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Interview With Glenn Olson: The Bird Ambassador
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The Bird Ambassador
A conversation with Glenn Olson.
Glenn Olson is a conservation dynamo. The 33-year Audubon veteran has led efforts that helped rescue the California condor from the brink of extinction, map 145 Important Bird Areas (IBAs), and secure protection for nearly 250,000 acres of California’s Tejon Ranch, the state’s largest and most biologically diverse undeveloped parcel. Now, as the new Donal C. O’Brien Chair in Bird Conservation and Public Policy, Olson will take Audubon’s top-notch bird conservation work to new heights. From expanding the IBA program to building local successes into major regional, nationwide, and even hemispheric victories, his lofty goals befit a position named for a former Audubon board chair and one of the organization’s best fund-raisers.
Audubon: What’s your primary responsibility?
Olson: To take individual projects and roll them up into flyway-wide initiatives that deliver significant benefits for birds and habitat. We have to think big picture. Many birds that breed in North Dakota winter in coastal Louisiana. We have to protect the wintering grounds, breeding grounds, and migratory stopovers down the Mississippi River so birds have places to rest and refuel.
What vision underlies your effort?
Right now we’re playing wonderful solos. I would love to have us play a few more symphonies that combine high-priority bird conservation initiatives in important landscapes like the Mississippi River Valley, Long Island Sound, and San Francisco Bay. These efforts are already under way. I hope I help them expand and serve as a model for more.
How will focusing on specific sites further bird conservation?
Long Island Sound is an important spot that’s part of the Atlantic Flyway. You can roll up the Sound, Delaware Bay, where red knots have their migratory stopover, then move down to the Chesapeake Bay and to North Carolina’s Currituck Sound. Eventually you’ve got the entire Atlantic Flyway. Audubon has hundreds of chapters and international partners that can help us achieve significant conservation gains in key places along the flyways. Expanding our collaboration is how we can make a lasting difference.
Where do you fit in?
There’s lots of great work already going on. I’ll work with my colleagues to make it broader and better. For example, various states along the Atlantic Flyway are already beginning to link key species and Important Bird Areas conservation up and down the flyway. I’m helping catalyze the Atlantic Flyway initiative, making more people aware of it and fostering interest among funders to make it happen.
You’re also looking to strengthen international partnerships.
Developing a comprehensive bird conservation strategy requires thinking about Latin America, where 300 or so North American birds winter. Our International Alliances Program is already having great success connecting U.S. IBA efforts to sister sites outside the country and helping our partners there build their own capacity. We have really solid practitioners who know how to do conservation planning, so we’re going to make more of our tools available to our partners in Latin America. My job is to help build the connections.
Will you collaborate with federal agencies in the United States?
An important aspect of my job is working with our D.C. office to advance federal government appropriations and Obama administration support of our projects. In 2009 we partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Department of the Interior, and 12 other conservation organizations to elevate Audubon’s State of the Birds Report to a new joint initiative based on data accumulated by the USFWS breeding bird surveys and the Audubon CBC.
How will the State of the Birds Report help bird conservation?
It builds awareness of needs and opportunities. There are 200 species listed on the Audubon WatchList. What if we moved toward downlisting all 200? Or assessing what it would take to downlist them? That’s perfect for Audubon. I would love to champion that as the O’Brien Chair.
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