Section 7 Consultation Locations

New Endangered Species Study and Database

New study on section 7 consultations

We are pleased to announce the release of two products this Monday that will improve the public’s understanding of how federal agencies implement section 7 consultations under the Endangered Species Act.  First is the publication of our article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on the results of all 88,290 consultations the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recorded from 2008 through April 2015.1  This is the most comprehensive study on FWS consultations, with many interesting findings:

  • Only 7.7% of the 88,290 consultations were formal.  The percentage was highest in 2008 (9.5%) and steadily declined to 6.3% in 2014.  The total number of consultations has also declined since 2008.

Types of Consultations Under the ESA Section 7 Process

    • Only two consultations resulted in “jeopardy” findings (0.029% of formal consultations).  One of those consultations also found “destruction or adverse modification” of critical habitat—the only instance of such a finding during our study period.  That consultation was redone in response to a lawsuit, and the revised consultation concluded no jeopardy or destruction/adverse modification.  All jeopardy/destruction/adverse modification findings were accompanied by reasonable and prudent alternatives, so none of the projects was stopped because of section 7.
    • The low percentage of jeopardy findings (0.029%) contrasts with the much higher percentages found in past studies: 8.9% from 1979-1981; 17.5% from 1987-1991; and 7.2% from 2005-2009 for FWS fish-related consultations.  The past studies are cited in our paper.

Jeopardy Findings from Section 7 Consultations

    • Although most consultations occurred in the eastern United States, formal consultations were concentrated in the western states (Florida is an exception).
    • The median duration of consultations was 13 days for informal and 62 days for formal.  Only 1,381 formal consultations exceeded the 135-day limit set in Services regulations, though we suspect many of those consultations were unusually complex and could not have avoided an extension.

map 1

 

    • The most commonly consulted-on species is the Indiana bat (14,979 consultations), but the California red-legged frog is the most common species in formal consultations (722).  The Army Corps of Engineers has the highest number of informal and formal consultations.

Explore the consultation data online

Defenders strongly supports open data and transparency, especially when it comes to the ESA.  That’s why today we’re also releasing a web application for you to explore the FWS consultation data from our study.  The Section 7 Explorer is free to use and requires no registration.

screenshot 1

 

We all know that FWS has only a fraction of the resources it needs to properly implement the ESA.  Open data is one solution to this problem because it allows the public to help analyze how the ESA is implemented and to create tools like the Consultation Explorer.  With the insights that come from open data, the public can identify better ways to implement the ESA.  For example, our study suggests that regulated entities can shorten the duration of many formal consultations by relying more on programmatic consultations when appropriate.  The Services recently finalized their regulation on programmatic consultations.  If implemented properly, the regulation offers an opportunity to streamline consultations without sacrificing conservation outcomes.  Open data can inform this process.

Open data also allows us to rely less on anecdotes, case studies, and unsupported generalizations when forming opinions about the ESA.  It does so by providing the data to analyze how an entire provision of the ESA works, as we’ve done here.  Empowered by this information, we can all guard against the use of unrepresentative, cherry-picked stories about the ESA.

We hope you’ll join us in encouraging federal agencies to prioritize making their ESA data easily accessible to the public, including as part of the Obama Administration’s 2013 Executive Order on Open and Machine Readable Data.  You might also be interested in reading Professor Dave Owen’s insightful blog post on our study and database.

What’s next?

Our study and the Consultation Explorer are just the start of our extended work on using large datasets to improve the effectiveness of the ESA, while minimizing the transaction costs for regulated entities and the public.  We are now evaluating conservation measures in hundreds of formal consultations to determine the impacts of federal projects on species recovery.  The consultation data include latitude-longitude coordinates of over 40,000 consultations (see image below for example), and we are using satellite images to measure the amount of habitat disturbance that has actually occurred.  We will then apply this technique to millions of acres of designated critical habitat to help answer a longstanding question: to what extent has designation helped conserve species?

Section 7 Consultation Locations

Jacob Malcom, Endangered Species Policy and Science Analyst, led the analysis and publication of the section 7 study and created the Consultation Explorer. Ryan Covington, Conservation GIS Analyst, and Jacob created the map of consultation coordinates. Ya-Wei (Jake) Li, Senior Director of Endangered Species Conservation, wrote this update, with help from Jacob and KC Stover, Coordinator for Landscape Conservation and Endangered Species Conservation.

