Tag Archive | "candidate species"

Sand-Dune-Lizard-Photo-from-Bison-M-NM-Game-and-Fish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dunes sagebrush lizard

Posted in Fossil Fuels, Imperiled Wildlife, SouthwestComments (0)

McRoberts_Mar2007_1LesserPrairieChicken

Five Problems with the Proposed Rule to List the Lesser Prairie-Chicken

Last month, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced its long-awaited decision on whether to propose listing the lesser prairie-chicken as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  It has been over fourteen years since the Service concluded that the species warranted listing.  With all this time, you would assume that the Service would have issued something close to an impeachable listing proposal.  But what Tim Male and I have uncovered in our review of the proposal are a number of puzzling and disappointing gaps.  Here, we summarize the top five problems.

First, the conservation goals for the lesser prairie-chicken are perplexingly low.  The Service believes that it can adequately conserve the species if it maintains a minimum of four “strongholds” — each consisting of 25,000 – 50,000 acres of habitat, 6-10 leks, and 6 birds of each sex — augmented by an “undetermined number of additional strongholds.”  Four strongholds would cover up to 200,000 acres, 40 leks, and 500 birds.  By meeting this goal and reducing threats to the species, the Service presumably believes that it can withdraw the proposed listing.  But 200,000 acres (313 sq. miles) is a mere 1.15 percent of the bird’s current occupied range (27,259 sq. miles) and 0.17 percent of its historic range (180,309 sq. miles).

Now also consider the Service’s conservation goals for the greater sage grouse, which is another candidate species facing similar threats and exhibiting similar life-history traits.  The Service believes it needs at least 20,000 sage grouse (40 populations of 500 birds each) distributed across 165 million acres of habitat.   So we have 20,000 sage grouse versus 500 prairie-chicken (40 times as much) and 165 million acres versus 200,000 acres (825 times as much).  Keep in mind that, by the Service’s own admission, these are “closely related and generally similar” species.  The Service has not explained how such gargantuan disparities are scientifically justified.

A second problem is that the proposed rule neglects to analyze the potential loss of lesser prairie-chicken habitat resulting from proposed changes to the federal Farm Bill, specifically the elimination of basic conservation requirements for farmers.  Recent data show that between 2008 and 2011, over 23 million acres of wildlife habitat was converted into row crop agriculture, including over 1.5 million acres in the counties where prairie chickens still occur (you can learn more about the losses in the blog post here).  These losses are the result of subsidies for crop insurance that incentivize the destruction of wildlife habitat as well as high crop prices, driven in part by ethanol subsidies and mandates.  Congress has also proposed changes to the Farm Bill that would exacerbate these losses, driving the prairie-chicken closer to extinction.  The listing proposal neither accounts for this recent data nor the proposed changes to the Farm Bill.  It instead relies on outdated and incomplete data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture on land use changes in the range of the prairie-chicken from many years ago.

A third issue is that the Service neglects recent data showing reduced enrollment in the USDA Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) in the counties the lesser prairie chicken occurs.  The Service first expounds on the importance of the CRP at preventing or stopping declines of the lesser prairie-chicken.  It then describes how farmers currently enrolled in the CRP have expiring contracts and are expected to reenroll.  It bases this prediction on the fact that in 2007, many farmers with expiring CRP contracts requested to reenroll.  What it never mentions is whether those farmers actually followed through.  The reality is that reenrollment after 2007 has been extremely low in counties occupied by the prairie-chicken.  Over 4.5 million acres expired between 2007 and 2013, but 2 million of those acres were never reenrolled.  Although over 1 million new acres have been enrolled and planted with grass, that habitat is likely to be of lower quality until it matures in several years.  More importantly, the new enrollment still leaves the CRP with a net loss of 1 million acres in the counties where the prairie-chicken is found.

