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After Sandy: Re-building Smarter, Re-building Greener

After Sandy: Re-building Smarter, Re-building Greener

Last summer, Defenders released a report, “Harnessing Nature: The Ecosystem Approach to Climate Change Preparedness,” to demonstrate the potential for ecosystem-based approaches – restored wetlands, protected habitats, and resilient forests – to help protect communities and infrastructure in the face of increasingly severe floods, droughts and heat waves that we expect a changing climate to bring. Little did we know that the nation would soon be faced with one of the costliest weather disasters in our nation’s history, a massive and deadly superstorm that demonstrated unequivocally that climate change is here, and it is happening now.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, President Obama recognized the need for massive public investment in order to help rebuild one of the nation’s most populous regions, as well as the need to coordinate these investments in order to expedite recovery, avoid duplication of effort, and rebuild with an eye to withstanding challenges that climate change is sure to bring down the road. Thus, the Administration convened the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, which today released a Strategy “to serve as a model for communities across the nation facing greater risks from extreme weather and to continue helping the Sandy-affected region rebuild.” Defenders is pleased to see that among the report’s recommendations are several that highlight the invaluable role played by our natural capital during Sandy itself, and point to a more widespread use of this “green infrastructure” to enhance resilience to future climate challenges.

In building its case, the Strategy highlights the role that a restored oyster reef in Pamlico Sound played in reducing flooding at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. It could have just as easily discussed how communities in New York and New Jersey with intact dune systems fared far better than those that did not, or how restoration of wetlands and living shorelines to absorb storm waters and reduce wave action is an integral part of New York City’s resilience plan.

The Task Force lays out its “Green Infrastructure” strategies in Recommendations 19- 22:

Consider green infrastructure options in all Sandy infrastructure investments. Toward this end, the Task Force has developed Guidelines for incorporation of ecosystem services into projects:

“(1) provision of habitat (coastal, inter-coastal, inland)

(2) landscape conservation for the tourism, recreation, and aesthetic values on which economies depend

(3) watershed protection for clean drinking water and improved flood management

(4) threatened and endangered species conservation and restoration

(5) other associated ecosystem services from which people derive benefits (e.g., aquaculture and recreational and commercial fishing).”

Improve the understanding and decision-making tools for green infrastructure through projects funded by the Sandy Supplemental. Agencies are developing monitoring, mapping, remote sensing, valuation tools, and design protocols to better understand and apply the full range of benefits that natural solutions can provide.

Create opportunities for innovations in green infrastructure technology and design using Sandy funding, particularly in vulnerable communities. The Sandy supplemental was unprecedented in its support for natural resilience solutions, with funding available for protective measures like restoration of sand dunes and wetlands, water-absorbing measures like green roofs and permeable pavement, as well as ecosystem restoration at parks, refuges and Tribal lands in the region.

Develop a consistent approach to valuing the benefits of green approaches to infrastructure development and develop tools, data, and best practices to advance the broad integration of green infrastructure. The agencies are in the process of developing tools for encouraging the broader adoption of green infrastructure.

As we showed in “Harnessing Nature,” Natural solutions have proven value in helping to protect people and communities from some of the challenges that climate change will bring, like storms and floods, droughts and wildfires, and deadly heat waves. With the release of the Hurricane Sandy Task Force recommendations, hopefully the region – and the nation – will embark on a path to their broader adoption.

Brown Pelican, USFWS

Posted in Climate Change, Federal Policy, Florida, Imperiled Wildlife0 Comments


Twain’s Ghost Trout: An Extinct Giant Returns


More than 150 years ago, Samuel L. Clemens raved over the flavor of bacon-fried trout he savored while camping along the transparent shorelines of Lake Tahoe, Nevada. He had arrived with the intention of staking a timber claim but instead returned less than two years later as reporter and columnist for Virginia City’s Territorial Enterprise. After becoming better known as author Mark Twain, those trout would later inspire lines he penned for his classic Tom Sawyer.

