The California Gnatcatcher Lives to Fight Another Day

Credit: USFWS

The coastal California gnatcatcher is an unlikely adversary. The tiny, unassuming dusky-gray bird that mews like a kitten is just trying to stay alive amid its rapidly declining sage brush habitat in southern California. Unfortunately for the bird, it happens to also occupy some of the most valuable real estate property in the state.  The gnatcatcher’s mere existence has made it a frequently target of property rights groups like the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) and the National Association for Homebuilders which have been trying to discredit the bird since NRDC and other groups petitioned to have it protected under the Endangered Species Act more than 20 years ago.

See the coastal California gnatcatcher is the northern subspecies of the California gnatcatcher – whose broader species range extends down the length of Baja California. The subspecies has been recognized for over 80 years when it was first described in 1926 by Joseph Grinnell based on physical characteristics that distinguish it from its counterparts to the south – and its designation has repeatedly been confirmed by various independent researchers over the years. But that hasn’t stopped property rights groups from trying to argue that the subspecies is invalid and shouldn’t be recognized. They attempted this in 2010 and again most recently in 2014 when they filed a petition with the US Fish and Wildlife Service to remove endangered species protections from the bird based on a genetic study that they funded which they claimed called into question the validity of the subspecies designation. The only problem is that the study (Zink et al. 2013) was based on serious flaws from the choice of the genetic marker to the ecological niche modeling to the statistical analysis.

I don’t say this all the time, but the US Fish and Wildlife Service has done a commendable job at evaluating and responding to the repeated attempts to discredit the coastal California gnatcatcher. The Service solicited input from the public including relevant scientific experts and additionally convened a scientific panel to evaluate the study. All six members of the panel unanimously concluded that the best available science supported the continued recognition of the subspecies designation.

Despite this clear finding, it’s unlikely that PLF and similar groups will stop their quest to strip protections from the coastal California gnatcatcher and while they continue to try to argue that the subspecies doesn’t exist, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has determined that the bird continues to face significant threats such as habitat loss (from urban and agricultural development), vegetation conversion and climate change. A lot of good work has gone into plans to protect the last remaining coastal sage scrub habitat which is home not just to the gnatcatcher, but to many different species.

As a scientist working on endangered species protections, I regularly see policy decisions influenced by political and societal pressures, but in this case science won the day. Luckily for the bird, this unknowing victor can go back to just trying to find a meal and a mate.

For now. 

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