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Babbitt Challenges Ruling on Gnatcatcher : Environment: Interior secretary will ask judge to keep the bird on threatened species list while data showing need for protection is supplied. Building industry groups say they will oppose the request.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt announced Wednesday that he will ask a federal district judge to keep the California gnatcatcher on the threatened species list while he provides evidence that he says will prove the tiny songbird should remain protected.

In a statement eagerly applauded by conservationists, Babbitt made clear that he is committed to keeping both the songbird and its nesting grounds safe. Conservationists have feared that, in the wake of a recent court ruling, bulldozers would destroy the bird’s fragile habitat.

“We remain confident that the listing of the gnatcatcher was done on the basis of sound scientific information, despite the judge’s ruling that the Fish and Wildlife Service committed a procedural error in the listing process,” Babbitt said in a written statement.

Attorneys for the Building Industry Assn. of Southern California and the Orange County Transportation Corridor Agencies, which had successfully petitioned the court to remove the gnatcatcher from the threatened list, immediately said they would oppose Babbitt’s request.

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“I think the chance of him persuading the judge of reaching a different conclusion is very, very small,” said Richard Jacobs, lead attorney for the Building Industry Assn. “The matter was extensively briefed. Basically what (Babbitt) is asking the judge to do is allow (the Interior Department) to continue doing something that he has already concluded is illegal.”

In his controversial ruling May 2, U.S. District Judge Stanley Sporkin ordered the bird removed from the list, saying that the government had failed to make available to the public all of the raw data it relied upon when it declared the songbird threatened.

Babbitt said Wednesday that the author of an important gnatcatcher study--Massachusetts ornithologist Jonathan L. Atwood--has agreed to make his raw research available to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in order to “straighten out the record.”

In turn, the government will make that data available to the public--but only if the judge agrees to reinstate the bird’s protected status in the meantime.

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“If the judge does not agree,” Babbitt wrote, “we will consider filing an appeal, and will also consider listing the gnatcatcher as a threatened species on an emergency basis while we take steps to obtain, make available to the public and evaluate all the relevant information.”

Whatever the outcome of Babbit’s request, people on both sides of the issue said it is not likely to derail an extensive habitat conservation plan under development. Under the plan, developers will voluntarily preserve crucial habitat in exchange for permission to develop land considered less essential to various species, including the gnatcatcher.

“The process will continue to go forward,” said Laer Pearce, executive director of the Coalition for Habitat Conservation, a group representing major developers enrolled in the plan. “We’re not dumb. No one is going out and grading since the judge’s ruling.”


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