Bye Bye Birdie

Eben Paxton's job was getting routine. Year after year his crew of bird banders with the U.S. Geological Survey were hiking to the same breeding spots mapped out on the dry bottom of Roosevelt Lake logging them on their yearly survey. It was downright boring.

Fortunately, the 1998 summer nesting season for the flycatcher was almost over, so Paxton and his granola gang had only a few more weeks of crawling slowly on their hands and knees through the gnarled thickets of salt cedar. On this day, the sweat dripped into their ears as they listened desperately for the "fitz-bew" call of the flycatcher.

Then someone heard a shout. Members of a nearby survey crew were walking between the usual breeding patches when a misplaced "fitz-bew" stopped them in their tracks. The flycatcher was calling from a spot they had never surveyed, a spot that wasn't even marked on the map.

They dove in, burrowing through the dense shrubs, until suddenly they were surrounded by a symphony of fitz-bews -- all from flycatchers they had never seen or heard before.

"Our mouths just dropped," says Paxton, whose Army green camouflage pants and light blue tee shirt emblazoned with a drawing of a flycatcher make him look like a tree hugger in boot camp.

Somehow, they would have to catch and band all of these migratory birds before they flew south for the winter. "It was like a zoo," he says. "It was really crazy."

And it was exciting. Paxton and his crew had discovered a whole new population of Southwestern willow flycatchers, one of the most endangered birds in North America.

Banders named the new area Shangri-La, one of several new flycatcher havens discovered in the last three years at Roosevelt Lake. The lush lake bottom is now home to more than 200 of the endangered birds, second only to Cliff Gila Valley in New Mexico for the largest population of Southwestern willow flycatchers in the world.

But the bird paradise is sure to be short-lived. The flycatchers chose to breed in the granddaddy of all reservoirs controlled by Salt River Project. Roosevelt is the linchpin of SRP's water supply, holding more acre-feet of water than the rest of its five reservoirs combined. The first to receive water and the first to release it, Roosevelt is run like a water-storing monster, gobbling up and holding every inflow to sell to thirsty farmers and cities.

Five years of low rainfall, including two years of drought with record low amounts of precipitation, have quieted the monster. As the water has receded, leaving sediment-rich soil behind, a green swath of lush vegetation has sprung up, a magnet for habitat-starved flycatchers.

The bumper crop of endangered birds is a bonanza for biologists, who chirp with enthusiasm as they study the rare enclave of flycatchers. But the bird boom is a nightmare for SRP water managers, who could be in violation of the Endangered Species Act if they fill up the lake. SRP is racing to gain permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to destroy flycatcher habitat.

"It's not a question of literally drowning the birds," says John Keane, SRP's executive environmental analyst. Instead, the water will drown the trees the flycatcher nests in.

If SRP doesn't finish the yearlong permitting process before runoff from rainfall and melting snow start flooding flycatcher habitat, the utility would technically be in violation of the Endangered Species Act, say Fish and Wildlife officials. Fines for corporations run as high as $200,000 for each pair of birds. But the agency would have to prove that the birds' ability to occupy habitat was harmed -- a tough proposition because the vegetation preferred by flycatchers can survive flooding for months at a time. SRP officials say they will store the water and wait to see who raises a stink about it.

"You could be talking about enough water to supply cities for a year or more," says Keane. "It's not one of those things you say, 'Heck, let's release the water.'"

If SRP were prohibited long-term from filling Roosevelt Lake, or if the current drought continues, SRP officials say Phoenix would face water shortages within three years. Already, the public utility, the Valley's largest provider of power and water, is pumping the maximum amount of groundwater allowed. If SRP could fill the lake only to the edge of the bird habitat, it would have dangerously low storage capacity during low-water years and be forced to pump more from limited groundwater, says Charlie Ester, SRP's manager of water resource operations.

"It would be like being in a perpetual drought," he says.

