Archive | April, 2013

Sage-Grouse Strut Their Stuff

There are few birds in the American West that know how to party like sage-grouse. Oh sure, you’ve got your hummingbirds with their swooping and diving and your huge, gawky sandhill cranes with their flamboyant, noisy mating rituals. But for sheer spectacle, nothing beats the sage-grouse and now is the perfect time to see them strut their stuff because it’s mating season out West.

Sage-grouse dancing occurs from March to May. In early spring at dawn, and often at dusk, sage-grouse congregate on “leks”— ancestral strutting grounds to which the birds return year after year. To attract a hen, males jockey for position, fan their tail feathers and swell their breasts to reveal yellow air sacs, and then, just as quickly, deflate them to make an utterly unique “swish-swish-coooopoink!” sound that can be heard from over a mile away. Scientists aren’t certain what about this flamboyant display is attractive to females, but it works. You can watch it here

Sage-grouse are the charismatic ambassador of the “Sagebrush Sea,” a term given to the vast sagebrush prairie that once sprawled across thirteen western states and three Canadian provinces. Lewis and Clarkdescribed the grouse in their journal as the “cock of the plains”, and nineteenth century travelers reported seeing huge flocks of sage-grouse that darkened the sky as they lifted from valley floors. Native Americans emulated sage-grouse in ceremonial dress and dance. Settlers hunted the bird for food, and even collected sage-grouse eggs in spring for table use. Centuries of westerners have admired sage-grouse as fellow dwellers of the high desert, and birders travel from around the world to see sage-grouse in the wild.

Unfortunately, like too many other iconic western wildlife species, sage-grouse are in trouble. Sagebrush grasslands are a heavily used landscape. Humans have plowed, sprayed, burned, drilled, developed, mined and grazed millions of acres of sagebrush habitat. The remaining habitat is fragmented and degraded by weeds, wildfire, juniper encroachment, utility corridors, roads and fences. Sage-grouse range has been reduced by almost half with the loss of sagebrush steppe and grouse populations have declined to just ten percent of their historic numbers.

William Hornaday of the New York Zoological Society was among the first to express concern for sage-grouse in 1916, publishing a pamphlet titled “Save the Sage Grouse from Extinction: A Demand from Civilization to the Western States.” Conservationists have heeded his call and launched a west-wide campaign to protect the grouse and the Sagebrush Sea. After struggling for more than a decade, we finally got a break in 2011 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service committed to review sage-grouse for listing under the Endangered Species Act by 2015. The date certain for a range-wide sage-grouse listing decision has compelled a multitude of federal and state agencies and local entities to finally develop conservation strategies to protect and recover sage-grouse and their habitat.

Defenders of Wildlife is heavily engaged in these planning processes. We are analyzing thousands of pages of documents and working to improve federal and state conservation strategies. In Washington, DC, we are urging the Obama administration and Congressional representatives to strengthen conservation initiatives for sage-grouse, and out West we are diligently working to ensure that new development won’t harm the species.

But sometimes you’ve just got to make time to enjoy these spectacular birds. We invite you attend a show at a sage-grouse lek this spring. Dress warmly, bring binoculars and coffee, and be ready for fun. And then join Defenders to conserve sage-grouse so that they may continue to impress for generations to come.

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife, Public Lands0 Comments


New Report on Pesticides and Endangered Species: A Milestone but Much Work Remains

On Tuesday, April 30th, the National Research Council will release a highly anticipated study on pesticides and endangered species.  The study is a major milestone toward resolving the clash over how to evaluate the effects of pesticides on endangered species.  To date, the U.S. EPA has disagreed with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service about which scientific methods and assumptions to use when completing these evaluations.

The study will address six key areas of scientific disagreement or lack of consensus among the agencies.  But it will not address any related policy questions, which are an equally important source of disagreement.  To think that the study will resolve the disagreements between the Services and EPA is to overlook the distinction between a science question and a policy question.

Here is one example of this distinction.  To determine the effects of a pesticide on an endangered species, the EPA relies on laboratory tests on surrogate species.  For example, EPA’s guidance document identifies bobwhite quail and ducks as a surrogate for endangered reptiles.  Likewise, minnow and sunfish are surrogates for endangered amphibians.  But of course, California tiger salamanders are not exactly like sunfish, and bog turtles are not exactly like ducks.  When you extrapolate data on ducks to turtles, you must make a lot of assumptions about how ducks are like (and unlike) turtles.  You will never have perfect information about the relationship between the two animals and their response to pesticides.  As a result, you will have scientific uncertainty.