Twain’s culinary delight focused on the teaming Lahontan Cutthroat (Oncorhynchus clarki henshawi). In addition to Lake Tahoe, Lahontan cutthroat were native to Pyramid, Walker, and Summit lakes. Lahontan cutthroat were a staple for the Northern Paiute, Western Shoshone, and Washoe tribes. Once dried, the trout could be stored and eaten over cold winter months. Later these trout would feed hungry trappers, explorers, miners, and settlers in northern Nevada. During spawning runs up the Truckee River, commercial fishing could net 100,000 to 200,000 pounds of trout each year, shipped in rail cars as far away as Salt Lake City, San Francisco, and even Chicago.

In 1844 explorer Captain John C. Fremont referred to them as “salmon trout,” and for very good reason. Lahontan cutthroat were huge. The official record was 41 pounds, caught in 1925 by Paiute Johnny Skimmerhorn, but early settlers mentioned fish weighing in at more than 60 pounds. But tragedy struck: competing non-native trout were introduced, headwaters were overgrazed and dammed, lake waters became increasingly diverted and contaminated. Most varieties of Lahontan cutthroat trout were listed as endangered in 1970. The giant form of Lahontan cutthroat from Pyramid Lake, however, faded into extinction by the 1940s.

Or so everyone thought. In the early 1900s, an enterprising Utah man used buckets to salvage a few Lahontan cutthroat from Pyramid Lake and transport them all the way to a small, rugged stream along the Nevada-Utah border near Pilot Peak. There they remained hidden until the 1970s when biologist Bob Behnke re-discovered what he thought might be the missing strain of giant Lahontan cutthroat. Geneticists later confirmed their identity. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service harvested eggs for hatchery rearing, incredibly just a few years before a catastrophic forest fire wiped out the entire creek and all remaining wild trout.

Today, and with man’s assistance, the Lahontan cutthroats have repopulated some of their ancestral home. Pyramid Lake now boasts a rockin’ sport fishery for Lahontan cutthroat that benefits the Paiute tribe. Hearty anglers pioneered fishing from ladders far out in the lake. By 2012, these ghost trout had reached 20-25 pounds, and both anglers and fishery biologists expect a 30 pound fish to be caught within just a few years. After twice dodging extinction, the Lahontan cutthroat is well on its way to recovery.

J. Christopher Haney, Ph.D.

Chief scientist

Defenders of Wildlife

Posted in California, Imperiled Wildlife0 Comments


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dunes sagebrush lizard

Posted in Fossil Fuels, Imperiled Wildlife, Southwest0 Comments

Ambitious New Flood Plan Will Boost California’s Salmon While Protecting Lives, Property and Agriculture

by Dave Stalling and Kelly Catlett

As directed by the 2007 state legislature, the California Central Valley Flood Protection Board has recently adopted an ambitious, comprehensive Central Valley Flood Protection Plan to promote integrated flood management. Working closely with California Trout and other partners, Trout Unlimited California (TUCA) and Defenders of Wildlife urged the Flood Board to adopt a plan that protects lives and property, conserves farmlands, and improves fish and wildlife habitat that will benefit anglers, hunters and others.

TUCA and Defenders feel it is critically important that the plan incorporate floodplains, flood bypasses and levee setbacks to give rivers room to expand during high waters. This will not only reduce the risk of catastrophic floods and protect people, but will also increase reliability and quality of water supply by protecting the Delta and recharging groundwater, ensure the certainty of local government decisions regarding matters such as where people can and cannot build, and protect and enhance fish and wildlife habitat and related fishing, hunting and other recreational activities.

With an extensive system of levees and dams, the Central Valley’s two major rivers – the Sacramento and San Joaquin – have long been disconnected from their traditional floodplains. Since these river management systems were first designed more than 100 years ago, research has shown that disconnecting rivers from floodplains increases risks to public safety and causes significant environmental damage, including damage to native fish, wildlife, and plant populations.

