Archive | August, 2011

Attacks on oil and gas leasing reforms continue

Attacks on oil and gas leasing reforms continue

Prairie dogs are among the wildlife species impacted by oil and gas drilling in the Western U.S. (Photo: Michelle Thomas).

The Obama administration initiated reforms to make the oil and gas leasing process on public lands work better for industry, government, taxpayers, and wildlife.  The reforms have received praise and  demonstrated results – environmental groups have filed fewer objections to leases in response to this more transparent process.  The reforms have also ensured full environmental reviews that examine the risks to wildlife and provide for mitigation measures whenever potential impacts are present or when previous environmental analysis has not been completed on a site.

Energy industry groups, however, have challenged the reforms from the beginning.  Reversing the reforms would mean a return to a closed system in which companies select public land acres they want to lease for drilling and proceed to development with almost no transparency, out of reach from members of the public that want to ensure wildlife, water, air quality and other concerns are fully incorporated into decision making.

Last week, at the request of an energy industry trade group, a Federal Judge in Wyoming vacated a segment of these leasing reforms.  The Western Energy Alliance sued the Department of the Interior over Secretary Salazar’s Instruction Memorandum 2010-118 clarifying the use of categorical exclusions (CX’s), which exempt certain activities from environmental review.  This memorandum is important because it responds to deep concerns about the misuse of categorical exclusions to fast-track oil and gas development projects on public lands without adequate environmental or public review.  IM 2010-118 resolved long-standing issues (highlighted by the GAO) by making the following changes:

1.      BLM would evaluate whether “extraordinary circumstances” were present that precluded use of the CXs to skip environmental review;

2.      BLM would require environmental analysis prior to permitting new drilling at a site where drilling had occurred, but might not have been analyzed before;

3.      BLM would require specific analysis of place-based development before permitting new drilling at a site that was part of a larger field (previously not required).

The judge’s decision to vacate these three targeted reforms found that the BLM’s process for changing its position on CXs was not correct – it did not find that the changes themselves were illegal or wrong.  Industry spokespeople, however, have already tried to use this ruling as proof that leasing reforms should be thrown out or ignored.  This is an incorrect interpretation of this narrow ruling.

The ruling expressed no opinion on the merits of the agency’s policies to ensure that oil and gas drilling will not proceed without necessary environmental analysis. The court’s decision means BLM cannot rely on its 2010 guidance right now, but it does not require BLM to return to a practice of endangering our wildlife and natural resources to permit drilling without any common sense limitations. The BLM retains ultimate discretion over both deciding what lands should be leased for drilling and if, how, and when they should be drilled – and the agency can and should continue to exercise its authority wisely.

Posted in Energy, Fossil Fuels, Public Lands0 Comments

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Lake Erie watersnake recovery is a success for the ESA – and for invasive species?

Photo courtesy of Richard King. Lake Erie watersnake (bottom), with two closely related specimens. The Lake Erie watersnake has fully recovered from the threat extinction thanks to the ESA, and will soon be delisted.

This past Tuesday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the Lake Erie watersnake, Nerodia sipedon insularum is now fully recovered and will be removed from the federal endangered species list (76 Fed. Reg. 50680). With a population of just under 10,000 snakes in 2010 (almost two times the recovery target), the Lake Erie watersnake joins the ranks of the bald eagle, the Aleutian Canada goose, the American alligator, and 18 other species that have come back from the brink of extinction, thanks to the regulatory protections and conservation measures of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). This event comes as a welcome victory after furious debates over a rider-ridden House Interior Appropriations bill in July and early August. The watersnake’s delisting is a success that proves the ESA is not broken, as critics are wont to declare, and instead reinforces the Act’s long record of success.

