ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — U.S. wildlife managers announced Wednesday that they will investigate whether a bird that is inextricably linked to the piñon and juniper forests that span the Western United States warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act.
The pinyon jay’s numbers have declined over the last half-century as persistent drought, more severe wildfires and other effects of climate change have intensified, leaving the birds with less food and fewer nesting options as more trees die or are removed.
Environmentalists also are concerned that without the pinyon jay — a social bird that essentially plants the next generation of trees by stashing away the seeds — it’s possible the piñon forests of New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and other Western states could face another reproductive hurdle.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to review the jay’s status comes in response to a petition filed more than a year ago that included research showing the species’ numbers have declined by an estimated 80% over the last five decades, a rate even faster than that of the greater sage grouse.
“This decision moves us one step closer to reversing the trend of one of the fastest declining birds in North America,” Peggy Darr of the group Defenders of Wildlife said in a statement. “Without pinyon jays, we stand to lose iconic Southwestern landscapes, cultures and cuisines intimately tied to piñon pine nuts.”
Piñon-juniper forests cover more than 75,000 square miles (190,000 square kilometers) in the United States, and wildlife managers in several Western states already have classified the bird as a species of greatest conservation need.
Nearly 60% of the jay’s remaining population can be found in New Mexico and Nevada, but its range also includes central Oregon and parts of California, Utah, Wyoming, Oklahoma and Mexico’s northern Baja California.
Defenders of Wildlife pointed Wednesday to research published this year that indicated one hypothesis for the birds’ decline was habitat loss and degradation due to climate change. Another was land management policies that call for the thinning or removal of piñon-juniper forests to reduce wildfire threats or improve habitat for other species. And development has resulted in the clearing of trees to make room for homes as Western cities expand.
Fewer trees mean less food for the birds, and previous research has shown that the jays will forgo breeding when piñons are scarce.
Pale blue with a white bib, the pinyon jay typically mates for life and can be choosey about where to build a nest. For example, taller and older trees aren’t high on the list as they typically have less foliage and can double as perches for potential predators.
While environmentalists say there still is much research to be done on pinyon jays, it was well known by the 1970s that the birds’ habits revolved around harvesting, stashing and later retrieving pine seeds. In one case, a researcher watched a bird carry 56 seeds in one trip.
Drought and high temperatures also have been shown to affect the production of piñon cones, forcing the birds to fan out over hundreds of miles when food is scarce.
Researchers have said that understanding the bird’s needs and effects on its habitats will be fundamental to managing Western environments to ensure pinyon jay colonies can be protected.
The Fish and Wildlife Service also agreed to review the status of the bleached sandhill skipper, a butterfly with golden-orange wings that has been the focus of a fight over a geothermal energy project near the Nevada-Oregon state line.
The proposed power plant would be outside the butterfly’s habitat, an alkali wetland that spans about 2 square miles (5 square kilometers). But environmentalists are concerned that tapping underground water sources likely would affect the flows that support plants where the butterflies lay eggs and get nectar.