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New tool helps put potential black duck conservation projects in a row

Developed collaboratively by the Atlantic Coast Joint Venture, Ducks Unlimited, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with support from the North Atlantic LCC, the Black Duck Decision Support Tool is helping conservation partners align opportunities and funding for conservation on private land with priority habitat for black duck.
New tool helps put potential black duck conservation projects in a row

Photo: Peter McGowan/FWS

American black duck might be known as a “dabbler” -- a term for waterfowl that dip their heads down into the water when they forage -- but don’t be misled by the nonchalant-sounding description. Finding enough food is critical for the survival of this duck species, which has declined by about 50 percent in the last 50 years. 

That’s what motivated partners from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ducks Unlimited, and the Atlantic Coast Joint Venture to design a tool that equips conservation organizations and state and federal land managers to make meaningful decisions to sustain black duck populations. Developed with support from the Chesapeake Bay Trust and the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative (LCC), the Black Duck Decision Support Tool helps identify priority habitat for black ducks by following the food.

“We looked at energy availability across the landscape at the scale of a small watershed,” explained Tim Jones, Science Coordinator for the Atlantic Coast Joint Venture and the lead developer of the tool. “How much food is available at a site, compared to how much the ducks need to eat?”

Not just current ducks, but future ducks. The highest conservation priorities are sites that can sustain black ducks over time, based on population objectives set in the North American Waterfowl Management Plan.

The difference between those numbers indicates whether there is a deficit or a surplus of food to support ducks in the places where we want them,” said Jones.

This spring, the project team had an opportunity to put the tool to work to address a real challenge that many conservation organizations face. With limited dollars to invest in conservation, how do you figure out which projects to fund to get the most bang for your buck?

With a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), the team was able to leverage funding from the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) that wildlife biologist Christina Ryder from the Service’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office had used to identify potential sites for black duck conservation in the Bay region.

“We used the black duck model to help compare a number of sites we already knew were important based on work on the ground,” explained Sarah Fleming, Manager of Conservation Programs in the North Atlantic region for Ducks Unlimited. “The model produces a ‘thunderstorm map’ showing areas of high and low importance to help us direct efforts to the properties that have the greatest value for black duck.”

More than just ranking sites, the NFWF grant helped grease the wheels for conservation of private lands at the highest ranking sites by addressing a real challenge for conservation organizations who are interested in advancing private land protection: transactional and stewardship costs.

More than just ranking sites, the NFWF grant helped grease the wheels for conservation at the highest ranking ones by addressing a real challenge for landowners who are interested in conservation: transactional and stewardship costs.

“Anytime an organization places an easement on a property, there are short-term costs associated with appraisals and surveys, and long-term costs associated with monitoring and enforcement,” explained Jake McPherson, a biologist with Ducks Unlimited and the grant administrator for the project.

“In a typical transaction, those costs would fall on the shoulders of the landowner, even if the easement is a donation,” he said. “This grant gave us the opportunity to focus specifically on black duck habitat, and to offer additional incentive for conserving these areas by paying for the associated expenses.”

Expenses that could be a deal breaker for people with good intentions. “Generally speaking, people who approach our organization about conservation have an interest in protecting the environment or supporting recreational opportunities,” said McPherson. “But when we tell them: By the way, it may cost as much as $30,000 out of pocket, if we can not find a grant to help cover the expense, some just have to back out.”

Looking beyond the NFWF grant, McPherson thinks the tool itself will continue to play an important role when working with private land conservation. We are usually aware if a public property like Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge represents good habitat for black duck, but we sometimes don’t know as much about the ecological value of private property,” he said, adding. “When we are approached by an interested landowner, the tool can help us determine the value their property for black ducks.”

And the addition of black duck to the list of focal species for the Natural Resources Conservation Service's "Working Lands for Wildlife" program in 2016 means there will continue to be financial incentive for conservation of their habitat on private land.  

As the NFWF-funded pilot project indicates, sound investments can offer greater returns than expected. “Our goal for this project was about 200 permanently protected acres, but I think we could ultimately do about ten times that,” said Fleming. “This is a just starting point.”

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