The Endangered Species Conservation Program at Defenders of Wildlife focuses on developing more effective and efficient ways to conserve endangered species, particularly under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Our approach is innovative, pragmatic, and multidisciplinary, with expertise in wildlife law, policy, science, and on-the-ground implementation.

If you would like to subscribe to periodic email updates like this one from the Endangered Species Program, please sign up at this link.  Updates will not exceed one a month.

If you have questions or comments on any aspects of our work, please email us at esa@defenders.org.

1 The article also appears on the PNAS website: www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1516938112

Posted in ESA, Federal Policy, Imperiled Wildlife0 Comments

sage-grouse_1_Tatiana_Gettleman

BLM Backsliding on Best Available Science

sage-grouse_1_Tatiana_GettlemanGreater sage-grouse are in trouble and may be proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act by September next year. This pending deadline has prompted the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to initiate an unprecedented effort to update dozens of resource management plans with new conservation measures for the grouse and potentially preclude the need to list the species. But now this promising planning process could fall short of its goal, simply because the BLM has declined to follow the best available science on sage-grouse and its habitat.

The BLM (with the Forest Service as cooperating agency) initiated the National Greater Sage-Grouse Planning Strategy in 2011. The first step was to convene a National Technical Team (NTT) comprised of 23 federal and state agency biologists and land managers (including 14 BLM officials) to review the extensive scientific record on sage-grouse and develop a report recommending conservation measures for the species. The team issued “A Report on National Greater Sage-Grouse Conservation Measures” six months later. BLM guidance instructed planners to analyze NTT report recommendations in at least one management alternative in draft conservation plans for sage-grouse.

The National Technical Team was unequivocal that the conservation measures in its report were derived from “interpretation of the best available scientific studies” using their “best professional judgment.” Moreover, more than 100 scientists described the NTT report to former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar as a “comprehensive compilation of the scientific knowledge needed for conserving Sage-Grouse” that “offers the best scientifically supportable approach to reduce the need to list Sage-Grouse as a Threatened or Endangered species.”

Unfortunately, the BLM has progressively distanced itself from the NTT report since it was published. While BLM planners did as instructed, analyzing NTT report recommendations in each of the 15 draft plans developed under the planning strategy, they declined to adopt the NTT report as the preferred management alternative in any of them. Rather, proposed conservation measures in the draft plans are based on inferior science-—or no science at all—-and many would be inadequate to conserve and restore sage-grouse populations.

The BLM issued additional guidance last April (link) for how planners could resolve inadequate and inconsistent conservation measures related to certain land use in the draft plans. But this time agency leadership scarcely mentioned the NTT report and some of their recommendations were less protective than the National Technical Team advised. The April guidance also allowed exceptions to scientific recommendations for planning areas in Wyoming. Rather than close priority sage-grouse habitat to new oil and gas development (as the NTT report recommends), planners in Wyoming can adopt less protective measures proffered by the state. As Defenders has previously reported, key components of Wyoming’s “core area” conservation strategy lack scientific support and are unlikely to conserve sage-grouse long-term.

This Wyoming exception may be a prelude to finalization of the federal plans. This month federal and state officials will hold a series of internal meetings to review and compare proposed conservation measures for 14 draft plans (the BLM finalized the first of 15 plans in June). A memorandum organizing these meetings (link) makes no reference to the NTT report and further elevates the role of western states in the federal planning process. Some states have been pressing federal planners to adopt even less protective measures for sage-grouse than what the BLM had proposed in its draft plans.

The BLM now faces a conundrum. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must consider the best available science when determining whether a species warrants listing under the ESA. Because BLM has declined to adopt conservation measures in its own NTT report, their proposed management alternatives are not based on the best available science for conserving and recovering sage-grouse. If the BLM hopes to obviate the need to list the grouse under the ESA, then it must strengthen conservation measures in its draft plans to protect and restore the species. Yet, their national guidance to planners continues to backslide from the best available science represented in the NTT report.

Federal public lands are key to conserving sage-grouse and hundreds of other species that depend on sagebrush habitats. The National Greater Sage-Grouse Planning Strategy is an extraordinary opportunity to proactively plan for sage-grouse conservation and potentially avoid the need to list the species under the Endangered Species Act. Federal planners can still salvage the federal planning process for sage-grouse. The NTT report recommends science-based prescriptions for managing the grouse and its habitat. The BLM should simply follow its own recommendations for conserving sage-grouse to produce final plans that are sufficient to protect and restore the species.

