by Ann Fowler
AUSTIN – A small central Texas songbird could possibly delay the planned construction of State Highway 45 Southwest (SH45SW). It seems appropriate that the bird, a golden-cheeked warbler, has as much drama in its past as SH45SW.
City of Austin biologist Lisa O’Donnell was conducting a bird survey on a tract of city property in the vicinity of the proposed SH45SW toll road when she heard the song of the golden-cheeked warbler: A buzzy zee, zoo, zeedee, zeep.
“It was not a huge surprise,” she said, citing multiple observations in the area since 2013. The songbird, a federally protected species, spends winters in Mexico or northern Central America. They return to Texas in March for nesting season. The female warbler uses juniper bark to build her nest.
What this sighting means to the construction of SH45SW is not clear. The Balcones Canyonlands Preserve (BCP) was designed to allow for mitigation when development plans clash with protected species. In 1992, Austin voters approved $22 million in bonds for “the acquisition and improvement of land to protect water quality, conserve endangered species, . . . and providing open space for passive public use…”
BCP is actually a system of preserves that span thousands of acres operating under a permit by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act. The BCP was formed to protect eight endangered species—one of those is the golden-cheeked warbler. It is jointly held by Travis County and the City of Austin.
BCP program manager Sherri Kuhl told the Gazette that the bird survey has been conducted annually for decades. Although the sighting has occurred late in the planning process for SH45SW, Kuhl said, “This was not a gotcha moment. We have multiple sightings in that area since 2013.”
Dee Anne Heath, Director of External Affairs for the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA) told the Gazette, “The city has informally alerted us of the warbler sighting and we look forward to reviewing the city’s official report when it becomes available.”
The protection of the golden-cheeked warbler is almost as controversial as the construction of SH45SW. The roadway has been under consideration for decades, receiving environmental approval that some say does not go far enough to protect the environment, while others just want the roadway built.
SH45SW, a 3-mile road to join Mopac with FM 1626, is touted as an easier way for Hays County commuters to reach downtown Austin—to the relief of Brodie Lane residents who suffer thousands of commuters using that two-lane road on a daily basis.
Travis County is paying $15 million toward the road, while Hays County is adding $5 million. The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization gave a $28.9 million grant toward construction, and the Texas Transportation Commission approved $60 million to complete it.
Hays County Realtor John Sanford blogged, “Once this road is completed it will allow for much easier east–west traffic between Buda–Kyle and the Dripping Springs part of Hays County. It will also give Buda and Kyle area residents a third commuting way into Austin—the first two being IH-35 and SH 130 toll.”
In February, a group that includes former Austin Mayor Carole Keeton, the Friends of the Wildflower Center and the Save Our Springs Alliance filed a lawsuit in federal court to stop construction of SH45SW, claiming the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) should have combined several south Austin infrastructure projects in determining the environmental consequences.
The CTRMA responded to the lawsuit: “Recently a lawsuit was filed against the Texas Department of Transportation and the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority to stop the Mopac South project as well as 45 SW and the intersection improvements of Mopac and Slaughter Lane and LaCrosse Avenue. Over the last decade, lawsuits have been filed against projects in Central Texas, but they have not produced any measurable impacts, given that we have proceeded in adherence to all requirements set forth by state and federal laws.”
But back to the little songbird. Enjoying federal protection for more than 25 years, the songbird is under attack by former Comptroller Susan Combs and others petitioning to remove the protection, claiming that its protection was based on flawed science.
That claim comes at least in part from a model created by researchers at Texas A&M University (TAMU) that indicates that the warbler population is significantly higher and therefore not in need of federal protection.
But they are not the only ones claiming flawed science. Last year, city of Austin biologists, including O’Donnell, submitted a 10-page research paper, “Density influences accuracy of model-based estimates for a forest songbird.” The paper was accepted for publication by the Journal of Field Ornithology—until it wasn’t. The unusual publication cancellation is blamed on TAMU researchers working behind the scenes to get the article pulled.
Other researchers question why the article, which could have spurred debate on bird population models, was quashed.
TxDOT officials use the TAMU model when planning roads in warbler territory. A 2013 study of the SH45SW resulted in this statement on the road’s website: “Surveys were conducted during the environmental study to determine if Golden-cheeked warblers, an endangered songbird species that nests only in central Texas, are present in the project area. No Golden-cheeked warblers were found during the survey, and no habitat known to be used by the species is present within the right-of-way.”
The city biologists disagree. Kuhl said, “Back in 2013, the consulting firm found a warbler very close to where we saw this one. Really close.”
BCP officials do not know if mitigation will be allowed for SH45SW—meaning money could be paid toward BCP to allow construction to begin as scheduled in December.
At least one Travis County official hopes that will not happen. In a letter to U.S. Fish & Wild Service field supervisor Adam Zerrenner, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt wrote, “…the Mayor of Austin and I have since October of 2015 attempted to arrive at an agreed mechanism by which the CTRMA will pledge its financial resources to mitigate damage or destruction of habitat protected under the Endangered Species Act and the BCCP [Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan] 10A permit should such damage or destruction occur. To date those negotiations have been unproductive.”
Eckhardt would like road officials to use a mitigation method outside the BCP. For this year, the warblers don’t care about these human squabbles—they will be winging their way south before the summer ends. What they will find when they return next spring remains to be seen.
Still, the warbler does have friends in Texas. Next week landowners Matt and Peggy Winkler will be awarded a Lone Star Land Steward Award in a ceremony at the Four Seasons Hotel. The Winkler Ranch in Blanco County provides protected habitats for several species of concern, including the little golden-cheeked warbler.
These annual awards by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department will recognize seven landowners on May 19 for their conservation efforts.
For more information on the golden-cheeked warbler, see http://www.fws.gov/refuge/Balcones_Canyonlands/GCW.html and http://www.fws.gov/refuge/Balcones_Canyonlands/multimedia/audio/gcwa.html