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 travisaudubon.org 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.