If we lose pinyon jays, we erase from our Earth a species that has evolved to be one of the most genetically distinct and ecologically important species in North America
Defenders of Wildlife applauds the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s determination that there is substantive evidence that the pinyon jay may warrant Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections. The finding comes more than a year after the Service’s 90-day requirement to review Defenders’ petition for species listing under the ESA.
“Now that this critical finding is made, Fish and Wildlife will begin a scientific review of the species’ status to determine if listing the bird is warranted,” said Bryan Bird, Defenders of Wildlife Southwest program director. “This charismatic bird will now receive the full attention of the federal government.”
“This decision moves us one step closer to reversing the trend of one of the fastest declining birds in North America,” said Peggy Darr, Defenders of Wildlife New Mexico representative. “Without pinyon jays, we stand to lose iconic Southwestern landscapes, cultures and cuisines intimately tied to piñon pine nuts. As someone who lives in pinyon jay country, I would eternally miss seeing and hearing exuberant pinyon jay flocks flying overhead as they conduct their daily business, as well as the survival of an entire ecosystem.”
In April 2022, Defenders of Wildlife formally requested the Service to protect the pinyon jay through an ESA listing petition. Under the ESA, the Service has 90 days to determine whether a petition offers substantial evidence that listing may be warranted. Since the Service determined that Defenders had offered substantial scientific evidence that the pinyon jay may warrant protections, it will now conduct a thorough status review of the species and make a final determination as to whether listing is warranted. Per the ESA, the Service has to make the listing determination within 12 months of the date of the petition, which has already passed.
Over the past 50 years, the pinyon jay population has declined by 85 percent, and without ESA intervention, half of its remaining global population is expected to be lost by 2035. The precipitous decline throughout the western U.S. is due, in part, to the loss and degradation of its piñon-juniper woodlands habitat.
“If we lose one, we lose the other,” said Darr “If we lose pinyon jays, we erase from our Earth a species that has evolved to be one of the most genetically distinct and ecologically important species in North America.”
The pinyon jay is a unique, social bird that travels in large flocks and plays a significant role in maintaining the biodiversity of the West. The range of the pinyon jay includes 13 states. It facilitates piñon pine tree regeneration by extracting and burying the tree’s seeds, commonly known as pine nuts. The birds do not retrieve all their cached seeds, allowing the seeds to germinate and replenish the woodlands. Without pinyon jays, it's unclear if the piñon pine tree will continue to persist.
Loss of piñon pine will disproportionately affect Native American and Hispanic communities in the Southwest, which have cultural connections with pine nuts. For generations, Native Americans in the Southwest have harvested and consumed the seeds. During the fall harvest, families collect the nutritional seeds and store them for the winter. This important cultural tradition will be lost if the pinyon jay goes extinct.