Environment, Land Use, Mesa County

Walcher: Can feds be trusted with new ‘critical habitat’ lands?

I couldn’t help thinking about my friend, the late Harry Talbott, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) recently designated nearly 300,000 acres across seven states as critical habitat for the yellow-billed cuckoo, including the 25-mile stretch of Colorado River in the Grand Junction area, and 16 miles of the North Fork in Delta County. Harry was a conservation icon, not only because of his leadership in preserving Palisade’s orchards and open space throughout the region, nor just because of his work in founding the rural agricultural land trust movement, as crucial as those were. He was more than an activist involved in vital local issues. Harry was the real deal, a genuine environmentalist and an indispensable role model for caring about the world around us.

Harry was an environmental scientist, an expert on trees, plants, and wildlife habitat. He was an expert on yellow-billed cuckoos, too, not only because of the potential threat to farms posed by any endangered species listing, but because he actually cared about the birds. One of the last times I talked to him was about this issue. He called me to express concern, again, about pressure the USFWS was under, to designate habitat in the wrong places. We had talked about yellow-billed cuckoos for years, beginning with the original “threatened” listing in 2014.

That listing represented a compromise, between environmental groups demanding an endangered listing, and the agency’s biologists, who had determined the listing was not warranted. The USFWS has spent a fortune studying the cuckoo and identifying potential habitat, because of lawsuits demanding it. In 2015, the agency asked Mesa County to help enlist the support of landowners to map, designate, and protect private lands where the bird might live. Harry was concerned about it, because these birds do not live in Mesa County.

Harry Talbott

We know that because of literally decades of study, by USFWS and others. The government commissioned a study by the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory, in cooperation with the Colorado Division of Wildlife, a few years ago. “Yellow-Billed Cuckoos in Western Colorado,” detailed surveys conducted throughout the region and identified both potential habitat and actual birds. It found plenty of cottonwoods and other promising habitat in Mesa County. But it found no yellow-billed cuckoos, none. Local landowners know why. Yellow-billed cuckoos are not native to Mesa County.

This bird was on national environmental organizations’ agenda for 30 years. Their first petition asking the government to put the bird on the endangered list was filed in the mid-1980s, but the USFWS’s scientific analyses concluded that was unwarranted, because the cuckoo was common across much of the continent, from southern Canada to Central America. The birds were less common in the arid West because their preferred habitat is along riverbanks. They don’t generally prefer dry climates like Mesa County. So, proponents asked for the Western population of cuckoos to be classified as a different “subspecies,” but there was no biological basis for that. The feds compromised by separating the western birds on purely geographic grounds, designating a western “distinct population segment” instead of a different subspecies. That paved the way to list the western population as threatened, even though the species is common elsewhere – another sad example of how much endangered species activity is driven more by lawsuits than science.

Despite all this activity, the birds west of the Continental Divide are still biologically identical to those on the east side, they are still not in danger of extinction, and there are still none in Mesa County. Anecdotally, a few watchers claim to have seen yellow-billed cuckoos infrequently in Mesa County, though documentation is slim. The actual survey documented a couple birds in Delta, Montrose, and Moffat Counties, but none in Mesa.

Harry Talbott worried about the plan to designate that stretch of the Colorado River as critical habitat for a bird that does not live there, because it could provide federal veto power over land use decisions on private land. The government denies that. In 2015, officials assured Mesa County Commissioners that they “will not use this listing to regulate water, farming, transportation, construction, and other existing economic activity.” Today the agency continues to insist that “Although most of the proposed designated critical habitat is private land, activities conducted by private landowners, when there is no associated federal action, would not be regulated.”

I wonder what Harry might say about such federal promises.

Greg Walcher is former director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, and a Western Slope resident.

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