Press Release from Center for Biological Diversity
Lawsuit Filed to Save Endangered Southwestern Songbird From
Habitat Destruction Caused by Invasive Beetles
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz.— The Center for Biological Diversity and Maricopa Audubon today filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture and APHIS, the department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, over their failure to safeguard an endangered native songbird, the southwestern willow flycatcher, from the impacts of the agency’s deliberate release of an exotic beetle that is destroying the bird’s habitat in parts of Utah, Arizona and Nevada.
In 2005, despite songbird biologists’ concern for the safety of the flycatchers, APHIS released imported Asian beetles into the western United States, outside of the flycatchers’ range, to help control invasive, exotic streamside trees called tamarisks.
Unfortunately, the tamarisk-defoliating leaf beetle is now invading the nesting areas of southwestern willow flycatchers in southern Utah, Nevada, and northern and western Arizona. If the beetle spreads farther without mitigation, it will seriously threaten the flycatcher’s survival. APHIS promised mitigation if its release of the beetles went awry, but has not taken the steps necessary — including planting native willows and cottonwoods to replace dying tamarisk — to help the endangered birds.
In 2010, instead of providing promised mitigation, APHIS merely terminated its tamarisk beetle program. In March 2013 the Center and Maricopa Audubon filed a notice of intent to sue APHIS in an attempt to avoid litigation. Through its failure to respond, the Service has left the groups no option other than the lawsuit. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is also included in the suit for failing to protect the flycatcher as required by the Endangered Species Act.
“APHIS still refuses to clean up its own mess now that its introduction of an exotic, invasive biocontrol agent has gone haywire,” said the Center’s Dr. Robin Silver.
“APHIS needs to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service to develop and pay for an emergent plan to ensure that native species provide alternative habitat for the highly endangered flycatcher,” said Maricopa Audubon President Mark Larson.
Flycatchers frequently nest where tamarisk has displaced native cottonwood and willow trees. A quarter of the birds’ territories are found in areas dominated by tamarisk, and about half are found in areas of mixed tamarisk and native trees.
APHIS released the tamarisk-defoliating leaf beetle under an agreement that no beetles would be released within 200 miles of flycatcher habitat or within 300 miles of documented flycatcher breeding areas, and that the beetles could not become established within the range of the flycatcher. Both of these agreements were broken.
In July 2006 APHIS introduced the beetles directly into flycatcher-nesting areas along the Virgin River in southern Utah. The beetles have now spread into nesting areas in southern Utah, Nevada, and northern and western Arizona.
Attorneys Eric Glitzenstein and Bill Eubanks of Meyer Glitzenstein & Crystal are representing the conservation groups in this matter.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 625,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.