To Protect Two Declining Western Birds, Scientists Seek a Tricky Balance

Both Pinyon Jays and Greater Sage-Grouse face significant declines in distinct Western habitats. Can conservationists meet the needs of both?
A blue Pinyon Jay stands in a juniper tree.
Pinyon Jay in Piñon-juniper habitat. Photo: Christina M. Selby

In the Western United States, conservationists worry the fight to protect one dwindling bird species could risk harming another. Their efforts to resolve that tension have sparked new research and collaboration.

The Greater Sage-Grouse lives in 11 states across the West and its survival relies on the region’s shrinking sagebrush habitat, which it needs for food, cover, and roosting. Years of collaborative but politically fraught efforts have gone into protecting the imperiled bird and keeping it from an Endangered Species Act listing. Just last week, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released its latest conservation proposal for the species, a long-awaited update to prior plans under the Obama and Trump administrations. The “renewed commitment” to action that integrates the latest science was applauded by a variety of conservation and sportsmen groups. The bird’s steep decline offers a real warning that sagebrush country is in trouble, said Alison Holloran, executive director of Audubon Rockies, in a statement. 

Indeed, a variety of threats on the iconic landscape contribute to the grouse’s decline, including wildfires fueled by invasive cheatgrass, climate change-induced stress to native plants, and habitat conversion and fragmentation for oil and gas development, mining, agriculture, and subdivisions.  

One more challenge cited in the BLM proposal is the spread of conifer trees into the otherwise mostly treeless sagebrush sea. Piñon-juniper woodlands expanded as much as sixfold into sagebrush ecosystems since the 19th century, according to a May 2023 study. While a few stray conifers in the sagebrush steppe may not seem like a problem, the ground-nesting sage-grouse do not coexist with trees: The tall vegetation overhead creates hiding places for predators such as ravens. As little as 4 percent conifer encroachment in an area can impact the bird’s population, the BLM’s plan notes. 

Cutting down the trees seems to be helping the sage-grouse. In southern Oregon, for example, populations of the shrubland bird grew 12 percent more quickly in areas where land managers removed junipers compared to spots where they left the aromatic conifer alone.

Several Greater Sage-Grouse strut around a vast open landscape at sunset.
Greater Sage-Grouse in sagebrush habitat in Wyoming. Photo: Evan Barrientos/Audubon Rockies

There’s a wrinkle, though. Piñon-juniper habitat is home to another imperiled species: the Pinyon Jay, which relies upon piñon pine nuts for food and, in turn, perpetuates the ecosystem by spreading the trees’ seeds. Since 1970, the dusty blue bird has struggled as development has encroached on its habitat and as piñon trees are hit with climate change-driven drought, wildfire, and insect infestations. Scott Somershoe, land bird coordinator for the FWS’s Mountain Prairie region, estimates their decline at around 70 percent, while the Defenders of Wildlife, an environmental group, has put that figure closer to 85 percent.

Either way, it’s steep. Woodland managers have seen 300-year-old piñons die in areas they once thrived, Somershoe notes—a third of the piñon-juniper woodlands in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest are now gone, for example. “That’s fairly problematic if you’re a jay,” he says.

“When we don't know for sure what to do, there's a tendency not to do anything."

The FWS is now undertaking a wide-ranging review of whether the Pinyon Jay warrants protections under the Endangered Species Act, a response to a 2022 petition from Defenders of Wildlife that presented what the agency determined was a compelling enough case for deeper study. The group, along with several other environmental groups, has also previously criticized federal land management decisions to remove conifer trees, partially out of concern for Pinyon Jays. 

But the science is not straightforward. Although piñon-juniper woodlands struggle in some regions, the habitat has actually increased in other areas and its acreage has expanded overall—even as the bird has declined. Researchers still aren’t entirely sure yet how to explain the mismatch, though they have theories. Even tracking the wide-ranging Pinyon Jay poses challenges. Bryan Bird, Defenders of Wildlife’s southwest director, advocates against unnecessary conifer cutting but acknowledges that where to draw the line is not simple.

