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Southwestern willow flycatcher critical habitat grows

January 05, 2013|By Bettina Boxall
  • The southwestern willow flycatcher's habitat extends into Southern California.
The southwestern willow flycatcher's habitat extends into Southern… (George Andrejko / Arizona…)

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has once again revised critical habitat for the southwestern willow flycatcher, an endangered migratory bird that has been the subject of two decades of legal wrangling.

The new habitat designation, issued Jan. 2, covers 208,973 acres along 1,227 miles of rivers and streams in six states, including California. A response to a lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, the new designation is a significant increase over the previous two but less than the 2,090 miles the agency proposed last year.

The flycatcher, which winters in southern Mexico and Central America, nests in dense growth along rivers and streams in Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico and the southern parts of Nevada, Utah and Colorado. It was first listed as endangered in 1995. Two years later, the Fish and Wildlife Service designated critical habitat along 599 miles in Arizona, California and New Mexico.

The New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Assn. challenged the rule, and in 2005 fish and wildlife revised the designation — though not the way the cattlemen wanted. Protected habitat was expanded to 737 miles. But that was too little for the Center for Biological Diversity, which had petitioned for the initial listing and challenged the 2005 revision in court. 

Although the flycatcher still occupies its original range, the diminutive songbird has lost most of its riparian habitat to development, livestock grazing and water diversion. The habitat protections can limit or even bar development and other activities that could destroy breeding territories.

The bird’s protections were among those targeted by a U.S. Interior Department official in the George W. Bush administration. Julie A. MacDonald, a deputy assistant secretary who oversaw the endangered-species program, resigned in 2007 after the department’s inspector general found that she had overruled field biologists in determining the habitat requirements of several species, including the southwestern willow flycatcher.     

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