The coastal California gnatcatcher wins the latest round in its fight to retain endangered species protections

In the decades-long battle to protect the coastal California gnatcatcher, some good news.  I recently wrote about the Pacific Legal Foundation’s attempt to remove the coastal California gnatcatcher from the list of endangered species on the premise that it did not constitute a valid subspecies.  Yesterday, the US Fish and Wildlife Service confirmed once again that the gnatcatcher is indeed a valid subspecies and continues to require the protections of the Endangered Species Act. 

This is an issue that the Service has been dealing with since NRDC first petitioned to have the gnatcatcher added to the list 20 years ago.  At the time, Dr. Jonathan Atwood, a leading researcher on gnatcatchers, had just published a study reconfirming the gnatcatcher’s subspecies status that was originally described in 1926.  Despite the fact that his study was merely a confirmation of previous findings, both he and his research came under intense scrutiny in the early 1990’s as the Service moved, against intense developer opposition, to protect the tiny songbird. It was formally listed as a threatened species in 1993.

The listing of the coastal California gnatcatcher has been challenged repeatedly by development interests over the years, and NRDC has fought hard at every turn  to defend the bird’s protections.   The most recent challenge by PLF once again raised issues with the now 20 year old research of Atwood as well as a 10 year old genetic study that contains insufficient information to address the gnatcatcher’s subspecific status.

I’ve done extensive research on how the Service uses genetic data to make decisions on protecting endangered species, and I’d be the first to tell you that they don’t always get it right.  But in this case the Service has done a tremendous job, relying on the best available science – both genetic and morphological – to once again confirm the taxonomic status of the gnatcatcher.  Their decision,  which carefully evaluated scientific evidence on this topic that has accumulated over the past century, also relied on peer review, independent statistical analysis of data and a scientific panel of experts to reach the correct conclusion that the coastal California gnatcatcher is a valid subspecies.

Development interests have relentlessly sought to undo protections for the gnatcatcher since its initial listing, but thanks to the work of the Fish and Wildlife Service, supported by NRDC, Dr. Atwood, and others, the gnatcatcher continues to persist in the remaining coastal sage scrub habitat of southern California and has recently even begun to reappear in areas once abandoned.  Yesterday's decision means that these little songbirds can continue their comeback. 

I’ll sing to that.

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