Feds considering endangered status for Pinyon Jays
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering adding Pinyon Jays to the endangered species list. The agency started a 12-month evaluation of the species earlier this month following a petition from nonprofit group Defenders of Wildlife.
“It is one of the fastest declining bird species in the U.S.,” said Peggy Darr, New Mexico representative for Defenders of Wildlife. “It’s lost about 85% of its global population since the 1960s, and the remaining smaller population is expected to be cut in half again by 2035.”
Darr says the boisterous, blue birds are a crucial part of New Mexico ecosystems, especially considering their close relationship with piñon pines – New Mexico’s state tree.
“They are the primary long-distance disperser and planter of piñon pine trees,” she said. “The piñon seeds can’t roll up hill and plant themselves, so we need Pinyon Jays to be able to go into these open areas and reestablish these forests.”
Pinyon Jays and piñon pines have a mutualistic symbiotic relationship – that means the two species benefit off each other. It also means if one species is struggling, the other will likely struggle as well.
Darr says declining Pinyon Jay populations and ongoing drought conditions are threatening piñon pine populations. She predicts if the birds go extinct, the pines will survive in smaller numbers.
She says that could still be catastrophic for piñon-juniper ecosystems across New Mexico.
“The piñon-juniper woodlands that we know now will cease to exist,” she said. “And they have a lot of species that are found only in that habitat type.”
Darr says an endangered species listing would provide more funding for conservation efforts and force agencies like the U.S. Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management to consider the impact on Pinyon Jays while making decisions.
Despite those benefits, she says the decision is not an easy one.
“Being listed on the Endangered Species Act is a last resort,” Darr said. “It’s when species become so threatened and endangered that that they need a lot of extra protection. Conservation groups typically try to work hard to conserve species before they get to the point of being listed.”
However, Darr says the benefits of protecting Pinyon Jays would extend far beyond the birds themselves.
“It’s a very large cultural event to go out and harvest piñon pine seeds,” she said. “It’s an integral part of our culture, and without Pinyon jays, we wouldn’t have that.”