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For Immediate Release, March 27, 2009

Contact:  Dr. Robin Silver, Center for Biological Diversity, (602) 799-3275
Matt Kenna, Western Environmental Law Center, (970) 385-6941
Herb Fibel, Maricopa Audubon Society, (480) 966-5246

Lawsuit Filed to Save Endangered Songbird;
Southwestern Willow Flycatcher Threatened by Release of Imported Beetle

TUCSON, Ariz.— The Center for Biological Diversity and Maricopa Audubon Society filed a lawsuit today in U.S. District Court in Tucson against the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The suit seeks review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of APHIS’s program of granting permits for the indiscriminate introduction of the tamarisk leaf-eating beetle into critical habitat of the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher. The suit should lead to modification of the program and habitat restoration efforts.

The Asian and Middle-Eastern beetle was approved for introduction by APHIS to control tamarisk (also known as salt cedar), an invasive, exotic tree now common along most rivers in the Southwest. The beetles feed on the leaves of the tamarisk trees, which die as a result of the defoliation. The Fish and Wildlife Service concurred with release of the beetle based on assurances by 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.” APHIS’s assurances have all proven false.

“We face loss of the flycatcher in the Southwest because APHIS has broken its promises and refuses to take responsibility for its actions. We now must appeal to the courts to help us save this adorable little migratory songbird,” said Dr. Robin Silver of the Center for Biological Diversity.

“The law requires that all federal agencies consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service when their actions jeopardize a federal protected species. We would not be in this perilous situation but for APHIS’s actions,” said attorney Matt Kenna of the Western Environmental Law Center. Mr. Kenna is representing the Center for Biological Diversity and Maricopa Audubon Society in the case.

In 2006, the beetles were introduced illegally into flycatcher habitat along the Virgin River in southern Utah. By 2008 they were flourishing there, to the point that trees of actively nesting flycatchers were defoliated, resulting in the documented loss of at least one nest. The beetles have now spread more than 25 miles to the southwest into northern Arizona, where they are poised to invade the lower Colorado River and beyond.

Along the Colorado River, 61 percent of flycatcher nests are found in tamarisk. Range-wide, 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. In 1992, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service for protection for the flycatcher, and the species was federally listed as endangered in 1995.

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.

“Without rapid native plant restoration in areas already infested and in areas vulnerable to infestation, and without prevention of further introduction of the beetle into flycatcher nesting areas, we are looking at extinction of the southwestern willow flycatcher in the Southwest in the foreseeable future,” said Herb Fibel of Maricopa Audubon Society.

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