A fourth problem is that the Service never analyzes the impacts of candidate conservation agreements for the lesser prairie-chicken.  The Service summarizes the status of the four candidate conservation agreements that have been finalized for the species and the one draft agreement that is pending approval.  For example, it describes the amount of habitat enrolled in each agreement and some of the conservation measures participants must implement.  But the Service never takes its analysis to the crucial next step: explaining how the agreements help reduce threats to the species and why the level of threat-reduction is not enough to avoid listing the species as threatened.

This is a troubling omission because in proposed listing rules for other species, the Service always explains why voluntary conservation agreements for the species are inadequate to obviate a listing.  These explanations have allowed the public to understand why agreements may fall short and what additional conservation is needed after listing.  For example, in the recent proposed rule to list the spring pygmy sunfish, the Service explained that the one candidate conservation agreement for the species was not enough to prevent listing.  The reason was that the agreement had yet to demonstrate its effectiveness and did not protect 76 percent of the species’ habitat.

The Service typically provides this explanation in its analysis of the threats that cause a species to warrant listing.  This analysis, also known as the five-factor threat analysis, covers issues including habitat loss and inadequacy of existing laws to protect the species.  The five-factor analysis for the prairie-chicken is entirely silent on the five candidate conservation agreements.  It is unfortunate that the Service spends many years of hard work to draft and implement the agreements, but then never explains their impacts on the species.

The final oversight is one of failing to follow the Service’s own procedures.  The Service concluded that the lesser prairie-chicken is “threatened” but never explains why it is not “endangered” throughout a “significant portion of its range.”  The Service is required to list a species if it is either “threatened” or “endangered” in either “all” or a “significant portion” of its range.  So there are four combinations that could trigger listing.  The proposed rule concludes that the lesser prairie-chicken is “threatened” in all of its range, but never explains why the species is not also “endangered” in only a “significant portion” of its range.  If the latter were true, the USFWS would have to list the species as endangered, which can offer greater protection than a threatened listing.

The failure to complete this analysis is a serious oversight that runs afoul of the requirements of the ESA and the Service’s own policies.  In fact, earlier this year, the USFWS issued a proposed policy that specifically confirms the need to analyze whether a species is endangered in a significant portion of its range—even if the species meets the definition of threatened.  This analysis is important for species like the lesser prairie-chicken that have been eliminated from most of their historic range.  For the prairie-chicken, some populations may be highly imperiled but also essential to the species’ ability to survive and recover.  It is precisely those populations that are likely to be endangered and make up a “significant portion” of the species’ range.  But the Service would never know unless it looked.

Defenders will continue to uncover additional gaps with the proposed rule, with the hope that the Service addresses these issues its upcoming decision to either finalize the proposed rule, modify it, or withdraw it.

Posted in Agriculture, Imperiled WildlifeComments (0)

Defenders recommends framework for conserving candidate species

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife, Paying for Conservation, private lands, Public LandsComments (0)

New England Cottontail Rabbit (FWS)

Upstream solutions for protecting candidate species

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

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

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

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife, Paying for ConservationComments (0)

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.

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife, UncategorizedComments (0)

Phenology and Climate Change

You have probably seen it, maybe in one newspaper or another.  Or maybe you heard it on the radio, or noticed it yourself.  It’s happening everywhere: timing of natural events is changing.  Many studies have documented the phenomenon: Miller-Rushing and Primack (2008) [used historical data on 43 plant species in Massachusetts to show that they are currently flowering an average of 7 days earlier compared to the second half of the 1800’s.  Parmesan (2006) wrote a comprehensive account of such changes in various organisms, and also changes in species ranges and in important ecological interactions of species, all of which are linked to climate change.

