Montana Birds and Climate

Sep 29, 2014

While you’re out enjoying the beautiful days of fall, keep your ears open for the sounds of our local birds. With most of our summer migrants gone, it’s the familiar nuthatches, siskins and chickadees whose calls ring through Western Montana’s forests as the larches begin their slow fade to gold. These year-round residents, the ones we see in the hills and at our bird feeders through the winter, carry us through the dark months. We take their subtle calls and quick-moving flocks for granted, but they’re a big part of what sustains this landscape. How would it feel if they disappeared?

That’s the question raised by a sobering new study of birds and global warming conducted by the Audubon Society. By combining over 40 years of bird data with the latest climate models, researchers have created maps of where each species is likely find the climatic conditions it needs to survive sixty years from now.  Call it “a field guide to the future”.

Unfortunately, the bird book our grandchildren will take into the woods in the year 2080 could be a much slimmer volume. Of 588 North American species studies, more than half are likely to find themselves in dire straits if global warming continues its current trajectory. In Montana, over 200 species are threatened and many could go extinct: our raptors - Ospreys, Bald and Golden Eagles - many ducks, loons, swans, Rufous Hummingbirds, Long-billed Curlews and even backyard birds like Mountain Chickadees. It’s a surprisingly long list.

Could the nuthatches and chickadees really be gone from Montana when my daughter is my age?  And what about Trumpeter Swans, which I was lucky enough to see this weekend in the Mission Valley.

Threatened with extinction only a few decades ago, these swans have made a remarkable comeback, thanks to the dedication of myriad organizations, agencies, and volunteers. Reintroductions of Trumpeter Swans have occurred in the Mission, Blackfoot and Madison Valleys over the last 15 years, with hundreds of swans now summering—and some even wintering—in our state.

For example, The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, together with many partners, have brought swans back to the Mission Valley after a near 100 year absence. In 2004, Trumpeters were observed nesting on the Reservation for the first time in over 100 years, with now over 60 successful nests found.

But if we stay on the path to the “worst case” scenario by continuing our high levels of dirty fossil fuel emissions, all these conservation efforts could be for naught. Audubon's climate model projects a 100% loss of the swans’ current summer range in Montana by 2080, with their winter range shifting north into Canada. We can rip that page from our current bird field guide, along with many others, if we continue business as usual.

Fortunately, there is hope. At the state level, both the EPA and Governor Bullock’s Administration are working on solutions for Montana. This past June, the EPA issued its proposed Clean Power Plan, a draft rule to reduce carbon pollution from the nation’s dirtiest power plants, and Gov. Bullock asked the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (or DEQ) to analyze ways our state could comply. DEQ recently released “Options for Montana’s Energy Future” – a white paper which outlines ways to meet these lower emissions levels. This is the beginning of the state’s plan to reduce Montana’s carbon pollution by 21% by 2030—a good place to start.

Options to reduce pollution in Montana will be discussed at two public meetings this week – one in Billings and the other in Missoula. The Missoula meeting is this Thursday, October 2nd, 6-8 PM, at the Best Western Grant Creek Inn. Come out to learn about the plan and support a sustainable future for ourselves and our wildlife. There will be opportunity for public comment at this meeting.

The 2015 legislative session will be another opportunity to improve our renewable energy options and lessen our reliance on dirty fossil fuels. As we’ve heard on recent MTPR commentaries from AERO and the Montana Renewable Energy Association, new legislation will likely be introduced in Helena to enact policies that bring us more renewable energy and greater efficiencies.

And the best way for our state to enact new and creative energy policies is to elect leaders who share our values and are willing to act on climate.  In these weeks before the November election, ask candidates for office if they are willing to listen to the vast majority of scientists, if they are ready to bring climate solutions forward. And vote with Montana’s birds and wildlife in mind.

And, of course, we can act within our own homes and businesses to shrink our carbon footprints. We can create and maintain bird friendly habitat in our backyards and open spaces.  We can join the kind of citizen science projects that informed this particular research and promise to help us understand the unfolding future.

Let’s not use our common backyard birds the way canaries were once used to show danger in the mines. If we act now, our birds and wildlife will be healthier. So, too, our farms, rivers, economies, and even our own hearts. The “field guide to birds in the future” can still be a hopeful book.

This is Amy Cilimburg with Montana Audubon. To learn more about Audubon’s new birds and climate report and view interactive maps, visit our website at

Thanks for listening.