Listed as ‘threatened’ only 12 years ago, the Lake Erie watersnake’s recovery story has a twist to it: its remarkable resurgence was, in part, made possible by an “invasive” species, the round goby. Since the round goby first appeared in Lake Erie in the early 1990s, the watersnake’s diet has changed from being based on native fishes and amphibians to a diet composed of more than 90% round goby, with remarkable consequences – increased watersnake growth rates, increased body size, and increase in fecundity, with female watersnakes producing on average 25% more offspring post-invasion (Richard B. King Laboratory, Northern Illinois University). Increase in benthic fish biomass in Lake Erie increased prey availability, effectively dismissing the issue of low watersnake fecundity; the round goby’s success in the ecosystem means that the watersnake has a significant and secure prey source for years to come.

The narrative of the Lake Erie watersnake’s recovery adds an interesting dimension to discourse on invasive species and how we evaluate their impacts on ecosystems. While the majority of the literature focuses on the detrimental effects invasives have on the adopted environment (Byers 2002, Fritts and Leasman-Tanner 2001, Rhymer and Simberloff 1996, etc.), the potential benefits to ecosystems deserves the scientific community’s attention, and calls for an honest appraisal of the current stigma against invasive species.

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife0 Comments

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Arctic Refuge Vulnerability Report

Few places on earth are set as squarely in the sights of climate change at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Much of Alaska has warmed over 4oF over the past 50 years, and the northern part of the state where the refuge is located is projected to warm faster than any part of the continent – up to 7oF by mid-century. As the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prepares its conservation plan to guide the Arctic Refuge though the next 15 years, Defenders wanted to know what these changes will mean for 38 species of mammals that call the refuge home.

To get a clearer understanding of how climate change will affect the wildlife of the Arctic Refuge, we conducted a vulnerability assessment, which measures each species’ exposure to climate change, its sensitivity to the changes it will be exposed to, and its potential adaptive capacity in the face of such changes. Exposure is a result of regional climate changes, but may be modified by local microhabitat conditions. A species’ sensitivity is determined by factors including its ecological, genetic and physiological traits such as dependence on sensitive habitats, dietary flexibility, population growth rates and interactions with other species. Assessing adaptive capacity includes considerations such as the species’ dispersal ability, whether there are barriers to its movement, and the likelihood that the species could modify its physiology or behavior, or even has the potential to evolve to match changes in its environment.

We researched the known scientific information on each of the 38 refuge mammals, analyzed projected future climate change for the refuge using ClimateWizard, and input the information into the Climate Change Vulnerability Index, a tool developed by NatureServe to assess the relative vulnerability of species.

We found a wide variation in the vulnerability of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge mammals to climate change. The species most vulnerable are the ones specially adapted to the cold, snow and ice. Six species ranked as “extremely vulnerable”: the polar bear, arctic fox, muskox, collared lemming, brown lemming and tundra vole. A further ten species ranked as “highly vulnerable”; that list included lynx, wolverine, caribou, Dall sheep and Alaska marmot. For the most part, species that live in the boreal forest in the southern portion of the refuge, have flexible habitat needs, or a distribution that extends well into warmer areas—like black bear, beaver, muskrat, gray wolf, and red fox—tended to be less vulnerable.

We hope the results of this assessment will help the refuge managers secure a future for the most vulnerable species, by protecting the sensitive tundra region from disturbance, investing in research and monitoring, and maintaining linkages to habitat areas outside of the refuge.

The full report is available here.

A 6-page summary is available here.  

A detailed description of the methods is available here.

Posted in Climate Change, Imperiled Wildlife, National Wildlife Refuges0 Comments

Climate change and Greater Yellowstone fire regimes

Last week’s issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences  included a compelling article by western fire researcher Tony Westerling and colleagues. The title, “Continued warming could transform Greater Yellowstone fire regimes by mid-21st century,” caught the attention of a lot of blogs and other media outlets.

