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Biodiversity: Will the rain crow sing again?

Feds map critical habitat for yellow-billed cuckoo

Yellow-billed cuckoos have nearly been extirpated from the western U.S. Photo courtesy Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory.

Yellow-billed cuckoos have nearly been extirpated from the western U.S. Photo courtesy Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory.

Will yellow-billed cuckoos make a comeback in Colorado?

Will yellow-billed cuckoos make a comeback in Colorado?

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — The long endangered species odyssey of the yellow-billed cuckoo may be one step closer to resolution, as federal wildlife officials this week proposed designating more than half a million acres of critical habitat for the birds, sometimes known as rain crows for their habit of singing before a storm.

The bird was once common along most rivers and streams in the West, but the decline of the species, eyed for protection since 1986, shows how much human activities have degraded riparian riverside habitat. Yellow-billed cuckoos are neotropical migrants that winter in South America and nest along rivers and streams in western North America.

Altogether, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has mapped 546,335 acres of critical habitat in 80 separate units in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Utah and Wyoming.

Critical habitat protection will require any federally funded or permitted projects that could harm the cuckoo’s habitat to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure that the habitat is not harmed. Species with protected critical habitat are more than twice as likely to be recovering compared to those without.

“The designation of critical habitat is an important step in recovering the western yellow-billed cuckoo,” said Jennifer Norris, Field Supervisor for the Service’s Sacramento Fish and Wildlife Office. “Critical habitat identifies areas with essential nesting and fledgling sites where conservation actions are needed to protect and recover this imperiled songbird.”

Yellow-billed cuckoos survive in scattered locations in very small numbers, including portions of the Sacramento, Eel and Kern rivers in California; the Colorado, Gila, Verde and San Pedro rivers in Arizona; the Gila and Rio Grande rivers in New Mexico; and scattered locations in Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Texas, Wyoming and Utah.

“This is an important victory not just for yellow-billed cuckoos but for rivers and streams across the West,” said Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, which first petitioned for the cuckoo’s protection in 1998.

“The cuckoo’s decline is representative of the poor job we’ve done caring for our waterways, so this proposal is a big step toward being better stewards of our rivers and streams,” said Robinson. “Protecting these streamside habitats will also protect healthy water quality for people.”

In the proposal, the Service is considering excluding about 193,347 acres from the critical habitat designation because of existing conservation plans that protect the western yellow-billed cuckoo and its habitat. All proposed critical habitat designations on tribal lands are being considered for exclusion.

Designation of critical habitat does not affect land ownership or establish a refuge or preserve, and has no impact on private landowners taking actions on their land that do not require federal funding or permits.

The proposed critical habitat designation follows the proposal to list the species as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The listing proposal cites threats from loss of riparian habitat and habitat fragmentation as a result of conversion of land to agriculture, dams and river flow management, bank protection, overgrazing and competition from exotic plants as key factors in the decline of the western yellow-billed cuckoo.

The Service is seeking information concerning the western yellow-billed cuckoo’s biology and habitat, threats to the species and current efforts to protect the bird. The Service also seeks information on the incremental economic effects of the proposed critical habitat designation. To access the proposed rules and a specific outline of information requested by the Service, please go to our webpage at: http://www.fws.gov/sacramento/outreach/Public-Advisories/WesternYellow-BilledCuckoo/outreach_PA_Western-Yellow-Billed-Cuckoo.htm.

Comments on the proposed critical habitat rule will be accepted through October 14, 2014. Comments may be submitted online at the Federal eRulemaking Portal at http://www.regulations.gov. The docket number for the proposed rule is FWS–R8–ES–2013-0011. Comments can also be sent by U.S. Mail or Hand Delivery to:

Public Comments Processing, Attn:  FWS–ES–R8–2013–0011; Division of Policy and Directives Management;

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; U.S. Fish & Wildlife Headquarters, MS: BPHC, 5275 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, VA 22041-3803.

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