Seventeen years after the Southwestern willow flycatcher became a federally endangered species, it has gained what appears to be the final version of its critical habitat.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Wednesday that it is designating 1,227 miles of streams in Arizona and six other Southwestern states as prime habitat for the flycatcher. The flycatcher is a small insect-eating bird that migrates to Mexico and Central America during winters and breeds in and around riparian areas in the U.S.
The critical habitat area closest to Tucson is the lower San Pedro River upstream of Winkelman, the wildlife service said.
The designation, covering about 208,000 acres, doesn't automatically establish those areas as preserves. But it does ban destruction or "adverse modification" of these lands for projects conducted or authorized by the federal government. Adverse modification typically means activity that destroys the lands' value for the endangered species.
This is the wildlife service's third go-round for flycatcher critical habitat. It's known to have nearly 1,300 territories in which one or more of the birds live. The habitat issue has sparked extensive litigation in the past because the bird has provoked conflict between environmentalists and ranchers over grazing along streams.
In 1997, the agency designated 599 miles of rivers in Arizona, California and New Mexico as flycatcher habitat. The New Mexico Cattle Growers got that designation halted by a lawsuit. In 2005, the service published a second version designating 737 miles of critical flycatcher habitat. The Tucson-based environmentalist Center for Biological Diversity took that designation to court, which led to a settlement with the wildlife service that resulted in the new designation.
This version does, however, contain far less critical habitat than the service's proposal from 2011, for more than 2,000 miles of critical habitat.
The Center for Biological Diversity has in the past successfully sued or negotiated to reduce or eliminate cattle grazing along certain Southwestern streams to protect the flycatcher, on the theory that the cattle damages willows and other trees the flycatcher depends on.
In the future, mining, grazing and water withdrawals affecting this habitat will come under scrutiny, said Noah Greenwald, the center's endangered species director.
"We're happy with the increase, but we'll look at the areas that were excluded closely," Greenwald said. While he doesn't anticipate suing this time, Greenwald said the center wants to make sure that the new critical habitat takes into account what's needed to ensure recovery of the flycatcher.
The Arizona Cattlegrowers Association is already working with the service to try to produce what's known as a Safe Harbor Agreement that the association's director, Patrick Bray, sees as an alternative to critical habitat.
Under a Safe Harbor agreement, ranchers agree to take steps to upgrade leased federal grazing land to make it more flycatcher-friendly. In return, if the flycatcher shows up there afterward, the ranchers wouldn't face any new grazing limits, Bray said.
"I don't think the critical habitat is needed," Bray said. "It's a greater hindrance to doing work to manage the watershed. There's a constant clash between the biological and land management side in general. It boils down to which is more important - the water or the bird?"
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Southwestern willow flycatcher
• Eats insects.
• Breeds in areas from sea level to above 8,500 feet in elevation.
• Prefers dense and expansive growths of trees and shrubs, usually near surface water.
Contact reporter Tony Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 806-7746.