The curious case of the coastal California gnatcatcher

coastal California gnatcatcher (San Bernadino Dept. Public Works)

Last week, the US Fish and Wildlife Service formally decided to retain endangered species protections for the coastal California gnatcatcher, a tiny gray songbird considered by many to be the “canary in the coal mine” for the coastal sage scrub ecosystem of southern California.  Predictably, the Pacific Legal Foundation, who submitted the petition asking the Service to remove the bird from the endangered species list, has now questioned the Service’s conclusion, calling it  “curious” for its failure to accept PLF’s view of the science.   Specifically, PLF claims that the subspecies designation for the coastal California gnatcatcher is based on a 1991 study by Dr. Jonathan Atwood that they argue was subsequently invalidated by a genetics study in 2000 and furthermore that Atwood himself no longer supports the subspecies designation. 

First of all, as I have previously written, the Atwood study was actually a reconfirmation of earlier studies -- and there have been subsequent ones -- that all support the coastal California gnatcatcher as a distinct subspecies.  Second, the genetic study conducted in 2000 and cited most heavily by PLF relies on a certain type of data that is insufficient to detect differences below the species level.  Indeed, the very consultant that PLF hired to support its petition has published papers cautioning against using this type of data (mitochondrial DNA) for making subspecific designations – precisely the kind of use advocated by PLF in this instance. 

Finally, Dr. Atwood never ‘repudiated’ his support for recognizing and protecting the coastal California gnatcatcher.  In comments he submitted in 2003 when the Service was considering whether the gnatcatcher should be listed as a subspecies or a ‘distinct population segment,’ Dr. Atwood commented that “[w]hether these birds are referred to as a distinct subspecies, or as a two distinct population segments, the overwhelming arguments in favor of granting them legal protection remain unchanged.”  Contrary to PLF’s claims, Dr. Atwood has unequivocally endorsed the very protection that PLF, through its petition to the Service, has sought to undo.

Perhaps the fact that PLF continues to advocate against federal protection for the coastal California gnatcatcher is no surprise given the organization’s relentless crusade for decades to that end.  But its continued reliance on distorted, tired and baseless claims certainly is “curious”.