A tiny, migratory songbird is causing a big ruckus in Texas. At issue is the Golden-cheeked warbler’s status according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). The bird caused a related stir in 1990 when it was the subject of a petition by members of the anarchist environmental group, Earth First! The petition moved the FWS to exercise its emergency authority to declare a species endangered under the 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA). In December 1990, the agency issued its final rule designating the bird to be an endangered species.
However, a recent comprehensive study has motivated several groups to call for the removal of the golden-cheeked warbler from the list. The findings, as presented by Texas A&M, has been peer reviewed, published in respected journals, and judged as scientifically sound. It appears the golden-cheeked warbler is not endangered. Even more concerning, the species may not have been in peril in 1990, the year FWS declared an emergency protected status.
What does this mean to the hundreds of private property owners who have suffered land restrictions, substantial fines, and criminal prosecution as a result of the warbler’s status? For example, one such case saw a Texas rancher penalized for clearing Ashe Juniper (Cedar) from his property. An activity FWS deemed damaging to the protected bird’s breeding habitat. In a negotiated settlement, the landowner transferred 48 acres to a public preserve and paid $220,260 in land management fees.
Even if one were to believe the earlier, mostly anecdotal based evidence that the golden-cheeked warbler was threatened, the latest research supports its removal from the list of endangered species. Still, some ask since recovery efforts have been so successful, why should the warbler be delisted to face uncertainty?
Simple answer first, the endangered species listing is for species that are, in fact, endangered. To maintain a status that is not evidenced based delegitimizes the significance of the entire list. Second, although there is no geographical designation of warbler habitat, Ashe Juniper (Cedar) trees are recognized as essential to warbler nesting. So, while the bird is a protected species, landowners are subject to restrictions, in what amounts to a regulatory taking of property rights in regards to Ashe junipers.
Finally, the listing of the warbler has caused a clash of agencies, pitting federal against state in a battle of species management. As well, the limited focus on warbler breeding habitat protection has contributed to serious health issues, particularly for children.
To explain, while the FWS strictly enforces habitat (a tree) protection, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPW) calls the golden-cheeked warbler issue, “A single-species approach to wildlife management“. As a result of federal restrictions, the invasive characteristics of Ashe juniper has negatively impacted the natural ecosystem. According to TPW, in areas where the tree has been left to survive, it has depleted groundwater, increased soil erosion, and impacted the diversity of other plant species. The rise of Ashe juniper, being of little food value, has disrupted the natural habitat of other animal species. In fact, TPW has worked to limit, even eradicate the Ashe juniper while the FWS punishes citizens for clearing the tree from their land.
The increase in Ashe Juniper has also resulted in an upsurge of illness during its pollination cycle. Termed “cedar fever” the effects of Ashe juniper allergies can range from itchy eyes to pneumonia and even trigger asthma attacks. The Ashe juniper tree has one of the most allergenic pollens. In fact, The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) has named seven Texas cities in its 2015 list of the most challenging places to live in regards to annual pollen scores.
So here we have the question, should the golden-cheeked warbler be removed from the list of endangered species? Yes. If not merely for the logic the bird is not threatened, then for the impact the designation has to other sensitive areas. More consideration should be made to the causal sequence of government agency decisions prior to making rules. Consideration should be given to economic impact to private citizens, potential health issues, and an analysis of the possible harm to other plant and wildlife species. When pondering the importance of diverse species to a healthy environment, too often the human element is not represented in the equation. A more holistic approach would better assure a healthy, balanced ecosystem.