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Citing 'Science,' Republicans Force Delay on Habitat for Rare Bird

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Western yellow-billed cuckoo | Photo: USFWS/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Yielding to pressure from conservative interests, the lead federal agency charged with protecting endangered wildlife has reopened public comment on proposed habitat for a western bird recently added to the list of Threatened species.

The western yellow-billed cuckoo, which was listed as Threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in October, is in trouble because the riverside forests it relies on have mostly been cut down. As part of the bird's protection under the act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is getting ready to designate more than half a million acres of Critical Habitat for the bird in California and eight other western states.

But that proposed habitat designation is unpopular with Republican politicians in Congress, who claim that the USFWS' habitat designation is based on politics rather than science -- while at the same time engaging in climate denialism in downplaying threats to the cuckoo. In November, the USFWS yielded to that political pressure by extending the public comment period until January 12. On Tuesday, the agency announced it will hold public hearing on the habitat designation on December 18 in Sacramento.

In the agency's formal announcement of the Sacramento hearing, USFWS cited "requests to hold a public hearing on the proposed designation." For the most part, those requests would seem to have come from 11 members of Congress -- including Kevin McCarthy of California's 23rd Congressional District -- who signed an October 6 letter from members of the House Natural Resources Committee slamming USFWS for not holding public hearings on Critical Habitat for the cuckoo.

The letter criticizes the science behind the western yellow-billed cuckoo's listing, saying "We are dismayed that despite serious concerns about the FWS' misuse and lack of transparent data to justify that the western yellow-billed cuckoo is a separate 'distinct population segment,' the FWS nevertheless has announced it intends to finalize a 'threatened' listing in November 2014."

USFWS actually listed the western yellow-billed cuckoo on Friday, October 3, three days before the Monday, October 6 letter from the House Natural Resources Committee members.

As for the claims regarding the western birds' proper status as a "distinct population segment," the members of the Natural Resources Committee would have done well to consult a field biologist while drafting the letter. There has been some controversy over whether the western population of the yellow-billed cuckoo constitute a distinct subspecies, though most of the reason for that controversy is a largely discredited pair of papers published more than two decades ago by ornithologist Richard C. Banks. Most bird experts dealing with the cuckoo consider the eastern and western populations to be valid subspecies.

And no experts that I could find quibble much over the possibility that western yellow-billed are properly treated as a valid Distinct Population Segment, given that the western birds have a range that's notably separated from that of their eastern counterparts, and that the western cuckoos are in serious trouble as a result of human interference -- both of which serve to define a Distinct Population Segment under the Endangered Species Act.

As if to underscore the committee's general grasp on science and factchecking, the letter continued:

We note that the proposed rule would designate habitat in areas even where the cuckoo doesn't currently exist, and cites a highly controversial 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change study to suggest that "climate change may be impacting the western yellow-billed cuckoo."

Critical Habitat is routinely designated in areas where the species in question doesn't currently live. The whole point of the designation is to protect habitat that's crucial to a species' recovery, and sometimes that habitat is crucial because a species will need to recolonize it in order to survive.

As for the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change study, it's only "highly controversial" among climate denialists. If anything, the scientific consensus these days regards the 2007 IPCC study as too cautious and tentative.

Nonetheless, USFWS has acceded to the House Natural Resources Committee's request, extending the public comment period by a month more than the Representatives asked for, and with that public hearing on December 18 at the Doubletree Inn in Sacramento.

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