Scientific uncertainty is one of the topics the NRC study will cover.  Specifically, it will evaluate the use of “uncertainty factors” (also known as safety factors) to account for incomplete data when extrapolating from surrogate species to endangered species.  Think of uncertainty factors as a safety margin.  If you assume that an endangered species is 100 times more sensitive to a chemical than is its corresponding surrogate species, then you might use an uncertainty factor of 100.  So if your surrogate species does not show any significant adverse effects up to 10 mg/kg of exposure from a chemical, then you would divide that value by 100 to get 0.01 mg/kg for the endangered species.

But why use a safety factor of 100?  Why not 200, or 38, or 4, or zero?  For many endangered species, we do not know the extent to which they are more sensitive than surrogate species to any particular pesticide.  So we need to make assumptions about how protective we are of endangered species.  A safety factor of 100,000 would be very protective, while a safety factor of zero would offer no protection.  This question of how protective we should be is a policy question, not a science question.  Science can recommend methods for addressing uncertainty (safety factors are not the only method, and some would argue they are not the best).  But science cannot tell us whether we “should” use a safety factor of 0, 10, 100, or 10,000.  The Services and EPA must make those decisions based on their interpretations of the ESA and FIFRA.  In fact, the NRC made a similar observation in its 1995 study titled “Science and the Endangered Species Act.”  There, it noted that “[e]ven though estimates of risk are grounded in scientific information, those implementing the [ESA] often make value judgments when making decisions about listing, jeopardy, etc.”  Thus, the NRC explained, “science by itself is not sufficient input to policy decisions, apart from the objectives and values it serves.”

Unfortunately, agencies are often very reluctant to acknowledge that they are making these value and policy judgments every day.  But unless they do so, we will never fix the current debacle over pesticides and endangered species.  We will never agree on how much risk of harming an endangered species is acceptable under the ESA and FIFRA.  And we will continue quarrelling.  This is why, when I presented at the CropLife America and RISE Spring Conference last week, I emphasized the need for both the Services and EPA to create a framework that clearly describes how they will address risk and uncertainty when evaluating the effects of pesticides on endangered species.  Let’s hope the NRC study motivates the agencies to do so.

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Additional information on a way forward for pesticides and endangered species.



Posted in Imperiled Wildlife0 Comments

Defenders Issues New Report on Candidate Species Agreements

Several months ago, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service finalized its schedule for deciding whether to propose listing of almost 200 candidate species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  Many private landowners and state wildlife agencies are eager to conserve these species, with the goal of avoiding the need for listing.  One of their chief tools is candidate conservation agreements with assurances (CCAAs).  By entering into a CCAA with the Service, participants get an important legal assurance: if a species is eventually listed despite the best efforts of the participants, they will not be required to take any conservation actions beyond those agreed to in the CCAA.  Not a bad deal.

The Service regulation that created CCAAs was finalized in 1999 under the leadership of Jamie Rappaport Clark, Defender’s current president and CEO.  Since that time, 27 CCAAs have been finalized, but no one has ever evaluated all the agreements and few people understand how they have been used.  In fact, no online database exists of all CCAAs (the Service’s online database is currently missing four agreements).

Earlier this week, Defenders released a report that evaluates all 26 CCAAs finalized through 2012 (the 27th CCAA was issued after we completed our report).  We evaluated agreements for 1) types of activities covered, 2) types of species covered, 3) number of agreements finalized per year, 4) number of programmatic agreements (applying to multiple participants rather than a single one), 5) duration of agreements, and 6) record of preventing species from being listed.

Our evaluation of the types of activities is perhaps the most interesting.  We assigned each CCAA into one of three categories: those that authorize only activities intended to conserve species; those that authorize reintroduction of species into their former range; and those that authorize both conservation and non-conservation activities.  That’s right—not every activity authorized under a CCAA is intended to conserve a species.  The important point is that the impacts of conservation activities should outweigh those of non-conservation activities, such that the species experiences an overall benefit.

Our report also recommends improvements to CCAA implementation.  We found that Service biologists have been implementing CCAAs in innovative ways that are not discussed in the CCAA regulation or draft handbook.  We underscore eight of these innovations and encourage the Service to consider incorporating them into its CCAA guidance documents.
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This CCAA report is the third in a series of Defenders reports on improving endangered species law, policy, and science.  In case you missed them, the first report describes some of our strategies for making the ESA more effective and efficient, and the second report reveals serious flaws with the Service’s decision last year to withdraw its proposed rule to list the dunes sagebrush lizard and recommends ways to avoid these problems in future listing decisions.  A week after we published the second report, we filed a notice of intent to sue the Service over the withdrawal.

Click here to view the CCAA report

Louisiana pine snake, a candidate species. Photo courtesy of Louisiana Conservationist

Louisiana pine snake, a candidate species. Photo courtesy of Louisiana Conservationist


Posted in Imperiled Wildlife, Paying for Conservation, private lands, Public Lands0 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.