Aububon's chief conservation officer Marshall Johnson. Credit: submitted image

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Marshall Johnson issued a grim warning: The common loon, the Minnesota state bird and a symbol of the north woods, will disappear from the state in many of our lifetimes if the planet continues to warm at a rapid rate. 

Loons—the black and white water birds known for their haunting calls—are threatened by early season heat waves that disrupt their breeding season, said Johnson, the chief conservation officer for the National Audubon Society. That’s becoming increasingly common in Minnesota due to climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Global average temperatures are currently 1.1 degrees Celsius warmer than before the Industrial Revolution; if that rises to three degrees, Johnson said, the loon will have to move north, leaving Minnesota behind. 

It doesn’t have to be that way, Johnson recently told a crowd at the University of Minnesota’s Northrop Auditorium. He offered optimism and insights about how bird enthusiasts can help fight global warming in a speech at the University of Minnesota’s lecture series, “Advancing Climate Solutions. Now.”

“I want to bring you a hopeful message,” said Johnson, who donned a large-brimmed cowboy hat. 

The common loon, the Minnesota state bird. Credit: Evan Frost | MPR News

His November 10 talk focused on the impact of global warming on bird populations and potential solutions, but also touched on the importance of diversity in conservation organizations. 

Johnson didn’t expect to rise through the ranks of the National Audubon Society, or to end up fighting to help preserve species like the sandhill crane. Johnson, who was raised between Dallas, Texas, and Los Angeles, California, attended the University of Minnesota Crookston to study business and play football. He fell in love with the birds of the northern prairie and forests.

“I never knew we needed to protect birds, or that birds needed protection,” Johnson said. 

After school, he took what he thought would be a six-month role as a climate organizer for Audubon. Thirteen years later, the 36-year-old is the group’s chief conservation officer. 

Johnson is a Black millennial in a field often perceived as white and old. Outside groups often ask him for advice about how to increase organizational diversity. What organizations often miss, he said, is that simply hiring more people of color isn’t the whole solution. He often tells them that the organization’s culture needs to change. 

“As a person of color, I bring all of myself to the work,” he said. 

Based in Fargo, North Dakota, Johnson helps develop national conservation programs that Audubon chapters nationwide are adopting to preserve bird habitat. At times, he acknowledged, birders have clashed with renewable energy projects, such as wind farms, due to concerns that they could harm birds. 

But the risk of a warming planet is much greater, Johnson said. Bird populations in North America have decreased by about 30 percent since the 1970s, according to Audubon. Grassland birds such as the prairie chicken—Johnson’s favorite—are at the biggest risk for population decline. 

At Audubon, Johnson helped develop and expand a conservation program that partners with large ranch owners to promote biodiversity and bird-friendly land management practices. A key lesson he learned is that promoting healthy soils and grasslands is a win-win for ranchers and birds, and that mutually beneficial relationships with landowners are necessary for success. Today, the Audubon’s Conservation Ranching Initiative has close to four million acres enrolled in 16 states. 

Birders should focus on climate solutions that emphasize land conservation and promote renewable energy projects that are built outside of major bird migration zones, Johnson said. Restoring forests, grasslands, and waterways adds plants that capture carbon from the air while creating habitat for birds and other wildlife. He praised Audubon’s Upper Mississippi River Program in northern Minnesota, which is working to restore forests and reestablish natural water levels to improve bird habitat. 

There are big and small ways recreational birders can help their favorite creatures and the environment, Johnson said. Buying food grown on bird-friendly farms and ranches can make a big impact, he said. People can also enter their zip codes on the Audubon website, and find plant species to install in their yards and balconies that support birds.

“Your backyard can be a vital stop point for birds,” he said. 

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Andrew Hazzard is a staff reporter with Sahan Journal who focuses on climate change and environmental justice issues. After starting his career in daily newspapers in Mississippi and North Dakota, Andrew...