Westerling and his co-authors modeled changing fire regimes in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem  by looking at past correlations between climate data and the size and occurrence of large fires, then projecting those trends forward to see how often fire could be expected to burn a given area under likely future climate conditions. Today the Greater Yellowstone area is dominated by conifer forests that are characterized by infrequent but severe fires. Every 100-300 years or so, major fires sweep through these ecosystems, killing a large proportion of trees in the affected area and starting the succession process over by providing shade-sensitive species with access to sunlight.

However, this new research suggests that an increase in temperatures of just a few degrees by mid-century could have profound effects both on patterns of fire in the Yellowstone area and on the ecosystems and species found there. All of the modeling results pointed to a more rapid fire cycle, with a given area burning every 30 years or less by 2050. As Westerling et al. point out, this kind of fire regime would also indicate a significant shift from the current mixed conifer forest type to something much different, something more like a dry woodland or unforested ecosystem. Such a complete shift in vegetation would obviously have dire impacts on many of the species that currently inhabit that area.

When we talk about helping ecosystems adapt to climate change, we often tend to imagine – and plan for – a gradual, almost imperceptible shift in conditions over long periods of time. But many scientists have shown that ecological systems can contain hidden transition points, thresholds beyond which rapid, extreme changes  in ecosystem structure and function may be unavoidable and virtually irreversible. Westerling’s paper shows us is in quite vivid terms what ecological thresholds might look like on the ground, and it gives us a frightening glimpse of how soon climate change might start pushing us across these thresholds. How would we go about managing the transition to an unforested Yellowstone?

Posted in Climate Change, Imperiled Wildlife, National Forests, Northern Rockies, Public Lands, Uncategorized0 Comments

Farm Bill Prioritization Done Right

Farm Bill Prioritization Done Right

The federal Farm Bill is the largest single source of private land environmental funding in America, with a baseline of more than $6 billion in funding a year directed to a suite of conservation programs. However, many programs have long been plagued by the parochial desire of many Members of Congress to have a large and predictable flow of this money go to their District. Thus, many programs work under an allocation formula through which USDA gives a set amount of money to each state based on criteria like farmland area, state population and other demographic factors.

The alternative is to allocate money based on the highest and best environmental outcomes that can be achieved with those dollars – so this week’s announcement that USDA will allocate $100 million to wetland restoration and protection to benefit the Florida Everglades is great news. This is on top of $89 million already spent in this area in the last 2 years.

Under NRCS’ Chief Dave White, USDA is showing greater and greater interest in using conservation dollars for high priority projects. When Congress passes a new Farm Bill, conservation programs need additional improvements to make it even clearer that dollars should increasingly be allocated to high priority problems like Everglades restoration.

Posted in Agriculture, Florida0 Comments

Inadequate funding and poor prioritization put amphibians at risk

Inadequate funding and poor prioritization put amphibians at risk

The mountain yellow-legged frog is nearly extinct, and was listed as endangered in 2002. FWS recovery efforts in dollars have met those of other federal agencies, but have never surpassed $250,000. State spending is negligible. Chytrid fungus is an important threat to this species, and contributes to their rapid decline along with other environmental factors, in particular pesticides. Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) filed a notice to sue FWS, in May earlier this year, over the lack of a recovery plan for this critically endangered animal.

According to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) recovery funding figures, in 2001 over $21 million was spent on the charismatic but relatively secure bald eagle – about 7 times more than was spent for all listed amphibians combined. This majestic bird has since recovered, but hordes of invertebrate, reptile, plant and amphibian species can go for years with little funding from FWS, and receive only limited attention from other federal and state agencies. So, it is unsurprising that their status is not improving.

In the last two decades, 168 amphibian species have disappeared from the earth, and another 2,469 species (43% of all amphibians) have declining populations; their rate of extinction could be 211 times the background amphibian extinction rate (McCallum 2007). Chytridiomycosis is one driver of this extinction, along with habitat loss, invasive species and climate change, and may be responsible for the greatest disease-caused loss of biodiversity in recorded history (Skerratt et al. 2007).