SRP's effort to secure storage of water for the Valley is almost certain to face litigation from environmentalists with the Center for Biological Diversity, who shudder at the vision of water washing over one of the largest remaining habitats for the Southwestern willow flycatcher.

"They [SRP officials] know the threat of a lawsuit is very real," says Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity.

"We're dealing here with an absolute extinction crisis with the flycatcher. Much of the species' continued decline is caused by all these reservoirs wiping out the bird," Suckling says.

But is it an extinction crisis?

The classic struggle would have a pesky environmental group slamming science down the throat of a big corporation that is about to swallow up a species to feed economic expansion and corporate profits. But this time, the latest science on the flycatcher is not in the hands of environmentalists -- it's in the survey work commissioned, in part, by water managers.

Scientists used to believe the flycatchers were loyal only to specific breeding sites, and had trouble relocating and breeding again when their habitat was destroyed. But surveys of the flycatcher, done by Paxton's crew and other bird trackers, blow traditional views about the flycatcher out of the water. They reveal a migratory bird that is resilient and mobile, capable of flying long distances and breeding like crazy when the right habitat is available, according to interviews with half a dozen biologists from the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Arizona State University.

SRP officials are clinging to the new findings, hoping they ensure that the lake can be filled as soon as the wet season sets in this winter. If the flycatchers are more mobile than previously thought, all the utility will need to do is buy replacement habitat for the bird to fly to.

"It is distressing for us to watch them moving down into places we'd like to have full of water," says SRP's Keane. "The [Arizona] Game and Fish Department and [U.S.] Fish and Wildlife have made a lot of headway, getting inside the bird's head, and there is some evidence that the birds will move from Roosevelt."

But the Center for Biological Diversity, known for its aggressive litigation tactics, is not convinced that the birds will fly somewhere else and breed successfully after their habitat has been covered with water. Suckling, who has made saving the flycatcher one of the center's biggest campaigns, still believes in older research showing the bird clings to former breeding sites. He points to observations at Elephant Butte Reservoir in New Mexico several decades ago, when flycatchers returned to flooded habitat and attempted to nest in dead trees. Most of the nests failed, he says.

Since then, however, a lot has been learned about the flycatcher, especially from field work at Roosevelt. Observations from the trenches confirmed what dam-backers had been saying all along: "If you're a bird that lives in a temporary habitat, you better be genetically programmed to look for other habitats, even when your habitat is good," says Scott Mills, a biologist and consultant for Valley cities when they paid to expand Roosevelt Dam.

Suckling insists that at Roosevelt, the flycatchers will not fly to habitat miles away just because humans set it up for them. The notion makes him boil with anger, his voice rising to a high-pitched staccato.

"Are you going to give them a map?" he says. "They're not going to pick up and move somewhere else. . . . Those birds are goners."

Over and over, Suckling has fought water managers in court to protect flycatcher habitat at artificial reservoirs. The center has had mixed success, winning a case at Lake Isabella in California, but losing its lawsuits over Lake Mead and Roosevelt several years ago. In each case, the center demanded that lake levels be lowered for the flycatcher until an adequate plan for replacing the habitat was reached.

This time, instead of preparing for litigation with guns blazing, the center is playing it more low-key. Suckling originally wanted SRP to keep the lake low until new habitat was purchased elsewhere and enough flycatchers arrived to offset the loss at Roosevelt. But the birds' location is making the fight difficult.

The flycatcher is so far down in the lake bottom, SRP would have to release critical supplies of Phoenix water to avoid flooding the habitat if the drought breaks anytime soon. "We're going to craft our injunction request in a way that doesn't jeopardize Phoenix's water supply," says Suckling.

The Tucson-based center is wary of being seen as the bad guy in a fight that pits birds against water for Valley farmers and Phoenix urbanites. It doesn't want a public relations catastrophe, and Suckling realizes that Phoenix is not the environment-friendly place that his hometown is.

"In Tucson, there would be protests in the streets," says Suckling.

