Archive | Agriculture

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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

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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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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 Wildlife2 Comments

New Hope for Aquatic Wildlife

Farmers need fertilizer to raise crops, but those fertilizers often end up in streams and rivers, causing pollution problems that affect wildlife.  However, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) supports simple and profitable fertilizer management practices (soil testing and plant tissue testing) that researchers find reduce nitrogen fertilizer use for corn by a whopping 50 percent, as well as stream buffer practices that intercept nutrients as they leave cropland.  The list of environmental problems that benefit from the above two practices include restoring hundreds of listed and proposed aquatic species in certain eastern rivers, restoring sea grasses in coastal estuaries, reducing greenhouse gases, reducing dead zones,  protecting drinking water, and more.  For wildlife, increased adoption of fertilizer management practices offers a simple remedy which could be targeted to restore aquatic species and estuaries.

A large portion of the threatened and endangered species in the U.S. are aquatic species found primarily in certain, eastern streams and rivers.  Sediment is the most pervasive threat, but agricultural nutrients are identified as another major cause of these aquatic species’ decline, especially for mussels.

Wildlife in nearby estuaries also benefit from reducing agricultural nutrients.  Sea grasses that covered river bottoms throughout the Chesapeake Bay estuary supported tens of thousands of wintering canvasback ducks and other wildlife.  Nutrient pollution, largely from agricultural fertilizers, wiped out all but modest remnants of the Bay’s sea grasses by shading them with algae blooms.  The same nutrient driven, massive destruction of sea grass habitat and loss of sea grass dependent wildlife occurs in the Gulf of Mexico.  Fortunately, in a few coastal rivers where past programs successfully removed the nutrients, substantial sea grass recovery is underway, so we know that effective nutrient remedies can restore the sea grass communities.

Getting a fourth of corn farmers to adopt fertilizer management practices scored a major victory for past Farm Bill conservation programs, for USDA, and for the university scientists that developed the soil tests and plant tissue tests.  Yet, the failure to attract more of the other three fourths of farmers must be regarded as a missed opportunity.  USDA’s Environment Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) is a bit stingy, offering only a fixed portion of costs for the above fertilizer management practices, just as it does for other, much less beneficial, conservation practices.

USDA could set a national goal, say for 50% or 60% adoption, and considerably increase incentive payments for soil testing and plant tissue testing to reach that enrollment goal. These tests work by helping farmers know how much nutrient is already in the soil — leftover from last year’s fertilizer, from livestock manure applications to the field, or from crops, like soybeans, that add nitrogen to the soil.  No one makes farmers pay attention to the soil or tissue test results.  The 50% reduction in fertilizer use happens because farmers know that their crops do not need as much fertilizer, as test results help farmers recognize and take credit for nutrients already in the soil.  Cities and industry spent billions of dollars treating waste to reduce nutrients in water.  With such easy and sensible fertilizer management practices available, agriculture could make a huge contribution to restoring aquatic species in eastern rivers, as well as restoring sea grass dependent wildlife in eastern estuaries.

Posted in Agriculture, Imperiled Wildlife, Paying for Conservation0 Comments

Grassland Conversions Threaten Lesser Prairie Chicken

Grassland Conversions Threaten Lesser Prairie Chicken

LPC Habitat conversion map

Lesser prairie chicken habitat on converted acres. Copyright Environmental Working Group.

The lesser prairie chicken, one of our nation’s iconic grassland birds known for its unique breeding behavior, is also one of our most at-risk species. A new report released by Defenders of Wildlife and Environmental Working Group shows that increased crop insurance subsidies are threatening to convert even more of the grasslands that these birds need to survive.

To read more about lesser prairie chickens and farm subsidies, see our fact sheet.

Lesser prairie chickens rely on a diversity of grassland habitats, including short- and mid-height grasses and forbs together with shrubs to provide cover. Loss of this diverse habitat is one of the biggest threats to the lesser prairie chicken’s continued survival.  As a result, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service decided in 1998 that the species warranted protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.  Unless the situation improves for the prairie chicken, it may become federally protected by next fall as part of the Service’s six-year plan to issue final listing decisions for over 250 candidate species.

