The California Coastal Gnatcatcher Prevails

Photo courtesy of Jack Snipe, USGS

Developers beware! The California coastal gnatchatcher may be small but it has powerful friends. 

A tiny bird has just scored a major victory in federal court.

A federal court has dismissed a lawsuit brought by development interests that sought to remove the California gnatcatcher (Polioptila californica) from the Endangered Species Act list. The court ruling ensures that the species and the habitat that supports it, retain the protections that conservationists have argued are desperately needed.

This gnatcatcher is only found in California’s coastal sage scrub, a rapidly disappearing habitat. As recently as the 1940s, California gnatcatchers were locally common along the coast, from Baja to Ventura. This species is missing from much of its historic range due to habitat loss and fragmentation. The Santa Monica Mountains are the northernmost boundary of their range, but only two documented sightings have been reported in the local area in recent years, although there may still be unidentified populations of the bird in some more remote areas.

The California gnatcatcher is small and hard to spot. Its gray feathers blend in perfectly with its habitat and it keeps a low profile, living most of its life in the shelter of brush and scrub.

This little bird is an important indicator species and has been described as the “canary in the coal mine” for coastal sage scrub habitat, a plant community that has experienced massive destruction in the past 50 years. The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), one of the environmental non-profit organizations involved in the court case, estimates that 90 percent of Southern California’s coastal sage scrub has already been lost to development, while the remaining ten percent is fragmented and increasingly impacted by wildfire. 

The CBD was joined by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Endangered Habitats League, Laguna Greenbelt, Earthjustice, and the National Audubon Society in the fight to retain federal protections for the bird. It’s not the first legal challenge this small bird has faced.

The gnatcatcher’s status has been threatened repeatedly by developers and industry groups since the bird was protected under the Endangered Species Act more than 20 years ago. 

In this case, the court found that the plaintiffs “failed to demonstrate that they had standing to challenge the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to retain Endangered Species Act protections for the bird.”

“As we face a global extinction crisis, the coastal California gnatcatcher deserves Endangered Species Act protections more than ever,” said Sylvia Fallon, director of wildlife at the NRDC. “This tiny bird occupies the last of the remaining coastal sage scrub habitat which is home not just to the gnatcatcher, but for many different species. It’s essential that we protect this rare ecosystem.”

Elizabeth Forsyth, a staff attorney at Earthjustice, represented the National Audubon Society in the gnatcatcher case. She has described the fight to list the California gnatcatcher on the federal endangered species list in 1998, and to have its habitat officially mapped as critical habitat in 2007, as a “last stand in preventing the development of hundreds of thousands of acres of vital habitat in Southern California.”

It’s a battle that continues as the development lobby continues to push to weaken environmental protections, but for this round, conservation standards prevailed.

 “We’re grateful to the court for rejecting the building industry’s latest attempt to eliminate these important protections,” Forsyth said.


Suzanne Guldimann

Suzanne Guldimann is an author, artist, and musician who lives in Malibu and loves the Santa Monica Mountains. She has worked as a journalist reporting on local news and issues for more than a decade, and is the author of nine books of music for the harp. Suzanne's newest book, "Life in Malibu", explores local history and nature. She can be reached at

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