Photo of Bobolink. Credit: Barbara Frei Photo of Eastern Meadowlark. Credit: Janice Melendez

Protecting and recovering species at risk in Ontario

Species at risk recovery is a key part of protecting Ontario’s biodiversity. The Endangered Species Act, 2007 (ESA) is the Government of Ontario’s legislative commitment to protecting and recovering species at risk and their habitats.

Under the ESA, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (the Ministry) must ensure that a recovery strategy is prepared for each species that is listed as endangered or threatened. A recovery strategy provides science-based advice to government on what is required to achieve recovery of a species.

Within nine months after a recovery strategy is prepared, the ESA requires the Ministry to publish a statement summarizing the government’s intended actions and priorities in response to the recovery strategy. The response statement is the government’s policy response to the scientific advice provided in the recovery strategy. In addition to the strategy, the government response statement (GRS) is based on input from stakeholders, other jurisdictions, Aboriginal communities and members of the public. It reflects the best available traditional, local and scientific knowledge at this time and may be adapted if new information becomes available. In implementing the actions in the response statement, the ESA allows the Ministry to determine what is feasible, taking into account social and economic factors.

The recovery strategy for the Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) and Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna) was completed on May 31, 2013. Since a single recovery strategy was written for these two species, the government response statement also addresses both species.

To comprehensively consider and address the complexities associated with the protection and recovery of Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark, MNRF took additional time to prepare this GRS. Multiple landowners, organizations and sectors are interested and involved in the protection and management of Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark. MNRF undertook enhanced engagement with and sought additional advice from stakeholders and the public, including through an advisory group, and analysed and considered additional jurisdictional, scientific and economic information. All recommendations provided in the recovery strategy and by the advisory group were considered, and this government response statement identifies those that are considered to be appropriate and necessary for the protection and recovery of the species.

The Bobolink is a medium-sized songbird in the blackbird family, measuring 15 to 20 cm in length, with a short conical bill. The male has a black bill, head, and body with a white rump and golden to yellow patch on its head. The female resembles a large sparrow with a light pink bill and buff to brown plumage.

The Eastern Meadowlark is also a medium-sized blackbird, measuring 22 to 28 cm in length, with a long, pointed bill, a short tail, and relatively long legs. Both males and females have bright yellow markings on the neck and stomach, and a distinctive black V-pattern on the chest. The back, wings and tail are barred with black and brown.

Protecting and recovering Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark

The Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark are both listed as threatened species under the ESA, which protects both the animals and their habitat. The ESA prohibits harm or harassment of the species and damage or destruction of their habitat without authorization. Such authorization would require that conditions established by the Ministry be met.

Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark in Ontario

Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark originally nested in native prairies and grasslands in Ontario, but have also benefitted from extensive land clearing for agriculture associated with European settlement. Numbers of both species are thought to have increased significantly during this time as the birds spread throughout the newly established farm field grassland habitat.

The occurrence of these species across Ontario continues to reflect their relationship with agricultural landscapes, and they are most common in areas of expansive agricultural grasslands, such as hay and pasture farm fields. Currently the areas with the most abundance in Ontario include the Bruce, Grey, Dufferin, Kawartha Lakes, Peterborough and Rainy River regions, the north shore of Lake Ontario between Belleville and Kingston, and the area between the Ottawa and St. Lawrence Rivers, including the Ottawa Valley and Renfrew.

In recent decades, changes in land use and agricultural practices and declining numbers of cattle have led to a decline in hay and pasture fields in Ontario. Ontario’s settlement history and patterns have also resulted in a decline in native prairie and grasslands to less than 1% of their historic levels. In Ontario, loss of habitat is thought to be the most significant threat to Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark, as well as other grassland species. In addition, cattle grazing and earlier hay cuts results in loss of birds and nests, as the May to July nesting season for these species overlaps with these agricultural activities.

