Today marks a milestone for the Milwaukee County Park System — a collection of more than 150 properties covering 15,000 acres in a county that is home to 952,000 residents (including me).
Officials from the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative, a collaboration of more than 180 groups working to conserve native Wisconsin birds, designated the county parks as the state’s 93rd Important Bird Area in a ceremony at Lake Park, a 265-acre gem overlooking Lake Michigan that is one of the county’s best parks for birding.
The event occurs as hundreds of birders from across the nation flock to Milwaukee to attend the National Audubon Society biennial convention July 26-29 at the Hilton Milwaukee City Center.
“We’re delighted to designate the Milwaukee County Park System as an Important Bird Area with so many bird lovers coming to Milwaukee to enjoy field trips, education, and conservation,” says Craig Thompson, a Department of Natural Resources section chief and bird expert leading DNR involvement in the collaboration.
“It’s nothing short of remarkable that Wisconsin’s most populous county still has high-quality habitat for a variety of birds, and that speaks volumes about the Milwaukee County Park System and their commitment to bird conservation,” he says. “This designation is good for the birds and for the citizens of Milwaukee County.”
“The value of these 15,000 acres to migrating birds is immense,” says Karen Etter Hale, WBCI chair and Wisconsin Audubon Council’s community relations director. “Seventy-five percent of the remaining green space in Milwaukee is found within Milwaukee County Parks.”
Fifty-seven bird species listed in DNR’s Wildlife Action Plan as Species of Greatest Conservation Need because of low or declining populations have been found using the natural areas within the Milwaukee County Park System.
Other factors helping land the Important Bird Area designation for the park system are its active natural areas management program, its “rigorous, long-term bird monitoring program, and its engaging accessible bird education programs” that each year reach up to 4,000 people, Etter Hale says.
Brian Russart, Milwaukee County Parks System Natural Areas Coordinator, said the designation is very significant for the parks system, and beyond that, for urban natural areas across Wisconsin.
“We are certainly honored to be designated an Important Bird Area. Too often urban natural areas are not perceived as being essential for wildlife conservation, however if they are protected and properly managed these urban natural areas can maintain surprisingly diverse bird populations.
“The Milwaukee County Park System’s location within a major bird migration corridor allows us to play a small, yet important role, in the larger international bird conservation efforts and Parks takes that stewardship responsibility very seriously.”
Russart, who serves as WBCI’s vice chair, nominated the park system for consideration as an Important Bird Area. The application was evaluated by a WBCI technical committee of ornithological experts including Thompson, Matt Reetz of Madison Audubon Society, Bill Mueller, director of the Western Great Lakes Bird & Bat Observatory, Michael John Jaeger of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, Stephanie Beilke of the National Audubon Society, and Ryan Brady, a DNR conservation biologist who serves as the bird monitoring coordinator for WBCI.
With its Important Bird Area designation, the park system joins 92 sites in Wisconsin, 2,832 sites in the U.S., and 12,000 other sites worldwide as Important Bird Areas. The IBA program was launched by Birdlife International in 1985 to identify, protect, and monitor sites essential to the conservation of bird populations globally, Thompson says.
The designation is voluntary and conveys no legal status or regulatory requirements but highlights the importance of the Milwaukee County Parks System for bird conservation and will catalyze using IBAs as a springboard to advance active site conservation at Wisconsin’s other Important Bird Areas, he says.
The Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative’s 5-year strategic plan, issued in 2018, places a major new emphasis on putting Wisconsin’s 93 IBA designations to work for bird conservation through a variety of activities, ranging from developing tools to further assess the existing condition of sites, to collaborating to enhance habitat on the site, to fostering efforts to identify and seek partner funding to enhance sites, to identifying threats to IBAs and helping coalesce and catalyze partner efforts to reduce or eliminate those threats, Thompson says.