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.”