Archive | November, 2010

A System of Conservation Lands for America?

Have you ever wondered why a rich country like the United States has not established a system of conservation lands designed to prevent species from becoming endangered? What do you think it would take to build one?

A network of conservation lands is being explored under a program sponsored by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, called the Wildlife Habitat Policy Research Program. The program was designed to support implementation of the state wildlife action plans, required by Congress before states qualify for State Wildlife Grant funding.  Our Nation’s Wildlife Habitats is a synthesis report on the research findings and their significance from the first four years of the program.

Research sponsored by the Wildlife Habitat Policy Research Program demonstrated that time is running out to create a viable network of conservation lands, but that we are already spending a significant portion of the funds needed to create such a network – if only the money were spent more strategically on priority lands.

A variety of existing approaches, like land acquisition and easements, will be necessary, along with new strategies. For example, a new approach to wetland mitigation could produce much better results for conservation by focusing investment where it will have the greatest ecological benefits.

Improved alignment of government programs could generate a much broader spectrum of benefits for wildlife. For example, when the Federal Emergency Management Administration addresses flooding problems, floodplain habitat can be protected and managed to allow floods to happen without endangering people and property.  State fish and wildlife agencies cannot do this alone, nor can any single organization.

A major research theme of the Wildlife Habitat Policy Research Program is climate change adaptation. Many of the actions necessary to make ecosystems more resilient would make sense whether the climate changes as predicted or not.

Completing a Wildlife Habitat System for the Nation is a brief summary of the vision and recommendations by the program committee based on research sponsored by the program.

Posted in Paying for Conservation0 Comments

A photo of an estuary

At the front lines of climate change

A photo of an estuaryEstuaries, the ecosystems that exist where rivers and oceans meet, are at the front lines of climate change. Rising sea levels threaten to inundate coastal wetlands, increasing their salinity and causing a shift in vegetation communities. Air and water temperatures, precipitation patterns, and ocean chemistry are also changing. All of these processes likely add up to a loss many of the values these systems provide, including providing habitat for fish, migratory birds, and other species, filtering water, stabilizing shorelines, and buffering coastal communities from storm damage.

On November 18-19th, a group of researchers and managers got together in Newport, Oregon, to mull over what to do about this situation. We asked ourselves:  How can we best manage these sensitive ecosystems so that they continue to provide fish and wildlife habitat and other important values as the climate changes?

The question is a particularly tough one, because relatively simple physical changes in climate and water chemistry will create complex effects in biological systems. For example, we know that air temperatures here in the Pacific Northwest are likely to rise some 2-5°F over the next several decades and that we can expect on the order of 3-4 feet of sea-level rise globally by the end of the century (although the magnitude of sea-level rise remains much debated).  These changes are likely to affect factors that are critical to estuary function like water salinity, sediment deposition, and vegetation type, but we know relatively little about exactly how these cascading effects will play out on the ground. As a result, many managers feel that climate change projections are still too uncertain to inform management decisions

One of the conclusions from the group was that many of the conservation tools we already have will be useful in responding to climate change. For example, many estuaries can effectively migrate inland as sea levels rise. Where they are hemmed in by development, though, they are unable to shift and some of their function and value as wildlife habitat is almost certain to be lost, so protecting coastal lands from development through conservation easements and purchase is vitally important. We also discussed some creative strategies for managing estuaries and the riparian areas that feed them, such as reintroducing beavers into streams and rivers improve water storage on the landscape and help moderate water flows.

Many of these strategies are robust to uncertainty, in the sense that they are very likely to be beneficial even if we are wrong about the magnitude or effects of future changes in the climate. Developing more of these robust strategies will help keep conservationists from becoming paralyzed by the uncertainty inherent in climate prediction and modeling. In Oregon, the next step is to delve deeper into some of the solutions we identified and start thinking critically about what tools to use, where, and why. We’ll also be working to spread the word so that that general public is more aware of likely climate change impacts and our options for managing it.

