COSTA MESA — As the federal government on Thursday closed the period for public comment on the future of the California gnatcatcher, a spokesman for local builders said they are pessimistic about their chances of preventing the bird from being declared endangered.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has until March 17 to make up its mind, although a decision is likely to come before the end of the year.
Laer Pearce, who represents a coalition of major developers including the Irvine Co., Santa Margarita Co. and the Baldwin Co., said Thursday that most of them believe that a listing is inevitable at this point.
"Frankly, we're pessimistic. This is a train on a single track with no switches ahead," he said. "We're not going to get a fair hearing; that seems obvious."
Officials with the federal agency's regional office in Portland, Ore., have already said that it is likely they will add the bird to the federal endangered species list and that the decision could come by the end of November.
Such an announcement would provide immediate protection of the small songbird's habitat, a mix of sagebrush found mostly in Orange, San Diego and Riverside counties and in small parts of Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties.
Builders have argued for two years against the listing, mainly on grounds that the Southern California birds are not a distinct subspecies and that its habitat is not as rare or threatened by development as wildlife officials have said.
Because of the taxonomy debate raised by the builders, the federal agency last month extended the September deadline for its decision by up to six months and reopened its comment period for a month.
A committee of the American Ornithologists' Union then reiterated its view that the California gnatcatcher is genetically different. Still, in a letter to the wildlife service dated Monday, the builders group argues that more review is needed and called the ornithologists' decision "informal, incomplete and inadequate," especially since the raw data is not available for public review.
The Natural Resources Defense Council has notified the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that it will sue if the decision is not announced by mid-November.
"If we have to go to court, we will," said senior attorney Joel Reynolds, "But I am very optimistic that the species will be listed by the service by the end of November."
Pearce said he believes that the federal agency's biologists are not giving the builders' arguments a fair review. "This is moving emotionally, not logically, toward a listing," he said.
Larry Salata, the Fish and Wildlife Service biologist reviewing the gnatcatcher data, said about 50 letters, mostly from developers, consultants and attorneys, came in during the past 30 days. That is in addition to thousands of pieces of correspondence already sent during the past two years.
"All the information that has been submitted will be given consideration," Salata said. "I think it is somewhat presumptuous to assume that we're not going to consider this new information. We will, and it will all be addressed in the final rule."