SACRAMENTO — The Wilson Administration's experimental program to preserve the nesting grounds of the California gnatcatcher was granted only 25% of its expected funding in the newly adopted state budget.
Environmentalists say the depleted funding may be fatal for the year-old program, and claim that it provides more evidence that the tiny Southern California songbird needs to be declared endangered. The four-inch gray bird with a long black tail inhabits sagebrush found in parts of Orange, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties.
Administration officials, however, say they are committed to making their troubled program work, although at this point they don't know how it can survive on $362,000 instead of the proposed $1.45 million.
"It's not a lethal blow, but it's a hard hit, and we're going to have to find a way to make it work. We're not going to let the program die," said Carol Whiteside, assistant director of the state Resources Agency, which oversees the program.
State Resources Agency officials are scrambling to find funds to divert from other environmental programs in California, but they acknowledge those, too, are financially hard-pressed, and their legal authority to do so is limited.
Gov. Pete Wilson has hailed the program as a new, non-adversarial approach to saving endangered species, and it has been eyed in Washington, D.C., as a national model for conservation.
The main thrust of the program, called Natural Communities Conservation Planning, is to persuade developers and local governments to voluntarily set aside land to create preserves of habitat for the bird, as well as for 35 other sensitive animals that reside there.
The Administration's goal is to avoid endangered-species listing, which the building industry opposes because of the potentially severe impact on development throughout Southern California. The federal government last year proposed the gnatcatcher as an endangered species, with a final decision due next week.
John McCaull, a legislative analyst for the National Audubon Society, said there is "no way" that the project can survive on one-quarter of its funding.
"It's not acceptable to just have a skeleton bare-bones project run out of Sacramento," he said.
The Audubon Society and other major environmental groups say they would challenge any effort by the Wilson Administration to take funds from other conservation programs.
"Other programs cannot afford to be reduced in staff or purpose for this program," McCaull said.
The controversial program has had a rocky start even before the funding was slashed.
Times staff writer Ralph Frammolino contributed to this report.