Endangered songbird gets break from the feds

Southwest streams becoming protected habitat

Nearly 209,000 acres were designated last week as critical habitat for the Southwestern willow flycatcher. The songbird, which has been spotted in Southwest Colorado, became a federally endangered species in 1995. Enlarge photo

Arizona Game & Fish file photo/Associated Press

Nearly 209,000 acres were designated last week as critical habitat for the Southwestern willow flycatcher. The songbird, which has been spotted in Southwest Colorado, became a federally endangered species in 1995.

PHOENIX – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is designating almost 1,300 miles of streams in Arizona, New Mexico and four other states as protected habitat for the endangered Southwestern willow flycatcher.

The small, insect-eating songbird migrates to Mexico and Central America during winters and breeds in and around U.S. riparian areas. It became a federally endangered species in 1995.

The critical habitat covers nearly 209,000 acres but doesn’t automatically establish those areas as preserves. It does, however, ban destruction or “adverse modification” of these lands for projects conducted or authorized by the federal government. Adverse modification typically means activity that destroys the lands’ value for the endangered species.

The protected habitat also includes California, Colorado, Utah and Nevada along rivers including the Rio Grande, Gila, Virgin, Santa Ana and San Diego.

“Protection of critical habitat for this tiny, unique bird could make a crucial difference to its survival, and also gives urgently needed help to the Southwest’s beleaguered rivers,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity.

This is the third designation of critical habitat for the flycatcher.

The first designation – 599 river miles in 1997 – was challenged by the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association. That resulted in protection of 730 miles in 2005.

Although the designation was for more acres, the Center for Biological Diversity argued that it failed to consider hundreds of miles of rivers identified in a scientific recovery plan for the flycatcher.

Last week, the Fish and Wildlife Service designated 208,973 acres along 1,227 miles of river as protected critical habitat for the flycatcher.

According to a 2007 survey, there are about 1,299 territories spread across the species’ range, with substantial populations on the upper Gila River and middle Rio Grande in New Mexico, Roosevelt Lake and the lower San Pedro in Arizona, and numerous scattered locations in California.

The flycatcher breeds in streamside forests of Southern California, southern Nevada, southern Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. Within this range, the flycatcher has lost more than 90 percent of its habitat to dams, water withdrawal, livestock grazing, urban sprawl and other causes.

Meanwhile, some stakeholders are applauding U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s decision to exclude a stretch of the Rio Grande as critical habitat for the songbird.

Almost 75 miles of the lower Rio Grande were left out of the designation. The area is home to a project that regulates and controls the river’s water for use by the U.S. and Mexico.

Audubon New Mexico, the Elephant Butte Irrigation District and a federal water commission say the exclusion actually helps strengthen long-standing collaborations aimed at restoring this stretch of the river. The groups have a plan for restoring more than 500 acres in the area.