Arizona's western yellow-billed cuckoo to remain protected

PHOENIX (AP) — A beloved cuckoo bird won't go federally unprotected in Arizona.

Audubon experts are celebrating the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's recent decision to keep the western yellow-billed cuckoo under the Endangered Species Act, ruling against a petition for its removal, the Arizona Republic reported.

“The story of the cuckoo is the story of water management in Arizona," said Steven Prager, a program associate for Audubon Southwest’s key bird areas.

The Arizona Game and Fish Department has listed the cuckoo breed as threatened since the late 1980s. In 2014, it was assigned the same designation under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Opponents of their status have argued that eastern and western cuckoo birds are the same. Therefore, the bird isn't endangered after all.

In 2017, a petition with support from the Arizona Mining Association and the Arizona Cattlemen’s Association asserted “threats to the purported (bird) do not now and never have risen to the level that protection under the ESA is warranted.”

Conservationists say the argument doesn't hold up if you look at statistics.

“The information did not in any way impeach the fact that these are very rare birds and there are a lot fewer of them than decades ago and they are found in fewer places,” said Michael Robinson, a senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service felt the same way. The agency commissioned a study that determined Arizona has the highest concentration of the western yellow-billed cuckoo birds among states west of the Rocky Mountains.

Even so, that population has tumbled from nearly 850 pairs in 1976 to fewer than 170 pairs in 1999. Researchers attribute the steep drop to a loss of habitats.

“Loss of the western yellow-billed cuckoo population segment would result in loss of the species from the United States west,” the study stated.

The service “will continue working with state agencies, federal agencies, academia and others on yellow-billed cuckoo recovery efforts," Amy Lueders, the southwest regional director for Fish and Wildlife Service, said.

To celebrate the migratory bird's place in Arizona's ecology, Audubon Southwest is partnering with local breweries to create a hazy IPA called “rain crow.” It's named after the nickname for the cuckoo, which sometimes coo before a monsoon.

“No matter what you care about in Arizona, whether it’s birds, rivers, beer or just having water come out of your tap. This is an issue that should matter to you,” Prager said.