Texas Sues U.S. to Delist Endangered Songbird

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) – The Texas land commissioner sued the United States this week, claiming its refusal to delist the golden-cheeked warbler from the endangered species list prevents landowners from effectively managing their own properties.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation, acting on behalf of the Texas General Land Office, filed the lawsuit Monday against the Department of the Interior and U.S. Fish and Wildlife in Austin federal court after sending an intent-to-sue letter in March.

The lawsuit claims new scientific data shows the migratory songbird’s population has recovered and that environmental protections are unnecessary because it has approximately five times more breeding habitat than estimated at the time of its listing in 1990.

The golden-cheeked warbler, whose loss of habitat landed it on the endangered species list a generation ago, grows up to 5 inches long and nests only in Central Texas. Male warblers attract females by song and also sing to warn of danger.

“Leaving a species on the endangered list after its recovery is not only ineffective, it’s irresponsible,” Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush said in a statement. “The restoration of the golden-cheeked warbler population is a success story worth celebrating by removing it from the endangered list and restoring the rights of Texas landowners to effectively manage our own properties.”

Bush, the eldest son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, oversees investments, including more than 13 million acres of state lands.

The state argues in its lawsuit that the warbler no longer meets the Endangered Species Act’s definition of endangered or threatened, and that the songbird’s population is now 19 times greater than when it was first listed. It based its data on a 2015 Texas A&M University study that concluded the warbler is not in danger of extinction.

The lawsuit also says the federal government failed the songbird for never designating a critical habitat for it since its listing.

“As of the date of the filing of this complaint, more than 25 years from the date the final listing rule was published, critical habitat for the warbler has not been designated by the Service,” the June 5 lawsuit states.

The Travis Audubon Society disagrees, as does the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which refused to delist the species last June, citing continuing destruction of its habitat.

It found that the state’s 2015 petition to delist the songbird lacked “substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that the petitioned action may be warranted.”

“The golden-cheeked warbler has not recovered, and due to ongoing, widespread destruction of its habitat, the species continues to be in danger of extinction throughout its range,” Fish and Wildlife said.

The warbler’s population is endangered because many tall juniper and oak woodlands where they nest have been cleared for residential, commercial and infrastructure development, according to Texas Parks and Wildlife.

The land office wants to free up vast areas of property where it says the songbird’s presence impacts the market value. The lawsuit cites, as an example, a 2,300-acre property in Central Texas that contains approximately 84 percent of protected warbler habitat.

“The reduction in property value caused by the presence of warbler habitat translates to less money available for fulfilling TXGLO’s mission to maximize revenues from Texas public school lands for the benefit of Texas schoolchildren,” the 21-page lawsuit says.

Erin Wilcox, attorney for the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Center for the American Future, said that continuing to protect the golden-cheeked warbler could negatively affect other species.

“The best, most up-to-date science shows that the warbler is out of danger,” Wilcox said. “Now it’s time for the federal government to celebrate that victory and direct resources within its constitutional authority to species that are truly endangered and need protection.”

The lawsuit was filed by Robert Henneke, general counsel and director of the Center for the American Future.

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