Archive | Public Lands

Scientists Warn Federal Government of Failed Sage-grouse Conservation Plans

Even as Congress threatens to meddle again in sage-grouse conservation, the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service are moving forward on their unprecedented planning process to protect and recover the species on more than 60 million acres of public land. Credit to the agencies—it’s difficult to do one’s job with legislators scrutinizing your every step. But there are also some problems with the planning process that are entirely the agencies’ doing. Last week independent sage-grouse scientists highlighted those problems in a letter to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack that may be pivotal to the future of the species. The scientists’ letter, endorsed by 11 experts on sage-grouse and sagebrush habitats, notes that draft conservation plans produced as part of the National Greater Sage-Grouse Planning Strategy do not correspond with the best available science, and so may fail to conserve the species and its habitat. As the scientists clearly, concisely stated, there are just some basic measures that management plans must adopt if they are to successfully protect and recover sage-grouse:

  • Protect sage-grouse breeding, nesting and brood-rearing habitats from oil and gas drilling and other development. It is well known that oil, gas and grouse don’t mix.
  • Ensure that livestock grazing is managed to allow for tall grasses and other vegetation to provide cover for sage-grouse hens and chicks from predators. Sage-grouse evolved with golden eagles, ravens and coyotes, but they need healthy habitat with lots of places to hide.
  • Do not purposefully burn, plow, spray or otherwise eliminate sagebrush habitat. There’s less and less of the Sagebrush Sea left every year for sage-grouse and hundreds of other wildlife. We’ve got to protect what’s left of the landscape.

The scientists’ letter affirms Defenders of Wildlife’s own assessment of the planning process last spring, finding that key management prescriptions in the draft plans fell short of what science recommends for conserving sage-grouse. The agencies’ failure to adopt these measures is perplexing to say the least, since the BLM itself has identified them as being important for the species’ persistence.

Fortunately, there is still time for federal planners to improve conservation plans for the grouse, and we understand that the agencies are working to strengthen certain measures in the final plans. But the finals can’t merely be better than the drafts—they’ve got to include all of the science-based standards included in the scientists’ letter if they are to achieve their purpose of conserving sage-grouse and their habitat. The Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service are expected to release final plans this spring, when they will be subject to another round of public input. Armed with the scientists’ letter, Defenders of Wildlife and our partners will once again weigh in with recommendations to improve conservation measures for this iconic bird and the quintessential western habitat that it represents.

Posted in Energy, Imperiled Wildlife, Public Lands, Uncategorized0 Comments

sage-grouse_1_Tatiana_Gettleman

BLM Backsliding on Best Available Science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in ESA, Imperiled Wildlife, Public Lands1 Comment

Federal Grazing Permits and Leases Do Not Convey “Grazing Rights” on Public Lands

Nevada public lands rancher Cliven Bundy’s refusal to pay grazing fees—and his resultant multi-decadal dispute with the Bureau of Land Management—became front page news this week when the agency finally acted on court orders to remove Bundy’s trespass cattle from the public domain. It’s a fascinating, exasperating story that has yet to reach a conclusion.

News media and commentators of every stripe documented the heightened tensions this week as armed protesters confronted federal agents attempting to round-up Bundy’s livestock. Reporting has ranged from the meticulous to the uninformed to the inane (one critic stridently—and erroneously—claims the BLM was established in 1976 and is authorized to control land uses on all federal, state and private lands nationwide, among other outlandish contentions).

Unfortunately, many reports have mistakenly referred to Bundy’s grazing use as “grazing rights,” which suggests that public lands ranchers have a right to graze livestock on public lands. They don’t. Grazing permits and leases issued by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service allow the permit or lease holder the privilege, not a right to use publicly owned forage on federal public lands. This distinction was intended by Congress in the Taylor Grazing Act of 19341 (BLM) and the Granger-Thye Act of 1950 (Forest Service),2 articulated in agency regulations,3 restated in federal records,4 affirmed by scholars,5 and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court as recently as 2000.6 Federal grazing permits and leases are revocable, amendable, non-assignable ten-year licenses to graze federal public lands that do not convey property rights to grazing permittees/lessees.

The misnomer of “grazing rights” could give the impression that livestock grazing on federal public lands has a superior position over other uses of those lands, which is untrue. Our public lands are managed for multiple uses and public values, including habitat for wildlife, sources of drinking water, and myriad recreational and sustainable economic activities. Federal law requires that grazing, like other profitable enterprise on the public domain, be conducted in a manner that accommodates other legitimate uses of public lands, waters and resources.

We hope the news media adopt more accurate terms when referring to public lands grazing, such as “grazing privileges,” “grazing permit,” “grazing lease,” or the generic “grazing license.”

