Publication: Endangered Species Bulletin
Date: August 2005 
Article: Page 12
Editor: Michael Bender

Rare Species are Welcome on Arizona Ranch

by Kris Randall


S. and D. Maslowski/USFWS
Southwestern willow flycatcher

James W. Crosswhite, a rancher in eastern Arizona, knew that Nutrioso Creek wasn’t in the best shape when he bought the 400-acre (162-hectare) EC Bar Ranch in 1996. The stream was a down-cut channel and rabbit brush, an invasive plant not grazed by livestock, was predominant in the pasture. He knew that the stream, its associated riparian area, and the surrounding pastures needed to be improved in order to enhance the land for cattle grazing.

In 2002, Jim approached Marty Jakle, biologist in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program in Arizona. Jim wanted to plant willows along the creek to stabilize the streambanks. Minimizing sediment and reducing flood flows would improve fish habitat and enhance the riparian area. The idea of helping a small fish, the Little Colorado spinedace (Lepidomeda vittata), and possibly attracting migratory birds such as the southwestern willow flycatcher (Empidonax traillii extimus) was something Jim wanted. However, because both of these species are federally listed as threatened and endangered, respectively, he did not want these habitat improvements to limit the use of his land as an economically viable cattle operation. The solution was to develop a Safe Harbor Agreement, which would assure him that the habitat improvements would not restrict his land use practices should flycatchers colonize and spinedace increase on his property.

The EC Bar Ranch includes 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) of Nutrioso Creek, which flows largely from snowmelt and seasonal rains. The ranch contains one of the few reaches of Nutrioso Creek where the flow is perennial and is occupied by spinedace. The creek’s headwaters are in high elevation conifer forests and drain into a grassland valley. These grasslands have been used for livestock grazing and farming since the late 1800s, and had deteriorated into poor condition. Nutrioso Creek became a deeply down-cut stream channel with little floodplain.


Nutrioso Creek stream channel showing the eroded stream banks and the formation of food plain supporting riparian vegetation.

Jim started making improvements to the ranch in 1996 by changing the grazing management practices and, with assistance from the Natural Resource Conservation Service, installing stream grade control structures in Nutrioso Creek. His hard work began paying off. Riparian and wetland vegetation started to increase along the streambanks and more sediment was retained within the channel, building up the floodplain.

In 2002, Jim received funding from the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program. Willows would be planted along the floodplain and fencing installed to exclude livestock and elk from Nutrioso Creek. But first, before any on-the-ground work was started, a Safe Harbor Agreement would be written.

The baseline condition for both the flycatcher and the spinedace on the ranch needed to be determined. The baseline for the southwestern willow flycatcher was zero because no habitat existed on the ranch for this species. This migratory bird requires riparian habitat for nesting and breeding, which past overgrazing in the watershed had destroyed. The closest known breeding location for the bird was approximately 15 miles (24 km) west of the ranch near Greer, Arizona.

The baseline for the Little Colorado spinedace did not rely on population surveys because such surveys can vary depending on the monitoring methods and fluctuations in natural stream conditions. Stream discharge was also eliminated as a baseline criterion since water flow here is extremely variable, there are upstream diversions, and the area is experiencing a severe drought. Since these conditions are out of the landowner’s control, the available suitable habitat components were used as the measure for the spinedace baseline condition. Woody riparian trees are surrogate indicators of the current riparian habitat conditions supporting the existing population of the spinedace. The baseline became the number of woody riparian trees at least 3 feet (1 m) high present along the ranch portion of Nutrioso Creek at the time the Safe Harbor Agreement was signed.

On January 16, 2004, Jim was invited to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Regional Office in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where Dom Ciccone, Regional Chief for the National Wildlife Refuge System, signed the Safe Harbor Agreement. That February, Jim planted over 10,000 willows along Nutrioso Creek. This partnership has resulted in good things for wildlife while improving range conditions for cattle. In time, stream conditions should improve for the spinedace, and riparian habitat will develop that may attract migratory birds such as the southwestern willow flycatcher.

As a rancher, Jim pays close attention to the land. “The mechanism for attaining a sustainable water supply is to restore native vegetation in the growing season, to practice dormant season grazing, and other best management practices. This approach benefits my livestock business while improving wildlife resources,” he says. “Cattle ranching and endangered species recovery can be compatible and this project is a long-term demonstration of that premise and my commitment.”

Many listed species occur partially or exclusively on private lands. This makes working with private landowners essential to protecting and recovering endangered species. Landowners’ interests must be balanced with providing incentives to manage those lands in ways that benefit endangered species. The Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program is committed to working with private landowners and protecting threatened and endangered species. Safe Harbor Agreements are a vital tool to reach this goal.

Kris Randall is the State Coordinator of the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program in the Service’s Arizona Ecological Services Field Offi ce (Kris_


Rancher Jim Crosswhite (in blue baseball cap) discussing plans for riparian restoration with Bill Zeedyk, restoration expert.

Little Colorado Spinedace