Archive | March, 2011

lynx

Too Special to Drill?

Earlier this month Defenders, along with some of our partners, submitted a letter calling for greater conservation measures to be incorporated into a proposed drilling project on the Bridger-Teton National Forest in eastern Wyoming, near Yellowstone National Park.  Our very own Dave Gaillard provided his expertise on lynx in an effort to show the Forest Service that this area may be, simply put, too special to drill.

lynxOne of the key issues that makes this project so important (and frightening) to Defenders of Wildlife is habitat connectivity – full field development of more than 300 acres in this area will lead to further fragmentation of habitat for lynx, as well as other iconic species in the region like elk.  Fragmentation is a problem because not only does it lead to less habitat for lynx and (as important) lynx prey, it also contributes to the separation of remaining lynx populations from each other.  This leads to a shallower gene pool and to difficulty moving through the landscape and escaping threats – wide ranging animals like lynx need space if they’re going to survive, and drilling dozens of oil wells in their way certainly won’t help efforts to recover the species.

As Dave puts it: “We are aware of no better documented travel corridor for lynx in the contiguous U.S. than the Hoback Rim, or “Bondurant Corridor” that passes directly through the project area.”  The challenges that lynx and other resources will face if this project moves forward as designed inspired a number of organizations to come together and seek out a solution (from our letter):

“The best solution to protecting these natural values from the development of these leases is to negotiate a buy-out and retirement of the leases . . . . Yet we understand the Forest Service lacks the authority to select this alternative without the consent of the lease holder. Thus we urge the Forest Service to create a new ‘conservation’ alternative for the exploration and development of these leases that can serve as a showcase for drilling in areas of extraordinary value to wildlife and recreation.”

As we state, our first and foremost priority is to see the negotiation of a buy-out of the leases, but this solution requires a great deal of cooperation, and isn’t one the Forest Service necessarily has control over.  The Forest Service does have the ability to influence what the project looks like if it moves forward.  The types of things we would expect out of a “conservation” alternative include project phasing, which would allow only one well pad to be built and operated at a time.  Each well pad would have to be disassembled and the location would be restored before the next pad could be built and drilled.  Such an alternative, along with other mitigation measures, would lay out a realistic way forward in which leases that have given private oil companies certain rights can be honored without permanent damage to the public lands that we all have ownership over.

Though we worry about the lynx, at its core this is a human problem.  Citizens for the Wyoming Range has put together a great video of local residents who attended the Forest Service public meeting on this project, and shared their own concerns.

We look forward to seeing the Forest Service do the right thing for the Hoback basin of Wyoming, as well as the people and wildlife that call it home.

Posted in Public Lands0 Comments

Our Questions on the Forest Planning Rule

Our Questions on the Forest Planning Rule

We’ve been blogging about the Obama administration’s proposed forest planning rule for the past few weeks.  After attending the Forest Service national roundtable on the rule last week, Defenders continues to have unanswered questions about what the proposed forest planning rule will mean for wildlife on our national forests.  We’ve attempted to distill those questions down to a few that we hope the public will keep asking throughout the comment period and at the upcoming regional roundtables:

Wildlife

1. Under the current planning rule, the Forest Service is required to manage habitat to maintain viable populations of native wildlife in the planning area. For most species on the national forests, the proposed rule replaces this clear requirement with vague instructions to manage for ecosystem health. How will this ensure that the Forest Service is able to “keep common species common” and maintain viable populations of all wildlife?

2. The proposed rule limits the viability requirement only to “species of conservation concern,” and then lets local forest officials decide which those are. It also allows the agency to absolve itself from the responsibility for protecting the species it does identify by claiming impossibility. Yet at the same time, the Forest Service claims the proposed rule gives “equal or greater levels of protection” than the existing rule. How can the Forest Service assert that unlimited discretion to exempt species from protection results in “equal or greater protections”?

