Archive | June, 2011

Gray Wolf

Midwest wolves proposed for delisting

Last week, Defenders submitted a comment letter supporting the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s proposal to delisting the gray wolf in the western Great Lakes.  Specifically, the Service proposes to establish a gray wolf distinct population segment that includes as its core area the states of Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin, and then immediately delisting that segment.

We support the delisting because we believe the population segment has exceeded appropriate science-based recovery goals; the wolf management plans and regulations for Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin are adequate to maintain recovered wolf population levels; and the post-delisting monitoring plan, if properly implemented, is robust enough to monitor the status of the wolves and the adequacy of state management activities.  Although none of the state plans is perfect, we believe the deficiencies are not serious enough to prevent the states from maintaining the long-term viability of the distinct population segment.  This is because each state appears willing and capable of overcoming these challenges by regulating human take of wolves, maintaining a sufficient prey base for them, and protecting their denning and rendezvous sites.

One of the most important but underappreciated aspects of delisting is that it frees up government resources to help other, more imperiled species recovery under the Endangered Species Act.  There are nearly 2,000 species listed under the Act, many of which have received paltry funds for recovery.  Money spent on one species often means money not spent on many other species that face even more dire risks of extinction.  We are unfortunately confronted with a growing throng of imperiled species jammed into an emergency room that is bursting at the seams.  While the population of western Great Lakes wolves has not healed itself to pre-European Settlement levels, it is well enough to leave the emergency room.

This is not to say that recovery ends once a patient leaves triage.  We believe that the Endangered Species Act is only one aspect of the system of managing America’s wildlife diversity.  The Service should encourage and help states in any of their efforts to restore wolves to ecologically functional population levels.  Populations of highly-interactive species such as wolves are important to maintaining other plant and wildlife diversity in ecosystems.  For now, we hope you share our recognition of this important milestone for wolves in the Great Lakes region.

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife, Uncategorized0 Comments

Ethanol and food prices

Ethanol and food prices

Iowa State University has a new study out this week on what their economists say are relatively modest links between ethanol production, ethanol subsidies and food prices.  For example, the report notes that soybeans had only a 2.8 percent price increase and corn and wheat less than a 1 percent price increase because of ethanol subsidies and chicken and beef were only 3 cents per pound and 2 cents per pound more expensive to consumers in 2009 because of the expansion of ethanol as fuel.

Well 3 cents may not sound like a lot to an economist, but Americans ate 42.4 billion pounds of chicken and 26.4 billion pounds of beef last year so that 3 and 2 cents adds up to more than $1.7 billion in higher food costs that we all paid.  Iowa State also reports that corn was 76 cents per bushel more expensive in 2009-2010 than it would have been if not for expansion of ethanol –  consumers paid that 76 cents on the 60 percent of 13 billion bushels of corn that went into food (not ethanol).  Thus consumers in the U.S. and abroad paid at least $2-$4 billion in higher corn ingredient prices.

Add those food price increases on top of the $6 billion federal handout that refineries received for adding ethanol to gasoline and you begin to get a measure of the real dollar price that Americans pay to prop up an industry whose product lowers car fuel economy, increases lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions and contributes to tropical deforestation and destruction of U.S. prairies .

Now you know why Defenders of Wildlife and many other groups encouraged the Senate to vote to eliminate the $6 billion ethanol subsidy.  The Senate voted 73-27 in favor of doing so last week.

Posted in Agriculture, Energy0 Comments

Reduce Soot, Save Polar Bears

Black carbon is an accomplice in the recent increase in global ice melt, affecting everything from polar bear habitat in the Arctic, to glacial fed drinking water in the Himalayas.  In a recent study, Menon at al. (2010) found that “Most of the change in snow and ice cover – about 90 percent – is from aerosols. Black carbon alone contributes at least 30 percent of this sum.”

Black carbon is probably the third largest atmosphere warming agent, after carbon dioxide and methane (on the basis of radiative forcing).  Black carbon has a strong warming effect because it absorbs visible light and transfers the energy to the atmosphere, warming it.  Due to its short atmospheric lifetime, black carbon does the most damage near the areas where it is emitted, especially in terms of atmospheric warming and health issues due to inhalation.  Black carbon settles quickly from the atmosphere, and when it lands on snow and ice, the darkened snow and ice absorbs more heat and melts more quickly.  For this reason, black carbon has been linked to the melting of Arctic ice and Himalayan glaciers, especially because most emissions occur in China and India, and above 40⁰N, where they are likely to be transported to the Arctic (see Princeton University Report).

