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Songbird Joins Endangered Species List : Designation May Affect 13 Public Works Projects in Southland

Times Staff Writer

Federal wildlife officials have decided to put a small California songbird on the federal endangered species list--a decision that could delay or alter at least 13 large public works projects from Santa Barbara to the Mexican border.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Friday announced its decision to list the least Bell’s vireo, a species once common in California that has dwindled to an estimated 300 breeding pairs because of farming, urbanization and predators.

But the agency has not decided whether to designate 43,000 acres in five counties as “critical habitat” under special protection. Critics have complained that the habitat scheme would jeopardize development and damage local economies.

“There was so much comment and data supplied to us during the public hearing process . . . we felt that we needed more time to study the ramifications of critical habitat,” said David Klinger, a Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman in Washington. The public comment period will be reopened for 90 days and the agency will then have a year to decide on any action.

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Protected by Law

The split decision means that the bird will be protected by the Endangered Species Act, which makes it a criminal offense to harm a least Bell’s vireo. And all federal or federally licensed projects on land used by the birds will come under the scrutiny of the service.

The least Bell’s vireo is a small, gray bird that nests in low thickets along willow-lined waterways. Once abundant from Northern California through Baja California, the species has shrunk as woodlands have been destroyed and brownheaded cowbirds have invaded its territory.

Now about 75% of the remaining birds’ U.S. population is believed to exist on about 43,000 acres in Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties.

Nancy Kaufman, the Fish and Wildlife Service supervisor for Southern California, said she already knows of 13 federal or federally licensed public works and other projects that have been proposed for those areas and would be affected by the listing.

Projects Affected

In San Diego County, Caltrans officials say four highway and bridge projects could be hampered by the listing: the Oceanside bypass on California 76, the San Luis Rey River bridge at Bonsall, the extension of California 52 and the Sweetwater River Bridge on California 94.

None of the 13 are in Los Angeles County, but Kaufman says there may be others that she is unaware of.

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Under the Endangered Species Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service determines whether a proposed project might harm an endangered species. If it finds that it would, it must recommend “reasonable and prudent” alternatives to the original proposal.

In the case of the least Bell’s vireo, Kaufman said, such alternatives could include requiring the developer or agency to move a stretch of highway out of the bird’s habitat or moving the location of a bridge up or down the river.


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