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Feds Propose Habitat for Imperiled Bird

Yellow-billed cuckoo | Photo: USFWS/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to declare more than 850 square miles of streambanks and floodplains in the western U.S. as critical habitat for an increasingly rare bird, the agency announced Thursday.

The yellow-billed cuckoo, Coccyzus americanus, is currently being considered for protection as a Threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA). Under Thursday's proposal, 546,335 acres would be designated as critical habitat for the bird in nine western states.

The attractive yellow-billed cuckoo was once found in abundance in riparian forests of willow and cottonwood throughout the west, where it fed on insects -- including hairy caterpillars eaten by few other birds. But since a century and a half of damming, livestock grazing, and water diversions have made riparian forests one of the West's most-endangered habitats, the cuckoo has declined in numbers dramatically.

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More than 50,000 acres of that proposed critical habitat would be entirely in the state of California, ranging over most of the state from the Eel River in Humboldt County to Riverside County near Corona. Another 102,413 acres would straddle the Colorado River in California and Arizona in a nearly unbroken band from Nevada to the Mexican border.

Aside from California and Arizona, the proposal would also designate critical habitat for the cuckoo in Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Utah and Wyoming.

When an area is designated critical habitat for a protected species under ESA, any project that involves either funding or agency oversight by the federal government must take steps to ensure the species isn't harmed. That's true of both public land and privately owned land. Projects on private property that don't involve the federal government are largely unaffected by designation.

Among the tracts of private property proposed for designation as Critical Habitat for the cuckoo is an eight mile strecth of the Eel River between Fortuna and the Pacific Ocean. This stretch of habitat, of which 4,909 acres would be designated, is the northwesternmost point at which the species still nests.

Other California parcels proposed for designation include almost 1,600 acres along the Owens River between Big Pine and Independence, 2,862 acres along the south fork of the Kern River, and 4,406 acres in the Prado Flood Control Basin west of Corona in Riverside County.

A final decision on listing the cuckoo is expected by October, with final designation of critical habitat coming a year later. The listing comes as part of a 2011 legal settlement between USFWS and the Center For Biological Diversity 9CBD), in which the agency agreed to speed the pace of decision-making on 757 species that were candidates for protection under ESA.

"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 CBD's Michael Robinson in response to the habitat proposal. "Protecting these streamside habitats will also protect healthy water quality for people."

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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