Public Lands and Waters Crucial for Bird Conservation, Federal Report Finds

This Arctic tern at its breeding grounds in Denali National Park may cover 25,000 miles in its journey to its wintering grounds off of Antarctica. Photo: Kent Miller/NPS
Public lands and waters are crucial for birds, according to the 2011 State of the Birds report. The report, a collaboration between federal agencies and environmental organizations, assessed bird distribution on some 850 million acres of public land and 3.5 million square miles of ocean. It concludes that conserving national wildlife refuges, parks, forests, and other public lands could significantly help halt or reverse the decline of many species. Of the more than 1,000 bird species that inhabit the U.S., 251  are federally threatened, endangered, or of conservation concern. (Click here for a pdf of the report.)
“This report is telling us that we must take action to protect the public lands our nation's birds depend on,” David Yarnold, Audubon’s president, said. “That means environmentally sound siting for green energy—and the discipline to wean ourselves off fossil fuel. That means adequate funding for the public agencies that preserve, restore and manage these lands for wildlife and the millions of Americans that visit them. And that means investing in the kind of public-private partnerships that have shaped conservation since Teddy Roosevelt established Florida's Pelican Island as the first federal bird reservation in 1903, with support from the Florida Audubon Society.”

And of course, conserving public lands will protect birds as well as a bevy of flora and fauna, from colorful slime molds in Great Smoky Mountains National Park to basking walruses in the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve.
Public agencies will use the findings to identify the most significant conservation opportunities in each habitat. Here’s a summary of the findings, broken down by habitat type:
Aridlands: More than half of U.S. aridlands are publicly owned. Thirty-nine percent of aridland bird species are of conservation concern and more than 75 percent of species are declining.
Oceans and Coasts: All U.S. marine waters are publicly owned and are home to 86 ocean bird species and 173 coastal species. At least 39 percent of U.S. bird species restricted to ocean habitats are declining and almost half are of conservation concern, indicating severe stress in these ecosystems.
Forests: Public lands include some of the largest unfragmented blocks of forest, which are crucial for the long-term health of many bird species, including the endangered Kirtland’s warbler, which has 97 percent of its U.S. distribution on public lands.
Arctic and Alpine: Ninety percent of boreal forest, alpine, and arctic breeding bird species in Alaska rely on public lands for habitat, including 34 breeding shorebird species of high conservation concern. There are more public lands in Alaska than in the rest of the U.S. combined, offering huge potential to manage lands for conservation.
Islands: More birds are in danger of extinction in Hawaii than anywhere else in the U.S. Public lands in Hawaii support 73 percent of the distribution of declining forest birds. Among declining Hawaiian forest birds on Kauai, about 78 percent rely on state land. Four endangered species in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands are entirely dependent on federal lands.
Wetlands: Wetlands protection has provided the “gold standard” for bird conservation. On the whole, 39 species of hunted waterfowl have increased by more than 100 percent during the past 40 years as nearly 30 million acres of wetlands have been acquired and management practices have restored bird populations.
Grasslands: Grassland birds are among our nation’s fastest declining species, yet only a small amount—13 percent—of grassland is publicly owned and managed primarily for conservation. Forty-eight percent of grassland-breeding bird species are of conservation concern, including four with endangered populations.

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