Archive | March, 2013

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Pesticides and Endangered Species: A Small Step Forward

Earlier this week, four federal agencies released a report on how they intend to improve the pesticide registration and consultation processes.  This is a small but noteworthy step toward resolving the debacle over how to ensure that pesticides use complies with the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  To date, the story of pesticides and endangered species is mostly one of head on collisions, culminating in litigation by both environmental groups and pesticide registrants.  Recently, however, the agencies responsible for implementing federal pesticide and endangered species laws have attempted to work collaboratively to resolve some of their differences.  This new report is one such effort.

The report was issued by the U.S. EPA, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, and U.S. Department of Agriculture, all of which play a role in administering the ESA and the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), which is the federal law that regulates the registration and use of pesticides.  The report describes various process improvements intended to achieve three goals: (1) earlier stakeholder involvement when pesticides are evaluated for registration or re-registration under FIFRA; (2) earlier adoption of conservation measures to reduce the adverse impacts of pesticides on endangered species; and (3) an ESA consultation process that is more focused and efficient because it already incorporates risk-reduction measures.

Defenders believe these are laudable goals, as explained in our comment letter on a draft of the report from October 2012.  Our letter also described how the agencies could improve the draft report.  Unfortunately many of these recommendations were not adopted.  Here are two unresolved issues.

First, EPA will hold focus group meetings to better define the intended uses of pesticides as early as feasible and incorporate early risk reduction measures to minimize the adverse impacts of pesticides on wildlife.  We encouraged EPA to allow all interested members of the public to participate in these meetings.  The final report, however, does not explicitly indicate that this will happen, instead focusing on “affected registrants and possibly other stakeholders via invitation.”  While we realize that registrants and users are in the best position to provide information to EPA at this early stage of the registration process, it remains unclear how the goal of “public participation and transparency” is advanced when participation appears limited by default.  Non-registrants may have important contributions, particularly on ways to “adopt risk reduction measures before registration review beings.”

Second, the report describes how the agencies will make greater use of informal consultation in evaluating the risk of pesticides to endangered species.  The final report, however, lacks clarity on how the agencies will work together to accomplish this goal.  For example, the proposal does not specifically discuss the role of EPA’s 2004 Ecological Risk Assessment Process, which guides the agency’s biological effects determinations for listed species.  As a result, it is unclear how that process would fit within the process improvements described in the report.

On the other hand, we are pleased to see some of our comments addressed in the final report.  For example, we noted that it was legally inaccurate for the draft report to claim that “Service regulations require that [reasonable and prudent alternatives (RPAs)] be both technologically and economically feasible to the action agency and the applicant.”  This sentence implies that both the action agency and the applicant must agree to the feasibility of any RPAs, a requirement that is not explicitly supported by either the Services regulations at 50 C.F.R. §402.14(g) or the Section 7 Consultation Handbook.  The final report contains language that fixes this technicality.

Looking ahead, the four agencies must resolve numerous science and non-science issues if they are to fix the problems with the current pesticide registration and consultation processes.  The National Academy of Sciences is expected to release a study in a few weeks recommending how the agencies can address six science questions that have plagued them for decades.  But science alone cannot save the day.  As explained in my book chapter on this topic, the agencies must also address risk-tolerance, funding, and other issues that are fundamental to ensuring that pesticide are used in a manner that does not unduly harming endangered species.

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Posted in Agriculture, Imperiled Wildlife0 Comments

A National Plan for Conserving Wildlife in a Changing World

Today the Obama administration released the National Fish, Wildlife and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy. This ground-breaking strategy is the first national-level plan for addressing climate impacts on wildlife and ecosystems, and the first national-level climate plan developed by multiple levels of government including input from federal, state, and tribal agencies and organizations. The Strategy has been a core part of Defenders’ climate adaptation policy platform and we have been heavily engaged throughout the process.

The Strategy is unique in its strong language describing the urgent need for working together to build resilience into our natural systems to better withstand the impacts of climate change – language so compelling I’m posting the preface here:

Our climate is changing, and these changes are already impacting the nation’s valuable natural resources and the people, communities, and economies that depend on them. These impacts are expected to increase with continued changes in the planet’s climate system, putting many of the nation’s valuable natural resources at risk. Action is needed now to reduce these impacts (including reducing the drivers of climate change) and help sustain the natural resources and services the nation depends on.