Posted in Climate Change, Pacific Northwest0 Comments


Plagiarism and Politics: The Curious Case of Edward Wegman

Graph displaying variations of the Earth's surface temperature for the past 1000 years from The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Third Assessment Report, based on the original Mann et al. graph. Photo: IPCC

Analyses have revealed that one of the centerpieces of the climate change denial platform — a 2006 study criticizing the statistical methodology behind the “hockey stick” graph – contains multiple instances of plagiarism.

In 1999, Michael Mann, Raymond Bradley, and Malcolm Hughes published a paper charting temperature deviation from average over the past 1000 years.  Dubbed for its resemblance to a hockey stick lying on its side with the blade sticking in the air, the graph showed 900 years of moderately fluctuating temperatures with a warming trend spiking upward after 1900. The hockey stick graph sparked numerous efforts to discredit the statistical methods behind it as well as its use of “proxy” data like tree rings to estimate past temperatures.

One of the most influential criticisms was a 2006 report commissioned by then-head of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Joe Barton (R-TX). A new analysis of that report finds evidence of plagiarism on 35 of its 91 pages.

Evidence that the report author, Edward Wegman of George Mason University, had engaged in plagiarism first came to light on the Deep Climate website, which is dedicated to “exploring climate science disinformation in Canada.” According to the USA Today, that information caught the attention of Raymond Bradley, one of the original “hockey stick” authors, and whose own book was one of the allegedly plagiarized sources. A year-long analysis of the text concluded that the Wegman report contains multiple sections that “are mostly plagiarized text, but often injected with errors, bias and changes of meaning.”

USA Today followed up by consulting several plagiarism experts, whose verdicts after side-by-side analysis of the plagiarism ranged from “fairly obvious” to “fairly shocking.”

I trolled around a bit on some of websites that specialize in promulgating climate change denial, like “Watts Up With That.” Their reactions to the scandal ranged from silence on the subject, to a reiteration of one sentence in the USA Today report: “The charges of plagiarism don’t negate one of the basic premises of the report—that climate scientists used poor statistics in two widely noted papers.” I guess they missed the part farther down in the article where we are reminded that a “National Research Council report found the Wegman report’s criticism of the type of statistics used in 1998 and 1999 papers reasonable but beside the point, as many subsequent studies had reproduced their finding that the 20th century was likely the warmest one in centuries.”

What will be the fallout from all this? Hard to say, but I have a feeling that the outrage:wrongdoing ratio will be about inverse to last year’s “Climategate.” For one thing, while the USA Today’s article is great, you had better have the direct link. Not only is it not linked from the main page, on the “National News,” I couldn’t find it linked from the “News” page, “Tech” page, or even the “Weather” page. And I don’t expect the revelations to spark much change on the political front, either. The article reports that Joe Barton, the Congressman who commissioned the Wegman report, continues to stand by it. If Joe Barton’s name sounds familiar, it may be that you recall his apology last summer to B.P. Chairman Tony Hayward for the Obama Administration’s stance to B.P. following the Gulf Oil Disaster.  And he’s one of the leading contenders to return to chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee in the next Congress.

Posted in Climate Change0 Comments

Lake Mead at Record Low

Lake Mead at Record Low

Lake Mead. Photo: NASA

Media outlets across the West are reporting on the record low elevations at Lake Mead on the Colorado River.  This being the 75th anniversary of Hoover Dam, now is a good time to look at the past, present and future of not just the dam, but the entire Colorado River.

On October 17th, Lake Mead dropped to 1,083.18 feet above sea level; today, Lake Mead is at 1,082.25 feet elevation – the reservoir hasn’t been this low since it was first filling in the 1930s.  And it continues to drop.  We are not only witnessing the lowest that Lake Mead has been since 1937 but also the lowest 11-year average of inflows in the last 100 years.

