In early February, a U.S. district judge rejected a lawsuit to remove the bird from the endangered species list, preserving the bird’s current status.
Christopher Murray works as land manager for the Travis Audubon Society, which maintains several wildlife sanctuaries in the Austin area. Its Baker Sanctuary, located just outside Cedar Park, serves as a preserve for the golden-cheeked warbler.
He said even with the protections that come from being on the endangered species list, the future of the bird is uncertain.
“I like to think the golden cheek will be protected and not go extinct, but realistically I would not be horribly surprised if that happened in my lifetime,” Murray said.
While the birds may be protected in Central Texas, golden-cheeked warblers spend most of their life in Central America, where habitat loss is rapid, he said.
Murray said at the Baker Sanctuary warbler populations have been stable, neither increasing nor decreasing, which is to be expected because of the carrying capacity of the habitat. He said the birds are very territorial, so preserves are unlikely to support a larger population of birds than is already there. A breeding pair needs an average of 7-12 acres, and even more space where there is poor habitat.
“The birds are notoriously hard to count. … But habitat loss is comparatively easy to quantify [and] it’s disappearing at an accelerating rate, especially near city centers like Austin and San Antonio,” he said.
Additional factors challenge even existing preserves, he said, such as the effects of human proximity, extreme weather from climate change and the fragmentation of habitat.
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 warbler population, and there have been significant declines in the golden-cheeked warbler's 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.