1 43 U.S.C. sec. 315b.
2 16 U.S.C. sec. 580(l).
3 43 C.F.R. sec. 4130.2(c) (BLM regulation); 36 C.F.R. sec. 222.3(b) (Forest Service regulation).
4 E.g., USDI-BLM, USDA-Forest Service. 1995. Rangeland Reform ’94 Final Environmental Impact Statement. USDI-BLM. Washington, D.C.: 125.
5 E.g., D. Donahue. 1999. THE WESTERN RANGE REVISITED: REMOVING LIVESTOCK FROM PUBLIC LANDS TO CONSERVE NATIVE BIODIVERSITY. Univ. Oklahoma Press. Norman, OK: 38.
6 Public Lands Council v. Babbitt, 529 U.S. 728, 741 (2000). See also U.S. v. Fuller, 409 U.S. 488 (1973) (holding that the federal government is not required by the Fifth Amendment to compensate a property owner in a condemnation action for the extra value of his private property attributed to his federal grazing permit).

Posted in Federal Policy, Public Lands0 Comments

2-Forest-with-heavy-invasion1-300×225

Earthworm Invasions: Here’s Something to Make us Squirm

An astounding sixty of the 182 total species of earthworms that occur in the United States and Canada come from other lands. Not all of these foreign earthworms are destructive, but about 16 European and Asian varieties do real damage to our native ecosystems. During the Wisconsonian glaciation, native earthworms in North America were severely impacted by the ice sheets then covering much of the continent. In areas north of this glacial boundary, the absence or lowered populations of native earthworms later facilitated the spread of the exotic invaders.

Invasive, exotic species are recognized as a leading cause in species’ declines and extinctions. Exotic species tend conjure up the most conspicuous instances, for example, pythons invading the Everglades or lionfish in the Florida Keys and Caribbean. On a more subtle level, exotic plants and animals often compete with native species and change entire ecosystems, such as when multiflora rose take over wetlands inhabited by bog turtles. Introduced earthworms probably do not even come to mind as an exotic nuisance. Nevertheless, earthworm invasions and their ability to damage ecosystems have become a global problem. Invasive worms have now spread through almost every habitat, including desert oases. Except for Antarctica, they occur on every continent and many oceanic islands.

Usually out of sight, all worms tend to look more or less the same. And earthworms would seem to be a good thing. Gardeners, composters, fishermen, students needing specimens for dissection, and robins feeding young certainly think of worms in positive terms. The role that earthworms play in building and aerating soils is well known. In the early 1880s Darwin demonstrated that worms on just one acre of land could convert living and dead vegetation into 18 tons of productive soil in just twelve months.

Earthworm invasions have depleted herbaceous plants and seedlings, the litter layer, and led to patches of bare soil in this Wisconsin forest. Photo by Scott Loss

Earthworm invasions have depleted herbaceous plants and seedlings, the litter layer, and led to patches of bare soil in this Wisconsin forest. Photo by Scott Loss, Smithsonian Magazine

Under normal conditions it takes microbes and fungi three to five years to decompose a deciduous leaf to the point that it becomes incorporated into the soil. In a forest infested with introduced night crawlers, however, this process takes as little as four weeks. Although organic duff covering a forest floor may take decades to accumulate, duff can be consumed by introduced earthworms in short order. Accumulation of undecayed and decaying litter is an important feature of temperate forest ecosystems. Exotic earthworms decompose this leaf layer more rapidly than their native counterparts, compromising this micro-habitat on the forest floor. Conditions become unsuitable for seed germination and the various creatures dependent on leaf layer for foraging, humidity, and concealment. In addition, the levels of moisture, temperature, pH, and nutrient levels change substantially. Eventually, this redistribution of organic matter and nutrient loss results in declines in native understory plant cover and an increase in nonnative plants. Soils are often exposed as every leaf, small seed, and tiny twig is devoured by the highly-efficient introduced worms. Soil exposure can then lead to erosion.

Many of the harmful invasive earthworms in the United States arrived in the 18th century. They were accidentally introduced in soil surrounding bulbs and rootstocks of plants brought to the New World by Europeans wanting familiar species for gardens and landscaping. In more recent times, additional species of worms were introduced from Europe and Asia, and cultured on worm farms for use as fish bait. The annual global export of earthworms is a multimillion-dollar business. Unlike many of our native species, these exotic worms are tolerant of disturbed habitats and have high reproductive rates.

