KJZZ is a service of Rio Salado College,
and Maricopa Community Colleges

Copyright © 2024 KJZZ/Rio Salado College/MCCCD
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Gila River Indian Community to Restore River Habitat

willow flycatcher
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
A southwestern willow flycatcher.

The Gila River Indian Community Council in September approved plans to reclaim an 80- to 100-square-mile section of the Gila River and floodplain from invasive salt cedar, or tamarisk.

The shrubs and low trees, which are native to Eurasia, were introduced into western North America roughly a century ago to combat erosion. Today, they pose a threat to native ecology and a fire hazard.

Removing invasive salt cedar reduces the risk of wildfires, but it also offers a chance to restore native plants and wildlife.

"Once we remove the woody material that's creating the fire risk, we're using that as an opportunity to reestablish some native plant communities in these river bottoms," said Russell Benford, senior wildlife biologist at the Gila River Indian Community.

Tribal crews will first carve firebreaks through the dense thickets, which lie between South Mountain and the Estrella Mountains. Later, they will restore plants with high ecological and cultural value, such as screwbean mesquite, wolfberry and creosote.

"Total eradication is not even our underlying objective; we really just want to give salt cedar a competitive disadvantage to other endemic plants," Benford said.

That's good news for the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher (Empidonax traillii extimus), which sometimes nests in the plant. Benford says his group will work with partners to protect and recover the birds.

Nicholas Gerbis was a senior field correspondent for KJZZ from 2016 to 2024.