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Scorched earth meets the songbird

Maligned Neotropical warbler rocketing from zero to hero in Camp Bullis fight

Illustration by Chuck Kerr

 

Should the endangered golden-cheeked warbler die off, our own big-headed young wouldn’t know the difference.

Few of us would miss the male songs of “tweah tweah twee-sy” ejected from shady Hill Country ravines or their dark nests of carefully woven juniper bark.

The sunny-headed Central American migrant isn’t going to resolve our battle against breast or colon cancers, eradicate teenage acne, or develop a carbon-free next-generation transportation fuel.

But the much-vilified songbird added to the U.S. government’s roll call of species facing possible extinction in 1990 can tell the future. A skill then-Governor George W. Bush must not have understood when he railed against listing the bird under the Endangered Species Act, claiming, “Texans can run Texas. We don’t need to be told how to protect our land or the critters that live on it, whether it’s a blind bug or a gold-throat warbler.”

For environmentalists suing to protect the birds from development in Northwest Bexar County, the bird’s slipping numbers signal coming trouble in the Edwards Aquifer.

“They’re an indicator species of the health of the aquifer,” said Enrique Valdivia, president of Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas and board member of the Edwards Aquifer Authority. “You wipe out their habitat, our position is, we’re basically undermining our most valuable resource that makes San Antonio possible.”

Damning the warblers also spells trouble for the economically stabilizing influence of Camp Bullis, the U.S. Army’s 28,000-acre reserve used for advanced combat and medical training.

While the City of San Antonio recently approved $300,000 to study the impact of increasing development pressures on the military range as city leaders fretted openly about the base’s future, Valdivia’s group slapped INTCO-Dominion Investments with a lawsuit to halt residential development grinding its way toward Bullis’s fenceline. Army officials have complained the increased light and noise of encroaching development may jeopardize operations there.

Granted a temporary restraining order late Friday by Federal Judge Xavier Rodriguez, AGUA will argue today for an injunction that would bring the biologists out for a full survey of the Dominion holdings.

AGUA attorney Omar Collin said Monday that two wildlife biologists that serve as consultants to Bullis have spotted golden-cheeked warblers nesting on the Dominion property — an allegation supported by U.S. Fish & Wildlife’s regional field supervisor Adam
Zerrenner.

In a motion to dismiss the lawsuit filed Monday, INTCO-Dominion Partnership attorneys (after razzing Collin for erroneously suing INTCO-Dominion “Investments”) countered that the Endangered Species Act requires that the plaintiff submit a 60-day notice of its intention to sue. (Of course, a lot of nests can be ground up in 60 days, the counter-counter argument goes.)

As development across the Hill Country joining San Antonio and Austin continues to strain area resources, the golden-cheeked warbler may prove an invaluable ally in the fight to protect regional water supplies, since it only nests in the older juniper trees typically found along drainage bottoms and creeks where recharge features for the Edwards and Trinity aquifers are also found.

Developers rarely perform adequate surveys for endangered species like the warbler, said Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance* director Annalisa Peace, and INTCO-Dominion’s is already nine years old.

Clouding matters, the federal agency charged with defending the warblers’ turf has been asleep at the wheel, she claims. For that reason, GEAA is spending more than $36,000 this summer to definitively characterize the bird’s nesting habitat in Travis and Hays counties. Next summer, the group plans to bring that survey to Bexar County.

The USFW’s Zerrenner rattled off numerous regional conservation plans underway in Comal, Hays, and Williamson counties. He credited the creation of Prop 3 parks like Government Canyon. But he was puzzled when asked how much habitat had been saved around Bexar County.

“Overall, I believe the bird abundance is doing OK,” Zerrenner said. “However, there is still a lot of unprotected warbler habitat. And that’s the principal issue.”

Bexar County is part of “Recovery Unit Six” along with Comal and Kendall counties, and portions of Blanco, Gillispie, and Kerr counties. Each federally mandated recovery unit ranging between Kinney to Palo Pinto counties is required to have a certain percentage of acreage set aside as warbler habitat based on the bird’s
population.

“We’re not there yet,” Zerrenner said.

So how many acres have we saved in Recovery Unit Six? I ask again.

Long pause. Slow page turning.

“It says we should have between 1,000 and 3,000 singing males that should constitute a viable population.”

Another Long Pause.

“I don’t know the acreages.”

However, with all eyes now on Bullis and the bird, the Feds are going to launch a population survey and start crunching those habitat numbers. “We’re actually working on answering that question in-house after everything that’s gone on and this question is coming to the forefront,” Zerrenner said.

So the bird that once inspired death threats against federal regulators, the bird that played a supporting role in Ann Richards defeat by “W,” this 5-by-8-inch (flight position) songbird with a desperate underground following, may just redeem itself after all. For its newly perceived utility, the warbler may avoid what many biologists have termed the Sixth Mass Extinction — the global loss of one unique species every few hours, frequently from loss of habitat.

First, AGUA will need Judge Rodriguez to sign off on its petition.

“Without the judge’s order saying, ‘Stop,’ by the time this case is heard, the bulldozers would have done their work and there will be no case anymore,” Valdivia said. “It will be decided by the bulldozers instead of the judge.” •


*Originally identified as the Greater Edwards Aquifer Authority. Whoops. - gh

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