Discovery of protected gnatcatcher found at Whittaker slows cleanup

Signal file photo Empty dump trucks pull into a soil treatment area to pick up clean dirt as viewed on tour of the cleanup efforts of the Whittaker-Bermite site in Valencia in October 2016. Dan Watson/The Signal
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As 18 years of cleanup on the nearly 1,000 acres of the former Whittaker-Bermite site comes to a close, cleanup officials have reported a snag as they eagerly approach the year-end target cleanup date — a nest of the threatened California gnatcatcher.

Hassan Amini, project manager with the cleanup firm Amec Foster Wheeler, told stakeholders attending a multi-jurisdictional meeting at Santa Clarita City Hall Wednesday that a biologist monitoring the cleanup recently spotted evidence of the threatened bird, prompting the shutdown of bulldozers and trucks busy on the site.

Although the bird itself is considered “threatened” and is not on the endangered list, its habitat — coastal sage scrub —  is classified as critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act.

“Because it is a protected species,” Amini told stakeholders eager to hear how the cleanup is still on target, “not only does California Fish and Wildlife get involved but it also gets elevated to the federal level and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service gets involved.

“So, they need to review the reports that we provided and they need to consult with the Army Corps of Engineers. And, these federal agencies need to talk and, eventually, issue their opinion and any protective measures that we need to take along with our continued excavation of the site,” Amini said.

Cleanup officials have also briefed the city on the discovery and asked “team members from the city side to see if they can help us get this hurdle basically resolved as quickly as possible,” he said.

“We don’t want to cut any corners but rather we want to bring attention to this matter so that we can move forward,” Amini said.

The California gnatcatcher, according to environmentalists manning the website, is a songbird about 4 inches long that survives in coastal sage scrub habitats in California.

They are highly territorial and mate for life. Once paired, gnatcatchers do not normally migrate beyond a 1- to 2-acre territory all year.

As described on the website: “The greatest threat to the survival of this bird is during their first year. The young often fall victim to nest predators such as rodents, snakes, scrub-jays, road runners, feral or domestic cats. They also can have their nests destroyed by bulldozing activity.”

Although bulldozer activity has slowed at certain areas on the Whittaker-Bermite site, cleanup crews are optimistic they can still meet their cleanup deadline of Dec. 31.

“I’m still optimistic that within the November/December time frame we’ll get a resolution of this with this go-forward permit,” Amini said.

The gnatcatcher, according to environmentalists, is at risk of extinction due to a drastic  decline in natural sage scrub habitat.

Of the 2.5 million acres of such habitat and chaparral that once stretched from Ventura County to the Mexican border, only 10 percent remains, they report on their website.

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