Each March some 27,000 Golden-cheeked Warblers alight on Central Texas’s Hill Country, where they strip the bark from Ashe juniper trees in order to build nests. Though they spend much of the winter south of the border in Mexico and Central America, these songbirds are considered Texas natives—and today their home in the Lone Star State is a little more secure. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) declined to review the bird’s endangered status, allowing the species to keep its federal protections.
Decades of habitat loss led USFWS to list the Golden-cheeked Warbler in 1990, triggering a host of protections under the Endangered Species Act. Military exercises were restricted at Fort Hood, where personnel were required to prevent the firing of artillery and use of chemical and smoke grenades within 328 feet of warbler habitats during nesting periods. Developers around the high-growth San Antonio and Austin metropolitan areas also had to give the bird’s habitat due consideration.
In 2014 three groups began to push back—Texans for Positive Economic Policy, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and the Reason Foundation. Bristling against the limitations the endangered designation imposed, they petitioned the Interior Department to delist the bird. The groups argued that the Golden-cheeked Warbler’s population had recovered, rebounding to roughly 19 times the number of birds as in 1990, and that the science behind the species’ initial listing was “obsolete.”
Environmental groups, including the Travis Audubon Society in Austin and the Bexar Audubon Society in San Antonio, immediately opposed the action, gathering thousands of signatures for a petition supporting the bird's endangered status. In a five-year review released in August 2014, USFWS itself had concluded the Golden-cheeked Warbler's classification shouldn’t change because of “ongoing widespread destruction of its habitat.” Between 1999 and 2011, the warbler lost nearly a third of its home range to subdivision development.
Joan Marshall, executive director of the Travis Audubon Society, said she was thrilled to hear of USFWS’s decision, which the Austin American-Statesman reported would be published on Friday. “We’re gratified the plight of the warbler has been recognized and validated,” Marshall says. “It's a victory for the warbler.”
But Iliana Peña, director of conservation for Audubon Texas, cautions that disappearing habitat and climate change pose “a one-two punch” that still threatens the bird. City biologists recently spotted a male Golden-cheeked Warbler in the proposed right of way for the Texas 45 Southwest highway project, for example, which passes by prime warbler habitat. “So,” says Peña, “we need to stay focused and keep fighting the good fight.”