California has some of the most highly managed watersheds in the world. The network of levees and dams that regulates floods, generates hydropower, and provides water for urban and agricultural users has essentially disconnected this area from the rivers that run through it. As a result, the Sacramento River Basin is second only to New Orleans in its risk of a catastrophic flood – threatening lives, property, farms, water supplies and native fisheries.  Giving rivers access to their natural floodplains and allowing for flood bypasses and levee setbacks will relieve pressure during high water flows and lower the chances of massive property destruction and injury to people. If done right, it also replenishes nutrients in agricultural soils while providing ideal rearing conditions for salmon and habitat for migratory birds and other riparian species.

Research out of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences indicates that when juvenile salmon are given access to floodplains they grow significantly larger, increasing their chances of survival. Rivers that have access to floodplains also help restore native plants, which in turn support native wildlife of all types and benefit native species in the fight against invasive species.

Some of the biggest benefits from reconnecting rivers with floodplains accrue to migratory birds. Birds use floodplains for breeding, nesting, and rearing young. Floodplains provide a source of drinking water and habitat for feeding, resting, shelter, and social interactions. Flooded areas are also an important barrier to land-based predators and reduce the risk of predation to nesting or young birds. Additionally, floodplains provide corridors that allow wildlife to move from one habitat to another, especially in urban areas where development has fragmented alternative travel routes for wildlife.

The Sacramento River at one time expanded to as wide as five miles before dams and levees hemmed it in. Its floodplains sheltered young salmon from the quick river flows and attracted ideal food to help young fish grow quickly. Juvenile salmon that spend time on the floodplain grow faster than those that use only the river channel during their migration to the ocean, according to Carson Jeffres, fish ecologist for the Center for Watershed Sciences. This increase in productivity on the floodplain is because the water is warmer and food is more abundant.  Because of the increased growth, the juvenile salmon are larger when they head out to sea and can survive better by swimming faster and avoiding predators. The same warmer water that benefits salmon is also a boon to wildlife. Warm water helps insects and invertebrates grow faster and these are an important food source for waterfowl, as well.

And what’s good for fish and wildlife is good for people. Strong fish and wildlife populations are a harbinger of a healthy ecosystem – a healthy ecosystem that will protect lives, protect farms, protect fish and wildlife and benefit those of us who love to fish, hunt and otherwise enjoy healthy rivers and healthy habitat.

For more information about the flood plan and flood protection board, check out the following site:

Posted in California2 Comments

Mining threatens important habitat on the Coronado National Forest

Mining threatens important habitat on the Coronado National Forest

Ocelot (photo: USFWS)

(Written with help from Matt Clark and Heather Murray.)

Defenders of Wildlife, along with a diverse set of partner groups, submitted comments this week on the Rosemont Mine proposal on the Coronado National Forest in Arizona.  The proposed open pit mine, just southeast of Tucson, would have a direct impact on 4,500 acres of the Santa Rita Mountain range, as well as impacts that would radiate far beyond the project’s footprint.

The Coronado NF provides vital recovery habitat for rare cats including the elusive jaguar and ocelot.  Last year a jaguar was spotted in the region for the first time in three years. In fact, this male jaguar was sighted roaming in a mountain range directly adjacent to the Santa Ritas, where Rosemont wants to dig its mine.  This come back story for jaguars can only carry on if intact, connected, suitable jaguar habitat is prioritized and protected in the region.  Projects of this size and scale on what is currently undisturbed suitable jaguar habitat give us great pause.

As the project proposal has been developed, some important species surveys needed to determine what wildlife would be impacted have not been completed.  Information related to biological resources has not been made available to the public, and impact analysis of key biological and hydrologic resources in the Rosemont area are lacking.  Similarly, analyses of the project’s potential contribution to climate change are completely inadequate.

As the comment letter states:  “The biological and ecological resources of the Rosemont area are unique and of both national and international significance. Hundreds of rare and regionally endemic species occur in the project area.  Neither the Proposed Action nor the Preferred Alternative . . . identify mitigation that is adequate to protect the Rosemont area’s biological resources.”