The Colorado River basin is deep in drought.  Increased consumption, an unhealthy watershed and climate change all play a part in this precipitous drop.  When the river was divvied up in 1922, they thought it had an annual flow of about 16.4 million acre-feet, while the past 100 years have shown us it’s more like 15.1 million acre-feet.  Analysis of tree rings indicate that annual flow – measured over millenia – may be anywhere from 13.4 to 14.7 million acre-feet.  To make matters worse, researchers are learning that climate change will make that number even smaller — 5% to 20% smaller by 2050.

These lows have dire consequences for wildlife.  The filling of Lake Mead in the 1930s, and again in the 1960s in anticipation of the completion of Glen Canyon Dam, turned the river into a trickle that rarely reaches the Gulf of California.  The Colorado River delta once covered nearly 2 million acres of riparian-wetland habitat, which supported over 400 species of plants and animals.  Since then, marine life like the vaquita and totoaba virtually disappeared and Delta wetlands shrunk to one-fifth their former size.  Fish that were once common are now endangered.

There is danger that another historic low in Lake Mead elevation will again devastate wildlife and rural communities, this time in the Great Basin.  Should Lake Mead hit 1,075 feet elevation, Las Vegas will put even more pressure on the scarce water resources, as it seeks to develop a $3 billion project that would export groundwater that sustains hundreds of seeps, springs and streams in the Great Basin to try to sustain instead its own growth.  We should learn a lesson from the impacts to fish, wildlife and native communities in the Delta: rather than take water that already supports national wildlife refuges, national parks, state wildlife areas and rural communities, let’s look to water conservation and more responsible solutions.

Posted in Climate Change, In the Field1 Comment

Photo of the Boys and Girls Club of the Northern Cheyenne Nation with the black-footed ferrets they are about to release

Black-footed Ferrets Find a New Home

Last week I witnessed an endangered species success story first hand.  I ventured out to the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in eastern Montana to see a few lucky black-footed ferret kits off to their new home.  With fewer than 1,000 in the wild, black-footed ferrets are one of the most endangered animals in North America. They feed on prairie dogs and live in prairie dog burrows, and the decline of prairie dogs has led to their precarious state.

The Northern Cheyenne Tribe is helping bring black-footed ferrets back from the brink. Tribal representatives – along with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists and a group of students from the Boys and Girls Club in nearby Lame Deer, MT – gathered to release the thirteen ferret kits.  The kits, which were the third group to be released on the reservation, arrived from the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center in northern Colorado, where the species is bred in captivity.  The release took place at four separate prairie dog towns on the reservation.  Excitement filled the faces of kids and adults alike as the first ferret scurried into the nearest prairie dog hole.

Photo of the Boys and Girls Club of the Northern Cheyenne Nation with the black-footed ferrets they are about to release

The Northern Cheyenne Tribe began reintroducing black-footed ferrets in 2008. As part of that effort, Tribal authorities granted protection from all prairie dog shooting and poisoning on 10,000 acres of land. Defenders of Wildlife donated $10,000 to assist with this initial protective effort.

As is the case with most of the other 18 black-footed ferret reintroduction sites across the west, there is a catch. Sylvatic plague, an exotic disease to which both prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets have little to no immunity, threatens to undo the hard restoration work. Plague struck many of Northern Cheyenne’s prairie dog towns last year. But the tribe fought back by dusting many active prairie dog burrows to kill the fleas that carry plague. It seemed to work, and now black-footed ferret restoration continues with last week’s ferret releases.

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife, In the Field, Northern Rockies1 Comment

“To put it bluntly, we have a mess on our hands.”

No, these words were not uttered by Nancy Pelosi on November 4th, but by the late Senator Hubert Humphrey in response to major mismanagement of our national forests in the 1970s, including controversial clearcutting on West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest. Congress responded by passing  the National Forest Management Act (NFMA) in 1976, which required the Forest Service to draft comprehensive plans for individual forests and to “provide for diversity of plant and animal communities” when managing those forests.  This provision is considered to be the strongest mandate in federal land law to conserve biodiversity.

