Rare Central Texas songbird to fly off endangered species list


The vireo population has jumped from as low as 350 to more than 14,000.

Cowbird management and a decline in goats are responsible for the turnaround.

Some local officials are concerned about a lack of federal money to monitor the species.

The population of the black-capped vireo, a rare Texas songbird, has recovered to such an extent that it will be moved off the endangered species list, U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials are expected to announce today.

The lifting of habitat protections for the black-capped vireo, long a buffer against development in Central Texas, is unlikely to open long-restricted areas to construction or road building, given the number of other species that remain protected

Property rights groups had urged the move while birders and conservation organizations had asked the federal agency to hold off on delisting the bird.

The decision appears insulated from Washington politics: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed lifting the habitat protections for the bird toward the end of the Obama administration.

But the next steps could illuminate how the Trump administration will handle monitoring of the species in the future.

As part of the delisting procedure, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed keeping tabs on the vireo and its threats for a dozen years, at a total cost of $3.7 million.

But the agency’s draft proposal says “to date Congress has not allocated any funds” for such monitoring. The monitoring activities “will therefore require trade-offs with other competing species needs. Much of the cost will likely be borne as in-kind services provided by cooperating agencies” — including the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and Fort Hood, both of which oversee vireo habitat.

Sorting out the future of the species could fall to officials like Susan Combs, a veteran of Texas state government who will oversee endangered species policy as the newly named acting assistant secretary over fish, parks and wildlife at the U.S. Interior Department.

Critical of what she has called government overreach through endangered species protections, Combs played a key role in a voluntary vireo habitat preservation system around Fort Hood.

She “is highly qualified and we are more than confident that she will be an effective manager,” Interior Department spokeswoman Heather Swift said.

Scientists with the city of Austin, which has contributed preservation land for the vireo, are among those who have already raised criticism of the proposed monitoring plan.

“The draft (plan) openly acknowledges the lack of funding and resources needed for implementation, which should be in place prior to a change in the species’ status,” the city of Austin’s Wildland Conservation Division warned in letter on Wednesday to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

‘A success story’

Nearly three decades ago — with their nests overrun by another bird species and their shrubby habitat destroyed under the hooves of goats — black-capped vireos were declared endangered.

At the time, there were an estimated 350 adult birds in the U.S. and Mexico.

Special habitat protections for the vireo, along with other species, were fiercely fought by property owners, who worried the rules would limit what they could do with their land. But environmental groups saw the regulations as a way to prevent sprawl and pollution.

Now the vireos have made a comeback.

With shifts in the mohair market, the goat population has declined by nearly half in areas of vireo nesting, according to federal officials. Meanwhile, government officials, environmental groups and private landowners have teamed together to trap brown-headed cowbirds, who lay their eggs in vireo nests, essentially duping the vireos into raising cowbird chicks at the cost of the survival of their own young.

Researchers also discovered other vireo breeding grounds.

Officials currently estimate there are at least 14,000 birds across their breeding grounds, including in Travis and Williamson counties.

In the 19 years that Omar Bocanegra has served as a supervisory biologist in the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southwest Region, which encompasses Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona, this is the first species to be delisted in the region.

Bocanegra called the delisting “a success story.”

“That’s the entire goal of the Endangered Species Act: We want to get species off the list. That way we have more resources available to look after other species,” he said.

Delisting concerns

As with many matters involving endangered species, court action lurked in the background.

The decision to delist the vireo was prompted by a 2012 petition filed by a handful of property rights groups, including the Texas Farm Bureau, pushing for the delisting. A 2007 federal report had recommended the bird’s status be downgraded to threatened, but no action had been taken — federal officials say they were bogged down with higher priority issues.

As a result of the 2012 petition, the Fish and Wildlife Service took another look at the species, and it ultimately decided the vireo should be removed altogether since the bird’s population appeared to be on the upswing.

Property rights groups have long wrestled with environmental groups and the Fish and Wildlife Service over the endangered species protections.

According to federal law, development cannot lead to the harming or harassment of endangered species or to the destruction of their habitat.

In February 2017, the Texas Farm Bureau and the Pacific Legal Foundation applauded the agency’s proposal to delist the species.

“Commenters believe that the Service’s decision to delist the black-capped vireo is correct and is supported by the best available scientific and commercial evidence,” attorney Johanna Talcott wrote on behalf of the organizations.

But an official comment logged by the city of Austin’s Wildland Conservation Division called the decision premature.

Travis County officials also urged restraint.

“Without ongoing active conservation, the species is likely to decline to near extinction very quickly,” Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt wrote to the Fish and Wildlife Service in February 2017.

Birding group Audubon Texas, in its comment, cautioned that cowbird management would cease and that federal biologists had insufficient data to make a decision.

According to the most recent data available, federal authorities spent $476,490 on black-capped vireo management in 2016.

Black-capped vireos, which have some of their greatest concentrations in the Austin area, nest in Texas during April through July, and spend the winter on the western coast of Mexico.

Preserves to protect the species will remain in place, including the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve in western Travis County, a collaboration among the city of Austin, Travis County and the federal government since the mid-1990s to set aside open space to offset habitat destruction for the vireo, the endangered golden-cheeked warbler and other species.

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