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Flycatcher causes interagency flap

Posted: Wednesday, Mar 13th, 2013

Courier editor

MONTE VISTA — After spending several years and $750,000-800,000 on an alternative plan to critical habitat designation for the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher, Habitat Conservation Plan developers feel a bit betrayed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which designated portions of the San Luis Valley critical habitat after all.

“The whole idea was the Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) would act as an alternative to critical habitat designation,” said Steve Vandiver, general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District that spearheaded the HCP development.

Vandiver shared his frustrations with those attending the annual Rio Grande Water Users Association in Monte Vista last week.

Rio Grande Water Users Association Attorney Bill Paddock agreed.

“After all the work to get the conservation plan in place, for them to designate critical habitat felt like a slap in the face to those who worked so hard to get it done.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service expanded critical habitat designation for the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher throughout western states, with the new designation effective last month. The little migratory songbird makes its nests along rivers and in wetland areas, particularly where there are willows.

Vandiver laid no blame at local or Denver-based Fish and Wildlife Service staff, who had approved the HCP, but said “somebody in the organization higher than Denver” designated parts of the Valley critical habitat for the flycatcher. One of those designated areas is naturally the Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge, but another in the southern part of San Luis Valley has no habitat at all, Vandiver said.

“It’s about as bare as this floor,” he said.

Vandiver said now part of the Closed Basin Project conveyance is included in critical habitat designation. He speculated that the Fish and Wildlife Service might have designated that reach to provide more water for the silvery minnow in New Mexico, where it has been difficult to keep rivers wet enough to sustain the minnows.

“How do you get more water out of Colorado? You put the pieces together,” he said. “It’s an interesting theory.”

He added, “I found no good reason for the Fish and Wildlife to have done what they have done.”

Vandiver said the HCP, a way to protect the southwestern willow flycatcher and the Valley’s agricultural way of life at the same time, was an effort to work with the Fish and Wildlife Service “to see if there wasn’t a better way to do business.”

“I just find it very difficult to understand the process here.”

He said it appeared the Fish and Wildlife staff in Colorado did not know about the discussions leading to the designation.

“It’s an issue we really need to be careful about,” Vandiver said. “We have a very good record meeting our [Rio Grande] Compact obligations. Craig [Cotten] has done it better than anybody. That’s what we owe New Mexico. I don’t think we owe them our compact water plus minnow water.”

Mike Blenden, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Region 6, National Wildlife Refuge System, Project Leader, San Luis Valley Complex, said he hoped Vandiver’s theory was wrong, but he did not know. He said he would try to find out why the critical designation was made by his agency.

“I worry that he is right and we get into some useless battle that probably has no positive result and does nothing but create hard feelings,” Blenden said.

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