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Group Wants Do-Over on Tricolored Blackbird Decision

Tricolored blackbird | Photo: Maggie Smith/Flickr/Creative Commons License

An explanatory series focusing on one of the most complex issues facing California: water sharing. And at its core is the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta. Stay with kcet.org/baydelta for all the project's stories.

A wildlife protection group is asking that the California Fish and Game Commission rethink a June 11 vote not to consider protecting the tricolored blackbird under the state's Endangered Species Act.

The tricolored blackbird, Agelaius tricolor, was once called the most common bird in the state, and its nesting flocks in the Delta and nearby wetlands in the Central Valley numbered in the millions. After a century of habitat destruction, the state's remaining tricolored blackbirds tend to choose grain fields for their communal nesting sites, and harvests can kill tens of thousands of the birds at a time.

The Commission had been expected to approve a status review to determine whether the blackbirds merited protection under the California Endangered Species Act on June 11. But two Commissioners who likely would have voted in favor of protection were absent June 11, and the vote went 2-1 against the status review -- essentially, a vote not to protect the bird.

Part of the request to reconsider listing the tricolored blackbird hinges on a pair of technicalities. According to a letter sent to the Commission by Center for Biological Diversity attorney Lisa Belenky, the Commission's failure to adopt findings at the June 11 hearing, or to formally close the administrative record on a petition to list the bird, means that the decision is still in play and can be revisited.

What's more, writes Belenky, Commissioner Jacque Hostler-Carmesin, a North Coast resident with a record of voting against stringent wildlife protection measures, may have overstepped the bounds of propriety by suggesting her decision to vote down the tricolored blackbird status review was based on her concerns over the economic hardship to dairy famers.

Tricolored blackbirds very often choose nesting grounds in fields of triticale, a hybrid grain grown as a silage crop for dairy cows. Some dairy farmers have delayed harvest in recent seasons to protect the birds; others have not. Listing the tricolored under the California Endangered Species Act would likely make those harvest delays mandatory if blackbirds are seen in the fields, which could cost farmers money.

Wildlife-oriented NGOs and agencies have made some incentives available to ease the economic burden for farmers who agree to delay triticale harvests in order to protect tricolored blackbirds. Nonetheless, the California Endangered Species Act makes no allowance for considering the economic impact of protecting a species in a listing decision: such decisions are supposed, under the law, to be made on the best available science regarding the species' plight.Belenky points out that the Commission's June 11 vote that states that protecting the tricolored blackbird is "not warranted" contradicts earlier actions by the Commission, which granted the bird emergency temporary protection under the California Endangered Species Act in December 2014. At that meeting, the Commission stated:

[T]he Commission, pursuant to Section 2076.5 of the Fish and Game Code, finds that the petitioned action to list the tricolored blackbird as an endangered species on an emergency basis is warranted based on the information before the Commission and therefore amends Section 670.5, Title 14, California Code of Regulations, to add the tricolored blackbird as an endangered species.

And yet neither of the two Commissioners who voted against the bird's status review, Hostler-Carmesin and Jim Kellogg, provided additional information that would justify countermanding the Commission's previous decision.

The Center is asking that the vote on the tricolored blackbird status review be done over at the Commission's meeting scheduled for August 4 and 5. If that request is granted, it's hard to say how a new vote will go. Two Commissioners who would have been solid yes votes on a status review at that meeting, Michael Sutton and Richard Rogers, were replaced in June by Governor Brown. Not much is known about incoming Commissioners Anthony Williams and Eric Sklar, including how they will end up leaning on listing decisions under the California Endangered Species Act.

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