Archive | Paying for Conservation

Defenders Issues New Report on Candidate Species Agreements

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

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

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

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

Our report also recommends improvements to CCAA implementation.  We found that Service biologists have been implementing CCAAs in innovative ways that are not discussed in the CCAA regulation or draft handbook.  We underscore eight of these innovations and encourage the Service to consider incorporating them into its CCAA guidance documents.
*          *          *          *

This CCAA report is the third in a series of Defenders reports on improving endangered species law, policy, and science.  In case you missed them, the first report describes some of our strategies for making the ESA more effective and efficient, and the second report reveals serious flaws with the Service’s decision last year to withdraw its proposed rule to list the dunes sagebrush lizard and recommends ways to avoid these problems in future listing decisions.  A week after we published the second report, we filed a notice of intent to sue the Service over the withdrawal.

Click here to view the CCAA report

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

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


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

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

Defenders recommends framework for conserving candidate species

Wildlife conservation is generally less expensive and more effective when deployed as early as possible.  Yet the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) does not always encourage early conservation.  If a land developer finds a rare plant that might become listed under the ESA, how can the act reward him for protecting that plant now?

Pre-listing conservation (PLC) can answer this question in certain situations.  PLC involves the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service using its authority under the ESA to issue “credits” for conservation measures taken to benefit at-risk and imperiled species before they are listed under the ESA.  Those credits could then be used to offset harmful impacts to the species, including impacts that occur after listing and hence are regulated under the ESA.  A person can use credits to offset his own impacts or sell the credits to another person who needs offsets.  In both cases, the tangible value of credits is one reward for taking early conservation.

In March of this year, the Fish & Wildlife Service issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking to request public comment on how the Service can create PLC projects.  Today, we submitted an extensive comment letter that includes a proposed framework for creating PLC “pilot projects” using the Service’s existing rules, policies, and guidance under the ESA.  No new rulemaking is involved.

Our framework allows the Service to determine how to structure a project based on (1) whether project participants are federal agencies or non-federal entities and (2) whether the participants have provided enough information about the activities to be offset by the pre-listing conservation measures, such that the Service can evaluate, at the time the prelisting conservation agreement is drafted, the adverse impacts of those activities on the species.  Page 11 of our letter includes a diagram that captures this decision framework.

Over the next few years, we expect the Service to add dozens, if not hundreds, of species to the list of candidate species.  PLC and other pre-listing measures could improve the status of those species and create a smoother glide path for an eventual listing or even prevent listing altogether.

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

Budget Savings, Wildlife Benefits, and Family Farmer Benefits from Limiting Government Subsidies to the Largest Farms

Farm program subsidies, crop prices, and land values all tripled in the Dakotas in just 15 years, as has the loss of prairie pothole grassland.  Eastern North Dakota lost 10% to 15% of wetlands and grassland to crop use in just three years.  At this rate, most of the remaining grassland habitat in this major nesting region for ducks and shorebirds will be gone in just 15 years.

This is not a good time to abandon 25 years of protection for wetlands and grasslands, but crucial protections will vanish unless the Senate amends the farm bill recently passed by the Senate Agricultural Committee.  Fortunately, a budget smart farm bill amendment by Senators Toomey and Shaheen aims to save billions of tax dollars by limiting federal crop insurance subsidies to the largest farmers to $40,000 per farm.  Since the larger farmers own the great majority of the land, these subsidy limits also considerably reduce major farm program drivers for prairie grassland and wetland conversion.

Limiting crop insurance subsidies to $40,000 per farm primarily aims to reduce the federal budget deficit.  This works because subsidy limits especially affect the largest 10% of crop farms, who enjoy 75% of the program payments.  These giant farming operations historically increase their subsidies by adding more cropland.  They expand 1) by buying other farms, 2) by renting, and 3) by plowing up prairie pothole grassland.  But farmers large enough to already reach the proposed $40,000 payment limit no-longer will increase their subsidy by increasing cropland area.  Today’s more than 90 percent of farms, and all small farms, will not be directly affected by the proposed subsidy limits because their government subsidies are less than $40,000.  They own a very small portion of the crop land in the U.S., even though they still make up the vast majority of farms.  Subsidy limits actually help them compete.

