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Cuckoo listing would affect Snake water managers

By John O’Connell

Water managers in the Upper Snake system are cognizant of a proposed threatened listing for the yellow-billed cuckoo.

Capital Press

FORT HALL, Idaho — Upper Snake River water managers say they’ll face new administrative obligations if federal protection is approved for a small, migratory bird that thrives in riparian corridors.

A public comment period has been re-opened through Feb. 24 on a proposed threatened listing for the western population of the yellow-billed cuckoo. Comments may be submitted to www.regulations.gov. A final rule for listing would have to be ready for publication in the Federal Register by October.

Idaho represents the northernmost extent of the cuckoo’s habitat. There have been no nesting pairs found in Washington or Oregon, according to Susan Burch, listing coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Idaho.

Burch said the Idaho Department of Fish and Game has conducted call surveys and believes breeding is likely occurring in the Upper Snake, where cuckoos take refuge in tall cottonwoods and willows. Populations are also known to exist along the Wood River.

According to USFWS, 90 percent of the bird’s riparian habitat in the West has been lost or degraded, and habitat threats include “conversion to agriculture, dams, river flow management, bank protection, overgrazing and competition from exotic plants.”

Idaho State University emeritus ornithology professor Chuck Trost has heard cuckoos respond when he’s played their calls on a loud speaker while floating a 12-mile stretch of the Snake River through the Fort Hall Indian Reservation.

“Throughout the West it’s a pretty marginal bird. There are not very many of them here,” said Trost, who supports protection.

Lynn Tominaga, Idaho Groundwater Appropriators Association director, worries a listing would give conservation groups a new legal tool to challenge water management decisions.

Lyle Swank, watermaster of the Upper Snake water district, said his staff has been briefed about the proposed listing by legal council. He said a threatened listing would require the Bureau of Reclamation to consult regularly with USFWS.

“In some cases, it becomes a lot of bureaucratic red tape to try and sort through,” Swank said.

Ryan Newman, natural resource specialist with the Bureau of Reclamation, said a listing would likely require his agency to conduct data gathering and tracking regarding the cuckoo and to share operations information with USFWS. He said water management to help the species would likely be on a voluntary basis, when it wouldn’t interfere with legal obligations to deliver water.

He emphasized the Snake system has existing threatened species — including the bald eagle, bull trout, three species of snails and an orchid — and irrigation water has never been forcibly taken for their benefit.

“Right now, we’re not anticipating any impacts to our ability to deliver water resulting from the listing, but that being said, we always want to wait and see what they come out with,” Newman said.

Newman said his agency has submitted comments and data to USFS documenting its operations and steps already taken that benefit the bird. His agency also intends to conduct cuckoo surveys this year.


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