The federal government has expanded its reach using the Endangered Species Act to cover spurious “subspecies.” The ESA does not define “subspecies” and the Fish and Wildlife Service has offered no definition of its own. Instead, it simply announces when it has determined a “subspecies” to exist and, relying on the subspecies’ smaller numbers relative to the entire species, imposes onerous regulations. The California gnatcatcher was listed as a threatened subspecies, but a 2013 study shows that, at a DNA level, the songbird is not meaningfully distinct from millions of gnatcatchers dwelling in Baja California. PLF represents a coalition of property owners, developers, and scientists in a challenge to the continued listing of this thriving species.
In 1993, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the coastal California gnatcatcher as a threatened subspecies of the overall gnatcatcher population. The Service estimated this listing to cost nearly $1 billion in negative economic impacts through 2025 and this does not even include the value of public and private land committed to conservation reserves where property owners and others are prohibited from any productive use of land designated as the birds’ critical habitat. The federal government has set aside over 625,000 acres for the gnatcatcher throughout Southern California and demanded that local governments spend extraordinary amounts of time and resources developing resource management and conservation programs to benefit the gnatcatcher.
As it turns out, the listing was wholly unnecessary. A 2013 study of the California gnatcatcher’s mitochondrial DNA shows it to be indistinguishable from the millions of other gnatcatchers present in Baja California. In short, the coastal California gnatcatcher is a common bird, not endangered or threatened in any way. Because the original listing was based on erroneous information, the Service should delist the gnatcatcher and lift the restrictions on the bird and its environs.
PLF represented interested property rights groups on a petition to delist the gnatcatcher based on the 2013 study that shows ESA protection was improperly established and should be terminated immediately. The Service nonetheless denied the petition and PLF notified the Department of the Interior and the Fish and Wildlife Service that we are preparing to sue on behalf of the Center for Environmental Science, Accuracy and Reliability; the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture & Business of Santa Barbara County; and other landowner and developer organizations.