By Brigid McCormack
It is one thing to argue that a particular species — be it a bird, mammal, fish or amphibian — shouldn’t be listed under the Federal Endangered Species Act. It is another thing to argue that this species shouldn’t be listed because there’s money to be made if we don’t. But it’s a stunning disregard for the natural world to say that the species shouldn’t be protected because it doesn’t exist.
That’s the argument Southern California developers are putting before the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in the most recent assault on the Coastal California Gnatcatcher, a small blue-gray bird that depends for its survival on coastal sage scrub habitat from Ventura to Mexico, right where some of this country’s most aggressive developers want to build.
The scientific community has been quick to reject the research behind this claim as cynical and deeply flawed. To date, no other researchers have duplicated or otherwise validated the results of the developers’ study.
It is high time that we stop lending credence to these shameless, self-serving attempts to overturn the bird’s protected status and focus on saving this species from extinction. It is disappointing that the Service found enough in this petition to warrant a formal review, but nonetheless it is taking input from the public before making a decision later this year.
The attacks on the bird’s threatened status haven’t stopped coming since 1993 when the Service initially listed the Coastal California Gnatcatcher as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, an action that extended protection to roughly 200,000 acres of land in Southern California, mostly along the coast and inland toward San Bernardino.
There have been lawsuits, petitions to overturn, economic impact studies, extended debate over critical habitat designations — but nothing has been so brazen as their latest gambit.
The first attempt to argue that the Coastal California Gnatcatcher doesn’t exist was shot down by a panel of U.S. Fish & Wildlife experts in 2010, which determined that the sole research paper making that argument didn’t go far enough into the bird’s DNA to justify the claim. That paper’s author returned in 2013 with another paper — funded by the Southern California building industry — that includes nuclear DNA evidence.
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.
A new scientific paper published in January in the scientific journal of the American Ornithologists’ Union goes even further to debunk the developers’ research, demonstrating how the “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 entire discussion is taking place at a time when drought is ravaging Southern California, and creating immense challenges for birds and people. Biologists are documenting whole populations of songbirds and raptors that are simply opting not to breed, or producing young in numbers inadequate to support their populations.
This is a terrible time to be having any discussion about removing protections for any bird in Southern California, needless to say one so precarious as the Coastal California Gnatcatcher.
Brigid McCormack is the executive director of Audubon California.