“In New Mexico, Unraveling the Plight of the Pinyon Jay”

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The Story

“In New Mexico, Unraveling the Plight of the Pinyon Jay”
by Sara Van Note
Undark, October 19, 2022

The Pitch

PITCH: A unique Western landscape and its namesake bird are threatened by climate change—and wildfire prevention

Pinyon jays and piñon trees are wholly interdependent—the piñon nuts provide essential sustenance for the bird, the jay offers critical seed dispersal for the plant.  As keystone species of the piñon-juniper woodlands that extend over 75,000 square miles across thirteen Western states, they co-create vital habitat for numerous plants and animals, and supply a traditional food source for Native peoples and historic Hispano communities. Yet both the pinyon jay and its namesake habitat are imperiled due to climate change and a long history of piñon removal carried out by federal agencies, including, increasingly, thinning and burning for wildfire prevention.

This year the Defenders of Wildlife petitioned the federal government for the pinyon jay to be listed as endangered, citing inadequate regulatory protections and the species’ “precipitous” decline by an estimated 80 percent in 50 years.

Scientists are calling for federal agencies to adapt their management protocols in response to research on pinyon jays and other birds that depend on dense piñon-juniper habitat.  These woodlands host more breeding bird species than any other terrestrial ecosystem in the West.  Research indicates that removal of trees through thinning makes these forests less resilient to drought.  And pinyon jays are critical partners in post-wildfire recovery.  According to biologist Kristine Johnson, they’re the only species capable of “replanting” a piñon-juniper forest disturbed by fire, insect infestation, or drought.

Can pinyon jays and piñon-juniper habitats adapt to a rapidly changing climate? How can modified wildfire management strategies impact these ecosystems?  I’ll interview federal and independent scientists who study these birds and ecosystems, and portray what’s at stake in terms of human communities with deep historic ties to piñon gathering. I’ll also visit a study site monitoring piñon growth and seed production.

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