Posted in ESA, Imperiled Wildlife, Public Lands0 Comments

Conservation Implications for Delimiting Species

Historically, wolves roamed across North America, from coast to coast and Alaska to Mexico. But an aggressive campaign of hunting and trapping in the early 1900s left wolves in very few places where they once lived. Conservationists, scientists, and managers working to recover wolves today face a difficult task: combining historical records, the present-day distribution of wolves, and genetic analyses to determine the kinds of wolves that once lived in different parts of the U.S. This problem is particularly evident in places like New England where wolves were once abundant but are not found today. Occasional interbreeding between wolves, coyotes, and even dogs blurs the boundaries between species and only adds to the challenge.

Biologists now recognize several distinct subspecies of gray wolf (Canis lupus), each of which is adapted to life in a different region of North America. For example there is the lobo of the southwest (C. l. baileyi) and the snow wolf (C. l. arctos) of the arctic tundra. The assortment of gray wolf subspecies also includes a northeastern variety – the so-called “eastern wolf” or Canis lupus lycaon – that was once found throughout the forests of eastern Canada and New England. These eastern wolves are smaller than their western and northern cousins, likely enabling them to efficiently hunt small prey. But not everyone agrees with this assessment. Recently the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) argued that the eastern wolf is instead a unique wolf species, dubbed Canis lycaon. The Service contends that eastern wolves are actually more akin to coyotes than to gray wolves, and that gray wolves never lived in the east. But a recent peer review of this science showed that this is not the majority view among biologists.

Are eastern wolves a full species or just a distinct population or subspecies of one of these other canids? Several genetic studies have tried to tackle this question, but the results so far are conflicting. Studies based on DNA that wolf pups inherit from only their mother (and not their father) suggested that eastern wolves may be a distinct species. However, other evidence including an excellent study based on over 48,000 different “markers” (parts of the genome used to tell individuals apart) found that eastern wolves are the result of gray wolf and coyote interbreeding. This hybridization between wolves and coyotes likely began about 600 to 900 years ago and resulted in eastern canids that are about 85% gray wolf and 15% coyote today. Therefore eastern wolves could be a distinct subspecies, a distinct species, or even a group of gray wolf and coyote hybrids. Although the science remains unsettled, most wolf taxonomists and the American Society of Mammalogists disagree with the Service’s position that the eastern wolves and gray wolves are different species.

While the identity of eastern wolves may seem like a mere disagreement among biologists, the issue turns out to have major conservation ramifications. The Service currently plans to strip gray wolves of their endangered species protections throughout most of the country, including in New England. Although no wolves have been found in New England recently, large areas of excellent wolf habitat remain, especially in Maine. But the Service claims that gray wolves (C. lupus) never lived in New England; they say it was eastern wolves (C. lycaon), a new species with no current legal protections. With some taxonomic sleight of hand, the Service cut out the northeast from the historical range of gray wolves, and made it easier for endangered species protections to be removed everywhere. Divide – then conquer.

As you might imagine, the Service’s plan has received considerable criticism. The delisting plan ignores much of the available science and is not the consensus of biologists. As the peer review panel pointed out, even if eastern wolves are a distinct species, gray wolves may have once roamed New England too. Therefore more time is needed – for scientists to sort out the taxonomy of wolves, and for gray wolf populations to recover across their former range – before protections for wolves are removed.

 

Dan Thornhill, Ph.D.

Conservation Scientist

Posted in ESA, Imperiled Wildlife0 Comments

Is Greed Ever Good for Conservation?

The short and unexpected answer is a resounding ‘yes.’ A study reported in Science by Joppa and colleagues determined that not only were two major goals for global plant conservation compatible, but a newly-designed priority-setting scheme for plants would in turn protect regions on the planet where large numbers of endemic birds, amphibians, and mammals also lived. Greed was an essential component to reconciling these several conservation goals.

A fundamental tenet of most conservation planning is to identify regions that contain many species. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) aspires to formally protect at least 17% of the terrestrial world. Through the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation, the CBD also seeks to protect at least 60% of the earth’s plant species. The study by Joppa and his colleagues asked: are these targets of protecting area and species mutually compatible?

