The Pacific Legal Foundation would like to see the coastal California gnatcatcher removed from the endangered species list. They filed a petition with the US Fish and Wildlife Service last year and recently filed a lawsuit against the Service for missing their deadline to respond to the petition. That’s certainly within their rights, but what I take issue with is the fact that their petition doesn’t have a leg – er, wing? – to stand on.
The coastal California gnatcatcher – a beautiful, if tiny, songbird that mews like a kitten – makes its home in the dwindling coastal sage scrub habitat of southern California. The bird has been recognized as a distinct subspecies for nearly a century. First described in 1926 by Grinnell, several subsequent evaluations since that time have all confirmed that gnatcatchers occurring above 30 degrees North latitude contain a set of characteristics that differentiate them from gnatcatchers occurring farther south. Despite this, the PLF is arguing that the coastal California gnatcatcher is not a valid subspecies and therefore should not be protected under the Endangered Species Act.
One of their arguments is based on a critique of the methodology of a 1991 study that reconfirmed the subspecies status of the gnatcatcher. The critique fails to discredit the 1991 study on a number of levels, but even if it had, there is no mention of the numerous other studies and descriptions that have validated the subspecies’ existence. Their second line of evidence is a genetic study conducted in 2000 that showed little variation within the broader species distribution. This study relied on a single genetic ‘marker’ that is known not to be sensitive to variation below the species level. In fact, the author of the critique himself has published articles cautioning against using this genetic marker alone for making subspecies designations – a warning that has been echoed by other researchers over the years and is now widely accepted.
What is most egregious about PLF’s petition is that the Service has already evaluated and answered this question over the years and the petition does not present any new information or analysis that the Service has not already considered. In fact, six months after PLF filed their petition last year the Service issued a 5 year review of the coastal California gnatcatcher’s status in which they discuss a previous proposal to change the subspecies status to one of a Distinct Population Segment, but after further evaluation of the data and consultation with a panel of scientists they concluded that subspecies status is in fact the correct taxonomic unit for the bird. The Service has essentially already issued their response to the petition.
The 5 year review concluded that the gnatcatcher remains threatened and continues to need protection under the Endangered Species Act. In some good news, however, just last year, a pair of coastal California gnatcatchers was officially documented in the Ballona wetlands ecological reserve – an area that has not been occupied by gnatcatchers since 1888.
This may not be good news for PLF, but for those of us who value wildlife and the beauty of southern California’s sage scrub, I’m happy to report that it looks like the gnatcatcher is here to stay.