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Endangered since 1970
Historically, the Virgin River in Utah, Arizona, and Nevada
Extinct in the wild since 2005; restocked populations are consistently unable to persist due to water mismanagement and degraded habitat conditions
The Southwest Willow Flycatcher
Endangered since 1995
Widely scattered riparian habitats in the desert Southwest, including the Virgin River in New Mexico, Arizona, and extreme southern portions of Nevada; possibly western Texas, southern California (from the Santa Ynez River south); extreme southwest Colorado; and extreme southern portions of Utah
900 – 2,000 breeding pairs
A tributary of the Colorado River, the Virgin River originates in Southwestern Utah with the confluence of the East Fork Virgin and the North Fork Virgin Rivers. The snow pack of the river’s surrounding mountains annually replenishes the river. It flows out of Dixie National Forest, through Zion National Park, past the city of St. George and continues for a total of approximately 160 miles before emptying into the Colorado River at the Lake Mead reservoir, about forty miles east of Las Vegas. In 2009, the North Fork of the Virgin River was designated as Wild and Scenic. The river flows through a landscape where the Colorado Plateau, the Great Basin, and the Mojave Desert meet. Although the Virgin River flows through an extremely arid region, it directly supports hundreds of species, some of which are found nowhere else on earth. A number of these species are considered sensitive or endangered, such as the Virgin River chub, Virgin spinedace, flannelmouth sucker, desert sucker, speckled dace, and relict leopard frog. Two key Virgin River species on the endangered list are the woundfin and the southwestern willow flycatcher.
Named for the spine on its sharply pointed dorsal fin, the woundfin is one of the rarest and most specialized minnows in the world, being highly adapted for living in shallow, swift, silty desert streams. Woundfins are slender and small, rarely exceeding 3” in length; their narrowly flattened heads and bellies give them a torpedo-like appearance. They are silvery-blue with le athery skin instead of scales, and have distinctive barbells on the corners of their lips. Woundfins are omnivorous, relying on a diet of seeds, insects, algae, and general detritus. The woundfin is scientifically important because it is the only species in its genus.
The southwestern willow flycatcher is one of four (possibly five) subspecies of flycatchers differentiated by their breeding range. The southwestern willow flycatcher is a small bird, generally no more than 6” in length, and is distinguished by its unique “sneezy fitza-bew” song. The flycatcher nests in trees and thickets in dense riparian habitats with surface water or saturated soil; areas that don’t meet this requirement may still be used for foraging and migration. The willow flycatcher is heavily dependent on the availability of highquality water, in large part to support the trees and thickets that provide safe refuge for nesting. The flycatcher feeds on insects, which benefits humans by reducing exposure to vector-borne diseases, and protects many plant species that would otherwise be harmed by insect populations.
Water in the Balance
Both the woundfin and the southwestern yellow flycatcher depend on the riparian habitat of the Virgin River. Flows in this river were largely designated for residential and agricultural use by 1910; currently there are substantial political barriers to providing river flows necessary to restore the health of the Virgin River to allow these species to recover and thrive. Water overconsumption, increasing residential and commercial development, and agriculture all command enormous amounts of water from the river, and drought heightened by global climate change further drains the river and degrades the habitat required by the woundfin and willow flycatcher.
The woundfin avoids clear waters, instead preferring warm, cloudy, shallow streams. Rarely found in quiet pools, they require fast-moving water and can tolerate mineralized waters relatively well. The southwestern willow flycatcher depends on clean and abundant water, both in breeding habitats in the United States and in the tropical rainforests where it winters.
Lack of water in the Virgin River is the primary threat to both the woundfin and the southwestern willow flycatcher; there is simply not enough water remaining in the river to allow the woundfin to re-establish and sustain populations, or to support the rich riparian habitat on which the flycatcher depends. The woundfin and southwestern willow flycatcher are critically important ecologically because they are umbrella species; restoring the river’s health would provide substantive habitat for them and would also protect habitats of more than seventy-five sensitive species found in the Virgin River and its tributaries.
What You Can Do
Individuals in the region can make lifestyle choices that minimize carbon footprints and do not support unsustainable urban development around the Virgin River. The Center for Biological Diversity is launching a multi-faceted campaign intended to foster recovery of the woundfin and to create reform in water use throughout the Virgin River basin. Numerous environmental organizations, including the National Audubon Society, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Western Environmental Law Center, and Defenders of Wildlife are working collaboratively to protect the southwestern willow flycatcher and restore its fragile habitat.