200,000 acres protected for Southwestern Willow Flycatchers in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Nevada

Phoenix / January 3, 2013 — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife designated yesterday 208,973 acres, along 1,227 miles of river, in six states, as protected critical habitat for endangered southwestern willow flycatchers.

Southwestern Willow Flycatcher

Southwestern Willow Flycatcher (Empidonax traillii extimus) © Jim Rorabaugh/USFWS

The decision is a response to litigation by the Center for Biological Diversity. The protected habitat was established in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Nevada, along several well-known rivers, including the Rio Grande, Gila, Virgin, Santa Ana, San Diego and others.

The southwestern willow flycatcher is a small, rare, neotropical, migrant songbird that depend on desert rivers to survive. It breeds streamside forests of Southern California, southern Nevada, southern Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. Within this range, the flycatcher has lost more than 90 percent of its habitat to dams, water withdrawal, livestock grazing, urban sprawl and other causes.

“Protection of critical habitat for this tiny, unique bird could make a crucial difference to its survival, and also gives urgently needed help to the Southwest’s beleaguered rivers,” said Noah Greenwald, the Center’s endangered species director. “For all of us who love our desert rivers, this protection is great news.”

This is the third designation of critical habitat for the flycatcher. The first designation (599 river miles in 1997) was challenged by the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association, resulting in protection of more miles rather than fewer (730 miles in 2005) by the Bush administration. The Center challenged this designation, arguing that it failed to consider hundreds of miles of rivers identified in a scientific recovery plan for the flycatcher. That challenge resulted in today’s designation of 1,227 miles of river as protected habitat.

“Like so many desert plants and animals, southwestern willow flycatchers have suffered from the wanton destruction of rivers by livestock grazing, mining, urban sprawl and overuse,” said Greenwald. “We have to take better care of our rivers.”

Although a dramatic improvement over previous designations, today’s designation excluded hundreds of miles of river habitat from the August 2011 proposal of 2,090 miles of river based on existing management in habitat conservation plans. The Center will be looking closely at each of these exclusions to determine if the recovery of the flycatcher was properly considered.

Flycatchers were listed as an endangered species in 1995 in response to a petition from the Center. According to a 2007 survey, there are roughly 1,299 territories spread across the species’ range, with substantial populations on the upper Gila River and middle Rio Grande in New Mexico; Roosevelt Lake and the lower San Pedro in Arizona; and numerous scattered locations in California.

For more information on the controversy over flycatchers and the protection of their habitat, please go here.

Source: Center for Biological Diversity (press release)