Black carbon is an aerosol produced during poor combustion of carbon-based fuels (as opposed to carbon dioxide, which is produced in all circumstances), and together with organic carbon is one the major components in soot.  Sources of black carbon include diesel engines in various types of vehicles, furnaces, cook stoves, and forest fires, as well as some industrial processes.  Between 25% and 35% of atmospheric black carbon comes from China and India, due to combustion of wood, coal, and other fuels for household uses.  Europe, North America and eastern European countries emit about 13% of all black carbon, mostly from contained combustion.

Unlike carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, there are many uncertainties about the exact contribution of black carbon to global warming.  According to the Princeton University Report, this is in part due to the fact that black carbon is emitted with different amounts of various other aerosols and gases during different types and conditions of combustion.  These accompanying emissions, depending on their concentrations (which vary with the type of combustion), can minimize or increase the black carbon radiative forcing the common energy measure used in climate studies.  (That is why contained combustion contributes more to warming than open burning: because it releases less of the other types of emissions, including organic carbon, which mitigates the warming effect of black carbon.)  Also, while carbon dioxide can stay in the atmosphere for 100 years, black carbon has a short atmospheric lifetime, making its effects more localized.  Because of these and other characteristics, black carbon has not been formally addressed as a warming agent, or a possible target for decreasing global warming in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Various authors and policy makers advocate targeting black carbon as a more effective warming reduction tool in the near term, without ever losing sight of the fact that, in the long run, reducing greenhouse gases is the only way to reduce global warming.  The arguments for black carbon reduction are reinforced by the fact that technologies to reduce black carbon emissions already exist, such as retrofitting diesel vehicles with filters or switching from diesel to natural gas, and replacing inefficient cook stoves with cleaner burning ones.  More importantly, reducing black carbon emissions will also improve the quality of life and health of the communities most impacted by it, especially in developing countries.

As early as 2001, Jacobson found through simulations that any reduction of black carbon emissions and associated organic matter might slow global warming more than emission reduction of CO2 or CH4 for a specific period.  Ramanathan & Carmichael (2010) state that “If the immediate target for [warming] control shifts entirely to black carbon (owing to its health impacts) without a reduction in non-black carbon aerosols, the elimination of the positive forcing by black carbon will decrease both the global warming and the retreat of sea ice and glaciers.”  Michael MacCracken, from the Climate Institute in Washington, DC, in a recent brief advocated for a reduction in short-lived emissions, including black carbon, as a way to tackle short-term reduction in atmospheric warming.  As recently as June 14, the United Nations released a report which states that cutting black carbon and methane emissions would slow the rate of warming up until about 2040, and also includes a list of nine measures that can be undertaken immediately to reduce black carbon emissions.  Black carbon will be addressed at the UNFCCC COP 17 in Durban this coming November/December.

However, as mentioned before, there are several other variables to be taken into account, and a 2005 study by Bond & Sun concluded that, while the efforts to reduce black carbon emissions are for the most part viable, such reductions cannot counteract global warming for reasons ranging from black carbon behavior in the atmosphere, to difficulties in implementing improvements in developing countries, to costs, especially for developed countries already committed to CO2 reductions.  In spite of all the challenges, the authors note that reducing black carbon emissions has several advantages, including “providing a mechanism for all nations to participate in global stewardship with a more realistic definition of global change.”  Sounds like a worthy undertaking

Posted in Climate Change0 Comments

Agency Policy Table

Federal Agencies Commit to Preparing for Climate Impacts

Coauthored by Aimee Delach

Big changes are afoot in the federal government when it comes to preparing agencies for the impacts of climate change.  As we highlighted previously the administration established a Climate Change Adaptation Task Force to coordinate Federal agency efforts to plan for and address the myriad ways that climate change will impact their lands and infrastructure and their ability to deliver programs and fulfill their missions.     

In April, 2011, the administration released Instructions for Implementing Climate Change Adaptation Planning (pdf) and supporting documentation (pdf).   By June 3, 2011, all agencies were to have issued national policy statements committing to analyzing the risks of climate change and preparing adaptive actions. 

As of this writing (June 21), 21 agencies have released their adaptation policies publicly. How well did the agencies stack up to the administration’s directives?  We ranked them according to the criteria (described below) laid out in the Instructions and Support Document.