Rules for implementing the NFMA were created during the Reagan administration.  Those regulations put a finer point on the plant and animal diversity provisions and required the Forest Service to “maintain viable populations” of native species in the national forests.  A viable wildlife population is a distinct group of animals that are likely to persist over time because they have sufficient numbers and habitat to reproduce and survive.  Loss of individual wildlife populations contributes to the epidemic of species extinctions.

The Reagan-era regulations have stood the test of time, despite attempts by the Clinton and both Bush administrations to revise the forest planning rules.  The Clinton rules, drafted with the support of an advisory Committee of Scientists, were abandoned by the incoming Bush administration who found them to be a bit too scientific, yet Bush’s attempts to rollback the rules were judged illegal by the courts.  As a result of all this confusion, the Forest Service is in regulatory no man’s land, operating under the ambiguous “transition provisions” of the Clinton planning rule.

So here we go again. The Obama administration has proposed yet another rewrite of the forest rules.  Why the need for change you ask?  Good question.  While many of the fads of the 1980s have gone out of style, certainly the commitment to conserving wildlife and their habitat on our public lands has not.  The forest rules do need to be modernized to address emerging conservation challenges, such as the impact of climate change on forest ecosystems.  However, this administration should resist the urge to weaken wildlife diversity provisions by inserting undue discretion into the new rules.  While it may be rational for agencies to seek to maximize their discretion, the results can be less than optimal in terms of the public interest. When it comes to managing the people’s lands, discretion cannot trump accountability.  To that end, Defenders of Wildlife is working to ensure that the new Forest Service regulations are held to a high conservation standard.  Stay tuned to this blog for insight into the NFMA rulewriting process.  The Forest Service intends to release a proposed rule along with a draft environmental impact statement early in 2011.

Posted in National Forests, Public Lands1 Comment

Photo of a greater sage grouse

Sage Grouse Conservation Strategy Delayed in Oregon

Photo of a greater sage grouse

Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Faced with strong opposition from wind developers and some eastern Oregon counties, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission has delayed final adoption of the state’s updated sage grouse conservation strategy, which had been scheduled for December 3.  In the meantime, the Natural Resources Conservation Service is moving ahead with the next round of funding for its Oregon sage grouse initiative, providing an additional $3.5 million for projects to improve habitat for sage grouse on private lands in eastern Oregon.  The focus is on juniper removal within three miles of sage grouse leks in Baker, Crook, Deschutes, Harney, Lake, and Malheur counties.  Deadline for signups is December 15.  Payments for juniper removal typically average about $141 per acre.

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife, Pacific Northwest, Renewables0 Comments

Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo: NPS

Climate Convergence: Common Themes in Agency Climate Plans

Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo: NPS

Adaptation plans. Mitigation strategies. It seems sometimes that hardly a week goes by without one or more agencies putting forth an approach for managing land, water, infrastructure or other assets in the face of already-occurring and anticipated future changes in climate. Since the nation as yet lacks an overarching planning framework and communication structure for the development of these plans, they have to date mainly been developed in isolation. This begs the question: how do the various plans compare? Are the agencies drawing similar conclusions about what they need to emphasize and how to proceed? Are any (or all) of the agencies moving forward with significant gaps in their plans?

Defenders of Wildlife examined recently-released climate change response plans from three of the four major federal land management agencies: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the National Park Service (NPS), and the U.S Forest Service (USFS). The Bureau of Land Management has not yet embarked on a comprehensive climate change strategic plan.

In comparing the three plans we found significant parallels, despite the fact that each agency produced its climate change strategic plan independently and in the absence of overarching guidance for the elements those plans should contain. Though they differed in structure, the areas of emphasis in each could be summarized under four major topic areas, which provide a solid general framework:

  • Climate Change Policy
  • Adaptation Science and Management
  • Mitigation
  • Education, Outreach and Collaboration

Within each of these larger themes, our analysis presents the specific objectives and actions presented by each agency’s plan.  Looking at the three plans in tandem provides a clearer vision of the types of goals and actions needed to prepare agencies to respond to climate change than any of the three plans offer alone. Thus, viewing the three in this crosswalk format and drawing lessons from that is more useful than using any single plan as a template for future plans. We suggest that future climate change planning efforts can benefit from this crosswalk, which shows both the commonality among the agencies and highlights ways in which their thinking on particular aspects of climate change planning have differed.

