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Know the West

Making room for flycatchers


The endangered Southwestern willow flycatcher may get an additional 1,300 river miles of critical habitat set aside for it in 6 Western states, according to a new proposal from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The six-inch-long, olive and yellow bird nests in the dense vegetation along Southwestern waterways. In 2005, the agency set aside about 730 river miles of "critical habitat", which is supposed to include all areas "essential to the conservation of the species." In those areas, the Endangered Species Act prohibits destruction or "adverse modification" of the habitat.

The Center for Biological Diversity sued FWS, saying the 2005 critical habitat designation was insufficient; the settlement resulted in this much larger proposal, which is meant to allow the bird's population to increase, not just keep it from shrinking further.


The Associated Press reports:

The thing that really sets this proposal apart is we've set recovery as our vision for this critical habitat designation," said agency spokesman Jeff Humphrey. "In the past, the Fish and Wildlife Service and everyone has really struggled with the role of critical habitat and the courts have increasingly made it clear that recovery should be our vision, not just conservation at a static point."

Humphrey explained that past critical habitat designations were made essentially to maintain populations. Some conservationists argued that was a recipe for managing a species to remain either endangered or threatened.

"What we're doing is moving beyond that. We have clearer instruction now and we're moving toward recovery," he said.

Not surprisingly, farmers, ranchers and other water users along the newly-added streams and rivers are unhappy about possible critical habitat designation, which would  subject their actions to federal scrutiny to ensure that they're not harming the bird.

Ironically, efforts to rid Southwestern rivers of invasive, water-sucking tamarisk have been harmful to the flycatcher. The Eurasian saltcedar has displaced willow, the bird's preferred habitat. But the birds adapted, learning to nest in tammies instead. When scientists began trying to control tamarisk by releasing a tammie-eating beetle, Diorhaba elongata, the biocontrol worked – the beetles denuded at least 11 million acres, and environmentalists began to worry that flycatcher populations were suffering as a result. 

(Interestingly, HCN reported last fall that flycatchers that nested in tamarisk and failed to raise chicks because beetles denuded the trees actually learned from those failures, and nested in willows instead the following year.)

The feds stopped releasing tamarisk-eating beetles last year, but they'd already spread in Oregon, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona, where they'll presumably continue to munch away. And many biologists think that's a good thing, since tammies burn readily, narrow stream channels, and support fewer native species. By killing tamarisk, the beetles could make way for native species  to regrow, including the willows the flycatchers originally preferred to nest in, and the bugs themselves provide a source of food for many birds. 

The agency is working on economic and environmental analyses of the critical habitat proposal. Public comment is open until Oct. 14.

Jodi Peterson is the managing editor at High Country News.