The vanishing piñon jay
Plus: Robbing everyone to save Powell; Colorado Compact without Context
THE NEWS: Last week, Defenders of Wildlife petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to extend Endangered Species Act protections to the pinyon jay, a gregarious corvid that plays an integral role in piñon-juniper ecosystems. The bird’s populations have plummeted over the past five decades.
THE CONTEXT: In 1902, an ornithologist named H.C. Johnson wrote a little essay for the Condor about the pinyon jay, or Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus, once abundant throughout the piñon-juniper woodlands of the West:
“They are not beautiful birds, being somewhat between the ashy slate-blue of Woodhouse and the beautiful blue of the black-headed variety,—yet as you see them restless and roving, going through a cedar patch, they offer a kindly contrast to the otherwise quiet and peaceful locality. …
The pinyon jay is also called ‘camp robber’ along with the Clarke crow… The pinyon jay will often hop right into your camp where he finds crumbs, and he does not alway draw the line at certain light articles convenient to the table and comfort of the campers.”
As a youngster who spent a great deal of time in the piñon-juniper, or P-J, I certainly had my share of sandwiches absconded by the little rascals (and their distant corvid cousins, the Canada or gray jay). Turn your back on your snack for just a moment, and one or more of them invariably would flutter out of the canopy and snatch it. Sometimes they’d steal it right out of your hand mid-bite. I knew them only as “camp robbers.”
But the avian kleptomaniacs are better known among the ecologically minded for their value to the piñon forests. Pinyon jays grab piñon nuts out of the cones, carry the seeds to their special little stash, bury them, and retrieve and nosh on them later. But they don’t eat all of them. Some are left behind, and some of those eventually germinate and sprout and become new piñon trees. “Without pinyon jays,” says a Defenders statement, “it's not clear that the piñon pine tree would continue to persist.”
And pinyon jays are disappearing. According to the U.S. Geological Survey Breeding Bird Survey, since 1968 the pinyon jay’s numbers have decreased at an average rate of 3.6 percent per year. That means there are about 85 percent fewer pinyon jays flying around the P-J forests of the West now than when I was born, fifty-some years ago. That’s a more rapid decline than that suffered by the greater sage grouse.
As the authors of a study on the bird note:
In addition to its unusual ecological niche and distinctive social structure, the Pinyon Jay is also notable in having experienced a steeper and more sustained population decline than any other songbird associated with piñon juniper woodland. … furthermore it exceeds that of every sagebrush-associated songbird.1
And yet, that flashy old sage grouse gets all the attention and protections.
Scientists remain stumped about the exact causes of the decline. They do, however, have hypotheses, some of which were laid out by the Pinyon Jay Working Group (formed in 2017) in its 2020 Conservation Strategy for the Pinyon Jay. These include:
The clearing of piñon woodlands by way of “chaining” to create pasture for cattle grazing and for “stand conversion,” which is to say it converts a healthy forest into a devastated mess that looks like it was bombed. In Arizona, alone, 1.2 million acres was chained between 1950 and 1964.
Thinning and removing p-j forests to make them more suitable for big game, such as elk and deer, and to improve habitat for imperiled species. “The most notable and widespread example of this newer management practice is removal of woodlands,” notes the Strategy, “to maintain or create additional sagebrush habitat for Greater Sage-Grouse in the Great Basin.” At least 500,000 acres in Utah have been “treated” in this way by the Utah Watershed Restoration Initiative.
Thinning or clearing p-j forests to reduce fire hazard.
Climate change, which may be causing large-scale piñon pine die-off, and reductions in canopy cover, vigor, and piñon nut production. Warming temperatures also are favorable to the dreaded Ips beetle, which tend to kill older, more productive piñon pines.
Energy infrastructure encroaching on pinyon jay habitat.
There’s a sort of feedback loop going on here. Save the piñon forests for the sake of the pinyon jay, and save the pinyon jay for the sake of the piñon forests—and the piñon nuts they provide.
I, for one, am rooting for the return of the “restless and roving” camp robber, even if it means I lose a sandwich or two.
Also from Wildlife Watch
Is this really cool? Or a sign of the apocalypse? Maybe it’s both. The Wyoming Migration Initiative put a video camera on a mule deer’s radio collar, so not only can they track the ungulate, but they can also see what it sees. Woah!
Officials from all seven Colorado River Basin states reportedly have agreed to the Bureau of Reclamation’s plan to slow Lake Powell’s shrinkage. The plan is to release 480,000 acre feet less water this year from Lake Powell than is required, and an additional 500,000 acre feet from Flaming Gorge Reservoir, thereby giving Powell a nearly 1-million-acre-foot boost.
That’s a crap-ton of water. If you were to dump it all into Lake Powell all at once, it would raise the level by about 15 feet (it’s currently sitting at about 3,522 feet, or 32 feet above minimum power pool). So will this reverse Lake Powell’s decline? No—it will merely slow it down. That’s because even with all of these adjustments, more water will flow out of the reservoir (7 million acre feet out of the dam + 300,000-400,000 acre feet evaporated) than into it (approximately 5.5 MAF) this year.
Meanwhile, the plan will cause Lake Mead to shrink even further. But because this would trigger even more cutbacks for downstream water users, the feds are going to pretend that the 480,000 acre feet held back in Lake Powell is actually in Lake Mead. This isn’t quite as strange as it sounds, because Lake Powell is, more or less, an extension of Lake Mead. And both are shrinking concurrently.
But for a little while, the shrinkage will be reversed: Spring runoff has begun and, meagre as the snowpack may be, it will lift lake levels somewhat over the next couple of months. In fact, over the last week, Powell’s level has jumped by a whopping five inches.
Los Angeles Times environment reporter Sammy Roth is going on a clean energy tour of the Western U.S., roughly following the path of the proposed TransWest high-voltage transmission line that will carry power from massive wind farms in southern Wyoming to the Southwest. And he’s inviting readers to come along—virtually. The best way to do that is to subscribe to Sammy’s Boiling Point newsletter, which is always enlightening and enjoyable reading.
And there’s quite a bit of good reading on Lake Powell out there now, including this nice piece from Christopher Kuzdas for the Environmental Defense Fund.
Compact sans Context
This is a new space where we’ll be posting old images/texts/charts relating to the Colorado River Compact, without (much) context. The following passage and population chart are from a 1946 Bureau of Reclamation report titled, The Colorado River: A natural menace becomes a natural resource. Catchy.
Long-term declines in the Pinyon Jay and management implications for piñon juniper woodlands by John D. Boone, Elisabeth Ammon, and Kristine Johnson. https://westernfieldornithologists.org/docs/2020/Avifaunal_Change/Boone/Boone-Avifaunal_Change.pdf
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