Feds propose more critical habitat for flycatcher
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.—Federal wildlife officials Friday proposed increasing the critical habitat in six Western states for the endangered Southwestern willow flycatcher, aiming to expand its population and move the migrating bird closer to recovery.
The proposal stems from a settlement reached last year with the Center for Biological Diversity, which had challenged a decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2005 to set aside more than 730 river miles of critical habitat for the bird. The group complained because that was less than half of what was initially proposed.
This time, the agency has identified 2,090 stream miles in parts of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and California as critical for the recovery of the bird, which depends on dense vegetation along streams, rivers and wetlands for nesting and rearing its chicks each year.
"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.
At less than six inches in length with its pale olive breast and yellowish belly, the Southwestern willow flycatcher was added to the endangered species list in 1995 because its populations had declined primarily due to habitat loss. Biologists pointed to changes in river and water management, residential and urban development, recreation and livestock grazing in riparian areas.
With its listing came concerns from water managers, farmers and ranchers who depended upon the water that coursed through the bird's breeding habitat. Any changes in management, including efforts to remove nonnative plants such as salt cedar trees, would require consultation with federal wildlife officials to ensure the bird was protected.
Today, some of the areas identified in the Fish and Wildlife Service's proposal as critical habitat are already being managed either intentionally or unintentionally through conservation agreements or other partnerships to protect the flycatcher, Humphrey said. Existing critical habitat is also included in the proposal.
Portions of the Rio Grande and Colorado are among the numerous rivers covered by the proposal.
Newly identified sections of proposed critical habitat include areas in Nevada and southern Utah.
The proposal also calls for excluding 779 stream miles from the final habitat designation since those areas already offer protections, the agency said.
The public has until Oct. 14 to comment on the plan. A final decision is expected within a year.
The agency is also preparing a draft economic analysis and environmental assessment of the proposal critical habitat that will be released to the public.
The challenge of flycatcher recovery is the Southwest's rivers and riparian areas are dynamic, changing each year depending on whether there is a generous snowpack in the mountains or if weather patterns push much-needed moisture away during the winter and spring months.
Because of changing environments, the agency said a broad distribution of flycatchers throughout the range is important for population stability and gene flow.
Noah Greenwald, the endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity, which has sought protections for the bird for nearly two decades, said the new proposal will give the flycatcher "a shot at survival."
"Like so many species dependent on the rivers and streams of the Southwest, the Southwestern willow flycatcher is on the brink of extinction and urgently needs more habitat protection."
The most recent flycatcher assessment in 2007 found 288 separate breeding sites and an estimated 1,299 territories, which are discrete areas defended by either a single resident flycatcher or a breeding pair.
"The numbers are approaching our downlisting goal, but the distribution for those numbers is not," Humphrey said.
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