For two decades, a small gray songbird has made the difference between development and conservation in some of the most coveted coastal land in California.
A federal decision last week to leave the coastal California gnatcatcher on the endangered species list brought praise from environmentalists but left Southern California developers primed for an ongoing fight.
The gnatcatcher has been a linchpin to conservation planning in San Diego, Riverside and Orange counties since it was listed as a threatened species in 1993. In 2014, the Pacific Legal Foundation petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to delist the bird, arguing that recent science casts doubt on its threatened status.
The service rejected that petition last week, but debate over the gnatcatcher isn't over. Building groups say they may sue over the decision, while conservation groups worry the bird remains at risk from wildfires, climate change and development pressure.
"We're still in the process of analyzing the service's decision," said Robert Thornton, an attorney who represented the Building Industry Assn. of Southern California on the petition. "The next step is possibly a lawsuit. The issue here is, did the service comply with the Endangered Species Act, which requires it to use the best science available."
The gnatcatcher is a blue-gray songbird that lives in coastal sage scrub from Santa Barbara to the Baja peninsula. Researchers say that urban sprawl has whittled away 90% of its habitat in California.
By the 1990s, the birds were feeling the pinch. At that time, a 20-year-old environmentalist named David Hogan with the Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition to list the gnatcatcher under the Endangered Species Act.
"Back then, there were virtually zero measures in place anywhere in Southern California to protect the gnatcatcher or its critically endangered habitat," Hogan said.
The listing ushered in complex systems for protecting ecosystems, known as habitat conservation plans or natural community conservation plans. The plans aimed to streamline environmental permitting, while preserving habitat for multiple species. And the gnatcatcher was at the center of it.
"The way the federal Endangered Species Act is structured is that it looks at things species by species," said Ileene Anderson, a senior scientist for the Center for Biological Diversity. "But when you have an endangered habitat, one species can act as an umbrella species for a lot of other species that are imperiled. In the case of the gnatcatcher, this one species is a relatively wide-ranging bird that only lives in the coastal sage scrub habitat of California, which is also very desirable for development."
By protecting the gnatcatcher, regulators also safeguarded animals such as the coastal whiptail lizard, coastal horned lizard and coastal cactus wren, Anderson said
"The gnatcatcher listing was absolutely critical not just to ensure the survival of that one species, but also to set the wheels turning on these regional habitat conservation plans," Hogan said.
Developers, however, saw the bird, and its ensuing regulations, as a roadblock to the region's construction boom.
"In general, species listing and the critical habitat designation that goes along with that listing takes areas out of consideration for building and development," said Shanda Beltran, general counsel for the Building Industry Assn. of Southern California. "That obviously would be a concern to the industry when developable area is reduced."
The Pacific Legal Foundation said in a news release that the gnatcatcher listing took hundreds of thousands of acres in Southern California off the table for construction.
"In total, approximately 197,303 acres in San Diego, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Los Angeles and Ventura counties have been designated as critical habitat for the coastal California gnatcatcher," the foundation, a Sacramento watchdog agency for property rights and limited government, stated. "Federal officials estimate that the economic impact of these restrictions will total more $900 million by year 2025."
In 2014 the foundation petitioned to remove the gnatcatcher from the list, on behalf of the Property Owners Assn. of Riverside County; the Center for Environmental Science, Accuracy & Reliability; and the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business, along with the California Building Industry Assn. and the National Assn. of Home Builders.
They argued that new research showed that the Southern California gnatcatcher is genetically indistinguishable from its Mexican counterparts, and shouldn't be protected as a separate species. The service, however, convened a panel of geneticists, ornithologists and statisticians, and determined that the original listing is still valid.
The Pacific Legal Foundation and its partners say they're contemplating a lawsuit to challenge that decision. They hope to change the way the service reviews data and perhaps reset the bar for future endangered species listings.
Environmentalists say they would be happy if the gnatcatcher population recovered. But with the limited space it has left, they're not counting on that soon.
"There's less than 10% of this original habitat left," Hogan said. "And the gnatcatcher and many other species are threatened as a result of that habitat loss. How many pieces of the engine can you remove until the engine breaks down?"
Sullivan Brennan writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.