Editorial: The fate of the California gnatcatcher


Southern California developers are petitioning federal authorities to kick the California gnatcatcher off the list of threatened species, where it’s been since 1993. They’re backed by a scientific study, which they helped fund, showing a lack of DNA evidence for classifying the nondescript local songbird as a genetically unique subspecies. Rather, the study concludes, the California gnatcatcher is just a member of a common gnatcatcher species, albeit one with slightly different coloration.

Proponents of de-listing the small, blue-gray bird note that it has had an outsize effect on development in the region because federal law requires the preservation of critical habitat for threatened and endangered species. Removing the gnatcatcher from the list would make it somewhat easier to develop projects on nearly 200,000 acres in Southern California.

But hold on a moment. Though the study raises interesting questions worth following up, the


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should not be changing wildlife policy based on a single study funded in part by the industry that stands to gain from it.

That’s not to say there’s no validity to the study, which was led by a biology professor at the University of Minnesota and a curator of ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History, and published in a peer-reviewed journal. It might have a helpful place in a larger body of research conducted by a variety of scientists.

But other scientists have criticized the study, saying that biology professor Robert Zink failed to examine enough of the bird’s genome and looked only at what was more likely to result in negative findings. They note that Zink describes himself as being skeptical about the concept of subspecies in birds. Some (but not all) of the opposing scientists work for environmental groups, which means their viewpoints also might be colored by factors other than pure science.

There’s reason for nervousness on both sides. More complete studies might dash the construction industry’s hopes forever — or might make tens of thousands of acres of environmentally fragile open space available to development. That doesn’t necessarily mean developers will be able to build like it’s 1992. Increased wildfire danger, worsening water shortages and concerns about air pollution and climate change make it a bad idea to continue large-scale, sprawling development on the edges of fire-prone open space.

For now, the Fish and Wildlife Service should commission its own thorough, independent studies and then make a decision on whether the California gnatcatcher meets the requirements of the Endangered Species Act, basing any future decision on a solid body of replicated research, not on one or two studies, and not on rhetoric from either side.

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