The western yellow-billed cuckoo, a bird subspecies whose populations have verged on extinction in the western United States, is again up for consideration for special protections under the Endangered Species Act — and the proposal has some farmers and ranchers worried for their livelihoods.
For farmers and ranchers in West Texas, the proposal to list the bird's western population as a threatened subspecies — submitted Oct. 3 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — has created questions and few answers. Critics of the proposal, including Texas Comptroller Susan Combs, say the increased protections are unnecessary and could hurt the agriculture industry. But the agency that proposed the special protections has been out of commission and unable to answer questions about the proposal for more than two weeks because of the partial government shutdown.
“We oppose the listing of the Yellow-Billed Cuckoo, as we believe there is inadequate scientific basis for such a listing and it has the potential to reduce economic activity in the affected region,” Lauren Willis, a spokeswoman for the comptroller's office, said in a statement.
Proponents of protected status for the bird, however, say the proposal shouldn't come as a surprise, because the animal's habitat has been disappearing for decades. A listing under the Endangered Species Act would protect the cuckoo's habitat from encroaching development and livestock, experts said.
"Cattle eat the cottonwood and willow saplings" — that mature into trees that the cuckoo prefers to nest in — "and prevent regeneration of the riparian ecosystem," said Ken Rosenberg, an applied conservationist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University.
Texas is home to both western and eastern populations of the cuckoo, which researchers say are genetically distinct. Only the western population of the bird is up for review by the Fish and Wildlife Service. So the proposed listing would primarily affect counties in West Texas and the Upper Rio Grande, according to the comptroller’s office.
The cuckoo’s habitat, which exists primarily along riverbeds, is much sparser in the dry climate of West Texas. And in many states west of Texas, there are severe cuckoo shortages, with only a handful of breeding pairs left, experts said. California has extended extra protections to the bird by listing it as endangered under state law.
Because of its geographical ties to both eastern and western populations, the condition of the western subspecies of the cuckoo in Texas is less clear. Unlike other states, Texas does not have a formal survey of the species. Some evidence also suggests the bird has achieved reproductive success in West Texas urban areas even as its numbers remain low in rural habitats, said Cliff Shackelford, an ornithologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. In eastern regions of the state, the yellow-billed cuckoo often makes the top 10 list of most abundant species.
“I’m not thinking this is going to be a huge issue for Texas,” Shackelford said of the proposed protections. "It's a forest bird, and out west, there are very few forests."
This is not the first time the protected status of the western yellow-billed cuckoo has been an issue. In 2001, the Fish and Wildlife Service determined the subspecies should be listed, but it did not issue a proposal because of higher priorities.
State officials warn of economic consequences should the listing be successful this time. The comptroller’s office could not provide specific estimates for the potential impact on the West Texas economy, but according to its report on the species, as many as 1,800 ranching and agricultural jobs could be affected.
Ranchers and farmers in counties that could fall under the ESA listing have complained of a lack of information from the Fish and Wildlife Service. Mel Davis, special projects coordinator for the Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board, said those whose jobs might be affected need more time to evaluate what’s at stake.
“Because of the shutdown, the clock’s ticking on these proposed listings. Fish and Wildlife needs to extend the comment period,” he said. The current proposed rule says the agency will accept comments until Dec. 2.
The Endangered Species Act has been a top target of criticism from Texas Republican candidates for agriculture commissioner. In a campaign ad in which the ESA appears as the villain in a horror flick about government overregulation, candidate Eric Opiela said the federal protections are “trying to destroy the economy and the future of Texas."
Despite the recent attention, conservationists say the push for a federal listing is not a new development. Not only has the cuckoo’s status under the Endangered Species Act been pending for more than a decade, but a vanishing ecosystem has long threatened the western yellow-billed cuckoo, Rosenberg said.
“The biological situation really hasn’t changed,” he said. “The western riparian habitat and ecosystems have been severely degraded for a century.”