Invasions of non-indigenous worms harm woodland wildlife. Worms alter the habitat used by ground roosting bats, ground foraging birds, terrestrial salamanders, and invertebrates that inhabit leaf litter. In addition, changes in leaf litter result in loss of mycorrhizal fungi, thereby paving the way for exotic plants. Because most of our native understory requires a deep, rich, and fertile layer of leaf litter for germination, these invasive earthworms threaten woodland ferns and spring wildflowers like bellworts, trilliums, yellow violets and wild ginger. Invasive earthworms have already denuded forests in the Great Lakes. It’s enough to make you squirm…

David S. Lee

Guest blogger

The Tortoise Reserve, White Lake, NC

 

J. Christopher Haney, Ph.D.

Chief scientist

Defenders of Wildlife

Posted in private lands, Public Lands0 Comments

Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge

Strategically Growing the Refuge System

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently issued a draft “Strategic Growth Policy” for the National Wildlife Refuge System.  The draft policy is intended to guide how the Fish and Wildlife Service will add lands and new wildlife refuges to the refuge system.  This policy is sorely needed and long overdue. As the Service points out in the release of the draft policy, the complexities of modern conservation and its limited budgetary resources require the Service to be strategic in all facets of conservation, particularly when making long-term investments like land protection.

As I point out in my comments on the draft policy, climate change in particular requires the Service to reevaluate its approach to land protection policies.  The National Fish, Wildlife and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy, co-developed by the Service, states this new challenge well:

“Increasing the number, quality, and size of conservation areas can increase the opportunities for individual species to adapt to climate change, and also make it more likely that native biodiversity will be conserved. Some species’ habitat under climate change may be well outside their current or historic range. Healthy and biologically diverse ecosystems are likely to better withstand or adjust to the impacts of climate change. Increasing the number (redundancy) and distribution of protected fish, wildlife, and plant populations is important for the same reason. Establishing larger and more hospitable conservation areas for species to transition to will also increase opportunities for species to create new assemblages of species that are better able to persist in a dynamic climate.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Image courtesy USFWS

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Image courtesy USFWS

Another challenge will be providing corridors between conservation areas so that species can freely move to new locations with suitable habitat. Protecting and restoring large blocks of habitat and using linkages and corridors to develop networks for movement will facilitate connectivity. Riparian corridors, such as floodplains, are useful as a conduit for migratory species and for providing access to water. In addition, appropriate transitory or “stopover” habitat for migratory species can promote biological connectivity between non-physically connected areas.”

The first goal of the Wildlife Adaptation Strategy emphasizes the need for identifying and conserving areas for an “ecologically-connected network” of public and private terrestrial, freshwater, coastal, and marine “conservation areas that are likely to be resilient to climate change and to support a broad range of species under changed conditions.”  In addition, the Wildlife Adaptation Strategy calls for the conservation and restoration of “ecological connections among conservation areas to facilitate fish, wildlife, and plant migration, range shifts, and other transitions caused by climate change.”  This goal was recently adopted by all the Landscape Conservation Cooperative Coordinators: “LCCs support the creation of an ecologically connected network of landscapes, as defined in the National Fish, Wildlife and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy.”  This should be the overarching goal of the Service’s Strategic Growth Policy, identifying the refuge system’s specific role in achieving this goal across the nation with partners.

The FWS derives its authority for developing this new policy from the 1997 National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act which directs the Secretary of the Interior (acting through the Fish and Wildlife Service Director) to “plan and direct the continued growth of the System in a manner that is best designed to accomplish the mission of the System, to contribute to the conservation of the ecosystems of the United States, to complement efforts of States and other Federal agencies to conserve fish and wildlife and their habitats, and to increase support for the System and participation from conservation partners and the public.”

The draft policy excluded the highlighted portions of this provision.  These mandates provide critical direction directly relevant to this policy, and should be incorporated and implemented in the final policy statement.  Importantly, this provision, in its entirety, provides the legislative authorization for the refuge system to support the ecologically-connected network of conservation areas identified in the Wildlife Adaptation Strategy.  In our view, this important provision of law guides the Service to assess the entire “conservation estate” (the existing mix of federal, state, tribal, local, and private conservation lands and waters) and build upon it, focusing on those ecosystems that are not sufficiently protected by our existing conservation network.

Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge. Image Courtesy of USFWS

Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge. Image Courtesy of USFWS

The draft policy incorporates many important modern landscape-level conservation planning elements into planning for new and expanded refuges.  The policy requires land acquisition planners to explicitly identify conservation targets, look to “national, Regional, State, Landscape Conservation Cooperative (LCC), or species-specific conservation, management, or recovery plans” for science-based management objectives and to help identify priority conservation areas.  The policy also requires projects to identify vulnerability and resiliency to climate change and other stressors and “describe how the Refuge System will mitigate stressors to ensure the project’s resiliency.”  Our comments focused on improving and strengthening the provisions pertaining to these important concepts to provide clarity to refuge land protection planners and ensure they are actually implemented and operationalized to make strategic conservation investments in the refuge system.

As the only federal land system that can administratively create new units, the refuge system has a unique role to play in conserving the nation’s wildlife and ecosystems in the face of climate change, rapid development, and other landscape stressors.  The final Strategic Growth Policy for the refuge system needs to ensure that refuges play this unique role in the most effective way possible.

