I can’t say that I’m a regular reader of Ontario Beef magazine, but an article in the February 2012 edition by Gerald Rollins caught our attention. Rollins, a beef farmer and director on the board of the Ontario Cattlemen’s Association, may well be affected by certain elements of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
More specifically, he understands well that pastures and hayfields provide important habitat for two grassland bird species: bobolinks and eastern meadowlarks. Both of these birds are on the province’s endangered species list and their declines can be linked to habitat loss and habitat disturbance.
We’ve been working closely with the farming community on ways to protect bobolinks. These striking little birds nest in hayfields and lightly grazed pastures, and were doing just fine until the end of the 20th century when hay harvesting started to occur earlier and more frequently, right around the time bobolinks’ eggs are hatching, habitat loss accelerated and pesticide use became more widespread in South America where the birds spend the winter. The plunge in bobolink numbers has been dramatic. Between 1968 and 2008, bobolinks have declined by 65% in Ontario. One study showed that 96% of eggs and nestlings are destroyed during early hay cropping.
The only way to save these birds is by working together. As Rollins writes: “The successful recovery of bobolink and eastern meadowlark will require the support and participation of the agricultural community.” The Ontario government granted farmers a three-year exemption to the ESA, meaning that they won’t be penalized for accidentally harming or killing the birds. During this time, conservationists and farmers can craft a plan that protects this charismatic songbird without adversely affecting a farmer’s livelihood.
A Bobolink Round Table Advisory Group has been struck, co-chaired, fittingly, by Bette Jean Crews, former Ontario Federation of Agriculture President, and Jon McCracken of Bird Studies Canada. We wholeheartedly endorse this innovative and proactive approach to collaboration. We can all learn from each other. As Rollins says, “We are confident that a mutually beneficial solution will be reached.” In three years’ time, we’ll be ready with a plan that suits everyone including the singing bobolink.
Victoria Foote was Ontario Nature's director of communications and editor of ON Nature magazine.