Texas General Land Office sues feds, targeting protections for Hill Country songbird

The Texas General Land Office on Wednesday renewed its lawsuit to remove a songbird that nests in central Texas from the endangered species list, arguing that the federal government defied a court order that required authorities to reconsider the status of the bird.

The long-running court battle that shaped the trajectory of suburban growth along the San Antonio-Austin Corridor, pits the interests of developers seeking to build on Hill Country land against conservationists who argue it would threaten golden-cheeked warbler habitat.

In 2017, the General Land Office — headed by Land Commissioner George P. Bush — hired the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, to file a lawsuit on its behalf seeking to remove the warbler from the list. and freeing up hundreds of thousands of acres for development.

The warbler also features in a legal battle over a gas pipeline project through the Hill Country.

The Land Office argues that the warbler population has recovered sufficiently that the US Fish and Wildlife Service did not use the best available data to decide whether to keep it on the endangered species list.

A federal judge upheld the warbler’s endangered status in 2019, but the conservative U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the ruling in January 2020, finding the federal government used an “inappropriate” legal standard to dismiss the appeals from Texas.

The court ordered the Fish and Wildlife Service to reconsider the decision, and last July the agency again concluded that the warbler should remain endangered.

It is estimated that around 27,000 warblers survive today, a drop of around 25% since the songbird was first added to the endangered species list in 1990, according to the agency. federal, although the GLO trial on Wednesday cited a “presentation” by a Texas biologist. year which recorded a much higher population number.

The agency said TPPF’s petition “does not present substantial scientific or commercial information” showing that it “can be justified” for the warbler to be delisted. The warbler’s habitat would be threatened by “rapid suburban development and human population growth for Travis, Williamson, Bexar and surrounding counties,” the Fish and Wildlife Service concluded.

In the latest lawsuit, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, the General Land Office and TPPF argue the decision failed to consider scientific studies of “habitat and population regrowth ” for the warbler and applied “the same error”. standard” that was launched by the Fifth Circuit in 2020.

Bush, a Republican who is trying to unseat Attorney General Ken Paxton in the March primary, accused the Biden administration of “ignoring” a court order and knowingly undermining state sovereignty.

“I will continue to use every legal tool in our arsenal to combat this regulatory threat to our lands,” Bush said in a statement. “The GLO and TPPF have successfully defended Texas property rights in the past, and I’m confident the courts will continue to stand by Texans.”

The lawsuit further argues that the decision to list the warbler as endangered diminishes the value of state-owned land that contains the warbler’s habitat. The GLO collects revenue from leasing public lands, including oil and gas royalties, and pays the funds to a public endowment used to help fund public schools.

The US Department of the Interior, which includes the Fish and Wildlife Service, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In 2019, when the federal judge upheld the warbler’s endangered status, Nicole Netherton, executive director of Travis Audubon, said it was “simply too early to remove protections from the warbler, which continues to losing its habitat due to urban sprawl”.

“Central Texas is the only place in the world where golden-cheeked warblers were born and bred, and continued protections will help encourage their breeding success for years to come,” Netherton said at the time.

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Gregory M. Roy