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State of the Birds Report

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Western Forests

Western forests represent some of the last intact ecosystems in North America, providing essential habitat for many bird species. Western forests encompass roughly 269 million acres (13% of the land area of the contiguous 48 states), including pine and other conifer forests, pinyon-juniper woodland, and oak woodlands of the Pacific Coast. An additional 19 million acres of western forests extend into southeastern Alaska, 62% of which are in two National Forests. Including Alaska, 63% of western forests are publicly owned, with 41% in National Forests, 10% on BLM land, 5% on state lands, and 3% on NPS lands.

Average percentage of the U.S. distribution of 41 western forest-breeding bird species on public vs. nonpublic lands (left). Breakdown of bird distribution on public lands shown for each public agency (right).

Western Forest Birds on Public Lands

Public lands have tremendous importance for western forest birds, supporting 55% of the distribution of the 41 obligate breeding species (34% in National Forests, 11% on BLM lands, 5% on state land, and 3% on NPS lands).

Public lands support more than 70% of the U.S. distribution of Common Black-Hawk, Whiteheaded Woodpecker, Williamson’s Sapsucker, Clark’s Nutcracker, and Sooty and Dusky grouse. Seven western bird species have 50% or more of their distribution in National Forests. BLM forests support significant distributions of Gray Flycatcher (37%), Black-throated Gray Warbler (29%), and Pinyon Jay (27%). Crucial to the long-term health of bird populations, public lands are often the largest blocks of unfragmented forest in many regions.

California oak woodland specialists (Oak Titmouse, Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Yellow-billed Magpie) have much smaller distributions on public lands (10–25%). The lack of protections for oak woodlands in Pacific states is a significant conservation challenge, affecting many plant and animal species in addition to birds. The two most endangered western forest species, Goldencheeked Warbler in Texas and Island Scrub-Jay in California, have among the lowest percentages of U.S. bird distributions on public land.

Conservation Successes

Riparian forest bird populations have increased dramatically in response to restoration of 5,000 acres of riparian forest since 1998 on the Sacramento River National Wildlife Refuge and adjacent California Fish and Game lands. In 1987, cattle were removed from portions of BLM’s San Pedro River National Conservation Area in Arizona, resulting in dramatic regeneration of riparian vegetation and increases in many riparian forest bird populations.

Active management in National Forests has improved habitat for western forest birds. For example, prescribed fire treatments implemented by USFS in the Inland Northwest have created habitats for Black-backed, American Three-toed, and White-headed woodpeckers in locations that were previously unoccupied by these species. Silvicultural practices that promote hardwood regeneration have benefited shrub-nesting birds such as Wilson's and MacGillivray's warblers.

Conservation Challenges

Many western forest bird species depend on conifer seeds and are threatened by the loss of pines, especially pinyon and whitebark pine, due to spread of white pine blister rust, mountain pine bark beetle, and other invasive pests. These threats are exacerbated by years of fire suppression and by severe drought conditions attributed to climate change.

Policies regarding fire suppression, thinning to reduce fuel loads, and post-fire logging are especially important to many forest birds. Restoration of natural fire regimes will benefit birds of high conservation concern, such as White-headed Woodpecker, that are highly dependent on public lands. Other public land policies that will benefit birds in western forests include limiting fragmentation and clearing for energy extraction, fencing and reduced grazing of riparian forests, protecting remaining old-growth stands in the Pacific Northwest and Sierra Nevada, and expanding protected areas in California oak woodlands.


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