3. The proposal is extremely vague on how wildlife monitoring will be used to inform management. The proposed rule requires that each forest provide for viable populations of “species of conservation concern” selected by the responsible officials, BUT the rule doesn’t require that those species be monitored. How will the public know if the viability standard is being met when species of conservation concern aren’t monitored? Additionally, what is the role of focal species in the monitoring program, and what happens if the status of focal species is “not good”?

4. The proposal appears to allow the agency to absolve itself from the responsibility of protecting all wildlife on the national forests if “the inherent capability of the land” prohibits it, but this key term is never defined. How can the public be confident that this determination won’t be used to avoid species protection measures when there is no basis for determining the “inherent capability of the land?”

Clear Accountability

1. Under the current forest rule, the public can hold the Forest Service accountable when it fails to uphold the requirements of the rule. The proposed rule seems to be much more focused on what the Forest Service “wants to” or “intends to” rather than what the American public says it “must” do to manage the national forests. The practical result is a sharp curb on public accountability. What are the wildlife and water standards in the rule that the public can use to hold the agency accountable?

2. The Forest Service has said that the rule explains “what” the Forest Service should do with planning on the national forests, but that the “how to” will be reserved for the Forest Service directive system. As such, it will not be subject to the same level of environmental analysis and public participation, and it will be easier to change. How can the Service justify leaving fundamental aspects of the rule – including criteria for selecting “species of conservation concern” – to be decided without full environmental review and public participation?

Best Available Science

1. The proposed rule requires forest managers to consider the best available science, but does not require them to base their decisions on it. They are simply required to write a description of the science that is available and describe why they decided to go a different way. By not requiring managers to base their decisions on science, what assurances are there that political pressure won’t trump sound science and that wildlife, water quality and healthy forests won’t pay the price as various special interests put pressure on forest managers?

2. Even if the best available science finds that a species is imperiled, a forest official is not required to recognize the animal as a “species of conservation concern.” This enables the agency to ignore best available science indicating that a species should be considered a species of conservation concern. What recourse exists for the public when poor decision-making leaves out a species that the best available science identifies as a species of conservation concern?

A Changing Climate

1. For the first time, the proposed rule addresses the threat of climate change on our national forests. There are references to climate change in the rule’s three main components: assessment, plan revision, and monitoring. However, all of the language is discretionary. There is no mandatory program to analyze the effects of climate change or to develop strategies to address those threats. Given the profound changes we are already seeing in forest ecosystems due to a changing climate, why aren’t the requirements for addressing these changes more explicit?

Posted in National Forests, Public Lands2 Comments

At Midway Atoll, Birds Take a Hard Hit from the Tsunami

The stories pouring out of Japan paint a heartbreaking picture of the enormous toll last week’s earthquake and tsunami have taken on the country and its people, and of the long road to recovery ahead.  That same violent earthquake also generated another tsunami that swept across the Pacific Ocean and eventually washed over a set of coral islands in the Hawaiian archipelago.  Now, as the process of rescue and recovery continues in Japan, a different sort of disaster response has begun about 2,000 miles away.

Midway Atoll, established as a national wildlife refuge in 1988, is usually a thriving home to endangered Hawaiian monk seals, threatened green sea turtles, 21 species of seabirds, and a diverse array of other wildlife.  Today, refuge staff are sifting through the damage, counting carcasses and rescuing those animals that made it through.  It is estimated that tens of thousands of Laysan albatross chicks nesting on the islands were killed when they were carried off with the water, and 1,000 of the adult and subadult birds are dead.  Others survived, but they are injured or stuck under toppled vegetation and debris.  Thousands of Bonin petrels, which nest in burrows, were likely buried under the sand.

While the losses are great, Midway Atoll has certainly rebounded from tsunamis and other natural disasters in the past.  Many plants and animals have adapted to such disturbances.  So, why should we worry now?  Because this time, a tsunami isn’t the only problem.  Ocean acidification, invasive species, and marine debris are ongoing threats.  And sea-level rise could put much of the habitat under water.  Together, these stresses could push the ecosystem beyond its ability to recover.

