Public Lands Are Key to Survival of North American Bird Species

blackbird stands on a bush

Migrated Image / Jami Heimbuch

The 2011 State of Birds report is out, and this year there is a keen focus on how more attention to the conservation of public lands is the real muscle behind the conservation of birds. From arid lands to coastlines, it's public spaces where most species of birds do best, but even here, the majority of species are under threat. The State of the Birds 2011 looked at the distribution of birds across nearly 850 million acres of public land and 3.5 million square miles of ocean, lands, and ocean space which support at least 50% of the population of 300 bird species. Over 1,000 bird species live in the US, with 251 of them listed as threatened, endangered, or of conservation concern.

The good news is that the report finds that national wildlife refuges, parks, and forests provide space and resources enough to slow or reverse the alarming decline of bird species. But that good news is tempered with the responsibility to continue to grow these public resources and keep them healthy enough to support birds.

The report highlighted the wide variety of bird habitats on public lands. These include:

Arid lands: More than half of U.S. arid lands are publicly owned. Thirty-nine percent of arid land 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 the 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.

As the report points out, it is more than just conservation of public lands that is necessary to help bird species recover, but so too is conservation efforts on surrounding private lands, and even working internationally with countries to which threatened and endangered bird species migrate.

If you'd like to support organizations that work to protect national parks and wildlife refuges, check out National Wildlife Federation, Audubon Society, and Sierra Club.