Suckling fears a backlash against the bird, and the sentiment is surfacing already in the town of Roosevelt, where drought has pulled the lake so low that boat ramps are completely exposed several feet from the water's edge. A rumor has spread among the locals that lake levels are being kept down because of a lawsuit to protect an endangered bird.

Sharon Finstad, a clerk at the Minit Market convenience store near the lake, says the information came from the U.S. Forest Service. If it's true, she says, the bird is causing problems for visitors. "It messes up the fishing, for one thing."

Overhearing this while standing in line, a tall man who drove up towing a large boat rig is red-hot mad. "All of this because of some stupid bird? Let the bird go away," says Mel West, who is still fuming over logging restrictions because of the Mexican spotted owl in his hometown of Show Low. "What's more important on this earth? If [the flycatcher] goes away, how much difference does it make to me?"

The Forest Service, the center and SRP say the rumor is bogus. But that kind of public reaction is what Suckling would like to avoid. He is softening his rhetoric but is still waving the threat of a lawsuit as he waits to see what SRP officials will do about the flycatchers in their backyard.

If he looks closely, he may see the answers in the research already done in SRP's backyard.

SRP's history with the flycatcher has been a contentious one filled with bad timing. It's a wonder anything worked out to the flycatcher's advantage.

After years of negotiations, SRP, the federal government and a group of cities -- Phoenix, Mesa, Scottsdale, Glendale, Chandler and Tempe -- agreed to pay more than $430 million to raise the height of Roosevelt Dam 71 feet. The expansion would make the dam safer, providing flood control and the ability to survive earthquakes, but the biggest enticement was water. The growing cities would get more than 250,000 acre-feet of water from the additional space created by the dam, and another way to meet the Arizona Department of Water Resources' requirement to provide a 100-year water supply.

In 1994, three years into building the expanded dam, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was considering the Southwestern willow flycatcher for listing as an endangered species. Henry Messing, a biologist for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, volunteered to look for the bird at Roosevelt Lake. Before setting off on his search, Messing took a training session that showed him how to find the drab-green bird by playing a tape recording of the flycatcher's call and listening for an answer.

As it turned out, Messing didn't even have to use his tape recorder. Hiking along the Tonto Creek inflow to Roosevelt Lake, Messing heard the flycatcher's distinctive "fitz-bew" call immediately.

"I couldn't wait to get back to the office and tell my boss what I found at Roosevelt," he says.

The discovery sparked a hunt for more of the birds and threatened to halt the massive dam project. By 1996, a year after the Southwestern willow flycatcher was listed as endangered, biologists found about 68 birds in habitat above the traditional lake level at Roosevelt, in the space that would one day be flooded by the heightened dam.

As the agency that authorized the dam expansion, the Bureau of Reclamation was held responsible for the flycatchers. To avoid any violation of the Endangered Species Act, the bureau's first requirement was to find a way to avoid harm to the species or its habitat. If harm could not be avoided, only then would the Fish and Wildlife Service issue a "take" permit, which allows the permittee to destroy an endangered animal or the place it lives.

To protect flycatchers at Roosevelt, the bureau would have to reduce the amount of additional water it could store with the dam expansion. That option was out of the question, since it would mean a multimillion-dollar project down the drain. Besides, natural disasters, including floods and fires, could wipe out the species anyway, the bureau concluded.

"For the project to function as planned and provide all the benefits for which it was built, no reasonable measures to avoid or minimize potential impacts to the [Southwestern willow flycatcher] exist," according to the bureau's biological assessment.

The Fish and Wildlife Service thought the bureau underestimated the dam expansion's potential effect on the bird. "Operation of the modified Roosevelt Dam is likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the Southwestern willow flycatcher," according to the service's biological opinion.

Nonetheless, Fish and Wildlife allowed the project to go forward by giving the bureau an annual take permit for 90 birds. In return, the bureau was required to purchase potential flycatcher habitat and fund a study of the birds in Arizona. The bureau bought 320 acres on the San Pedro River, about 40 miles southeast of Roosevelt, which the Nature Conservancy manages.

