Monument would protect grasslands needed for native birds

By Carol BeidlemanLas-Cruces-Sun-News
Guest column

Recently, Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich introduced the Organ Mountain-Desert Peaks Conservation Act (S. 1805) that would establish a national monument on public lands in Doña Ana County.

As stakeholders have added their voices to the discussion around this proposal, we’ve heard about the value of protected public land as a place to recreate, hunt, or seek solitude. We’ve also learned that this designation in our county would boost tourism, create related jobs, and attract businesses, highly skilled employees, and retirees seeking to locate near these undeveloped open spaces and scenic landscapes.

And while we all understand the need for natural areas to support wildlife like pronghorn, mule deer, and mountain lion, we don’t usually hear about the importance of these lands for our native bird populations.

Yet the grasslands around the Organ Mountains region are vital for more than 20 bird species of conservation concern, of which the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish lists the aplomado falcon as endangered and the peregrine falcon and Baird’s sparrow as threatened. Other species of conservation concern supported by this habitat include the ferruginous hawk, long-billed curlew, burrowing owl, loggerhead shrike, sprague’s pipit, and chestnut-collared longspur — all of which, along with the Baird’s sparrow, are high priority grassland species throughout their entire range from Canada to Mexico. In fact, grasslands contain more high-priority species than any other habitat in New Mexico.

As a group, grassland birds have suffered more severe population declines than any other bird species in the United States. According to the 2011 State of the Birds Report, the nation has lost more than 97 percent of its native grasslands, largely due to conversion to agriculture. The small percentage of the native grasslands that remain on Bureau of Land Management lands are especially important to grassland species in the western U.S. during both the breeding and non-breeding seasons.

Given the ongoing transformation of Chihuahuan Desert grasslands in nearby areas of northern Mexico, the grasslands of southern New Mexico may be of even greater importance in the years to come if our nation’s remaining grassland bird species are to survive.

It is for this reason that Audubon New Mexico endorses the proposal to designate the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks area as a national monument. For while most people focus on the colorful iconic peaks, we believe such protection offers an important opportunity to safeguard many of Doña Ana County’s most valuable grasslands, and the species they support.

The 2011 State of the Birds makes the urgent case for grassland preservation. “Grassland has always been undervalued as wildlife habitat … a small amount of U.S. grassland (less than 2 percent) is both publicly owned and managed primarily for conservation. More public land specifically protected for grassland birds is needed, and a higher proportion of multiple-use lands should be managed with grassland birds in mind.”

We thank Senators Udall and Heinrich for recognizing the importance of grasslands when introducing the Organ Mountain-Desert Peaks Conservation Act and we thank New Mexico Land Commissioner Ray Powell for officially supporting this legislation. We urge President Obama to support our senators’ efforts and ensure that these irreplaceable public lands are protected.

Carol Beidleman is director of bird conservation for Audubon New Mexico