The development industry has not given up on delisting the gnatcatcher, but the science is against them.
When the diminutive California gnatcatcher was listed as an endangered species in 1993, it transformed conservation in Southern California. Previously, coastal sage scrub was vanishing before our eyes, easy prey to suburban sprawl. The listing catalyzed cooperation among environmentalists, builders, and local governments to initiate large scale multiple species habitat plans. Indeed, Endangered Habitats League was originally formed in order to support the gnatcatcher listing.
Yet even today, huge portions of the gnatcatcher’s range – northern San Diego County, San Bernardino County, northern Orange County, and Los Angeles County outside of the Palos Verdes Peninsula – have no habitat plans and rely solely on the listing, with threats unabated. In addition, repetitive wildfires have wiped out gnatcatchers in many locations, with “type conversion” to inhospitable weeds a sign of permanent habitat loss. If this weren’t enough, drought has reduced reproductive success and climate change models show potentially devastating changes in vegetation.
Despite the fact that ample housing is being built in less sensitive locations, development industry trade associations have continually sought to undo the listing. The habitat plans that resolve environmental-economic conflict and which are also the bird’s best hope would become collateral damage. The builders’ strategy has been to claim that the bird is not a distinct subspecies, but rather the same as birds in Mexico, and to petition the Fish and Wildlife Service to “delist” the gnatcatcher on that basis.
Following the first attempt to delist on genetic grounds, the Service convened an expert panel to sort through the genetic studies commissioned by the real estate industry as well as other information. The verdict, reached in 2011, was that the best available information did not support delisting the gnatcatcher. Despite this, the trade associations have again petitioned for delisting on the basis of a single new study. Yet top scientists have already discredited that study. The data set relied upon is insufficient to show that a subspecies is not present, and contradicts much contrary genetic and phenotypic (physical traits) evidence.
Legally, the Service must evaluate the information before making a final decision. EHL, along with other groups, has submitted comments as to why the listing remains warranted. Many scientists have also responded with comments. We hope that the building industry will finally get on board with the validity of the listing.