Posted in National Wildlife Refuges, Public Lands0 Comments

Bottom-up and top-down approaches in climate adaptation strategies

In a just published article, Bodansky (2011) makes a comparison and subsequent analyses of the different approaches taken by the United Nations in tackling emissions reductions.  The Kyoto Protocol, adopted in 1997 and entered into force in 2005, is, according to the author, a typical top-down mechanism, in which actions are determined by the U.N. itself and nations do not have the freedom or flexibility to define their emissions reductions commitments (although they can decide how to implement those).  In contrast, the Copenhagen Accord and the Cancun Agreements (from 2009 and 2010, respectively) are viewed as a more bottom-up approach, where the focus is on nationally-defined measures, and nations are allowed to define commitments and actions, and make pledges unilaterally.  He goes on to discuss the pros and cons of each approach, and how some sort of combination of both might lead to better results in the long run – a collective agreement but more individual flexibility.

Bottom-up and top-down approaches are widely used in traditional sciences.  For instance, when studying community ecology, researchers speak of bottom-up and top-down forces shaping the community, and how the outcomes of those processes may differ.  A very simplistic example of a bottom-up force affecting a community is the availability and abundance of plants, which are then consumed by the herbivores, the carnivores, etc.  This bottom-up force shapes the community because the latter will be composed of the organisms able to live off of whatever plant resources exist, in a food web-type manner.  An example of top-down force would be predators.  Those components of the community, depending on their type and numbers, will have an impact on the prey population, which in turn will have an effect on other animals and the plant community.  Ideally, those two forces are constantly in action, acting simultaneously to keep the community in a state of dynamic equilibrium.

Climate science is no different.  In the context of climate science, various components such as mitigation and adaptation strategies to cope with a varying climate must be identified and implemented.  The approaches to those actions can also be seen as bottom-up or top down.  According to Glick et al. (2011), a top-down approach, much like the Kyoto Protocol, looks at global-scale possible scenarios under a variable climate, such as sea-level rise or extreme climatic events.  Once the scenario is determined, organizations look into how that scenario might affect the landscape, and identify strategies to address those possible changes.  A bottom-up approach, similarly to the Copenhagen Accord and Cancun Agreement, starts with a specific goal, such as reducing pollutant levels or protecting critical habitat.  However, from there, organizations can independently identify how climate can affect those goals, determine possible outcomes, and individually come up with options for reducing whatever negative effects could be foreseen.

Traditional science has shown that both approaches are valid and can co-exist.  In climate science, the same should be possible.  Which approach is used depends on factors such as the scale of the strategy, as well as resources (human and financial), stakeholder interests, stated goals and objectives, and various other constraints that include but are not limited to geographical, socio-economical, geological, and ecological.  The top-down approach may be more appropriate for large-scale adaptation strategies, while bottom-up approaches can be used to fine-tune conservation efforts within a smaller area, for example.  Conservation organizations and agencies should determine the best approaches, and work with both to achieve the ultimate goal of conserving important ecosystem services, habitats, and wildlife in the face of a changing climate.

Posted in Climate Change0 Comments

Appropriations and Duplicative Ethanol Subsidies

Appropriations and Duplicative Ethanol Subsidies

Photo of Mitch McConnellToday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announced his support for eliminating government programs identified in a recent Government Accountability Office report.

Senator McConnell said,

“I can’t imagine anyone in the Senate voting against a bill that would return to taxpayers money that we’re wasting on the bloated and duplicative programs outlined in this report.  Programs which, as ABC put it, are chewing up billions of dollars in funding every year. It would be an embarrassment and a double indictment of Congress to not act on this.”

One of the programs Senator McConnell is supporting the termination of is the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit (VEETC) which is a 45 cent-per-gallon tax credit given to companies including many of the world’s largest and most profitable oil companies as an enticement to buy and mix ethanol with gasoline.

The GAO concluded that this subsidy was duplicative with an Energy Policy Act (2005) mandate to requires a certain amount of renewable fuel to be included in transportation fuels.