Based on our report, “Plowed Under: How Crop Subsidies Contribute to Massive Habitat Losses,” more than 1.5 million acres of habitat have been converted to cropland in counties where the lesser prairie chicken is found between 2008 and 2011. This is despite investments by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). In FY11, NRCS spent $11 million on improving land management and increasing and enhancing lesser prairie chicken habitat on 458,000 acres. However successful these activities are, even these investments won’t be enough to stem the loss of lesser prairie chicken habitat given the current rate of conversion.

Although the fate of the 2012 Farm Bill is currently up in the air, one thing is certain: increasing crop insurance subsidies without requiring basic environmental protections creates incentives for farmers to plow up more grassland and wetlands. The Senate passed a bi-partisan amendment to its Farm Bill that attaches basic environmental requirements to crop insurance subsidies. To protect the lesser prairie chicken and our nation’s other iconic wildlife, conservation compliance must be included in any Farm Bill Congress passes in 2012.

Posted in Agriculture, Imperiled Wildlife0 Comments

Crop Insurance and Wildlife: Swift Fox at Risk

Crop Insurance and Wildlife: Swift Fox at Risk

 

Map showing acres converted to cropland

Swift fox habitat on converted acres. Copyright Environmental Working Group.

Crop insurance subsidies are taking center stage during the 2012 Farm Bill debate, as drought hits farmers across the country and economists talk about $10-$15 billion in taxpayer insurance costs with some insurance recipients receiving more than $1 million in support. Direct payments are eliminated in both the Senate’s 2012 Farm Bill and the House Committee on Agriculture’s bill and both versions of the bill expand crop insurance subsidies – a change that encourages farmers to plow up habitat that is valuable for species such as the swift fox.

To read more about swift fox and crop insurance, read our fact sheet.

Once abundant, swift fox now only inhabit about 60% of their former range. They rely on shortgrass and mixed-grass prairies of the Great Plains for prey and shelter. A majority of this habitat overlaps with and has been greatly impacted by cropland and other habitat conversions. Subsidies are a driving force behind this habitat loss – a report by Defenders of Wildlife and Environmental Working Group shows that crop insurance subsidies contributed to the loss of more than 900,000 acres of grassland, shrubland and wetland in parts of Colorado where the swift fox is found between 2008 and 2011.

In the past, farmers plowing up native grassland or draining wetlands would be denied certain subsidy payments, including direct payments, crop insurance, disaster payments and some farm loans. These programs, “sodsaver” and “swampbuster” respectively, became important tools in the fight to stem the loss of grasslands and wetlands and are part of “conservation compliance” requirements. The idea behind conservation compliance is that farmers receiving taxpayer support must take measures to protect environmental resources that provide valuable public benefits.

The 1996 Farm Bill removed crop insurance from the list of farm payment programs that are subject to compliance provisions. Conservation compliance has been proven to protect clean water, prevent soil erosion and preserve wildlife on millions of acres of America’s farmland. As a result of a bipartisan floor amendment, the Senate version of the 2012 Farm Bill reestablishes the link between conservation compliance provisions and crop insurance subsidies. Unfortunately the House Agriculture Committee bill fails to do so, compounding the threats that species like the swift fox and sage grouse are already facing from habitat loss.

Posted in Agriculture, Imperiled Wildlife2 Comments

10 Steps Backwards for Wildlife in the House Ag Committee Farm Bill

10 Steps Backwards for Wildlife in the House Ag Committee Farm Bill

In the early hours of the morning on Thursday, July 12th the House Committee on Agriculture passed a Farm Bill that cuts conservation while expanding insurance and price support programs that will encourage habitat destruction on lands and wetlands poorly suited to produce food for America. Here are the ten most problematic provisions in the House Committee bill.

