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Conserving the Nature of America in the Southwest Region
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Getting Strategic to Protect teh Prime Gulf Coast Habitat
Mottled Duck Signals the Health of a Naturally Abundant Region
   

Ultimately, wildlife managers’ progress in protecting the mottled duck will benefit people who live in this wildlife-rich region, too. Major economic drivers along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico include tourism and outdoor recreation, commercial fishing, and shipping and transportation. Lush wetlands and grasslands are not only scenic icons of the Gulf Coast, they also help buffer erosion and the impact of storms, control flooding, and provide groundwater supplies for a fast-growing population. Credit: Ruth Elsey/Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
Ultimately, wildlife managers’ progress in protecting the mottled duck will benefit people who live in this wildlife-rich region, too. Major economic drivers along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico include tourism and outdoor recreation, commercial fishing, and shipping and transportation. Lush wetlands and grasslands are not only scenic icons of the Gulf Coast, they also help buffer erosion and the impact of storms, control flooding, and provide groundwater supplies for a fast-growing population. Credit: Ruth Elsey/Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

Why the mottled duck evolved to become a bird that no longer migrates – an attribute that is rare in the waterfowl world – will likely remain one of Mother Nature’s mysteries. But scientific advancements are helping wildlife managers gain a better understanding of the mottled duck’s needs and refine their approach for ensuring the long-term health of this Gulf Coast resident.

One of only a few duck species adapted to breeding in southern marshes, a major component of the mottled duck population spends its entire life cycle within a relatively small coastal area in eastern Texas and western Louisiana, roughly between Houston and New Orleans. Other than its “sitting duck” status, the mottled duck has no other particularly unusual attributes that distinguish it from other duck species. But that one characteristic alone accounts for its special vulnerability to disruptions in the ecological balance.

Historically, the temperate climate along the western Gulf Coast provided plenty of optimal habitat for mottled ducks and scores of other waterfowl migrating from their breeding grounds in central Canada and the Dakotas. The western Gulf Coast is a thriving part of the Mississippi and Central Flyways, two of four major waterfowl migration routes in North America.

In more recent years, however, the mottled duck’s habitat and surrounding areas have been compromised by urbanization, agricultural development, and changes to the area’s hydrology that affect the characteristics of historically verdant wetlands along the coast. The latter threat includes the ramifications of climate change, such as sea level rise and atypically variable precipitation patterns. Survey data suggest the mottled duck population has experienced a long-term decline in Texas and is stable-to-declining across the rest of its range.

The Power of Partnership
The Gulf Coast Prairie Landscape Conservation Cooperative, like 21 other similar public-private partnerships across the country, is marshaling the science needed to effectively deal with the complexities of conservation in today’s world. In many cases, LCCs are helping to improve longstanding conservation efforts, such as those for the mottled duck, by providing cutting-edge science and technical expertise for conservation at broader landscape scales – beyond the reach or resources of any one organization.

The non-migratory mottled duck is a relative of the mallard and looks like a cross between the female mallard and black duck. A new geospatial model, funded by the Gulf Coast Prairie Landscape Conservation Cooperative, will help ensure the long-term health of the mottled duck population that resides along the western coast of the Gulf of Mexico in Texas and Louisiana. Credit: Ruth Elsey, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
The non-migratory mottled duck is a relative of the mallard and looks like a cross between the female mallard and black duck. A new geospatial model, funded by the Gulf Coast Prairie Landscape Conservation Cooperative, will help ensure the long-term health of the mottled duck population that resides along the western coast of the Gulf of Mexico in Texas and Louisiana. Credit: Ruth Elsey, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

“Over the years, there has been lots of good conservation work on behalf of the mottled duck in this region, especially by Gulf Coast Joint Venture partners,” said Bill Bartush, Coordinator of the Gulf Coast Prairie LCC, referring to a nearly 30-year-old public-private partnership focused on migratory bird conservation. The Gulf Coast Joint Venture includes more than a dozen formal partners and scores of other collaborators, from government land and water management agencies to non-profit organizations to private landowners. In addition to the Joint Venture’s interest in the mottled duck, it’s also a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Focal Species and Bird of Management Concern, as well as a priority species for both the Texas and Louisiana Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Plans.

More recently, Joint Venture artners identified the need for a abitat conservation framework nd geospatial model that will help ombine their efforts in a more onsistent and complementary way,” artush explained. “They knew that etter bridging of effort in Texas and ouisiana would be more effective verall, and that’s why we’ve funded project that will help them do just hat.”

Bringing in Better Science
According to Daniel P. Collins, Ph.D., igratory Game Bird Coordinator for he U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s outhwest Region, the progress of artners working to save the mottled uck comes down to the fundamentals f breeding success, or survival hrough the stages of nesting and edging. If partners can ensure nough high quality breeding habitat, hey can improve mottled duck reeding success and the population ill grow. Though the concept is mple, getting it done is another story iven the range of threats to Gulf coast habitats.

In recent years, Gulf Coast Joint enture partners developed specific onservation objectives across the ndscape that indicate the desired atus of mottled duck populations. hen, they examined how to meet hose objectives in the face of all the nvironmental changes taking place in and around mottled duck habitat areas.

With project funding from the Gulf Coast Prairie LCC, partners began developing a new computerized geospatial model, based on Geographic Information System (GIS) and remote sensing technologies, to determine habitat conservation priorities. Expected to be complete later this year, the model is being developed by Texas A&M University-Kingsville, with technical support from several state, federal, and non-profit partners that are part of the Gulf Coast Joint Venture and the Gulf Coast Prairie LCC.

The model takes into account information about mottled duck population objectives and combines that with a host of biological data input related to typical breeding habitats. The model then provides various configurations and analyses to come up with the information partners most need: which specific breeding habitat areas to focus on at any given time to make progress toward the desired self- sustaining population objectives and the most effective set of actions to take to do so.

Collins put it this way: “We know ‘x’ number of high quality breeding habitat acres produces ‘y’ number of ducks per year; so the better the breeding habitat, the better you can influence the population. The new model helps identify the best habitat that’s going to support those population outcomes.”

With that information in hand, partners generally carry out three different habitat treatments: 1) protection of currently valuable wetland/grassland complexes, 2) improvement of grasslands, and 3) improvement of wetlands.

Fortunately, there are a host of programs for advancing wetland and grassland conservation, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program, Environmental Quality Incentive Program, Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, and others; North American Wetlands Conservation Act grant programs; private land conservation programs; and public land conservation activities.

Improving Over Time
Using the new model, and the above programs to carry out the conservation work, partners will have an even more precise and sustainable path for growing the mottled duck population.

A key benefit of the model is it’s dynamic. Collins pointed out that one of the best things about it is it will become more effective over time, since better inputs lead to better outputs. As GIS and related mapping capabilities progress, partners will be able to feed the model with better geospatial data. And because they’re doing more intensive evaluation of their efforts, they continue to get better biological information from their monitoring as well. “It all feeds back into your data-hungry model; and the more information you gather, the better you get at predicting outcomes,” Collins explained. Collins also emphasized that the model’s outputs change as new areas are put into conservation. “It’s not static,” he said. “It’s always changing so that the best habitats are always identified, and that helps you stay strategic.”

And that’s conservation in the 21st century.

Last updated: October 3, 2018