As a result, Bobolink has experienced significant population declines over the past 30 years, with an annual decline rate of 4% over the 10-year period from 2000 to 2010. This corresponds to a cumulative loss of 33% during that time. Similarly, Eastern Meadowlark populations have declined at an annual rate of nearly 3%, corresponding to a cumulative loss of 25% in the same 10-year period. Provincial population levels still show substantial numbers of these birds: as of 2010, the Bobolink’s Ontario population was estimated at about 570,000 individuals and the Eastern Meadowlark at about 130,000 individuals. However, while both species remain relatively widespread in Ontario, their sharp population declines are a cause for concern, and have resulted in the threatened status for these grassland birds.

Migration marathon

The Bobolink makes an incredible 20,000 km round-trip journey between its summer breeding grounds in North America and wintering grounds in South America. This is one of the longest migrations of all North American songbirds – a mighty feat for this bird that weighs less than a slice of bread!

Bobolinks from all across North America first converge on Venezuela then fly to Bolivia and on to Argentina. They time their flights to match the growth of new grasses sprouting in the South American spring. When actively migrating, the Bobolink travel 1000 km per day, and they have been known to travel 1900 km non-stop in one day from North America to South America.

Despite the remarkable distances that they cover, Bobolink form a special attachment to the very place they are born. A Bobolink will return to the same field where it was raised, or to one very nearby, to start its own family.

Informing Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark protection and recovery

Habitat for Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark occurs primarily on private lands and farm fields, created and managed for agriculture. Because the two species nest mainly in agricultural fields, their protection and recovery requires the consideration of, and collaboration with, the agricultural community, rural landowners, and other stakeholders.

Despite the long-term co-existence of the Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark with agriculture, there continues to be important knowledge gaps in habitat availability and use, and an absence of guidance and resources on habitat management for these species. Recognizing these factors, the government passed regulations in 2011, 2012 and 2014 that collectively provided an exemption from the ESA’s species and habitat protection requirements for specific agricultural activities with respect to Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark. These regulations provided the Ministry with the time needed to engage the public and stakeholders, and consider ways to provide for the protection and recovery of the species while allowing agricultural activities to continue. It also gave the agricultural sector greater certainty for the interim.

Stewardship first

Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark have long been a part of the natural and cultural heritage of rural and agricultural Ontario. Because of the loss of native prairies and grasslands, these grassland birds now depend on agricultural landscapes across the province.

To be successful, a solution that protects the birds must also work for the agricultural sector. Ontario’s Endangered Species Act encourages a stewardship first approach to protecting and recovering species, and the agricultural operations exemption provides a basis for this to occur.

A diverse group of engaged, knowledgeable and dedicated Ontarians have identified and begun to implement community-led, on the ground actions.

The complexities associated with protecting and recovering these grassland species, and the need to engage those potentially affected by their management also led the Ministry to establish the Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark Round Table (Round Table) in 2011. This advisory group represented agriculture, conservation, First Nations, and certain industrial and development sectors, and was supported by MNRF and the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA). The Round Table’s mandate was to advise on the long-term protection and recovery of the species without significantly impacting Ontario’s agricultural sector.

In November 2013, the Round Table submitted a report to the Ministry recommending an integrated solution package that included a 10-year extension of the exemption for agricultural operations, stewardship incentives for landowners, research and monitoring, and education and outreach to support the protection and recovery of Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark.

Protection and recovery approach for Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark

Government’s Recovery Goal

The government’s short-term goal for the recovery of Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark is to slow the population decline by maintaining and enhancing grassland habitat. In the long-term, the government’s goal is to maintain a stable and self-sustaining population for Bobolink at 65% of its current population size, and for Eastern Meadowlark at 72% of its current population size, throughout the species’ current range in Ontario by 2036 (within 20 years).

