Birds and cats top the list of 2022 successes in the Southwest. These include petitioning the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to protect the unique pinyon jay across its western range; defending the ocelot from a blitz of development in south Texas; contributing to the science on Golden-cheeked warbler habitat loss; and building on an effort to protect migrating birds in Texas from night-time lighting. Here are just a few highlights from Defenders’ Southwest conservation work in 2022:
Protecting One to Benefit Many
The Intermountain West is home to the smoky blue pinyon jay, a member of the corvid family of birds (which includes crows, ravens and blue jays). Over the last 50 years, the pinyon jay has declined by an estimated 85%. If actions are not taken now to conserve the bird, the species is estimated to lose another 50% of the global population by 2035. In April, Defenders formally petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to protect the pinyon jay under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
A social species, pinyon jays fly, forage and nest together. The pinyon jay is closely associated with Pinyon-Juniper woodlands and depends on piñon trees for its primary food source—the seeds—and the piñon trees rely on the pinyon jay to distribute their seeds throughout the west. The seeds, known commercially as pine nuts, that pinyon jays fail to recover, have a chance to germinate and become the next generation of piñon trees. Pinyon-Juniper woodlands are rich in biodiversity and home to at least 73 other bird species. Piñon seeds are culturally significant to Native American and Hispanic communities in the Southwest, and for generations they have harvested and consumed the seeds. We hope federal protection for the bird will help to stem the loss and degradation of its woodland habitat.
Lights Out, Texas!
In Texas, we successfully launched a campaign to reduce nighttime light pollution that has significant effects on migrating birds. Lights Out, Texas! is a campaign of education, awareness and action that focuses on turning out lights during the spring and fall migration season to help protect the billions of migratory birds that fly over Texas annually. Texas is globally important for birds—approximately 1 of every 3 birds migrating through the U.S. in spring, and 1 of every 4 birds migrating through the U.S. in the fall, passes through Texas. That’s nearly two billion birds! Protecting birds in Texas promotes the conservation of bird populations across the Americas. An estimated one billion U.S. bird deaths occur annually from collisions with buildings and other structures, with migratory species at most risk. The reflective glass fitted in commercial and residential windows and reflections from night-time lighting confuse and migratory birds flying at night, increasing the risk of collisions. In 2022, Defenders completed our first building collision study for the fall migration season.
Ocelots and Space Travel
South Texas remains a stronghold for the ocelot in the United States. It’s the last place north of the U.S.-Mexico border where ocelots still breed, but its remaining habitat is under constant development pressure from new, faster roadways, liquid natural gas export facilities and now SpaceX—a launch site for private space exploration. Our Texas team continues to educate the public about this special region and the ocelot. We’re working to prevent development that will cause harm to the species and its preferred thorn forest habitat. In 2022, we are proud to have partnered with FWS and the Gladys Porter Zoo to sponsor the free entry of more than 250 local children to the Ocelot Conservation Festival in Brownsville, Texas. Our work throughout the year has continued to raise awareness and build support for these rare cats and their conservation needs in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and beyond.
Golden-Cheeked Warbler Losing Habitat
Collaborating with Defenders’ Center for Conservation Innovation, the Southwest team contributed important scientific information on Golden-cheeked warbler habitat loss. The Golden-cheeked warbler is listed as endangered under the ESA and is a migratory songbird that breeds exclusively in central Texas, an area where population growth and urban sprawl are projected to continue at one of the highest rates in the country. Defenders’ researchers used land-cover and disturbance data spanning from 1985 to 2018 to conduct a geospatial analysis quantifying changes and identifying shifts in breeding-habitat quantity and suitability for the Golden-cheeked warbler. The study found that declines in suitable habitat were smaller in protected areas. This good news, however, is tempered by the fact that there are few protected areas in Texas—less than 2% of the state is in a protected area and only 10% of the warbler’s suitable habitat in the breeding range is in one of these areas. This demonstrates a need to strengthen current conservation measures and identify priority lands for conservation protections. The work should help to make the case that this beautiful little bird should remain on the endangered species list.
Mexican Gray Wolf
In the saga to recover the Mexican gray wolf in the Southwest region, Defenders brought two court challenges in 2022. We filed a suit against a new FWS management rule that fails to provide for the recovery of the Mexican gray wolf and we also appealed a court’s decision on the wolf’s recovery plan. Defenders is arguing the new management rule fails to respond to ongoing genetic threats to Mexican gray wolves; it sets an inadequate target for wolf population size; and it cuts wolves off from habitat essential for their recovery. In its new management rule, FWS sets a target population size of just 320 wolves in a single area of eastern Arizona and western New Mexico, and it prohibits wolf access to potential, but unoccupied, habitat in the Grand Canyon and Southern Rockies. In addition to the management rule, in a separate lawsuit, Defenders appealed a decision on the Recovery Plan in the U.S. Court of Appeals. This suit argues that the wolf recovery plan fails to provide for the “conservation and survival” of the species and does not base its delisting criteria on the best available science, as the law requires. We believe these lawsuits are the last resort to guarantee the Mexican gray wolf returns permanently to the Southwest.
Big Hopes for 2023
With 2022 firmly behind us, our team now turns its attention to more advocacy for rare and imperiled wildlife in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. We are hoping for a positive decision from FWS on Defenders’ pinyon jay listing petition. In the meantime, our team in New Mexico will be pressing landowners for improved forest and woodland management for both the pinyon jay and Southwest warblers. In Texas, our team will continue to advocate for habitat connectivity and restoration that benefits not only ocelots but the many rare and endangered species that call south Texas home. Finally, we look froward to building our presence in the Lights Out, Texas! campaign to save migratory birds. Happy New Year!