For Immediate Release, June 17, 2009
Dr. Robin Silver, Center for Biological Diversity, (602) 799-3275
Matt Kenna, Western Environmental Law Center, (970) 385-6941, ext. 131
Herb Fibel, Maricopa Audubon Society, (480) 966-5246
Agriculture Department Forced to Re-examine Tamarisk Leaf-eating Beetle Program That Hurts Endangered Songbird
TUCSON, Ariz.— A lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Maricopa Audubon Society has forced the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to re-evaluate their tamarisk leaf-eating beetle program. APHIS-released beetles are contributing to the decline of the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher by defoliating the trees in which the flycatchers nest. The re-evaluation should lead to modification of the program and to emergency habitat restoration.
Tamarisk, also known as salt cedar, is an invasive, exotic tree imported from Asia and the Middle East to control erosion along southwestern rivers. It is now common along most rivers in the Southwest. Flycatchers nest in the invasive trees because the species of native riparian trees in which they previously nested have been replaced by tamarisk and are no longer available.
The exotic Asian and middle-eastern beetles were approved for importation and introduction into the United States by APHIS to control tamarisk; the beetles feed on the leaves of the trees, which then die as a result, hurting flycatchers in the process.
The Endangered Species Act requires that federal agencies not harm endangered species or their habitat and that they consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to formulate plans to avoid such harm.
Because of concerns for the flycatcher, APHIS needed to secure concurrence from the Fish and Wildlife Service to release their beetles. The Fish and Wildlife Service concurred with the release based on assurances from APHIS that: (1) The beetle would not be released within 200 miles of flycatcher habitat or within 300 miles of documented flycatcher breeding areas; (2) the beetles could not become established within the range of the flycatcher; and (3) the beetles would spread “slowly at a maximum of several tens of meters per year.” These assurances have all proven false.
In 2006, APHIS orchestrated release of the beetles within active flycatcher nesting areas along the Virgin River in southern Utah. The beetles there began destroying the trees in which the flycatchers were nesting. One nest failed as a result in 2008. At least two more nests will likely fail similarly in 2009.
By the fall of 2008, the beetles had spread more than 25 miles along the Virgin River into northern Arizona. They are now poised to invade the lower Colorado River and central Arizona, in the heart of the flycatcher nesting territories.
On March 27, 2009, when the Agriculture Department and APHIS refused to re-evaluate their program and stop harming the flycatcher, the Center for Biological Diversity and Maricopa Audubon filed a lawsuit to force them to obey the law. APHIS’s decision to change course was confirmed Monday when U.S. Department of Justice lawyers released a May 15, 2009 letter from APHIS to the Service requesting re-evaluation of the program.
“We face potential loss of the flycatcher in the Southwest because APHIS broke its promise. We now count on the Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure that the flycatcher will be protected from further harm,” said Dr. Robin Silver of the Center for Biological Diversity.
“We are relieved that APHIS has decided to obey the law and will now consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service to prevent any further jeopardy to a federal protected species. Our case will now be dismissed,” said attorney Matt Kenna of the Western Environmental Law Center. Mr. Kenna represents the Center for Biological Diversity and Maricopa Audubon Society in the lawsuit.
The tamarisk leaf-eating beetles are jeopardizing the flycatcher because 61 percent of flycatcher nests are found in tamarisk along the Colorado River. Rangewide, tamarisk dominates flycatcher habitat in 27 percent of territories.
Most southwestern willow flycatchers are found in Arizona and New Mexico. Approximately 1,300 pairs are known, spread out over about 300 sites. The flycatcher’s greatest risk of extinction derives from further piecemeal loss of these isolated populations.
Most historic flycatcher habitat has already been destroyed through the dewatering of rivers by dams and groundwater pumping and by the loss of young native trees to cattle grazing. The songbird now breeds only in remnant, dense riparian habitats in six southwestern states (Southern California, extreme southern Nevada, southern Utah, southwestern Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico). It migrates to Latin America in the winter.
The Endangered Species Act allows private citizens to petition the Fish and Wildlife Service to protect imperiled species. In 1992, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service for protection for the flycatcher. The species was federally listed as endangered in 1995.
“It is great news that our lawsuit worked. Now we count on securing the native plant restoration necessary to save the southwestern willow flycatcher,” said Herb Fibel of Maricopa Audubon Society.