Image courtesy of Virginia Working Landscape

Land use and biodiversity – can we have our cake and eat it too? Yes, these can indeed be compatible. Smithsonian scientists are collaborating with multiple partners, including landowners, to embrace grassroots approaches to help biodiversity bloom. Their focus on working landscapes through research, partnerships and engagement is helping to plan for practices that will reduce impacts to habitats and species, especially at-risk grassland birds.

The VWL Story 

Virginia Working Landscapes (VWL) is a program of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) that promotes the conservation of native biodiversity and sustainable land use through research, education and community engagement. VWL began in 2010 as a grassroots initiative fostered by discussions among local landowners, conservation practitioners and Smithsonian scientists centered around a common goal: to enhance stewardship of Virginia’s working lands. 

Working landscapes, including forests, grasslands, wetlands and riparian zones, are characterized by strong ecological, social and economic connections. More than 90% of the land in Virginia is privately owned, meaning that these ecosystems are highly affected by human activities. In the past 200 years, urbanization and intensive agriculture have transformed Virginia’s landscapes. This includes the fragmentation of forests and the overwhelming loss of grasslands that have led to alarming declines in native species. 

Biodiversity is foundational to healthy working landscapes. VWL is committed to conserving and restoring native species and their habitats, because the biological wealth of working landscapes benefits our individual and shared economic welfare. Conservation biologists, landowners, volunteers and NGOs, who comprise the VWL network, work together to design and conduct innovative ecological research on private lands that help inform best land management practices benefitting people and nature.

VWL Research 

Since 2011, VWL has been performing annual biodiversity surveys of working grasslands. The project now spans properties from 16 counties in northern Virginia, where VWL staff, SCBI scientists, citizen scientists, graduate students and interns conduct avian point counts, vegetation surveys, pollinator inventories and soil sampling. Building upon this long-term study are new projects pursuing focused research questions like – how do certain agricultural practices impact bird communities? 

Grassland birds are among the most threatened groups of birds in North America. Managed hayfields and pasturelands offer valuable nesting habitats, but these working landscapes have deteriorated in their ability to support adult birds and their young due to intensive haying and grazing. VWL researchers are collaborating with American Farmland Trust, George Mason University and local cattle producers to explore the impacts of regenerative grazing practices on nesting success. The team hopes that research findings will help guide bird-friendly beef production. 

More than 70% of eastern meadowlarks have been lost since the 1970s. Little is known about the year-round movements of these grassland birds, which could reveal important drivers to population declines. Scientists from VWL, the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and Smithsonian’s Movement of Life Initiative1 are utilizing innovative tracking technology to uncover these mysteries and are collaborating with landowners to document eastern meadowlark movements on private lands. Knowing which habitats the birds use throughout the year will help researchers identify top-priority conservation areas.

Collaborator-Led Projects 

As a part of the Smithsonian Institution, VWL collaborates with Smithsonian scientists from other research centers to spearhead projects focused on community-driven science. Recently, VWL researchers joined ecologists from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center to launch the Rappahannock Working Land and Seascapes project. 

The project aims to study biodiversity and ecosystem function throughout the Rappahannock River watershed in eastern Virginia. Some members of the team are monitoring forest fragments and songbird populations; others are investigating the success of oyster restoration and the impacts of warming stream temperatures on river herring. VWL opens opportunities for these scientists to access its private lands network, where they can expand the range of research sites and cultivate relationships with stakeholders. 

VWL also collaborates with universities. Recently, the VWL team has been working with social scientists at Virginia Tech to understand what motivates people to participate in land stewardship. Gaining insights into the human dimensions of conservation through interviews and surveys can strengthen fellowship among scientists, citizen scientists, volunteers and landowners.

Disseminating Knowledge 

Community partners have allowed VWL to expand its roots in conservation to reach more landscapes and people. To increase the dissemination of knowledge, VWL and collaborators from the Piedmont Environmental Council, Quail Forever and American Farmland Trust launched The Piedmont Grassland Bird Initiative (PGBI) in 2021. 

PGBI recognizes farmers and their working landscapes as instrumental in the future of grassland bird conservation throughout the Piedmont and Shenandoah Valley. American Farmland Trust’s leadership in regenerative agriculture, Quail Forever’s expertise in habitat management for quail, and Piedmont Environmental Council’s efforts to protect land in the Piedmont region inform how partnerships enhance PGBI’s conservation messaging and hands-on work with farmers. 

Through peer-to-peer training and workshops, PGBI aims to gather producers, scientists, and conservation practitioners from across the region. These events create opportunities for participants to exchange knowledge about grassland bird habitat needs and brainstorm new methods for improving the biodiversity on working lands. Involving communities in research planning and execution speaks to VWL’s commitment to shared knowledge. 

Shaping the Landscapes of the Future 

Conservation that addresses the mutual needs of people and wildlife can promote healthy and productive landscapes. Through its network of researchers, collaborators and community partners, VWL aims to help biodiversity bloom and support the livelihoods that depend upon Virginia’s working lands. Lastly, as it nurtures the next generation of conservation leaders, VWL hopes to effect positive change in the years to come.

1Smithsonian’s Movement of Life Initiative: The goal of the Movement of Life Initiative is to develop the science, technology, analytical tools and models to conserve and manage movement as a critical process for maintaining biodiversity and healthy ecosystems. 

In-text Images:
All images courtesy of Virginia Working Landscapes

Lightning Update is a regular communication of the Chesapeake Conservation Partnership. Any opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions of the Partnership or member organizations.
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