Why are there two Important Bird Area Programs for the United States?

Your Questions Answered About ABC's and Audubon's Important Bird Areas Programs

There exists some confusion around the fact that there are two Important Bird Area programs in the U.S. - that of American Bird Conservancy and that of National Audubon Society.  We hope this brief summary serves to clear up this confusion.


American Bird Conservancy (ABC) began its Important Bird Areas Program in 1995, as the official partner of the U.K.-based BirdLife International, which had initiated such programs in Europe and the Middle East. Working at first with BirdLife's European-based criteria for defining IBAs, ABC conducted a series of state roundtables throughout the United States, getting recommendations from hundreds of experts on the avifauna of each state, and asking participants to fill out nomination forms.  This approach brought in data on some, but not all the most important areas, depending on participant knowledge and whether or not participants took the time to fill out the forms following the workshop.


In 1998, for several reasons, ABC and BirdLife dissolved their agreement with mutual understanding and agreement that ABC, having already amassed much data, would continue its IBA program.  The dissolution of this agreement left ABC free to make what we felt were important adjustments to criteria to enhance the conservation effect of its IBA program.  For one, ABC adjusted the criteria as to what qualifies as an IBA.  For example, in using the BirdLife criterion of 20,000 waterbirds as qualifying for global IBA status, we concluded that a great many sites not warranting such status would be included, such as large congregations of Canada Geese or Ring-billed Gulls.  For another, we decided that we wanted to include some areas representing outstanding and innovative ongoing efforts in bird conservation and habitat.  We also wanted to emphasize areas significant to dispersed breeding populations of species identified as being of conservation concern by the Partners in Flight (PIF) Watch List and in keeping with the Bird Conservation Region approach adopted by the North American Bird Conservation Initiative.  From the beginning, ABC has been dedicated to integrating its IBA program with PIF's physiographic area approach and to work collaboratively with the many other groups working in habitat conservation.


Meanwhile, two years after ABC had begun its IBA program and while ABC was still BirdLife's designated partner, National Audubon Society started a second IBA program in the United States.  In order to avoid duplication of effort and unnecessary competition, ABC and NAS signed an agreement whereby ABC would maintain its national perspective, concentrating on sites of global, continental and national significance, while Audubon, with its many chapters, would cover sites of state significance, leaving the criteria for defining these up to each state.  At the height of this cooperative relationship, the respective coordinators of ABC's and Audubon's programs co-authored a paper on U.S. IBAs which appeared in the 1999 book, "North American Important Bird Areas - A Directory of 150 Key Conservation Sites."  During that same period, there was an exchange of data on IBAs between the two organizations.  In 2000, Audubon chose to terminate its agreement with ABC and shortly thereafter was designated by BirdLife International as its U.S. IBA partner.


Since the agreement has been terminated, each organization has pursued its own IBA program.  Audubon has continued to establish state programs and has published books with its findings for New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington. ABC, supported by The Nature Conservancy's Wings of the Americas program, continues with its nationwide approach, gathering conservation information and designating sites in the United States of the greatest global significance to birds, with an emphasis on identifying conservation issues specific to each site.

ABC has concentrated on the most significant (global level) sites because these should receive priority for conservation and funding, and because they are best suited to attract both local and national attention for bird conservation.  Also, ABC, like BirdLife, believes that if the number of IBAs grows too large, it could diminish the value of individual IBA designations in the public's perception and even of the land-managing agencies - that emphasizing only the very top areas would prove important not only in bird conservation, but would serve a valuable educational function.  However, we applaud Audubon for its effort to identify state IBAs, and feel that this can only benefit the cause of bird conservation.


ABC also changed its approach to building the IBA list and attaining site information.  Finding the broad nomination process cumbersome and not always conducive to the best and most accurate results, ABC decided instead to begin with the sites known from the work we had already done; to add others by going through published materials; to interview leading experts on particular threatened, endangered, and PIF Watch List species and on state avifaunas; to review materials on the Internet; and to contact land managers at the sites themselves to ask for and check information directly.  Unsurprisingly, we found that biologists at the sites, in addition to their intense level of interest and great commitment to their work, are proving to be the best possible sources.


As a product of our program, ABC published a book in 2002 on the 500 globally most significant IBAs in the United States.  Signs distributed by ABC and designating global IBA status are posted at more than 350 sites nationwide and numerous other activities are also being planned. The bottom line is that yes, there are two U.S. IBA programs and they do differ.  ABC plans to make its IBA program a major conservation and education focus for years to come.  We wish Audubon every success with its program, and ABC intends to work not only with Audubon, but with all other interested conservation groups in protecting habitat for the bird fauna of the United States.