Archive | December, 2012

McRoberts_Mar2007_1LesserPrairieChicken

Five Problems with the Proposed Rule to List the Lesser Prairie-Chicken

Last month, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced its long-awaited decision on whether to propose listing the lesser prairie-chicken as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  It has been over fourteen years since the Service concluded that the species warranted listing.  With all this time, you would assume that the Service would have issued something close to an impeachable listing proposal.  But what Tim Male and I have uncovered in our review of the proposal are a number of puzzling and disappointing gaps.  Here, we summarize the top five problems.

First, the conservation goals for the lesser prairie-chicken are perplexingly low.  The Service believes that it can adequately conserve the species if it maintains a minimum of four “strongholds” — each consisting of 25,000 – 50,000 acres of habitat, 6-10 leks, and 6 birds of each sex — augmented by an “undetermined number of additional strongholds.”  Four strongholds would cover up to 200,000 acres, 40 leks, and 500 birds.  By meeting this goal and reducing threats to the species, the Service presumably believes that it can withdraw the proposed listing.  But 200,000 acres (313 sq. miles) is a mere 1.15 percent of the bird’s current occupied range (27,259 sq. miles) and 0.17 percent of its historic range (180,309 sq. miles).

Now also consider the Service’s conservation goals for the greater sage grouse, which is another candidate species facing similar threats and exhibiting similar life-history traits.  The Service believes it needs at least 20,000 sage grouse (40 populations of 500 birds each) distributed across 165 million acres of habitat.   So we have 20,000 sage grouse versus 500 prairie-chicken (40 times as much) and 165 million acres versus 200,000 acres (825 times as much).  Keep in mind that, by the Service’s own admission, these are “closely related and generally similar” species.  The Service has not explained how such gargantuan disparities are scientifically justified.

A second problem is that the proposed rule neglects to analyze the potential loss of lesser prairie-chicken habitat resulting from proposed changes to the federal Farm Bill, specifically the elimination of basic conservation requirements for farmers.  Recent data show that between 2008 and 2011, over 23 million acres of wildlife habitat was converted into row crop agriculture, including over 1.5 million acres in the counties where prairie chickens still occur (you can learn more about the losses in the blog post here).  These losses are the result of subsidies for crop insurance that incentivize the destruction of wildlife habitat as well as high crop prices, driven in part by ethanol subsidies and mandates.  Congress has also proposed changes to the Farm Bill that would exacerbate these losses, driving the prairie-chicken closer to extinction.  The listing proposal neither accounts for this recent data nor the proposed changes to the Farm Bill.  It instead relies on outdated and incomplete data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture on land use changes in the range of the prairie-chicken from many years ago.

A third issue is that the Service neglects recent data showing reduced enrollment in the USDA Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) in the counties the lesser prairie chicken occurs.  The Service first expounds on the importance of the CRP at preventing or stopping declines of the lesser prairie-chicken.  It then describes how farmers currently enrolled in the CRP have expiring contracts and are expected to reenroll.  It bases this prediction on the fact that in 2007, many farmers with expiring CRP contracts requested to reenroll.  What it never mentions is whether those farmers actually followed through.  The reality is that reenrollment after 2007 has been extremely low in counties occupied by the prairie-chicken.  Over 4.5 million acres expired between 2007 and 2013, but 2 million of those acres were never reenrolled.  Although over 1 million new acres have been enrolled and planted with grass, that habitat is likely to be of lower quality until it matures in several years.  More importantly, the new enrollment still leaves the CRP with a net loss of 1 million acres in the counties where the prairie-chicken is found.

A fourth problem is that the Service never analyzes the impacts of candidate conservation agreements for the lesser prairie-chicken.  The Service summarizes the status of the four candidate conservation agreements that have been finalized for the species and the one draft agreement that is pending approval.  For example, it describes the amount of habitat enrolled in each agreement and some of the conservation measures participants must implement.  But the Service never takes its analysis to the crucial next step: explaining how the agreements help reduce threats to the species and why the level of threat-reduction is not enough to avoid listing the species as threatened.

This is a troubling omission because in proposed listing rules for other species, the Service always explains why voluntary conservation agreements for the species are inadequate to obviate a listing.  These explanations have allowed the public to understand why agreements may fall short and what additional conservation is needed after listing.  For example, in the recent proposed rule to list the spring pygmy sunfish, the Service explained that the one candidate conservation agreement for the species was not enough to prevent listing.  The reason was that the agreement had yet to demonstrate its effectiveness and did not protect 76 percent of the species’ habitat.

The Service typically provides this explanation in its analysis of the threats that cause a species to warrant listing.  This analysis, also known as the five-factor threat analysis, covers issues including habitat loss and inadequacy of existing laws to protect the species.  The five-factor analysis for the prairie-chicken is entirely silent on the five candidate conservation agreements.  It is unfortunate that the Service spends many years of hard work to draft and implement the agreements, but then never explains their impacts on the species.