Groups highlighted a host of other concerns in the letter, from water quality impacts and water volume use to increased traffic and air pollution.  One key request from all groups is for the Forest Service to do its due diligence and provide a supplemental environmental review that fully analyzes the potential threats and impacts.  We will continue to push for additional information to be gathered and reviewed.

Similar issues have come up in other mining projects on the Coronado NF – major environmental impacts with insufficient review.  In fact, Defenders recently challenged an exploratory mining project in the region that was approved without NEPA review.

Last month, Defenders filed suit against the Forest Service in response to its approval of the Hardshell Minerals Exploration Project – located in the Patagonia Mountains approximately five miles south of the town of Patagonia, AZ – which would allow for the drilling of fifteen exploratory holes in an area known for its pristine natural landscapes and rich biological diversity.  The project as approved would involve around-the-clock drilling seven days a week, increase traffic to and from the area, and create significant noise and light impacts, among others.  Perhaps most alarming is that this mining company started a wildfire that burned almost 400 acres of the Coronado NF while conducting similar activities on their private in-holding adjacent to the proposed project area last May.

Despite the potential effects of this project on threatened and endangered species in the area – including the jaguar, ocelot, Mexican spotted owl, and lesser long-nosed bat – the Forest Service approved this project without NEPA environmental review.  Likewise, the Forest Service failed to consider the fact that two other similar exploration projects are currently proposed within just a few miles of the Hardshell project, greatly expanding the overall footprint of exploratory drilling in this area.  Defenders is concerned about the significant and cumulative environmental impacts of exploratory drilling at multiple sites in this Sky Island mountain range and the broader region.

It might not come as a surprise to learn that Rosemont Copper and Wildcat Silver, the two companies pushing for these mines to be permitted, are not only both Canadian-owned companies, but they also share some of the same board members. We are making sure that these companies follow the letter of the law to avoid undue harm to our precious wildlife, water and natural heritage.

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife, In the Field, National Forests, Public Lands, Southwest0 Comments

Dinkey Landscape Restoration Project Area

Defenders Focal Forests: the national forests of the Sierra Nevada

The Dinkey Landscape Restoration Project Area on the Sierra NF (Photo: Pamela Flick)

California’s Sierra Nevada region is rich in biodiversity and hosts an incredible array of plants and animals, with 572 vertebrate species that spend at least some point of their life cycle in this iconic mountain range, including critically imperiled species like Pacific fisher and California spotted owl.  In particular, the ten national forests of the Sierra provide rich habitat worth protecting and restoring for current and future generations.  From the Sequoia National Forest southeast of Fresno to the Lassen National Forest near Redding, nearly half of the land base in the Sierra Nevada is managed by the U.S. Forest Service as part of the National Forest System.

Defenders of Wildlife is engaged in a number of important processes happening now that will impact wildlife in the Sierra Nevada well into the future.

Over the next few years, most of the Sierra forests will undergo management plan revisions.  This means that new plans will be written, with public input and environmental review, to guide the management of the forests for the next few decades.  The development of ecologically sound plans will be of utmost importance, since the plans will impact all aspects of forest management for decades to come, including how key habitats will be managed to benefit the wide variety of wildlife found on national forest lands in the Sierra.

In addition, on the ground projects are enhancing wildlife habitat.  On the Sierra National Forest just south of Yosemite National Park, a pilot project is demonstrating how the restoration of forest ecosystems can improve habitat while creating jobs and protecting local communities.  The Dinkey Landscape Restoration Project was selected for funding under a new law, which established the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLRP).  Ten CFLRP projects around the country were selected, including the Dinkey Collaborative on the Sierra National Forest, to bring together local stakeholders to get restoration work done.  Over the course of ten years, thousands of acres of restoration treatments will be undertaken by the Forest Service with guidance from the Dinkey Collaborative, based on agreement and understanding among participants, leading to fewer conflicts and an increase in the amount of ecosystem restoration that can be accomplished.