The observed changes in climate have been attributed to the increasing levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere, which have set in motion a series of changes in the planet’s climate system. Far greater changes are inevitable not only because emissions will continue, but also because CO2 stays in the atmosphere for a long time. Even if further GHG emissions were halted today, alterations already underway in the Earth’s climate will last for hundreds or thousands of years. If GHG emissions continue, as is currently more likely, the planet’s average temperature is projected to rise by 2.0 to 11.5 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, with accompanying major changes in extreme weather events, variable and/or inconsistent weather patterns, sea level rise, and changing ocean conditions including increased acidification.

Safeguarding our valuable living resources in a changing climate for current and future generations is a serious and urgent problem. Addressing the problem requires action now to understand current impacts, assess future risks, and prepare for and adapt to a changing climate. This National Fish, Wildlife and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy (hereafter Strategy) is a call to action–a framework for effective steps that can be taken, or at least initiated, over the next five to ten years in the context of the changes to our climate that are already occurring, and those that are projected by the end of the century. It is designed to be a key part of the nation’s larger response to a changing climate, and to guide responsible actions by natural resource managers, conservation partners, and other decision makers at all levels. The Strategy was produced by federal, state, and tribal representatives and has been coordinated with a variety of other climate change adaptation efforts at national, state, and tribal levels.

The overarching goal of the Strategy is a simple one: to inspire, enable, and increase meaningful action that helps safeguard the nation’s natural resources in a changing climate. Admittedly, the task ahead is a daunting one, especially if the world fails to make serious efforts to reduce emissions of GHGs. But we can make a difference. To do that, we must begin now to prepare for a future unlike the recent past.

I couldn’t agree more. And beginning now means establishing a clear plan and governance structure to ensure the Strategy is actually implemented. The biggest strength of the Strategy is that it brought together 23 federal, state, and tribal partners onto the steering committee and involved many others. That is also its greatest weakness. The final Strategy does not prescribe any particular action to any particular actor – it couldn’t; no partner had the authority to tell another what to do. But that leaves accountability for the achievement of the Strategy’s goals very tenuous. Two core solutions to ensure the Strategy doesn’t sit on a shelf (or in a hard drive) are to create a similar governing body as the one established to develop the plan, and require annual reporting of progress made implementing the plan.

Posted in Climate Change0 Comments

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Losing Choices for Our Conservation Future

Development in Colorado. Image courtesy of the National Resource Conservation Service

Development in Colorado. Image courtesy of the National Resources Conservation Service

The United States is on track to lose more than 54 million acres of its rural open space to development by the year 2030. That comes to more than 2 million acres per year, 5,500 acres per day, and almost 4 acres per minute lost during each of the next 17 years. Most alarmingly, this developed land is rarely ever converted back to open space, so the lands are no longer available for the conservation actions that we may need sometime in the future.

These losses are driven primarily by land conversion to build additional housing. As the U.S. population grows, development spreads at higher rates. Each additional housing unit in this country costs on average about 1.2 acres of lost land.  But even more land is used for the housing units that are built in the south central and Great Plains regions of the U.S.

Between 1982 and 2003, the United States lost an additional 35.1 million acres to development. In other words, in just less than a half century, our country will lose almost 90 million total acres to development, slightly less than 5% of all land area in the entire lower 48 states. These 90 million acres also represent about 10% of all agricultural land (grazing and crop lands combined).

Land-use legacies may persist for hundreds of years, influencing everything from the plant types that are present, to nutrient cycles, water flows, and even local climate. Once land becomes converted, it is extremely difficult to change it back to an original, native state. For example, a study of recovery of land in Wisconsin from 1935 to 1993 found almost no recovery of habitat on lands that had been left alone for over 60 years In other words, there was little gain back to natural forest in the upper Midwest even after factoring in the abandoned farmland resulting from changing socio-economic trends.

That study illustrates the importance of wildlife restoration funding – many lands left alone do not recover naturally.  To adapt to climate change we need existing and new funding to restore habitats to their previous levels of natural diversity in order to provide resiliency as other areas of the same habitat disappear.

Posted in Agriculture, private lands0 Comments

Oklahoma Finalizes Conservation Agreement for Lesser Prairie Chicken

Oklahoma Finalizes Conservation Agreement for Lesser Prairie Chicken

Later this year, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service must decide whether to list the lesser prairie chicken under the Endangered Species Act.  With this deadline looming, state and private landowners are racing to finalize conservation agreements for the species, with the hope of staving off the need for listing.  Less than two months ago, the Service approved the latest of these agreements, which covers existing and potential prairie chicken habitat in Oklahoma.

The agreement is a candidate conservation agreement with assurances (CCAA), which offers participants a legal assurance: if the prairie chicken is listed, the participants will not be required to take any conservation actions beyond those they agreed to under the CCAA.  The Service has finalized 26 other CCAAs in the 13 years this tool has been available.  In an upcoming Defenders report, we analyze all of these CCAAs and describe how and when the Service has used them.  For now, I note a few interesting or unique aspects about this latest Oklahoma CCAA.

