Bye Bye Birdie

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"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.

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Jennifer Markley
Contact: Jennifer Markley