Willow Flycatcher: Still Singing The Blues


The critical habitat designation of the endangered willow flycatcher is the topic of a public hearing to be held Aug. 16 in Globe.

The critical habitat designation of the endangered willow flycatcher is the topic of a public hearing to be held Aug. 16 in Globe.

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A little bird that casts a big shadow doesn’t need quite as much critical habitat as thought, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has concluded.

The USFWS recently announced it has excluded about 900 miles of streams from the restrictive, critical habitat designation — leaving a total of about 2,100 miles of stream front throughout Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico. The excluded areas would generally make great willow flycatcher habitat, but would either cost too much to protect or already have more flexible and comprehensive agreements in place to protect the endangered bird.

Arizona accounts for much of the streamside vegetation considered essential to the recovery of the endangered little bug-eating bird, with key populations of the bird on the Verde River and all around the shores of Roosevelt Lake.

In addition to making minor additions and subtractions from the proposed critical habitat, the most recent release included an economic impact statement and scheduled a public hearing on the changes in Globe in August.

The economic impact statement concluded that earmarking the 2,100 miles of stream as critical habitat will spur extra costs of somewhere between $11 million and $19 million in the course of the next 20 years. Changes in transportation projects to avoid destroying critical habitat represented the biggest estimated cost, followed by the cost of releasing extra water from reservoirs to keep critical stream stretches from drying up and restrictions on cattle grazing to protect the thickets of streamside plants like willows in which the migratory songbird builds its nests.

The critical habitat designation requires the federal government to consult with USFWS anytime an action might affect habitat the bird needs to recover. The bird has dwindled to the edge of extinction as a result of the impact of dams, diversions, grazing and other activities that have destroyed or degraded 90 percent of its former range.

The designation has special significance in Arizona, where most streams have been dried up or damaged. The flycatcher is one of a host of species dependent on those riparian areas, including the cottonwood-willow combination that produces a greater mass and diversity of living things than any other habitat in North America, but which has been largely destroyed or replaced by thickets of Salt Cedar. An intact cottonwood-willow gallery — like those found along the East Verde, Fossil Creek and portions of the Verde River — harbors a greater diversity of birds outside of a tropical rain forest.

The southwestern willow flycatchers migrate up from the tropics in the spring to build their nests along rivers lined with willows — and sometimes Salt Cedar. The birds have a beautiful call that usually floats out of the thickets in which they spend their time. They build tiny, cup-shaped nests two inches deep in thick foliage about 15 feet above the ground and in late May and early June lay three to four eggs. Besides the loss of vital streamside vegetation, flycatchers living in fragmented habitat also face the threat of the proliferation of brown-headed cowbirds, especially in agricultural areas. The cowbirds lay their eggs in the nests of the flycatchers and so fool the smaller birds into raising the cowbirds’ voracious offspring. Often the cowbird chicks either push the flycatcher eggs or chicks out of the nest.

The designation represents the latest plink in a 20-year game of political pingpong with extinction at stake.

The USFWS first designated the little songbird with a bouffant top-notch, a pale yellow breast and grey plumage as endangered in 1995 in response to a lawsuit from environmental groups. In 1997, USFWS listed some 599 miles of critical habitat. The Arizona Cattle Growers Association sued and blocked that designation from taking place. Then in 2005, the USFWS proposed some 737 miles of critical habitat, which prompted a lawsuit from the Centers for Biological Diversity. The latest proposal sets the critical habitat at 2,100 miles of stream front, with 900 miles excluded — but still mostly managed to protect the streamside vegetation so vital to the flycatcher and a host of endangered species.

The Gila County Board of Supervisors has gone on record opposing the latest critical habitat proposal. The supervisors said they were afraid the attempt to protect vegetation along the Verde River, Tonto Creek, the shores of Roosevelt Lake and the Salt River could close areas to recreation and off-road vehicles, affect the operations of Roosevelt Dam, limit cattle grazing and hurt the struggling economy of a rural county heavily dependent on recreation and tourism. Perhaps the designation could even affect critical projects like the effort to build a bridge over Tonto Creek, worried the supervisors. Critics note that the federal government owns almost all of the land in Gila County and ranchers, outfitters, loggers and others all rely on federal permits for most of their activities.

Federal officials have said that the designation will have little additional effect on recreation or other activities, since much of the streamside habitat critical to the flycatcher also serves as critical habitat for other endangered and threatened species.

The USFWS will hold a public hearing on the designation on Aug. 16 at the Apache Gold Convention Center about five miles east of Globe on Highway Arizona. A 90-minute presentation starting at 3 p.m. will lead into a 90-minute period during which the USFWS will take comments from the public.

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