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The Yuma Clapper Rail
A Marsh Bird in the Desert
by Lesley Fitzpatrick
Photo Credit: Courtney Conway, USGS
Through the late 1800s, the Colorado River flowed unimpeded from the Rocky Mountains south through the Grand Canyon to its delta on the Gulf of California in Mexico. In the cattail marshes of the delta lived the Yuma clapper rail (Rallus longirostris yumanensis), a chicken-sized bird for which the security of the cattails provided places to rest, hunt, and raise their young. Historically, the river corridor in the U.S. did not support the extensive areas of cattail marshes needed by the Yuma clapper rail. The first Yuma clapper rail in the U.S. was found in 1902 near Bard, California; other individuals were collected nearby in Yuma, Arizona in 1921. Over the next 40 years, Yuma clapper rails were found more and more frequently on the Colorado River in Arizona and California.
With the completion of the Hoover Dam in 1935, the chain of water development that dried up most of the delta's marshes was virtually complete. Most of the water of the Colorado River no longer reached the delta, but was instead taken from the River by diversions to water the new, large agricultural fields in Arizona, California, and Mexico. Without the delta marshes to support them, Yuma clapper rails began to spread north and west. Fortunately, the changes to the River in the U.S. allowed new cattail marshes to form behind diversion dams and secondary channels. In southern California, marshes around the Salton Sea also expanded and became available. These two areas came to support the pioneering birds from Mexico, and now serve as core habitat areas for the rare birds.
Photo Credit: Gregg Garnett, USBR-LCR MSCP
The Yuma clapper rail was listed as endangered in 1976 under the Endangered Species Preservation Act, based on its precariously small population size in the U.S. and the threats to the new marsh habitat from channelization and dredging of the river in Arizona and California. In addition, very little of the marshes in the delta in Mexico remained by the mid-1960s, with just a few irrigation drains and ponded areas remaining in cattail habitat.
The species' recovery plan identifies protection and management of habitats as crucial for the survival and recovery of the species. Along the Colorado River, a number of national wildlife refuges supported cattail marshes, as did the California Department of Fish and Wildlife's Imperial Wildlife Area-Wister Unit (IWA) at the Salton Sea. As a by-product of efforts to reduce salinity of the Colorado River water diverted for agriculture in Mexico in the 1970s, the Bureau of Reclamation began diverting saline agricultural return flows to the then nearly dry Santa Clara Wetland. Within a few years, the water created a large marsh complex that not only supported clapper rails, but millions of other migratory waterfowl and shorebirds.
The 21st Century brought three important conservation plans. First, the Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Program, a joint state and federal program, addresses the effects of water diversions and Colorado River management programs to the clapper rail and 26 other southwestern species. The plan calls for the creation of 512 acres (207 hectares) of cattail marsh along the river for clapper rail habitat. The 255-acre (103-ha) Hart Mine Marsh, on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Cibola National Wildlife Refuge, is the first created habitat under the program, which also contains a $25 million habitat maintenance fund designed to support maintenance activities on existing marsh habitats along the river.
The second plan is being undertaken by the Imperial Irrigation District at and around the southern end of the Salton Sea, as part of the Quantification Settlement Agreement Water Transfers. The first phase of the Managed Marsh project was completed in 2009, and the second phase will begin construction in 2014, with the remaining acreage completed by 2019. These measures will provide a total of 618 acres (250 ha) of cattail marsh and open water to benefit the clapper rail.
Photo Credit: Lesley Fitzpatrick, USFWS
The Coachella Valley Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan has also helped to dramatically improve the fortunes of the clapper rail and other rare species. The plan calls for the conservation of 697 acres (282 ha) of marsh and open water habitats at the northern end of the Salton Sea.
While prospects for the Yuma clapper rail have improved with these new habitats, the species continues to face a number of challenges. Active management is needed on existing marshes at Salton Sea and along the Colorado River to maintain high-quality habitat for these birds. Staff at the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge and the Wister IWA are working to re-establish suitable marsh habitat through controlled burns and earthwork to re-shape and contour some units.
At the Santa Clara Wetland, the 100,000-acre (40-ha) feet of irrigation return flows from the U.S. are at risk from operation of the Bureau of Reclamation's Yuma Desalting Plant. The plant, which has never been operated, was built in 1992 to desalinate the irrigation return flows that now run to the wetland. Starting in 2010, the plant was run for 11 months as a test, and may in the future be operated full-time. International discussions are ongoing to identify a solution that would provide adequate water for the wetland.
While the status of the Yuma clapper rail has improved since it first gained federal protection in 1967, with several hundred individuals counted in the U.S. annually and several thousand more at Santa Clara, full recovery is not yet in hand. To ensure the survival of this species in the U.S., conservation partners must continue to maintain the three primary habitat areas, and gain a better understanding of the use of those habitats and dispersal and movements of clapper rails between them. The progress made in the last decade must be carried forward in the next to achieve recovery of this secretive resident of the cattail marsh.
Lesley Fitzpatrick, a biologist in the Service's Arizona Ecological Services Field Office, can be reached at email@example.com or 602-242-0210, ext. 236.
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