Birds in California's desert are dying

Birds in California's desert are dying
© Getty Images

The world is heating up. According to NASA’s Global Land-Ocean Temperature Index, 19 of the past 21 years have been the hottest on record. This dramatic increase in temperature and other more subtle climate changes have been pronounced in the California desert, where temperatures have increased almost four degrees in the past 100 years.

As heat rises and weather patterns change, our storied California desert bird populations have fallen. Researchers at UC Berkeley found that bird communities straddling the California/Nevada border region of California have collapsed over the past 100 years, in part due to lower rainfall and a change in the timing of that rainfall due to climate change.

A 3-year survey of the region concluded that 30 percent of the bird species that were there 100 years ago are less frequent and less widespread in the desert today. 


Water is the lifeblood for birds and most wildlife in the California desert. Groundwater, streambeds, playas, and springs, as well as riparian forest, dry wash, and microphyll woodland forests they support, provide the most nesting and migratory bird habitat in the desert.

Maintaining groundwater and habitat which support so much birdlife is harder to do in a landscape that is hotter and drier. 

These networks of habitat and water that run under and across our desert are essential to stop the loss of bird species diversity. These linkages, flowing through our communities, under our highways, bubbling up in the livestock allotments of our public lands or pulsing within renewable energy development zones, are not easily replaced. The loss and degradation of these connected lands and waters are contributing to the current crisis.   

The good news is there’s already a robust framework in place to help protect groundwater and essential bird habitat: the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), adopted by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in 2016. The DRECP is a collaborative effort by community members, local, state and federal governments, energy developers, utilities, conservationists and Native American tribes that balances environmental concerns with development interests.  

The DRECP was carefully crafted in a multi-year process to meet California’s ambitious renewable energy goals while protecting the desert’s unique conservation values and recreational opportunities. In addition to identifying areas critical for wildlife conservation and those suited for various levels of development, this collaborative planning effort includes conservation management requirements focused specifically on habitat crucial for the survival of desert birds.


But the Trump administration is considering changes to the DRECP, expected this month, that would weaken protections for groundwater and habitat in favor of quick handouts to water sucking industries as well as increased off-road recreation. If these threats to the DRECP are enacted, saving desert birds and their habitat and all desert species will be harder.

All Americans should have the right to decide what happens to their public lands. Numerous local communities in the California desert depend on associated tourism, and wildlife depends upon the desert’s habitat. Several Native American tribal groups also call much of this land sacred. 

The DRECP must remain intact, including the special area designations and protections based on the previous agency investment and public involvement. Conservation management actions (CMAs) outlined in the DRECP shouldn’t be watered down, particularly those measures designed to minimize harm to riparian areas, desert wash, and microphyll woodlands critical to migratory bird survival and the special area disturbance caps intended to limit impacts to these critical habitat linkage areas. 

The State of California was a partner in the creation of the DRECP and has obligations in protecting and managing desert wildlife — particularly at-risk birds like the endangered Elf owl and Southwestern willow flycatcher.

We expect Governor Gavin NewsomGavin NewsomCaitlyn Jenner wants to use funds for bullet train project to build rest of Trump border wall Feds agree to restore B to California for bullet train California appeals ruling overturning state's assault weapons ban MORE (D), along with California Attorney General Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraNew Alzheimer's drug sparks backlash over FDA, pricing Obama joins Biden to tout record ObamaCare enrollment numbers Biden walks fine line with probe into coronavirus origins MORE, to oppose any changes that could weaken the DRECP and its important protections for birds in our California desert. 

In addition to defending the DRECP, local land planning efforts outlined in Habitat Management and Natural Community Conservation Plans, as well as in several Regional Conservation Investment Strategy efforts currently underway, need to focus on the protection of regional migratory bird travel ways connecting breeding habitat. Finally, our underlying laws focused on protecting wildlife, such as the Migratory Bird Treaty and Endangered Species Acts, should be reinforced, not weakened.

Our birds are facing a crisis, but we have the tools to protect them. We must stop the efforts to throw away these tools and instead use every device we can, so we never have to hear our children ask, “Where did all the birds go?” 

Tom Egan, California Desert representative, and Kim Delfino, California Program Director, both work for Defenders of Wildlife and are based in Sacramento. John Sepulvado is a Communications Strategist with Better World Group.