Agencies dunk endangered songbird

  • Southwestern willow flycatcher habitat

    Diane Sylvain
  • Going Under: The endangered willow flycatcher

    Courtesy Ariz. Game and Fish
  • Willow flycatcher's habitat at Roosevelt Lake

    Courtesy Ariz. Game and Fish

ROOSEVELT LAKE, Ariz. - A tall stand of Asian salt-cedars next to a man-made reservoir is the last place anyone would expect to find colonies of one of America's most endangered bird species. But that's exactly where several southwestern willow flycatchers were flitting on a warm mid-June afternoon.

Less than six inches tall and pale gray-green, these birds used to live in willows along thousands of miles of Southwestern streams. But in the past century, water diversions, dams, development and livestock grazing have slashed the region's streamside vegetation to a fraction of what it once was. Biologists estimate that there are no more than 900 southwestern willow flycatchers left. They are scattered along streams and gathered in a few tiny strongholds, such as the salt-cedars along Roosevelt Lake, 75 miles northeast of Phoenix.

But these trees are destined to drown. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (BuRec) has spent $430 million over the last eight years to raise the Roosevelt Dam by 77 feet. Though it is not full of water yet, after a few wet years the enlarged reservoir will store more water for the swimming pools, lawns and golf courses of Phoenix, Scottsdale, Mesa and Tempe. The rising water will also drown flycatcher habitat along the lake shore.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, charged with protecting the endangered bird, has given BuRec the go-ahead to flood Roosevelt Lake, so long as it finds substitute flycatcher habitat elsewhere. In response, the bureau has given The Nature Conservancy $4.4 million to buy and manage cottonwood and willow-rich land along the lower San Pedro River in southern Arizona.

BuRec biologist Henry Messing acknowledges the plan is a "grand experiment." No one is certain that flycatchers will move to the new habitat, and with such a small population, flooding may prove to be the end of the bird.

"It's new territory for us," says Messing. "It's a bunch of biologists trying to make their best guess with very little data. We'll know in the future whether we understood or not."

But the experiment, involving Roosevelt and two other reservoirs, is not one environmentalists are willing to risk.

"I think the southwestern willow flycatcher may be possibly the first endangered species ever driven to extinction by the Fish and Wildlife Service," says Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Tucson-based Southwest Center for Biological Diversity. "Everyone realizes that to save endangered species, you have to disturb the status quo, and on the very first opportunity to do this, the Fish and Wildlife Service has utterly failed."

Flying against the wind

Suckling and the Southwest Center have been pushing the Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the flycatcher for five years. In 1993, a lawsuit from the center forced the agency to propose listing the bird under the Endangered Species Act. A second suit forced Fish and Wildlife to formally list the bird in 1995, and a third led this summer to the protection of critical habitat for the flycatcher.

In July, Fish and Wildlife designated 600 miles of Southwestern streams as protected flycatcher habitat, but the Southwest Center says the area is inadequate. Several years ago, Fish and Wildlife biologists proposed 1,200 miles of critical habitat, but agency officials scotched the idea this summer, saying that, due to a court-ordered deadline, it was too late to change the proposal.

Also missing from the critical habitat designation were the salt-cedars and willows on the shores of Roosevelt Lake and two other reservoirs: Isabella Reservoir, northeast of Bakersfield, Calif., and Lake Mead on the Arizona-Nevada border. Since 1995, rising waters have inundated huge willow stands and numerous flycatcher nests at Isabella and Mead.

In all, the Fish and Wildlife Service authorized drowning trees at Roosevelt, Isabella and Mead that could destroy nesting habitat for up to 105 pairs of birds. That's 20 percent of the remaining flycatcher population.

Internal memos obtained by the Southwest Center show that Fish and Wildlife biologists have warned repeatedly that lakeside habitat at Isabella and Mead is critical to the bird's survival. But agency higher-ups, with prodding from top-level Interior Department and Council of Environmental Quality (CEQ) officials, have continued to OK the flooding. The service, BuRec and the Army Corps of Engineers have promised to protect other trees to replace those that have drowned, but they haven't decided where. In the meantime, they've left the birds in a precarious position.

