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State of the Birds Report

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Diverse U.S. Public Forests Support Diverse Birdlife


• The largest single forest land manager is the USFS, with 147 million acres or about 40% of publicly owned forests.

• Roughly 33% of public forests, mostly on NPS lands and Wilderness Areas, is protected to maintain natural habitats, offering greater benefits for some bird populations. Other birds will benefit from more effective management on multiple-use forestlands.

• Public lands support 45% of the
breeding distribution of 149 obligate
forest bird species in the United States.

• Public forests are crucial for the recovery of endangered species, including Kirtland’s Warbler, with 97% of its U.S. distribution on public lands.

• Public agencies need more resources and tools to achieve vital conservation actions for forest birds, such as restoring natural fire regimes and managing the proliferation of invasive insect pests and diseases.

Image: Pacific Coast rainforest, Alaska, by Gerrit Vyn  
Crucial to the long-term health of bird populations, public lands are often the largest blocks of unfragmented forest in many regions.

Forest Birds on Public Lands

Diverse U.S. forests harbor more than 300 breeding bird species. Nearly 40% of the U.S. land area is forested (856 million acres). Roughly one-third of the forests in the lower 48 states and 87% of Alaskan forests are on public lands, with a much higher proportion of publicly owned forests in the West than in the East. The largest single land manager is the USFS, with 147 million acres or roughly 40% of all publicly owned forests. Other significant managers of public forestlands are state agencies, with 95 million acres (26%) and the BLM, with 63 million acres (17%).

Public lands support 45% of the U.S. distribution of the 149 obligate forest bird species. Species groups with more than two-thirds of their U.S. distribution on public lands (and therefore the greatest conservation opportunities) include birds of high-elevation, Pacific-Northwest, and boreal conifer forests, as well as those in pinyon-juniper woodlands and pine-oak forests of the Southwest. Groups with less than 10% of their distribution on public lands include species restricted to subtropical forests in south Texas and many common, yet steeply declining, species dependent on early successional eastern forests.

Public lands often represent the largest unfragmented forests in many regions, and are therefore very important to the long-term health of forest bird populations. Management policies that can enhance or restore declining species that are highly dependent on public lands (more than 50% of their distribution) are especially important.

White-headed Woodpecker by Gerrit Vyn
Stewardship Opportunities


Forty-five percent of public forests are managed for multiple uses. Although these lands are protected from urban development and clearing for agriculture, they are often open to energy development, mining, grazing, logging, and other activities that may conflict with wildlife and other natural resource values. Roughly 123 million acres (33%) of public forests, mostly on NPS lands and Wilderness Areas, are protected to maintain natural habitats and potentially offer greater benefits for many bird populations. However, 59% of public forests in Alaska offer no permanent protections against extraction or conversion. 

Major challenges arise chiefly from agency mandates and policies that may conflict with the needs of species of high conservation concern. For example, the desire to exploit mineral or energy resources (including wind), or to gain economically from logging, grazing, or recreational use, needs to be balanced with the desire to provide healthy habitats for birds and other wildlife. Particularly harmful to some bird populations are activities that fragment large blocks of forest, such as roadbuilding, or those that remove essential structural features such as snags, old-growth trees, or riparian corridors. In other cases, management decisions that prevent the maintenance of forests of diverse ages may be harmful to species dependent on young forests. 

Perhaps the single greatest challenge for forest managers nationwide is the restoration of fire regimes as a vital component of healthy forest ecosystems. Many forest types, as well as birds and other wildlife of high conservation concern, require natural fire cycles, and a century of unnatural fire suppression has created conditions that are not only harmful to bird populations, but also pose grave economic and safety threats to humans. Another huge challenge is the proliferation of invasive species, including plants, insect pests,and diseases that are threatening the future of entire forest communities. These threats are increasingly exacerbated by a changing climate, as well as by a rapidly expanding urban-forest interface. Public agencies need greatly increased resources and tools for meeting these challenges.



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