Although the farm bill under consideration in the Senate (S3240) virtually eliminates compliance and swampbuster protection, Senator Cardin introduced a Senate amendment (2219) to re-introduce these important protections which have been part of farm programs for 25 years.  We think that this amendment is crucial, but its focus is soil conservation and wetland protection, not grasslands.  The $40,000 per farm limits on crop insurance subsidies, which Senators Toomey and Shaheen introduced in another amendment, reduces program pressures to plow up more prairie grassland and drain wetlands.

For over three decades, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has cautioned that farm subsidies could tilt the playing field toward the largest farmers, who capture so much of the subsidies, and away from more modest, family farms.  Meaningful payment limits address these uneven playing field problems, as well as the above budget and wildlife problems.

Meaningful subsidy limits address perverse incentives to expand cropland acreage, whether that expansion occurs by buying up neighboring farms or by busting out more prairie pothole grassland and draining wetlands.  The Senate has an opportunity simultaneously to achieve substantial budget savings, to provide major wildlife benefits, and to better serve family farms.

Posted in Paying for Conservation0 Comments

Invasive Species: Costs of Inaction

Laws protecting America from invasive species go back a hundred years and provide a basis for preventing importation of potential, invasive wildlife, such as the notorious Burmese python, snakehead, and lionfish.  Yet, virtually no regulation restricting entry of “injurious” wildlife actually has taken place—at least not until after the invasions occur.  Economists find that invasive wildlife species cause damages estimated in the tens of billions of damage each year.  This suggests a total mismatch between the costs from regulating entry of exotic pets and certain other species, which often are very low, versus the potential benefits.

All invasive plants and animals (not just the pets) contributed to an estimated 40% of endangered species listings.  Ironically, protection of these endangered species in the U.S., after they are listed, has imposed huge costs.  An ounce of prevention could have saved billions of dollars.

If someone wants to import a snake to sell in an exotic pet store, they first check a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) List of Injurious Wildlife.  Until this year, you could import any reptile in the world, except the brown tree snake.  After six years of hard work, FWS just finalized a rule that will add the Burmese python and certain other constrictors to their List of Injurious Wildlife.  The list of injurious birds identifies only six bird families, which include familiar names like “sparrow” and “starling.”  There are eight wildlife family types listed in the “Fish, Mollusks, and Crustaceans” category, but they include 4 carp varieties, as well as the zebra mussel and snakehead, wildlife families which already include major invasive species.  If we are looking for scary critters where the FWS List of Injurious Wildlife successfully protects us by prohibiting entry into the U.S., the list is very short.

Successful regulation under current rules will require considering the thousands of wildlife types that enter the U.S. and finding the small percentage whose “survival capabilities, ability to spread, impacts on habitats,”  threat to endangered species, and for whom our ability to control them imply a need for FWS to evaluate them for a possible injurious species rule writing.  This is not an insurmountable task, but the job of evaluating thousands of species and developing rules for those selected for regulation will require substantially more resources than FWS currently assigns.  It might also be necessary to expedite rule development, to avoid government costs of a process that now can take six years.  The process wisely considers economic costs and benefits of excluding a species from entry into the U.S.  So an evaluation strategy might begin with wildlife headed for certain exotic pet stores and other opportunities, where the costs of excluding a critter from entry into the U.S. often are very low.  Some strategies also call for major legislative changes to address invasive species.

Exotic pet stores represent a very modest portion of the U.S. economy, and these stores surely can substitute other exotic creatures for sell when FWS determines that certain species need inclusion in their List of Injurious Wildlife.  Costs of continued inaction could be immense.

Posted in Paying for Conservation0 Comments

Biofuel Certification Design Flaws

European leaders offer a biofuel certification program which appears to deny markets to biofuels that are produced unsustainably, but this program will not work.  Economic analysis finds that vegetable oil that fails certification for biodiesel use can simply be sold as food, without any reduction in price, to countries like China and India which are major importers of vegetable oil.  In addition, the damage to tropical forest and other ecosystems caused by biofuel demands are indirect, as biofuel expansion raises crop prices for vegetable oil, corn, and wheat.  These higher crop prices cause an estimated 25 million hectares net forest conversion to crop uses, or potentially several times that amount if we consider all forest, savanna, and prairie land conversions.  Biofuel certification programs in Europe and elsewhere fail to confront these indirect price effects, as well as failing to deny markets to uncertified biofuel.