Members of Congress are touting the success of the CFLRP model and are asking that the program continue to be fully funded, highlighting that the first ten CFLRP projects collectively created or sustained more than 1,500 jobs and reduced wildfire risk on 154,000 acres in just one year.

In a series of “Focal Forest” blogs, we will be highlighting the work we’re doing in the Sierra Nevada and the importance of protecting this special region for wildlife and for future generations.

Posted in California, In the Field, National Forests, Public Lands0 Comments

jim estes

Large Predators Are Critical to the Stability of Our Natural Areas

This is a guest post from Dr. James A. Estes, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

In a world containing some 10 million or more species, the current tide of extinction cannot be stemmed one species at a time. More general strategies are needed. Nearly everyone understands this fundamental truth. But what are these strategies? Although the devil is in the details, the answer in the minds of most conservation thinkers and planners hinges on a single key factor—habitat. All species require habitat to survive and reproduce. Preserve enough habitat in the right places and species preservation will follow. The problem is that this strategy isn’t working very well. We continue to loose species, even from the largest conservation areas. So what’s the problem? It might be that the strategy is fine but we have yet to get the details right—enough habitat with sufficient protection in the right places. Or it might be that something more is needed.

Our argument is this. Large apex consumers–creatures like lions, wolves, bears and killer whales–are key elements of nature. Virtually all habitats have had them for millions of years. That is, until recently.

On 13 July, 2011, I coauthored a review in the journal Science with 23 other ecologists from around the world in which we argue that something more is indeed needed. That something is the apex consumers. Our argument is this. Large apex consumers–creatures like lions, wolves, bears and killer whales–are key elements of nature. Virtually all habitats have had them for millions of years. That is, until recently. These large apex consumers have been among the first species to disappear from our increasingly human-dominated world. And along with the loss of these animals has been the loss of something even more fundamental—the essential roles they play in holding their ecosystems together.  We are beginning to see these roles nearly everywhere—from the tropics to the poles, and on land, in rivers and lakes, and in the sea.

Our review details the theoretical basis for this phenomenon and provides many specific examples. My favorite example is the link between sea otters and coastal ecosystems in the North Pacific Ocean. The loss of otters has led to population irruptions of their prey—sea urchins. Hyperabundant urchins overgraze kelp forests, leading in turn to reductions or the loss of species and ecosystem services that depend on kelp forests. Similarly, the loss of wolves, grizzly bears and cougars from much of North America has led to population irruptions of their prey—moose, elk and deer—which in turn have overgrazed their range, thus leading to the loss of both plant species and the animals that depend on these plants. In another well known example, the loss of coyotes from chaparral fragments in southern California has allowed these habitats to be invaded by “mesopredators”–cats, foxes, and other small carnivore–that in turn have caused the extinction of birds and other small vertebrates. The list goes on and on. These are not unique stories but examples of a global phenomenon. And the effects of apex consumers extend widely across ecosystems to influence such diverse phenomena as wildfire, disease, and air and water quality. Trophic downgrading, which begins with the loss of large apex consumers from nature, can be thought of as an ecological chain reaction that is part and parcel to the biodiversity crisis.

What does this mean to wildlife conservation? It means that while habitat is essential, by itself habitat conservation is not enough to conserve biodiversity.

What does this mean to wildlife conservation? It means that while habitat is essential, by itself habitat conservation is not enough to conserve biodiversity. This in turn has several obvious implications for conservation planning. Small conservation areas are doomed to fail, or at least doomed to be much less than they might otherwise be because small areas are incapable of maintaining viable populations of large, apex consumers. Even large conservation areas are doomed to under-perform unless they also contain the apex consumers.

The bottom line for conservation is simply this. Habitat is necessary but insufficient for biodiversity conservation. Apex consumers are also required to run nature’s engine.

Read Defenders of Wildlife’s original blog piece on the paper and learn more about our work with apex predators.

Read The Nature Conservancy’s blog that talks about the paper and what impacts it can have on conservation.

