Author Archives | Timothy Male, Vice President for Conservation Policy

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Slate, Spending and Species Recovery

Anyone in wildlife conservation circles in Washington DC knows Defenders fantastic reputation as an effective advocate for more federal spending on endangered species recovery.  I’m proud of all the successes my colleagues Mary Beth Beetham and Robert Dewey have achieved to get more funding for wildlife, but Congress continues to allocate too little money to cover the necessary steps to recover all species.  Many endangered animals and plants get less than $5,000 a year – far too little to allow them to recover.

Given how little funding there is, we also have to think about how to use this funding effectively to do the most good.  We’ve just published a report advocating for increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of endangered species policy in the U.S. by doing a better job of prioritizing resources.  This means finding objective ways to allocate dollars to do the most good.  Figuring out cost is relatively easy but how do you figure out the value side – which species deserve more attention.  Slate has just published a nice story on this issue following one that Scientific American published last year.  We’ve focused much of our effort in examining how New Zealand is approaching prioritization.

New Zealand looks at the taxonomic distinctiveness of its species and the likelihood that management will succeed and compares those to cost to find better ways to allocate endangered species recovery funding.  Their government scientists think that this approach will allow them to save almost 50% more species for the same amount of money.  A more complicated system may be appropriate in the U.S.  For example, a system that values wide-ranging species or species with particular cultural values might better account for some of the reasons that polls consistently show that American want to see endangered species protected.  We do not have such a system in place now, but Defenders is working to try to make such a change in policy possible – so that the money we do have is used to save as much wildlife as possible.

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife0 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

Ocelots in Arizona

Ocelots in Arizona

An ocelot that was found in Arizona, after being treed by dogs

An ocelot that was treed by dogs in Arizona. Photo from Arizona Game and Fish Department

Ocelots are a rare cat found throughout Latin America and that once occurred all the way north to Arkansas.  For example, Conservation International is focused on conserving ocelots in Ecuador and elsewhere.

More recently, U.S. ocelot populations have only been thought to exist in the very southern tip of Texas.  However, the good news is that there is increasing evidence that an ocelot population also exists in southeastern Arizona.   In 2009, the Sky Island Alliance documented a cat in Cochise County, and on February 9th, 2011 another cat was sighted.  In 2010, a dead ocelot was found on the roadside in Gila County.  This week the Arizona Game and Fish Department reported another documented sighting – from a hunter’s trail camera in the Huachuca Mountains.

The question of whether these ocelot sightings represent a previously undetected breeding population in Arizona or simply sightings of lone male animals dispersing from Mexico is a common question for rare and secretive animals. The absence of data often does not reflect the absence of the species but rather the absence of a valid sampling system to find them.

We believe the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently giving too little attention to the role that suitable Arizona habitat can play in the recovery of an ocelot population in the area (and is focused on Mexico instead).  Arizona habitats may have particular value because there are large areas lacking major roads (a primary cause of ocelot mortality) and large areas of protected public land.  The two additional ocelot sightings in Arizona since the agency published its draft recovery plan give additional weight to the idea that the final recovery plan should better describe a conservation strategy for Arizona ocelots.

Ecotourism focused on ocelot is a feature of Earthwatch Institute’s programs – perhaps someday a healthy U.S. ocelot population will provide new revenues for Arizona landowners too.

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife, Southwest0 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

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

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Federal government sustainability performance scorecards

By: Timothy Male and Noah Matson

On October 5, 2009, President Obama signed Executive Order 13514 committing the federal government to “lead by example” on sustainability issues including energy and water use and solid waste reduction.  As summarized by the press statement accompanying the Executive Order, it “requires Federal agencies to set a 2020 greenhouse gas emissions reduction target within 90 days; increase energy efficiency; reduce fleet petroleum consumption; conserve water; reduce waste; support sustainable communities; and leverage Federal purchasing power to promote environmentally-responsible products and technologies.”

As we have reported in previous blog posts, the Executive Order also included provisions on adaptation.

The Executive Order (E.O.)  is sweeping and complicated, and parts of it read like international climate change negotiations, with each federal agency or department developing its own emissions reductions targets for “class 1, 2 and 3” emissions types.  We’ll define those later – the important thing to know is that the E.O. sets up a whole new infrastructure within the federal government to meet concrete sustainability performance objectives that will greatly reduce the government’s environmental footprint, and through its massive purchasing power, will also influence the broader market.  For this the administration deserves credit. A year and a half later, on April 19, 2011, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) which helps oversee the program, released sustainability “scorecards” for 24 agencies as a measure of performance and progress in meeting sustainability goals as the agencies begin revising their annual sustainability performance plans.

Below we have compiled all of the scorecards into one infographic.

