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State of the Birds Report

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Mexican Pine-Oak Forests

Spanning roughly three million acres, the pineoak forests of the “sky island” mountains of southeastern Arizona, southern New Mexico, and west Texas, are an extension of the forests in Mexico’s Sierra Madre ranges. Sixty-one percent is on public lands, more than half of which is in several large National Forests in Arizona and New Mexico. Other significant public lands include Big Bend and Guadalupe Mountains national parks in Texas and Fort Huachuca in southeastern Arizona.

Percentage of the U.S. distribution of 20 Mexican pine-oak breeding bird species on public vs. nonpublic lands (left). Breakdown of bird distribution on public lands shown for each public agency (right).

Mexican Pine-Oak Birds on Public Lands

Mexican pine-oak forests support distinctive birds that are primarily Mexican and occur nowhere else in the United States. Public lands support 61% of the U.S. distribution of the 20 species of obligate pine-oak forest birds, with more than half in National Forests. In general, species at higher elevations (e.g., Olive Warbler, Mexican Chickadee) and those restricted to sycamore-lined mountain canyons (e.g., Painted Redstart, Elegant Trogon) have the highest proportion of their distribution on public lands, including 40–60% of their distributions in National Forests.

Species at lower elevations and in drier forests (e.g., Mexican Jay, Hepatic Tanager) have lower percentages of their distribution on public lands (though still 50% or more), with a high percentage (10–15%) on BLM land. The entire known U.S. breeding range of Colima Warbler is in Big Bend National Park. DoD lands on Fort Huachuca support 10–15% of the U.S. distribution of several species in the Huachuca Mountains (e.g. Buffbreasted Flycatcher, Elegant Trogon).

All of these birds are at the northern limit of their distribution in this region, and although vast public lands in the southwestern U.S. are very important, international cooperation with Mexico is essential for their long-term conservation. A majority of the public land in this region is managed for multiple uses (grazing, recreation, military training, forestry), but is protected from residential and commercial development. Big Bend National Park protects 814,000 acres and is managed to maintain extensive natural habitats.

Conservation Successes

As bird watchers flock to Mexican pine-oak forests to see primarily Mexican bird species in the U.S, bird-related tourism adds significantly to the local economy in spring and summer. For example, Cave Creek Canyon in the Coronado National
Forest, Arizona, receives thousands of visitors annually, many of who come to see Elegant Trogons and other species representative of the Mexican pineoak forest.

Fort Huachuca in southeastern Arizona has developed a comprehensive management plan to protect up to eight pairs of threatened Mexican Spotted Owls, including reducing the impacts of military activities and managing fires. Policies to protect large expanses of forest also benefit the entire suite of birds dependent on pine-oak forests.

Conservation Challenges

Fire suppression, intensive grazing, and heavy recreational use are major threats to birds in publicly owned pine-oak forests. The altered fire regime in these forests has resulted in the absence of some bird species (e.g., Buff-breasted Flycatcher) in mountain ranges where they were considered common at the turn of the 20th century. With fire frequency increasing, Buff-breasted Flycatchers and other fire-adapted species are exhibiting dramatic expansions back into their historical ranges.


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