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