"They were hedging their bets that [the flycatchers] would go to San Pedro," says Robert Marshall, director of conservation science for the Nature Conservancy and the former Fish and Wildlife biologist who wrote the biological opinion on Roosevelt Lake. "Probably some proportion of the population will, but whether all of them will, we don't know."

The San Pedro purchase was hated by the Center for Biological Diversity and even Fish and Wildlife biologists, who saw the deal as a quick-hit solution to protect the cities' and the federal government's investment in the dam. They believed the land purchase, which was bundled with other mitigation measures, would not be enough to offset habitat loss at the lake. The center sued on this point, but lost.

As environmentalists scoffed at the deal, scientists salivated at the opportunity to study how flycatchers would behave before and after Roosevelt Lake was flooded. The 10-year research program required by the Fish and Wildlife Service might help save the species.

"Nobody has ever seen anything like this happen," says Mark Sogge, an ecologist for the U.S. Geological Survey. "It's sort of like a perfect, cool experiment."

Very little was known about the small, bland bird that migrates from Mexico and Central and South America each summer to breed in the Southwestern United States. Then about a decade ago, birders discovered the flycatcher subspecies missing from riparian areas across Arizona, California and other Southwestern states.

Wildlife biologists realized that the demise of the flycatcher was directly related to widespread human degradation of river areas. Cattle grazing and recreational vehicles tore up brittle habitat, while damming and groundwater pumping sucked many rivers dry. Flocks of flycatchers began showing up in manmade reservoirs because they were often the only places left for them to go.

Roosevelt is a good example. Fed by Tonto Creek and the Salt River, the lush vegetation has attracted a bird species that biologists believe used to thrive along these upper channels and other riparian areas in Arizona. Although the Salt River near Roosevelt runs mostly through steep canyons without the thick underbrush necessary for flycatchers, the Tonto was probably ideal for the bird many years ago.

But today, the Tonto remains degraded by generations of cattle, which have grazed and trampled the fragile river vegetation that most wildlife in Arizona depends on. When the Roosevelt Dam expansion began in 1991, an agreement was reached to restore a stretch of the creek for the bald eagle (the flycatcher was not on the endangered species list yet). The U.S. Forest Service reduced the number of grazing permits to one and had the cattle fenced off, but floods washed away the fences, and cattle continued to trample the creek. The Forest Service has since banned cattle from the creek altogether, but biologists say cattle still break away from ranches and get down to the water.

"We haven't been as aware as we are now on what kinds of things would cause problems in a riparian area," says Eddie Alford, biological research group leader for Tonto National Forest. "It's not in the condition we'd like to get it in, and we're not sure how to get it there."

Getting the Tonto and other river areas back in shape is key to the survival of river-dependent species like the flycatcher, biologists say. Artificial reservoirs provide only temporary habitat, rising in wet seasons and falling during droughts. But after years of returning to those same artificial lakes and rivers, would the flycatcher go someplace new? Biologists weren't sure. The grand experiment at Roosevelt Lake might help them find out.

Crouched in a dense thicket of salt cedar in the dry bottom of Roosevelt Lake, Phil Heavin waits silently, CD player in hand. Bird calls are whispering through two small speakers as he tries to lure the endangered Southwestern willow flycatcher into the tangles of a fine, black net.

No one moves. Heavin, who is tracking the rare birds for the U.S. Geological Survey, switches CD tracks, trying the bird's territorial call. Suddenly, a brown blur dives into the net, springing forward and back like a slingshot. Heavin and his crew of bird banders rush to the net to see if it's the flycatcher.

False alarm. It was just a common song sparrow.

After about 15 minutes of untangling and releasing the bird, Heavin is back in the crouched position, alternating bird calls. Another blur shoots into the net, tangling itself in a nearby bush. "I caught the female," he announces to Paxton, his supervisor, on his two-way radio.