Defenders of Wildlife’s “Climate Change and Federal Land Management” comparison paper is available at:

Posted in Climate Change0 Comments

Oregon celebrates passage of Measure 76

Getting 954,000 Oregon voters to say yes to anything, much less funding for conservation, is pretty remarkable.  But the 69% vote in favor of the Water, Parks and Wildlife initiative also included majorities in every county (with a high of 77.5% in Benton County and a low of 53.6% in Grant County), according to the final Measure 76 tally.  Many joint venture partners can share in the credit, but we all owe a big debt of gratitude to The Nature Conservancy, which provided much of the leadership and the bulk of the money for the successful campaign.  Looking forward, the most significant change for the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board’s grant program will be the elimination of the current distinction between capital and non-capital expenditures, which should open the door to a more holistic approach to project funding.   Joint venture partners will also be seeking statutory and administrative changes to improve OWEB’s process for land acquisition grants.

Posted in Pacific Northwest, Paying for Conservation0 Comments

Biodiversity as an ecosystem service: what to measure, how, and why?

The G8+5 recently released a report titled “Mainstreaming the Economics of Nature” that argues that the current financial system is fundamentally flawed – not because of the recent meltdowns, but because it does not account for the provision, use, or loss of ecosystem services such as clean air and water, flood mitigation, and natural pollination. It predicts that failing to address this problem will continue to harm not only ecological but also economic and social systems. The emerging ideas of ecosystem services and ecosystem markets represent interesting new thinking about the benefits provided by natural systems, how those benefits are represented in economic systems, and what kinds of policies and economic tools might be used to make sure they persist into the future.

One of the first and most significant challenges in this area lies in quantifying the services being provided. The sub-field of environmental economics has produced some innovative approaches to valuing ecological services, but assessing the value conservation land adds to local economies through property values or spending on recreation falls far short of describing what we lose when a natural area is degraded or destroyed. Emerging markets in water quality and carbon have helped to pave the way, but quantifying the value of biodiversity and other unregulated resources lags far behind.

As a result, a small cottage industry has sprung up recently around the creation of environmental metrics, tools for quantifying the ecological values provided by a particular area of land. We have participated in a few of these efforts, including the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops, which aims to develop environmental and social metrics for agriculture and food processing and distribution systems. We are also working on an effort to create metrics that efficiently and effectively quantify the biodiversity outcomes of conservation lands. These metrics should be useful in efforts to integrate ecosystem services into market values, but it may also be used more immediately to describe the impact of conservation incentive programs or to measure the biodiversity value of lands being placed in conservation or affected by development.

Developing metrics for ecosystem services is a small step toward the fundamental shifts in economic systems that are described in the G8+5 report, but it may prove to be a significant step in improving the outcomes of conservation efforts on the ground. The ability to reliably measure the impacts of development and the outcomes of conservation actions can help make sure we gain the best results from every dollar spent on conservation, whether that dollar comes from government incentive programs, mitigation for development, or private investment.

Posted in Paying for Conservation0 Comments

Photo of an ocelot

Recovering Ocelots, Challenges and Opportunities

Photo of an ocelot

Photo by Tom Smylie. Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Defenders recently submitted comments on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Draft Ocelot Recovery Plan (first revision).  This draft improves considerably on the original recovery plan from 1990, but we identified three main issues in need of further analysis.

The first issue is establishing population goals for recovery.  The plan focuses on recovering ocelots in northern Mexico and the southwestern U.S.  It splits ocelots from this region into two management units—one covering Arizona and Sonora, and another covering Texas and Tamaulipas—and then sets population recovery goals for each unit.  The problem is that some of these goals leave the risk of extinction surprisingly high.  For example, to meet the goal of having 200 ocelots in Texas, there can be two populations of 75 ocelots each.  Yet each population faces an 83% risk of extinction after 100 years, according to the population viability assessment (PVA) cited in the recovery plan.  These numeric goals should be higher.