Agency Policy Table

agency adaptation policy table

Of the plans out so far, the Commerce Department was the clear leader, hitting every element required in the policy. The Environmental Protection Agency and Agriculture Departments weren’t far behind. Fittingly, each of these agencies already has strong history of engaging in the science, impacts and policies connected with climate change. For other agencies, the question of how to adapt to a changing climate in order to continue to fulfill their missions is clearly new territory. Thus, the Farm Credit Administration openly acknowledged in their policy that they will need to leverage the resources and expertise of others. Similarly, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, for whom climate change issues are likely an even more remote consideration, issued a very brief statement that nonetheless gets points for willingness to take on the problem, as well as for beating a number of members of the Task Force at making their policy statement public. The State Department’s plan, while missing a number of the directives that were laid out, demonstrated its commitment to work across agencies and multilaterally, bringing its own unique capacities to international adaptation efforts. The Department of Health and Human Services’ plan expressed an understanding of ways climate impacts will exacerbate health problems among already-vulnerable populations. The Department of Labor is particularly concerned about hurricane and other weather-related impacts to Job Centers and other infrastructure, and the Department of Energy emphasized adaptation as a complement to its work furthering clean energy technologies.

The Department of the Interior gets credit for being an early adopter of adaptation.  In the fall of 2009, Secretary Salazar issued a secretarial order that made responding to climate change a priority.  However, Interior’s “Action Memorandum” on climate adaptation issued in response to the CEQ guidance falls short on being agency-specific, fostering collaboration outside of the department, and including strong language on analyzing the effects of climate change and on implementing adaptation actions.

As of this writing, we are still awaiting release of adaptation policy statements from most federal agencies, including the following members of the Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force:

Department of Defense

Department of Homeland Security

Department of Housing and Urban Development

Department of Treasury

Agency for International Development (USAID)

National Intelligence Council (NIC)

Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC)

Next Steps:

These policy statements are only the first step in a year-long process that each agency has been directed to undertake. While issuance of a policy is important, and we urge all those departments who have not yet made theirs public to do so, the policies are only useful if they are acted upon. We will be watching carefully to see if agencies continue to follow through with the next steps of the process: 1) Completing a preliminary agency vulnerability analysis and outlining five priority adaptation actions by September 30;  2) Completing a final, detailed vulnerability analysis by next March; and 3) Issuing their final adaptation plan by June 2012.

It is also critical that these future steps take place at the level of the individual agency, not the entire department, since the missions, resources, and vulnerabilities differ so widely from agency to agency, even within a single department.

Explanation of Evaluation Criteria:

1) Agency-level plan: Policy statement is at agency level rather than Department level, or very clearly directs individual agencies within Department to develop adaptation plans. (Implementing instructions, I.A)

2) 2012 due date: Policy commits the agency to complete an agency-wide adaptation plan by June, 2012.

3) Compliance with Implementing Instructions: Policy commits the agency to fully implementing and complying with CEQ Adaptation Implementing Instructions in general and coordinating with the Interagency Climate Adaptation Task Force.

4) Strong purpose and vision: Policy states the purpose of the policy, including both the agency’s vision for successful adaptation planning and initial adaptation goals as well as recognition that climate change adaptation is a critical complement to climate change mitigation and that both are required to address the causes and consequences of climate change. (Implementing instructions I.A.2a)

5) ICCATF  Principles & Framework: Policy adopts the Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force’s guiding principles and framework for adaptation planning either directly or by reference (Implementing Instructions I.A.2b).

6) Coordination within agency programs: Policy describes how the agency will coordinate adaptation planning across programs and operations within the agency. (Implementing Instructions I.A.2c, part 1)

7) Coordination with other agencies: Policy describes how the agency will coordinate adaptation planning with other agencies on climate change adaptation matters of common interest. (Implementing Instructions I.A.2c, part 2)

8 ) Identifies resources within agency: Policy identifies programs and resources within the agency to support the climate change adaptation planning process. (Implementing Instructions I.A.2d)

9) Strong analysis language: Policy requires (using “will”, “shall”, or “must” language) the agency to analyze how climate change may impact its ability to achieve its mission, policy, program, and operation objectives by reviewing existing programs, operations, policies, and authorities. (Support Document)

10) Strong implementation language: Policy describes the agency process to ensure effective adaptation planning implementation (using “will”, “shall”, or “must” type language). (Support Document)

Posted in Climate Change0 Comments

Arroyo Toad

Critical habitat designation on lands covered by Habitat Conservation Plans (HCPs)

Copyright Jim Rorabaugh, U.S.F.W.S.

