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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

Bringing Climate Change Home: The Third National Climate Assessment

The world is a big place, and when a group called the “Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change” puts out a report on the global effects of climate warming, a natural question is: “So, what does this mean for me?” This week brings us an answer, in the form of the no less ambitious but decidedly more local “National Climate Assessment.”

Thirteen federal agencies and over 300 authors teamed up to produce the Third National Climate Assessment (NCA), as mandated by a 1990 law called the Global Change Research Act. While its methodologies and conclusions are similar to that of the IPCC’s work, it also comes with an important difference, namely, its focus is entirely on what the warming climate means for the United States. Even more importantly, the NCA delivers its information in a manner more relevant to American decision-makers, by breaking its results down by region and by sector (agriculture, infrastructure, health, etc.). The new web interface also allows users to either download and read the full report, or explore individual topics of interest.

The NCA is pretty blunt in its main findings: “Global climate is changing and this change is apparent across a wide range of observations. The global warming of the past 50 years is primarily due to human activities. Global climate is projected to continue to change over this century and beyond. The magnitude of climate change beyond the next few decades depends primarily on the amount of heat-trapping gases emitted globally, and how sensitive the Earth’s climate is to those emissions.”

Some of the NCA’s a key findings include important warnings about the effect of climate change on ecosystems and biodiversity: “In addition to climate changes that directly affect habitats, events such as droughts, floods, wildfires, and pest outbreaks associated with climate change are already disrupting ecosystem structures and functions in a variety of direct and indirect ways. These changes limit the capacity of ecosystems such as forests, barrier beaches, and coastal- and freshwater- wetlands to adapt and continue to play important roles in reducing the impacts of these extreme events on infrastructure, human communities, and other valued resources.”

In its chapter on Ecosystems and Biodiversity, the NCA found that:

1. “Climate change impacts on ecosystems reduce their ability to improve water quality and regulate water flows.”  Warmer air and water temperatures, changing precipitation patterns and decreased snowpack all exacerbate water pollution problems—resulting in higher levels of nutrients that lead to toxic algal blooms and pathogen outbreaks, and lower levels of oxygen. The result could be loss of aquatic ecosystems and species, like the iconic trout streams of the West.

2. “Climate change, combined with other stressors, is overwhelming the capacity of ecosystems to buffer the impacts from extreme events like fires, floods, and storms.” For instance, as rising sea levels chip away at coastal salt marshes, mangroves and barrier islands, communities inland become more vulnerable to hurricanes and other storms. And stress to forests from heat, drought and insect outbreaks means that houses near the urban-wildland interface are more at risk from major fires.

3. “Landscapes and seascapes are changing rapidly, and species, including many iconicspecies, may disappear from regions where they have been prevalent or become extinct, changingsome regions so much that their mix of plant and animal life will become almostunrecognizable.”  From wildfires burning on previously frozen Arctic tundra, to species shifting their ranges northward and upward, to a proliferation of invasive species, our ecological communities are changing, and fast. If species and communities can’t keep pace with the rate of change, species declines and even extinctions will result.

4. “Timing of critical biological events, such as spring bud burst, emergence fromoverwintering, and the start of migrations, has shifted, leading to important impactson species and habitats.” In many places, the signs of spring are coming earlier—the budding of trees, blossoming of flowers, or the emergence of animals from migration. Since some aspects of life cycles are governed by day length and others by temperature, the shifting of some temperature-governed spring events earlier may lead to “mismatches” between predators and prey, or flower and pollinator, that could negatively affect survival.

5. “Whole system management is often more effective than focusing on one species at a time, and can help reduce the harm to wildlife, natural assets, and human well-being that climate disruption might cause.” Key to protecting both wildlife and human communities will be a suite of approaches, like being ready to respond to new threats, and protection and restoration of ecosystems, especially coastal and riparian habitats and corridors for species movement.

Additional chapters are dedicated to impacts on Coasts, Oceans, Forests, and Land Use.

Communities, wildlife managers, and other decision-makers need accurate, relevant, local-scale information in order to make the right choices to reduce our vulnerability to climate change. The National Climate Assessment is the tool that many have been waiting for.

Posted in Climate Change, Uncategorized0 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, Uncategorized0 Comments

Jonah-II-Gas-Field-300×199 wilderness society

A Sage-Grouse Natural History


Sage-grouse were easier to find in 1900.  (©Nevada Historical Society, Robert Fulton Collection)

Sage-grouse were easier to find in 1900. (©Nevada Historical Society, Robert Fulton Collection)

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.


No fewer than 26 land uses and related effects threaten sage-grouse today, including oil and gas drilling. (©Peter Aengst, The Wilderness Society)

No fewer than 26 land uses and related effects threaten sage-grouse today, including oil and gas drilling. (©Peter Aengst, The Wilderness Society)

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

Oklahoma Finalizes Conservation Agreement for Lesser Prairie Chicken

Oklahoma Finalizes Conservation Agreement for Lesser Prairie Chicken

Later this year, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service must decide whether to list the lesser prairie chicken under the Endangered Species Act.  With this deadline looming, state and private landowners are racing to finalize conservation agreements for the species, with the hope of staving off the need for listing.  Less than two months ago, the Service approved the latest of these agreements, which covers existing and potential prairie chicken habitat in Oklahoma.