As can be expected from such a sweeping program among such diverse federal agencies as the Department of the Interior and the Social Security Administration, performance is mixed in meeting the President’s sustainability agenda.  Though the administration should be given credit for rating its performance and making that information available to the public, the administration didn’t provide a single display for all the scorecards and their information.  They provide links to each agency’s sustainability website, which of course are all different, and the scorecards on some are hard to find.  The visualization on this site makes it easy to compare agencies’ performance against each other.

Definitions:

“Scope 1, 2, and 3” emissions mean; (i) scope 1: direct greenhouse gas emissions from sources that are owned or controlled by the Federal agency; (ii) scope 2: direct greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the generation of electricity, heat, or steam purchased by a Federal agency; and (iii) scope 3: greenhouse gas emissions from sources not owned or directly controlled by a Federal agency but related to agency activities such as vendor supply chains, delivery services, and employee travel and commuting; Click here for the criteria the federal government used to evaluate success for each category.

Posted in Climate Change, Energy0 Comments

Federal Subsidies for Members of Congress

The Environmental Working Group broke its latest story on the 23 Members of Congress (or their spouses) who are recipients of U.S. agriculture subsidies .  Between 1995 and 2009, six Democrats received an estimated $489,000 in payments and 17 Republicans received $5.3 million.

Combining EWG’s report with the Center for Responsive Politics database tracking the personal fortunes of Members of Congress, you can see that there are more than a dozen members with a net worth of more than a million dollars also receiving agriculture subsidies.  Of note, Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler (R-MO) and her husband likely received more than $460,000 in support and Iowa Congressman Tom Latham received $330,000.  Their average net worth was $8.4 million and $5.3 million, respectively.

You can listen to Congresswoman Harzler talk to ABC News about her farm subsidies here .

Posted in Agriculture0 Comments

Appropriations and Duplicative Ethanol Subsidies

Appropriations and Duplicative Ethanol Subsidies

Photo of Mitch McConnellToday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announced his support for eliminating government programs identified in a recent Government Accountability Office report.

Senator McConnell said,

“I can’t imagine anyone in the Senate voting against a bill that would return to taxpayers money that we’re wasting on the bloated and duplicative programs outlined in this report.  Programs which, as ABC put it, are chewing up billions of dollars in funding every year. It would be an embarrassment and a double indictment of Congress to not act on this.”

One of the programs Senator McConnell is supporting the termination of is the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit (VEETC) which is a 45 cent-per-gallon tax credit given to companies including many of the world’s largest and most profitable oil companies as an enticement to buy and mix ethanol with gasoline.

The GAO concluded that this subsidy was duplicative with an Energy Policy Act (2005) mandate to requires a certain amount of renewable fuel to be included in transportation fuels.

The tax credit will cost taxpayers $5.7 billion in subsidy paid to oil companies in 2011, with that cost growing to $6.75 billion by 2015.

In 2010, Senator McConnell had cosponsored the Reid-McConnell Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization and Job Creation Act of 2010 which extended the tax credit.

GAO concludes that ‘the ethanol tax credit is largely unneeded’ and apparently Senator McConnell now agrees.

So do I.

Posted in Energy0 Comments

Stopping the Privatization of a Federal Island

Stopping the Privatization of a Federal Island

Photo of a piping plover

Credit: Katherine Wittemore/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

New York’s 840 acre Plum Island has been in federal ownership since 1901, but under a law passed during the Bush Administration, the government is considering selling the land to the highest bidder.  Parts of the island currently serve as a Department of Homeland Security animal disease research facility while 90 percent of the island exists as a de facto nature reserve for wildlife including seals, osprey and threatened piping plover sand roseate terns.  The island is part of a National Audubon Society Important Bird Area and we hope to see all or most of the island made into a National Wildlife Refuge.

There are two outcomes that will maintain the wildlife value of the island for the public: keeping the search facility in place, or if is moved, transferring the land to the Department of Interior as opposed to a private buyer.

New York Congressman Tim Bishop has been trying to stop the move which would close the island’s research facility and replace it with a new $900 million facility in Kansas.  It’s not clear that an island in the middle of Long Island Sound is the best place to research animal diseases, but it’s certainly a better place that putting the research in the heart of ‘cow country.’  The National Academy of Sciences estimates that if the new facility is constructed in Kansas, there is a 70 percent chance that foot-and-mouth disease would be accidentally released outside the facility during its 50 years of operation, causing a $9-$50 billion impact on the U.S. beef industry.

If the animal disease research facility is moved, a strong coalition of groups – including Defenders of Wildlife – is working to convince the government to keep the land instead of selling it to a private buyer.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has indicated its interest in making the island into a National Wildlife Refuge.

Sign a petition here if you want to add your name to the growing list of people asking Congress to stop the sale of these precious federal acres of wildlife habitat.

