Federal Judge Upholds Protections for California Gnatcatcher

California Gnatcatcher (Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

(CN) – A federal court in the District of Columbia upheld federal protections Wednesday for the California gnatcatcher bird by dismissing a lawsuit by a developer group who said the coastal bird was not qualified to receive protections.

The population of the endangered California gnatcatcher has struggled over the years as the coastal sage scrub and low trees it calls home have faced threats of removal from housing developments.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined in 1993 that the coastal songbird was a “threatened subspecies” and qualified to be listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The federal agency denied a petition to delist the bird filed in 2016 by the Center of Environmental Science, Accuracy & Reliability (CESAR), a developer group that said the bird was not a subspecies because a study found no “evolutionarily significant divisions” within the gnatcatcher species.

In their 2017 federal complaint, CESAR – whose website claims it uses scientific studies to “protect the environment and our economy” – said the denial of their petition was arbitrary and capricious under the act.

But U.S District Judge John Bates said in a 9-page opinion Wednesday that he could not get to CESAR’s claims because the group failed to establish standing to bring the lawsuit forward.

“At this stage of the proceedings, general allegations are not enough,” Bates wrote in the opinion. “Where, as here, plaintiffs fail to provide evidence that they have standing, the Court’s authority to hear the case evaporates.”

The group failed to establish whether its “informal members” were true members that participated in group elections or directed any of the activities, Bates wrote in the opinion.

A spokesperson for CESAR did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Sylvia Fallon of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an intervener in the case, said in a statement Wednesday that protecting the songbird’s habitat will have a positive impact on its surrounding ecosystem.

“As we face a global extinction crisis, the coastal California gnatcatcher deserves Endangered Species Act protections more than ever,” Fallon said “This tiny bird occupies the last of the remaining coastal sage scrub habitat, which is home not just to the gnatcatcher, but to many different species.”

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