An environmental group is worried a songbird occupying Western states may lose its protection under the federal Endangered Species Act in the future – and isn’t being afforded enough protection today.
The western population of the yellow-billed cuckoo was listed as a “threatened” species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2014.
But the service has yet to declare any critical habitat for the cuckoo, prompting the Center for Biological Diversity to notify the agency of their intent to sue Wednesday.
“After many years of delay, it’s time for the Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the cottonwoods and willows and other streamside homes of this tenacious songbird,” said Brian Segee, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, in a news release.
Critical habitats are areas deemed essential to a species’ recovery by FWS.
When the bird was listed in 2014, FWS also proposed declaring more than 500,000 acres throughout New Mexico, California, Arizona and other Western states as critical habitat but never finalized the designation, Segee said.
The species lives in wooded habitat near water, according to FWS. They feed mainly on caterpillars, even spiny ones that other animals avoid.
Most of the proposed critical habitat in New Mexico lies along rivers, including the Rio Grande in Bernalillo, Valencia and Sandoval counties.
The Center for Biological Diversity is also opposing a petition to delist the species submitted by several agricultural, ranching and property rights groups last year.
Late last month, FWS decided in its initial findings that the petition warranted a closer look.
“Based on our review of the petition and sources cited in the petition, we find that the petition presents substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that delisting the western DPS (distinct population segment) may be warranted due to information on additional habitat being used by the species,” FWS wrote in its evaluation.
The petitioners claimed that FWS erroneously considered the cuckoo’s eastern and western populations as distinct and that there is far more suitable habitat available to the species than the service believed.
The eastern population of the bird, which FWS initially believed does not interbreed with the western population, is currently not under the protection of the Endangered Species Act.
Margaret Byfield, executive director of lead petitioner American Stewards of Liberty, said animals protected under the act can limit what property owners can do on their land.
“We work tirelessly to ensure species that should not be considered endangered or threatened do not prevent landowners in this country from having full access to their land, and we hope these positive efforts continue to be effective,” Byfield said in a news release.
FWS spokesman Jeff Humphrey said the agency was hoping to take a couple of years to analyze the new information presented in the petition before making a decision to continue protections or delist the cuckoo.
“In light of this notice to sue us, we’re going to have to rethink our schedule,” Humphrey said. “It could preclude us from doing that robust science.”
Due to the possible litigation, Humphrey said he could not comment on why the designation of the cuckoo’s critical habitat has been delayed.