Beloved songbird retains ESA protections but still needs habitat designations

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to continue Endangered Species Act protections for the western yellow-billed cuckoo is welcome news. But until the agency completes the protections by establishing definitions for its critical habitat the beloved songbird is still at risk.

The cuckoo, a migratory bird species that breeds in 12 western U.S. states, has seen substantial declines in its population since the mid-1800s. Once common from Seattle to Arizona, the western cuckoos have disappeared completely from the Pacific Northwest. Dams, livestock grazing, and conversion of flood plains for agriculture have encroached on their riparian environs. Development along rivers has destroyed as much of 90 percent of the birds’ habitat and loss of insect prey from pesticides along with draught and climate change have also threatened their survival.

The bird was listed on ESA in 2014 and while FWS proposed to designate more than 546,000 acres in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Wyoming and Utah as critical habitat for the western cuckoos, it never took final action.

Then in 2017, FWS announced it was reviewing the status of the birds after the American Stewards of Liberty, submitted a petition to the agency. The coalition in favor of stripping the birds of protections working with the Stewards included cattle ranching and mining interests.

FoA sued FWS on the habitat issue and as a result of its complaint, FWS is required to make a final critical habitat designation by 2021.

But then FWS signaled it may delist the birds altogether after it finished its review of the birds’ status.

FoA, along with WildEarth Guardians, stepped in again to protect the birds and filed comments with FWS in June of 2019 calling on the federal agency to rely on scientific studies and verified reports as required by law and not just citizen science when evaluating data about the need to protect a species.

This week FWS announced that its review of information submitted showed that the primary threats to the species identified at the time of listing, including habitat loss and fragmentation, poor water quality, and invasive species, continue to impact the yellow-billed cuckoo western DPS. It added that recent mining projects in central and southern Arizona are also affecting the species.

And while it’s heartening that FWS recognized from comments submitted from FoA and other organizations that the bird was still imperiled, it now must complete its mandated task and define habitat for the cuckoos.

“We’ve struggled to get this protection and fought hard to keep them on the ESA list, but it won’t be meaningful until critical habitat is designated,’’ said FoA President Priscilla Feral. “If you can’t safeguard their habitat you can’t fully protect them from extinction.”

Also known as the “rain crow” the yellow-billed cuckoo is a songbird, which likes to spend warmer months in the U.S. and Mexico. On hot summer days, the yellow-billed cuckoo will call out loudly, often signaling a storm ahead.

“The ESA protection is critical to prevent these amazing birds from being lost forever,” said Jennifer Best, assistant director of FoA’s Wildlife Law Program. “But FWS must follow this decision with a critical habitat designation that moves the species closer to recovery.”