One purpose of HCPs is to encourage landowners to develop voluntary measures to minimize and mitigate the impacts of development activities on an endangered species.  However, in February, 2011, arroyo toad critical habitat was designated in lands covered by HCPs in southern California, causing widespread concern among landowners, undermining both HCP partnerships and participants’ security from perceived additional regulatory burdens.  The decision to include or exclude HCP lands from critical habitat is ultimately up to the discretion of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), and past designations reveal an inconsistent pattern across regional offices and over time, with four discernible approaches to designation.

On the one hand are situations where the Service readily excludes critical habitat on HCP lands and expresses skepticism of the benefits of designation.  In this approach, applied in 2006 to designations for the Perdido Key, Choctawatchee, and St. Andrew beach mice, it appears that as long as an HCP promotes the long-term conservation of a species and its habitat in a reasonably robust fashion, the Service is willing to exclude the area from designation – in short, an HCP with adequate mitigation provisions trumps critical habitat.

On the other hand are situations, as for the arroyo toad in early 2011, where the Service explicitly declines to exclude HCP lands from critical habitat because those lands are not yet actively conserved or managed under the HCP at the time of the final designation.  We have interpreted the inclusion of these HCP lands as a possible strategy for encouraging more rapid HCP implementation, with the additional incentive of HCP land possibly being excluded at a later date.

Somewhere between these two extremes is a third approach, applied in 2010 to critical habitat designations for the bull trout and Preble’s meadow jumping mouse, in which the Service conducts an analysis of the additional benefits of critical habitat designation, but ultimately excludes all or most HCP lands from designation because of the overwhelming desire to incentivize participation in HCPs.

In these first three approaches, the Service (1) determines that the HCP lands meet the definition of critical habitat and then (2) exercises its discretion to exclude those portions of HCP lands where the benefits of exclusion outweigh the benefits of inclusion.

By contrast, under a fourth approach exemplified in the 2003 critical habitat designations for 60 Hawaiian plants, the Service determines that an area does not meet the definition of critical habitat, and thus does not perform any such discretionary balancing.  Specifically, the Service excludes areas where conservation plans are or will be implemented and effective, and which therefore do not require “special management considerations or protection” and are not critical habitat.  You can learn more about these four approaches in the memo here.

A better understanding of the interaction between HCPs and the effects of critical habitat designation and a better ability to predict the Service’s response is essential to agency efforts to promote voluntary private landowner conservation and to construct better HCPs.  We encourage the Service to evaluate this interaction in its ongoing efforts to improve ESA regulations and policies.

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife, Uncategorized0 Comments

Chesapeake Bay tidal marsh, David Curson, Audubon MD/DC

Climate Change Adaptation in Maryland’s Somerset-Wicomico Marshes Important Bird Area

Chesapeake Bay tidal marsh, photo by David Curson, Audubon MD/DC

The State of Maryland is moving forward with critical climate change planning for coastal areas by figuring out how to protect lands into which soon-to-be-inundated wetlands and marshes can retreat. In response to the threat of sea level rise, these efforts are essential to maintaining the long-term ecological functions of storm surge buffering, carbon sequestration, water filtration, wildlife habitat, recreation and others that wetlands provide.

Defenders of Wildlife, Audubon Maryland/DC and the Lower Shore Land Trust have teamed up on a project focused on increasing the adaptive capacity of salt marshes and salt marsh obligate bird species in the Somerset-Wicomico Marshes Important Bird Area

View video on Climate Change Adaptation in Maryland’s Somerset-Wicomico Marshes Important Bird Area

The coastal wetlands in the Chesapeake Bay provide a range of “ecosystem services” that are critical for improving the water quality by helping to remove nutrients, chemicals, and sediment from urban and agricultural runoff before reaching the open water of the Bay. In addition, coastal wetlands provide a first line of defense against rising sea levels and increased storm damage, flooding and erosion.

These wetlands are habitat for ducks, geese and shorebirds and are home to unique flora and fauna, including two birds, the Seaside Sparrow and the Saltmarsh Sparrow, which are identified as Maryland species of greatest conservation concern in the Maryland Wildlife Diversity Conservation Plan. These species evolved in this tidal environment and are found only in salt marsh habitats along the U.S. Atlantic Coasts.

