ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. —It was a good plan: Bring in hungry beetles that feed only on nonnative salt cedar trees to get a handle on a hardy, invasive species that was crowding riverbanks across the West and leaching precious water from the drought-stricken region.

The beetles have been so successful in recent years that scientists are now concerned about the fate of an endangered songbird that lives along rivers and streams in several states.

A recent U.S. Geological Survey report provides more detail about habitat across the entire range of the Southwestern willow flycatcher. Using satellite modeling for the first time, the agency partnered with other federal scientists to predict new threats that could hamper the bird’s recovery over the next decade.

By predicting the effects of tamarisk leaf beetles on the bird’s habitat, the scientists hope satellite modeling can be used by land, water and wildlife managers as they try to balance protecting the bird with controlling the trees.

Research shows the bird has become accustomed to building nests in salt cedar trees during breeding season; flycatchers are known to be picky about where they set up residence. Depending on the timing, beetles feasting on the foliage can leave baby birds exposed to higher temperatures and predators.

Beetles were released along the Pecos River in New Mexico in 2002 as a biological control for salt cedar. They’re now found from Utah to Texas.

The USGS study shows they chewed through 94 percent of the flycatcher’s habitat along the lower Virgin River between 2010 and 2015.

The modeling predicts about one-third of the bird’s habitat along the lower Colorado River and more than half on the upper Gila River will be destroyed by beetles in the next decade.

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