Paxton rushes over to see the Southwestern willow flycatcher, one of only about 2,000 of the flycatcher subspecies left in the world.

Heavin is nervous about the twisted ball of netting the flycatcher is caught in, and cuts her out. Holding the neck of the fluttering bird carefully between his middle and forefingers, the young, bearded outdoorsman begins the delicate process of gathering data. He measures the length of the wing and tail span, clips a toenail for a drop of blood to verify the sex, and most important, he bands the flycatcher's ankle for future identification.

Heavin, Paxton and other surveyors have banded hundreds of these birds since studies began in 1996, when the rush was on to gather as much data as possible before the next big rainy season inundated flycatcher habitat and possibly halted their studies at Roosevelt. In the last five years, that season has never come.

It was one dry year after the other until the bird banders no longer had to boat across the lake to reach flycatcher breeding sites. The spots were a simple hike across the dry lake bottom. Without the big flooding event everyone was waiting for, biologists worried they wouldn't get the results they needed. But just the opposite occurred.

By staying put in the bottom of the lake, birders got a surprising view of flycatcher movement and proliferation. Instead of returning to the same old-growth breeding patches recorded the year before, the flycatchers preferred new places like Shangri-La, which were packed with short, young trees, the researchers found. The preference meant that new riparian areas could be grown elsewhere and, in a short amount of time, attract flycatchers.

"If there's a situation where dense vegetation can come up, it will quickly become colonized by them," says Paxton.

Surveyors also discovered a freeway of movement in the bottom of Roosevelt. Birds banded on one end of the reservoir last year would turn up on the other end the next year. Sometimes, the flycatcher would leave Roosevelt altogether and go to another reservoir, while other birds flew in from a drainage miles away.

In the last five years, biologists have tracked four birds that flew from the confluence of the San Pedro and Gila rivers to Roosevelt, two birds that traveled from Camp Verde to the San Pedro, one bird flying from Camp Verde to Roosevelt, and one bird making the trek from Roosevelt to the San Pedro. All of the flights covered at least 50 miles. This year, banders found a bird that flew from the White Mountains to Roosevelt, a distance of nearly 100 miles.

Sogge of the U.S. Geological Survey says even small numbers are significant because banders are recording only a fraction of the flycatchers.

"There could be all kinds of unbanded birds," he says. "They could be moving to places nobody's monitoring. We had no idea that these birds could move on this scale. It says they're much better suited to finding new sites than we thought at first."

But the movement is not enough to alleviate Suckling's fears. The best results would show that flycatchers moved from Roosevelt to the San Pedro River, where the bureau purchased habitat for the bird. So far, surveyors have tracked only one bird making this route.

But biologists say the point of the research is that a significant number of flycatchers are flying these long treks on their own, without a traumatic event like a flood scattering them to the wind. Once that flood comes, biologists are now confident that many of the birds can survive and continue to breed.

As heartening as the research may be to biologists, the behavior of the flycatcher has turned into a big headache for SRP. When the bird surveys began, the bureau had permission from Fish and Wildlife to destroy flycatcher habitat in the ring of land above the traditional lake level, which would eventually be covered up with water because of the expanded dam. But instead of going up, the water went down, and more birds moved in.

The new habitats were below the traditional level of Roosevelt Lake -- an area managed by SRP, which does not have permission to destroy flycatcher habitat. To fill the lake, SRP will need to follow the bureau's lead and get a "take" permit from Fish and Wildlife. SRP's permit will have to be much larger, though -- more than 200 birds, which would be the largest "take" of Southwestern willow flycatchers ever granted by Fish and Wildlife.

"The whole thing is so elaborate. It's a huge headache," says Keane of SRP. "We can't say, 'Shoo, go away,' but you almost want to post a sign asking them to move."