The following six videos are interviews with Jim Estes, in which he talks about how the paper came to be, the implications on policy makers, and  other insights from the research paper.  The videos are in a playlist and after you watch the first you may scroll through the rest from the same location.

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife, In the Field1 Comment


Arctic Sea Ice Continues Decline

Arctic sea ice continues its precipitous decline: as we near the end of the summer ice-melt season, all indications suggest that the extent of sea ice has fallen to record or near-record lows this year. Satellite measurements by the National Snow and Ice Data Center found that the sea-ice extent was 1.68 million square miles, just 70,000 square miles above the all-time record low, set in 2007. That may seem like a substantial cushion over the minimum, but it’s a far cry from the 1979-2000 average September minimum of nearly 3 million square miles. NSIDC won’t be able to pinpoint the final minimum until the sea ice begins to re-form, but the 2011 extent is already below the previous second- and third-place years, 2010 and 2008. However, they report the rate of melt is slowing and might not surpass their records for 2007. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that another ice-tracking team, at the University of Bremen in Germany, reports that their measurements show 2011 ice extent reached the lowest extent that they have ever recorded, at 1.64 million square miles (Bremen’s measurement for 2007 was 1.65 million square miles). The Bremen team’s methodology differs from NSIDC’s, hence the slight differences in their figures. But the two groups are close enough to be clear that the Arctic is melting, and fast. And that’s not the worst news.

The worst news is that the trend in Arctic ice VOLUME is even more dramatic than the trend in area. The Polar Science Center in Seattle estimates that the current trend in sea ice volume is running well below 2007, even though the two years are running practically neck-and-neck on extent. The sharp decline in volume means that the ice that is there is thinner than in the past, and therefore more prone to melting in the future.

In 2007 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noted that Arctic sea ice had declined 2.7% per decade over the past 30 years and warned that “In some projections, arctic late-summer sea ice disappears almost entirely by the latter part of the 21st century.” The IPCC may have been overly optimistic: if ice continues to be lost at current rates, we could see complete loss of summer ice by 2040. .  And it’s that overall trend – not whether this year is the lowest or second lowest – that spells big trouble for Arctic wildlife like polar bears.

Posted in Alaska, Climate Change0 Comments

Climate change and Greater Yellowstone fire regimes

Last week’s issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences  included a compelling article by western fire researcher Tony Westerling and colleagues. The title, “Continued warming could transform Greater Yellowstone fire regimes by mid-21st century,” caught the attention of a lot of blogs and other media outlets.

Westerling and his co-authors modeled changing fire regimes in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem  by looking at past correlations between climate data and the size and occurrence of large fires, then projecting those trends forward to see how often fire could be expected to burn a given area under likely future climate conditions. Today the Greater Yellowstone area is dominated by conifer forests that are characterized by infrequent but severe fires. Every 100-300 years or so, major fires sweep through these ecosystems, killing a large proportion of trees in the affected area and starting the succession process over by providing shade-sensitive species with access to sunlight.

However, this new research suggests that an increase in temperatures of just a few degrees by mid-century could have profound effects both on patterns of fire in the Yellowstone area and on the ecosystems and species found there. All of the modeling results pointed to a more rapid fire cycle, with a given area burning every 30 years or less by 2050. As Westerling et al. point out, this kind of fire regime would also indicate a significant shift from the current mixed conifer forest type to something much different, something more like a dry woodland or unforested ecosystem. Such a complete shift in vegetation would obviously have dire impacts on many of the species that currently inhabit that area.

When we talk about helping ecosystems adapt to climate change, we often tend to imagine – and plan for – a gradual, almost imperceptible shift in conditions over long periods of time. But many scientists have shown that ecological systems can contain hidden transition points, thresholds beyond which rapid, extreme changes  in ecosystem structure and function may be unavoidable and virtually irreversible. Westerling’s paper shows us is in quite vivid terms what ecological thresholds might look like on the ground, and it gives us a frightening glimpse of how soon climate change might start pushing us across these thresholds. How would we go about managing the transition to an unforested Yellowstone?

