A lawsuit to remove the golden-cheeked warbler from the federal endangered species list was rejected by U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks on Feb. 6, preserving the bird’s current status.
The black songbird with a yellow head breeds exclusively in Central Texas and is among several species in areas surrounding Northwest Austin that are protected through local or federal policies.
The Texas Public Policy Foundation, on behalf of the Texas General Land Office, filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on June 5, 2017, claiming that updated scientific data shows the warbler is no longer in danger of extinction and that the government should direct its conservation resources to other species.
“I’m happy to see that protections for this vulnerable Texas songbird and its habitat will continue,” Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea said in a news release.
The TPPF is a research institute that promotes personal responsibility, free enterprise and liberty, according to its website. In a statement, the foundation said the removal of the golden-cheeked warbler would restore the rights of landowners to effectively manage their own properties without federal oversight.“We will continue consulting with our attorneys regarding appealing the case,” the foundation stated.
The warbler was listed as an endangered species in 1990 due to habitat loss. The Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, generally located west of Loop 360 and near Lake Travis, was established in 1996 as part of the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan, which called for Austin and Travis County to acquire additional preserve land and manage it for endangered species.
The preserved land works to mitigate the loss of old-growth woodlands replaced by development.
Melinda Mallia, Travis County Natural Resources Program manager, said the county had been tracking the lawsuit closely because it did not believe the data provided by the TPPF was sound. She said the data used numbers from areas with a dense population of birds and did not account for variations in the bird’s population throughout its habitat.
“The method they were using was overestimating the population significantly,” she said.
City of Austin Senior Biologist Lisa O’Donnell said there are approximately 1,800 males at the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, although that is likely a high estimate. She said if habitat decreases, so does the golden-cheeked warbler population, and there have been significant declines in habitat.
According to the species’ U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recovery plan, the warbler can be considered for delisting after a set of criteria for protecting habitat, allowing gene flow and population conservation are met for 10 consecutive years.
Ultimately, Mallia said, the county’s part in protecting the species likely would not have changed regardless of the federal court’s ruling.
“We have to continue carrying out our legal obligation for the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan,” she said. “Even if the warbler had been delisted, we still have a plan based on a federal permit. That is an obligation Austin and the county took on.”
PROTECTING LOCAL WILDLIFE
Trees, beetles, water, spiders and salamanders are among the natural resources protected in Northwest Austin, whether due to an endangered status or historical value.
Much of Northwest Austin—in both Travis County and Williamson County—is home to endangered Karst invertebrates—a collection of insects and arachnids that live underground, including the Kretschmarr Cave mold beetle, the Tooth Cave pseudoscorpion, the Bone Cave harvestman and more.
Gary Boyd, director of environmental programs for Williamson County, said the invertebrates are the “canary in the coal mine” in that they indicate the quality of the environment underneath the ground.
“It’s not as critical as it used to be [to protect the Karst invertebrates in Williamson County]. … [The species do] give us a reading on what the quality of the groundwater is and what the quality overall of various flora and fauna might be,” he said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced proposed amendments to the recovery plan for the Karst invertebrates in January. Recovery plans are nonregulatory but set recovery goals for endangered species, per a USFWS statement.
The proposed amendments would add ways for the USFWS to measure if the species are moving toward recovery or if there are still continued threats and challenges, USFWS spokesperson Lesli Gray said.
Jollyville Plateau Salamander
When the Jollyville Plateau salamander was first added to the endangered species list as a “threatened” species in 2013, the process was met with pushback from Williamson County officials who were concerned the listing would hinder development.
Due to its status as threatened, the “take” of the Jollyville Plateau salamander is prohibited—in other words, the amphibian may not be killed, harmed or removed from the wild, unless approved with a USFWS permit.
It lives in springs, spring-fed streams and caves in the Jollyville Plateau and Brushy Creek areas of the Edwards Plateau, including locations in Northwest Austin such as the Buttercup Creek and Sylvia Springs areas, according to USFWS documents. The USFWS states the species is threatened in part due to loss of habitat.
Hank Smith, principal and owner of Texas Engineering Solutions, said when creating an initial land plan, builders try to plan development around sensitive areas to mitigate the “take” of endangered species. Natural features, such as habitat or caves, on property housing these species may decrease development density, too.
“You can’t put as much development and as dense of development in those areas as you would without those features being there, so you have less density and tend to have more expensive, higher-end developments,” Smith said. “It raises the cost of development … raising the cost of the product.”