The agreement is a candidate conservation agreement with assurances (CCAA), which offers participants a legal assurance: if the prairie chicken is listed, the participants will not be required to take any conservation actions beyond those they agreed to under the CCAA.  The Service has finalized 26 other CCAAs in the 13 years this tool has been available.  In an upcoming Defenders report, we analyze all of these CCAAs and describe how and when the Service has used them.  For now, I note a few interesting or unique aspects about this latest Oklahoma CCAA.

First, it specifically prohibits a number of activities that are highly destructive to the prairie chicken.  These include all oil and gas development, conversion of native rangeland to farmland, tree planting, wind turbine development, and transmission lines.  Not all CCAAs are so protective.  The Texas CCAA for the dunes sagebrush lizard, for example, allows for oil and gas development and other high impact activities (our recent report covers this issue).  Strict prohibitions like the ones in the Oklahoma CCAA are a good idea if the state wants to convince the Service that listing the species is unnecessary.

The agreement also prohibits predator control or removal as a method to conserve the prairie chicken.  This is the first CCAA I have read that includes such a forward-thinking provision.  The agreement explains that “predators have historically been a natural part of the landscape” in the range of the prairie chicken.  “In those instances where predators do post a serious threat, this is symptomatic of diminished habitat quality….”  By addressing the root cause of the problem rather than slapping on a Band-Aid, the CCAA is helping to ensure that prairie chicken conservation does not come at the expensive of native predators.

Finally, the agreement does an admirable job attempting to estimate the number of lesser prairie chickens inhabiting the area covered by the CCAA and the number that may be harmed by conservation measures it authorizes.  Most CCAAs do not even attempt this task, leaving the public with little idea about how an agreement will affect the abundance of a species.  The Oklahoma CCAA estimates that 402 birds are reasonably expected to occur in the 200,000 acres the state plans to enroll under the agreement by 2037.  From this figure, the CCAA estimates the number of individual birds that might be inadvertently killed by conservation measures such as prescribed burns and brush management—no more than an average of 20 birds annually and 10 nests with eggs or broods annually.

To be sure, this CCAA is not perfect.  For example, the adaptive management and monitoring provisions could use a big boost.  But it certainly was designed to address the most severe threats facing the prairie chicken.  Future implementation and transparent reporting will show the extent to which this agreement advances the conservation goals of the species.


Additional Resources on the Lesser Prairie Chicken

My blog post on five problems with the recent proposed rule to list the species as threatened.

A related blog post on the demographic problems with the proposed rule.

Lesser Prairie Chicken

Lesser prairie chicken. Courtesy Natural Resources Conservation Service.


Posted in Agriculture, Imperiled Wildlife, private lands, Uncategorized0 Comments

Getting Off on the Right Foot with Conservation Planning Part I: Why plan?

Conservation planning is a decision-making process to identify, prioritize, pursue, and protect conservation priorities in a way that will most effectively and efficiently achieve a goal.  (First in a three part series)

Why plan? Just to name a few reasons: Planning builds organizational consensus over the selection of projects and allows the organization to be more proactive. Planning improves outreach to the community by stating the values of the organization or agency and by rigorously reviewing projects for public benefits.  Planning improves chances for success with funding programs that rely on criteria for selecting successful applicants. Planning helps with vetting conservation projects for their long-term suitability to meet the mission. Planning makes conservation decisions more defensible to withstand scrutiny by outside parties and the community in general.

Seems logical enough, no?  Then why is even the idea of undertaking a conservation planning process is a seemingly overwhelming task for both small and large conservation organizations and agencies alike?  Even though we know that we need conservation planning to move us from being opportunistic  (taking projects as they  come through the door) to being more strategic (figuring out a decision process for selecting actions that will be the most effective at meeting conservation goals), we can’t seem to muster the time, energy, or resources to begin the journey.  The notion of embarking on a lengthy and complicated process, taking time away from the “real work” of conservation, and stretching limited resources even further can be a strong deterrent from planning. 

So, it seems, if we are going to plan, we should make the process as useful as possible.  No one wants to think they are being more strategic because we have a plan, then to realize down the road that their plans are not useful in the end. We all know it is pointless to go through the process of developing plans that are not being used to guide our decisions, yet it happens all of the time.  Many times it happens because the process is flawed from the beginning.

Planning Parts 2 will describe why identifying a decision problem is the biggest challenge, but one of the most important initial steps in the planning process. Planning Part 3 will describe how to define the decision-problem.