Posted in Climate Change, Imperiled Wildlife, National Forests, Northern Rockies, Public Lands, Uncategorized0 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

An End to Feeding on the Elk Refuge

The National Elk Refuge in Wyoming is an incredible resource for wildlife in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Unfortunately, a supplemental feeding program, in place since the refuge was created in 1912, has become a severe hazard to the species it was intended to help.

Though it began as a way to sustain the elk population through difficult winters, persistent feeding year after year now draws high concentrations of elk and bison to the area, resulting in crowding and overgrazing, and ultimately damaging the health of the ecosystem and the herds. Of particular concern is the potential for disease to spread through the high-density gathering area.  Both brucellosis and chronic wasting disease are risks increased by the refuge feeding lines.

Defenders was part of a coalition of conservation organizations challenging a 2007 management plan for the elk and bison, which failed to provide a timeline for ending the feeding regime.  The plan also appeared to give illegal veto power to the state of Wyoming such that the Game and Fish Department could block a decision to end supplemental feeding if it was believed to harm local interests.

This week, a federal appeals court confirmed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) obligation to end the practice. While the ruling did not order a deadline for terminating the program, it was an important affirmation of FWS’s obligation to expedite the end of feeding. The ruling unequivocally states that “there is no doubt that unmitigated continuation of supplemental feeding would undermine the conservation purpose of the National Wildlife Refuge System.” In addition, the court rejected the possibility of Wyoming being able to veto FWS action.

Posted in In the Field, National Wildlife Refuges, Northern Rockies, Public Lands0 Comments

koopmann 084

Protecting ranchers protects wildlife habitat – What?

Picture from the California Cattlemen's Association

Yes, it’s true. For generations, many ranchers have been managing their lands for wildlife on purpose and inadvertently. In California, private ranches contain unique and vulnerable habitats, such as vernal pools, grasslands, and oak woodlands. These ecosystems have been largely shaped over thousands of years to withstand and thrive under disturbances from fire, roaming buffalo, deer, and other ungulates. With the loss of these large herds and natural disturbances, ranchers have stepped in to mimic many of these disturbances through management of livestock. As Pelayo Alvarez says, Co-director of the California Rangeland Conservation Coalition, “They are ‘keystone species’ – you lose them and you lose the ecological integrity of the lands they manage.”

Defenders of Wildlife, along with the Coalition and some of their partners are working on keeping ranchers ranching by paying them for the ecological and socio-economic benefits they provide. Current conservation programs mostly pay ranchers for their practices, however there are groups working on moving beyond this form of conservation and paying ranchers for actual outcomes. These innovative conservation programs are taking shape in the form of Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) programs and/or markets.

To help inform the formation of these innovative conservation programs in California, Defenders of Wildlife conducted a survey of ranchers, the first of its kind to focus on the supplier perspective towards PES programs or markets. The survey was designed to give insight into the demographics of ranchers; their knowledge and attitudes towards current conservation programs; their level of interest in participating in future PES programs or markets; and outlining the most important aspects of a potential future program with respect to administrator, level of payment, and length of contract.

Five key insights emerged from the survey’s results:

  • The threat of rangeland conversion in California is real and immediate and the time is ripe for a new approach to conservation
  • California ranchers’ high rate of participation in public conservation programs, coupled with their dissatisfaction with the perceived administrative hurdles associated with these programs, offers an opportunity to introduce more appealing conservation options.
  • California ranchers are strongly interested in PES programs, particularly those tied to wildlife habitat.
  • California ranchers recognize the importance of the environmental benefits provided by their land and want to improve these benefits with the right mix of assistance and incentives.
  • California ranchers prefer flexible program structures that are built on shorter contracts, larger payments, and non-profit organizations or private companies as administrators.

The report is still in its final stages and has not been released to the general public. A shorter report and blog post will be accompanied with the release of the final report within the next few weeks. Stay tuned.

Posted in California, Paying for Conservation0 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.