Friday, Aug. 31, 2007 | Alongside the taxiway at Lindbergh Field sit four gravel-filled ovals. The empty enclosures are small oases amid the airport’s asphalt-covered grounds.

The ovals — 20 acres in all — serve as nesting sites for the California least tern, an endangered bird. They are visual reminders that the bird came close enough to extinction that nests alongside a busy jet runway were worth preserving. But they are also representative of the effect that the Endangered Species Act has on land use. The airport authority says larger planes could land at Lindbergh Field but for the ovals.

As The Tern Turns

  • The Issue: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed downgrading the California least tern from endangered to threatened.
  • What It Means: Downgrading the bird’s status under the federal Endangered Species Act would decrease the protections it’s afforded under the law. Some question whether the move is politically motivated. A staff biologist opposed the move, but he was vetoed from above. References he made to global warming were deleted.
  • The Bigger Picture: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has come under fire for its handling of endangered species issues after a senior official resigned in the wake of a federal auditor’s report that said she had unduly influenced agency decisions.

A federal proposal currently under consideration would reduce protection for the least tern. The proposal would make it possible for local agencies such as the airport authority to get permission to remove the nesting areas. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed downgrading the least tern from endangered status to threatened, a lower distinction that decreases protection.

In making the proposal, the Fish and Wildlife Service ignored its own wildlife biologist’s recommendations to keep the bird listed as endangered, according to internal e-mails.

While the bird’s estimated population has increased to 7,100 pairs, other vital goals have not been met, wrote the biologist, Joel Pagel, in an Aug. 23, 2006 e-mail to three officials in the service’s Carlsbad office.

The Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency responsible for overseeing the Endangered Species Act, also deleted references to global warming that had been included in the draft proposal that called for the bird to remain endangered.

That April 2006 draft repeatedly noted that global warming could trigger rising sea levels that would impact the least tern’s coastal habitat.

“The effect on [the least tern] could well be disastrous,” the draft stated.

The final proposal, released in September 2006, eliminated that sentence and all other mentions of global warming.

The discrepancies have surfaced as the Fish and Wildlife Service and Bush Administration increasingly face scrutiny for their treatment of endangered species. The Bush Administration has listed fewer species and removed more species under the Endangered Species Act than any other president.

Julie MacDonald, a Fish and Wildlife Service official, resigned earlier this year after a federal auditor found that she had bullied the agency’s scientists into minimizing protections for endangered species. The Fish and Wildlife Service is currently reexamining eight decisions about endangered species that it believes MacDonald may have tinkered with for political reasons.

The Center for Biological Diversity, an advocacy group, filed a notice of its intent to sue the wildlife service Tuesday for interfering with 55 endangered species decisions, including the least tern. The organization said the suit would be the largest in the history of the 1973 Endangered Species Act.

“The bottom line is we know for certain where the Bush Administration wants to go,” said Kieran Suckling, the Center for Biological Diversity’s policy director. “It’s ultimately about precluding the species to recover at all.”

Jim Bartel, the field supervisor in the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Carlsbad office who made the decision to downgrade the least tern’s status, referred calls to Scott Flaherty, a service spokesman in Sacramento. Flaherty, who was not familiar with the case, declined to comment, citing the pending litigation. Pagel did not return calls for comment.

The least tern’s recovery is widely viewed as a success story that highlights how the Endangered Species Act can help bring a species back from the brink of extinction. The least tern’s population dropped sharply through the 20th century. Its habitat disappeared as the Pacific Coast Highway was constructed, bringing people and development to coastal California. The black-capped bird, which grows to about 10 inches and nests on the open ground, suffered from increasing recreation on beaches, as well as from predators — cats, dogs, raccoons — that followed with the coastal population boom.

By the time it was listed as endangered in the early 1970s, just 225 nesting pairs remained.

While an estimated 7,100 pairs now exist, their reproductive success has been low in the last five years, said Robert Patton, a biologist who has consulted for the airport authority, San Diego Zoological Society and Fish and Wildlife Service. That has increased fears that the population may crash as mature birds grow older and die off.

“They’re not producing the numbers needed to sustain the population,” Patton said. “There are so many factors working against them. They’re the low thing on the totem pole. They’re small enough that anything will eat them.”

Complicating efforts to preserve the birds’ habitat: Biologists don’t know exactly where the least terns spend their winters. That prevents them from targeting their winter homes for conservation. Biologists know the terns migrate between central Mexico and northern South America, but can’t figure out exactly where. Scientists don’t have a transmitter or battery small and strong enough to last through the tiny birds’ long migration.

Patton said he opposes downgrading the least tern’s endangered status. Doing so would increase the likelihood that some colonies would be eliminated.

“If you start looking at individual colony sites, each has political pressure to be used for something else,” Patton said. “If you pull those out, you’re literally looking at having all your eggs in one basket.”

Richard Gilb, the airport authority’s environmental affairs manager, said the authority had no plans to seek changes in the way it cares for the least terns. The authority spends $110,000 annually to trap predators, track fledglings and tag the nesting birds.

But the airport isn’t the only local agency whose land use is constricted by the least tern. The bird has limited the U.S. Navy’s use of its training beaches south of Coronado as well as 22 acres of land around its taxiways at Naval Air Station North Island. The largest local concentration of least terns is found at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton.

If the decision is approved by Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, the Endangered Species Act would allow the wildlife service to draft a special rule allowing those agencies to kill the birds if it were downgraded to threatened, so long as the agencies could prove that killing them wouldn’t cause extinction, said Suckling, of the Center for Biological Diversity.

“They are putting into play a situation they have no control over,” Suckling said.

But Suckling said he feared the wildlife service was trying to downgrade the tern’s status so that land-use restrictions could be loosened on local military bases. He said the service recently issued special rules for three species that allowed property owners — in one case at Fort Hood, a Texas military base — to kill any birds that exceeded an area’s recovery targets. Such policies ignore the struggles that a species may be having in another population area, he said.

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