Groups Drop Suit Over Gnatcatcher's Threatened Status

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A builders' group and the Orange County toll-road agency have decided not to pursue a federal lawsuit that focused national attention on conflicts between endangered species laws and development interests.

The 1992 lawsuit had challenged the listing of the California gnatcatcher as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Now, parties in the case are expressing hope that a new cooperative land-use planning effort underway in Orange County could make such court battles unnecessary.

In the suit, the Building Industry Assn. of Southern California and the Transportation Corridor Agencies challenged the process followed by the federal government in declaring the tiny bird threatened.

The attorneys had until last Friday to petition to reopen the U.S. District Court case, which is now expected to be dismissed.

Rob Thornton, representing the transportation agencies, said his client had made a commitment not to proceed with the lawsuit if the state did not list the gnatcatcher as a candidate for protection under state law.

The state Fish and Game Commission decided against a listing in June, saying the bird is already protected with threatened status under federal law.

Attorneys also expressed cautious optimism about the Natural Communities Conservation Planning program, which has been heralded as a vehicle for developers and environmentalists to work together to preserve habitats.

"It's good we have closure to the litigation," said David Klinger, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "Let's get on with the planning process."

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