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
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
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
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
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
“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:
firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.
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
“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,”
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
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