Sea level rise is impacting low-lying coastal lands at twice the global average rate. Maryland Department of Natural Resources explains that the State has already seen a foot of relative sea level rise during the past 100 years, causing the disappearance of 13 barrier islands from the Chesapeake Bay. Within the Chesapeake Bay, additional sea level rise impacts are already evident, including wetland erosion and forest die-back as a result of saltwater intrusion.

Our work will focus on assisting the Lower Shore Land Trust to identify the highest priority marsh migration corridors so that they can protect these areas from future development. This project takes place within the context of Defender’s work with state wildlife agencies to update their wildlife action plans to consider the impacts of climate change, as well as Defender’s Living Lands program that enhances the capacity of land trusts and their partners in protecting biodiversity in the face of climate change.

For more information on sea level rise in the Chesapeake Bay, see the following online resources:

Maryland Commission on Climate Change  

Strategy for Reducing Maryland’s Vulnerability to Climate Change Phase I: Sea-level rise and coastal storms

National Wildlife Federation

U.S. Climate Change Science Program

North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative

Posted in Climate Change, Imperiled Wildlife0 Comments


Eviscerating the World’s Strongest Wildlife Law

Copyright Jeff Palmer, Florida Today

The Endangered Species Act has been under full assault lately from both Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate.  Over the past year, a handful of bills – none of which was based on science – were introduced to remove protections for the gray wolf.  The most nefarious was a rider in the 2011 Final House Appropriations Bill that delisted northern Rockies gray wolves from the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

But these attacks have not stopped with wolves.  Click here to see our summary of the bills introduced in this Congress targeting other wildlife that the best scientists tell us are endangered (below is a snapshot of the document).  Some, such as the Baca “DELIST” bill, would eliminate all protections for many of the most imperiled species in America.  Defenders will continue the fight to review and lobby against every one of these bills.

Click here for complete chart of ESA bills (excludes wolf-specific bills)

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife, Uncategorized0 Comments

House votes to block helping farmers prepare for more droughts, floods, and pests

Coauthored by Aimee Delach

In a disturbing trend of attacking the government’s ability to prepare for climate risks, the House passed an amendment to the fiscal 2012 Agriculture spending bill that would prohibit the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from implementing its new departmental regulation on climate change adaptation.  This amendment puts the nation at increased risk of food disruptions, forest fires, and huge economic losses.

Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), who introduced the amendment, bizarrely claimed USDA’s climate adaptation policy was somehow a “backdoor door attempt to put a cap-and-trade program in place in the Department of Agriculture.”

Far from it.  The commonsense 2-page USDA policy (pdf) says only that agencies should plan for that future in a way that will prevent food disruptions, massive forest fires and economic hardships.  It reads, “Through adaptation planning, USDA will develop, prioritize, implement and evaluate actions to minimize climate risks and exploit new opportunities that climate change will bring.”

Tying the USDA’s hand with respect to preparing for climate change seems like a particularly bad idea while the nation is immersed in intense weather and climate-related disasters that are impacting agriculture and forestry– from the Mississippi River flood, to the Texas drought, to the Arizona fire.

According to Texan Matt Farmer:

“It’s as dry as I’ve ever seen it in my lifetime,” said Farmer, 51, a plainspoken Texan not given to hyperbole. “I don’t remember a drought this widespread. I’ve got a lot of country that’s blowing, but I can’t do a thing about it.”

And the irony of Congressman Scalise’s amendment is that he is from Louisiana, which is not only bearing the brunt of much of the record Mississippi River flooding, but is simultaneously under a state-wide severe drought. Some farmers are getting hit with both extremes at once:

“I can’t get my crop out of one side of the levee because it’s too dry and I’ve lost my crop on the other side of the levee because it’s floating away,” said George Lacour, 48, of Morganza, [Louisiana] another farmer trying to juggle the seeming paradox.

The conditions we are seeing this year are breaking records around the country.  While La Niña is probably partly to blame, this year’s events are also consistent with the conditions researchers project are coming with climate change.  Looking at the past record would not have prepared anyone for the events this year – and the future is going to be different yet.

USDA’s climate change adaptation policy would have required agencies to plan for future changes in climate variability and extreme events on USDA programs to prepare for and adjust to anticipated changes.  The regulation is designed to ensure that “taxpayer resources are invested wisely and that USDA services and operations remain effective in current and future climate conditions.” 