The tax credit will cost taxpayers $5.7 billion in subsidy paid to oil companies in 2011, with that cost growing to $6.75 billion by 2015.

In 2010, Senator McConnell had cosponsored the Reid-McConnell Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization and Job Creation Act of 2010 which extended the tax credit.

GAO concludes that ‘the ethanol tax credit is largely unneeded’ and apparently Senator McConnell now agrees.

So do I.

Posted in Energy0 Comments

Review: Redesigning biodiversity conservation projects for climate change

This post is the first in an occasional series of reviews of peer reviewed journal articles, government and non-governmental reports, and books on climate change with applications for wildlife and ecosystem adaptation and conservation.

In their paper, “Redesigning biodiversity conservation projects for climate change: examples from the field,” authors Karen Poiani et al. make important contributions to the field of applied biodiversity climate change adaptation.  The authors describe a process The Nature Conservancy used to identify climate change impacts and to develop adaptation strategies for 20 of TNCs project areas from around the world.

In addition to the description of useable methods for other practitioners to employ to develop adaptation strategies for their projects, the two major insights of the paper are: virtually all conservation projects will need to be adjusted in light of climate change, and in the future, more thought will need to be given to “transformative” actions that look beyond the current conservation targets to facilitate future ecosystem change.

Based on their analysis of climate change impacts, the project teams developed 42 adaptation strategies. The authors classified these strategies two ways.  First, they grouped strategies based on whether they were new strategies to the project area, adjustments to existing strategies, or whether no change in existing strategies was contemplated.  It is extremely telling that of the 42 adaptation strategies developed, only two were existing, unchanged conservation strategies.  As aptly stated by the authors,

“These findings provide strong evidence that considerations of climate change motivate substantive changes in conservation strategies.  They also suggest that conservation projects that ignore climate change could be compromised because they are not appropriately tailored to their potential future situation.”

Making conservation projects and programs climate-smart needs to become standard practice.

The authors also classified the adaptation strategies developed by broad adaptation categories: resistance strategies, resilience strategies, and transformation strategies.  These types of strategies are now commonly found in the adaptation literature.  Resistance refers to strategies that seek to maintain current conservation targets by resisting or compensating for climate-induced changes.  Resilience strategies seek to enhance the ability of the ecosystem or conservation target to rebound from disturbance.  Transformative, or facilitation, strategies are those that attempt to assist systems shift to a new state, or that are designed to protect a future state.

For example, in a coastal marsh system, a resistance strategy would be laying wave barriers to reduce wave-induced erosion, resilience strategies could include restoring degraded hydrology to allow for natural marsh-building process to keep pace with sea level rise, and transformative strategies would be facilitating the inland migration of marshes through land acquisition and habitat interventions.

Of the 42 adaptation strategies developed, 22 were resistance strategies, 18 were resilience, and only 2 were transformation strategies.  As the authors point out: “the predominance of resistance strategies contrasts with the literature about climate change and biodiversity management in which resilience strategies were recommended more than twice as often as resistance strategies.  One possible explanation for this difference is the inherent tendency of conservationists to try to keep things as they are, such that resistance strategies may be preferred whenever possible.”

The paper concludes, “we hypothesize that climate adaptation in reality may require a greater preponderance of transformative strategies, and that scientists and institutions should accelerate exploring such approaches to define and develop the next generation of conservation strategies.”

Or, in the words of Star Trek’s Borg, “resistance is futile.”  Adapting to climate change is not only going to necessitate scientific and technical fixes to our conservation problems – it is going to require the conservation community to change culturally, to change what we value, and to change what our end goals are.

The paper reflects a willingness to do so.  Altering what your goals are is hard, especially when you have been working for years to achieve them.  Yet 60% of the projects did make adjustments to their conservation targets, or their end goals in response to climate change.

