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Flycatcher creates stir at water meeting

Posted: Saturday, Mar 23rd, 2013

Courier editor

ALAMOSA — Rio Grande Compact commissioners from Colorado, Texas and New Mexico grilled U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Field Supervisor Wally Murphy about endangered species critical habitat designation and the consequences to water administration during Thursday’s annual compact meeting in Alamosa.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) recently designated critical habitat for the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher in portions of the San Luis Valley totaling 27 miles and nine miles along the uppermost portion of New Mexico’s Elephant Butte Reservoir, one of the main storage facilities for the Rio Grande Compact.

Murphy said the Colorado and New Mexico designations were essential to the recovery of the species, which has been on the federal endangered species list since 1995.

Commissioners expressed concern the designations would affect compact administration. Murphy indicated the designations should not affect water administration along the Rio Grande.

In the engineer advisers’ report to the compact commission on Thursday, Colorado’s Engineer Adviser and Colorado Division 3 Engineer Craig Cotten read into the record the advisers’ report, which included the concern the Elephant Butte Reservoir flycatcher designation could impact about one million acre feet of reservoir storage.

“Information presented by the [Fish and Wildlife] Service and [Bureau of] Reclamation relating to the impacts of the designation upon reservoir operations was inconclusive,” Cotten read from the engineer advisers’ report. “The engineer advisers are concerned about impacts from the designation on certain elements of the Rio Grande Compact, and to water operations, including supplies at Elephant Butte Reservoir.”

Colorado Commissioner and State Engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources Dick Wolfe questioned Murphy why areas in the San Luis Valley had been designated critical habitat for the flycatcher since members of the water community had worked for many years developing a habitat conservation plan (HCP) precluding the need for that designation. Wolfe said the Fish and Wildlife Service had been involved in the habitat conservation plan process and had approved it.

“In approving that HCP the service recognized that HCP would provide continued protection to the flycatcher habitat,” Wolfe said.

He added there are already more flycatcher pairs in the Valley than the habitat recovery plan calls for. He said 56 flycatcher territories were estimated in this area, and the FWS goal was 50, so he did not see the need for additional critical habitat designation.

Murphy said the goal of designating critical habitat for endangered species like the Southwestern willow flycatcher is to ensure their survival and recovery. He said an area that might not contain the species might be designated because of its connectivity to other habitats along the river corridor. The flycatcher habitat is unique, he said, in that this the only bird that nests in shrubs and trees with branches that are vertically oriented like the willows and saltcedar (tamarisk.)

Wolfe said he did not see the connectivity between the areas designated in the Valley or believe habitat existed in some of the areas designated earlier this year.

“All the potential habitat would have been looked at,” Murphy responded.

He said designated areas either had birds, habitat or the potential for habitat. He said even if an area currently was unoccupied by the species and not suitable for it, it could be designated as habitat if it held the potential for future habitat.

Wolfe also questioned that the Fish and Wildlife Service had adequately communicated its critical habitat designation intentions with the public. Murphy said appropriate meetings were held and notifications given.

Texas Commissioner Pat Gordon asked Murphy about the nine miles of critical habitat near Elephant Butte that was designated in January.

Murphy said the Elephant Butte habitat “is not only significant to the Rio Grande Basin, it’s significant to the population as a whole. What we look at is an area that is essential to the survival of the species knowing that periodic inundation will occur and we feel that is probably beneficial to flycatcher habitat over the long run, but we could not ignore the fact that there are a significant number of territories there with high productivity levels.”

Murphy said when he moved to New Mexico in 1999 Elephant Butte Reservoir was nearly full, and it stayed that way for quite awhile. When the water levels receded in the reservoir, habitat appeared for the flycatchers, which took advantage of it and experienced a rebounding in their population as a result.

Gordon said he hoped the reservoir would return to historic levels in the future.

“What happens to this critical habitat? Is that going to impact the reservoir coming back to historic levels?” he asked.

“We don’t believe so,” Murphy answered.

He said off-site mitigation measures would be developed to compensate for lost habitat in the event the reservoir fills up again.

Gordon said if protected flycatcher habitat prevented Elephant Butte from filling up, “that would impact a lot of water users. That is a big concern.”

He added, “Our main concern is project operations, from our standpoint.”

New Mexico Commissioner Scott Verhines added, “We are trying to avoid crises down the road, should we get water back into the reservoir.”

Water commissioners have reason to be concerned over endangered species’ effect on water administration, given the ongoing challenge to keep enough water in New Mexico’s rivers to sustain the Rio Grande Silvery minnows, another endangered species.

“The Rio Grande Silvery minnows are at an all-time low,” Murphy reported to the Rio Grande Compact Commission.

Last year 51 miles of the main channel of the Middle Rio Grande dried up, so the FWS undertook a salvage operation in which more than 4,200 silvery minnows were salvaged and relocated.

Last October during a sampling effort, the minnow were not found at any of 20 monitored sites, although the fish had been found at eight of the 20 sites the previous October (2011) and 15 of those 20 sites in 2010.

“Subsequent monthly monitoring has detected silvery minnow, but the catch rates were low,” the engineer advisers’ report stated. “There was evidence of some spawning in spring of 2012 but monthly catch rates did not increase as they typically do after the spawning period. The [Fish and Wildlife] Service believes that the low densities of silvery minnow in the autumn sampling periods are indicative of the lack of successful spawning and recruitment. The Service reported that the augmentation and propagation facilities have been very helpful in maintaining fish in the river during the drought.”

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