Jobs killed by unendangered species

It’s been 20 years since biologist Jonathan L. Atwood authored a study declaring the California gnatcatcher a distinct subspecies.

Based on Atwood’s conclusion, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1993 listed the small blue-gray songbird as “threatened,” restricting land use on nearly 200,000 acres across six Southern California counties, much of it
privately owned.

In 2000, Atwood co-authored a follow-up study, published in the scientific journal Conservation Biology. He concluded that his previous findings were wrong.

“California gnatcatchers are not genetically distinct from populations in Baja California, which are dense and continuously distributed throughout” the Mexican peninsula, the study said.

It added that its conclusion “illustrates the danger of focusing conservation efforts for threatened habitats on a single species.”

Flash forward to this past week. Responding to a petition that the California gnatcatcher be delisted as “threatened,” the Fish and Wildlife Service ruled that there is an inadequate scientific basis to remove the bird from the special protection it now enjoys under the federal Endangered Species Act.

“We have recognized all along that there have been periodic questions,” said Jane Hendron, spokeswoman for the service’s Carlsbad office. But at this time, she continued, “there’s not enough information to say this is not a valid subspecies.”

The federal agency’s decision is understandably confounding to the Pacific Legal Foundation, which filed the petition on behalf of private landowners whose property was declared protected habitat for the gnatcatcher.

Reed Hopper, a principal attorney with the foundation, noted that the Fish and Wildlife Service invoked Atwood’s original study in defending its decision not to delist the gnatcatcher, while completely ignoring his later genetic study (plus other subsequent studies agreeing that the California gnatcatcher is not a valid subspecies).

“The Endangered Species Act requires that listing decisions be based on the ‘best available’ scientific data,” Hopper wrote on a PLF blog, “and these are the only genetic studies available … The petition provided ample evidence that the gnatcatcher is not a valid subspecies and should be delisted.”

To most California residents, disputes between the Fish and Wildlife Service and private landowners are of little concern, whether it be the nearly 200,000 acres in Southern California designated as protected for the gnatcatcher, or the nearly 200,000 acres in Northern California set aside as critical habitat for the tiger salamander.

But they almost certainly would feel differently if they knew just how much the government’s enforcement of the Endangered Species Act costs the state in terms of much-needed economic development and job creation.

Indeed, the Fish and Wildlife Service itself has estimated that the land use restrictions it has imposed on behalf of the gnatcatcher will cost the California economy more than $900 million by 2025.

Many Californians might consider that an acceptable cost to bear to save a species from extinction. But hardly anyone could possibly find that a reasonable sum to pay to protect a bird that is not the threatened subspecies once thought.

Joseph Perkins is the business editor of San Diego Magazine. He previously served on the White House staff of former Vice President Dan Quayle.

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