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Gnatcatcher Denied Endangered Species Status : Wildlife: Panel rejects staff recommendations to protect birds, which live in areas sought by developers.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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 is not convinced that the tiny songbird is seriously threatened with extinction.

Before the commissioners voted in Long Beach, a top official in the Wilson Administration took the unprecedented step of urging the panel to deny the bird protection so 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 exist because most of their coastal sage scrub habitat has been developed, wildlife biologists say.

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If the petition had been granted, the 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 Orange, San Diego and Riverside counties would have been delayed indefinitely.

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.

Joel Reynolds, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the group will sue the state commission next week on the 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.”

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But Commission President Everett McCracken said he did not think the degree or immediacy of the threat to the bird was sufficient to warrant protection. He also said that 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 agreeable 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. Interior Department has also been asked to list the gnatcatcher as an endangered species, and is due to decide by Sept. 20. If the federal government decides that the bird is endangered, however, protection would not be immediate. A year of study and public comment would have to take place.

The battle over the gnatcatcher has been exceptionally passionate because the bird can only survive in the same low-lying coastal canyons coveted by developers.

At stake were about 3,000 acres of coastal sage scrub that Orange County and San Diego County builders plan to develop in the next 24 months. If the bird is listed by the federal government, several hundred thousand more acres could be affected, builders say.

“My sense is the decision was pretty obviously motivated much more by political and economic considerations than by science,” said Jonathan Atwood, an ornithologist who has studied the gnatcatcher 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. Pete Wilson, was unprecedented, according to officials from the state Department of Fish and Game.

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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 said the listing would be premature especially because the building slowdown caused by the recession “is working to the favor of minimal habitat loss.”

Times staff writer Eric Bailey contributed to this story.


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