Posted in Federal Policy, National Wildlife Refuges, Public Lands0 Comments

Sage-Grouse: Ambassador for the Sagebrush Sea

When they’re not engaged in their flamboyant spring mating displays, greater sage-grouse spend the rest of year making a living on vast sagebrush grasslands in the West called the “Sagebrush Sea.” In fact, sage-grouse cannot survive without sagebrush, and they need lots of it. This makes sage-grouse an ideal “umbrella” species for sagebrush habitats. 

Umbrella species typically require large expanses of healthy habitat to survive. Because of that requirement, protecting these species also benefits other fish, wildlife and plants within these large areas. Animals of any size can be an umbrella species. Large carnivores, like grizzly bears, are umbrella species for the forests where they roam, and little insects, like the bay checkerspot butterfly, serve the same role for rare native grasslands where they occur.

Though their numbers are diminishing, sage-grouse still live on about 100 million acres in the West. Individual groups of grouse are known to migrate up to 100 miles every year as they move between seasonal habitats. These expansive areas include sagebrush habitat, but also lakes, rivers, streams, springs and wetlands, hot springs, aspen groves, alkali flats, salt flats, sand dunes and rocky bluffs.

Managed properly, this diverse mosaic of habitats supports hundreds of species of fish and wildlife, including the powerful northern harrier, the tiny pygmy rabbit, the fleet-footed pronghorn and the gorgeous Lahontan cutthroat trout. The sagebrush ecosystem is a migratory corridor for birds and important winter habitat for mule deer and elk. At least 15 species of raptors use sagebrush grasslands, and a full complement of carnivores inhabit the landscape, from weasels to mountain lions.

The pygmy rabbit is the smallest rabbit in the world. Adults measure 8-11 inches and weigh a half-pound to a pound. The pygmy rabbit is also one of only two rabbits that digs its own burrow. It is typically found foraging under stands of big sagebrush species on deep soils, an increasingly rare habitat type in the Sagebrush Sea.

Unfortunately, as sage-grouse have declined in the West, so have a multitude of other species. More than 350 plant, fish and wildlife species in the Sagebrush Sea are of conservation concern. Of these, approximately 60 species are listed or are candidates for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

Making matters worse, threats posed by improper land use, weed incursion, wildfire and climate change are increasing on the landscape. Continued habitat loss and degradation is threatening a suite of sagebrush birds, including the sage sparrow, Brewer’s sparrow and sage thrasher. Excessive pumping and water diversions are drying up streams and springs, imperiling native fish. Livestock grazing and fire have severely reduced habitat for the pygmy rabbit, and oil and gas drilling has eliminated winter range for mule deer.

Sage-grouse to the rescue!

Federal and state agencies are currently engaged in an unprecedented planning process to conserve sage-grouse across the West. The new plans will affect more than 60 million acres of public lands. If these agencies adhere to the science and abide by their own planning directives, the conservation measures they develop and implement for sage-grouse will have enormous benefits for other species. New land use restrictions, wildlife reserves and restoration programs would ensure that sage-grouse, and a multitude of other fish and wildlife species, survive and flourish on the landscape. Defenders of Wildlife is heavily involved in the planning process and invite you to join us in this important endeavor!

Umbrella species serve as ambassadors for the ecosystems where they live and, while many ecosystems have an umbrella species, few are as charismatic as sage-grouse. The Sagebrush Sea and all of the fish and wildlife that live there are fortunate to be represented by this charming bird.

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife, Public Lands0 Comments

sage_grouse_Tatiana_Gettelman

Quit Your Grousing! Debunking Industry Objections to Sage-Grouse Conservation Measures

The greater sage-grouse is in trouble. Populations have been trending downward for years with many factors contributing to the species’ decline. Scientists have documented no fewer than 26 land uses and related effects that threaten sage-grouse, ranging from energy development and livestock grazing, to invasive species, wildfire and disease.

In 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that sage-grouse warranted protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), but that listing was precluded by other, higher priorities. But then just a year later, the agency committed in a court-approved settlement agreement to address sage-grouse for listing by 2015. After decades of population declines and habitat loss, this charismatic prairie dancer will finally receive a listing decision in two years.

Sage-grouse need large expanses of healthy sagebrush steppe to survive. Tatiana Gettelman/Flickr.

The certainty of the decision has prompted the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and other federal and state agencies to initiate an unprecedented planning effort to conserve sage-grouse across its range. This process has produced new compilations of science-based recommendations for conserving sage-grouse.

Among these is “A Report on National Greater Sage-Grouse Conservation Measures” written by a National Technical Team (NTT) of sage-grouse experts and land managers. The NTT report asserts that the BLM must adopt a “new paradigm” for managing sage-grouse, including much stricter land use standards on public lands to conserve grouse habitat.

