Simple black icon of a line graph showing a brief uptick, an equal downtick, and then an upward trajectory with an arrow.
Icon of trend graph by Daouna Jeong from the Noun Project.

How are the ecosystems of the Southeast doing? How is that changing over time? I’ve been working on integrating ecosystem assessments across the Southeast to get at those key questions, primarily to support a major task this year for the Southeast Conservation Adaptation Strategy (SECAS): developing an explicit and near-term goal.

The big idea is trying to use existing assessments to create a yearly assessment of ecosystem condition and trends. Some of these existing assessments are yearly, while others are every five years, but every year there’s some new information about how ecosystems are doing. So far, I’ve been integrating a range of assessments using broad ecosystem types and a 0 – 100 condition score based on the data-driven scores in each assessment. While this is still a work in progress and there are many ways to slice up these data, it seemed like a good time to share with you some of what I’ve found so far.

Assessments used


Current condition
Here are the scores on a scale from 0 – 100, representing the current condition of ecosystem health, function, and connectivity. These are based on an area-weighted average across multiple assessments. As you can see, marine and estuarine score the highest while pine and prairie get the lowest score.

Marine 64.8
Estuarine 63.8
Freshwater aquatic 58.6
Forested wetlands 49.4
Upland forest 46.3
Beach and dune 47
Freshwater marsh 46.1
Pine and prairie 37

Aquatic assessments are relatively stable or increasing. Below are examples from the Chesapeake Bay Report Card and the National Coastal Condition Assessment.

Chart showing the change over time in the Chesapeake Bay Report Card score from 1986 to 2016.
Change over time in the Chesapeake Bay Report Card score.
Chart showing the trend in score for the Southeastern United States in the National Coastal Condition Assessment across 3 time periods (1997-2000, 2001-2002, and 2003-2006). The South Atlantic subregion scores higher than the Gulf, with the full region scoring in between.
Trend in score for the Southeastern United States in the National Coastal Condition Assessment.

Pine and prairie species are doing much worse than those in upland forests and forested wetlands. The example below shows national bird population trends by ecosystem.

Bird population trends nationally by ecosystem from the 2018 State of the Birds, before and after the introduction of key Farm Bill conservation programs. Broadly, wetland birds are increasing with a 51% increase after 1990, forest birds are basically stable with a 3% increase after 1990, and grassland birds have recently improved after a precipitious decline with a 3% increase since 2003 following a 34% decrease before 1985.
Bird population trends nationally by ecosystem from the 2018 State of the Birds.

The chart above summarizes the data nationally. Does this same pattern hold up in the Southeast? To find out, I looked at Breeding Bird Survey trends in the Southeast from 2005 – 2015. I selected 10 species that were most broadly shared across State Wildlife Action Plans in the Southeast: five dependent on pine and prairie and five dependent on upland forest and/or forested wetlands. Here’s what I found:

  • All five pine and prairie species were declining (Northern bobwhite, Bachman’s sparrow, grasshopper sparrow, loggerhead shrike, field sparrow)
  • All five upland forest or forested wetland species were stable or increasing (Wood thrush, prothonotary warbler, Louisiana waterthrush, red-headed woodpecker, worm-eating warbler)

Next steps
This was all a quick prototype of what a yearly report on the ecosystems of the Southeast might look like, primarily to support the explicit goal setting for SECAS. Next month, I’ll try to blog about what ecosystem conditions might be possible in the future and how this all connects to the Southeast Conservation Blueprint.