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Statement: “There’s just a few hundred pairs left in the world, believe it or not,” Rob Hutsel, executive director of the San Diego River Park Foundation, said during a KPBS story about California least terns that ran July 19.
Analysis: A distinctive black cap sets the California least tern apart from other birds nesting along Southern California beaches. It has a white underbelly, orange bill and forked tail. Its population plummeted in the 20th century, driven by human activity and development in and near its beach habitat.
KPBS interviewed Hutsel for a segment about the least tern and efforts to improve the endangered bird’s habitat in Ocean Beach. The tern nests on the ground, making eggs vulnerable to predators like raccoons or dogs. Now, to help protect the bird from predators, part of its habitat in Ocean Beach is surrounded by a fence. Volunteers with San Diego River Park Foundation are also trying to restore the natural ecosystem by clearing out invasive weeds.
But Hutsel’s population estimate gave the wrong impression. In 1973, federal wildlife authorities estimated the California least tern had dwindled to 600 pairs. Two years ago, state wildlife officials estimated the population had grown to between 7,000 and 7,700 pairs, significantly more than a few hundred.
On its own, Hutsel’s statement could have referred to past or current estimates. In an interview, he said he was referring to the past when the population was around several hundred pairs.
We don’t doubt that Hutsel was referring to past estimates, but we’ve called his statement false because the surrounding context implied current population estimates. He said:
And it’s (Ocean Beach) often a place where the birds will come and nest. There’s just a few hundred pairs left in the world, believe it or not. So it’s really special for that.
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— KEEGAN KYLE