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Habitat protections for endangered fish, bird spark debate

U.S. Fish and Wildlife ServiceThe Southwestern willow flycatcher was federally listed as endangered in 1995.

Adding more protections for an unglamorous but endangered fish and a yellow-bellied bird is sure to set off a clash today among environmentalists, government agencies and business groups at a congressional hearing in Southern California.

Protecting the Santa Ana sucker – a river fish that earned its name because of its bottom-feeding, algae-eating ways – and the Southwestern willow flycatcher, found mostly in brush, already has stirred up debate over jobs and water rights.

At the hearing, titled “Questionable Fish Science and Environmental Lawsuits: Jobs and Water Supplies at Risk in the Inland Empire,” experts from federal agencies and local water districts will examine recent decisions by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designating critical habitat for the endangered fish and bird.

“What this really boils down to is another attempt by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to take our water,” said Patrick Milligan, president of the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District.

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Critics such as Milligan say the habitat designation could lead to water shortages while threatening job growth in an economically difficult time.

Earlier this year, the wildlife service doubled the size of critical habitat area for the Santa Ana sucker; almost immediately, several water agencies in Southern California filed suit.

The water agencies claim the new restrictions on water conservation, groundwater and flood control operations along the Santa Ana River threaten the water supply for 1 million Southern Californians. They also contend that the science isn't there to support setting aside thousands of acres of land for critical habitat designation.

And now they're reeling over a new wildlife service designation [PDF] for the flycatcher, which would double this species' habitat as well.

The proposed critical habitat is on a combination of federal, state, tribal and private lands in Imperial, Inyo, Kern, Los Angeles, Mono, Orange, Riverside, Santa Barbara, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura counties. The habitat includes more than 2,000 river miles across six states.

Threats to the little bird include livestock grazing, dams, water withdrawal and sprawl. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, more than 90 percent of the flycatcher’s historical riverside habitat has been destroyed.

The bird was federally listed as endangered in 1995.

Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity, says the designations have been based on sound science and are necessary for these endangered species' survival.

“Protecting these species protects our rivers, and that benefits us all,” he said. “Sucking water out to support more sprawl is not to the benefit of anyone.”

Jane Hendron, spokeswoman for the wildlife service, says her agency has used the best-supported science to designate habitat.

The service’s designations for the species have been volleyed in court for nearly a decade, with environmental groups and water agencies challenging every designation issued.

Hendron says the agency will continue to work with partners to move forward on conservation for these species.

U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock, a California Republican, who will lead the meeting, could not be reached for comment. The meeting will be at 10 a.m. in the Highland City Hall, 27215 Baseline St., in Highland.

Filed under: Environment, Daily Report

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