The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering a collaborative conservation and management initiative along the Lower San Pedro River that could become a national wildlife refuge in the future.
In Cochise County, the proposed refuge would begin as the river narrows between Benson and Cascabel and run northwestward to and beyond the county line, according to the plan. The refuge would extend for two miles on both sides of the river’s banks.
According to information provided by Jeannie Wagner-Greven, FWS lead planner, the initiative would involve interested landowners, land-managing agencies, local communities, non-profit organizations, businesses and the public “… who share a vision of a healthy river system while contributing to, rather than detracting from, local economies and the livelihoods of area residents.”
"We have discussed this proposal with many local stakeholders over the past year and learned what people care about in the river valley," stated Walker-Wagner.
The San Pedro River is the last major free-flowing river in the Southwest that does not have a dam, and is recognized as one of the primary bird migratory corridors with estimates of up to 4 million birds traversing the green corridor between Mexico and breeding grounds in the West.
"The San Pedro River basin is considered to be a ‘keystone’ transition zone that sustains biodiversity in other eco-regions. The San Pedro contains vital habitat for approximately 250 species of migrant and wintering birds and over 100 species of breeding birds. The river is designated critical habitat for southwestern willow flycatchers," she continues.
With the federal protection provided through the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, the Upper San Pedro River Valley, while fragile, has been successful in preserving this corridor for wildlife while creating an economic benefit through birding tourism. Actions taken by the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the SPRNCA have been beneficial in bringing water flow back, albeit in small quantities, through the retirement of agricultural wells, desert scrub brush removal, conservation easements and ending cattle grazing along the river.
The FWS wants to work to preserve the Lower San Pedro River through a slightly different process, explains Waker-Wagner. The Lower San Pedro faces the same issues of decreasing water levels, degradation of habitat, erosion, invasive non-native plants and animals and more development. To deal with such problems, FWS intends to build on the successes of existing cooperative landowner groups and a number of organizations that have been working toward conservation and sustainability goals along the Lower San Pedro River.
However, a unified, over-arching collaborative organization would be more effective in dealing with river issues, she notes. FWS would serve as the facilitator to coordinate efforts of these partners to restore the ecological integrity of the Lower San Pedro River.
Walker-Wagner emphasizes that any potential land or easement acquisition by the FWS would only be from willing sellers or donors. "The initiative would be entirely voluntary, have no regulatory power, and would be guided by a steering group of landowners and land managers with support from agency/organization liaison representatives," she continued. "The establishment of a national wildlife refuge would be through voluntary participation by landowners in sale or donation of property or conservation easements to benefit their financial condition or leave a conservation legacy. The initiative would embrace and continue to honor the working landscapes in the area by supporting working ranches and farms and landowners would remain free to manage their lands as they wish."
FWS would coordinate resources to help landowners restore, improve, manage, or conserve their lands to maximize returns while contributing to a healthy river ecosystem, she explained.
"In an effort to solicit meaningful public information, the service is providing additional time for citizens’ input," she remarked.
Written comments will be accepted through Friday, Oct. 12, and can be sent to: Jeannie Wagner-Greven, Lead Planner, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, P.O. Box 1306, Albuquerque NM; 87103; or email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The public can hear more about the plan as it will be presented to the county’s Public Lands Advisory Committee on Wednesday, Oct. 4, at 3 p.m. in the Board of Supervisors executive conference room at the Melody Lane complex in Bisbee.