Given provincial trends in urbanization, agricultural commodity prices, human population growth, and changes in the beef and dairy sectors, habitat loss for Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark in Ontario is expected to continue. Land use changes are likely to result in fewer hay, pasture, and other grassland-type fields, and where it is not feasible or practical to modify agricultural operations, the loss of birds and nests will likely continue. For these reasons, the species’ populations are expected to further decline over the next five to ten years, and immediate stabilization of populations at present-day levels is not considered feasible. The government is therefore establishing targets to slow the current average annual rates of population decline from 4% to 0% for Bobolink and 2.9 % to 0% for Eastern Meadowlark over the next 15-20 years through the recovery actions identified in this GRS. Targeting the stabilization of self-sustaining population levels within 20 years provides a realistic time frame to develop and implement recovery actions, and to see tangible results of these actions.


Bobolink and Eastern  Meadowlark population estimates chart
Figure 1: Bobolink (a) and Eastern Meadowlark (b) population estimates (2000-2036). The blue line illustrates population stabilization due to the implementation of stewardship activities in Ontario, preserving current habitat and creating more and higher quality habitat. The red line suggests what will happen to the populations if the rates of decline are permitted to continue at 4%/year (a) and 2.9%/year (b).

Enlarge


Figure 1 illustrates the population decline histories and trajectories for Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark, including the continuation of the projected declines in the absence of targeted protection and recovery actions in Ontario. Overlain on this are the anticipated outcomes associated with the implementation of actions proposed through this GRS. After an initial 4-5 year period to establish actions including grassland habitat stewardship, declines slow and then stabilize. This achieves stabilization at population levels of 302,000 birds for Bobolink and 79,600 birds for Eastern Meadowlark, which is 65% and 72% of the estimated current 2015 population levels respectively.

The recovery of Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark is strongly linked to maintaining grassland habitat in Ontario. Informed by the recommendations provided by the recovery strategy, the Round Table and additional public engagement, the Ministry proposes a comprehensive approach to the protection and recovery of Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark in Ontario. This includes the actions identified in this GRS that the government will lead and support, aligned with an extended exemption for agricultural practices through a regulatory amendment, with implementation clarity provided through an explanatory bulletin.

Key to achieving the recovery goals for the two species is the development and implementation of a province-wide grassland habitat stewardship initiative.

Through a competitive process, government will create an initiative to promote, support and deliver grassland stewardship, and will provide funding to support its implementation. The policy framework, mandate, governance structure and priorities for this initiative will be determined by government, with on-the-ground actions administered by a third party acting at arm’s length from government. Through this initiative, partners will be identified, habitat targets will be established, and priority actions implemented to promote, monitor and evaluate grasslands creation, enhancement and maintenance across the province. This stewardship-first approach will be supported by cross-ministry collaboration and may leverage federal and multi-stakeholder partnerships to focus on the maintenance and creation of grassland ecosystems in Ontario.

The benefits of grasslands are significant and extend well beyond providing habitat for these two threatened bird species. Grasslands decrease atmospheric greenhouse gases through the sequestration of carbon, methane and nitrogen, and the preservation and management of grasslands through this initiative will support Ontario’s climate change objectives. Grasslands provide pollinator habitat, and efforts to sustain grasslands also support government commitments to improve health of bees and other pollinators.

One-third of Ontario’s species at risk use and depend on grassland habitat, and increased grassland quantity and quality will provide habitat for these species and enhance Ontario’s biodiversity. Healthy grasslands also deliver improved ecosystem service benefits and more productive agricultural lands through effects on soil health and retention and water purification.

The grasslands stewardship initiative will promote opportunities for all interested landowners, conservation and other organizations, and institutional and industry sectors to support grassland habitat and the species’ recovery. Even with the grasslands stewardship initiative, agricultural lands will continue to provide the bulk of Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark habitat in Ontario. In recognition of the continued dependency of grassland birds on managed landscapes, the exemption for agricultural operations will be continued for an additional 10 years (2016 to December 31, 2025). The stewardship initiative complements the extension of the exemption by providing leadership, guidance, monitoring, and resources for achieving grasslands species and habitat recovery goals. The grasslands stewardship initiative aligned with the agricultural operations exemption will also contribute to the preservation of diverse agricultural and rural communities.