  1. Funding Cuts for Conservation: Conservation funding has been cut by more than $6 billion, with the steepest cuts to the Conservation Reserve Program, likely resulting in at least 5 million acres of grassland, stream buffers and wetland habitat coming out of the program and going under the plow.
  2. Dedicated Funding for Wildlife Eliminated: The Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program, a popular and effective program, is eliminated in both the Senate and House bills but the Senate creates opportunity for wildlife funding through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) with a minimum 5 percent of program funding going to wildlife.  The House makes this set aside for wildlife a 5 percent maximum, meaning that many farmers with wildlife projects will likely be turned away.
  3. More Expensive Crop Insurance Subsidies: Annual taxpayer subsidies to crop insurance companies and farmers’ insurance premiums have already gone up by more than $6 billion over the last decade.  The Agriculture Committee proposes another $9 billion increase which is structured in ways that make the taxpayer bear the risk while encouraging farmers to plow fragile lands that are poorly suited to food production.
  4. Conservation Compact between Farmers and Taxpayers Destroyed:Conservation compliance’ has been a deal between farmers and taxpayers for more than 25 years.  In exchange for public support, farmers agree to modest protections for soil, water and wildlife on approximately 500 million acres of farmland.  The House Agriculture Committee chose to ignore the Senate’s extension of this compact that recent polls show has the support of the majority of farmers themselves.
  5. Modest Habitat Protections Voted Down: A limited version of conservation compliance called ‘sodsaver’ was also rejected by the Agriculture Committee despite strong support from hunters and fishermen, environmentalists, the ethanol industry and National Farmers Union.  This provision would have made farmers who plow up wetlands or the less than 1 percent of virgin prairie remaining in America ineligible for crop insurance for just five years.  Even this moderate penalty failed to pass the Committee, despite evidence that compliance provisions have been successful  and provide a net economic benefit.
  6. Reduced Support for Organic Farming: The Committee tilts an already tilted playing field further toward industrial agriculture.  It eliminates dedicated support to help farmers use less pesticide and go organic by repealing the National Organic Certification Cost Share program, reduces funding for organic research and maintains barriers that impede organic farmers’ efforts to insure their crops.
  7. Renewable Energy and Energy Conservation Zeroed Out: No support is provided for renewable energy, eliminating what were highly successful programs to help capture methane emissions from dairies and feedlots, energy audits, and other programs that have helped thousands of farms reduce energy bills and fossil fuel use and switch to renewable energy sources.
  8. No Oversight of Pesticide Application into Waterways: Section 10017 of the House farm bill axes all Clean Water Act protections for pesticides that are sprayed directly into waterways.  This would result in the direct application of pesticides into streams and rivers without any oversight, as the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) – the law under which pesticides are registered – does not require tracking of such pesticide applications.
  9. Blocks Protection of Endangered Species from Pesticides: Section 10016 of the House farm bill puts the interests of pesticide manufacturers ahead of the health of our wildlife and communities.  This section prescribes non-science based roadblocks and delays for measures recommended by federal wildlife experts to protect endangered species from pesticides.  This spells disaster for species already on the brink of extinction because of pesticides and other threats.
  10. Increased Logging in our National Forests: Section 8301 would give the Forest Service broad discretion to designate sweeping areas of our National Forests for expanded logging, roadbuilding and other development by exploiting the danger of wildfires and harmful pests.  Projects in these “critical areas” would be permitted to move forward with almost no environmental review or public involvement, and projects as large as 1,000 acres would not be required to have any environmental review at all. This provision would undercut public involvement and important environmental analysis that protects water and wildlife on our public lands.

Posted in Agriculture0 Comments

Shifting Farm Safety Net Threatens Conservation Investments

Shifting Farm Safety Net Threatens Conservation Investments

The Farm Bill has an entire title dedicated to conservation, and USDA, which implements the Farm Bill, dedicates tens of millions of dollars to helping restore and recover species like the sage grouse and red-cockaded woodpecker. But with the 2012 Farm Bill shifting farm subsidy support from direct payments to crop insurance, the farm safety net could work at cross purposes to conservation investments by encouraging farmers to plant on environmentally sensitive land.

To read more about conservation compliance and crop insurance subsidies, see our fact sheet.

Between 1982 and 2003, the U.S. lost 25 million acres of grassland, most of which was converted to cropland. Subsidies to farmers are an important factor driving this land use change because subsidies reduce the financial risks farmers face and government payments can make farming marginal land profitable. A recent USDA report found that certain farm subsidies (crop insurance, marketing loans and disaster assistance payments) increased the conversion of habitat by 2.3 million acres in just a portion of the Northern Plains and with crop prices at record highs, between 1.5 million and 3.3 million acres of wetlands are at risk of conversion. It’s not only that insurance subsidy payments contribute to grassland and wetland conversion but that they contribute to this conversion on some of the most vulnerable land.