An example I often raise to demonstrate the need to adjust conservation goals in response to climate change is the Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge.  Silvio Conte is a unique refuge charged with facilitating the restoration of the entire Connecticut River watershed, not only through land acquisition, but also by being a catalytic force for conservation by other partners.  One of its establishing purposes is the restoration of Atlantic salmon, which was extirpated from the river in the 1800s.  Connecticut is the southern end of Atlantic Salmon’s historic range.  Existing runs of salmon in Maine are arriving two weeks earlier than they did historically due to climate change.  Climate models suggest that Maine may have trouble holding on to habitat conditions for viable populations of salmon in the future.  In other words, the conditions in the Connecticut River will very likely not support salmon in the future.  The refuge should evaluate changing this conservation target.

Evaluating conservation goals is the first step in preparing for climate change and practicing climate-smart conservation.

Posted in Climate Change0 Comments

Conservation in the Information Age Table

Conservation in the Information Age

Data.  We live in the information age.  Information is power.  Information and data can help us see problems and solve problems.

Just three days after his inauguration, President Obama issued a memorandum on open government and transparency.

“My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government.  We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.”

In May, 2009, Federal Chief Information Officer, Vivek Kundra, launched Data.gov “to improve access to Federal data and expand creative use of those data beyond the walls of government by encouraging innovative ideas (e.g., web applications). Data.gov strives to make government more transparent and is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. The openness derived from Data.gov will strengthen our Nation’s democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.”

Data.gov is a surprisingly innovative and modern initiative by the federal government, and invites independent developers to develop “apps” for viewing and processing data, and invites the public to comment on, visualize and participate in an online community around the datasets and what they reveal. Data.gov launched with only 47 datasets and today boasts over 300,000.

But if you are looking for data and information to democratize federal natural resources agencies and help the public understand and solve our pressing conservation problems, well, look again.  Here are the number of datasets available on Data.gov for the major natural resources-related federal agencies:

That’s right: federal conservation agencies have posted a whopping 0.05% of all datasets on Data.gov.

Through our work on the Conservation Registry, we’ve found a fairly high level of resistance to the reality of sharing data, although there are bright spots at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  A related National Database of Conservation Easements has been successful in getting more information from federal sources.

In December of 2009, Office of Management and Budget Director, Peter Orszag, issued a directive to all agencies on implementing the President’s Open Government Initiative.  To speed the availability of government data to the public, the directive required:

“Within 45 days, each agency shall identify and publish online in an open format at least three high-value data sets (see attachment section 3.a.i) and register those data sets via Data.gov. These must be data sets not previously available online or in a downloadable format.”

Apparently these agencies thought the directive said they had 450 days to deliver more information to the public.

True, some of these agencies do have data available, albeit buried, on their agency web pages.  But imagine for a minute if these agencies had embraced the call for transparency and openness.  What connections could we see between agencies?

Posted in Public Lands0 Comments

pronghorn

Wild Lands for Wildlife

A new order from Secretary Salazar of the Department of the Interior creates a “Wild Lands” system for the BLM to preserve lands with wilderness characteristics while they await potential designation by Congress as Wilderness Areas.  This is not a new idea, but replaces a similar system that was in place until the Bush Administration got rid of it in 2003.

Pronghorn depend on public lands throughout the west for survival.

Protecting “Wild Lands” is especially important for wildlife because Wilderness Areas provide a stronghold for many of the most iconic species on our public lands, including sage grouse, bison, and pronghorn.  With more than 41 million acres of public land leased to oil and gas companies for drilling (and that’s in addition to heavy-duty mining activity and hundreds of thousands of acres of potential renewable energy development), it is necessary that the DOI hold true to its multi-use mission and provide for wilderness, wildlife habitat, and recreation as well.

Lands with wilderness characteristics spur billions of dollars in spending by outdoor enthusiasts of all types throughout the country, and these economic benefits show that a smart, effective system for preserving lands with wilderness characteristics will be a key factor in protecting both wildlife and the businesses supported by our wildlife resources.  Development levels on our public lands are skyrocketing, and Secretary Salazar’s order is an attempt at balancing out that development with a smart wilderness protection system.

