The Texas Public Policy Foundation intends to file a lawsuit that, if successful, would remove from the federal endangered species list the golden-cheeked warbler, a small black songbird with a yellow head that nests exclusively in Central Texas.
The TPPF notified the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of the impending lawsuit March 9. The lawsuit is a response to a petition the group filed in 2016 to delist the bird, a request that USFWS denied, said Ted Hadzi-Antich, senior attorney for the TPPF Center for the American Future.
Robert Henneke, director of the Center for the American Future, said the warbler is a recovered species and should no longer be regulated by the federal government under the Endangered Species Act.
Endangered species are animals or plants that are in danger of extinction, and recovered species are no longer at risk, according to the USFWS.
History of warbler protection
The warbler was listed as an endangered species in 1990 based on habitat loss and destruction to juniper and oak woodlands, where the bird nests, said Lisa O’Donnell, senior biologist for the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve.
The BCP was established in 1992, and by 1996 a plan for Austin and Travis County to acquire additional preserve land and manage the preserve for endangered species was put in place.
“Land acquisition and managing habitat is so important,” O'Donnell said. “For species that depend on old growth habitats, it is really hard to recreate [the habitat] once its lost.”
In 2014, the USFWS conducted a five-year review of the species and determined the warbler continued to be in danger of extinction, USFWS Media Coordinator Lesli Gray said.
Hadzi-Antich said the TPPF filed the petition to delist the warbler in 2016 based on new research from the Texas A&M Institute of Renewable Natural Resources. The program estimated the species' population was 19 times larger than it was in 1990. The service again reviewed the warbler’s status after the petition was filed.
“We made the determination that the petition didn’t present substantial information to warrant delisting the bird at that time,” Gray said. “It’s not just about population numbers but the current threats it may face.”
Why delist the warbler?
“The point of the Endangered Species Act is to protect species that are in danger,” Hadzi-Antich said. “Obviously, we’re in favor of that, but if a species is no longer threatened, there’s no need for these protections.”
However, he said delisting the warbler is more than just a formality based on the species' signs of recovery.
“Before developers can get any kind of federal permits to construct a building or road, the FWS looks at a proposed project and determines whether the species [is] going to be impacted,” he said. “It could take years for them to issue a biological opinion, which could block a project. It’s potentially a very heavy burden on businesses and individuals if a species is in the way of productive human activity.”
Although the lawsuit will not officially be filed until May, if the warbler was eventually delisted, O’Donnell said it would be more important than ever to protect the land that is already a part of the BCP.
“[The warbler] nests in a very limited range,” she said. “In terms of habitat loss due to growth, you can drive through the Hill Country and see for yourself. That habitat is not increasing.”
Austin Water Assistant Director Daryl Slusher, who manages Austin’s Wildland Division, said the preserve is home to a number of other animals, and conservation would continue even without the warbler’s endangered status.
“We would still continue to manage the preserve and protect other endangered species,” he said. “Hopefully [those efforts] would protect the warbler’s habitat as well.”
For any species that is delisted, the service has a monitoring plan that tracks the species for at least five years, Gray said.
“The service monitors the species to make sure things are going in the right direction and there are no additional threats,” she said.