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Endangered songbird gets protected regional habitat

PHOENIX — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is designating nearly 1,300 miles of streams in Arizona, New Mexico, southern Utah and three other states as protected habitat for the endangered Southwestern willow flycatcher.

The small, insect-eating songbird migrates to Mexico and Central America during winters and breeds in and around U.S. riparian areas. It became a federally endangered species in 1995.

The habitat covers nearly 209,000 acres but doesn't automatically establish those areas as preserves. It does, however, ban destruction or "adverse modification" of these lands for projects conducted or authorized by the federal government. Adverse modification typically means activity that destroys the lands' value for the endangered species.

The protected habitat also includes California, Colorado and Nevada along rivers including the Rio Grande, Gila, Virgin, Santa Ana and San Diego.

"Protection of critical habitat for this tiny, unique bird could make a crucial difference to its survival, and also gives urgently needed help to the Southwest's beleaguered rivers," said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity.

This is the third designation of critical habitat for the flycatcher. The first designation — 599 river miles in 1997 — was challenged by the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association. That resulted in protection of 730 miles in 2005.

Although the designation was for more acres, the Center for Biological Diversity argued that it failed to consider hundreds of miles of rivers identified in a scientific recovery plan for the flycatcher.

The Fish and Wildlife Service last month designated 208,973 acres along 1,227 miles of river as protected critical habitat for the flycatcher.

The flycatcher breeds in streamside forests of Southern California, southern Nevada, southern Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.