U.S. agency denies petition to strip protections from songbird

(Mark Dettling | Point Blue/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via AP) This undated image provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shows a western yellow-billed cuckoo.

Albuquerque, N.M. • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has denied a petition that sought to end federal protections for the western yellow-billed cuckoo, saying the rare songbird continues to face threats.

The agency published its finding Wednesday, saying that removing the songbird from the threatened and endangered species list isn’t an option at this time as new data shows habitat loss and fragmentation are still issues. Federal biologists also pointed to recent mining projects in central and southern Arizona, saying the work is affecting the species.

The biologists initiated a review of the species' status after being petitioned by American Stewards of Liberty, a nonprofit group that advocates for private property rights. The group had argued that the bird was using additional habitat and didn’t need extra protections.

As part of the review, the agency collected information from states, Native American tribes, researchers and industry that resulted in a better understanding of the location of cuckoo habitat and breeding areas.

The bird migrates each year from Central and South America to its breeding grounds in Mexico and the U.S., where it can be found in a dozen western states.

Biologists describe the cuckoo as an elusive species. Difficult to observe, it selects its nesting spots based on habitat conditions and the availability of food. That means breeding habitat not suitable one year may become suitable the next due to increased rainfall or flooding, while favorable areas might degrade the next year.

Most breeding in the U.S. occurs in Arizona and New Mexico. The Fish and Wildlife Service earlier this year proposed a revision to the critical habitat that would include areas in California, Colorado, Utah, Texas and Idaho.