Although they claim to support the species’ conservation, extractive industries are becoming nervous about what may be required to protect sage-grouse and their habitat. The NTT report, in particular, has drawn heavy fire from resource users that would prefer business as usual on public lands, including strong objections from the Northwest Mining Association (NMA), which published a critique of the NTT recommendations. A journalist invited Defenders of Wildlife to comment on the NWA report. If you are feeling wonky, you may be interested in our review, below.

====================================================================================

I have read the Northwest Mining Association’s (NMA) report, “BLM’s NTT Report: Is It the Best Available Science or a Tool to Support a Predetermined Outcome?” The NWA report is meaningless. The author misunderstands the relationship between the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) sensitive species policy and the National Technical Team’s (NTT) conservation recommendations for sage-grouse. While the BLM’s sensitive species policy requires the agency to conserve sensitive, candidate and listed species, it doesn’t include actual management prescriptions for doing so. The NTT report, on the other hand, presents recommendations by 23 sage-grouse experts and land managers (including 14 BLM officials) to conserve and recover sage-grouse. Fully implemented, the NTT report recommendations would help BLM meet its policy requirement to conserve sensitive species. In other words, the NTT report doesn’t replace the sensitive species policy, it is intended to guide agency management to achieve the goal of that policy.

The NMA report is also confusing, makes numerous baseless contentions and twists applicability of federal environmental law and regulation to reach strained conclusions about the NTT report. I have highlighted just a few of the questionable contentions from the report below.

“As such, [the NTT report] inappropriately discards an existing agency [sensitive species] policy without ever justifying the radical change advanced in the NTT [report], and is thus arbitrary and capricious” (p. i).

As noted above, the NTT report is intended to help BLM achieve the goal of its sensitive species policy. The NTT report recognized that BLM must commit to a “new paradigm” to manage sagebrush steppe and conserve sage-grouse (NTT report: 6). The report “provides the latest science and best biological judgment to assist in making management decisions” for sage-grouse (NTT report: 5).

“To that end, failing to include full implementation of Manual 6840 and the 2004 Guidance as an alternative in the Draft EIS documents is arbitrary and capricious, and the Draft EIS documents should not be published for public review until full analysis of this alternative is included” (p. ii).

See explanation of the BLM sensitive species policy above. The BLM will fully analyze all alternatives in sage-grouse planning documents in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act.

“Additionally, information just made public by the Federal government has revealed that BLM is presently incorporating elements of the NTT Report’s conservation measures into many of its 79 Resource Management Plans impacted by sage grouse through interim guidance prior to completing the EIS process” (news release).

This statement is further evidence of the author’s lack of awareness of the current sage-grouse planning process. The BLM announced as early as summer 2011 that it would update resource management plans with sage-grouse management prescriptions to support the species’ conservation and recovery on public lands. The agency also announced the policy in an instruction memorandum and a rangewide scoping notice in winter 2012. The planning process is depicted on a rangewide planning map that is regularly updated by the agency.

“…BLM chartered the Sage-Grouse National Technical Team who was charged with developing policy on how to manage sage-grouse conservation and protection under its jurisdiction, and against which all BLM activities would be measured” (p. 1).

The NTT report recommends management prescriptions to conserve and recover sage-grouse on public land. It is not a document by which “all BLM activities would be measured.” BLM Instruction Memorandum 2012-044—which was issued with the NTT report, and which the NMA report failed to reference—instructs BLM planners on how to use the NTT report (as well as the 2004 sage-grouse guidance) to update sage-grouse plans.

“…lack of consideration of the Policy for the Evaluation of Conservation Efforts (PECE)” (p. 1).

The PECE policy is the Fish and Wildlife Service’s guidance for measuring the effectiveness of conservation efforts to protect imperiled species. While the policy may be a helpful reference for BLM in developing sage-grouse conservation measures, it would be odd for the BLM to analyze the FWS policy itself in their planning process.

“To achieve the primary objective the NTT sets forth sub-objectives. Two of the four sub-objectives assert that 70% of the range within priority habitat needs to provide ‘adequate’ sagebrush habitat to meet sage-grouse needs, and that discrete anthropogenic disturbances in priority habitat be limited to less than 3% of the total sage-grouse habitat regardless of ownership (NTT at 7). These objectives are not supported by the literature” (p. 2).

These prescriptions were not only supported by science when the NTT report was written, new peer-reviewed research published this spring (Knick et al. 2013) confirms that sage-grouse persistence depends on large, undisturbed landscapes (<3% anthropogenic disturbance) mostly covered by sagebrush (average 79% sagebrush cover within 5 km of active leks).

The NMA report, citing others, criticizes Greater Sage-Grouse: Ecology and Conservation of a Landscape Species and Its Habitats (monograph).

The sage-grouse monograph was written by the top 38 sage-grouse and sagebrush experts in the world, edited by S. Knick and J. Connelly (experts on sagebrush and sage-grouse ecology), technically edited by C. Braun (sage-grouse expert), published by Studies in Avian Biology (Cooper Ornithological Society) and printed by the University of California Press. While NMA may not agree with information presented in the monograph, there is no questioning its validity.

