Tag Archive | "Critical Habitat"

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, UncategorizedComments (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.

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Critical Habitat on the Cheap

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service have begun proposing reforms to the regulations and policies that implement the Endangered Species Act.  These reforms are part of the Department of Interior’s broader initiative to implement President Obama’s Executive Order 13563 of January 2011, which directs the agency to make its regulations more efficient and less burdensome on the public.  The Department currently proposes seven areas for ESA reform, including three that focus on critical habitat designations.

The Services recently issued a proposed rule on the first of these reform ideas – shifting from the use of lengthy text descriptions of critical habitat boundaries to the use of maps.  This proposal is expected to save the Fish & Wildlife Service alone approximately $400,000 per year (depending on how often it designates critical habitat) and to help landowners more easily identify areas of critical habitat – all without diluting the ESA’s ability to conserve wildlife.  It’s also likely to result in more precise boundary delineations for the simple reason that publishing long lists of latitude-longitude locations in the Federal Register is cumbersome.

This week, Defenders submitted a comment letter fully supporting the proposal and encouraging the Services to identify other similar reforms that are cost-effective and simple to implement.  One example we highlighted is abandoning the current policy of conducting a quantitative cost-benefit analysis when “taking into consideration the economic impact” of critical habitat designation, and instead evaluating the costs and benefits of designation qualitatively.  This proposal would not require amending the ESA or its implementing regulations, and could save the Service up to $100,000 in each critical habitat designation.

Trout critical habitat. Courtesy of USFWS.

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Arroyo Toad

Critical habitat designation on lands covered by Habitat Conservation Plans (HCPs)

Copyright Jim Rorabaugh, U.S.F.W.S.

One purpose of HCPs is to encourage landowners to develop voluntary measures to minimize and mitigate the impacts of development activities on an endangered species.  However, in February, 2011, arroyo toad critical habitat was designated in lands covered by HCPs in southern California, causing widespread concern among landowners, undermining both HCP partnerships and participants’ security from perceived additional regulatory burdens.  The decision to include or exclude HCP lands from critical habitat is ultimately up to the discretion of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), and past designations reveal an inconsistent pattern across regional offices and over time, with four discernible approaches to designation.

On the one hand are situations where the Service readily excludes critical habitat on HCP lands and expresses skepticism of the benefits of designation.  In this approach, applied in 2006 to designations for the Perdido Key, Choctawatchee, and St. Andrew beach mice, it appears that as long as an HCP promotes the long-term conservation of a species and its habitat in a reasonably robust fashion, the Service is willing to exclude the area from designation – in short, an HCP with adequate mitigation provisions trumps critical habitat.

On the other hand are situations, as for the arroyo toad in early 2011, where the Service explicitly declines to exclude HCP lands from critical habitat because those lands are not yet actively conserved or managed under the HCP at the time of the final designation.  We have interpreted the inclusion of these HCP lands as a possible strategy for encouraging more rapid HCP implementation, with the additional incentive of HCP land possibly being excluded at a later date.

Somewhere between these two extremes is a third approach, applied in 2010 to critical habitat designations for the bull trout and Preble’s meadow jumping mouse, in which the Service conducts an analysis of the additional benefits of critical habitat designation, but ultimately excludes all or most HCP lands from designation because of the overwhelming desire to incentivize participation in HCPs.

In these first three approaches, the Service (1) determines that the HCP lands meet the definition of critical habitat and then (2) exercises its discretion to exclude those portions of HCP lands where the benefits of exclusion outweigh the benefits of inclusion.

By contrast, under a fourth approach exemplified in the 2003 critical habitat designations for 60 Hawaiian plants, the Service determines that an area does not meet the definition of critical habitat, and thus does not perform any such discretionary balancing.  Specifically, the Service excludes areas where conservation plans are or will be implemented and effective, and which therefore do not require “special management considerations or protection” and are not critical habitat.  You can learn more about these four approaches in the memo here.

A better understanding of the interaction between HCPs and the effects of critical habitat designation and a better ability to predict the Service’s response is essential to agency efforts to promote voluntary private landowner conservation and to construct better HCPs.  We encourage the Service to evaluate this interaction in its ongoing efforts to improve ESA regulations and policies.

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Helping Species Adapt to Climate Change Through Critical Habitat Designations

Western Snowy Plover. USFWS Pacific Southwest Region.

On March 22, 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to more than double the total acres of critical habitat for the Pacific Coast population of the Western Snowy Plover (Charadrius alexandrines nivosus).  This proposal is important because it marks one of the few situations where the Service is seeking to expand an existing critical habitat designation to help a species adapt to climate change.

The plover forages and nests along coastal and inland beaches.  Its coastal habitat will be degraded and lost to sea-level rise resulting from climate change.  To partially compensate for these losses, the proposed critical habitat rule extends the current critical habitat boundaries further inland where appropriate.  The plover is expected to use these inland areas and adjust its use of nesting habitat.  Some of these inland areas are not currently occupied by the plover, but protecting them helps ensure they can be occupied the future.

I applaud the Service for taking this concrete step to help a species adapt to climate change.  In fact, the new release for the proposed rule states that although the Service’s “policy direction in 2005 emphasized the designation of occupied habitat for critical habitat designations,” the “current policy direction encourages more consideration of the role that unoccupied habitat can provide for the conservation of the species to better support recovery.”  And the proposed rule explicitly acknowledges that “limiting the designation of critical habitat to those areas that were considered occupied at the time of listing is no longer sufficient to conserve the species because…[w]e anticipate a further loss of habitat in the future due to sea-level rise resulting from climate change.”

In December of 2010, the Service responded in a similar manner in its final revised critical habitat rule for the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse (Zapus hudsonius preblei).  There, the revised critical habitat designation was intended to adequately address “likely climate change scenarios by designating critical habitat areas throughout the north-south range of the [mouse] in Colorado that vary in elevation and in stream size.”  Some of these redesignated areas actually exceeded the amount of critical habitat called for in the 2003 preliminary draft recovery plan for the species.

While these recent critical habitat decisions are encouraging, there are several related issues that the Service will need to grapple with in the near future.  First is how to help less mobile species, such as amphibians and certain insects, adapt to climate change.  While birds and large mammals can easily move further inland in response to rising sea levels, less mobile species will likely require more help.  Second is whether the Service should designate critical habitat outside of a species’ historic range, where doing so would help the species adapt to climate change.  Climate change will continue to reshuffle ecosystems dramatically, which means that our notions of where species “belong” may need to shift as well.  Third is whether the Service will find that critical habitat designation is “not prudent” for species for which the prospects of survival and recovery grow increasingly dim.  This is an unfortunate challenge given the magnitude of anticipated climate change impacts.

Finally, it is worth noting the connection between range shifts and the current House bill that California Representative Joe Baca has introduced to delisting certain endangered species.  As discussed in a prior blog post:

  • A second implication [of the bill] is that a species could become a “limited listed species” simply by shifting its range since the time of listing.  Shifts can happen for several reasons, including climate change, stochastic events, and habitat alteration.  For these shifting species, it may not be “reasonably possible” to determine whether they have been extirpated from their range at the time of listing.  As a result, the bill could consign the species to “extinction”—even if they clearly occupy areas outside of their range at the time of listing.

This bill clearly ignores the best available science on climate change in favor of political expediency.

Posted in Climate Change, Imperiled WildlifeComments (2)


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.

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