by Dan Casey

Owen-Sowerwine Natural Area

Important Bird Area Status

Last month we began a series of articles describing the characteristics, history, and management status of the Owen Sowerwine Natural Area (OSNA). This month we examine its status as an “Important Bird Area”, a designation that carries with it no legal protection, but that recognizes the value of the site to birds and the birding public.

The Important Bird Area (IBA) program is international in scope, administered by Bird Life International across much of the globe, often through other partner groups.  The National Audubon Society took the lead for implementing the program in the United States in 1995. Montana Audubon has administered the program here in our state. The central goals of the IBA program are to identify, monitor, and protect a network of sites critical to the conservation of birds. Although IBA designations are not legally binding, they can help to focus attention on the habitat needs of bird species of concern, and can help lead to habitat acquisition, conservation easements, or voluntary habitat management activities.

So what criteria can qualify a site as an IBA? Discussions for the Montana program began in 1997, and have been modified over time as needed, but the definition is “a site that provides essential habitat to one or more high-priority species and their habitats (defined in part by the Montana Bird Conservation Plan of 2000), and can be either protected or unprotected, private or public, and any size amenable to conservation efforts.” In order for nominated areas to be approved, they need to meet one or more of the following criteria:

Sites important to endangered, threatened, or vulnerable specie of special concern or priority (e.g. Common Loon, Bald Eagle, Pileated Woodpecker, Red-eyed Vireo);

Sites important to moderate and high-priority national Watch List species with populations in Montana (e.g. Short-eared Owl, Rufous Hummingbird, Gray Catbird);

Sites with important habitats that support species or species assemblages largely restricted to a unique or threatened natural community, or that are exceptional examples of functional natural habitats;

Sites where exceptional numbers or diversity of birds concentrate for breeding, during migration, or in winter; and/or

Sites important for long-term research and/or monitoring projects that contribute substantially to ornithology, bird conservation, and/or education.

The OSNA met several of these criteria, and Montana Audubon designated the site as an IBA shortly after it was nominated by our members in 2003. In addition to the excellent conservation opportunity that long-term protection on this exceptional riparian area represents, the diversity of birds known to occur here (now up to 168 species) includes several state and national bird species of concern (including those in bold, above). The fully updated OSNA bird list can be found here on our website.

The IBA designation certainly helped to solidify support for the efforts of both Flathead Audubon and Montana Audubon to maintain the natural character of this beautiful riparian area. And it is just one of 42 IBA sites Montana Audubon has approved in the state. Eleven of these are designated as Globally Significant IBAs (e.g. Glacier National Park, Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge).  Maps and information from each can be found on the Montana Audubon website at