Sometimes called the canary in Southern California's proverbial coal mine, the coastal California gnatcatcher with its kitten-like mew of a call is a prime indicator of ecosystem health. In the coastal sage scrub that once stretched unbroken from Ventura County to northern Baja California, this tiny gray songbird's habitat now lies amid a patchwork of freeways, shopping malls, and farmlands. Ninety percent of Southern California's coastal sage scrub has already been lost to development, and remnant patches have been hit hard by unnaturally frequent wildfire.


The Center is protecting the coastal California gnatcatcher from threats posed by transmission lines like the proposed Sunrise Powerlink that would extend through gnatcatcher habitat and increase the risk of fire, as well as development — like the Coyote Hills development, approved for the site of one of the largest coastal California gnatcatcher populations. In 2007 we announced our intent to sue over the designation of the Southwest National Interest Electric Transmission Corridor, which would allow for the fast-track approval of utility and power lines through the habitat of several endangered species, including the gnatcatcher.

Since the gnatcatcher was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1993 — soon after future Center staffer David Hogan filed a listing petition — the Center has been challenging sprawling projects that would bulldoze coastal sage scrub, whittle away at gnatcatcher habitat, and keep the bird's death toll on the rise. We successfully pressed for improved conservation measures for the bird under the San Diego Multiple Species Conservation Plan and won a landmark settlement to protect the gnatcatcher and other species on Southern California's four national forests. We also compiled a database documenting the federal authorization of “taking” coastal California gnatcatchers, which has so far resulted in the killings of at least 1,280 gnatcatcher pairs.

After the Center and allies went to court to intervene, in 2019 a judge dismissed a lawsuit by developers seeking to remove federal protections from the coastal California gnatcatcher. The gnatcatcher’s status has been threatened repeatedly by developers and industry groups since it was first protected, so we'll continue our work to defend this bird and its habitat.

Photo by B Moose Peterson, USFWS