A female Greater Sage-Grouse sits in brown grasses.
Greater Sage-Grouse in Wyoming. Photo: Evan Barrientos/Audubon Rockies

A larger worry is that uncertainty can be a hurdle to taking much-needed action to protect both birds, says Jeremy Maestas, a national sagebrush ecosystem specialist with the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service. “When we don't know for sure what to do, there's a tendency not to do anything," he says. 

A time for science

The experts Audubon spoke to for this story agreed that research into the Pinyon Jay is in a far earlier stage than sage-grouse research. The numerous unknowns about Pinyon Jay range, behavior, needs, and adaptability make it challenging to assess how to care for both the bird and its ecosystem—and that assessment only grows more difficult when considering sage-grouse needs. It’s a conversation that reveals the challenges of land management in a nuanced, scientifically-proven manner when the climate is changing rapidly. “We can't just be focused on just grasslands in the southwest or just [piñon-juniper],” Somershoe says. “We need to think bigger picture than what we have had in the past.” 

To further the case for targeted land management to increase the populations of both species, sagebrush experts have joined the Pinyon Jay Working Group, a collaboration formed in 2017 across agencies. A biologist who studies sagebrush conservation and migratory birds for the Bureau of Land Management, Renee Chi, is a co-chair; FWS’s Somershoe is a coordinator.

The research published in May 2023, conducted by experts at FWS, USDA, and the University of Montana, suggests that land managers are on the right path in working together. The study identified where nine species of songbirds, including the Pinyon Jay, live within the transition zone between woodland and sagebrush ecosystems across the West. It also determined the density of their populations in those areas. The scientists then compared that map to areas where the Sage Grouse Initiative—a USDA program that works with ranchers to protect sage-grouse on private land—had previously removed conifers. Results showed those felled conifers were largely not in areas Pinyon Jays called home. What’s more, another recent study by many of the same researchers found that only 13 to 18 percent of ongoing conifer removal plans in the Intermountain West occurred on land identified as being important to the Pinyon Jay.

Vast landscape of shrubland with mountains in the distance.
Piñon-juniper habitat in Arizona. Photo: Christina M. Selby

Bird, of Defenders of Wildlife, regards those findings as good news and says the mapping results can help his group better advocate for a targeted, more holistic land management approach. There’s less conflict between the Pinyon Jay and Greater Sage-Grouse than his group suspected, he says. “I think one of the classic problems and mistakes we've made historically with land management and also with species protection efforts is that we do single species management,” Bird says. He still, however, voiced concerns that agencies are using too heavy a hand in thinning certain piñon-juniper landscapes, such as at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

FWS scientists are now working on the Pinyon Jay’s status review under the ESA. Their report, known as a 12-month finding, will go to FWS leadership, which will ultimately decide if the Pinyon Jay should be listed. It’s a slow process: Somershoe told Audubon that the 12-month finding isn’t due until the end of fiscal year 2028. But he’s hopeful that the review will uncover new information to help stem the corvid’s decline.

Meanwhile, the recent BLM proposal to protect the Greater Sage-Grouse is now open for public comment until June 13, 2024. Among its many conservation actions, it discusses the need to strategically manage and remove encroaching conifers in ways that prioritize acres around occupied sage-grouse habitat and considers the needs of other key species. 

While all these plans develop, land managers and ecologists don’t have to wait to protect both birds in the zones where habitats overlap, Maestas says. For example, some agencies are trying a “feathering” technique when clearing conifers: They still remove all trees from identified sage-grouse strongholds, but as they move further up in elevation, they cut fewer to create a gradual transition across the sagebrush-woodland ecotone.

“This is a time for science and to better unpack how to do this properly,” Maestas says. “But we have enough information to take some reasonable steps today.”