The USDA itself is well aware of the challenges climate change will pose for its mission. They lay the problem out quite clearly in their 2010 Climate Change Science Plan:

As the climate changes, those responsible for managing land and water resources will need new information to help with their decision-making. For example, producers will need information to guide them on what to plant, when to plant, and what management strategies to employ during the growing season. Foresters, farmers, and ranchers will need information for management of risks posed by pests and fire. Water resource managers will need information for allocation of water resources between the demands of urban and rural populations, industry, biofuels, agriculture, and ecosystem services. USDA policymakers will need information to guide them in implementing or retooling programs impacting or impacted by climate change. At all levels, global food production data and projections will be necessary for anticipating large-scale socioeconomic feedbacks into U.S. production systems.

Here are some examples of the agencies in USDA and how they are responding to climate change and variability.

Agricultural Research Service (ARS) is USDA’s principal in-house research agency. ARS has a wide-ranging research program, including:

These and other research questions are vitally important for the maintenance of crop, livestock and human health under a changing climate.

Farm Service Agency (FSA) As the manager of disaster assistance and other commodity programs, FSA is on the front lines of the impact of weather and climate on our nation’s agricultural producers.  Just last month, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal wrote to the USDA to seek Secretarial disaster declarations for 26 parishes, on the grounds that “Agricultural producers in the basin will face significant damage and loss to cropland and livestock as a result” of record flooding that forced the opening of the Morganza spillway.

Louisiana Rep. Salise’s amendment would prevent FSW from properly fulfilling its mission as administrator of these disaster programs if it can’t take climate change into account. The separate but related Risk Management Agency, which makes disaster declarations and determines insured cropland eligibility in disaster situations also needs the capabilities to anticipate and respond to climate change and variability.

Forest Service (FS) administers 193 million acres of forests and grasslands that belong to all Americans and also provides research and technical assistance to all forest landowners. In order to protect forest resources, species and ecosystems, and human life and property on and adjacent to forest lands, the Forest Service needs to be able to evaluate, prepare for and respond to climate change impacts on fire frequency and severity, invasive species, forest pests, and other ecosystem dynamics.

Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) NRCS provides leadership in a partnership effort to help people conserve, maintain and improve our natural resources and environment.

NRCS conservation programs assist producers and rural communities to reduce erosion, use water resources more efficiently, protect and enhance wildlife habitat, and more. These conservation investments will produce better results if they are done in a climate-smart fashion.

Don’t we want our government agencies to doing this important work to prepare for the changes ahead? 

In a statement issued in response the amendment, Jamie Rappaport Clark, executive vice president for Defenders of Wildlife, said, “America’s farms, forests and ranchlands not only feed our country, but also help support abundant and diverse wildlife populations. Our food security, property and wildlife heritage are all at risk from increased frequency and severity of heat waves, droughts, floods, fires and pests.

“Rep. Scalise and the 237 other members of the House are inhibiting the USDA’s ability to help farmers and forest owners and managers prepare for a future that includes more of the extreme weather events we have just experienced this spring. The future is not going to be the same as the past. This commonsense USDA policy says let’s plan for that future in a way that will prevent food disruptions, massive forest fires and economic hardships.”

The Senate should do right by the country’s farmers, forests and the people and wildlife that rely on them, and reject this amendment.

Posted in Agriculture, Climate Change1 Comment

More Action Needed in the National Freshwater Action Plan

One of the biggest impacts of climate change is on water – Higher temperatures will increase the amount of water in the atmosphere, changing precipitation patterns and increasing the variability within patterns, leading to declines in snowpack and a higher frequency of heavy precipitation events, heat waves and other extremes.  The transformations driven by climate change will redistribute stream flow and wetlands. So it was good news when, last October, the Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force recommended  a coordinated response to addressing the impacts of climate change on freshwater resources in the U.S.  The Task Force recently took a step forward by releasing its draft National Action Plan: Priorities for Managing Freshwater Resources in a Changing Climate

The action plan proposes six recommendations federal agencies can take to support water resource managers in understanding and reducing climate change risks.  The recommendations are elements familiar from other climate adaptation strategies, such as the need for improved information, for increased capacity, for integrated water resource management and for water use efficiency. 

The plan’s highlights are its issuance, the diversity of the workgroup and the commitment to periodic revisions of the plan.  The mere existence of a climate adaptation strategy for water resources is something to applaud, and the collaboration of so many federal agencies in its development is itself progress in the otherwise fractured world of water resources management.

