WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service unveiled an ecosystem-wide model Monday to aid the southwestern willow flycatcher and help Western landowners.
The model will enhance or restore habitat for at-risk, threatened and endangered species while supporting working lands in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah.
While the program has potential to help in Washington County, not enough is known yet about possible benefits, said Christian Edwards, a wildlife biologist with the Washington County Field Office of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.
“In the St. George area, we’re just getting started. We haven’t really had any conflicts with landowners, but on a broader scale … we’re hoping good things come from it,” he said about the new federal program.
The program builds on existing partnerships with landowners in the southwest to support habitat improvement for the southwestern willow flycatcher, along with 83 other species that depend on the same riparian ecosystem. This action will result in healthier ranges, more productive ranches and more robust rural economies.
The southwestern willow flycatcher (Empidonax traillii extimus) is a small songbird placed on the federal endangered species list in 1995 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It is threatened by habitat loss and is thought to thrive best in a native mix of willows, cottonwood and seep willows.
In Washington County, monitoring and recovery efforts began in 2008 when there were only eight breeding pairs of the flycatchers. Between 2008 and 2013, the numbers fluctuated between seven and 10; however, in 2014, there were 13 successful nest sites.
Washington County has been very successful in efforts to recover suitable flycatcher breeding habitat; the greatest threat to the flycatchers is habitat loss and fragmentation, Edwards said.
“By focusing on predictability on an ecosystem level, we will bring together an even larger group of agricultural producers in the Southwest to create habitat for the flycatcher and other wildlife,” NRCS Chief Jason Weller said. “These efforts will not only support the many species that depend on this riparian ecosystem, but also help ranchers move to more sustainable grazing systems and give them the support they need to keep their lands working.”
“These efforts will help ensure not only the long-term health of ecosystems and countless species vital to the West, but they will assist rural landowners and provide tangible benefits to local economies,” FWS Director Dan Ashe said. “The Service has a long record of working with federal and state agencies and private landowners in creating holistic, long-term solutions such as this.”
The efforts are part of the Working Lands for Wildlife partnership between NRCS and FWS, which helps create habitat on working landscapes for seven different at-risk, threatened or endangered species, including the flycatcher.
Through Working Lands for Wildlife, producers who maintain conservation practices and systems that benefit the targeted species will be covered for any incidental take that may occur as a result of the conservation activities for up to 30 years.
Over the past three years, NRCS has worked with landowners in these six states to restore or enhance more than 7,000 acres of riparian land that the southwestern willow flycatcher relies on for nesting habitat.
Expansion of this program will engage landowners by providing incentives for six additional conservation practices. It will also expand the scale of the program by providing predictability under the Endangered Species Act for 83 species in addition to the flycatcher.
Some of the other species that share riparian habitat with the flycatcher in the Southwest include the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse, yellow-billed cuckoo, Chiricahua leopard frog and the Least Bell’s vireo.
The six new conservation practices available through Working Lands for Wildlife for the flycatcher include installation of a stream crossing, pumping plant, micro-irrigation system or livestock shelter; mulching; and planting for species habitat. These are among the supporting conservation practices that NRCS offers to ranchers.
This effort builds on the historic success of voluntary conservation practices on private lands that benefit wildlife while supporting working lands. Through their partnership in the Sage Grouse Initiative, the agencies have seen gains in habitat creation for the greater sage-grouse through which private landowners have restored 4.4 million acres over the past five years – an area twice the size of Yellowstone National Park.
For more on technical and financial assistance available through conservation programs, visit the NRCS Getting started page or a local USDA service center.
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