As a group, grassland birds are experiencing one of the fastest population declines of any group of birds in Massachusetts – and in North America. Of the eight grassland obligate birds that breed in the Commonwealth, five are listed as either Threatened or Endangered in the state. Two of these, Henslow’s sparrow and short-eared owl, never bred in large numbers in Massachusetts and have been all but extirpated. The remaining three – grasshopper sparrow, upland sandpiper and vesper sparrow – still remain in viable, but vulnerable, populations.
As with most of our state-listed species in Massachusetts, our listed grassland birds are highly specialized in their habitat needs, requiring a narrow niche to persist. For example, it is no coincidence that the habitat of grasshopper sparrow and upland sandpiper - large, dry expanses of native bunch grasses formed on glacial outwash and maintained for millennia by fire – is in fact now considered to be an extremely rare plant community itself. Many of these areas, known as sandplain grasslands, have been lost to either to development, or to seral succession resulting from modern fire suppression practices. The vast majority of remaining sandplain grasslands in Massachusetts occurs on airports, and thus, so does the vast majority of our grasshopper sparrows and upland sandpipers.
Sustaining these populations under such circumstances is challenging, but also offers many opportunities. MA NHESP plays an active role in conserving these species through a combination of regulatory protection and direct habitat management, and works with many cooperators - including local and state governments, the United States military, private entities and non-profit organizations - to find mutually beneficial solutions to potential conflicts with rare species. Developing conservation plans that still facilitate needed development at private sites, and actively managing sandplain grassland habitat on DFW’s own land – often by reintroduction fire on the landscape - are key components of NHESP’s strategy for ensuring viable populations of these rare birds in the Commonwealth.
One such conservation plan, “ An Action Plan for the Conservation of State-listed Obligate Grassland Birds in Massachusetts ,” was recently finalized. The final plan was approved on August 29, 2013 by the Fisheries & Wildlife Board after a 30-day public comment period and review by the NHES Advisory Committee and the Fisheries & Wildlife Board. This plan was developed through a partnership including Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, NHESP, the Trustees of Reservations, the Massachusetts chapter of The Nature Conservancy, and the Massachusetts Audubon Society. The report presents a state-wide action plan for the Upland Sandpiper and the Grasshopper Sparrow, and to some extent the Vesper Sparrow, to effectively realize specific targeted conservation goals.