The periodic cycles through which plants and animals go is called phenology.  Over thousands of years, organisms have had their phenology defined and established through natural processes and environmental cues such as temperature changes.  Many of the organisms dependent on temperature changes to guide their phenology also developed some close relationships with other organisms essential for their survival, such as food plants or prey.  If the timing is off, due to factors such as climate change, those relationships will be affected, and the organisms may experience stress.  The Edith butterfly is a well-known example where climate change was a factor contributing to a density decrease and eventual local extinction of populations (although it was not the only factor at play).  According to Parmesan:

“The relationship between climate and survival of E. editha is typically mediated not by direct effects of temperature or precipitation on the insect, but by their indirect effects on timing of the butterfly’s life cycle relative to that of their host and nectar plants. […] The gradual warming and drying trend in southern California has likely led to a steady shortening of the window of time in which the host is edible, causing increased larval mortality in these southernmost populations.”

Of course, there has always been variation in timing for many natural events that are brought about by cues other than sunlight or photoperiod.  Temperature and humidity vary on a yearly basis, as exemplified by a warm winter or an unusually cold one.  However, there has been a conspicuous and proven pattern towards warmer temperatures in our recent past, and in spite of year-to-year variability, it has become clear that it is getting warmer earlier than it used to.  Maybe you and I don’t notice it, but those ultra-sensitive organisms, which perfected their phenological timing over thousands of years, certainly do.  And if they happen to be dependent on another organism whose phenology has not responded to increased temperatures in the same way, well, you get the picture. 

Unlike phenotypic changes, whereby organisms change their physical and/or structural appearance in response to climate change – and which can help a species adapt to climate change in the long run, because they are genetically based – phenological changes are just an immediate response with no adaptation value to be carried from generation to generation.  They can lead a species to endangerment, and eventually even to local extinction, if essential interactions are not kept correspondingly.  Therefore, we see that climate change not only can affect species directly, but also indirectly, in many and complex ways. 

It’s happening everywhere, and it is due to climate change.  There are many ways to detect important phenological changes, and there are various efforts underway that involve local communities.  See how you can help at the USA National Phenology Network website.

Posted in Climate Change, Imperiled WildlifeComments (0)

Photo of a greater sage grouse

Sage Grouse Conservation Strategy Delayed in Oregon

Photo of a greater sage grouse

Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Faced with strong opposition from wind developers and some eastern Oregon counties, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission has delayed final adoption of the state’s updated sage grouse conservation strategy, which had been scheduled for December 3.  In the meantime, the Natural Resources Conservation Service is moving ahead with the next round of funding for its Oregon sage grouse initiative, providing an additional $3.5 million for projects to improve habitat for sage grouse on private lands in eastern Oregon.  The focus is on juniper removal within three miles of sage grouse leks in Baker, Crook, Deschutes, Harney, Lake, and Malheur counties.  Deadline for signups is December 15.  Payments for juniper removal typically average about $141 per acre.

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife, Pacific Northwest, RenewablesComments (0)

The Fate of the Washington Ground Squirrel

The Washington ground squirrel’s largest remaining block of habitat is effectively an island of native grasslands and sagebrush steppe in a sea of dryland wheat and irrigated croplands.  The Navy operates a naval weapons training facility in the area, but their activities have been primarily focused on electronic warfare tactics.  The squirrel is listed as endangered under Oregon’s law and has been listed as a candidate species (currently a category 5 priority for listing) under Federal law.

Threats to the squirrel were not considered imminent until a few years ago when the Oregon National Guard proposed building a heavy weapons training on the Navy’s Boardman Bombing Range in the heart of the Washington ground squirrel’s remaining habitat. The proposed facility would offer live-fire training exercises and utilize tanks, artillery, machine guns and ground-launched missiles.  Not only is there a risk of direct loss of squirrels due to ground disturbance, construction activities, and increased road traffic, but also increased threat of wildfire and encroachment of invasive species.  Using live ammunition is likely to result in fires, also increasing the post-fire invasion by cheatgrass and weeds.

The Oregon Military Department issued a Draft Environmental Assessment in 2006 but the training facility has been on hold until recently when the U.S. Navy’s announced their plan to draft an Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed project.  As threats become more imminent, Defenders and other conservation groups close to this issue are preparing scoping comments for the EIS and will work to protect the future of the Washington ground squirrel.

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife, Pacific NorthwestComments (0)


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