There are also, however, lowlights.  First and foremost, “action plan” is a misnomer because “it is important to note that the proposal of an action in this report and the association of an action with a ‘lead agency’ do not commit an agency to provide or seek funding for the action or to make related policy or program changes.”  Taken together with the admission that actions were deemed priorities in part because they are achievable within current and foreseeable agency capacity, the plan looks more like a repackaging of things the agencies are already doing.  This is worrisome for an action plan, because this same workgroup found that existing efforts to reduce climate risks to freshwater resources are not sufficient.

And, from Defenders’ point of view, the plan punts on protecting water quality and aquatic ecosystems in response to a changing climate, postponing achievement of that goal to development of the national fish, wildlife and plants climate adaptation strategy.  If we are truly to achieve protection of aquatic ecosystems in the face of climate change, the collaborative approach valued by the workgroup is indeed critical, and we can no longer segregate fish and wildlife management from water resources management.  The two go hand in hand.  Water resource managers are in dire need of direction and recommendations for how to protect aquatic ecosystems.  Since it is a goal of the freshwater action plan, there must be recommendations and actions to achieve that goal.

It is heartening that the Task Force recognized that the breadth and severity of climate change impacts to water resources warrants a coordinated plan for freshwater ecosystems.  Through no fault of its own, the plan also suffers for lack of a unifying national water policy that would provide a backdrop to the goal of assuring adequate water supplies, protecting human health and property and protecting water quality and aquatic ecosystems in the face of climate change.  Reducing the risks of climate change is a much different proposition than managing the full spectrum of freshwater issues, threats and needs.  Without guiding principles regarding what it means to have adequate water supplies – for what purposes?, what is “adequate”?, can we have adequate supplies for everything we want? – the plan’s goal will remain elusive.

The Council on Environmental Quality will be accepting public comments for 45 days.  As we at Defenders continue to review and comment on the action plan, we will be looking for opportunities for federal agencies to take bold, climate-smart actions to protect aquatic ecosystems and sustain the functions and services of these ecosystems.

Posted in Climate Change0 Comments

“No More Wilderness” bill introduced in Congress

“No More Wilderness” bill introduced in Congress

The Coronado National Forest supports the “sky island” ecosystems of the southwest, some of the most unique and biodiverse areas on our public lands. Portions of the sky islands would be put at risk by this bill.

Companion bills in the House and Senate have been introduced that would strip areas of our public lands currently managed for their wilderness characteristics of their protected status.  If the “Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act of 2011” were to pass, 43 million acres of Inventoried Roadless Areas on Forest Service lands and Wilderness Study Areas throughout our public lands would no longer be protected, including portions of the sky islands in the Coronado National Forest in Arizona.  The bill would also forbid the land management agencies from providing new protections for these “released” areas in the future, effectively preventing them from being designated as permanently protected Wilderness by Congress and opening them up for development.

What’s worse is that the determination of whether a roadless or wilderness area should be stripped of its protections now and into the future would be based on old information without gathering any new data, and with no input from agency experts and scientists or the public.  This means that areas currently providing high quality habitat for wildlife and supporting healthy ecosystems would be exposed to potential development (including timber harvesting, oil and gas drilling, coal mining and more) without any consideration of those natural values.

Supporters of the bill argue that these areas are being managed as “de facto” Wilderness and that “capital W” Wilderness can only be designated by Congress.  While it’s true that only Congress can designate “capital W” Wilderness, they’re missing a lot of important facts in this argument:

First, the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service both have multiple use mandates, which support activities like energy development BUT ALSO give these agencies authority to manage for wilderness characteristics and things like wildlife habitat and biodiversity.  This means that these agencies have plenty of authority for designating areas as roadless or wilderness study and managing them for these resources as a precursor to suggesting that Congress make a “capital W” Wilderness designation.

Second, this argument places the needs of industry ahead of the needs of the public who are, after all, the owners of our public lands.  They characterize these areas as being “locked up” from development instead of recognizing that these areas are open to the public for all kinds of valuable uses that are consistent with BLM and Forest Service missions, including recreation and supporting our national heritage of biodiversity and wildlife.  These uses also support our local economies through tourism, the recreation industry, and ecosystem services (like clean water).

Instead of focusing on developing smart policies that balance the many demands on our public lands, like efforts to direct development onto the already degraded areas on our public lands, this bill would open up the most spectacular pieces of our national heritage to development and could have devastating impacts on the wildlife that take refuge in these protected areas.

Posted in National Forests, Public Lands0 Comments

A Response to “The Deadly Wind beneath Their Wings”

The Heritage Foundation’s disingenuous attempt to use the death of Golden Eagles from wind turbines as a rationale for ending federal supports for clean energy development is just that.  While wind energy projects have impacted wildlife, and the loss of eagles and other sensitive species is cause for concern, the wind energy industry has recognized the need to address these concerns and has provided leadership in this regard.

