SAVING THE INYO CALIFORNIA TOWHEE

Though it doesn’t boast fancy plumage, the grayish-brown, sparrow-like Inyo California towhee is remarkable for its tenacity. Despite the population’s limited range and complete isolation from other towhees, its numbers have gone from about 100 to 700-plus individuals in the past two decades — thanks largely to the Endangered Species Act, under which it was listed as threatened and given critical habitat in 1987. In addition, protections provided to the bird’s habitat by the 1994 California Desert Conservation Act should have reinforced the safeguards demanded by the critical habitat designation.

But the Bureau of Land Management, entrusted with protecting the California Desert Conservation Area, allowed destructive human activities in the towhee’s California home even after the Conservation Act was passed. Livestock grazing, mining, off-road vehicle use, and nonnative species continued to threaten the towhee’s already small and isolated population — as well as the populations of countless other plants and animals. So in 2000, the Center filed suit against the agency to institute sweeping reforms, and in 2001, a landmark settlement was reached. The Bureau of Land Management agreed to enact mining prohibitions, grazing restrictions, off-road vehicle restrictions, road closures, and other conservation measures that would affect hundreds of thousands of acres and improve the outlook for many imperiled species. The settlement specifically required protection of towhees through stepped-up efforts to remove feral burros, which degrade the bird’s habitat and have been one of the gravest threats to the species.

Today, though its population is still small, the Inyo California towhee has increased dramatically in numbers and is on its way to recovery. The Center continues to monitor its status to enforce the protections it needs.