Actions

Protecting and recovering species at risk is a shared responsibility. No single agency or organization has the knowledge, authority or financial resources to protect and recover all of Ontario’s species at risk. Successful recovery requires inter-governmental co-operation and the involvement of many individuals, organizations and communities. In developing the government response statement, the Ministry considered what actions are feasible for the government to lead directly and what actions are feasible for the government to support its conservation partners to undertake.

The government endorses the following actions as being necessary for the protection and recovery of Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark. Actions identified as “high” will be given priority consideration for funding under the ESA. Where reasonable, the government will also consider the priority assigned to these actions when reviewing and issuing authorizations under the ESA. Other organizations are encouraged to consider these priorities when developing projects or mitigation plans related to species at risk. The government will also establish and communicate annual priorities for government support in order to encourage collaboration and reduce duplication of efforts.

The government will focus its support on these high-priority actions over the next five years. The government will support conservation, agency, municipal and industry partners, and Aboriginal communities to undertake activities to protect and recover Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark. Support will be provided where appropriate through funding, agreements, permits (including conditions) and/or advisory services.

Focus area: Stewardship and awareness

Objective: Promote landowner participation in the creation, maintenance, and enhancement of grassland habitats and recognize innovative and successful grassland stewardship.

Stewardship and leadership by Ontario landowners and organizations are essential for supporting the recovery of Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark, and their knowledge and actions are invaluable for the successful protection and recovery of species at risk and Ontario’s biodiversity. The recovery actions listed below recognize, enhance and promote this stewardship approach, and build on the knowledge and expertise to develop effective management actions for these two grassland species.

Protecting and enhancing grasslands will be achieved primarily through a grasslands stewardship initiative, with implementation funding and support provided by government. The recovery objectives will be met through the voluntary actions of private landowners, supported by incentives tied to best management practices and other conservation measures. The stewardship initiative will target a number of partners, including rural non-farm landowners, hobby farmers and conservation, industrial and institutional landowners, and farmers. A mosaic of pastureland, hayfields, and remnant and restored native grasslands will be strategically targeted for voluntary enrolment in the initiative, and will be managed specifically for Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark. The initiative will aim to enrol a total of 30,000 ha of grasslands over the next 20 years, beginning in 2016, with the aim of attaining at least 75% of the target, or 22,500 ha within the first 10 years, and the remainder over the latter half of the initiative. This equates to 2,250 ha of land targeted annually for enrolment in the initiative in the first 10 years. Earlier enrollment of grasslands will facilitate protection and enhancement efforts, and enable earlier program review and adjustments as needed.

Actions:

