San Francisco, Calif. — Representatives of Audubon California today condemned a lawsuit filed last week by Southern California developers seeking reconsideration of their failed petition to remove the Coastal California Gnatcatcher from Endangered Species Act protections. Litigants claim that federal officials rejected their 2014 delisting petition after a “cursory and biased” review, despite the fact that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s comprehensive two-year evaluation process considered tens of thousands of comments from scientists and the public, and adhered closely to the law.
“The truth is that the government’s review process worked perfectly in this case, revealing the litigant’s deeply flawed, self-serving study for what it is,” said Michael Lynes, public policy director for Audubon California. “The fact that the Coastal California Gnatcatcher is a distinct subspecies worthy of protection was established in 1993, and there was nothing in this latest petition that put that determination into doubt.”
The 2014 delisting petition relied on recent research claiming that the California Gnatcatcher is not a genetically unique subspecies, but the Service’s avian experts noted that the referenced study did not analyze enough genes to make that determination and that it downplayed plumage variation among the three subspecies that can only be explained by genetic differences. The decision affirmed decades of peer-reviewed research is a distinct subspecies.
Lynes suggested that the lawsuit is an obvious effort to take advantage of a federal administration that has continuously expressed opposition to environmental protections, which puts more at stake than the future of one imperiled species.
“If these developers are successful in undermining the government’s scientific review process, than they will have successfully undermined the Endangered Species Act itself,” Lynes said.
The California Gnatcatcher is a small blue-gray songbird with dark blue-gray feathers on its back and grayish-white feathers on its underside. Its long tail is mostly black with white outer tail feathers. Since the 1980s, at least, experts have considered the California Gnatcatcher rare. A survey conducted at the time of its listing in 1993 estimated the number of California Gnatcatcher pairs in the Golden State at about 2,500 (although there is reason to believe that numbers could have been higher). The coastal sage scrub habitat upon which the bird depends has been in rapid decline for decades, due both to development and habitat conversion caused by repeated, intense fires. Some researchers estimate that as little as 10 percent of California’s original coastal sage scrub habitat remains today.
The California Gnatcatcher was designated as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1993, after an extensive review by federal agencies determined that the rapid loss of coastal sage scrub habitat made the bird worthy of protected status. Coastal sage scrub habitat is particularly in high demand for development, as it tends to occur in low-lying areas close to the ocean. It remains one of the most endangered habitat types in North America.
The 2014 petition was the second time these same actors have petitioned to delist the California Gnatcatcher, and the second time it has relied on research from the same source. In 2011, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service rejected a similar petition challenging the genetic distinction of the California Gnatcatcher, citing overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary.
Listing of this species has led to protection of coastal sage scrub habitat and many associated species in southern California, providing residents and visitors with many opportunities for parklands for wildlife viewing and recreational opportunities.
About Audubon California
Audubon California is building a better future for California by bringing people together to appreciate, enjoy and protect our spectacular outdoor treasures. With more than 50,000 members in California and an affiliated 48 local Audubon chapters, Audubon California is a field program of the National Audubon Society.