Southwest Songbird Gets More Habitat


     WASHINGTON (CN) - In response to a lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated 208,973 acres along 1,227 miles of river as critical habitat for the southwestern willow flycatcher, a small songbird listed as endangered in 1995 under the Endangered Species Act, the environmental group said in a press release.
     The final rule expands on previous efforts to protect the small birds. The USFWS first designated 599 river miles in Arizona, California and New Mexico in 1997, but the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association challenged the determination in court in 2005. The outcome of the lawsuit was a determination for more habitat, not less, totaling approximately 737 river miles, including land in Nevada, the rule noted.
     The CBD sued over the 2005 designation "because [the USFWS] did not consider hundreds of miles of rivers identified in the scientific recovery plan for the flycatcher," the group's press release said. The USFWS then proposed 2,090 miles of river habitat last August.
     The final designation excluded, exempted or otherwise removed 948 of the proposed miles "in response to public comments, peer review and full consideration of existing habitat protections provided by Habitat Conservation Plans, various conservation plans, Department of Defense commitments and tribal partnerships," the USFWS said in its press release.
     "Ongoing conservation efforts by the [USFWS] and its many partners have helped curtail the decline of the southwestern willow flycatcher and reduce the threat of extinction," Benjamin Tuggle, the agency's Southwest Regional Director, said in the press release.
     "The [CBD] will be looking closely at each of these exclusions to determine if the recovery of the flycatcher was properly considered," the group promised in its press release.
     Within its current U.S. range, spanning southern California, southern Nevada, southern Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, the flycatcher has "lost more than 90 percent of its habitat to dams, water withdrawal, livestock grazing, urban sprawl and other causes," the CBD noted. The entire population was estimated at 500 to 1000 pairs when the birds were proposed for listing in 1993, the rule said.
     The birds migrate to Central and South America in the winter and then return in spring when the woodland insects are hatching along the banks of waterways. The birds consume "huge numbers of these insects, including mass quantities of mosquitoes, whose numbers could otherwise grow out of control," the agency said.
     Critical habitat designations do not generally affect land ownership, establish refuges or preserves, or impact private landowners taking actions on their land that do not require federal funding or permits.
     The final critical habitat designation is effective Feb. 4.