Suit Seeks to Force State to List Gnatcatcher as Endangered

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

An environmental group filed suit Friday seeking to force the state Fish and Game Commission to designate as endangered the California gnatcatcher, a tiny songbird that lives on vast tracts of undeveloped land in Orange and surrounding counties.

The Natural Resources Defense Council filed its suit in Sacramento Superior Court exactly two weeks after the commission voted 3-1 to reject the group's request to declare the gnatcatcher a candidate for the endangered species list.

In the suit, the New York-based council asks the court to overturn the controversial decision because the commission "abused its discretion."

"The commission's decision was inconsistent with the overwhelming biological evidence, and it was clearly contrary to state endangered species law," said Joel Reynolds, a senior attorney with the group. "The question was simply whether or not there was evidence enough to warrant consideration, not full listing. The evidence was clearly sufficient."

Short of overturning the decision, the environmental group hopes to obtain an order requiring the commission to reconsider the issue with "guidance as to what the law requires," Reynolds said.

Robert Treanor, the commission's executive director, declined comment on the lawsuit Friday.

The lawsuit is the latest twist in a long and bitter battle over the fate of the gnatcatcher. Environmentalists want the bird legally protected by the state and federal governments as an endangered species because there are only an estimated 1,200 to 2,000 pairs left.

But developers say such a listing could create economic havoc in Southern California. That's because the gnatcatcher lives in coastal sage scrub, which covered thousands of acres of prime developable land in Orange, Riverside and San Diego counties.

Developers--led by the Irvine Co.--have enlisted the aid of the Wilson Administration in trying to head off such a listing by offering an alternative: setting aside large coastal scrub preserves that will save the gnatcatcher and other threatened species. That approach would both guarantee survival of the gnatcatcher and free acreage for development, they contend.

It was with an eye to such an approach that the commission shocked environmentalists Aug. 30 by voting to reject the Natural Resources Defense Council's petition to consider the gnatcatcher for state endangered species listing. That decision went against the recommendation of the commission staff.

Six days later, the federal government announced that the gnatcatcher was a candidate for its endangered listing. But environmentalists are worried that development will go unchecked while federal officials take a year to study the issue.

The result, Reynolds said, is Friday's lawsuit. State laws could provide immediate protection for the bird if the courts interceded, he said.

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