“We were unable to obtain the following source. As such, any conclusions that are drawn in this report relating to this source are subject to change: M.J. Wisdom et.al., Factors Associated with Extirpation of Sage-grouse. 2011. Pages 451-472 in S.T. Knick and J.W. Connelly (editors). Greater Sage-grouse: Ecology and Conservation of a Landscape Species and Its Habitats. Studies in Avian Biology (Vol. 38). University of California press, Berkeley, California, USA” (p. 14-15, fn. 25).

Interesting that the NMA report would criticize the sage-grouse monograph without even having a copy to review. The monograph is available for purchase and the chapters are easily acquired from individual authors.

“The peer reviewers recognized the lack of discussion related to current state level sage-grouse plans, and other regulatory mechanisms that are protective in nature, as well as the complete disregard of Federal Land Policy Management Act (FLPMA) and PECE considerations” (p. 6).

See above explanation of the relationship between federal law and policy and the NTT report. FLPMA and the BLM sensitive species policy are management requirements; the NTT report presents scientific recommendations for achieving management goals. Also, most states are still in the process of developing sage-grouse conservation plans. Some of them are not very helpful to sage-grouse.

“In other words, all BLM needs to do is monitor and implement its own policy with regards to “special status species” under the Manual and provide data to USFWS in a useable format so that they can show reliable, quantifiable trends relating to the effectiveness of the Manual’s provisions in RMPs to the USFWS” (p. 8).

The problem with this assumption is that the Fish and Wildlife Service has already found that current BLM management done in accordance with its sensitive species policy and other law and regulation has failed to conserve sage-grouse. This is why the BLM commissioned the NTT report—to provide additional guidance for improving sage-grouse conservation on public lands.

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife, Public Lands0 Comments

Climate Change and NEPA: Getting it Right

Climate Change and NEPA: Getting it Right

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was signed into law in 1969 and has gone on to be one of our country’s most important environmental laws. The law creates a framework and process by which federal agencies must consider the impacts of their actions on the environment – including natural resources, human health, infrastructure, and land use. Since climate change is one of the most important environmental issues to emerge in the past few decades, and promises to remain so for the foreseeable future, it is clear that NEPA has an important role to play in how agencies consider the effects of climate change both on their investments, and also on the resources that their projects affect. It is increasingly critical for agencies to thoughtfully and thoroughly consider climate change, from both an emissions and adaptation standpoint, as part of NEPA analysis, particularly in the most detailed and through decision documents, Environmental Impact Statements.

In order to facilitate agencies’ consideration of climate change, the administration released Draft NEPA Guidance on Consideration of the Effects of Climate Change and Greenhouse Gas Emissions in 2010. The Draft Guidance clearly indicated that relevant climate information includes both greenhouse gas emissions information, and also climate change impacts and adaptation. To date, however, most of the attention paid to the guidance has been from the point of view of emissions analysis.

To get a better understanding of whether and how well agencies were incorporating the adaptation recommendations, we analyzed 154 Final Environmental Impact Statements released between July 2011 and April 2012. To our dismay, we found that very few incorporated the climate adaptation elements of the 2010 draft guidance. Even the best-performing EISs tended to incorporate climate change into a limited number of the elements of the affected environment, failed to make a full comparison between the various alternatives, or used short and qualitative statements rather than full analysis based on the best available science. We explore the possible reasons for this and present recommendations for overcoming these obstacles in our new report Reasonably Foreseeable Futures

The Chiracahua Mountains in the Coronado National Forest support the sky island ecosystems of the southwest, some of the most unique and biodiverse areas on our public lands.  Portions of the sky islands would be put at risk by this bill.

The Chiracahua Mountains in the Coronado National Forest support the sky island ecosystems of the southwest, some of the most unique and biodiverse areas on our public lands. These ecosystems are severely threatened by climate change, and climate-smart management will be key to their survival.

.

Posted in Climate Change, Federal Policy, National Forests, National Wildlife Refuges, NEPA, Public Lands, Smart from the Start, Uncategorized0 Comments

Spawning salmon

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

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

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

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

Old-growth forest

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

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

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

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

Spawning salmon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in ESA, Federal Policy, Legislation, National Forests, NEPA, Public Lands, Uncategorized1 Comment

A Sage-Grouse Natural History

The history of the American West is told in the tales of those who traveled, lived and loved the land. For sagebrush grasslands, these narratives often included reference to, reverence of, or concern for one of its most charismatic residents: the sage-grouse.

The colorful history of the sage-grouse has been chronicled by Native Americans, explorers, settlers, government surveyors, naturalists, and in some of the most important accounts written about the West and the environment. Lewis and Clark first described sage-grouse in their journals in 1805 (Captain Clark even made a drawing of sage-grouse in his journal), and Rachel Carson devoted pages to sage-grouse and their habitat in her seminal book, Silent Spring, more than 150 years later.