We support the policy, along with 40 other groups signed onto a conservation community letter addressed to the House Natural Resources Committee.  We “believe this fundamental tool for the protection of our public lands should be supported by the Congress and encourage the members of this committee to show its support for public process on the issue of the wild character of our public lands.”

Someone needs to stand up to exaggerated attacks from Republicans on Capitol Hill, which came to a head yesterday in a hearing of the House Natural Resources committee on the Wild Lands policy.  Opposition to the policy has referred to it as a “war on the west,” accusing BLM of a land grab away from industry.  This view, however, ignores the fact that less than 30% of the millions of acres of BLM lands leased to oil and gas companies are actually being used by industry, and that a much smaller fraction has ever been subject to BLM wilderness policy.  It also ignores the $730 billion spent on outdoor recreation every year, which Black Diamond Equipment CEO Peter Metcalfe noted in his testimony before the committee, where he also discussed America’s wilderness and wild lands as the base upon which the US outdoor recreation industry is built.

Posted in Public Lands0 Comments

A New Vision for the National Wildlife Refuge System

Wildlife comes first.  That, in a nutshell, is the vision the National Wildlife Refuge System gave itself in 1998, nearly 100 years after the first refuge was established.  It seems an obvious (and overdue) vision, but consider that it was only a year earlier that Congress finally passed organic legislation uniting the more than 500 refuges under a mission to conserve wildlife and providing clear guidance for their administration.  For a system whose prior management had been unevenly applied among its various units, this simple statement was a logical place to start.

More than ten years later, it’s time for the Refuge System to move forward.  Many of the challenges remain the same – insufficient funding, a lack of public recognition, and a host of on-the-ground threats like land development and invasive species.  But now we need to address new challenges, such as climate change, and we have a flood of new information to inform our management decisions.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is formulating a new vision to guide the Refuge System through the next decade.  Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced the release of their draft last week.  As we at Defenders review and comment on this document, we’ll be looking for a clear vision statement that prioritizes biodiversity conservation both within and beyond refuge boundaries, and we’ll be looking for an implementation strategy to achieve it.  You can add your voice to the discussion through April 22.

Posted in National Wildlife Refuges, Public Lands0 Comments

Stopping the Privatization of a Federal Island

Stopping the Privatization of a Federal Island

Photo of a piping plover

Credit: Katherine Wittemore/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

New York’s 840 acre Plum Island has been in federal ownership since 1901, but under a law passed during the Bush Administration, the government is considering selling the land to the highest bidder.  Parts of the island currently serve as a Department of Homeland Security animal disease research facility while 90 percent of the island exists as a de facto nature reserve for wildlife including seals, osprey and threatened piping plover sand roseate terns.  The island is part of a National Audubon Society Important Bird Area and we hope to see all or most of the island made into a National Wildlife Refuge.

There are two outcomes that will maintain the wildlife value of the island for the public: keeping the search facility in place, or if is moved, transferring the land to the Department of Interior as opposed to a private buyer.

New York Congressman Tim Bishop has been trying to stop the move which would close the island’s research facility and replace it with a new $900 million facility in Kansas.  It’s not clear that an island in the middle of Long Island Sound is the best place to research animal diseases, but it’s certainly a better place that putting the research in the heart of ‘cow country.’  The National Academy of Sciences estimates that if the new facility is constructed in Kansas, there is a 70 percent chance that foot-and-mouth disease would be accidentally released outside the facility during its 50 years of operation, causing a $9-$50 billion impact on the U.S. beef industry.

If the animal disease research facility is moved, a strong coalition of groups – including Defenders of Wildlife – is working to convince the government to keep the land instead of selling it to a private buyer.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has indicated its interest in making the island into a National Wildlife Refuge.

Sign a petition here if you want to add your name to the growing list of people asking Congress to stop the sale of these precious federal acres of wildlife habitat.

Posted in National Wildlife Refuges, Public Lands0 Comments