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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Threatened Bird

Air Date: Week of

The California gnatcatcher is a small bird but it’s had a big influence on development in southern California. That’s because it’s listed as a threatened species. The Fish and Wildlife Service is set to designate hundreds of thousands of acres of land as critical habitat for the bird. But new evidence shows that the bird is no different from its very common cousins found in Mexico. Living On Earth’s Diane Toomey reports.


KNOY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy, filling in for Steve Curwood. In a controversial move, the federal government later this month is set to designate almost 800,000 acres of land in Southern California as critical habitat for the California gnatcatcher. The songbird is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Now, new research has added to the controversy. There is genetic evidence that shows the California bird is the same subspecies as the common Mexican gnatcatcher. As Living on Earth's Diane Toomey reports, environmentalists and land developers have, not surprisingly, different interests in the findings.

(Gnatcatcher call)

TOOMEY: The gnatcatcher is no bald eagle. It's a small bird, about four inches long, with unspectacular gray and white feathers. It makes its living in the sage scrub vegetation of coastal Southern California, where it nests and forages for bugs. But the presence of this little creature can strike fear into the hearts of the largest of developers. That's because one pair of threatened gnatcatchers may occupy a range of ten acres. And in the heady world of California real estate, that means development restrictions could be placed on $30 million worth of land.

(Gnatcatcher calls)

TOOMEY: Northern gnatcatchers, including those in California, are darker and have a different tail spot pattern than most of their Mexican brethren. So scientists, including those in the Fish and Wildlife Service, have believed they're separate subspecies. Think of the grizzly and the kodiak, different subspecies of brown bear. But in the new study, University of Minnesota ornithologist Robert Zink dug deeper, down into the level of DNA. Dr. Zink is the first researcher to apply a special type of genetic analysis to classify the California gnatcatcher. He used samples from about five dozen birds found from L.A. County to the tip of Baja.

ZINK: We have found throughout the entire range of the California gnatcatcher, from Palos Verdes to Cabo San Lucas, that there are no genetic divisions within this species. In fact, form a DNA sample I can't tell whether a California gnatcatcher is from Los Angeles or Cabo San Lucas, the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula.

TOOMEY: Normally this kind of genetic information would be of interest to at most a small circle of ornithologists. But since the subject of this study is listed as a threatened species, things are a bit more complicated. That's because while the gnatcatchers in California, thanks to habitat loss, number just a few thousand pairs, there are about a million pairs in Mexico. So if it's true that the California gnatcatcher is not a separate subspecies, then the birds on the whole aren't endangered at all. But Dr. Zink says when it comes to protecting the birds in the U.S., his research may not be important.

ZINK: One way of looking at our study is that it's moot. The bird is highly threatened and the populations are fragmented in Southern California. The only place where California gnatcatchers occur in the United States is in Southern California in the coastal sage scrub habitat.

TOOMEY: And that's the point, says Andrew Wetzler, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. He says the Endangered Species Act allow for protection of animals in the U.S., regardless of their numbers elsewhere.

WETZLER: Congress recognized that it was important to preserve wildlife in America. And Congress was concerned about the demise of species like the bald eagle, the grizzly bear, and the gray wolf, all of which had very healthy non-genetically distinct populations in Alaska and Canada, but which were going extinct in the lower 48.

TOOMEY: A few years ago the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did resist listing the Canada lynx, citing a healthy population in Canada. But the agency lost a court challenge on that position. Earlier this year the cat was listed as threatened in the U.S. The Fish and Wildlife Service says it's still reviewing this new research, published in the journal Conservation Biology. But in a preliminary response, the agency said the gnatcatcher would more than likely remain protected. Attorney Andrew Wetzler says that's the correct position to take.

WETZLER: We think that the only thing that should make a difference is if somebody can demonstrate that the gnatcatchers in Southern California are not threatened or endangered. And so far, nobody is making that claim.

TOOMEY: Laer Pearce is the executive director of the Coalition for Habitat Conservation, an organization of large private developers and utility companies. He says no one wants to see the gnatcatcher go extinct in the U.S., but Pearce says his organization never believed the birds here were a true subspecies. This new evidence, he says, proves that the data the Fish and Wildlife Service relies on come from bad science.

PEARCE: They just got caught on one aspect. I mean, you know, the taxonomy and genetics of the gnatcatcher is only one of about seven or eight criteria that need to be met in the listing. And the science underpinning every one of those criteria is incorrect in the gnatcatcher listing.

TOOMEY: For instance, he disputes the amount of gnatcatcher habitat the Fish and Wildlife Service says has been lost over the years.

PEARCE: If they're not using the best scientific evidence available to them, they make erroneous decisions like, for example, declaring 800,000 acres of Southern California to be gnatcatcher habitat.

TOOMEY: Nevertheless, that designation is set to go into effect later this month. When that happens, any development within those 800,000 acres that requires a federal permit or receives federal funding must be scrutinized by the Fish and Wildlife Service for its impact on gnatcatcher habitat. For Living on Earth, I'm Diane Toomey.



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