The Gila County supervisors recently expressed alarm at a plan to designate additional river and lakeside as “critical habitat” for the endangered Willow Flycatcher.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has proposed expanding the amount of land it wants to protect to save the five-inch songbird from extinction from 1,600 miles of river front to more than 2,000 miles, with most of the increased habitat found in Utah and Nevada. However, the Fish and Wildlife Service may ultimately exempt half of that proposed habitat from designation, as a result of other agreements.
The critical habitat designation requires federal agencies to protect the land to save the flycatcher any time it approves a new action like issuing grazing leases on federal land and building bridges and pipelines.
The critical habitat designation would not affect hiking, camping, fishing or even riding off-road vehicles in the area, said Jeff Humphrey, spokesman for the USFWS’s southwestern region.
The board of supervisors recently approved a letter raising questions about the proposal on the grounds it could hurt Rim Country’s struggling economy, which relies heavily on outdoor recreation.
The letter observed that only 4 percent of the land in the county is privately owned and the local economy suffers from a 12 percent unemployment rate and remains heavily dependent on tourism.
“Designating large amounts of traditional recreation areas as critical habitat will and has had a considerable negative impact on local economies. Since we are a rural, less affluent county, the relative impact is much greater than on more populated counties.
The letter asked the USFWS to exclude from the critical habitat designation all recognized stream crossings for vehicles “as well as known game and livestock trails within these designated stream segments. This would allow for ample critical habitat, while minimizing the adverse impacts on local recreationists, local livestock producers, local federal land managers and our already struggling economy.”
The Willow Flycatcher nests in dense, streamside vegetation, especially in thickets of box elder, willows and saltcedar.
The USFWS proposal already excludes thickets of brush and tamarisk that have grown up on the shores of Roosevelt Lake so that the designation won’t prevent the Salt River Project from filling the reservoir. In return, SRP agreed to acquire land on the San Pedro River and elsewhere to provide flycatcher habitat.
The USFWS has been whipsawed by contending lawsuits every time it has issued critical habitat designations for the stream side bird, which winters in Mexico and the tropics then shows up every spring looking for a place to build a nest along southwestern streams.
The USFWS has counted some 1,300 breeding pairs of flycatchers in the Southwest, up from maybe 300 when the population bottomed out perhaps 15 years ago. Nearly half of the known nesting territories lie close to Rim Country on the Salt, Gila and Verde rivers.
The new listing would add a portion of Tonto Creek between the narrows in Gisela and Roosevelt Lake, portions of Pinal Creek and new portions of the Salt River near Cherry Creek and the Gila River below the San Carlos Reservoir.
USFWS biologist Greg Beatty said flycatchers moved into dense vegetation in those streams in the past few years when the rising waters of Roosevelt Lake swallowed up streamside vegetation where the flycatchers had been roosting.
Some advocates for outdoor recreation have insisted that the critical habitat designation amounts to a closure of the area to most forms of recreation.
However, Humphrey said most of the critical habitat in Gila County has been designated since 2005, without any noticeable impact on recreation.
Beatty said recreational use of the area probably won’t affect the flycatchers, which elsewhere have nested within earshot of busy highways.
He said in the past decade, USFWS has consulted on some 200 projects affecting flycatcher critical habitat without blocking a single project. In fact, USFWS has just concluded that a proposed bridge over Tonto Creek in the midst of prime flycatcher habitat won’t harm the birds and so can proceed without modification.
Humphrey said the designation mostly affects federal agencies by requiring them to consider impacts on critical habitat before they take any action.
On the other hand, sometimes projects face substantial delays as a result of even nearby critical habitat for an endangered species.
For instance, Payson had to undertake a $500,000 environmental study to get permission to bury the Blue Ridge pipeline alongside Houston Mesa Road. Questions about the possible effect of the project on the Chiricahua leopard frog and the Mexican spotted owl held up the project by almost a year, although in that case, the pipeline didn’t pass through any critical habitat.
Still, Humphrey said that the designation wouldn’t necessarily ban any activities from areas designated as critical habitat, even noisy off-road vehicles.
“Critical habitat has been on the books for the flycatcher for some years. There are ATV uses in some of those areas of critical habitat. The federal agency had to make a determination whether that activity is compatible — so it doesn’t preclude or tie the federal agency’s hands. It just prompts them to investigate whether or not that activity is going to have a substantial effect on the habitat.”
The designation could affect cattle operations, since most ranchers have small, private holdings but rely on huge expanses of public land to sustain their cattle. Studies show that cattle given unrestricted access to riparian areas can have a devastating impact, especially if allowed to eat all the fresh growth in the spring. Cattle left to their own devices will also often spend all their time hanging out in the stream, trampling the banks and fouling the water.
However, Supervisor Tommie Martin said some ranchers have managed their cattle to protect the riparian area by using fences and herding techniques to keep the cattle away from the stream during certain times of the year. She noted that several ranches have high densities of flycatchers.
Ranching and farming operations can also indirectly affect flycatchers in other ways. For instance, agricultural operations provide forage for cowbirds, which pose a significant threat to flycatchers.
The cowbirds lay their eggs in the flycatchers’ nests, leaving the harried little flycatchers to raise the cowbirds’ quicker-hatching, faster-growing young. Those cowbirds can more easily find flycatcher nests in small, fragmented riparian habitats.
But Martin said it makes little sense to discriminate against the thriving populations of native cowbirds in favor of the endangered populations of flycatchers.
She said the Willow Flycatcher actually prefers box elders to willows — and prefers eating bees to flies. Moreover, the spread of the invasive saltcedar have proven an unexpected boon to the flycatcher, once thought dependent on the willow stands the saltcedar have displaced.
“They should have called it the Box Elder Beecatcher, but it just goes to show the lengths to which the government will go to protect a creature they don’t understand. It’s a classic endangered species versus invasive species — because the saltcedar calls in the bees that gives these critters such good habitat.”
The Willow Flycatcher, closely related to the Alder Flycatcher, once thrived along thousands of miles of streams in the Southwest. They were a marker for a healthy cottonwood willow habitat, which biologists say is the most diverse and productive ecosystem in North America.