We have the tool to decrease these habitat losses – conservation compliance. The idea behind conservation compliance is simple: farmers receiving taxpayer support must take measures to protect environmental resources that provide valuable public benefits. That means not planting on native grassland or draining wetlands if they receive farm subsidies.

Conservation compliance has been part of direct payments since 1985 but was de-linked from crop insurance subsidies in 1996. As farm subsidies shift from direct payments to crop insurance in the 2012 Farm Bill, it is time to re-link full conservation compliance measures to crop insurance. With a bipartisan floor amendment, the Senate version of the 2012 Farm Bill does just that and now the House needs to follow suit.

Posted in Agriculture0 Comments

House Farm Bill: Continued Subsidies at the Cost of Wildlife

House Farm Bill: Continued Subsidies at the Cost of Wildlife

America’s wildlife benefit from what has been more than $5 billion in annual conservation support through the Farm Bill, but these investments in our natural heritage are threatened by crop insurance subsidies from the same bill that encourage farmers to plow grassland, wetland and forest. While the Senate’s version of the 2012 Farm Bill contains an amendment that requires farmers receiving crop insurance subsidies to take basic conservation measures to protect soil, water and wildlife (provisions known as “conservation compliance”), the draft House Farm Bill does not include conservation compliance. Failure to link conservation compliance to crop insurance subsidies could have major impacts on species like sage grouse.Map of sage grouse range and agricultural expansion

Sage grouse are dependent on sage brush habitat for nesting and food sources and much of this sage brush habitat overlaps with farmland in the western U.S. –  31 percent of sage grouse range is privately owned.

New analysis from the Environmental Working Group shows that increased crop production is leading to grassland (and wetland) loss in parts of the sage grouse range. More than half a million acres of habitat has been plowed under in just three years.

Conservation compliance has been proven to protect clean water, prevent soil erosion and preserve wildlife on millions of acres of America’s farmland. In order to protect vital habitat for sage grouse and other species that depend on grasslands and wetlands, the House should take similar action to the Senate and add conservation compliance requirements back into crop insurance subsidies as the bill moves through the chamber later this week.

Posted in Agriculture, Imperiled Wildlife0 Comments

Vanishing Prairies and Vanishing Protections

Vanishing Prairies and Vanishing Protections

The “Protect our Prairies Act,” offered by Representatives Noem and Walz aims to protect our rapidly disappearing prairies. This protection is urgently needed because grassland loss rates of 10% to 15% recorded in key areas of the prairie pothole region from 2008 to 2011 imply a loss of 50% to 75% of this critical resource within 15 years. Unfortunately, proposed protections offer only a small fraction of protections provided in past farm legislation even though today’s need is vastly greater.

The amendment works by denying crop insurance and other subsidies for five years to farmers that plow up grasslands. Unfortunately, Economic Research Service (ERS) economists’ most recent estimate suggests that denying crop insurance and other program subsidies for five years could reduce grassland conversions in the Northern Plains only as much as 9% compared to conversions that would otherwise occur. Since the Protect our Prairies Act only reduces these crop insurance subsidies by half, and only for four years, reductions in the rate of prairie loss are likely to be less than 4%. This is a step in the right direction, but only a baby step.

A more aggressive approach would deny federal subsidies on sodbusted land permanently, as was the case in farm legislation prior to 2008. Doing so offers double the economic sanction compared to the version of sodsaver analyzed by ERS, and four times the sanction in “Protect our Prairies.” We advance from achieving “the less than 9% reduction” in grassland conversion for the ERS option, to achieving less than 18% reduction in the grassland loss.

According to ERS, high crop prices have become the major driver regarding loss of prairie, even though government subsidies to farmers in the region have greatly increased. Government payments fell to 20% of net farm income, while an earlier study found these payments were 53.7% of net farm income in the South Dakota of 1996-2001. Prices of major crops in the region have tripled.

Posted in Agriculture, Paying for Conservation0 Comments

Self-reported cattle deaths reveal minor losses to predators

Self-reported cattle deaths reveal minor losses to predators

How many cattle are there in the United States? How many die each year from respiratory illnesses or bad weather? And why should you care?

