Out of the past — and seemingly out of the blue — it came.
A petition filed this month seeking to remove the golden-cheeked warbler from the federal government’s endangered species list suddenly threatens to resurrect an epic environmental battle from the 1990s — and potentially could expose large sections of the warbler’s Central Texas habitat to development.
The government should reject the petition. Development, though restricted by the warbler’s designation as an endangered species, continues to reduce and fragment the bird’s habitat.
Texans for Positive Economic Policy, a group led by former Texas Comptroller Susan Combs, along with the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Reason Foundation, filed the petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on July 1 seeking to take the golden-cheeked warbler off the endangered species list. The federal government has 90 days to answer the petition.
The Fish and Wildlife Service declared the warbler an endangered species in 1990. Several years later, the city of Austin and Travis County began piecing together the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve — a system of tracts set aside as habitat for the golden-cheeked warbler and other endangered species in the Austin area, such as several cave-dwelling invertebrates and the black-capped vireo, another bird that was listed as endangered in 1987. The preserve system, which totals about 30,500 acres, arose out of a mid-1990s compromise agreement with the federal government that delicately balances protecting the warbler against allowing possible development in some 60,000 acres of its habitat in and around Austin.
The golden-cheeked warbler is a small bird 5 to 6 inches long with yellow-and-black markings on the sides of its head. Bird watchers come to Central Texas from all over the world to see the bird when it returns from Mexico and parts of Central America each spring to nest in the 33 counties that make up its exclusive breeding grounds. Development and the clearing of old-growth ashe juniper trees — or cedar trees as they’re commonly called — have been reducing and fragmenting the bird’s breeding habitat for decades.
The Combs-led petition argues that the warbler is thriving, and that new data show the warbler has enough habitat to maintain a robust population — a position at odds with other surveys. Further, a news release announcing the petition said the bird’s endangered status had “jeopardized” training at Fort Hood. A Fort Hood official told the American-Statesman’s Asher Price that training hadn’t been compromised by the bird’s presence on the endangered species list or by the role Fort Hood had played in working with nearby ranchers to preserve some of the warbler’s habitat.
Nonetheless, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, blindly seizing an opportunity to create a headline for himself, repeated the claim that the golden-cheeked warbler had compromised the Army’s preparedness for combat when he declared his support for taking the bird off the endangered list, where it never actually belonged, he asserted. “We now know the golden-cheeked warbler should never have been listed in the first place based on actual science,” Bush said in a statement.
In 1990, when the warbler was declared endangered, its total population was estimated to be between 10,000 and 30,000 birds. Research published in 2012 by Texas A&M University scientists estimated that there were more than 263,000 male warblers across the bird’s breeding range, a count much higher than any previous estimation. The A&M analysis, which did not call for changing the warbler’s status as an endangered species, was criticized for relying on a sampling method known to result in inflated population estimates.
Wildlife biologists rely on various methods to estimate a species’ population because an actual count usually is impossible. And estimates can vary greatly. Last August, in its latest five-year review of the warbler’s listing as an endangered species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service noted “the need for more accurate status and distribution information” for the golden-cheeked warbler. But until that need is met, and based on the best information available, the agency found no reason to change the warbler’s status — not when as much as 29 percent of the warbler’s habitat was lost between 1999 and 2011.
Habitat loss remains a threat to the golden-cheeked warbler’s survival. Suburban development in and around Travis, Williamson, Hays and Bexar counties is a main culprit, and with the area’s population growth, the development pressures on the warbler are only going to increase. The golden-cheeked warbler’s best hope of continued survival is to remain on the endangered species list.