January 25, 2024
Peggy Darr

Fire. Is. Scary. One result of climate change is more intense and frequent wildfires. So how we manage forests for expected fire is critical to forests’ health and all the species that live there. Look at the Southwest ponderosa pine forest and its variety of birds. A walk through one of these forests is not complete without Grace’s warblers singing from the treetops, Virginia’s warblers flitting between shrubby oak patches or red-faced warblers flashing their beautiful plumage along forested streams. However, these melodic and eye-catching gems whose plumage decorates the trees with red and yellow are in serious trouble.  

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2012.06.28 - Virginia'a Warbler on Tree Branch - Dominic Sherony
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Dominic Sherony
Virginia's warbler sitting on a tree branch. Did you know Virginia’s warblers are migratory birds? They breed in the Southwest, as far north as the southern Rockies, and winter in Mexico. Credit: Dominic Sherony

Found only in small parts of North and Central America, these birds’ populations have decreased by roughly 50% since the 1960s. The increased fire hazard and the effort to reduce wildfire in Southwestern forests are putting these colorful birds and their specific habitats in even greater danger. 

Forests throughout the western U.S., including the Southwest, are the target of aggressive thinning programs to reduce fire hazards. While thinning some forest types to reduce chances of uncharacteristic wildfire may be justified, science clearly demonstrates heavy thinning — particularly if it results in the loss of forest canopy — can cause significant negative impacts to birds and other wildlife. So, what can we do to moderate wildfire behavior and ensure sensitive wildlife is protected? Science is leading us to a solution: lighter thinning that targets only smaller trees.  

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2019.08.07 - Red-Faced Warbler in Tree - Arizona - Shawn Taylor
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Shawn Taylor
Red-Faced warbler sitting in a tree. Credit: Shawn Taylor

If we want Grace’s warblers, red-faced warblers, Virginia’s warblers and other wildlife who depend on complex forests to thrive, we must approach forest restoration with their needs in mind. Defenders of Wildlife’s collaboration with Santa Fe County and the New Mexico Rocky Mountain Youth Corps in northern New Mexico establishes, with good science, that wildfire hazard reduction and wildlife conservation can be accomplished at the same time. Now, we hope to work with forest managers, including the U.S. Forest Service, to adopt these more conservative thinning methods. Unfortunately, there is political pressure to address western wildfires aggressively, and changing current forest practices is not easy. 

The rate of forest thinning is rapidly increasing across the western U.S. as funding is directed to federal land managers. It is critical to tell legislators wildlife needs must be balanced with forest thinning programs. You can also demand funds be directed to making communities and infrastructure more firesafe, especially those in less affluent areas, where funding and resources have been historically less. It is critical to restore natural fire for native species, especially in the face of the hotter and drier conditions climate change is presenting. We also want to avoid creating “franken forests,” devoid of wildlife. Together, guided by science, we can conserve all life that calls a forest its home. 

Author(s)

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Peggy Darr

Peggy Darr

New Mexico Representative

Areas of Expertise: Ornithology; imperiled species conservation; Pinyon Jay conservation; beaver management and coexistence; southwest warbler conservation; ponderosa pine forest, mixed-conifer forest, and piñon-juniper woodland

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