Mojave Desert Songbird Off Endangered Species List

A threatened bird found only at a few mountains springs in the Mojave Desert may be removed from protection under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), and both environmental groups and their traditional opponents are cheering the move.

On November 1, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to remove the Inyo California towhee (Melozone crissalis eremophilus) from its list of Threatened species under ESA, citing increased protection and recovering populations of the bird in its still highly restricted range.

A subspecies of the far more common California towhee, the Inyo towhee is found only near springs in the Argus Mountains, north of Ridgecrest in the northwestern Mojave Desert. The delisting is the result of a 2011 petition by the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation, a steadfast opponent of the Endangered Species Act, but USFWS's proposal is being lauded by at least one group that's a vociferous ESA defender.

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The Inyo California towhee is a mid-sized songbird about seven inches tall that eats fruit, seeds, and invertebrates. It was stranded in the Mojave's shrinking riparian forests as a result of climate change as long as two and a half million years ago, and has since evolved in isolation from its more common cousins in coastal California's backyard gardens.

"The recovery of this California songbird is the direct result of the Endangered Species Act, which has prevented the extinction of 99 percent of the plants and animals under its care," said Tierra Curry, a biologist at the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD). "The recovery of the towhee and its spring habitats is cause for celebration and provides yet another example of the success of our most important law for saving wildlife."

CBD and other groups have worked for some time to persuade the Bureau of Land Management to protect the towhee's fragile desert wetland habitat, which was under threat from off-road vehicle use, grazing by wild horses, and disturbance by hikers and campers. When it was added to the Threatened list in 1987 fewer than 200 Inyo California towhees were thought to survive in the Argus Mountains, southwest of Death Valley National Park. For the last 13 years, says USFWS, between 640 and 740 towhees have flitted about the Argus' springs, and the agencies that manage its habitat -- the BLM, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the U.S. Navy -- have made a commitment to protect the riparian vegetation on which the birds depend. 68 percent of the towhee's range is within the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake.

Despite new threats from energy development, invasive plants and animals, and climate change, USFWS decided in 2008 that removing the towhees from protection was likely warranted. The Pacific Legal Foundation's 2011 petition to delist the species followed.

"The towhee decision highlights the difficult process of removing a species from the list, even when the species does not warrant federal protection," says a blog post on the Pacific Legal Federation's website. "The Service knew that the towhee should not be on the list as early as 2008, when it issued a status review recommending delisting. As is common practice, however, the agency did not act on its own recommendation. PLF filed a petition and lawsuit to prod the Service into properly administering the ESA and delisting the towhee."

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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