The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to keep the Willow Flycatcher from going extinct by protecting 2,000 miles of stream, including portions of Tonto Creek, Roosevelt Lake and the Verde, Gila and Salt rivers.
In response to a lawsuit, the Fish and Wildlife Service more than doubled its previously proposed critical habitat for the tiny, insect-eating songbird that winters in the tropics before undertaking an epic journey to build its summer nests in thick, streamside vegetation throughout the Southwest.
The designation of critical habitat doesn’t affect the use of private land, but does require the federal government to do anything it can to protect the areas critical to the bird’s survival.
That could create management challenges for the Salt River Project, since many of the five-inch-long birds nest along the shores of Roosevelt Lake — especially where Tonto Creek and the Salt River enter the reservoir.
The Fish and Wildlife Service listing suggested that it may propose looser rules for areas likely to be inundated by the dramatic rise and fall of water levels in reservoirs with nesting flycatcher populations, like Roosevelt Lake and Horseshoe on the Verde River.
Steve Spangle, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Arizona field supervisor, said, “Our proposal identifies habitat needed to remove the threat of extinction. Now we’re seeking input to refine our strategy.”
The listing didn’t include as critical habitat the East Verde River, since it has no breeding pairs at the moment — despite seemingly flycatcher perfect stands of willows and cottonwoods.
That’s good news for Payson, already struggling to get the Forest Service to approve a year-late environmental assessment of its Blue Ridge Reservoir pipeline along Houston Mesa Road.
The Forest Service agreed by contract to complete the environmental assessment of the pipeline nearly a year ago, but continues to drag its feet, say town officials.
The chief issue revolves around whether the Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service will require the town to do additional environmental studies on the possible impact of the pipeline on species that aren’t on the endangered list now, but might make the list by the time the town actually builds the $35 million pipeline.
The Fish and Wildlife Service originally proposed designating about 1,500 miles of river as critical habitat, then dropped the number to about 737 miles as a result of lawsuit threats by the Arizona Cattle Grower’s Association.
The Willow Flycatcher nests in dense, streamside vegetation, mostly in stands of willows and other native riparian vegetation. Cattle grazing can cause big changes in such areas if ranchers let cattle gobble up willow saplings in the spring. Most ranchers graze their cattle on federally-owned land, which means the listing of critical habitat could dramatically affect their operations.
The Centers for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit in 2005 trying to get the Fish and Wildlife Service to dramatically expand the areas listed as critical habitat.
The Willow Flycatcher listing has turned into a high stakes struggle because it gives environmentalist a legal tool to protect riparian areas.
Biologists say that about 95 percent of the wildlife species in Arizona depend on riparian areas for some critical stage of their life cycle, yet warn that 90 percent of the state’s riparian areas have been destroyed or degraded by dams, fires, groundwater pumping, urbanization or things like cattle grazing.
The most recent critical habitat proposal nearly triples the total number of river miles to receive protection, but will also provide looser rules in certain areas to accommodate things like water storage. The agency will also do an economic study to determine whether to exclude some areas based on the financial impacts.
The rules of the Endangered Species Act make it possible for ranchers, water managers and others to enter into special conservation agreements that give them greater flexibility.
Typically, agencies like the Salt River Project would provide improved critical habitat elsewhere and in return get relief from rules in critical areas like the shores of Roosevelt Lake.
The study identified 1,300 flycatcher nesting territories in the Southwest, with almost half of them close to Rim Country on the Gila, Salt and Verde rivers.
“Protection of the southwestern rivers for the flycatcher will benefit hundreds of other species and millions of people, too, who depend on these rivers for water and recreation,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director with the Centers for Biological Diversity. “There are so many benefits, economic and otherwise, of protecting endangered species that are often underappreciated.”