Bye Bye Birdie

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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.

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Jennifer Markley
Contact: Jennifer Markley