To promote better understanding of the potential impacts of wind energy on wildlife, several wind energy companies joined with leading conservation organizations to establish the American Wind Wildlife Institute (AWWI).  AWWI provides a forum for addressing wind-wildlife impacts, for conducting research, and for finding solutions to wind energy and wildlife conflicts.  In addition, wind energy representatives joined with conservationists as a part of a Federal Advisory Committee established by the Bush administration to recommend means to further efforts to develop wind energy in wildlife-friendly ways.  The report of this advisory committee, delivered to the Secretary of the Interior last year, is providing the basis for new guidelines for developing wind energy in ways that minimize and mitigate its effects on birds, bats, and other wildlife.

To use the impacts of wind projects on wildlife as a basis for challenging environmental community support for green energy ignores both the efforts made to minimize the impacts of clean energy development on wildlife and the value to wildlife and natural resources that clean energy development will provide.  A recent report by the Interagency Panel on Climate Change made clear that the greatest threat to biodiversity is global warming and its consequences. With the Congress unable or unwilling to institute legislative measures to curb green house gas emissions to spur investment in clean energy, federal support for clean energy is the only alternative in lieu of the creation of  markets that stimulate clean energy investment.

In contrast to clean energy and the efforts of the wind industry to reduce its impacts on wildlife,  Congress has shown consistent support for oil and gas companies. Last year, for example, it gave nearly $4 billion to the oil industry in tax breaks and incentives despite the widely recognized consequences of oil and gas development for our climate and wildlife, wild lands, and natural resources.   In contrast, there’s never been this same long-term commitment to renewable energy.

Short-term stimulus funding provided a needed boost for clean energy research and development. But compared to the permanent “incentives” for oil and gas development, the time-limited support for renewable energy projects is totally inadequate.  To suggest it is not warranted while ignoring the generous, permanent subsidies for oil and gas exploration and development is ludicrous.  Grants and loan guarantees for renewable energy projects will run out again the end of this year.  Only the Congress can fix this problem, as the administration has correctly encouraged them to do.

Posted in Energy, Fossil Fuels, Imperiled Wildlife, In the Field, Public Lands, renewable energy, Renewables0 Comments

Trade offs in time and costs in developing Habitat Conservation Plans (HCPs)

Co-authored with Jake Li

The USFWS has approved more than 500 Habitat Conservation Plans, allowing developers, private landowners and state and local governments to move forward with projects that may harm endangered species.  The Plans and the process for approving them are widely criticized for many things, but in particular because they take so long to finalize.  For example plans in Yolo County, California and for the Sonoran desert of Pima County, Arizona took more than eight years to complete.

It’s unclear why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) doesn’t offer more transparent choices to developers when initiating development of an HCP.

For example, at the time an applicant walks in the door of a USFWS office, there is a certain amount of information known about the site where a development will occur and the likely impacts of that development – that information represents the ‘best available science’ at the time.  In most cases that information provides the agency with very little certainty about the endangered species that will be impacted, the magnitude and significance of those impacts, and the options for avoiding, minimizing and mitigating those impacts.  Nevertheless, some information is available to agencies and they could move forward with the applicant in developing an HCP.  The likely outcome would be very high mitigation requirements based on estimates for the most robust characterization of the population of species that might be present on the development site.  The USFWS policy handbook on this subject already makes allowance for this approach by saying that where “the applicant insists consultation be completed without the data or analyses requested…” USFWS is expected to give ‘the species the benefit of the doubt.” The applicant, in securing a quicker answer would accept a trade off of mitigation costs that better (but as yet unavailable) science could reduce.

In contrast, an applicant who works with the USFWS to exhaustively document the wildlife on and near the development site and to work with the USFWS to try to minimize and avoid impacts to that wildlife may typically have a much lower mitigation cost, but will end up funding expensive research and perhaps more importantly, waiting years for the results of the research they fund.

If time is the most important factor for a developer of a project seeking an HCP from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it’s not clear why they shouldn’t have more choices to pursue a quicker, but more expensive route to a finalized HCP.  USFWS could offer such an outcome without resulting in worse outcomes for wildlife and perhaps even with better results, since applicants will sometimes be paying for beneficial wildlife activities that ‘not yet available’ science would have shown were not required.

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.