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State of the Birds Report

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Arctic & Alpine

Public Lands Support 86% of Arctic and Alpine Bird Distribution




• Public lands are crucial for arctic and alpine birds. They support 86% of the U.S. distribution of these species, higher than for birds dependent on any other terrestrial habitat.

• Only 6% of lowland tundra on
public lands in northern Alaska is
protected to maintain natural habitats. Ensuring protection for birds on these lands should be a priority for state and federal agencies.

• Climate change and energy development pose significant challenges in arctic habitats, which are vital to many of our nation’s shorebirds and waterfowl.


Image: White-tailed Ptarmigan by Gerrit Vyn  
A key priority is to improve management of lowland tundra in northern Alaska, where only 6% of public land is protected to maintain natural habitats.


Arctic and Alpine Birds on Public Lands

Alpine and arctic landscapes range from the subtle to the spectacular. They constitute 44% of all lands within Alaska but just 1% of lands in the contiguous 48 states, mostly in the West. Public lands are important for the conservation of breeding arctic and alpine birds—86% of arctic and alpine habitats are publicly owned and support 86% of the U.S. distribution of arctic and alpine bird species. Of the 59 species inhabiting primarily arctic or alpine habitats, 23 are of conservation concern.

Eighteen species, all of which occur within Alaska, have more than 90% of their distribution on public lands, and 10 are of conservation concern. Public lands are especially important breeding grounds for arctic-nesting Yellow-billed Loons and alpinenesting Surfbirds.

Arctic species breeding in northern Alaska tend to have more of their breeding range on public land (e.g., 95% for Stilt Sandpiper) than species breeding exclusively in western Alaska, such as the Emperor Goose (64%).

In the contiguous 48 states, the five alpine-breeding species have 76% of their average distribution on public lands. About 91% of alpine habitats in the contiguous 48 states is publicly owned; 70% is managed by the USFS and is important for the
conservation of White-tailed Ptarmigan, American Pipit, and Black, Browned-capped, and Graycrowned rosy-finches.

Within Alaska, ownership is more evenly distributed among federal agencies and the state of Alaska; the state manages 18% of the average distribution of arctic and alpine species. Together, BLM and USFWS lands are important for arctic and alpine birds, with 54% of the distribution of these species. BLM lands alone support more than 40% of the distribution of the King Eider, Longbilled Dowitcher, Snowy Owl, and Bluethroat. Virtually all breeding McKay’s Buntings occur on islands in the Bering Sea managed as part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.

Percentage of the U.S. distribution of 59 arctic- and alpine-breeding bird species on public vs. nonpublic lands (left). Breakdown of bird distribution on public lands shown for each public agency (right). 

Conservation Successes

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act into law. Considered the most significant land conservation measure in U.S. history, the statute protected more than 100 million acres of federal lands in Alaska, doubling the size of the country’s National Park and National Wildlife Refuge systems. The act consolidated and expanded public ownership within the Yukon Delta and Arctic National Wildlife Refuges, which now each include more than 19 million acres.

In 2008, the BLM elected to defer for 10 years any oil and gas leases in the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska surrounding Teshekpuk Lake. The tundra around the lake provides one of the largest known arctic goose molting areas in North America for 70,000 geese of four species and supports high densities of nesting shorebirds such as the Red Phalarope and the threatened Spectacled Eider.

Red Knot by Gerrit Vyn
Conservation Challenges


Forty-two percent of the distribution of arctic and alpine birds occurs on publicly owned lands that are protected to maintain natural habitats. Within the arctic, western Alaska has a higher percentage of these protected lands. More importantly, northern Alaska has very little lowland tundra areas that are managed primarily to maintain natural habitats for biodiversity (6%) relative to western Alaska (57%). Lowland tundra in northern Alaska is important nesting habitat for several species of conservation concern, including Buff-breasted Sandpiper. Increasing the amount of lowland tundra managed primarily to maintain natural habitats in northern Alaska should be a priority for federal agencies and the state of Alaska. 

Public lands are crucial for maintaining arctic and alpine breeding bird species. Modifications in environmental conditions caused by global climate change, including sea-level rise, changes in hydrological regimes, and expansion of trees and shrubs into sedge-dominated tundra and alpine areas, are perhaps the most challenging long-term threats facing arctic and alpine birds. Balancing the need for energy development with the conservation needs of birds is a continuing challenge on public lands in arctic Alaska. Although more than half of all alpine public lands in the contiguous 48 states is protected to maintain natural habitats, alpine lands can take years to recover from mining, grazing, and recreation disturbances.



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