SALT LAKE CITY — Two Utah congressmen say the public needs more time to weigh in on a "sweeping" proposal to designate more than a half-million acres as critical habitat for the Western yellow-billed cuckoo.
Republican Reps. Jason Chaffetz and Chris Stewart are among 17 members of Congress who urged U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe to extend the comment period on the designation beyond Oct. 14.
"While we oppose this listing proposal, we find it completely unacceptable that the (agency) has proposed only 60 days of public comment with no public hearings, effectively shutting out meaningful comment on a sweeping critical habitat designation proposal for the yellow-billed cuckoo," a Monday letter to Ashe states.
In Utah, the designation of critical habitat is confined to the eastern part of the state in nine separate units, including the corridor of the Green River, along the Pigeon Water Creek and Lake Fork River in Duchesne County, and the Dolores Area of Grand County.
Both Chaffetz and Stewart said the costs carving out the habitat for the bird are vastly underestimated at $3.2 million in new federal permitting requirements for landowners and state and local governments.
"This proposal would impact 546,335 acres, including over 242,000 acres of private and locally owned property surrounding 80 river and stream stretches located in more than 65 counties in Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Utah and Wyoming," the letter said.
"It is hard to believe that this would not cost much more in direct and indirect costs, regulatory delays and other impediments to vital economic activities."
Earlier this month, the federal agency announced the bird will receive protections in 12 U.S. states under the Endangered Species Act.
The insect-eating bird winters in South America and breeds in western North America. While once abundant, populations have been declining for several decades due to a number of threats — chief among them the degradation of riparian habitat.
Russell Norvell, the aviation conservation coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, said the bird is extremely rare in Utah.
"We have been looking for it statewide for about three years now, and we find it a half-dozen, maybe a dozen times a year in single locations," Norvell said.
The survey by the agency has been an attempt to determine the "average occupancy rate" for the bird, which has a protracted breeding season and is a nomadic feeder that follows insects such as cicadas, beetles and caterpillars.
In Utah, the proposed designations of habitat encompass riparian areas that are already degraded, Norvell said.
"What the service has seen and we have seen is that these areas are already not in good condition," he said. "They're already invaded by Russian olives and tamarisk."
Norvell added that the increased attention and conservation work on poor-quality riparian areas would benefit not only the bird but other species as well.
"What it may bring is some additional attention and conservation action to riparian areas, which would not be a bad thing altogether," he said.