From Pandas to Pocket Mice: To Delist or Not to Delist

In late August and early September 2016 we heard big news about the decisions regarding the endangered status of two different species.  I felt happy about both of them.  Even though they were sort of opposite decisions, where one species was changed from endangered to vulnerable and the other one stayed the same.  So why the same response to two very different decisions? 

What species and which decisions am I referring to? The first species, my childhood favorite animal, the giant panda was changed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) from “endangered” to “vulnerable”.  This means that now they are facing a high risk of extinction in the wild versus a VERY high risk of extinction in the wild.  The data that lead them to this decision was based on a steady increase in the numbers of giant pandas in the wild.  These numbers have increased after 30 years of hard work by the Chinese government and others (including SDZG).  There has been a huge decrease in poaching wild pandas and an increase in available protected habitat.  There are now 67 guarded nature reserves where wild pandas can live.  But even so there are still only approximately 1850 wild giant pandas remaining in the wild.  Only half of the number of wild tigers that are in the world or half the number of kids at the public high school that I attended.  So not a large enough number for them to be protected from extinction. 

The second species was a songbird called the coastal California gnatcatcher.  This small bird lives in California coastal sage scrub and eats insects.  Because of the bushes where they live I’m fairly certain that I haven’t actually ever seen one.  Their call is described as “cat like” which is hard to believe but they really do sound like mewing kittens.  In late August 2016 the United Sates Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) rejected a petition to delist or remove this species from the endangered species list.  The petition was submitted NOT because there are more coastal California gnatcatchers flying around in the wild. Rather it was because their status as a distinct sub-species was called into question.  Scientists advising the USFWS determined that the best available information from genetic data and physical characteristics indicate that they are indeed a distinct subspecies from their Mexican counter parts and should not be delisted. 

And why does this matter?  If the coastal California gnatcatcher was to be delisted and not considered endangered, 100,000 acres of California coastal sage scrub would be opened up to development and would be turned into hotels and strip malls.  Not only could that cause the extinction of the coastal California gnatcatcher, if it occurred, it would jeopardize other species that live in this rare and valuable habitat.  Species such as the endangered Pacific pocket mouse (which I happen to study).  The gnatcatchers are essentially acting like an umbrella species and indirectly helping many other species such as pocket mice, coastal whiptail lizards and cactus wrens.  There are many other threats to gnatcatchers including wildfires and climate change but at least for now they are still listed and thus protected. 

Both of these species, giant pandas and coastal California gnatcatchers, provide evidence that our goal of saving species from extinction is achievable.  Pandas are an example of what we can achieve when everyone works together and shares a common goal.  And by not delisting the coastal California gnatcatcher we can work towards similar goals by protecting habitat in our very own backyard.  In the future when costal California gnatcatchers are downgraded to vulnerable because their numbers are steadily increasing, we will have a good reason to celebrate.