Posted in National Wildlife Refuges, Public Lands0 Comments

Table with examples of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife's recovery priority system

Recovery priorities for endangered species explained

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a complicated job in managing the conservation and recovery of more than 1,300 U.S. species protected under the Endangered Species Act.  In 1983, they established a priority system, to help them make choices on where to invest in developing recovery plans and implementing those plans – and to provide transparency to the public on those choices.

The system has 36 ranks for wildlife and plant species and uses the following nested variables to sort through species:

  • Degree of threat: Species are assigned to either a high, moderate or low degree of threat.  High means that extinction is almost certain in the immediate future because of population decline or habitat destruction.  ‘Moderate’ means extinction is not immediately likely to occur if investments in recovery are temporarily delayed.
  • Recovery potential: Species are assigned one of two categories – high or low recovery potential.  ‘High’ potential for success are species with threats and biology well-understood and recovery actions that are either not intensive or are actions that have been used before and have a high probability of success.
  • Taxonomy:  The most genetically distinct species receive a higher priority.
  • Conflict:  Because of 1982 amendments to the ESA, species which are in conflict with construction, development or other economic activities are meant to be a higher priority for the agency.

The system works like this:

Table with examples of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife's recovery priority system

In practice, there is little evidence that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service uses this system in deciding which recovery plans to implement and which actions to fund.  This 2008 report to Congress provides the latest information on the priority ranks of each species.  In 2005, the Government Accountability Office concluded in a report that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does not have a process to measure the extent to which funding is aligned with this and other priority systems.

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife0 Comments

Exploring EPA’s RePower America Data on Renewable Energy

Exploring EPA’s RePower America Data on Renewable Energy

EPA and the National Renewable Energy Lab have produced a database of more than 15 million acres of public and private lands around the country that are Superfund or other brownfield sites and where renewable energy can be produced – its called the ‘RePowering America’s Land’ Initiative.  They have been providing funding for evaluation, feasibility studies and planning necessary to install renewable energy infrastructure on these sites. For example, in Pennsylvania acid mine discharge sites are being evaluated for hydropower microturbine installation.

EPA has a series of static maps you can use to see where the best solar, wind, geothermal and other renewable energy sites are in their database, however its difficult to understand the types of site and power potential without being able to explore the data yourself.

The visualization linked to below uses EPA’s data ( sites > 10 acres) on solar energy potential for sites, wind potential of landfills, brownfield, Superfund, abandoned mines and other sites and EPA programs. Unfortunately, there are few sites in California and the Southwest of a size to support commercial scale solar power except sites on U.S. military lands. Using the legends at the bottom, you can select and view only large or small sites, excellent wind power sites, the highest solar potential sites, and EPA programs individually.

Click the static image below to open the visualization in a new window. Note that, because of the large data size, the initial load time may take several seconds.

Posted in Uncategorized0 Comments

Pronghorn buck by William Dunmire

Treasuring a Wildlife Landscape in Wyoming

The Wyoming Department of Transportation just announced it is spending the state’s general transportation funding on an important series of highway overpasses and underpasses that will reduce collisions between deer, antelope and cars along a busy highway near Pinedale, Wyoming.  This is one part of what I see as one of the most successful examples of a cross-jurisdictional effort to save a landscape scale wildlife need – a migration corridor.

Although there are about 2 million pronghorn antelope in the United States, some herds are more important than others, in particular the herd of a few hundred (and growing) pronghorn that migrate 150 miles every spring into Grand Teton National Park, across a complicated mix of private, Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service and National Park land.

In 2008, the U.S. Forest Service made history by designating the first National Forest ‘Wildlife Corridor’ to make management of the pronghorn’s migratory corridor a higher priority for Bridger-Teton National Forest.  “This migration is an important part of Wyoming’s history and we want to do all we can to maintain it,” said Kniffy Hamilton, Bridger Teton National Forest Supervisor.

In 2009, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation made a 5-year commitment to help fund the reduction of fence barriers to pronghorn movement on private and BLM lands in the area.

In 2010, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and WalMart, in partnership with The Conservation Fund and Wyoming Department of Game and Fish made the corridor a priority, by funding an easement on Carney Ranch that will keep a key bottleneck in the pronghorn migration route undeveloped and another 19,000 acres of nearby pronghorn habitat was also protected.

Now Wyoming Department of Transportation has let a contract to begin construction of a series of wildlife overpasses and underpasses that will allow the pronghorn to continue their migration without causing accidents and risking human lives on Highway 191.  Once completed, the highway will no longer have the potential to disrupt a many thousand year old migration path of pronghorn and mule deer.

When the Administration rolls out its ‘America’s Great Outdoors’ initiative in January 2011, one measure of its success will be whether we see more collaborative successes like the efforts that have gone into conserving the Path of the Pronghorn.

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife, Northern Rockies0 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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