Saving the willow flycatcher
Local riparian zones could be designeted as critical habitat for endangered bird

Willows, such as these along the Animas River just south of Durango, are prime habitat for the endangered southwest willow flycatcher. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency that oversees recovery of endangered species, is in the process of designating critical habitat for the bird, which has been found in the San Juan River Drainage./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

A small bird with a big name could be making more of an impact in Southwestern Colorado if the region is found to possess critical habitat.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently conducting scoping meetings throughout the Southwest in an effort to outline habitat crucial to the survival of the endangered southwest willow flycatcher. The migratory songbird, which breeds in riparian regions throughout the arid Southwest each spring before migrating to Latin America, was listed as endangered in 1995. Under the Endangered Species Act, Fish and Wildlife is required to designate areas of critical habitat as part of the recovery process.

Terry Ireland, a biologist with Fish and Wildlife’s Western Colorado Field Office in Grand Junction, said the San Juan Drainage is one area that will be considered for designation.

“We have found a few flycatchers within the range we are considering in the San Juan Drainage,” he said. “But it’s hard to say what will happen in the end. At this point, if we designate anything in the San Juan Drainage is up in the air.”

Although much of the drainage has not been surveyed, parts of it do possess habitat qualities, such as thick willow, cottonwood and tamarisk stands, which support the flycatcher.

The southwest willow flycatcher is a migratory bird that typically measures 5-3/4 inches. It breeds in the southwestern U.S. in the summer before flying to Latin America./U.S. Fish and wildlife Service

Dwindling habitat

According to the service, river and stream impoundments, ground-water pumping, and overuse of riparian areas have altered up to 90 percent of the historical habitat of the white-throated, olive-gray bird. There are 986 known breeding pair territories in the southwest willow flycatcher range, which includes California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, Southwestern Colorado and possibly western Texas. Before the bird can be delisted, there must be at least 1,950 territories (3,900 birds) in each of the flycatcher’s six recovery units.

The scoping process is a way to get the public’s comments on where critical habitat should and should not be designated.

“We’re hoping those involved in recovery planning and all affected groups will help us identify areas that truly require habitat protection and the biological, economic and on-the-ground effects of providing such protection,” said Dale Hall, Fish and Wildlife Service Southwest Regional Director.

Another layer of protection

Fish and Wildlife officials insist that formal designation would not mean an end to development in affected areas. Rather, it will serve as a blueprint for recovery, alerting the agency to activities that might impact habitat and helping to identify ways to minimize those impacts.

“It just provides a second level of protection, really,” said Vicky Fox, a spokeswoman for Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southwest Regional office in Albuquerque. “It doesn’t stop development. Things don’t come to a total standstill because critical habitat is designated.”4

Fox said critical habitat designation would affect only flycatcher breeding grounds that fall under federal jurisdiction. This covers federal activities on public lands as well as activities on private lands that require federal permitting or funding. It does not apply to private activities on private land, she said. As per the Endangered Species Act, federal agencies would be required to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service before commencing any activities in critical habitat.

To comment on flycatcher
critical habitat designation.

In 1997, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated 599 river miles in California, Arizona and New Mexico as critical flycatcher habitat. However, four years later, a federal appeals court threw out the designation, ordering the service to start the process over again. The latest public comment scoping period opened Jan. 21 and runs through March 5. Once the scoping is complete, Fish and Wildlife will draft an environmental analysis with critical habitat proposals, which is due by September 2004. A final critical habitat determination is expected by September 2005.
The only public scoping meeting in Colorado takes place Thursday, Jan. 29, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. in
Alamosa. Comments also can be mailed to: Field Supervisor, Arizona Ecological Services Field Office, 2321 W. Royal Palm Road, Ste. 103, Phoenix, AZ 85021; or e-mailed to: For more information, visit http://arizonaaes.

One activity that could be affected in Southwest Colorado is livestock grazing, she said. Cattle grazing in riparian areas can denude riverbanks of the vegetation vital to flycatcher habitat.

However, Ireland said the possibility of any additional regulations on grazing lands is remote, adding that riparian zones in such areas already are protected under the Endangered Species Act.

“I don’t think (critical habitat designation) is going to impact grazing,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean there will be more regulations.”

Likewise, he said designation likely won’t affect the progress of the Animas-La Plata project – the flycatcher was included in the project’s environmental study.

“We did consider the flycatcher when we reviewed the impacts for the Animas-La Plata project,” he said. “It’s already been addressed.”

Ireland also said Fish and Wildlife will try to tread lightly when it comes to Southern Ute tribal land, which is crossed by the Los PiF1os River, known flycatcher habitat.

“We try not to designate on tribal land,” he said. “We’ll just have to evaluate how important Southern Ute land is to the species overall.”

One area Ireland said could be affected by designation is development of private property. According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, development puts demands on water, which can deplete aquifers and lead to the building of reservoirs and other structures that alter stream hydrology. Growth also means more traffic, bridges and roads, which can be detrimental to riparian habitat. People also bring with them an increase in flycatcher predators such as cowbirds, cats and ravens.

“If there’s an area of habitat that’s going to be developed, it’s possible for us to come back to the (permitting) agency and say, ‘This is going to hurt the species,’” he said.

Bringing awareness

However, he said the goal of designation is not to curtail growth but make sure it is done in a way that is mutually beneficial to people and the species. The purpose of designation is merely to bring awareness to critical areas and help preserve future habitat.

“The benefit of critical habitat is twofold,” he said. “First, it can increase awareness of the property owner and land management agencies that the land is important to the species. Secondly, by raising red flags in areas that are unoccupied by the species, we may provide a little more incentive to conserve habitat 85 if in the future birds moved in, there’s habitat for them.”

And while the future of the flycatcher depends on the survival of riparian ecosystems, the relationship is a two-way street. According to Bill Howe, migratory bird coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Southwest Region, flycatchers prey on insects, which results in improved vegetation health and fewer flying pests.

“The southwest willow flycatcher 85 consumes huge numbers of insects per day, including mass quantities of mosquitoes,” he said.

In addition to this, maintaining flycatcher habitat also ensures habitat for a myriad other wetland species, including birds, fish, retiles, amphibians, mammals and plants. According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, southwestern riparian habitats contain the highest density and diversity of bird species outside the tropical rainforest.

However, Ireland said the deciding factor in preserving the habitat is more of an emotional one.

“With any species, it gets back to the value humans place on the species,” he said. “It’s more of a philosophy. If we wipe them out, they won’t be here for future generation to enjoy.”






News Index Second Index Opinion Index Classifieds Index Contact Index