To solve this question, biologists at Duke and NC State universities teamed with computer specialists at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, England. Their solution relied upon a ‘greedy algorithm’ that accumulated species found only within a progressively larger set of regions. The greed refers to first picking the regions with the highest species densities (number per unit area), followed by areas that add progressively fewer new species to the aggregated total. In practice this meant that the first 43 regions were all islands, followed by tropical Costa Rica and Panama. A practical advantage of the greedy algorithm as noted by the authors was that this technique created a continuous, smooth curve of increasing areas and species.

This greedy algorithm revealed that 67% of plant species lived entirely inside regions that comprised only 17% of the planet’s terrestrial surface area. Whether the greedy algorithm was optimized for number of endemic species or for all species, it still gave similar results.

Interestingly, the greedy algorithm performed better than another widely-heralded priority-setting scheme – biodiversity hotspots. Indeed, the formal optimization used by Joppa and colleagues protected 59% of endemic species whereas hotspots could only corral 44% on that same amount of land area. The greedy approach also captured 74% of plant species, a number that the hotspot approach could not even estimate at all.

Best of all, plant regions highlighted with the greedy algorithm were good for the planet’s terrestrial vertebrates. Within the same 17% of the earth where two-thirds of all plants live, 89% of bird species, 80% of amphibian species, and 74% of mammal species also occur.

When it comes to setting conservation priorities, perhaps fictional Gordon Gecko was right: “Greed works.”

J. Christopher Haney, Ph.D.

Chief scientist

Defenders of Wildlife

Posted in ESA, Imperiled Wildlife0 Comments

Spawning salmon

Oregon’s O&C Public Lands: Legacy, Legislation and the Future of these Federal Forests

Railroad companies interested in westward expansion in the 1800s got a great deal from the federal government. To spur development of rail lines, Congress regularly granted companies public land that they could then sell or develop as an economic incentive for their investment in building railroad infrastructure. These land grants were often conferred in a checkerboard pattern, with  alternating blocks of land given to the railroad companies and retained by the government, which has resulted in endless management challenges ever since.

Speed forward several decades. In 1916, Congress determined that the Oregon and California, or O&C, railroad project had failed to meet its commitments for rail development from, you guessed it, Oregon to California, and took back, or “revested” the land the government had granted the company. Congress subsequently enacted special legislation in 1937, the O&C Act, reclaiming the lands, which now comprise about 2.1 million acres in western Oregon. These O&C lands were to be managed by the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, or BLM:

…for permanent forest production, and the timber thereon shall be sold, cut, and removed in conformity with the principal of sustained yield for the purpose of providing a permanent source of timber supply, protecting watersheds, regulating stream flow, and contributing to the economic stability of local communities and industries, and providing recreational facilities . . . 

Old-growth forest

Old-growth forest on O&C lands.
Credit: Chandra LaGue, Oregon Wild.

The O&C Act also granted the 18 Oregon counties where O&C lands are located 75 percent of revenues generated from timber sales on the these lands. The counties still collect at least 50 percent of timber revenues today.

Zip forward a few more decades, when technology allowed for massive clearcutting of forests throughout the Northwest, including on O&C lands. Huge volumes of timber came off public forests in the 1970s and 80s, producing huge amounts of revenue to the O&C counties (which also began to take the federal revenue for granted and kept their own property taxes among the lowest in Oregon). But that harvest was unsustainable and in the early 90’s it came to a head, as species like the spotted owl and marbled murrelet, dependent on complex old-growth forests, showed precipitous declines—indicators of the ecological problems created by unsustainable logging of ancient forests.

Old-growth logging and its environmental consequences ultimately became a political issue in the 1992 presidential election. Candidate Bill Clinton promised to do something about it, and soon after he was elected he convened a forest summit in the Northwest and established a science-based process for developing a plan to conserve forest ecosystems while supporting a sustainable timber supply and rural jobs. The “Northwest Forest Plan,” finalized in 1994, adopted a system of conservation reserves, created a “matrix” for managing forests outside reserves, and established management standards to ensure the persistence of the northern spotted owl and other old-growth dependent species, protect watersheds and salmon, and provide a sustainable timber supply.  O&C lands became a core part of the Northwest Forest Plan, and for the past twenty years, those lands have been managed under the standards and guidelines of the plan.

Spawning salmon

Threatened salmon spawn in streams that flow through O&C lands. Credit: Bureau of Land Management.

