Two Southern Arizona streams already enmeshed in controversy have been proposed for federal habitat protection for the Western yellow-billed cuckoo.
If Cienega Creek near Tucson and the San Pedro River near Sierra Vista make the cuckoo’s critical habitat list, that could put restrictions on the proposed Rosemont Mine in this area and on development in general in parts of Cochise County. Under federal law, destruction or significant damage — formally called “adverse modification” — to critical habitat is illegal.
Arizona, which has the West’s largest cuckoo population, would be the biggest recipient of cuckoo habitat of nine Western states where it was proposed: About 245,000 acres of 545,000 total.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released the habitat proposal Thursday. It’s aimed at protecting essential space for conservation of the bird, whose numbers have dropped precipitously since 1900. The service proposed to list the cuckoo as a threatened species last October. It must decide on that proposal by this October.
But the wildlife service said it’s considering excluding upper and lower Cienega Creek from habitat protection, as part of 149,000 Arizona acres and 193,000 total being considered for exclusion. Part of the lower San Pedro River on the San Carlos Apache Reservation is being considered for exclusion, but not the upper San Pedro.
The service said it may exclude these areas because they already have protection, including Pima County’s Cienega Creek Natural Preserve and the Bureau of Land Management’s Las Cienegas National Conservation area.
But Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry countered Friday that all of Cienega needs to be in critical habitat, in part because the preserves lack protection against groundwater pumping or surface-water diversion.
“While we own the lower Cienega downstream of I-10 and a little of it south, there is a large gap that is unprotected between I-10 and the BLM property,” Huckelberry said.
Sections of Sonoita Creek, the upper Santa Cruz River near Tubac, Black Draw east of Douglas and Arivaca Wash near Arivaca also have been proposed for inclusion. So have the Gila River in Pinal, Graham and Greenlee counties; Florida Wash, Peritas Wash and the San Luis Wash in Pima County; and the Blue River in Greenlee County.
At Cienega, the concern about Rosemont has been that the mine’s lowering of the groundwater table and diversion of upstream surface flows could dry up the creek, killing off many of its cottonwoods and willows. That issue remains under study today by federal agencies examining the mine’s impact on five other imperiled species living along the creek.
“It’s just another indication that you could not pick a worse place to put a massive open pit,” said Randy Serraglio of Rosemont opponent the Center for Biological Diversity, of the cuckoo habitat proposal. “That’s really the issue for Cienega Creek, for this bird and other species,” he told The Associated Press.
But while the drying of Cienega by the mine would certainly be an adverse impact on the cuckoo, “it would be way too premature to speculate whether it would be adverse modification,” said Steve Spangle, a wildlife service supervisor in Phoenix.
Patrick Merrin, a vice president for Hudbay Minerals Inc., Rosemont Copper’s parent company, spoke in general terms about the habitat proposal, saying, “Our intention for Rosemont is to build the right mine, the right way. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s processes for establishing critical habitat include both expert and public comment as the federal agency makes its determination.
“These can be considered the same sorts of regulatory evaluations that guide Hudbay’s Rosemont project,” Merrin said.
Environmental groups hope the San Pedro critical habitat will give them one more tool to fight development in that area, which they and some scientists believe threatens to dry up the river.
But Sierra Vista City Manager Chuck Potucek said the habitat designation is unneccessary because the cuckoo has an abundant population along the San Pedro, a federally protected riparian area. The designation could hurt the Army’s Fort Huachuca by requiring it “to perform excessive mitigation for the species,” he said.