Certifying all vegetable oil, not just the portion used as biofuel, would be far more effective at protecting tropical forests compared to the European Commission approach that just certifies the portion of vegetable oil used as biofuel.  However, any remedy that successfully protects forest and savanna ecosystems will cause additional crop price increases.  Crop producers in exporting countries could see profit increases estimated in the tens of billions of dollars due to the higher crop prices from any program that protects tropical forests and savannas.  The world’s poor, who depend on vegetable oil for calories would experience the majority of these costs.  Researchers find that crop price increases can pose sustainability problems affecting billions of poor people in developing countries.

China, India, and other poor countries spend immense amounts of money trying to protect their consumers from today’s high crop prices, so they are unlikely to participate in vegetable oil certification programs that raise vegetable oil and other basic food prices further.  Without the participation of these major importers of vegetable oil, and of other poor country importers, oil crop certification programs likely will remain ineffective.

Recognizing the above design flaws regarding certification remedies to ecosystem and to hunger problems caused by biofuel subsidies and mandates could lead to consideration of more effective policy options.  These options should include reducing biofuel subsidies and mandates in Europe and reducing biofuel mandates in the U.S.

Posted in Energy, Paying for Conservation0 Comments

New England Cottontail Rabbit (FWS)

Upstream solutions for protecting candidate species

How can we find ways to encourage people to voluntarily conserve candidate species before they are listed under the Endangered Species Act?  Candidate conservation agreements are an existing tool, and we have been helping to develop another one.  That tool differs from candidate conservation agreements in several ways.  Most important is that it involves the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service issuing “credits” for conservation measures taken to benefit a candidate species before listing.  After listing, those credits would be used to offset “incidental take” to the species.  On balance, the amount of credits issued and used would need to result in a net benefit to the species, as might happen when a person buys more credits than he or she uses.

This new candidate conservation tool would benefit species in several ways.  One is by incentivizing early conservation, which generally reduces the costs and difficulty of species recovery.  Two is by incentivizing habitat management (not only preservation), which the ESA does not require of non-federal landowners and which is needed to conserve and recover many conservation-reliant species.  Three is by reducing or precluding the need to list a candidate species.

Yesterday, we, along with other conservation organizations, submitted a letter to the Fish & Wildlife Service asking for their support in creating field-based projects to demonstrate the use of this new tool, which is sometimes called “pre-compliance mitigation” or “candidate conservation banking” (more memorable names are currently in development).

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife, Paying for Conservation0 Comments

Using Nature to Restore the Gulf

A prestigious Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force’s new Preliminary Strategy offers a positive message for damaged Gulf Coast ecosystems.  The Task Force, which includes heads of Interior and Environmental Protection Agency, eloquently confronts an ongoing ecosystem catastrophe which threatens the safety of New Orleans and the nation’s oil infrastructure, as well as crucial wildlife habitat.  With funding scarce, the Preliminary Strategy needs to focus on its proposed restoration of Mississippi River flows to efficiently achieve triple benefits:  1) restoring coastal wetlands, 2) shrinking the dead zone out in the Gulf, and 3) restoring island beaches.  Although other remedies are discussed, restoring Mississippi River sediments offers the only economically feasible solution to each of these three problems.

To its considerable credit, the Preliminary Strategy would use “natural river processes of sediment and freshwater distribution” to reverse the destruction of coastal wetlands around the Gulf.   Much of the Mississippi River and its load of sediment would be diverted back to the Delta’s coastal wetlands where it once flowed.   As reported earlier, hundreds of billions of dollars of business assets are increasingly at risk due to an ongoing loss of Delta wetlands, with 2,000 square miles of wetlands lost so far.

The use of natural river processes, described above, also will help shrink the dead zone–our second co-benefit—as well as restore the Delta’s coastal wetlands.  Levees currently direct Mississippi River flows far out into the Gulf where they contribute nutrients and sediment that cause the dead zone.  Diverting river water back into the Delta’s vast coastal wetlands offers by far the most budget smart action proposed by the Task Force.  It simultaneously restores coastal wetlands and shrinks the dead zone.  The Preliminary Strategy supports nutrient management on farms, as well, to address the dead zone, but this can draw on existing, conservation programs for farmers that already are well funded.