The Northwest Forest Plan was also paired with additional assistance to rural communities to provide job training and other measures to transition to a new economy less dependent on old-growth forest logging. These federal resources were of considerable benefit to individuals and communities who chose to avail themselves of them.

Zoom forward another two decades, and now we’ve arrived to our situation today. Some O&C counties have failed to diversify their economies, and a number of timber mills have not adapted to the market conditions of 2013. In addition, federal appropriations to counties that were part of the earlier transition package are drying up, leaving some O&C counties with major budget shortfalls. This is why there is intense political interest to “solve” the problems facing rural western Oregon.

Representative Peter DeFazio of Oregon has proposed disastrous legislation that would carve out over a million acres of the O&C lands, de-federalizing them by creating a timber “trust” managed by local counties, timber industry representatives and others for the sole purpose of expediting and increasing timber production. This proposal would essentially privatize lands belonging to all Americans for the narrow and exclusive financial benefit of local counties and the timber industry.

But the real action is with Oregon’s Senator Ron Wyden, chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. In June he released a framework for legislation to address the issues facing O&C counties which:

  • …sets aside a “substantial” but undefined portion of the 2.1 million acres of O&C lands for accelerated and expanded commercial logging at an uninterrupted rate—a rate that can only be ensured by restricting the application of federal environmental laws.
  • …calls for limiting environmental review to “an initial review of all lands set aside” for timber harvest. This so-called “modernization” of federal land management planning would require an override of consultation requirements under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which are the heart of the ESA’s protection for imperiled species.
  • …is silent on the conservation of mature forests—stands aged 80-120 years—which are vital to the survival of salmon, spotted owls, and other imperiled fish and wildlife. While his framework takes no position on stands of this age class, it will be impossible to meet the elevated harvest targets that Senator Wyden is promoting without aggressive harvesting in these forests.
  • …re-links county revenue generation to logging on federal public lands creating a powerful constituency for unsustainable high levels of extraction.

Senator Wyden’s framework envisions significantly increasing timber harvest on hundreds of thousands of acres of federal forests above the allowable levels set by the Northwest Forest Plan. Intensive logging at this scale with only the barest, one-time programmatic environmental review would contribute to the serious decline or loss of many imperiled plant and animal species from Northwest forests. (Consider, for example, that in 1991, BLM sought approval to proceed with 44 timber sales on just 4,500 acres of old-growth forests, even though this logging would have put the continued existence of the northern spotted owl in jeopardy.) Plus, O&C lands are the heart of the Northwest Forest Plan and aggressive harvests will inevitably undermine conservation strategies for imperiled species like the spotted owl, marbled murrelet, and salmon, and necessitate greater mitigating harvest restrictions in California and Washington.

O&C lands are key to the success of the Northwest Forest Plan.

O&C lands are key to the success of the Northwest Forest Plan.

The framework put forth by Senator Wyden would also establish a negative precedent for managing public lands and resources. O&C lands are federal public lands that benefit all Americans, and narrow, special interest legislation that limits environmental review and dedicates large areas to a single extractive use is counter to both existing law and our modern values for administering the public domain. Unlike fun times in Las Vegas, what happens on O&C lands will not stay on O&C lands and will affect federal forest management in California and Washington, and beyond.

Finally, the Wyden framework is not a path to a healthy environment and a vibrant economy. Unsustainable logging is…unsustainable. The timber industry and affected counties must adapt to a reduced timber supply from public lands and O&C counties must finally raise their property tax rates so they are comparable to rates for other Oregon counties. Logging conducted with only cursory environmental review and planning would threaten a host of imperiled species and other values public forests provide, including clean water, wildlife habitat, recreation and sustainable economic opportunities that are the foundation of the new economy in the New West. Congress should provide support to O&C communities to transition to stronger economies, but without linking federal payments to arbitrary and fixed timber production targets.

Senator Wyden is expected to introduce legislation based on his framework later this summer. Defenders of Wildlife and partners have already signaled our concerns about the framework that he has offered in multiple communications to his office. We will continue to engage in the legislative debate on O&C lands to ensure that any future management scheme for O&C lands—public forests that support a breadth of public values—supports and reflects the broader public interest of all Americans.

Posted in ESA, Federal Policy, Legislation, National Forests, NEPA, Public Lands, Uncategorized0 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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