Protections sought for western birds linked to pinon forests

ALBUQUERQUE, NM – Collecting pine nuts has been a tradition for Native American and Hispanic families in the Southwestern United States for generations.

But conservationists worry that without the pinyon jay — a highly social bird that essentially plants the next generation of trees by hiding the seeds — it’s possible that the piñon forests of New Mexico, Nevada and other western states will be faced with another obstacle to reproduction. from climate change, persistent drought and more severe forest fires.

Washington, D.C.-based group Defenders of Wildlife filed a petition Monday with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the bird under the Endangered Species Act, saying the once-common species plays an essential role in the ecosystem of the high desert.

The group points to research that shows pinyon jay numbers have declined by about 80% over the past five decades, an even faster rate than that of sage-grouse.

Patricia Estrella, who represents the group in New Mexico, said while population declines are well documented, the exact cause remains unclear because multiple threats are at play.

“Not only is it difficult to separate the effects of the interacting factors, but together they create even greater threats through positive feedback,” Estrella wrote in the petition. “Successful pinyon jay conservation requires addressing and ameliorating multiple threats simultaneously.”

Piñon-juniper forests cover more than 75,000 square miles in the United States, and wildlife managers in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, and New Mexico have already listed the bird as a species in greatest need of conservation.

Nearly 60% of the jay’s remaining population is found in New Mexico and Nevada, but its range also includes central Oregon and parts of California, Utah, Wyoming, South America. ‘Oklahoma and northern Baja California of Mexico.

Pale blue with a white bib, the pinyon jay usually mates for life. When food is plentiful, they may nest more than once a year.

Their home range can be vast, with birds scattering over hundreds of kilometers when food is scarce.

Research highlighted in the petition indicates that more pinon and juniper forests are being cleared in the West for housing estates, agricultural and solar and wind energy projects, and that land managers are seeking to reduce the threat forest fire.

The Biden administration’s infrastructure effort includes $500 million over five years for prescribed burns, $500 million for mechanical tree felling and another $500 million to eliminate fuel cuts. Wildlife advocates and others worry that managers could go ahead with many projects without public input or more detailed environmental reviews.

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