This impoverishment of global amphibian species should raise the priority of remaining amphibians in conservation efforts here in the U.S., in part because each species we have now represents an element of biodiversity even more unique in nature. Unfortunately, based on data from Recovery Reports to Congress, it appears that amphibians are not being appropriately prioritized. Although overall spending on amphibians has risen from 0.3% of total FWS recovery spending in 1989 to 2.7% in 2009, with 2 times more species listed, funding patterns remain highly inconsistent (graphed below).

Figure 1: Global FWS recovery funding for federally listed amphibians. Spending is erratic, and the overwhelming majority of amphibian species rarely receive more than $500,000 for their recovery. (Click to admire graph in its full glory.)

In particular, 5 species – the California tiger salamander, the Barton Springs salamander, the California red-legged frog, the Arroyo toad, and the Santa Cruz long-toed salamander – monopolize FWS funds. For instance, the Barton Springs salamander of Texas benefited from a $1,800,000 peak in recovery funding in 2004, coincident with SOSA v. EPA, brought against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by CBD and Save Our Springs Alliance (SOSA). The lawsuit’s premise was an alleged EPA violation of the Endangered Species Act due to failure to ensure registered pesticides did not jeopardize the Barton Springs salamander.

Figure 2: From 1989 to 2009, $40 million has gone to 5 species, roughly three times more than total spending on 16 of the remaining species, illustrating the irregularity of FWS recovery funding allocation over a 20-year period.

FWS funding is not only insufficient for the recovery of already listed species, but also for listing; this process of adding amphibians to the endangered species list is driven by petition and forced to stay on schedule by litigation, diverting precious resources in order to keep the agency on track and escalating species vulnerability. The United States was home to 292 described species of amphibians as of January 22, 2009, but, in the midst of an extinction crisis, only 24 native amphibians are currently listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and only 10 species have been added to that list since 1989. Only 17 of these have recovery plans. There are 13 amphibians on the candidate species list, waiting to receive full ESA protections. This past June, the striped newt was denied full protection under the Act; its listing as ‘threatened’ was warranted but precluded, because FWS cannot spend more than appropriated for the Listing Program without violating the Anti-Deficiencies Act and the statutory cap put in place by Congress in FY 1998 (76 Fed. Reg. 32911); the striped newt is therefore currently listed as a candidate species.

Photo courtesy of Texas Parks & Wildlife. The Texas blind salamander (Eurycea rathbuni) has been listed as endangered since 1967; in 2009, it received just over $37,000 for its recovery. In the same year, the California red-legged frog, merely threatened but far more charismatic, received over $1.3 million.

In the current paradigm, FWS often prioritizes the recovery of iconic and charismatic species like the bald eagle, and non-flagship species are often guaranteed reasonable funding for recovery only when FWS is driven by lawsuits, or if their habitat coincides with that of a more compelling umbrella species. Since it appears unlikely that funding for recovery and listing activities will increase, the Service needs to make the most of its limited funds and prioritize listings and recovery efforts in an explicit and transparent manner, before the chytrid fungus, habitat destruction, and other threats finish ravaging the entirety of this unique taxon of the tree of life.

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife, Paying for Conservation, Uncategorized0 Comments

An End to Feeding on the Elk Refuge

The National Elk Refuge in Wyoming is an incredible resource for wildlife in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Unfortunately, a supplemental feeding program, in place since the refuge was created in 1912, has become a severe hazard to the species it was intended to help.

Though it began as a way to sustain the elk population through difficult winters, persistent feeding year after year now draws high concentrations of elk and bison to the area, resulting in crowding and overgrazing, and ultimately damaging the health of the ecosystem and the herds. Of particular concern is the potential for disease to spread through the high-density gathering area.  Both brucellosis and chronic wasting disease are risks increased by the refuge feeding lines.