The earliest indicator of the significance of the grouse on the landscape is evinced by the wide recognition afforded the bird in Native American languages. Many tribes utilized the sage-grouse for food and emulated the grouse in ceremonial dress and dance. The names they gave to sage-grouse are many and diverse, including “Seedskadee,” “Sisk-a-dee” and similar variants used by Rocky Mountain tribes (the Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge in Wyoming is named after sage-grouse); tribes in the Great Basin called the bird “Ooˊ-jah” and “See-yook”; and tribes in California “Kōpˊ-te”;  “Hooˊ-dze-hah,” and “Hood´-ze-ah´.”

Later, westward settlers frequently reported sage-grouse in their diaries, and depended on the bird for food in places where often no other game was available. Our names for places and landmarks throughout the Interior West today include countless “sage hen” and “sage grouse” creeks, basins, flats, hills, trails and roads in the West—further evidence of the species’ importance and historic ubiquity in the region.

Prior to the turn of the 20th Century, sage-grouse were still so plentiful that westerners described flocks that “darkened” and “clouded” the sky in Montana, Wyoming and Nevada. The birds were so abundant that they might have controlled grasshopper and cricket outbreaks, a phenomenon that taxpayers now spend millions of dollars to manage with insecticides. In one amazing report of sage-grouse from the late 1800s the observer compared sage-grouse to the “old-time flights of passenger pigeons.”

Unfortunately, however, the story of sage-grouse is also one of the species’ decline in the West. Sage-grouse numbers began to diminish with the loss and degradation of the high desert, the wide-open landscape most imagine when picturing the iconic American West. In 1916, William Hornaday of the New York Zoological Society was among the first to express concern for sage-grouse, publishing a pamphlet titled “Save the Sage Grouse from Extinction: A Demand from Civilization to the Western States.” Even before then, Oregon had reduced both the season and bag limit for sage-grouse in 1908, and by 1922 the state game warden worried that sage-grouse may become extinct in the state. Wyoming closed hunting for sage-grouse between 1937 and 1950. Other states also closed or reduced hunting seasons for extended periods. Although sage-grouse populations tend to cycle up and down, the overall trend was set.

While a number of factors have contributed to declining sage-grouse populations, Rachel Carson zeroed in on the federal government’s range “improvement” programs as a primary cause of disappearing sage-grouse and other wildlife. Beginning the 1950s-60s, and at the behest of the livestock industry, federal agencies declared war on sagebrush, burning, plowing and destroying hundreds of thousands of acres of the native vegetation in favor of non-native forage crops for livestock. Carson pointedly, and poetically, described the effects of these programs on sage-grouse in Silent Spring:

“One of the most tragic examples of our unthinking bludgeon­ing of the landscape is to be seen in the sagebrush lands of the West, where a vast campaign is on to destroy the sage and to substitute grasslands. If ever an enterprise needed to be illumi­nated with a sense of the history and meaning of the landscape, it is this. For here the natural landscape is eloquent of the interplay of forces that have created it. It is spread before us like the pages of an open book in which we can read why the land is what it is, and why we should preserve its integrity. But the pages lie unread…Along with the plants, animal life, too, [evolved] in har­mony with the searching requirements of the land…The sage and the grouse seem made for each other. The original range of the bird coincided with the range of the sage, and as the sagelands have been reduced, so the populations of grouse have dwindled.”

The sage-grouse now occupies little more than half of its original range (no longer occurring in many places where Lewis and Clark reported seeing them), and current populations are estimated at less than 10 percent of historic levels. Although the war on sagebrush has generally abated, it still continues in some places. Oil and gas drilling, livestock grazing, off-road vehicle use, transmission corridors, roads, fences, and myriad other factors have also conspired to eliminate sage-grouse from the landscape, and may put them on the endangered species list.

The species’ plight has finally compelled the federal government to initiate a massive planning effort to improve conditions for the grouse. It is our hope that sage-grouse’s rich history in the West can help remind people of what the grouse once meant, and still mean, to America, and can motivate current conservation planning to do all that is required to protect and recover the species. We still have an opportunity to restore sage-grouse and their habitat so that future generations can tell their own tales about the grouse.

Posted in Federal Policy, Imperiled Wildlife, Public Lands, Uncategorized0 Comments

Sage Grouse Crossing

A Conservation Checklist for Sage-Grouse

The greater sage-grouse has been of conservation concern for more than 100 years, when both locals and visiting naturalists first observed population declines. Conservationists began advocating for protection for the species 15 years ago and, after a “convoluted journey” through the federal Endangered Species Act listing process, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will finally consider the species for listing in 2015.

