By Emma Ahmed
Migrating birds are what is known as an "indicator species" - the pressures and threats they are experiencing foretell other problems within the ecosystem and provide an opportunity to mitigate potential risks. Understanding and tracking bird migration is crucial for conserving habitats that are essential to species survival.
Long-billed curlew from the Northern Great Plains JV .
PHOTO CREDIT: Dan Casey
Over the past 20 years, ConocoPhillips has taken an increasingly active role in helping to preserve and protect avian species and habitats. With one in four adult grassland birds lost since 1970, we know there is more that must be done quickly before some species are lost forever. We work with strategic conservation partners to focus on common conservation goals and improve data sharing. Without understanding migratory connectivity, conservation investments can often be ineffective because they are implemented at the wrong place or time, or for the wrong purpose.
We recently expanded our programs on proactive conservation by supporting educational and conservation efforts to leverage research and establish priorities for action. The focus is on conservation of species, so they thrive without the need for government designation under the Endangered Species Act to ensure their protection.
The company is proud to support several migratory bird joint venture partnerships and partners with institutions that help protect and study species and critical habitats essential for their survival:
Sharp-tailed grouse from the Prairie Potholes JV.
PHOTO CREDIT: Kevin Barnes
Eight migratory bird joint ventures joined forces to create the JV8 Central Grasslands Initiative, which represents more than 63 federal, state, provincial, nonprofit and industry conservation partners. The JV8 is working together to stem grassland losses and negative impacts to migratory birds across the breeding, migration and wintering habitats in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. ConocoPhillips is supporting five of the joint venture members of the JV8 with projects near our operations. To date, our support has helped to conserve, restore or enhance more than 900,000 acres.
The five JVs the company is supporting within the JV8 are:
National Fish & Wildlife Foundation (NFWF)
Northern Great Plains JV: Fosters new partnerships, while strengthening existing alliances for the protection, enhancement and restoration of prairie, riverine and forest ecosystems important to priority birds.
Oaks and Prairies JV: Facilitates bird habitat conservation, research, and outreach to ensure sustainable populations of at least 450 avian species across 60 million acres in Oklahoma and Texas.
Playa Lakes JV: Supports region's wildlife habitats and protects vital recharge zones of the primary source of drinking water for the region.
Prairie Potholes JV: Studies sharp-tailed grouses nesting, summer/brood rearing, and winter habitat types to gain a better understanding of species habits. The goal is to develop a set of recommendations for a grasslands conservation framework to stabilize grassland bird populations and minimize impacts across the Great Plains. To date, our support for these initiatives has helped to conserve or restore over 10,800,000 acres.
Rio Grande JV: Brings people from the U.S. and Mexico together to collaborate and increase the collective capacity for bird conservation planning, implementation, and evaluation. 129 priority birds and several priority habitats cross three bird conservation regions.
Through our longstanding partnership with NFWF, the ConocoPhillips SPIRIT of Conservation program selected nine proposals totaling $1.3 million in 2020. With matching funds of $3.0 million, and a total conservation investment of $4.3 million, these efforts will conserve or restore more than 58,000 acres of breeding, stopover and wintering bird habitat. Since 2005, this initiative has helped to conserve, restore or enhance more than 503,000 acres.
Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute's Migratory Bird Center
Through our collaboration with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, we gain a better understanding of the important habitats throughout the birds' migration cycle, and how we can take a coordinated approach for more effective conservation. These birds include species that breed near our assets on the North Slope of Alaska and northern Alberta, then migrate south through the "prairie potholes" into Texas, and across the Gulf of Mexico to wintering grounds as far south as Colombia.
Researchers face four major technological challenges when tracking migratory birds: transmitter size, error in location estimates, data retrieval and cost. One notable contribution by the company was the purchase of new satellite tags small enough to attach to medium-sized birds yet powerful enough to regularly transmit data to satellites - effectively addressing all these challenges. The tags weigh barely more than a penny and are worn as backpack-style harnesses by the birds. The straps are designed to fall off after a period of use so that the birds aren't tagged indefinitely. This technological innovation sheds light on species whose patterns were previously a mystery.
From 2014-2019, we funded 23 expeditions, tracked 23 species, tracked 668 birds, and banded 10,193 birds. WATCH THE VIDEO
The center collects connectivity information for several bird species that follow a migratory flyaway aligned with our areas of operation. Through our partnership, we've been able to grant access to land for a wide range of research and scientific initiatives.
Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies
The company has partnered with the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies on a project to restore native grassland and burrowing owl habitat within Quail Ranch in the Permian Basin. The first phase of burrowing owl restoration began in the summer of 2019 with the removal of 202 acres of mesquite. Twenty pairs of artificial burrows were installed in September 2019. Phase two of burrowing owl habitat restoration was initiated in June 2020 following the same protocols as the first phase. In October 2020, ConocoPhillips provided funds to reseed with a native seed blend and install an additional 21 pairs of burrows.
Burrowing owl in Quail Ranch.
Camera surveillance conducted in May 2021 showed signs of use in eight pairs of burrows. This project is ongoing as more oil and gas development occurs on Quail Ranch. ConocoPhillips biologists and personnel are working together along with third-party developers to minimize impacts of future development. In 2021, 374 acres were conserved within the burrowing owl project with an additional 583 acres of adjacent rangeland restored or planned for restoration.
In addition to our partnerships with institutions and joint ventures, the company leverages strategic initiatives like voluntary conservation agreements to help mitigate biodiversity impacts and protect sensitive habitats near our operations. These formal agreements with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and other federal or state agencies typically require that new well locations and surface infrastructure avoid species habitats or sensitive areas within habitats. We have enrolled more than 423,000 acres in conservation agreements that protect the lesser prairie chicken in Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas.
ConocoPhillips is committed to continuing our collaboration with government agencies, nonprofits, institutions and conservation groups to progress proactive conservation efforts. Visit our Sustainability Report to learn more about our proactive conservation efforts related to grasslands conservation, bird and western big game migration, and wetlands restoration.