Science for a Blue Planet

Featuring cutting-edge work, discoveries, and challenges of our scientists, our partners, and the larger conservation science community.

Breaking News: Conservation Works.

by Grant Ballard, Ph.D., Chief Science Officer

Point Blue Intern, Grace Kumaishi at our Farallon Islands National Wildlife Refuge field site. Photo credit: Lishka Arata/Point Blue

For those of us in the conservation world who pay close attention to scientific reports, the past year has been grim. First, there was a bombshell report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which warned of the dangers we face if the planet exceeds 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). According to the report, we have just 11 years to dramatically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and to learn how to sequester carbon at much larger scales than we are currently capable of. Next up was another UN report–the most comprehensive of its kind with a systematic review of 15,000 scientific and government sources–which showed that one million (!) plant and animal species are threatened with extinction, some within decades. And finally, last week, Science published a rigorous analysis by some of our colleagues showing that North America has lost nearly 3 billion birds since 1970.

At this point, we are all hoping for some good news. This year’s State of the Birds report offers a glimmer of hope. While the report reiterates the findings from the Science article that America’s birds are in crisis, it also shows how targeted conservation efforts have proven successful. It points to the Bald Eagle’s recovery from just a few hundred pairs in 1970 (a 99% loss) to over 50,000 pairs of eagles today. And it calls waterfowl “one of America’s best wildlife success stories” with 56% increase in North America. Raptors saw a similar increase of 54% since 1970, thanks to the reduction of harmful pollutants such as DDT and strong protections from shooting at the state level. 

At the heart of these parallel stories of threat and recovery lies a unifying thread: data. In order to make groundbreaking assessments like those listed above–whether you’re tracking atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, species in decline, or species in recovery–you need access to robust, long-term datasets. At Point Blue, we’re proud of the eleven unique datasets we maintain that each contain over twenty years of data–with four of those containing over forty years of data and many more that have been running for more than 10 years. Each of these datasets reflects thousands of hours of painstaking data collection in the field and our enduring commitment to rigorous data management.

Wrentit with color bands at our Palomarin Field Station. Color bands help help us identify and track individual birds. Credit: Sam Snowden, former Point Blue Intern

But all the data in the world can’t achieve the conservation victories we need. The State of the Birds report highlights key conservation plans and policies that have been instrumental in protecting birds, and the partnerships that support them. State Wildlife Action Plans and national policies like the North American Wetlands Conservation Act are critical in protecting habitat for threatened species as well as those with healthy populations. Through our work with Migratory Bird Joint Ventures (partnerships between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state agencies, corporations, and non-profit organizations like us) and other federal and state agencies, we encourage data-driven decision making. And data from our two longest running programs–our Palomarin Field Station in Bolinas, CA and our research station on the Farallon Islands, both of which have been collecting data for over 50 years–broadly support what the State of the Birds Report found regarding the importance of conservation. Each of those programs collects data within protected areas (Point Reyes National Seashore and other public lands in the Bay Area, and the Farallon Islands National Wildlife Refuge, respectively) and preliminary analysis shows that many of the bird populations in these protected areas may be shielded from the broader population declines seen elsewhere.

Thanks to the dedication of our staff and supporters, including volunteers, individual donors, foundations, and agencies, over the past fifty-four years, we have used our data to achieve significant conservation wins. In some of the best examples that come to mind, Point Blue:

  • Helped establish three National Marine Sanctuaries and an International Biosphere Reserve in Central California;
  • Led the campaign to end gill-net fishing in Central California resulting in a 1987 ban on gill-netting in the Gulf of the Farallones and in northern Monterey Bay;
  • Protected the Mono Lake ecosystem from water over-draughts;
  • Supported passing the state law preventing the hunting of White Sharks in California;
  • Created federal protection for the Western Snowy Plover under the Endangered Species Act;
  • Reduced the negative effects of salvage logging on birds and other wildlife on 400,000 acres of burned forest in the Sierra Nevada; and
  • Helped establish the Ross Sea as the world’s largest Marine Protected Area.

As we look to the future, the challenges before us sometimes seem daunting. Climate change is altering landscapes in California and beyond, adding new stressors to the wildlife that depend on the land and water. Yet we can draw strength from our history of success and find glimmers of hope for the future. Our climate-smart restoration program (STRAW) has expanded beyond California’s North Bay area and into the South Bay and the Sierra, now completing over 60 restorations per year. Through partnership with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and other agencies, we’re providing scientific support to over 1,000 landowners and managers, helping them implement conservation practices on roughly 2 million acres of forests, meadows, rangelands, and croplands. Our marine observations and modeling are being used to encourage ships to slow down and to adjust shipping lanes away from feeding hotspots to protect whales. And you can read even more about our latest reasons for hope in our brand new Annual Impact Report.

To those of you that have supported Point Blue over the years, we thank you. As we look ahead, we know that no one group or individual can make all the change we need for a sustainable future. But with your continued support and our collaborative partnerships, we know we’re doing everything we can to sustain thriving wildlife and human communities well into the future.