Biologist Mary Whitfield first noticed the problem at Isabella Reservoir in July 1995, when she spotted lake water rising just a few inches below three flycatcher nests. Quickly, she and a partner sliced off the branches where the nests sat and wired them higher on the trees. That summer, one pair of young flycatchers fledged, while the other two nests were raided by predators, most likely snakes or mammals. Four other nests drowned.

Over the next year, service biologists tried to force the Army Corps to limit Lake Isabella's water level. Last fall, biologists in the service's Sacramento office asked the corps to hold the water levels down to 75 to 85 percent of normal for two years, to give the birds breathing space while authorities searched for replacement habitat. They also wanted to protect 1,100 acres of willows away from the lake to make up for 800 to 1,200 acres that would be drowned by rising water.

But the service retreated on Isabella after a December 1996 meeting with the CEQ and Democratic congressman Calvin Dooley, whose district includes Isabella Reservoir. In a memo titled "Dooley didn't bite," Renne Lohoefener, deputy chief of the service's endangered species office, said, "Sorry, I thought we had a real chance here, but Dooley really wouldn't listen - just said no."

Dooley, a farmer who received $200,000 in campaign contributions last year from agricultural interests, wrote CEQ chair Katie McGinty in December 1995 that the purpose of Isabella Dam was to control floods and store water. Farmers and urban interests had paid $4.5 million for the right to store water in the reservoir, he said, and limiting water storage for the sake of wildlife management "would be seen as totally unacceptable to all parties concerned."

On Lake Mead, Fish and Wildlife biologists penned a draft biological opinion last January stating that the federal government should either protect Mead's willows or keep Roosevelt Lake down until biologists could find replacement habitat. They warned that this proposal was the minimum needed to protect the flycatcher, that loss of the Mead habitat would be "catastrophic" for the flycatcher and that "extinction is foreseeable for the bird."

But the agency waffled a second time after the Bureau of Reclamation argued that, legally, it could only release water for use downstream.

Piecemealed to extinction

"It's going to be extraordinarily difficult to find habitat of the quality of Lake Mead," said Rob Marshall, until recently the top flycatcher biologist for the Fish and Wildlife Service. "What we saw at Lake Mead was a glimpse of the way the Lower Colorado River used to be (before it was dammed)."

During three years on the front lines of the flycatcher issue, Marshall wrote 14 "jeopardy opinions' for the bird, when he believed dams, bridges, grazing and other activities threatened the species survival. Nationally, jeopardy opinions are rare, and Marshall drew flak from co-workers for writing them when proposed projects would affect only one or two birds.

But Marshall argued that the service was allowing numerous "takes' throughout the bird's range without considering the cumulative effects on its survival.

"The (southwestern willow flycatcher) is being piecemealed to extinction," he wrote in an internal memo last April. "The service is turning a blind eye to the aggregate effects of its own consultation process."

He had such a difficult time persuading superiors to put more resources into recovering the bird and to "err on the side of the species," he said recently, that he quit his job at the service's Phoenix office in early July. He has since gone to work for The Nature Conservancy in Tucson.

Meanwhile, Suckling's Southwest Center is back in court trying to force BuRec to lower Lake Mead and keep Lake Roosevelt from rising until biologists can guarantee the bird has good replacement habitat. The center is planning another lawsuit to force the designation of more critical flycatcher habitat at Mead and Roosevelt, as well as near San Diego, Santa Barbara and Lake Havasu.

The BuRec's Henry Messing, however, says it could be years before the reservoirs rise high enough to flood more flycatcher nests. In the meantime, bird banding, genetic studies, nest monitoring and other studies will give the agency more tools to help the bird recover.

The Bureau's Tom Schrader says bringing the bird back from the brink of extinction "will be a challenge, but right now we think it's doable. There is plenty of habitat, plenty of federal land ... Whether there is existing habitat that meets the needs of (the flycatcher) - I guess we haven't got to that point yet."

Tony Davis reports for the Arizona Daily Star.

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