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.
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.
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.