Operationalizing the Enhanced Great Lakes Marsh Monitoring Program

Project by Bird Studies Canada.

Location: Municipalities in southern Ontario, south of the Canadian Shield.

For more information on this project, please contact Douglas C. Tozer, PhD., Port Rowan, ON.

Purpose

Background

Bird Studies Canada (BSC), a member of the Ontario Eastern Habitat Joint Venture (OEHJV), has delivered the Great Lakes Marsh Monitoring Program (GLMMP) since 1995. The program tracks populations of wetland-dependant bird (and frog) species as indicators of wetland health. The GLMMP has enormous potential to inform OEHJV conservation and management actions, from evaluating current efforts, to prioritizing sites for future securement, enhancement, and management, particularly for the conservation of secretive marsh birds, migratory game birds, and targeted waterfowl. During most of the GLMMP’s history, survey site selection has been mostly non-random, with the majority of survey locations selected by volunteers. This approach has been enormously successful, yielding bird information from ~800 points annually with extremely low cost because volunteers are able to select survey sites near their homes. However, this non-random selection (hereafter “existing sampling framework”) potentially limits inferences made using the GLMMP dataset, and thus may limit the GLMMP’s ability to evaluate OEHJV conservation and management efforts for wetland-dependent species.

With financial support from WHC in 2014/2015 and 2015/2016, and from other GLMMP partners, BSC has been working with OEHJV partners to develop and design a new wetland sampling framework within the Ontario portion of Bird Conservation Region 13 (BCR 13 ON), which is randomized and stratified appropriately to better meet OEHJV conservation and management needs. The outcome of this work to date is a new sampling framework that includes wetlands inside and outside of Great Lakes Areas of Concern, at inland and Great Lakes coastal locations, and >20 OEHJV wetlands plus non OEHJV wetlands.

Our approach initially is to survey points in the new sampling framework via paid staff, while at the same time continue to survey points in the existing framework via volunteers. Then, once the new points are finalized, fully ground-truthed, and the program is running smoothly, we will in future years shift as much of the survey work as possible to talented volunteers. This will ensure that all of the points in the new framework are surveyed each year, yielding maximum statistical gain, while also maintaining the power and flexibility of information gathered via the existing framework. 

Purpose

To put into operation a new sampling framework for the GLMMP that better reflects OEHJV and NAWMP priorities, which now and in the future will allow OEHJV partners to evaluate and improve conservation and management for wetland-dependent species.

Research Questions

Currently the GLMMP is working to address:

  • What is the distribution, relative abundance, and population trend of wetland-dependent species, particularly secretive marsh species, at various scales within the Great Lakes Basin?
  • What factors most influence relative abundance and population trends of wetland-dependant species in the Great Lakes Basin?

Our recent work on these questions, completed during previous components of the project, has looked at whether probability of occupancy, colonization, or extinction at a site is influenced by a large number of relevant habitat covariates, such as wetland size, emergent vegetation coverage, extent of Phragmites, and Great Lakes coastal versus inland. With the operationalization of the new wetland sampling scheme, we will generate more robust data that can address additional questions that relate directly to OEHJV partner and NAWMP priorities. These more robust data will be especially useful because they will allow us to address relevant questions with more confidence than was possible using the existing sampling scheme, such as:

  • What is the distribution, density, population size, and population trend of particular marsh-dependent bird species in OEHJV wetlands versus non OEHJV wetlands; in wetlands located within Great Lakes Areas of Concern versus not; in Great Lakes coastal wetlands versus inland; and across all of BCR 13?

Anticipated contribution to scientific knowledge base

Within current year:

  • Distribution, relative abundance, and population trend estimates for marsh-dependent species based on 22-year dataset.
  • Differences in species distribution and relative abundance within OEHJV and non OEHJV wetlands better understood and submitted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.
  • First ever robust minimum population size estimates of secretive marsh bird and migratory gamebird species throughout BCR 13 ON better understood and submitted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.

Over the longer term:

Ongoing, expanded, and more statistically robust data available to better inform OEHJV management and conservation practices across a number of current and developing key knowledge gaps.

Anticipated long-term conservation impacts and benefits

The robust data and analyses collected and conducted during this project will yield science-based quantitative assessments of the effectiveness of OEHJV wetlands for conserving wetland birds. These important outcomes will provide previously unavailable robust justification for OEHJV’s approach to wetland bird conservation, yielding a much needed contribution to OEHJVs reporting obligations. All of this will ultimately lead to the protection and conservation of even more acres of high quality OEHJV wetlands throughout southern Ontario, with the associated impact of maintaining or increasing populations of wetland dependent and associated marsh birds, waterbirds, gamebirds, and some waterfowl. These impacts are intrinsically important from a biodiversity conservation viewpoint, but they are also important from a recreational, and therefore economic, standpoint, given that hunting, birdwatching, and other dollar-generating outdoor sports will be greatly enhanced by increasing and expanding OEHJV wetlands throughout the project area. At the broadest level, both wetland birds and the people of Ontario and Canada stand to benefit from the anticipated long term impacts of this project.  

Contribution to the priorities under the associated NAWMP Canadian Habitat and/or Species Joint Venture Implementation Plan

A founding principle of the EHJV is to conserve waterfowl resources by maintaining and improving the quantity and quality of wetland habitats. This is accomplished by securing, enhancing, restoring, and managing valuable wetland and associated upland habitats. Key to the current and future OEHJV Implementation Plan (IP) is the need to evaluate the outcomes and progress of conservation actions, including the OEHJV’s ability to meet NAWMP’s habitat and population objectives. The proposed project will play a key role in evaluating the EHJVs progress towards achieving NAWMP objectives in Ontario by collecting information that will facilitate the adaptive management of current and proposed conservation programs for wetland-dependent species. By operationalizing a sampling program that has been designed with input from OEHJV partners, we will generate statistically robust data to quantitatively address timely and relevant OEHJV priorities and information gaps for migratory and webless gamebirds, as well as other wetland dependent species.

In addition, since its initial establishment under NAWMP, the OEHJV has expanded its mission to include the conservation of all birds and the habitats that support them. The proposed project will generate data and information on all wetland-dependent bird species as well as examine key JV assumptions (e.g., that maintaining waterfowl habitat is sufficient for maintaining other migratory gamebird and wetland-dependent bird species populations). 

Lastly, the project focuses on the Lower Great Lakes – St. Lawrence Lowlands, an area which has experienced more significant negative impacts and the highest rates of wetland loss compared to any other region.  Plus, at a finer scale, many of the randomly selected sampling points overlap with the DUC and NCC- priority areas identified in the current IP.

Stewardship

About 350 volunteers will be engaged in the 22nd year of data collection for the GLMMP by conducting point counts for wetland dependant bird species as well as gathering habitat data. Volunteers will contribute approximately 700 total participant days. In the future, volunteers will also likely be involved in the delivery of the new sampling scheme. Exposure of such a large number of citizens to various wetlands will establish personal relationships between these special habitats and people, ultimately leading to effective voluntary stewardship.