The second issue is climate change.  The recovery plan gives a nod to climate change without analyzing any of its predicted impacts across the Southwest.  This omission is inexcusable, considering that climate models already predict a more arid Southwest.  Knowing that drought is one of the most important factors in ocelot reproductive success, we asked the Service to revise the recovery plan to include more information on climate change effects and responses to them.  One method is to conduct PVA simulations that incorporate the likely effects of climate change on ocelot demographics.  Another method is to consider reintroducing ocelots to other portions of their historic U.S. range, thus decreasing the vulnerability of the species to climate change.

The third issue is managing the U.S.-Mexico border.  The recovery plan is short on specific actions that will be taken to minimize the impacts of physical barriers to ocelot movement along this border, as well as border security activities.  The plan should discuss precisely how ocelots will be recovered in light of these threats.  For example, the Department of Homeland Security will fund $50 million to address impacts of the border wall on endangered species and other natural resources and has already announced the allocation of $6.8 million of this funding to wildlife projects.  The recovery plan should describe precisely how this money will be used to benefit ocelots, given that it is one of the species most endangered by border barrier construction.

Recovery planning for ocelots presents an exceptional opportunity for the Service to show how it can manage some of the most pressing threats facing this and other species.  We hope the Service seizes this opportunity.

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife, Southwest0 Comments

Photo of zebras for the National Geographic series called Great Migrations

Great migrations threatened by Tanzanian highway

Photo of zebras for the National Geographic series called Great MigrationsNational Geographic has once again captured our imagination with Great Migrations, a seven-part series that takes viewers along on the arduous journeys millions of animals undertake to ensure the survival of their species. Viewers are mesmerized with images shot from the air to underwater and enraptured with the powerful stories of our planet’s species and the great migrations they embark upon to find food, shelter and mates.

A major part of the huge wildlife migrations through Tanzania and Kenya occurs within the Serengeti National Park, and is considered the greatest natural wonder of the world.  Millions of wildebeest, zebras, elephants, rhinos, gazelles, and predators like cheetahs and lions teem across the landscape as far as the eye can see; instinctively following paths established over thousands of years of evolution.

This May, the Tanzanian government announced plans to build a 300 mile east-west highway through the northern part of the park, slated for construction in 2012.  Tanzania’s president, Jakaya Kikwete believes the $480 million project would improve transportation and boost economic activity by linking two of its key towns — Arusha, near Kilimanjaro and Musoma on Lake Victoria.  However, Kenya is opposed to the Serengeti road project, saying it would affect the annual wildebeest migration, a key tourist attraction.  More than 100,000 tourists visit the Maasai Mara during the migration months between July and October and any interruption is likely to hurt Kenya’s economy.

“Wildebeest have a problem crossing roads which have heavy human and vehicle traffic, there is nothing elsewhere in the Serengeti with this high capacity for traffic,” said Mr Gideon Gathaara, a Kenyan Ministry of Wildlife official.

Scientists are saying that a road like this could lead to the collapse of the Serengeti ecosystem, as well as a collapse of tourism in the region. Though the proposed road would be gravel, the presence of increased traffic would disrupt wildlife to the point of their avoidance of the area, would lead to roadkill especially at night, would be even more damaging to wildlife by being fenced, and would most likely result in paving the road in the future.  Several conservation experts have publicly condemned the plan, as has the United Nations World Heritage Committee.

Internationally known wildlife biologist Richard Estes said the price of a road through the Serengeti is too high: “There’s not only the hazards of animals being killed by vehicles, which is serious, but more dangerous is the unplanned development that will follow — the building of towns and strip development — which is increasing human influence and access. The poaching is already serious and this will make it a whole lot easier.”

Wildlife conservationists and advocates are anxiously awaiting the results of Tanzania’s feasibility study, due out in January 2011. Can we save the Serengeti or will this great migration be relegated to the pages of history?

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife0 Comments

dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.