In a hard-fought victory for Southern California developers, the state Fish and Game Commission on Friday denied “endangered species” protection for the California gnatcatcher, saying it was not convinced the tiny songbird is seriously threatened with extinction.
Before the commissioners voted, a top official in the administration of Gov. Pete Wilson took the unprecedented step of urging the panel to deny the bird protection so that officials can negotiate voluntary agreements with developers to set aside land for the bird.
The panel rejected the advice of its own staff by voting, 3 to 1, to deny the petition asking that the 4-inch, blue-gray songbird be declared a candidate for the endangered species list.
Fewer than 1,800 pairs of the birds now exist because most of its coastal sage scrub habitat has been developed, wildlife biologists say.
If the petition had been granted, the bird’s habitat would have been protected for one year while the state studied whether full listing was warranted. Because the bird makes its home on prime real estate, dozens of road and construction projects in San Diego, Orange and Riverside counties would have been delayed indefinitely.
In San Diego County, four housing developments and the proposed extension of California 56 had large interests in the California Fish and Game Commission’s decision Friday.
“We’re very encouraged by the action that the Fish and Game Commission took today, and we look forward to the effort that has been initiated by the governor’s office,” said Pam Engebretson, vice president for planning and processing for Southwest Diversified, whose 1,460-acre Hidden Valley Estates project in Jamul contains 536 acres of coastal sage scrub.
The Building Industry Assn. of Southern California aggressively fought the gnatcatcher petition, arguing that the Southern California economy would face billions of dollars in lost business if the bird were protected.
Joel Reynolds, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the group will sue the state commission next week on grounds that it did not follow provisions of the Endangered Species Act. He said the decision “virtually guarantees that the California gnatcatcher will continue toward extinction.”
But Commission President Everett McCracken said he does not think that the threat to the bird is immediate enough to warrant protection. He also said local governments are doing a good job of protecting the bird by setting aside parks and other open space.
Hugh Hewitt, an attorney for the Building Industry Assn., said the imminent lawsuit is “unfortunate” because landowners are amenable to working with the governor to find ways to conserve the bird’s habitat.
“Why can’t they take yes for an answer? We’re doing what they want. But we’re doing it rationally. The protections are there, and it’s got to go forward because the (building) industry heard quite clearly that we’ll be right back here if they don’t do it,” he said.
The U.S. Department of Interior has also been asked to list the gnatcatcher as an endangered species and is scheduled to decide by Sept. 20. If the federal government decides the bird is endangered, however, protection would not be immediate. A year of study and public comment would have occur.
The battle over the gnatcatcher has been exceptionally passionate and political because the bird can only survive in the same low-lying coastal canyons coveted by developers.
At stake in Friday’s decision was about 3,000 acres of coastal sage scrub that San Diego and Orange County builders plan to develop in the next 24 months. If the bird is eventually listed by the federal government, several hundred thousand more acres could be affected, builders say.
Engebretson said the commission’s decision won’t put the gnatcatcher at risk because local agencies have long understood the sensitive nature of the coastal sage scrub. Rather, the governor’s plan will give developers a chance to prove that they can preserve the habitat without state coercion.
“We really think that this is a program that works, and we’re ready to go for it,” said Engebretson, whose company has an agreement with the county allowing it to grade 240 acres of coastal sage scrub.
Environmentalists in San Diego, although disappointed by the ruling, agree that this will make developers “put up or shut up” when it comes to preserving the gnatcatcher habitat.
“We don’t have a lot of faith in the developers at this point, but we’re willing to work with the process,” said Barbara Bamberger of the Sierra Club.
Other projects in San Diego County that would have been affected by an “endangered species” label for the California gnatcatcher were the mammoth 19,700-acre Otay Ranch just south of Chula Vista, 1,200-acre Salt Creek Ranch just east of Chula Vista and 3,000-acre Rancho San Diego in El Cajon.
Plans for the extension of California 56 from Interstate 5 near North City West to Interstate 15 by Rancho Penasquitos also would have been affected.
“My sense is the decision was pretty obviously motivated much more by political and economic considerations than by science,” said Jonathon Atwood, an ornithologist who has studied gnatcatchers for more than 10 years and was behind the petition to protect it.
The last-minute appeal from Undersecretary of Resources Michael Mantell, who said he was relaying a message from Gov. Wilson, was unprecedented, according to officials from the state Department of Fish and Game.
All three of the commissioners who voted against the petition are California businessmen who were appointed by ex-Gov. George Deukmejian.
Commissioner Frank Boren, a Wilson appointee who was former director of the Nature Conservancy, cast the dissenting vote. He said he liked the governor’s plan to negotiate voluntary agreements, but said it is not a satisfactory solution because it does not carry the force of law.
Mantell told the commission that the listing would be “premature,” especially because the building slowdown caused by the recession “is working to the favor of minimal habitat loss.”
The plan “is not a panacea for landowners,” Mantell said. “We intend to have landowners’ agreements in place in the next few months.”
Times staff writers Jonathan Gaw and Eric Bailey contributed to this story.