Death of a Flycatcher, Part I

hab·i·tat (/’habi,tat/) noun 1. the natural home or environment of an animal, plant, or other organism. 2. the place in which a person or group is usually found.

Angela Dimato was out of her element. It had nothing to do with rafting 51 miles in the Dolores River Basin. Up until this moment, she had been looking forward to the trip. What threw off her equilibrium were all the people milling around the launch site at the entrance to Slickrock Canyon.

When Wayne Canon, the special agent in charge of law enforcement for U.S. Fish & Wildlife Region 6, assigned her to accompany the Tamarisk Removal Project workers on a raft trip down the Dolores, he’d made it sound like a cakewalk. “Early June, with the runoff. The rafting should be great. All you have to do is ensure no one clearing tamarisk damages any southwestern willow flycatcher nests,” he said.

“What’s the catch?”

“There is none.” He gestured dismissively. “You’ll only have a few people to deal with.”

“What’s a few?” she asked.

“A raft full. Maybe six or seven.”

Angela had to admit, spending two weeks on the river sounded like fun—camping out under the stars, a little manual labor and very little law enforcement—because, as far as she knew, no southwestern willow flycatchers were known to nest along the Dolores. There was only hope that the small bird might make a foray.

However, judging by the number of people throwing their bags onto the pile near the supply raft, Wayne Canon needed a math refresher on what constituted a “raft full.”

Angela stuffed her gun into a dry bag and stuck that into her daypack. Then grabbing her dry bag-duffle from the back of the vehicle, she locked up the company truck and worked her way down to the woman with the clipboard.

“Special Agent Angela Dimato,” she said, still eyeing the crowd on the shore. “I’m with U.S. Fish and Wildlife. Please tell me all of these people aren’t with us.”

The woman looked down at her list, then brightened as she checked off Angela’s name. “I am so glad you made it. We added an extra raft yesterday. Having someone with your authority along will be a really big help.”

“Meaning law enforcement authority?”

The woman nodded, her brown bob swishing around her ears. “Two of the people we added are at-risk youth. They’re here by court order. Restitution for setting a fire that burned six acres of BLM land. I’m worried the boys may be a handful. But the judge ordered it, and this project is partially funded by government dollars.” She lowered the clipboard. “We had no choice but to take them.”

The boys she referred to were easy to pick out. They looked like young men, but behaved like adolescents. Both were tall and athletic—one thin and blond, the other filling out his T-shirt and sporting close-cropped hair. They pushed and shoved each other on the riverbank­­­, showing off and pitching stones into the water.

Angela made a mental note to thank Wayne next time she saw him. Her two-week “cakewalk” into Slickrock Canyon was beginning to look like the raft trip from hell. She gestured toward the crowd. “How many others are going?”

“Fourteen in all. Adding the boys means we had to add a second raft. Fortunately we had a gentleman from Michigan and his grandson who were gung-ho to go along.”

“And who are you?” Angela asked.

“Julia Glew.” The woman held out her hand. “I’m just one of the volunteers.”

Angela shook her hand. “Have you ever done this before?”

“Nope. This is my first time. They needed help checking folks in. Lucky me, I got here first.”

“Can you point out the crew chief?”

“That would be Kate.” Julia used the clipboard to point. “She’s in the bright pink wetsuit.”

Julia turned to greet someone else, so Angela worked her way down to the raft where Kate was loading supplies. She was bent over, her butt in the air, her muscles straining under the tight neoprene. She slung a bag toward the front of the raft, where a shaggy-haired man caught it and packed it under the ropes. When Angela approached, she sat back on her heels and brushed a skiff of bangs off her forehead with her free hand.

“You must be Angela.” Without waiting for a response, Kate flipped her thumb toward her helper. “This is Dan Harcourt. Danimal. He owns the rafting company. We could use some help getting the rest of the gear stowed.”

So much for small talk.

Kate reached for another bag, her dark ponytail swishing against olive skin, slick with sweat. “I take it you’ve rafted before? If not, Greg, Danimal’s brother, is about to give the safety spiel to the crew.”

“I’m good to go,” said Angela.

A younger version of Danimal yelled for everyone to gather. The crowd complied, except for the two boys. He tried nicely a couple more times, then yelled, “Hey, delinquents. Get over here or I’ll send you both back to juvie.”

That worked. The two boys dropped their rocks and swaggered over to the rafts. Angela turned her attention back to Kate.

“Those are next,” she said, pointing to a stack of dry bags. By the shape of the contents, Angela guessed chain saws.

The safety speech took about twenty minutes. Exactly the time needed to load the last of the gear. Then it was Kate’s turn to talk. She climbed up on a tube, and put her hands on her hips.

“As all of you know, we’re headed into Slickrock Canyon to remove tamarisk.”

The blond kid raised his hand. “What’s tamarisk?”

“It’s an invasive tree, commonly known as salt cedar. It’s crowding out the native vegetation, and we’re going¾”

“Hold on,” his sidekick hollered. “If the stuff’s not supposed to grow here, where’d it come from?”

The blond gave him a high-five.

“Look, boys,” Kate said. “We can hold botany class later.”

“I’d be interested in the answer,” Julia said.

Kate closed her eyes, drew a breath, mumbled, “of course you would” on the exhale, then opened her eyes. “Short version. Tamarisk was introduced in the U.S. at the turn of the century. It’s used as an ornamental shrub, for windbreaks and shade. It has long tap roots, uses a lot of water and reproduces easily, either through its root system or seeds.”

“Reproduces” drew a laugh, some hip pumping from the boys and a scathing look from Kate.

“It flowers from March to September,” she continued. “Each flower produces thousands of seeds that are spread by wind or water. The tree secretes saline, creating a hostile environment for many native plants, and its root system crowds out most of the others. That’s where the Tamarisk Removal Project comes in.”

Angela considered it noble. The project involved a two-state, citizen-driven partnership between private, public and federal entities to remove the invasive vegetation. Its goals were to reintroduce native flora and fauna, improve the fish habitat and foster bird species recovery. So far, it was working.

Read the next installment of “Death of a Flycatcher” »

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