The answers to the first two questions can be found in a new report from USDA released at the end of December, Cattle and Calves Nonpredator Death Loss in the United States, 2010. Produced by USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), this report offers a rundown of cattle and calf losses in 2010, organized by cause of death, size group, and region.

Out of the 1.7 million cattle deaths in 2010, non-predator causes accounted for an overwhelming 97.7%. Out of these 1.7 million losses, respiratory problems were the biggest culprit, having caused more than a quarter of non-predator deaths, followed by “other” and unknown causes, weather and calving problems. Numbers are similar for calves, with 92% of the 2.3 million calf deaths accounted for by non-predator causes. Respiratory problems again ranked high (29% of all losses), followed by digestive problems (17%).

If 1.7 million sounds like a lot to you, you may be surprised to learn that this number is actually only 2.3 percent of the entire U.S. cattle stock. A January 1st inventory this past year counted 92.6 million cattle and calves. That’s one cow for every three Americans!

The answer to the last question – why you should care – is that the future of wolves relies in part on our ability to address conflicts with livestock. Accurately assessing livestock losses helps us to better understand the scope of the problem. It also shows us opportunities to develop solutions that promote coexistence between wolves and livestock.

Understanding interactions between livestock and predators like the gray wolf is crucial to finding ways to coexist.

The numbers in this report highlight how small a fraction of nationwide cattle losses are from predators. The magnitude of livestock losses to wolves and other predators is often blown out of proportion, and predators are often quick to be blamed for livestock deaths. As this report shows, respiratory, digestive, weather and calving problems take a far greater toll on the cattle industry each year than do hungry wolves, grizzly bears, and other predators.

According to a related report based on self-reporting by cattle producers that NASS released last May, Cattle Death Loss, 4% of all cattle and calf losses were caused by predators. Of these, 53% were reportedly caused by coyotes. Unknown predators were blamed for 12% of losses, followed by dogs (10%) and mountain lions, bobcats, and other big cats (9%). Only 4% and 1% of predator-caused losses were from wolves and bears, respectively.

These low numbers are particularly significant because these statistics are self-reported, derived from surveying a random sample of U.S. cattle producers (excluding Alaska). Self-reported statistics are less reliable than verified reports confirmed by trained wildlife managers. The cause of death can be tricky to identify, particularly if time passes between the animal’s death and when it is discovered. For example, it can be hard to tell the difference between a cow that predators have actually killed and one that predators have simply scavenged after it died of other causes. In addition, the sample does not include surveys from all livestock operators, and surveys that were included are subject to omissions, duplications, and mistakes in data collection and reporting.

As an example of potential discrepancies between self-reported and verified numbers, NASS’s Cattle Death Loss reports that 4,437 head of cattle were lost to wolves across Wyoming, Montana and Idaho in 2010. This is 23 times higher than the same number reported by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (188 losses), data that is confirmed by trained field agents based on evidence collected from the depredation site in addition to the rancher’s report. Although verified reports cannot capture all livestock losses, it does not make sense that the actual number reported by cattle producers is 23 times greater than the losses verified by wildlife biologists, particularly for a heavily monitored species like the wolf that mostly rely on native wildlife for their food. Despite the overestimates, these reports still illustrate just how small the impact of predator-caused losses is on the cattle industry as compared to other causes.

Although predators cause a small fraction of total cattle losses each year, Defenders recognizes that these losses can more concentrated in regions and communities with more large predators, and can have meaningful impacts on individual ranchers. We are working on the ground to help livestock producers and predators coexist, using proactive, nonlethal approaches to managing conflicts with predators. These tools include using fladry (rope strung with colorful flags that can be electrified), range riders, livestock guard dogs, fencing, and alternative grazing strategies. When verified predator-caused losses have happened, livestock depredation compensation programs have helped offset the financial burden of depredations and foster tolerance for these important predators. Learn more about our coexistence work.

 

Download USDA’s Cattle and Calves Nonpredator Death Loss in the United States, 2010 here, and Cattle Death Loss here. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service data on cattle losses in the Northern Rockies can be seen here.

Posted in Agriculture, Imperiled Wildlife2 Comments