Groups sue feds over accommodations for tiny bird - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

Groups sue feds over accommodations for tiny bird

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SAN DIEGO (CNS) - A San Diego County resident and other parties filed a lawsuit Thursday seeking to compel the Obama administration to reassess whether a bird species should remain federally protected - with tens of thousands of acres reserved as "critical habitat" - even though its nesting grounds extend well into Mexico.

San Diego-area resident Dr. Lou Marsh, the Property Owners Association of Riverside County and the Santa Maria-based Coalition of Labor, Agriculture & Business are challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's designation of the California gnatcatcher as a threatened species.

"The California gnatcatcher isn't threatened or endangered," said Sacramento-based Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Damien Schiff, who is representing the plaintiffs. "What's endangered are California jobs."

"This state has the highest unemployment rate since the Depression era, but the federal government still insists on imposing unjustified, job-killing regulations for the California gnatcatcher," Schiff said. "The scientific basis for those regulations is flimsy, but the economic harm they cause is real."

U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Jane Hendron told City News Service that the agency had not had an opportunity to review the lawsuit, which was filed in San Diego, and had no immediate comment.

According to court papers, the gnatcatcher, a 4-inch blue-gray bird that weighs less than an ounce, was placed on the federal Endangered Species List in the early 1990s after findings that the creatures' habitat was under threat from urban sprawl in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties.

Almost 500,000 acres of public and private land in Southern California were designated as critical habitat for the gnatcatcher. However, following a review in 2003, the protected space was reduced to 197,000 acres, according to federal documents.

Building within the designated areas requires special permits and may be prohibited unless there are mitigating measures implemented to accommodate the birds.

According to the Pacific Legal Foundation, the cost of reserving so much protected space for the gnatcatcher will result in an estimated $900 million in costs to individuals, businesses and local governments through 2025.

According to the lawsuit, a review conducted years ago by researchers hired by the federal government concluded that the gnatcatcher populates a wide area extending to the southern tip of the Baja peninsula in Mexico, where bird numbers apparently aren't in decline.

Based on that information, in April 2010, the Pacific Legal Foundation requested that the wildlife service conduct another review to consider de-listing the gnatcatcher as a threatened species. But according to the group, the federal agency has refused to act on the petition. Hendron denied that.

"We're still in the process of working on Pacific Legal's petition," she told CNS. "We have this ongoing avalanche of litigation we're trying to work through ... We're working as quickly as we can."

Marsh, who lives in an unincorporated area of San Diego County, said she has been hamstrung in efforts to subdivide her four-acre property because the California Coastal Commission refused to issue the necessary permits after two gnatcatchers were found nesting on the lot.

"It is time to de-list this creature whose existence is anything but threatened just a few miles to the south of my property, in Mexico," she said.

The plaintiffs are asking for a court decree ordering federal officials to change the gnatcatcher's designation and for reimbursement of all litigation expenses.

The lawsuit comes on the heels of a suit filed by a dozen Inland Empire water agencies challenging the Obama administration's decision to declare the headwaters of the Santa Ana River as critical habitat for the Sucker fish, which is listed as a threatened species.

According to the suit, the habitat designation will deprive the region of one-third of its fresh water supplies.

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