Marshall: Keep Texas wild; stop assault on golden-cheeked warbler

Texas is known for our Wild West spirit. But if several moneyed interest groups have their way, Texas will become much less wild.

As the American-Statesman reported July 2, several groups backed by former Texas Comptroller Susan Combs filed a petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to take the golden-cheeked warbler off the endangered species list. These groups seek to open large sections of Central Texas to more development.

What is standing in the way of this development is the golden-cheeked warbler. This brilliantly colored songbird, weighing less than an ounce, calls Texas home. Designated as endangered since 1990, this warbler is a true Texas native — breeding in parts of only 33 counties that have the right mix of old-growth ashe juniper and oak trees needed to raise their young. Birders from around the world travel to Central Texas to catch a treasured glimpse of this migrant bird, which arrives each March and departs in late summer for Mexico and Central America.

What’s the future for this endangered bird? Uncertain. Much of this songbird’s habitat already has been lost to development and habitat fragmentation. Now come organizations backed by hard-driving, moneyed interests that claim warbler habitat has better uses. Travis Audubon flatly rejects any contention that the species numbers are booming.

The petition claims that the golden-cheeked warbler population is much larger than estimated. This claim rests on a group of studies that petitioners believe are superior to previous studies — and should render all others irrelevant. However, other biologists have shown that the model from which the estimate is derived is seriously flawed.

In fact, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service just completed a review of the status of the golden-cheeked warbler, with the help of a recovery team of independent experts, and found no grounds to delist the bird. The habitat these birds need is found in only a small range and continues to be destroyed. The petitioners themselves acknowledge that in the first 10 years after the golden-cheeked warbler was listed, more than 100,000 acres of their Hill Country habitat were lost. This happened despite restrictions to limit that destruction. What would happen if the restrictions were lifted?

Petitioners promise a rosy future if private landowners can manage their land without federal interference — because landowners merely want what’s best for their lands. For many landowners, this is the case. But doing what’s best requires understanding the natural ecology of the region.

In particular, the myth and attitude toward the ashe juniper tree is alarming. This native tree is essential, not only for providing nesting material for the golden-cheeked warbler, but al,so for providing food and shelter for the birds and creating a community for other species as well.

Yet, many Texas landowners treat ashe juniper as a blight. Cattle don’t eat them, and they compete with grasses for space. In the face of such misinformation, what are the prospects for the survival of our juniper and oak woodlands that are critical for golden-cheeked warblers and many other species that depend on them?

So do we risk losing a species unique to Central Texas? This is not a liberal-versus-conservative issue; it’s about stewardship rooted in our history. It’s about remembering that nothing in nature stands alone.

Challenges like this will only escalate as our open spaces vanish. We need a vigilant offense led by a new generation. Visit if you want to know what leadership roles are needed.

Wild birds need human advocates. Birds sing, but without you they have no voice. Add your voice to ours, and together we can make a profound difference.

Marshall is executive director of the Travis Audubon Society, which manages a 715-acre nature sanctuary in Travis County for the golden-cheeked warbler and other bird species.

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Opinion

Commentary: From Iraq to Austin, motives behind violence are elusive
Commentary: From Iraq to Austin, motives behind violence are elusive

Earlier this week, as Austin nursed its collective SXSW intellectual and artistic hangovers, the freshness and transparency that are hallmarks of the yearly festival slowly yielded the headlines to the developing storyline of a serial bomber who was terrorizing our city. As law enforcement publicly pieced together their case and a small army of federal...
Letters to the editor: March 23, 2018
Letters to the editor: March 23, 2018

If our City Council chooses to look elsewhere for a permanent chief of police, they are existing further from reality than I imagined. This man has been dealing with situations that are very far from what is normal — and he has handled it with authority and grace. Our police department needs him because he is familiar with the problems here in...
Impact on community clear: Austin bombings were acts of terror
Impact on community clear: Austin bombings were acts of terror

Let’s call this what it was: Austin was the target of a terrorist attack. Some officials have shied away from branding the recent bombings as terrorism — even as the string of explosions in Austin killed two people and injured five others in attacks that targeted people for no apparent reason, striking fear in neighborhoods across the city...
Facebook comments: March 23, 2018
Facebook comments: March 23, 2018

As reported by the American-Statesman’s Gary Dinges, this week a federal judge in Austin found that some of the state’s statutes that have kept Walmart from selling hard liquor in Texas are unconstitutional. U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman found that the state’s ban on public corporations owning so-called “package stores&rdquo...
Opinion: Did Putin order the Salisbury hit?

Britain has yet to identify the assassin who tried to murder the double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury, England. But Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson knows who ordered the hit. “We think it overwhelmingly likely that it was (Russian President Vladimir Putin’s) decision to direct the use of a nerve agent on the...
More Stories