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife, Uncategorized0 Comments

Climate change and Greater Yellowstone fire regimes

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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BP Restoration Opportunities Slipping Away in the Gulf

Restoration in the Gulf offers a huge opportunity to address an ongoing coastal wetland catastrophe while protecting key oil infrastructure and shielding New Orleans from storm damage.  As Louisiana and other Gulf states develop restoration projects for the first $1 billion of BP oil spill money, State and Federal Trustees will hopefully seize the opportunity to demonstrate the tremendous benefits from strategic use of restoration funds.   These benefits include wildlife and fish habitat, storm surge protection, and flood mitigation to name a few.

Louisiana has lost a fourth of its coastal wetlands and the benefits they provide to past oil exploration canals, subsidence related to past oil pumping, and to a system of Mississippi River levees that denied fresh water and sediment needed to maintain the wetlands.  Yet, the remaining 6,000 square miles of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands still offer the lion’s share of fish rearing and certain wildlife functions for the entire Gulf region.  Over 40% of U.S. wetlands occur in the Mississippi Delta area, but since the 1930’s, these wetlands have receded 20 to 30 miles.  Each mile and a half of this ongoing wetland loss to open water adds another foot of storm surge threat to the city and to the Delta’s oil pipe infrastructure.  The tens of billions of dollars potential restoration benefits related to fish and wildlife habitat are overshadowed by the much larger economic benefits coastal wetlands provide protecting a major city from storm surges and protecting the nation’s oil pipe infrastructure.

Yet, the “shovel ready” project lists drafted by Louisiana would spend about half of the initial $1 billion from BP on pumping sand onto existing islands and creating new ones where past storms have washed the sand away.  These proposed projects aim to protect a couple thousand acres of wetlands behind the islands receiving the sand and restore a few hundred wetland acres.  This modest wetland restoration roughly equals the Mississippi’s Delta coastal wetland losses that occur every month.

Louisiana’s longer term ideas for restoration funding include construction of wetlands and stream buffers to treat Midwestern farm nutrients entering the Mississippi drainage.   The Midwestern projects’ aim to reduce nutrient loads in the Mississippi River, thereby decreasing the size of the Dead Zone in the Gulf.  These wetland projects provide local wildlife benefits to bird watchers and hunters that might cover most of their several billion dollars of acquisition and construction costs, but their benefits from reducing the Dead Zone fall far short of the hundreds of billions of dollars in benefits from saving Louisiana’s coastal wetlands.  Farm programs provide billions of dollars of conservation funding each year to address agricultural runoff, which may offer a better alternative for treating nutrients from Midwestern farms than using oil spill money.

Project lists for BP oil spill funding need to include restoration of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands.  This could be accomplished by reconnecting the Mississippi River to the Delta, as described by the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority of Louisiana.  Rarely do the most urgent wildlife and ecosystem needs merge so completely with our energy needs and our needs to protect people and their homes and businesses.

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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.

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Eastern massasauga rattlesnake, one of over 260 candidate species.

House Republicans Launch Wholesale Attack on Endangered Species

The current House Interior Appropriations Bill for 2012 is perhaps the most sweeping attempt in recent years to devastate the Endangered Species Act.  From halting the listing of any new species to gutting EPA’s ability to protect wildlife from pesticides, the bill and its amendments would eliminate many years of conservation progress.  This facts sheet discusses the three bill provisions that most affect the ESA.  In brief:

1.  U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service spending cap.  This “Extinction Rider” is the most sweeping attempt in recent history to gut the Endangered Species Act, paralyzing our nation’s ability to protect hundreds of species of imperiled wildlife.  The rider prevents the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service from spending any money to implement some of the most crucial sections of the Act: § 4(a) to list new species; § 4(b) to designate habitat critical to a species’ survival; § 4(c) to upgrade the status of any species from threatened to endangered; and § 4(e) to assist law enforcement by protecting species that resemble listed species.  As a result, the Service could not immediately list and protect any of the over 260 “candidate species” under the Act – species that the Service has already determined warrant this protection.

2.  Calvert amendment to make ESA pesticide consultations meaningless.  Representative Ken Calvert successfully added an amendment that would largely eliminate the ESA’s ability to protect imperiled species from pesticides.  The amendment prohibits the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from using any funds to “modify, cancel, or suspend” the registration of pesticides in response to any ESA biological opinion.  For example, if a biological opinion restricts a pesticide from being sprayed over sensitive wildlife habitat, those restrictions would be considered “modifications” to the pesticide’s registration.  And as a result, EPA could not implement the restrictions.

3.  Provision to shield gray wolf delistings from judicial review.  This provision exempts from judicial review any final rule that delists gray wolves in Wyoming and any states within the range of the Western Great Lakes Distinct Population Segment of gray wolves (including Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin), provided that FWS has entered into an agreement with the state for it to manage wolves.  The provision undercuts one of the most important checks and balances built into the ESA – public participation through the ability of citizens to request judicial review of delistings.  Of most concern are the Wyoming wolves, as the state has refused to even create a wolf conservation plan.  Should the Service delist these wolves without using the best available science, it would be important for citizen groups to have the option of asking a court to review that decision.

Eastern massasauga rattlesnake, one of over 260 candidate species.

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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.