This date certain for a listing decision has compelled a multitude of federal and state agencies and local entities to finally develop conservation strategies to protect and recover sage-grouse and their habitat. Defenders of Wildlife is heavily engaged in these planning processes. We are analyzing thousands of pages of documents and working to improve federal and state conservation strategies for the species. To this end, we have developed a science-based checklist to evaluate planning efforts.

A successful sage-grouse conservation plan will include, at a minimum, the following measures to ensure sage-grouse conservation. They are based on sage-grouse and sagebrush ecology, as well as key principles of conservation biology of protecting and managing habitat to conserve species. The checklist also addresses three sage-grouse habitat categories—“priority,” “restoration” and “general” habitat—that federal and state agencies have already defined for sage-grouse planning purposes.

  1. Identify, designate and preserve priority habitat essential to sage-grouse conservation and restoration. The first rule for conserving imperiled species is to prevent continued loss and degradation of habitat essential for the species persistence. This is especially important for sage-grouse, which are highly sensitive to disturbance, particularly in their breeding, nesting and brood-rearing habitat. Protecting winter habitat is also critical for sage-grouse conservation.
  2. Create and expand existing protected areas critical to sage-grouse and sagebrush conservation. Some proportion of remaining sage-grouse range is so important for conservation that it should be protected and specially managed as permanent reserves for sage-grouse and other sagebrush-dependent species. These can include new and expanded national wildlife refuges; Congressional designations, such as wilderness and national conservation areas; and administrative allocations, like areas of critical environmental concern. A reserve system should protect large expanses of sagebrush steppe, important seasonal habitats and connectivity, and the system should be large enough to achieve the goals of biological representation, and ecological redundancy and resiliency.
  3. Designate restoration habitat to focus habitat restoration efforts. Restoration habitat is degraded or fragmented habitat that may not be currently occupied by sage-grouse, but might support the species if restored. Land managers should target passive and active habitat restoration efforts in these areas to extend current sage-grouse range and mitigate for future loss of priority habitat.
  4. Reduce and mitigate threats in sage-grouse general habitat, outside of priority habitat, protected areas, and restoration habitat. The goal for managing general habitat is to support habitat connectivity and increase sage-grouse populations within and outside of the other sage-grouse habitat designations.
  5. Develop adaptive management plans with sciencedriven triggers that indicate when management is not leading to desired outcomes. Plans should institute adequate, consistent, objective-driven monitoring keyed to appropriate indicators that provide the information needed for adaptive management—and then require changes when current management fails to meet conservation objectives.

These simple, sensible precepts, if adopted and implemented across sage-grouse range, would provide a basis for sage-grouse restoration in theWest. We encourage Defenders’ members and supporters to participate in the current planning process for greater sage-grouse. Navigating these bulky, intimidating, but vitally important conservation plans will be far more manageable with our conservation checklist in hand.

Sage Grouse Crossing

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife, Public Lands0 Comments

Defenders Comments on New Forest Planning Directives

Defenders Comments on New Forest Planning Directives

As long time followers know, Defenders has been working hard to shape National Forest conservation policy for decades, including non-stop campaigning for the last several years to make sure new forest planning regulations conserve and recover forest dependent wildlife.  To ensure that these new rules translate into real on-the-ground protections for wildlife and forest ecosystems, Defenders kicked off our Forests for Wildlife Initiative.  The goal of the initiative is to transform how the Forest Service manages forests for wildlife, and to protect and restore national forest landscapes through on-the-ground conservation projects and actions.

The Forests for Wildlife Initiative takes us from the policymaking world of Washington D.C., to the majestic landscapes of Alaska and California.  Last year, I was appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture to a Federal Advisory Committee charged with overseeing implementation of the new planning rule.  One of the committee’s first tasks was to work with the Forest Service to craft policy “directives” that will guide how the new regulation is interpreted and applied to individual national forests.  Our comments on the draft directives can be found here.  The complex forest policy world is like an onion trapped in a spider’s web.  Numerous statutes govern the management of National Forests, including the National Forest Management Act, as well as associated federal rules and regulations.  Keep peeling and one finally gets down to the highly technical internal agency policies that tell forest managers how to navigate and implement all of the various rules and regulations.  The directives tell managers “how” to do the “what”— the requirements that are spelled out in the regulations.  Good planning directives provide strong, clear direction to managers on how to identify, conserve and monitor species of conservation concern; account for ecosystem services; or manage in the face of climate change.  Poor directives can lead to inconsistent conservation decisions that could lessen protections and raise risks for forests and wildlife.

The current draft directives need some work to provide forest managers a clear path to effectively conserving forest integrity and wildlife.  The advisory committee will be working with the Forest Service all summer to make recommendations on how to improve them.  Stay tuned for more updates and campaign reports from the Forests for Wildlife Initiative.

Posted in Climate Change, Federal Policy, National Forests, Public Lands0 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.

www.defenders.org