October 26, 2011

Gnatcatcher controversy continues …

By Gnatcatcher controversy continues …

Author: Reed Hopper

The California gnatcatcher has been the center of controversy for years.  It was listed as threatened in 1993 based on a questionable study by Atwood who concluded the seabird is a subspecies of a much larger population ranging from California to Mexico.  Subsequent morphological, statistical and even genetic studies have since shown Atwood was wrong.  And Atwood himself has repudiated his original findings and now believes the California gnatcatcher is not a valid subspecies.  Up until today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife has been uncertain as to the classification of the bird.  Based on these developments, PLF filed a petition to delist the gnatcatcher as a "threatened species" on behalf of the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business, the Property Owners Association of Riverside County and M. Lou Marsh, M.D. 

Under threat of suit, the Service responded today to the petition to delist the gnatcatcher.  Ironically, the Service rejected the petition by defending the original Atwood study.  Curiosuly, the Service does not mention that even Atwood no longer defends that study.  The Service's response to the genetic studies cited in the petition are equally curious.  According to the Service, because the cited genetic studies relied on mitochondrial DNA markers and not on nuclear DNA markers, the genetic studies are inconclusive.  This is curious because the Endangered Species Act requires that listing decisions must be based on the "best available" scientific data and these are the only genetic studies available.  Under the standards set forth in the ESA, the petition provided ample evidence that the gnatcatcher is not a valid subspecies and should have been delisted.      

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Center for Environmental Science, Accuracy & Reliability, et al. v. U.S. Department of Interior, et al.

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.

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