Defenders was part of a coalition of conservation organizations challenging a 2007 management plan for the elk and bison, which failed to provide a timeline for ending the feeding regime.  The plan also appeared to give illegal veto power to the state of Wyoming such that the Game and Fish Department could block a decision to end supplemental feeding if it was believed to harm local interests.

This week, a federal appeals court confirmed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) obligation to end the practice. While the ruling did not order a deadline for terminating the program, it was an important affirmation of FWS’s obligation to expedite the end of feeding. The ruling unequivocally states that “there is no doubt that unmitigated continuation of supplemental feeding would undermine the conservation purpose of the National Wildlife Refuge System.” In addition, the court rejected the possibility of Wyoming being able to veto FWS action.

Posted in In the Field, National Wildlife Refuges, Northern Rockies, Public Lands0 Comments

BP Restoration Opportunities Slipping Away in the Gulf

Restoration in the Gulf offers a huge opportunity to address an ongoing coastal wetland catastrophe while protecting key oil infrastructure and shielding New Orleans from storm damage.  As Louisiana and other Gulf states develop restoration projects for the first $1 billion of BP oil spill money, State and Federal Trustees will hopefully seize the opportunity to demonstrate the tremendous benefits from strategic use of restoration funds.   These benefits include wildlife and fish habitat, storm surge protection, and flood mitigation to name a few.

Louisiana has lost a fourth of its coastal wetlands and the benefits they provide to past oil exploration canals, subsidence related to past oil pumping, and to a system of Mississippi River levees that denied fresh water and sediment needed to maintain the wetlands.  Yet, the remaining 6,000 square miles of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands still offer the lion’s share of fish rearing and certain wildlife functions for the entire Gulf region.  Over 40% of U.S. wetlands occur in the Mississippi Delta area, but since the 1930’s, these wetlands have receded 20 to 30 miles.  Each mile and a half of this ongoing wetland loss to open water adds another foot of storm surge threat to the city and to the Delta’s oil pipe infrastructure.  The tens of billions of dollars potential restoration benefits related to fish and wildlife habitat are overshadowed by the much larger economic benefits coastal wetlands provide protecting a major city from storm surges and protecting the nation’s oil pipe infrastructure.

Yet, the “shovel ready” project lists drafted by Louisiana would spend about half of the initial $1 billion from BP on pumping sand onto existing islands and creating new ones where past storms have washed the sand away.  These proposed projects aim to protect a couple thousand acres of wetlands behind the islands receiving the sand and restore a few hundred wetland acres.  This modest wetland restoration roughly equals the Mississippi’s Delta coastal wetland losses that occur every month.

Louisiana’s longer term ideas for restoration funding include construction of wetlands and stream buffers to treat Midwestern farm nutrients entering the Mississippi drainage.   The Midwestern projects’ aim to reduce nutrient loads in the Mississippi River, thereby decreasing the size of the Dead Zone in the Gulf.  These wetland projects provide local wildlife benefits to bird watchers and hunters that might cover most of their several billion dollars of acquisition and construction costs, but their benefits from reducing the Dead Zone fall far short of the hundreds of billions of dollars in benefits from saving Louisiana’s coastal wetlands.  Farm programs provide billions of dollars of conservation funding each year to address agricultural runoff, which may offer a better alternative for treating nutrients from Midwestern farms than using oil spill money.

Project lists for BP oil spill funding need to include restoration of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands.  This could be accomplished by reconnecting the Mississippi River to the Delta, as described by the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority of Louisiana.  Rarely do the most urgent wildlife and ecosystem needs merge so completely with our energy needs and our needs to protect people and their homes and businesses.

Posted in Uncategorized0 Comments

Funding the Refuge System – Is the Battle Just Beginning?

Although the FY 2012 Interior appropriations bill (H.R. 2584), which would have slashed funding for the National Wildlife Refuge System and other important conservation programs, was abruptly pulled from the House schedule following word of an agreement on the national debt limit, the battle over deep cuts is just beginning.  As the new fiscal year quickly approaches, debate over Interior Department funding will have to resume after the August recess, potentially in the context of an omnibus measure that would combine this and other agency spending bills.