The final oversight is one of failing to follow the Service’s own procedures.  The Service concluded that the lesser prairie-chicken is “threatened” but never explains why it is not “endangered” throughout a “significant portion of its range.”  The Service is required to list a species if it is either “threatened” or “endangered” in either “all” or a “significant portion” of its range.  So there are four combinations that could trigger listing.  The proposed rule concludes that the lesser prairie-chicken is “threatened” in all of its range, but never explains why the species is not also “endangered” in only a “significant portion” of its range.  If the latter were true, the USFWS would have to list the species as endangered, which can offer greater protection than a threatened listing.

The failure to complete this analysis is a serious oversight that runs afoul of the requirements of the ESA and the Service’s own policies.  In fact, earlier this year, the USFWS issued a proposed policy that specifically confirms the need to analyze whether a species is endangered in a significant portion of its range—even if the species meets the definition of threatened.  This analysis is important for species like the lesser prairie-chicken that have been eliminated from most of their historic range.  For the prairie-chicken, some populations may be highly imperiled but also essential to the species’ ability to survive and recover.  It is precisely those populations that are likely to be endangered and make up a “significant portion” of the species’ range.  But the Service would never know unless it looked.

Defenders will continue to uncover additional gaps with the proposed rule, with the hope that the Service addresses these issues its upcoming decision to either finalize the proposed rule, modify it, or withdraw it.

Posted in Agriculture, Imperiled Wildlife0 Comments

Hurricane Sandy- Adapting to Climate Reality, Recovering Stronger

When Superstorm Sandy swept ashore in late October, it left an almost unimaginable level of damage: thousands of residents still displaced, entire communities destroyed, and an economic toll that promises to make Sandy one of the costliest natural disasters in history. But it also swept away our illusions that we can carry on with business as usual in a changing climate.

Sandy exposed incredible vulnerabilities to coastal storms and floods in the region. While the storm was unprecedented, the effects of climate change, namely higher sea levels and larger storms, mean that we can no longer operate as if a recurrence is only a remote possibility.  It’s clear that we cannot simply rebuild; we must also rethink the way we approach recovery efforts, and begin to prepare for future extreme weather events and sea level rise by rebuilding in a way that reduces vulnerabilities to future damage.

Defenders of Wildlife has argued that in many cases, this will require restoring and enhancing natural ecosystems that provide flood control and storm surge attenuation while providing other benefits including clean water, wildlife habitat, and economic and recreational opportunities.  Our publication “Harnessing Nature,” published earlier this year, describes several of these projects and the benefits they can provide.

After a disaster of Sandy’s magnitude, the need for federal assistance to help the region recover could not be more apparent and urgent.  The Obama administration submitted an emergency supplemental request to Congress to address response and recovery that takes this exact approach.  The Senate followed suit and included provisions that ensure recovery efforts mitigate future disaster risks.

The Senate emergency supplemental appropriations bill shows tremendous foresight in its recognition of the role that natural floodplains, coastal wetlands, dunes, natural shorelines and other ecosystem-based measures can play in protecting communities from weather-related disasters.  Defenders of Wildlife specifically support the following elements of the supplemental:

  • Restores national wildlife refuges: The bill provides $78 million for repairs and restoration at affected national wildlife refuges. Thirty-five refuges were closed following the storm and some remain closed. The overall damage to refuges was $78 million – the equivalent of 16% of the System’s overall annual budget – but it would have been much worse had it not been for the natural protection provided by refuge wetlands and dunes.
  • Funds projects to increase the resilience of coastal habitat and assist state and tribal natural resource restoration programs: Through Department of the Interior programs, the bill provides $150 million to “increase the resiliency and capacity of coastal habitat and infrastructure to withstand future storms and reduce the amount of damage caused by such storms; protect natural and cultural values; and assist State, tribal and local governments.” The Department includes many programs that it can deploy to accomplish this important goal through the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the U.S. Geological Survey and other programs.  
  • Funds coastal and estuarine habitat restoration and protection to help buffer communities from storms and recover fisheries- and coastal habitat-based economies: The bill provides $150 million to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) “to evaluate, stabilize and restore coastal ecosystems affected by Hurricane Sandy.” NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service Office of Habitat Conservation has a long track record of success restoring coastal and marine habitat and fisheries, including many large-scale collaborative restoration projects including the Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes.  The bill also provides $47 million for the Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program (CELCP) to “support State and local restoration in areas affected by Hurricane Sandy.”  CELCP provides states and local governments matching funds to purchase (fee title or easements) significant coastal and estuarine lands.  This protection ensures important natural areas continue to provide flood and storm protection benefits to communities in addition to their other ecological, recreational, and economic values.
  • Restores and protects storm-abating wetlands on private lands: The bill provides $125 million to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Emergency Watershed Protection Program.  This program provides funding to remove debris from stream channels, stabilize stream banks and restore damaged uplands stripped of protective vegetative cover.  The program also funds floodplain easements for “restoring, protecting, maintaining, and enhancing the functions and values of floodplains, including associated wetlands and riparian areas… These easements also help conserve fish and wildlife habitat, water quality, flood water retention, and ground water recharge, as well as safeguard lives and property from floods, drought, and erosion.”
  • Funds planning for and construction of flood-reducing projects that support the long-term sustainability of coastal ecosystems: The bill provides $2.9 billion to the Army Corps of Engineers to “reduce future flood risk in ways that will support the long-term sustainability of the coastal ecosystem and communities and reduce the economic costs and risks associated with large-scale flood and storm events in areas…affected by Hurricane Sandy.”  In addition, the bill requires that “efforts using these funds shall incorporate current science and engineering standards in constructing previously authorized Corps projects designed to reduce flood and storm damage risks and modifying existing Corps projects that do not meet these standards, with such modifications as the Secretary determines are necessary to incorporate these standards or to meet the goal of providing sustainable reduction to flooding and storm damage risks.” This important provision requires the Army Corps to reevaluate previously authorized projects in light of Hurricane Sandy and other recent extreme weather events, as well as current scientific projections of future climate-related risks, to ensure projects remain viable and sustainable under changing conditions.  The bill also provides up to $20 million to the Army Corps to support interagency planning with State, local, and Tribal officials “to address the flood risks of vulnerable coastal populations, including innovative approaches to promote the long-term sustainability of the coastal ecosystems and communities to reduce the economic costs and risks associated with large-scale flood and storm events.”
  • Requires federal agencies to plan for future risks of increased extreme weather events and sea level rise in all recovery efforts: General provisions that apply to the whole bill require agencies to be forward thinking to assess future changes in risks and vulnerabilities of recovery projects to extreme weather events, sea level rise, and coastal flooding.  Agencies shall “inform plans for response, recovery, and rebuilding to reduce vulnerabilities from and build long-term resiliency to future extreme weather events, sea level rise, and coastal flooding. In carrying out activities funded by this title that involve repairing, rebuilding, or restoring infrastructure and restoring land, project sponsors shall consider, where appropriate, the increased risks and vulnerabilities associated with future extreme weather events, sea level rise and coastal flooding.”  The bill also encourages the development of better information to base these decisions on, allowing funds to be available “to develop… regional projections and assessments of future risks and vulnerabilities to extreme weather events, sea level rise and coastal flooding that may be used for the planning…, and to encourage coordination and facilitate long-term community resiliency.


However, the following provisions limit environmental review and public participation, which may lead to poor planning and communities more vulnerable to disaster risks and other concerns. Some even lift environmental review nationwide. We strongly oppose the following elements of the supplemental:

  • Authorizes all pending Army Corps flood protection projects nationwide regardless of urgency, need, or status of environmental and other reviews: The bill authorizes any Army Corps flood protection project that is under study (i.e. any project throughout the nation that was begun before Hurricane Sandy) provided that the Corps demonstrates the project is cost-effective.  Notwithstanding the important provisions on using current science and planning for future risks that also apply to this funding; this provision approves any projects currently under study with the Corps.  Moreover this provision will apply nationwide, authorizing a bevy of projects notwithstanding their compliance with the Water Resources Development Act, Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act or the National Environmental Policy Act. Many of these projects involve large commitments of funding and infrastructure that could have significant impacts to waterways, wetlands, habitat and wildlife. Proper evaluation of impacts to the environment and endangered and threatened species is necessary to prevent unintended environmental consequences. This blanket authorization is damaging and unnecessary and should be revised.
  • Unnecessarily creates new “streamlining” authorities: The bill authorizes the President to establish “streamlined” procedures to expedite providing disaster assistance.  The Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act already include emergency provisions that allow for expedited reviews and changes in procedures to protect human health and safety in response to disasters and emergencies. In fact, provisions of these laws were used successfully during the recent BP Gulf oil spill and Hurricane Katrina. In addition to being simply unnecessary, these streamlining provisions are problematic, first in their lack of specificity in what exactly they authorize, and secondly in creating a deeply concerning precedent for circumventing our nation’s most important environmental and other public interest laws. These sections should be stricken.

This essential funding will provide much needed relief to victims of the devastating hurricane.  By retaining the forward-thinking provisions we highlight, and by striking the provisions waiving public interest requirements, the bill will not just help recover the region from this horrible storm, but will also reduce the region’s vulnerabilities to future extreme events, sea level rise and coastal flooding and the economic costs associated with these issues. 

Posted in Climate Change0 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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