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Biologists aren’t keeping track of endangered species, GAO says

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The coastal California gnatcatcher has been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act since 1993.  You would think that when construction of the Sky Ranch development east of San Diego was predicted to harm seven gnatcatcher breeding pairs three years ago, the government would keep close tabs on those numbers, termed “incidental take.”

Not so, says a new report issued by the U.S. Government Accountability Office this week. “Out of 497 listed species in the western states,” the report’s authors write, “GAO identified three species for which the [U.S. Fish & Wildlife] Service has a formal Web-based database for tracking cumulative take: northern spotted owl, marbled murrelet, and bull trout.”

The gnatcatcher is not so lucky.  According to the report, it is “one of the most frequently consulted-on species in southern California” but biologists simply rely on their “firsthand knowledge” of data collected within their own offices to keep tabs on the species even though they “recognize the need for a more formal method.”

The USFWS provided a biological opinion on the Sky Ranch project in 2005 and approved the take of 7 pairs in exchange for the preservation of additional habitat for the birds.  That information, however, was not subsequently used to update the bird’s overall status for which data are already scarce.

The GAO report also notes that the USFWS was not keeping abreast of which projects were in compliance with their recommendations.  In an accompanying letter, Will Shafroth, assistant secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks concurred with the GAO’s findings.

“It’s a substantial issue, and it’s something we’ve recognized for a long time,” says Noah Greenwald, an endangered species expert at the Center for Biological Diversity.

In fact, when Greenwald first started working at the organization in 1998, he reviewed 28 “biological opinions” issued by USFWS on the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher, and found that the service lacked a consistent definition of how much take could jeopardize the species.  In the end, the 28 biological opinions failed to stop any of the proposed projects from going forward, and resulted in an allowed take of 17 to 20 percent of the total population.

Greenwald calls this “death by a thousand cuts,” and says that “Year after year, they say you can take this many of the willow flycatchers or that many of the California gnatcatcher, and they don’t keep track of how many takes they’ve issued and what the total impact of that is.”

Image courtesy United States Geological Survey via Wikipedia





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  1. 1. hotblack 7:55 pm 05/27/2009

    I currently live in La Jolla (San Diego). I have yet to meet anyone here who doesn’t think of wildlife as (and this is verbatim) "a nuisance standing in the way of progress". Least environmentally conscious place I’ve ever lived. If the gnatcatcher must rely on the noble people of California to save it, it might as well just drop out of the sky dead now.

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  2. 2. WildFire 11:51 am 01/6/2010

    No one should think like that, right now hundreds of animals are endagered or on the threaten list because that government is more concerned with there politics and bs than keeping something alive that was here first. If we just let animals like the gnatcatcher die it will effect the over all balance in nature and another speices will over populate. It is called a gnatcatcher for a reason. You should think more about the risks if you just "let it fall out of the sky"

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  3. 3. WildFire 11:54 am 01/6/2010

    People who think like that deserve to suffer that consequence of what happens when you let an animal just go extict, if the gnatcatcher goes extict gnats will probably become over populated and then someone will you to much pestiside and kill it and another animal. It is and always will be a chain reaction. Think about that when animals start "falling from the sky"

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