Still Cuckoo

by Greg Walcher on August 19, 2015

Last week I wrote about the federal push for private landowners in Mesa County to help identify and designate habitat for a bird called the yellow-billed cuckoo – the original mascot of Cocoa Puffs cereal. My column has rarely generated more feedback, because so many people are frustrated with the notion that environmental protection always seems to require restricting human activity.

blog-cuckoo-clockAt least two alert readers caught a factual error, for which I am grateful. I mentioned that the government adding the bird to the endangered list is almost inevitable, no matter what protective measures landowners agree to. It turns out that the decision has already been made and the bird was listed late last fall, not as “endangered,” but with the somewhat lower status of “threatened.”

Many observers missed that, because we are in the midst of 4-year whirlwind of new endangered listings, the result of a lawsuit requiring decisions on more than 800 species. The yellow-billed cuckoo has been on the wish list of national environmental organizations for 30 years. Their first petition asking the government to put the bird on the endangered list was filed in the mid-1980s. At that time, the best scientific analyses concluded that an endangered finding was unwarranted, because the bird was commonly found across most of the continent, from southern Canada to northern Mexico and in nearly all U.S. states. The cuckoos were found to be less common in the arid West because their preferred habitat is along riverbanks. So the environmental groups began asking for the Western population of cuckoos to be classified as a different “subspecies” than its eastern siblings. There is no scientific basis for that, so ultimately the feds separated it on purely geographic grounds, designating a western “distinct population segment” instead. That provides a legal tool for separate endangered listings in one part of the country, even though a species may be common elsewhere.

The Interior Department loves to add new species to the list, and has been doing so for years. Today there are 2,220 species the government says are threatened or endangered, and in the entire 40-year history of the Endangered Species Act we have successfully recovered and removed from the list less than one-half of one percent. That demonstrates rather conclusively that listing – not recovery – is their primary goal. So in 2011 when environmental groups sued the government for not making listing decisions fast enough, Interior was happy to settle out of court, agreeing to make final decisions on hundreds of new listings – and paying the environmental groups’ legal fees. Unfortunately for those of us interested in recovering endangered wildlife, the process is driven more by lawsuits and money than by science.

In this case, the science has not changed in the 53 years since General Mills introduced Sonny, the yellow-billed bird that’s “Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs,” in 1962. The birds west of the Continental Divide are still biologically identical to those on the east side; they are still not in danger of extinction; and there are still none in Mesa County.

On the latter point, one Interior Department employee apparently claims to have seen a yellow-billed cuckoo in Mesa County, and one photograph purports to “prove” it, though the picture shown to the County Commissioners was not dated or labeled to show its location. On the other hand, at least one major scientific survey was made, as I mentioned last week, identifying a couple birds in Montrose and Moffat Counties and a handful in Delta, but none in Mesa.

Birds fly and cuckoos are migratory, so it is possible that they stopover anywhere there is riparian habitat along rivers and streams. So the primary question remains: should we agree to designate most of the Colorado River through Mesa County as critical habitat for a bird that is not native to the area, and thereby provide federal veto power over land use decisions on private land? The government has tried to assure the Commissioners that it will not do that. “Trust us,” they say, “We will not use this listing to regulate water, farming, transportation, construction, and other existing economic activity.”

Sadly, that trust has already been broken. That’s why Mesa County is suing the feds for ignoring local cooperation and breaking its promise not to list the Gunnison sage grouse. The same feds also once said the yellow-billed cuckoo did not warrant such listing, yet here we are again. Small wonder that the very word “cuckoo” means crazy.

(A version of this column originally appeared in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel July 17, 2015)

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