  1. (High) Establish a grassland stewardship initiative to create, maintain, and enhance 30,000 ha of grassland habitat over the next 20 years. (government led)
    • The policy framework, mandate, governance structure and priorities for the initiative will be articulated by government, and funding will be provided to support its implementation. The initiative will be established through a competitive process to select a qualified and capable third party that will operate at arm’s length from government to work with partners and carry out program priorities and actions. Through this stewardship initiative, benefits will be achieved for carbon sequestration, pollinator health and population strength, grassland biodiversity, and soil health.
    • Program components to be undertaken via this initiative will include: identifying and working with partners and delivery agents; coordinating and establishing agreements; developing and implementing an incentive/recognition program; and establishing strategic targets and monitoring outcomes.
  2. (High) Contribute to Ontario’s grassland stewardship initiative through supporting collaboration with landowners and agricultural, Aboriginal, non-government, and industry organizations to develop grassland knowledge resources and promote adoption of grassland habitat management practices which may include:
    • The promotion of the economic and environmental value of grasslands in affecting the long-term health and productivity of rural and farm lands due to better soil conditions, erosion control, carbon sequestration, and habitat for wildlife, particularly for grassland birds and pollinators;
    • The encouragement of partnership projects for public lands (e.g. Conservation Authority lands, parks, municipal and utility lands), community pastures, prairie rehabilitation sites, hayfields, commercial and industrial lands, abandoned lands, and other types of managed areas;
    • Conducting educational, demonstration and outreach events for landowners to connect and exchange ideas about effective grassland management practices; and
    • Development of site-specific management plans to support healthy lands and grassland habitat, including use of marginal lands. Identification of opportunities to better align land use activities with the species’ habitat needs (e.g. managed grazing, replacing cool-season hayfields with a mixture of cool and warm season grasses, and single cut haying in mid-July after the birds have fledged). (government supported)
  3. (High) Support Ontario’s grassland stewardship initiative by creating awards and recognition programs that celebrate and recognize the role of rural and agricultural Ontarians in sustaining grassland habitat. This may include:
    • Showcasing award-winning grassland habitat sites that demonstrate a balanced approach to grassland habitat recovery through sustainable rural and agriculture land use practices;
    • Developing a signage program that recognizes and celebrates grassland habitat on private and public properties;
    • Developing and using creative marketing tools to increase public awareness of grassland-originated products in Ontario; and
    • Promoting the work of the agricultural sector in the active maintenance of hayfields and pasture lands as grassland bird habitat. (government supported)
  4. Collaborate across provincial government ministries and with federal government partners in the development, stimulation and coordination of grasslands stewardship activities that address species at risk and other grassland species and values. (government led)
  5. Contribute to Ontario’s climate change targets of longer term reductions, resilience and cultural changes by incenting behaviours to increase carbon sinks through the protection, maintenance and enhancement of grassland habitats for Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark. (government led)

Focus area: Habitat protection and management

Objective: Create, manage and protect habitat through collaboration with landowners, organizations, and industry to develop and implement grassland habitat management practices for Bobolink and/or Eastern Meadowlark in suitable areas in Ontario.

Declines in Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark are strongly linked to loss of grassland habitat, both native prairies and in managed landscapes. Through past and current agricultural practices, farmers have been instrumental in creating and managing pastures and hayfields that provide important habitats for these birds. The development, assessment and implementation of a range of habitat management tools and practices, and the provision of flexibility mechanisms that encourage stewardship approaches, will provide improved habitat quality, supply and management, while providing clarity to the agricultural community.

Actions:

  1. (High) Protect the Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark and their habitat through the ESA. (government led)
  2. (High) Extend the exemption for agricultural operations from the protection provisions of the ESA for 10 years, allowing for the continued provision of habitat for the species that is associated with farming operations. (government led)
  3. (High) Provide policy direction to support the design, implementation and evaluation of effectiveness of safe harbour instruments for Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark, to encourage proponent and private landowner protection, creation and enhancement of grassland habitat in Ontario. (government led)
  4. (High) Develop and implement guidance, land management practices, and tools for rural, conservation, industrial, and agricultural land managers to create, maintain, and enhance grassland habitat for Bobolink and/or Eastern Meadowlark throughout their ranges. (government supported)
  5. Develop and publish additional guidance materials about improving the management and productivity of hay and pasture lands for the benefit of both grazing livestock and grassland species, including Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark. (government led)
  6. Work with landowner organizations to research, develop and encourage adoption of best management practices for maintaining grasslands, hay crops, and pasture lands as habitat for Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark. (government led)
  7. Educate other agencies and authorities involved in planning and environmental assessment processes on the protection requirements under the ESA. (government led)
  8. As opportunities arise, identify and protect lands suitable for grassland habitat through land securement in collaboration with existing partners and initiatives. (government supported)
  9. Undertake rehabilitation of tallgrass prairie habitats in suitable areas within their historical range. (government supported)

Focus area: Research and monitoring

Objective: Increase knowledge about the species’ distribution and abundance, habitat preferences, and ongoing and emerging threats to inform management actions.

There is an incomplete understanding of the factors affecting the ongoing decline of Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark. In particular, there are important information gaps in habitat availability and use and knowledge on the relative influences of different threats. There is also an absence of guidance and resources on habitat management for these species. Addressing these gaps will provide a better understanding of how to achieve successful protection and recovery, and where to strategically prioritize and focus management and recovery efforts. Ongoing monitoring is required to track the progress and efficacy of recovery activities, and determine whether recovery actions need to be adjusted.