What does this mean for national wildlife refuges?  While it’s unclear how much the Refuge System will ultimately receive for its operations and maintenance in FY 12, H.R. 2584 would see it funded at only $455 million.  When factoring in rising costs of fuel, rent, and other fixed expenses, this represents a $45 million cut from FY 11.  At this level, the Refuge System would be forced to:

  • Close, or eliminate major programs at, 128 refuges.
  • Eliminate an estimated 200 wildlife and habitat management positions, reducing capacity for inventory and monitoring work, treatment of invasive species, and other habitat management activities.
  • Eliminate about 35 visitor service positions, leaving fewer staff available to coordinate a critical force of refuge volunteers and reducing the quantity and quality of recreational opportunities.  This could be devastating to many communities whose economic well being depends on high visitation at nearby refuges.
  • Eliminate approximately 40 law enforcement positions, leaving only 173 officers to do the work of what an International Association of Chiefs of Police study recommends should be done by 845 officers.

For an agency already stretched too thin, such cuts can be debilitating.  Complicating matters, the debt deal signed into law on Tuesday requires Congress to find $1.5 trillion in federal budget savings by the end of the year, and a further $917 billion in discretionary spending cuts over the next decade.  It remains to be seen where these savings will come from, but growing political hostility over environmental protection does not bode well for national wildlife refuges.

Posted in National Wildlife Refuges, Public Lands0 Comments

koopmann 084

Protecting ranchers protects wildlife habitat – What?

Picture from the California Cattlemen's Association

Yes, it’s true. For generations, many ranchers have been managing their lands for wildlife on purpose and inadvertently. In California, private ranches contain unique and vulnerable habitats, such as vernal pools, grasslands, and oak woodlands. These ecosystems have been largely shaped over thousands of years to withstand and thrive under disturbances from fire, roaming buffalo, deer, and other ungulates. With the loss of these large herds and natural disturbances, ranchers have stepped in to mimic many of these disturbances through management of livestock. As Pelayo Alvarez says, Co-director of the California Rangeland Conservation Coalition, “They are ‘keystone species’ – you lose them and you lose the ecological integrity of the lands they manage.”

Defenders of Wildlife, along with the Coalition and some of their partners are working on keeping ranchers ranching by paying them for the ecological and socio-economic benefits they provide. Current conservation programs mostly pay ranchers for their practices, however there are groups working on moving beyond this form of conservation and paying ranchers for actual outcomes. These innovative conservation programs are taking shape in the form of Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) programs and/or markets.

To help inform the formation of these innovative conservation programs in California, Defenders of Wildlife conducted a survey of ranchers, the first of its kind to focus on the supplier perspective towards PES programs or markets. The survey was designed to give insight into the demographics of ranchers; their knowledge and attitudes towards current conservation programs; their level of interest in participating in future PES programs or markets; and outlining the most important aspects of a potential future program with respect to administrator, level of payment, and length of contract.

Five key insights emerged from the survey’s results:

  • The threat of rangeland conversion in California is real and immediate and the time is ripe for a new approach to conservation
  • California ranchers’ high rate of participation in public conservation programs, coupled with their dissatisfaction with the perceived administrative hurdles associated with these programs, offers an opportunity to introduce more appealing conservation options.
  • California ranchers are strongly interested in PES programs, particularly those tied to wildlife habitat.
  • California ranchers recognize the importance of the environmental benefits provided by their land and want to improve these benefits with the right mix of assistance and incentives.
  • California ranchers prefer flexible program structures that are built on shorter contracts, larger payments, and non-profit organizations or private companies as administrators.

The report is still in its final stages and has not been released to the general public. A shorter report and blog post will be accompanied with the release of the final report within the next few weeks. Stay tuned.

Posted in California, Paying for Conservation0 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.

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