Feds May Strip Protection from Rare SoCal Bird

Coastal California gnatcatcher | Photo: Chad King/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Though the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided just four years ago that the coastal California gnatcatcher still needs the protection of the U.S. Endangered Species Act, the agency is announcing Wednesday that it will consider removing the bird from the list of Threatened species.

The move comes in response to a petition by pro-development groups asking USFWS to consider delisting the coastal gnatcatcher, Polioptila californica californica, which the petitioners claim is not a valid subspecies of the California gnatcatcher Polioptila californica.

We examined that claim, based on a 2013 paper in the journal The Auk, in July, along with southern California ornithologist John McCormack's rather devastating rebuttal of the paper on which the petition to delist the gnatcatcher is based.

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Petitioners who asked USFWS to consider delisting the coastal California gnatcatcher are the California Building Industry Association, the National Association of Home Builders, and the Pacific Legal Foundation, a non-profit anti-environmental law firm.

This week's announcement by the USFWS comes in the form of a formal "90-day finding" on the petition, a procedural requirement under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

The coastal California gnatcatcher is a small, bluish-gray bird that lives in coastal shrublands along the southern California coast from Ventura County southward into Baja California. Around 90 percent of the bird's habitat has been lost as a result of the kind of urban development the homebuilders' groups want to encourage. The petitioners don't claim that the coastal gnatcatcher is doing any better than it was in 2011 when a previous Pacific Legal Foundation petition to delist was rejected by USFWS; their request is based solely on that inconclusive paper in The Auk in 2013.

"The Pacific Legal Foundation has repeatedly argued that species should be allowed to go extinct in the United States if it's found in other countries. They've tried it with orcas and caribou, and now they're trying it with California gnatcatchers," said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity. "Fortunately, these cynical arguments that would impoverish our nation of some of its most fascinating wildlife have failed so far, and all these species remain protected. I certainly hope this will be true for the gnatcatcher, whose Endangered Species safeguards have also protected some of the last, best places in Southern California."

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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