources treasured by Americans,” says Wooley. “The two needs are not mutually exclusive. Our staff and our partners can and will rise to the challenge of finding balance on the landscape.”

Initially, Service biologists are focusing on the surrogate species that already have population objectives established through the work of the Upper Mississippi River and Great Lakes Joint Venture and the recently revised Pallid Sturgeon Recovery Plan.  The Service will work with identified baseline populations and population objectives for the following “spotlight” surrogate species: Henslow’s sparrow, upland sandpiper,  mallard, and pallid sturgeon.  Service biologists are also reviewing other selected surrogate species to assess current knowledge and data needs to establish population objectives that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-sensitive for all surrogate species.

The Service and its partners are now moving forward to implement surrogate species through the Strategic Habitat Conservation (SHC) cycle. Current actions work to integrate biological planning, conservation design, implementation, and monitoring for the selected surrogate species.  Teams are compiling information, such as the recently completed range-wide status assessment and conservation plan for the Henslow’s sparrow and a “thunderstorm map” habitat model that can be used to help prioritize habitat work for upland sandpiper in Iowa.  For the mallard, decades of work through the North American Waterfowl Management Plan has made great strides in conservation of mallards and other dabbling ducks.  The pallid sturgeon recovery program will guide the delivery of biological outcomes focused on establishing a measurable natural recruitment level.

Population baseline and objective for “spotlight” surrogate species in the Eastern Tallgrass Prairie and Big River geography


Baseline population

Population objective

Henslow’s sparrow



Upland sandpiper






Pallid sturgeon


Natural recruitment

The Partners for Fish and Wildlife program in Illinois has cross-referenced our surrogate species list with the Illinois Natural History Survey and Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ “fish species of concern” list to prioritize stream bank stabilization projects that benefit species of mutual interest.  As an added benefit, the state fish species of concern will be used to update the Illinois State Wildlife Action Plan, thereby providing greater conservation benefit between state and federal actions.

In Iowa, the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program is working in partnership with the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation to restore oxbows in prairie streams for Topeka shiners, a surrogate species that is also on the Endangered Species List.  Additional work with the  Iowa State Cooperative Research Unit and Iowa State University to assess population trends of Topeka shiners, develop landscape plans to optimize restorations, and develop population viability models is proposed. 

In Missouri, the Upper Mississippi River and Great Lakes Region Joint Venture has recently funded a habitat selection and productivity study on Henslow’s sparrow and additional Service-led efforts are underway in the Flint Hills region of Kansas to prioritize habitat conservation and develop spatial models to evaluate population outcomes for Henslow’s sparrows.

In fiscal year 2014 the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program in the ETPBR landscape has directed most of its grassland and wetland restoration funding toward benefitting surrogate species.

The Midwest Region was also recently awarded funding from the National Wildlife Refuge System's Natural Resource Program Center to establish preliminary population objectives for the remaining ETPBR surrogate species. Once complete, these species objectives will be scalable to smaller or larger geographies (e.g. Grand Kankakee River Watershed or a range of individual species) so that we can assess the effects of our conservation delivery actions and select the most effective option from a range of alternatives, based directly on measurable outcomes.

Finally, the Midwest Region is focusing communication capacity on helping employees understand their role in implementing surrogate species and how this work will provide benefits to the greater conservation community, our Trust resources, and ultimately the American people. Multiple interactive presentations, both with regional leadership and the field based team overseeing implementation, has created opportunities for staff to be informed and engage in the surrogate species process. Communication efforts are also working toward enhanced visual aids, including an interactive story map, to support surrogate species storytelling efforts to staff, partners, and eventually the public. Letters and presentations have kept state and tribal partners informed with the Midwest Region’s progress and sought their engagement in the selection and implementation processes.

“No single entity, whether state, federal, private, or NGO has the answers to tackling our toughest of conservation challenges. And we all struggle with making conservation relevant to the American public,” says ETPBR LCC Coordinator Glen Salmon. “We can all admit that the problems are too big, the issues too complex, and what’s at stake too important to take on independently –and without considering the relationship between humans and the natural environment.”

By focusing on information sharing and collaborative partnerships, the Service and its partners are beginning to affect change at a landscape scale, through the LCC and within their respective organizations.

“This 21st century model for conservation is not just a new idea, but is being implemented as a new way of doing conservation,” adds Salmon. “As conservationists, we can look to examples from other complex social and scientific issues to discover more effective ways of working together.”

Surrogate Spcecies for the Easter Tallgrass Prairie and Big Rivers LCC





Last updated: December 11, 2014

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