The Preliminary Strategy’s focus on river processes for delivering sediment also offers the only economically feasible, long term mechanism for restoring the natural flow of sand to island beaches that are disappearing in the Gulf—our third co-benefit.  Once again, nature can address a hundred years of damage caused by past manipulation of river flows.

Pumping dredge material is offered as an alternative for adding sand to islands, but pumping sand in the current Gulf system is an uphill battle.  A Louisiana proposal for restoring wetlands behind islands would spend a half billion dollars pumping sand onto islands and restore only enough wetlands to address a few weeks of coastal wetland loss.  Pumping sand to locations where recent storms removed sand offers, at best, a temporary remedy and fails to solve root causes of the problem.

The Preliminary Strategy provides a timely vision and focus for solving some extremely important human safety, economic, and wildlife problems.  Yet, one proposed action, pumping sand, is much less able to deliver results.  Money is scarce, so success will require smart use of each restoration dollar.  This means restoring river flows to secure wetland, dead zone, and island benefits all at once.

Posted in Paying for Conservation0 Comments

Inadequate funding and poor prioritization put amphibians at risk

Inadequate funding and poor prioritization put amphibians at risk

The mountain yellow-legged frog is nearly extinct, and was listed as endangered in 2002. FWS recovery efforts in dollars have met those of other federal agencies, but have never surpassed $250,000. State spending is negligible. Chytrid fungus is an important threat to this species, and contributes to their rapid decline along with other environmental factors, in particular pesticides. Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) filed a notice to sue FWS, in May earlier this year, over the lack of a recovery plan for this critically endangered animal.

According to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) recovery funding figures, in 2001 over $21 million was spent on the charismatic but relatively secure bald eagle – about 7 times more than was spent for all listed amphibians combined. This majestic bird has since recovered, but hordes of invertebrate, reptile, plant and amphibian species can go for years with little funding from FWS, and receive only limited attention from other federal and state agencies. So, it is unsurprising that their status is not improving.

In the last two decades, 168 amphibian species have disappeared from the earth, and another 2,469 species (43% of all amphibians) have declining populations; their rate of extinction could be 211 times the background amphibian extinction rate (McCallum 2007). Chytridiomycosis is one driver of this extinction, along with habitat loss, invasive species and climate change, and may be responsible for the greatest disease-caused loss of biodiversity in recorded history (Skerratt et al. 2007).

This impoverishment of global amphibian species should raise the priority of remaining amphibians in conservation efforts here in the U.S., in part because each species we have now represents an element of biodiversity even more unique in nature. Unfortunately, based on data from Recovery Reports to Congress, it appears that amphibians are not being appropriately prioritized. Although overall spending on amphibians has risen from 0.3% of total FWS recovery spending in 1989 to 2.7% in 2009, with 2 times more species listed, funding patterns remain highly inconsistent (graphed below).

Figure 1: Global FWS recovery funding for federally listed amphibians. Spending is erratic, and the overwhelming majority of amphibian species rarely receive more than $500,000 for their recovery. (Click to admire graph in its full glory.)

In particular, 5 species – the California tiger salamander, the Barton Springs salamander, the California red-legged frog, the Arroyo toad, and the Santa Cruz long-toed salamander – monopolize FWS funds. For instance, the Barton Springs salamander of Texas benefited from a $1,800,000 peak in recovery funding in 2004, coincident with SOSA v. EPA, brought against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by CBD and Save Our Springs Alliance (SOSA). The lawsuit’s premise was an alleged EPA violation of the Endangered Species Act due to failure to ensure registered pesticides did not jeopardize the Barton Springs salamander.

Figure 2: From 1989 to 2009, $40 million has gone to 5 species, roughly three times more than total spending on 16 of the remaining species, illustrating the irregularity of FWS recovery funding allocation over a 20-year period.

FWS funding is not only insufficient for the recovery of already listed species, but also for listing; this process of adding amphibians to the endangered species list is driven by petition and forced to stay on schedule by litigation, diverting precious resources in order to keep the agency on track and escalating species vulnerability. The United States was home to 292 described species of amphibians as of January 22, 2009, but, in the midst of an extinction crisis, only 24 native amphibians are currently listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and only 10 species have been added to that list since 1989. Only 17 of these have recovery plans. There are 13 amphibians on the candidate species list, waiting to receive full ESA protections. This past June, the striped newt was denied full protection under the Act; its listing as ‘threatened’ was warranted but precluded, because FWS cannot spend more than appropriated for the Listing Program without violating the Anti-Deficiencies Act and the statutory cap put in place by Congress in FY 1998 (76 Fed. Reg. 32911); the striped newt is therefore currently listed as a candidate species.