First, it specifically prohibits a number of activities that are highly destructive to the prairie chicken.  These include all oil and gas development, conversion of native rangeland to farmland, tree planting, wind turbine development, and transmission lines.  Not all CCAAs are so protective.  The Texas CCAA for the dunes sagebrush lizard, for example, allows for oil and gas development and other high impact activities (our recent report covers this issue).  Strict prohibitions like the ones in the Oklahoma CCAA are a good idea if the state wants to convince the Service that listing the species is unnecessary.

The agreement also prohibits predator control or removal as a method to conserve the prairie chicken.  This is the first CCAA I have read that includes such a forward-thinking provision.  The agreement explains that “predators have historically been a natural part of the landscape” in the range of the prairie chicken.  “In those instances where predators do post a serious threat, this is symptomatic of diminished habitat quality….”  By addressing the root cause of the problem rather than slapping on a Band-Aid, the CCAA is helping to ensure that prairie chicken conservation does not come at the expensive of native predators.

Finally, the agreement does an admirable job attempting to estimate the number of lesser prairie chickens inhabiting the area covered by the CCAA and the number that may be harmed by conservation measures it authorizes.  Most CCAAs do not even attempt this task, leaving the public with little idea about how an agreement will affect the abundance of a species.  The Oklahoma CCAA estimates that 402 birds are reasonably expected to occur in the 200,000 acres the state plans to enroll under the agreement by 2037.  From this figure, the CCAA estimates the number of individual birds that might be inadvertently killed by conservation measures such as prescribed burns and brush management—no more than an average of 20 birds annually and 10 nests with eggs or broods annually.

To be sure, this CCAA is not perfect.  For example, the adaptive management and monitoring provisions could use a big boost.  But it certainly was designed to address the most severe threats facing the prairie chicken.  Future implementation and transparent reporting will show the extent to which this agreement advances the conservation goals of the species.

 

Additional Resources on the Lesser Prairie Chicken

My blog post on five problems with the recent proposed rule to list the species as threatened.

A related blog post on the demographic problems with the proposed rule.

Lesser Prairie Chicken

Lesser prairie chicken. Courtesy Natural Resources Conservation Service.

 

Posted in Agriculture, Imperiled Wildlife, private lands, Uncategorized0 Comments

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The Case of the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard: A Candidate Species Denied

On June 12, 2012, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service decided that the dunes sagebrush lizard, a candidate species for over a decade, no longer warranted listing under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.  Yet only 18 months earlier, it concluded that the species warranted listing as “endangered.”  This abrupt reversal was based largely on two candidate conservation agreements for the species, one for New Mexico and another for Texas.

Photo courtesy of  -  N.M. Game and Fish Dep't

Photo courtesy of – N.M. Game and Fish Dep’t

In a report released yesterday, we describe for the first time serious problems with the Service relying on the Texas agreement to support its decision.  Some of these problems include the following:

  • The Service is unable to determine what conservation measures participants will actually implement under the Texas agreement. This is the result of several compounding factors, including the vagueness of the agreement and the Service never having reviewed or approved any of the certificates of inclusion that describe what conservation measures participants committed to implementing (the New Mexico agreement, fortunately, does not have any of these problems).
  • The confidentiality provisions of Texas law, as currently interpreted by the Texas Comptroller’s Office and the Texas Office of the Attorney General, will prevent the Service from reviewing any part of the original certificates of inclusion, unless participants voluntarily disclose their certificate (which only one participant has done).
  • The Service’s decision relies largely on the claim that the Texas agreement limits habitat loss to only one percent within the first three years of implementing the agreement.  We discovered that this limit cannot be ensured because the Service has not enrolled enough habitat (99 percent) under the Texas agreement. In fact, the Service was about 76,550 acres short of this goal as of May 2012.

We also recommend eight specific improvements to ESA policy to address these and other problems, so that they are not repeated in future listing decisions for candidate species.  Some of these improvements can be implemented before the Service ever decides whether to list a candidate species.  For example, the Service should create policy clarifying that the conservation goals for candidate species are identical to those for recovering listed species.  Other improvements can be implemented as part of the listing decision.  For example, the Service should more clearly explain why a candidate species no longer warrants listing based on both its biological status and the threats it faces.  With listing decisions for high-profile species like the lesser prairie chicken and greater sage grouse around the corner, these recommendations are very timely.

Dunes sagebrush lizard

Posted in Fossil Fuels, Imperiled Wildlife, Southwest0 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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