New ‘defense’ of suspect gnatcatcher research only undermines case for delisting troubled species

New information should prompt the USFWS to promptly reject this cynical effort to remove Coastal California Gnatcatcher from the Endangered Species List.

A new round of controversy has arisen over the research behind the most recent effort to delist the Coastal California Gnatcatcher, one that casts further doubt on the motivations behind the effort.

As you read this, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is deciding how to act on a petition filed in 2014 to remove Endangered Species Act protections for the Coastal California Gnatcatcher. The petition was filed by lawyers representing Southern California developers, among others.

Ever since the Coastal California Gnatcatcher was listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act, there has been a constant effort to reverse that decision from those wishing to develop its coastal habitat. The latest attack relies on research contending that the Coastal California Gnatcatcher is not a unique subspecies – that it simply doesn’t exist. Not only did conservation groups, including Audubon California, rise up to challenge this petition, noting among other things the lead author’s funding and connections to developers.

Not only have no other studies corroborated these findings, but a number of ornithologists and biologists have been quick to criticize the latest study as going out of its way to avoid DNA evidence that might explain the obvious physical differences between the Coastal California Gnatcatcher and other gnatcatchers in Mexico. These differences in plumage color, size and tail shape are part of a hundred-year-old body of research establishing the Coastal California Gnatcatcher subspecies.

These criticisms came to a head in a paper published earlier this year in the scientific journal of the American Ornithologists’ Union, The Auk, which demonstrated “genetic markers they chose were not well suited to the question of distinctness and how they over-interpreted negative results in their genetic and ecological analyses.” Furthermore, the authors show how the genetic data actually “shows significant differentiation in the Coastal California Gnatcatchers.”

This is where things have gotten interesting.

Ornithologist Robert Zink, lead author of the 2013 paper contending that the Coastal California Gnatcatcher is not a distinct subspecies, has taken to the pages of The Auk to defend his research. Not surprisingly, he reaffirms his contention that the bird is not a unique subspecies. But, in an awkward section that must be unique in such an esteemed journal, Zink tries to distance himself from the interests of the developers funding his research. In so doing, he actually makes things worse.

For instance, in defending himself against the criticisms that he took funding from developers, he states that, actually, this funding actually wasn’t for his 2013 research, but instead for earlier work:

"McCormack and Maley (2015) concluded that Zink et al. (2013) had a conflict of interest (“sponsorship bias” in their wording; p. 386) based on a quote in an article in the L.A. Times (, wherein one of us (R. M. Zink) appeared to suggest that our 2013 study was funded in part by “land developers.” In fact, that comment was meant to refer to an earlier published study, Zink et al. (2000), that was also referenced in the L.A. Times article. Zink et al. (2000:1403) acknowledged financial support from “the U.S. Navy, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Southern California Edison, trustees of the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, the Building Industry Association of Southern California, the Transportation Corridor Agency, Chevron Land and Development, the University of Minnesota, and the National Science Foundation (DEB-9317945).” Thus, the quote from the L.A. Times article was in no way intended to reflect that the research reported in our 2013 paper was funded or influenced by “land developers.”

Then comes this doozy:

"To address McCormack and Maley's (2015) concern about conflict of interest for the 2013 work, we note that a lawyer, Mr. Robert Thornton, approached the authors in 2006 and stated that he represented clients who wished to sponsor the research on geographic variation in nuclear genes that the USFWS (2011) stated was required to test subspecies limits in its published denial of a previous listing petition. The resulting contract, which supported a laboratory technician and supplies for 9 mo, listed no funding source other than Mr. Thornton's firm, and, in fact, the authors were unaware of the identity of the funders, as reflected in the acknowledgments of the 2013 publication. However, given the concerns of McCormack and Maley (2015), we queried Mr. Thornton as to the funding source behind the 2006 contract, and he revealed (R. Thornton personal communication) that the funds were provided by the Transportation Corridor Agency, a public agency formed by the legislature of the State of California. In retrospect, we could have discovered and disclosed the funding source for the 2013 paper, although it would not have influenced our analyses and writing of the paper in any way.

"We understand that our failure to discover and disclose the fact that funding came from the Transportation Corridor Agency created a conflict of interest because Mr. Thornton has provided legal counsel in opposition to listing the California Gnatcatcher in 1994, has represented various land developers in southern California that have contested the listing of the California Gnatcatcher, and was one of 2 lawyers representing 7 plaintiffs in a petition to remove the California Gnatcatcher from the list of threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (filed June 11, 2014;"

So, a few things: First, it should be noted that the Transportation Corridor Agencies are joint power authorities who sole function is to build toll roads through south Orange County, much of which is designated Coastal California Gnatcatcher habitat. Second, Zink is actually admitting to additional influence from parties that have a financial stake in delisting the bird. And then there’s the idea that somehow Zink was unaware of where attorney Robert Thornton's money was coming from – as if any ethical researcher would take money from a lawyer and not ask.

Last, if it wasn’t perfectly clear, Thornton is one of two attorneys who signed the 2014 petition to delist the Coastal California Gnatcatcher, a petition that is almost entirely based on Zink’s research. In the petition, Thornton identifies himself as “Attorney for National Association of Home Builders and California Building Industry Association.” We're supposed to believe that Zink knew none of this.

All of this makes one wonder how this petition ever got this far. We can only hope that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service will put a speedy end to this ridiculous and reject it.

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