Photo courtesy of Texas Parks & Wildlife. The Texas blind salamander (Eurycea rathbuni) has been listed as endangered since 1967; in 2009, it received just over $37,000 for its recovery. In the same year, the California red-legged frog, merely threatened but far more charismatic, received over $1.3 million.

In the current paradigm, FWS often prioritizes the recovery of iconic and charismatic species like the bald eagle, and non-flagship species are often guaranteed reasonable funding for recovery only when FWS is driven by lawsuits, or if their habitat coincides with that of a more compelling umbrella species. Since it appears unlikely that funding for recovery and listing activities will increase, the Service needs to make the most of its limited funds and prioritize listings and recovery efforts in an explicit and transparent manner, before the chytrid fungus, habitat destruction, and other threats finish ravaging the entirety of this unique taxon of the tree of life.

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife, Paying for Conservation, Uncategorized0 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

A fair scale for mitigation

A fair scale for mitigation

Compensatory mitigation projects that fully offset development-incurred losses are, unfortunately, far and few.  When it comes to biodiversity, species decline continue.  ‘Restoration at multiple trophic levels’ (2003), by Deborah French McCay and Jill J. Rowe, laid out a novel approach to compensatory mitigation, based on the North Cape oil spill, presenting a new framework for estimating the appropriate scale of restoration: primary production, across multiple trophic levels.

Aerial view of the January 19, 1996 North Cape oil spill, with the tug boat Scandia in the upper portion of the photo, and the tank barge North Cape in the lower portion. An estimated 828,000 gallons were spilled, resulting in hundreds oiled birds and large numbers of lobsters, surf clams and sea stars found dead on the beach. The North Cape oil spill is considered to be an important legal precedent since it was the first major oil spill to occur after the 1990 Oil Pollution Act, passed in the wake of the devastating Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. Photography by E.R. Gundlach.

Having concluded that species impacted by the North Cape spill would benefit especially from habitat restoration, McCay and Rowe’s model “builds upon food chain energetic and habitat equivalency analysis, […] convert[ing] losses of production of multiple species to an energetically equivalent single trophic level so that the scale of necessary compensatory restoration can be computed.”  So, food webs and trophic energy efficiencies can be used to pinpoint the level at which restoration appropriately compensates for the total spill-related injury; trophic level dynamics would then ensure that the system would return to a normal balance.  Additionally, McCay and Rowe correct for the delay between injury and restoration by considering the biomass directly lost plus that not produced at a 3% annual discount rate, as recommended by NOAA.  Thus, they came to the conclusion that restoration of around 20 acres of highly productive eelgrass beds, combined with ongoing recovery activities, would sufficiently compensate for spill injuries with no net loss.

McCay and Rowe are the first to admit that their model presents shortcomings linked to the uncertainty that lies in estimate-driven modeling, and the use of primary production as a proxy for multiple ecosystem processes.  Nonetheless, they argue that “[u]sing production as the scaling metric also allows for differences in body size and growth rate between the individuals killed and the ones added by restoration while still achieving equivalence and thus compensatory replacement.”  While conceding their model has room for improvement, they assert that they have opened up new paths for research – a different ecosystem function may be a more suitable vector for evaluating restoration benefits, and needs only to be discovered.

Example of trophic pyramid, from National Park Service. In McCay and Rowe's model, development incurred-loss of consumers (herbivores and carnivores) can be appropriately offset through primary production.

While this approach, as interpreted for an oil spill, lacks the advantage of species specificity, it presents an exciting venue for compensatory mitigation and endangered species incidental take permits (ITPs).  Rooted in sound understanding of species and habitat interactions, mitigation could compensate for take of listed species to a standard that sustains ecosystem processes and adequately offsets the loss caused, without being arbitrary or punitive to the developer.  The current incidental take calculation process is far from perfect, and the adoption of objective and appropriate mitigation scaling could bring ITPs one step closer to their intended purpose: to strike a balance between development interests and species recovery efforts.

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife, Paying for Conservation, Uncategorized0 Comments