Bye Bye Birdie

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"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.

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Jennifer Markley
Contact: Jennifer Markley