AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Texas Public Policy Foundation officially filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Department of the Interior Monday to de-list the Golden-cheeked Warbler as an endangered species. The warbler, which has been the subject of much debate since it was placed on the list in 1990, breeds exclusively in Central Texas.
The suit is being filed on behalf of the Texas General Land Office (GLO) who believes the protections around this bird have lowered the market values of their properties which generate revenue for public schools.
Mark Havens, general counsel for GLO, explained that the largest harm warblers’ protections have caused is a 35 percent decrease in value on one of their properties: a 2,300-acre tract in Kendall and Bexar counties.
“It’s a greater sense about Texas and how important property rights here are in Texas. When you have a species that’s protected under the Endangered Species Act, it’s the federal government coming in and saying what they can and cannot do,” said Robert Henneke, general counsel for TPPF.
TPPF’s protest of the warbler’s listing began in 2015 when they petitioned the bird’s endangered status with the Department of Fish and Wildlife, sending a 2015 report from Texas A&M researchers which suggested that the birds’ numbers were improving. But, the department rejected the petition, saying TPPF’s letter, “does not present substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that the petitioned action may be warranted.”
Henneke’s argument that the warblers numbers have returned hinges on a 2015 study from Texas A&M researchers. He considers it to be the most recent and accurate research.
However, scientists with the city of Austin are not sold on that study’s findings. Sherri Kuhl, the Wildland Conservation Division manager for Austin Water, said she has been working with the warbler for decades and helped create the Preserve at Balcones Canyonlands in Travis County to protect the warblers.
“They require the mature ash juniper and oak woodland, and the only place that occurs is in the Balcones escarpment in Texas,” Kuhl said.
Kuhl explained that the city of Austin completed a five-year study in 2016 with the U.S. Forrest Service and the University of Missouri on warblers at Balcones Canyonlands Preserve. They examined two different population models the city helped to create as well as the 2015 A&M model. They compared those numbers to their data from tracking the bird population at Balcones.
“All of those numbers overestimated the population,” Kuhl said. “We looked at places where the A&M model may have predicted 66 Golden-cheeked warblers and we go out there and we find two.”
Their study found that the birds need large patches or mature oak juniper to survive.
“If you fly over Austin, you’ll see that almost all of the remaining green space is the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve,” Kuhl siad. She worries that the loss of the bird population could go hand in hand with the loss of their protected habitat. “That’s the reason people move here, our economy is based on people moving here because of the natural environment, because we protect the environment, because of the beauty of the Hill Country.”
Kuhl explained that in order to develop on warbler habitat, you have to get a permit with the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife. She said that process can cost as much as $500,000 to mitigate the loss of habitat through financial compensation. In Travis County, people can apply for a county-wide permit which costs a few thousand dollars for small landowners, Kuhl said.
The Travis County Audubon issued the following statement Monday in after the suit was filed:
“Once again the golden-cheeked warbler is in the cross-hairs of people who have deep pockets and a desire to increase development of warbler habitat. The endangered bird’s habitat diminishes each year in fast-growing Central Texas. In 2015, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service rejected their petition as baseless. The birds’ survival depends on people being willing to stand up to these repeated threats. Travis Audubon will do whatever is needed to defend the Golden-cheeked Warbler against this lawsuit.”
The federal agencies listed in this suit now have 60 days to file a response.