Actions:

  1. (High) ) Evaluate and report on the success of the grassland stewardship initiative and the effects of the exemption regulation for agricultural operations on Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark populations and their habitat, to track the success of GRS actions in slowing population declines and progress towards stabilizing population levels. Monitoring and reporting will occur at regular intervals and throughout the 10 years of the regulation applicability, and will include reporting on the grassland stewardship initiative enrolment and targets, as well as population and habitat parameters. (government led)
  2.  (High) Encourage the submission of Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark data to the Ministry’s central repository at the Natural Heritage Information Centre. (government led)
  3. (High) Evaluate the types of lands used by Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark and assess nest productivity and species abundance for each type to better understand the factors that influence habitat selection by each species. Habitat land types evaluated should include pasture, hay, grain crops, old fields, non-agricultural lands such as tallgrass prairie and former aggregate sites. (government supported)
  4. (High) Research, assess and identify best management practices that can benefit nest productivity with minimal disruption to farming activities (e.g. delayed or modified haying, shifted grazing). (government supported)
  5. Evaluate the geographical patterns and timing of Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark breeding and forage quality across the species’ range in Ontario, to inform feasibility assessments of targeted regional or site-specific harvest timing. (government led)
  6. Examine the relationship between hay harvest dates, plant diversity, and native pollinator diversity and abundance, to determine how modified hay harvest timing associated with Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark management options affects pollinator diversity. (government led)
  7. Analyze land use in Ontario in relation to Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark occurrences and habitat, and evaluate the socioeconomic, ecological and resource implications of different grassland stewardship implementation options (e.g. scale, focus areas) over time. (government supported)
  8. Conduct annual surveys for Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark through the Breeding Bird Survey program to track changes in the species’ distribution and abundance. (government supported)
  9. Track the supply of different types of agricultural grassland habitat through the agricultural census and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s remote sensing crop mapping. Link these results to population trends of Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark. (government supported)
  10. Assess the relative degree to which the species’ populations are affected by threats that occur within Ontario versus threats that occur outside the breeding season and on wintering grounds by working in partnership and sharing information with federal and other jurisdictions. (government supported)

Implementing actions

Landowners and organizations are encouraged to become actively involved in species at risk protection and recovery by leading or supporting the implementation of the recovery actions identified in the government response statement. Even small activities by individuals that contribute towards an overall recovery action can have a significant and lasting impact.

Financial support for the implementation of actions may be available through the Species at Risk Stewardship Fund, Species at Risk Research Fund for Ontario, or the Species at Risk Farm Incentive Program. Conservation partners are encouraged to discuss project proposals related to the actions in this response statement with the Ministry. The Ministry can also advise if any authorizations under the ESA or other legislation may be required to undertake the project.

Implementation of the actions may be subject to changing priorities across the multitude of species at risk, available resources and the capacity of partners to undertake recovery activities. Where appropriate, the implementation of actions for multiple species will be co-ordinated across government response statements.

Reviewing progress

The ESA requires the Ministry to conduct a review of progress towards protecting and recovering a species not later than five years from the publication of this response statement. The review will help identify if adjustments are needed to achieve the protection and recovery of the Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark.

Acknowledgements

We thank all those who participated in the development of the “Recovery Strategy for the Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark in Ontario” for their dedication to protecting and recovering species at risk.

We also acknowledge the work of the Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark Round Table and the dedication, collaboration, and valuable advice provided.

For Additional information:

Visit the species at risk website at ontario.ca/speciesatrisk
Contact your MNRF district office
Contact the Natural Resources Information Centre
1-800-667-1940
TTY 1-866-686-6072
mnr.nric.mnr@ontario.ca
ontario.ca/mnrf

The government response statement for Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark is available in PDF format upon request. Please email PDF requests to recovery.planning@ontario.ca.