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Tiny Vireo Making Important Friends : County Leaders Work to Protect Bird, Though Not as Much as U.S. Might Like

Times Staff Writer

Suddenly, the least Bell’s vireo has all sorts of influential friends.

Congressman Ron Packard (R-Carlsbad) wants to take on the cowbirds that usurp the vireos’ nests. Assemblyman Larry Stirling wants a $200,000 least Bell’s vireo study. City officials in Oceanside want to donate vireo habitats and encourage a cowbird-trapping program.

But they’re not sure they want the government to protect the bird as an endangered species, which could hold up a series of proposed highway and flood control projects.

“The assemblyman’s stand is he’d like the best of both worlds. He’d like to have the highways completed and the birds increased,” said Kirk Mather, aide to Stirling, a San Diego Republican. “If you can have the best of both worlds, why not?”

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Tuesday night, the embattled songbird’s new friends flocked to San Diego for the first of three public hearings on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s plan to place the least Bell’s vireo on the federal endangered species list. If the bird were listed, the Fish and Wildlife Service would have a say in proposals to build on the bird’s habitat. The service says that is crucial because there are fewer than 300 mating pairs of the bird left in the country.

But federal, state and local officials and private citizens fear that the wildlife service’s plans would delay pending public works and private projects. They say the highways, flood-control projects and other developments are essential to the future of San Diego County.

At the hearing, attended by more than 100 people, elected officials and others from all over San Diego County asked the Fish and Wildlife Service to hold off on staking out “critical habitat” for the vireo. In the meantime, they said, they would develop voluntary conservation plans that would allow the birds and humans to happily co-exist.

“We would like to work and reason together with the Fish and Wildlife Service to provide that necessary habitat,” said Oceanside Mayor Larry Bagley. Otherwise, he termed the service’s plan “tantamount to environmental terrorism. Certain projects are being held hostage.”

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The least Bell’s vireo, a small gray migratory songbird, was once common throughout California, Nevada and parts of Mexico, nesting and breeding in the dense, young-willow woodlands alongside rivers and streams, federal officials say.

But clearing for farming and development has destroyed 95% of the bird’s habitat, said Jim Bottorrf, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist at Laguna Niguel.

In addition, brown-headed cowbirds often usurp the vireos’ nests for their own eggs. When the cowbird eggs hatch before the vireo eggs, the young cowbirds push the vireo chicks out of the nests. The toll grows more significant as the habitat shrinks. “Because the least Bell’s vireo has declined in numbers, they haven’t been able to withstand this nest parasitism,” Bottorrf said.

So the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed in May that the vireo be declared endangered.

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That would mean the service would review plans for projects proposed for areas designated “critical habitat” and falling under federal jurisdiction. That would include plans for highways and other developments along waterways and wetlands in San Diego County.

If the service found that a project would hurt the birds’ habitat, it could ask that the project be reshaped to cause less damage. Traditionally, that has included rerouting roads, not building during a breeding season, and setting aside new habitat.

“It is not a document that says Yea or Nay to a project,” Bottorrf said of the “biological opinion” the service issues in such cases. “Our purpose is to work with these agencies.”

But elected officials and others appear to have their doubts.

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Caltrans officials already have a list of five highway and bridge projects they say could be hampered: the Oceanside bypass on California 76; the San Luis Rey River bridge at Bonsall; the extension of California 52; the Sweetwater River Bridge on California 94, and the Santa Ana River bridge on Interstate 15 at Norco.

Oceanside officials say the endangered-species listing could also affect the long-planned San Luis Rey River flood control project--and the 4,000 homes in the flood plain. Packard says it would also affect flood-control plans for the Santa Ana River.

“All those could be significantly delayed and complicated by this one simple decision,” Packard said in a telephone interview Tuesday from Washington.

Fearing that, Packard and others are proposing alternatives.

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Packard said the government might consider “doing something about the cowbird,” since he said it seemed that the cowbird might be the vireo’s worst enemy. “If we stopped all those projects and the cowbirds proceeded to do their job, we could lose the species anyway,” he reasoned.

Stirling wants $200,000 in state funds to pay the San Diego Zoo to develop a plan to help the bird reproduce. The office has not worked out details, but Mather said, “If we can save hundreds of millions worth of public works projects, that seems like a fair trade-off.”

Dana Whitson, special projects director for Oceanside, said the city would like to use the highway and flood control projects to buy up land and set it aside as habitat for the birds. She said the city also wants a management plan, including cowbird trapping, to begin as soon as possible.

“If you look at where the bird is nesting now, it’s ironic that many of the locations are close to highways,” Whitson said. “It doesn’t appear from the present conditions that roadways per se are a major deterrent for the bird.”

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In the meantime, Whitson said at the hearing that Oceanside would not oppose the endangered-species listing. But it will ask the Fish and Wildlife Service to defer designation of the bird’s critical habitat, for several reasons.

First, Whitson contended that federal officials should study other effects of the designation--for example, how delaying or blocking the California 76 bypass might affect traffic, safety, energy consumption and air pollution in the city.

Secondly, Bagley and Whitson said the service’s habitat maps appear to have been hastily drawn; one shows the habitat extending into residential subdivisions, drive-in movie theaters, a police firing range and auto-wrecking yards.

“All the biological studies and technical information that we have seen clearly establishes that the vireo lives and does its foraging in riparian habitats,” Whitson said. “There’s no way they use residential subdivisions, drive-ins and firing ranges as part of their critical habitat.”

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