The location and the sheer numbers of flycatchers have intensified the conflict between SRP and environmentalists with the center. But the biggest obstacle for both sides is time. Last year, SRP got lucky. Winter runoff into Roosevelt came within a foot of the lowest tree with a flycatcher nest in it. If the wet season this winter breaks Arizona's drought, flycatcher habitat in the bottom of Roosevelt Lake could be inundated in less than six months.

SRP officials are scrambling to beat Mother Nature as they complete steps required by the Endangered Species Act, but Fish and Wildlife officials say the regulatory process typically takes a year. SRP has to submit a habitat conservation plan for approval by Fish and Wildlife. Then the agency has to have its own approval process reviewed to ensure compliance with the law.

The key component is the habitat conservation plan, which Keane says is likely to conclude that the only way to deal with the flycatchers at Roosevelt, and ensure the lake will be filled, is to buy habitat for them elsewhere.

Replacing 600 acres of prime habitat won't be easy or cheap, SRP officials say. Most riparian habitat in Arizona is either owned and managed by the federal government, or privately owned, requiring a willing seller. SRP would not reveal the properties it is scouting, fearing owners will jack up the price. Still, the utility is expecting to spend several million dollars on replacement habitat.

"Ultimately, it will be included in everyone's electric bills," says Keane.

Fish and Wildlife officials say they'd like to first see if habitat can be provided at Roosevelt, but that is probably unrealistic. "The things that can be done at Roosevelt are probably pretty minor, although I think we need to give it more thought," says Jim Rorabaugh, a supervisory biologist for Fish and Wildlife.

The center is angry that again, the Fish and Wildlife Service likely will be issuing a take permit for the flycatcher, allowing harm to come to the very species Fish and Wildlife is supposed to protect. "This species is being piecemealed to extinction as we watch it happening," says Suckling. "It's dying a death of a thousand cuts, and the feds just keep letting it happen."

Environmental authorities say regulatory hurdles over endangered species have sometimes dissuaded leaders of projects from proceeding. But Fish and Wildlife confirms that it has rarely denied a take permit for a federal or privately owned project that was coming in the way of an endangered species.

"There does appear to be a potential that we're issuing permits that could contribute to a declining status, but at the same time, we're doing things to promote recovery," says Rorabaugh.

Recovery plans usually include the purchase of alternative habitat, which Suckling says makes him nervous in the case of Roosevelt. Will SRP purchase land that attracts a population anywhere near as large as Roosevelt's? Probably not, Suckling fears, despite guidelines for recovery of the bird released last month by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The draft recovery plan outlines the steps necessary to downgrade the bird from endangered to threatened, and ultimately to take the flycatcher off the endangered species list. The plan's first steps include protecting the bird's existing habitat. When that is not possible, the plan recommends replacing it with three times as much habitat -- which would be 1,800 acres in this case.

"Ultimately, what matters at the end of the day is whether or not the flycatcher is being given enough habitat to survive," says Suckling. "And [SRP is] going to violate that draft recovery plan left, right and forward."

SRP admits that it cannot save existing flycatcher habitat at Roosevelt if it wants to continue storing water for farms and faucets in Phoenix. The most SRP can do is buy good habitat where it can and hope the bird flies to it -- if there's time.

Although water managers and biologists in the trenches are planning for the worst-case scenario -- that all the birds at Roosevelt will be lost -- they are hoping for a gradual increase in lake levels. If winter flows only partially cover habitat each year, the flycatcher would be pushed slowly out of the lake, giving SRP time to establish riparian habitat elsewhere.

Suckling calls it foolish to maintain hope for a population of endangered birds that were doomed the moment they landed in the bottom of a reservoir managed by powerful water interests.

Foolish or not, Paxton still has that hope as he stands in the bottom of Roosevelt Lake, his ears tuned to the fitz-bew.

"This has forced people to think of a long-term strategy," he says. "I really think the flycatcher is going to make it."

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Jennifer Markley
Contact: Jennifer Markley