Critical habitat extended in southwest for small bird

Jan 11, 2013

As one of its first actions of the year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) designated thousands of acres of southwestern river- and stream-front land as critical habitat for the southwestern willow flycatcher.

The designated acres come from all types of land— public federal and state, tribal, and private—and well exceed earlier amounts of land earlier designated as critical habitat. This move comes following a lawsuit from the Center for Biologic Diversity (CBD) and years of legal battles.

The southwestern willow flycatcher is a small migratory songbird which depends upon desert riparian habitats. It was listed as endangered in 1995 following a petition to list it filed by CBD in 1992. CBD is calling this a victory. Unsurprisingly, CBD was also quick to lay blame on livestock activity for the need of protecting the flycatcher and its habitat.

“Like so many desert plants and animals, southwestern willow flycatchers have suffered from the wanton destruction of rivers by livestock grazing, mining, urban sprawl and overuse,” said Noah Greenwald, the center’s endangered species director. “We have to take better care of our rivers.”

The FWS documentation was not so eager to jump on the “blame livestock” bandwagon. It listed changes to water flow (either natural or man-made), reductions in the density of riparian plant life necessary for flycatcher breeding, pollutants in the South American countries to which flycatchers migrate, and the presence of cowbirds which parasitically use flycatcher nests to incubate their own eggs as top concerns in flycatcher recovery.

The designation of critical habitat for the flycatcher was FWS’ final ruling on a long-running revision of existing habitat set aside for the bird. This ruling named 208,973 acres of land running from California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico, as well as 1,227 stream miles in need of conservation. This was a revision of the most recent 2005 critical habitat designations and greatly increased the territory under the 2005 designation. The new designations come into effect Feb. 4.

The designated critical habitat lies along the 100-year flood plain reaching from southern California, the southern tip of Nevada, Utah and Colorado, all of Arizona and New Mexico, and the western-most tip of Texas. The designated rivers and streams lie in all states save Texas. The territory is divided into 29 management units, of which 27 include public grazing allotments.

An economic impact analysis was completed and released prior to this final decision being released. In summary, it estimated the baseline cost of flycatcher conservation on grazing activities in affected areas being $9.3- 20 million over the course of 20 years, with an annualized impact of approximately $820,000 to $1.8 million.

The estimates stem from a number of things involved with flycatcher conservation behavior and livestock grazing. According to the analysis:

“These [financial] impacts include the lost value associated with reductions in grazing allowances, costs of maintaining existing riparian fencing in 81 grazing allotments where adequate riparian exclusion already exists, costs of constructing new fencing in allotments not currently excluded, costs of cowbird trapping to avoid jeopardy to the flycatcher, and the costs of administrative effort to consider jeopardy in future [Endangered Species Act] section 7 consultations and technical assistance.”

Most heavily affected management units (MUs) according to the economic impact analysis are primarily located in Arizona. The Virgin MU (straddling the northwestern corner of Arizona and southwestern corner of Utah), the Bill Williams MU (central Arizona), the Verde MU (western-central Arizona), and the Roosevelt MU (eastern-central Arizona) saw the highest MU-specific estimated costs totaling between $5-11 million.

According to an FWS question and answer sheet about the critical habitat designation expansion, the changes will impact only “federal lands or federally funded or permitted activities on private lands.” Those lands and activities included would be required to seek Endangered Species Act (ESA) section 7 consultation. Another question regarding effects on grazing answers with the following:

“Formal consultation under the ESA is required only when federally permitted grazing may adversely affect critical habitat. Federal land management agencies are required to evaluate the effect grazing has on federally managed critical habitat areas. The flycatcher can exist in grazed areas, but does best in areas where the species’ habitat suitability is maintained in good condition and cowbird populations are kept in check.”

More information regarding the locations of the extended critical habitat designation, including maps, the official ruling, and the economic impact analysis, can be found at southwest/es/arizona/SW WF_revisedCH_2013.htm.

If your property falls in an area now categorized as critical habitat for the southwestern willow flycatcher and you are interested in voluntarily enacting conservation efforts, FWS can offer informational and some financial support. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor