LAS CRUCES — Environmentalists are mostly cheering a recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision designating 1,227 miles of rivers in six states, including New Mexico, as critical habitat for the Southwestern willow flycatcher, an endangered songbird.
The Fish and Wildlife decision, which becomes effective Feb. 4, marks a sharp increase from the 599 river miles designated critical habitat in 1997. However, the newly designated habitat is 863 miles less than the 2,090 miles the agency proposed for protection in August 2011.
Among areas excluded for habitat designation in California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico was a nearly 75-mile stretch of the lower Rio Grande, from Caballo Dam to Leasburg Dam, according to Audubon New Mexico.
Altogether, the critical habitat encompasses about 208,973 acres within the 100-year floodplain or flood-prone areas in six states.
“All in all, it’s a big increase in critical habitat,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity, which has long advocated for the flycatcher. “Overall, we’re happy.”
The excluded portion of the lower Rio Grande has been the target of a voluntary effort, eight years in the making, between Audubon New Mexico, the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, whose farmers own water rights, and the U.S. section of the International Boundary and Water Commission, to conserve and enhance flycatcher habitat.
According to a joint news release from the three organizations, if Fish and Wildlife had designated critical habitat for the flycatcher in the lower Rio Grande area, “farmer support for the voluntary restoration” and needed water transfers could have evaporated.
The groups acknowledged that over the last decade, farmers and conservationists have tangled over river restoration, which would benefit the flycatcher and other imperiled species, because of concerns that agriculture fed by Rio Grande water would suffer as a result.
Beth Bardwell, director of freshwater conservation for Audubon New Mexico, said cooperative efforts to transfer river water from farming uses to support the restoration of dense vegetation, the flycatcher’s preferred breeding habitat, is “innovative and significant.”
Fish and Wildlife excluded areas from critical habitat designation if they are already being managed to help flycatcher recovery and if the benefits of exclusion outweigh the benefits of inclusion, according to the federal agency.
Critical habitat, a term in the Endangered Species Act that identifies areas key to the survival of a threatened or endangered species, does not affect land ownership or establish federal refuges or reserves. It does require federal agencies to consult with the Fish and Wildlife on any proposed action that might affect critical habitat in a designated area.
The critical habitat designation, published last week in the Federal Register, is the third for the migratory flycatcher, which was listed as endangered in 1995. The first designation, a total of 599 river miles identified in 1997, grew to 730 miles in 2005 after it was unsuccessfully challenged by the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association. The Center for Biological Diversity challenged that habitat designation as insufficient, and that led to the current designation of 1,227 miles of river for protected habitat.
— This article appeared on page C1 of the Albuquerque Journal