Salt Marsh Bird Conservation Business Plan for the Atlantic Coast

At a 2014 Partners in Flight meeting in Virginia Beach, a group of bird conservation partners from the Atlantic and Gulf coast began to develop a conservation business plan for tidal marsh birds. That planning process identified a suite of highest-priority bird species, which included Saltmarsh Sparrow and Black Rail. Led by the researchers involved in the Saltmarsh Habitat Avian Research Program (SHARP), a draft business plan was partially completed by 2015. After the ACJV adopted its strategic focus on salt marsh birds, we obtained funding to rejuvenate the business planning process, given the strong nexus with our ACJV flagship species. Partners have since been developing a draft plan that includes a prioritization of threats and identification of strategies and actions necessary to restore critical habitat for the suite of salt marsh dependent bird species.

Saltmarsh Sparrow nest. Mary Keleher

The current Salt Marsh Bird Conservation Business Plan (SMBCBP) covers the U.S. portion of the Atlantic Flyway, from Maine to Florida, including the Gulf Coast of Florida. The plan’s strategies are expected to benefit the entire suite of salt marsh species, with a focus on the most imperiled habitats. Within tidal marshes, it is “high marsh”—the highest in elevation and least frequently flooded—habitat that needs the most serious attention. This is especially true in the Northeastern region, which includes the entire breeding range of Saltmarsh Sparrow. High marsh is typically flooded only during spring or king tides, or during coastal storm surges, but now floods more frequently due to sea level rise. Salt marsh birds such as Saltmarsh Sparrow and Eastern Black Rail, which rely on high marsh habitat, are now experiencing regular nest flooding and nest loss.   

Implementation strategies in the SMBCBP include the following:

Habitat Conservation (protection, restoration, and management of habitat)

  • Restore Degraded Salt Marsh (e.g., address tidal restrictions, ditch remediation)
  • Land Protection in Marsh Transition Zone (i.e., allow future marsh migration)
  • Beneficial Use of Dredge Material (e.g., thin-layer deposition, ditch filling)
  • Management to Accelerate Marsh Transition (e.g., Phragmites control)

Policy, Planning, Outreach (incorporating marsh conservation into agency policies)

  • Engage Transportation Agencies to Improve Infrastructure (i.e., roads, rails, bridges)
  • Engage/Improve Local Land-Use Planning Process (e.g., streamline permitting at all levels)
  • Alleviate Impacts from Pollution (i.e., prepare for and react to future oil spills)
  • Integrate Salt Marsh Conservation into NRCS (Farm Bill) Programs

Salt marsh restoration and enhancement practices are still in the experimental stages and relatively little is known about which practices will have the greatest population and habitat benefits. Therefore, the plan calls for partners to launch on-the-ground management efforts (e.g., pilot tests) via an adaptive management framework so that we can monitor and evaluate their efficacy. With so little known about what works where, our research needs are as important as our need to begin implementation as soon as possible.

The plan also includes sections on monitoring and costs of implementation, including a list of salt marsh conservation projects underway or recently-completed, to facilitate new research and information exchange among partners. Summary sections for each state, clarifying which species, threats, strategies, and actions are most important and compelling in that state, are also in development.

A rough draft of the business plan was reviewed by the ACJV technical committee and management board in September, 2018. We are now finalizing a second draft of the plan, which will be reviewed at our Management Board retreat in April of 2019. We plan to distribute a final draft of the plan to ACJV partners by July 2019.