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State of the Birds Report

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Snow Geese by Marie Read

The State of our Nation’s Birds on Public Lands and Waters

Nearly 850 million acres of land and 3.5 million square miles of ocean in the U.S. are owned by the American people. These habitats are vital to more than 1,000 bird species in the U.S., 251 of which are federally threatened, endangered, or of conservation concern. More than 300 bird species have 50% or more of their U.S. distribution on public lands and waters. Public agencies therefore have a major influence on the success of conservation efforts to restore declining species and keep common birds common.

This report provides the nation's first assessment of the distribution of birds on public lands and the opportunities for public agencies in each habitat. We combined bird distribution data from the eBird citizen-science project with the Protected Areas Database of the U.S. to determine the percentage of each species’ U.S. distribution on public lands. We focus on habitat obligates, those species restricted to a single primary habitat. We also did a qualitative analysis for birds in oceans, coasts, and wetlands.

The results highlight the critical role of public agencies in bird conservation as well as urgent needs for increased protection and management. Conservation and management of habitats and birds on public lands and waters, in partnership with private efforts, are essential to prevent the extinction of entire suites of island species, to buffer forest and aridland species from urban development and agriculture, to provide vital resources for severely declining ocean birds, and to balance our nation’s need for resources from logging, mining, and energy extraction with conservation in all habitats.

Percentage of public and nonpublic ownership in primary habitats. Coasts and marshes are not depicted because of insufficient data.  

The Gold Standard: Wetlands Protection and Management

Our nation’s acquisition and management of wetlands have contributed to a notable increase in wetland bird populations in the past 40 years. National Wildlife Refuges provide a network of 150 million acres managed for 700 bird species, including millions of ducks, geese, and shorebirds. The National Park Service and other public land managers in Florida protect the nation’s largest freshwater marsh system, the Everglades, providing essential habitats for millions of wetland birds.

Oceans and Coasts: Vital Habitats for Birds

All U.S. marine waters are publicly owned and are home to 86 ocean bird species and 173 coastal species. Declining seabird and shorebird populations indicate stress in these ecosystems. Public agencies play an important role in conservation by managing threats such as invasive species on islands with nesting seabirds, interactions with fisheries, human disturbance and development, and pollution. More than 1,600 Marine Protected Areas conserve essential areas for many birds. Publicly owned islands and coasts provide protected areas for numerous birds of conservation concern.

Islands Essential for Nation's Most Endangered Birds

One-third of all birds listed under the Endangered Species Act occur in Hawai‘i, more than anywhere else in the United States. Public lands are essential to save species that are in danger of extinction in Hawai‘i, Puerto Rico, and other U.S. islands. Public lands in Hawai‘i support 73% of the distribution of declining forest birds and the entire world populations of several endangered species. Intensive management is critical, such as removal of invasive species, especially on the 85% of state lands that are open to uses incompatible with bird conservation. In Puerto Rico, species such as the Puerto Rican Parrot would be extinct if not for their protection on federal and commonwealth forestland.

Public Lands Protect Vast Arctic Tundra and Boreal Forests

Alaska has nearly as much public land as the rest of the U.S. combined. Arctic, alpine, and boreal forest-breeding birds in Alaska have more than 90% of their U.S. distribution on public lands, including 12 shorebird species. Although these vast public lands provide habitat for millions of birds, greater protections from habitat degradation are needed to ensure healthy bird populations, especially in lowland tundra, where only 6% of public land is protected to maintain natural habitats.

Stewardship Opportunities in Aridlands and Forests

Public lands support more than half of the U.S. distribution of aridland and western forest bird species during the breeding season, indicating enormous stewardship opportunities for public agencies. The Bureau of Land Management is the primary steward of habitat for Gunnison and Greater sage-grouse and other sagebrush-dependent species. The USDA Forest Service is the largest single manager of U.S. forests and supports at least 50% of the distribution of eight western forest species.

Grasslands Underrepresented on Public Lands

Grassland birds are among our nation’s fastest declining species. The percentage distribution of grassland birds on public lands is low because such a small amount of U.S. grassland (less than 2%) is both publicly owned and managed primarily for conservation. Grassland bird conservation should be a higher priority on grasslands with multiple uses.

Eastern Forests Need Greater Protections from Development

Public lands in the East are often the largest blocks of remaining forest in rapidly developing urban landscapes. Expanding the network of protected lands is important for bird populations. National Parks, National Forests, and state-owned forests support core populations of eastern birds. Improved management is key for declining species that require young forests.

Public Agencies: Stewards of Our Nation’s Birdlife

The vast acreages of public lands and waters, and proven successes in targeted conservation efforts, indicate tremendous promise for birds if management efforts can be amplified in all habitats. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages 245 million acres from the arctic tundra to southwestern aridlands. The Department of Defense (DoD) manages more endangered and imperiled species per acre on its 30 million acres than any other federal agency. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) manages coastal and deep ocean waters needed by some of the world’s most endangered seabird populations. The National Park Service (NPS) manages 88 million acres of public lands and waters in all major bird habitats across 394 units, including National Parks, National Monuments, National Seashores, and National Recreation Areas. State agencies manage 189 million acres, including more marsh than all other agencies combined. The USDA Forest Service (USFS) manages 193 million acres, 23% of which are protected to maintain habitats for birds. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) administers 553 National Wildlife Refuges that are essential for wetland birds, including many imperiled species.

Effective Management is Key to Healthy Bird Populations

Although birds benefit in part because most public lands are protected from residential and commercial development, increased protections and more effective management of habitats and bird populations are essential. Natural processes must be restored to ensure functional and resilient ecosystems through management actions such as control of nonnative species and diseases, prescribed cuts and burns to reinvigorate forests and grasslands, and water delivery and management to sustain wetlands. Many of these needs are expected to intensify because of climate change. All agencies are faced with the challenge of balancing needs for resource extraction, energy development, recreation, and other uses with the growing urgency to conserve birds and other wildlife. To succeed, they will need additional resources and greater public support to increase land protection and management. Better collaboration among agencies will also increase the effectiveness of public lands management for birds that migrate across political boundaries.


Percentage of the U.S. distribution of bird species dependent on public lands in each primary terrestrial habitat in the United States. 





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