Bye Bye Birdie

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"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.

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Jennifer Markley
Contact: Jennifer Markley