Southwestern Farmers Share Their Water with Endangered Birds
In the West, as the saying goes, whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting. So why on earth did New Mexicans--during a severe drought, no less--decide to give precious drops to southwestern willow flycatchers?
Bardwell also agreed to exchange an enhanced level of federal protection for the willow flycatcher for local collaboration. In 2012 the Fish and Wildlife Service revised its designation of critical habitat for the southwestern willow flycatcher (critical habitat areas can be subject to special protection). But Audubon New Mexico asked the agency to exclude the 46-mile stretch of the Rio Grande upstream from Las Cruces from the list, arguing that the hard-won cooperative agreement with the International Boundary and Water Commission and the Elephant Butte Irrigation District provides a better prospect for the long-term protec- tion and improvement of riparian habitat than a simple administrative classification would. In January the agency agreed.
Such a decision by the federal government technically amounts to a weakening of legal protections for an endangered subspecies, at least in one river reach. It also rests on a certain measure of trust--the same sort of trust that both farmers and conservationists have shown in deciding to work together. Emboldened water users and environmentalists along the middle Rio Grande in New Mexico are shifting their attention to the Elephant Butte Irrigation District's decision as they consider whether to develop a similar program aimed as sustaining riparian habitat--in that case, for the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow, a rare native fish.
"These farmers are our neighbors," said Bardwell. "They live next door to the resto- ration sites. So it makes sense that whatever we're going to put in has to work for them."
It may be that "work" is the operative word there. Just as it takes a lot of physical effort to restore native vegetation along a river channel that's out of whack, it also takes a lot of time and responsibility to maintain the underlying human relationships. But the results are worth it, as Robert Faubion, the farmer, told me.
"We're stepping out a little bit in faith and a lot in fear," he said. "We want to share our resource as long as it is not impaired and as long as it doesn't become an obligation. I'm willing to share half my burrito with you at lunch as long as I don't have to feed you lunch every day."
GET ACTIVE! JOIN THE WESTERN RIVERS ACTION NETWORK
Rivers in the U.S. West are home to a wide range of vulnerable bird species that depend on reliable wintering, stopover, and breeding habitat from Canada to Mexico. In the past century, the alteration of floodplains and rivers throughout the intermountain West has devastated bird and wildlife populations. Audubon's new Western Rivers Action Network aims to protect functional riparian habitats by managing critical Important Bird Areas, developing collaborative programs with water managers, and activism. For more, go to conservation. audubon.org/western-rivers-action-network.
SOUTHWESTERN WILLOW FLYCATCHER
Scientific Name: Empidonax traillii extimus
Range: This subspecies breeds mainly in southern California, Arizona, and New Mexico, north into southern Nevada and Utah, and possibly into southwestern Colorado. Other subspecies of willow flycatchers breed across much of the northern and central U.S. and southern Canada. The southwestern subspecies winters mainly in Central America, perhaps especially in the Pacific lowlands of Costa Rica.
Habitat: Nests in dense thickets of tall shrubs along southwestern rivers--mainly native willow but also exotic saltcedar and Russian olive. In migration and winter, found in any kind of semi-open habitat with some dense, low cover.
Status: Listed as endangered in 1995. The total population has been estimated to be fewer than 2,500 individuals. The bird has disappeared from many regions where it occurred in the past.
Threats/Outlook: The serious decline of this bird has resulted mainly from the destruction or degradation of streamside habitats in the arid Southwest. Nest parasitism by brown-headed cowbirds has played a role as well. In some areas the flycatcher has adapted to nest in thickets of invasive saltcedar, and in those places, new efforts to control the saltcedar may be a setback for the flycatcher. Its future survival will depend on balanced approaches to managing and protecting streamside habitats in the Southwest.--Kenn Kaufman
This story originally ran in the November-December 2013 issue as "New Deal."