Tag Archive | "Endangered Species Act"

Section 7 Consultation Locations

New Endangered Species Study and Database

New study on section 7 consultations

We are pleased to announce the release of two products this Monday that will improve the public’s understanding of how federal agencies implement section 7 consultations under the Endangered Species Act.  First is the publication of our article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on the results of all 88,290 consultations the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recorded from 2008 through April 2015.1  This is the most comprehensive study on FWS consultations, with many interesting findings:

  • Only 7.7% of the 88,290 consultations were formal.  The percentage was highest in 2008 (9.5%) and steadily declined to 6.3% in 2014.  The total number of consultations has also declined since 2008.

Types of Consultations Under the ESA Section 7 Process

    • Only two consultations resulted in “jeopardy” findings (0.029% of formal consultations).  One of those consultations also found “destruction or adverse modification” of critical habitat—the only instance of such a finding during our study period.  That consultation was redone in response to a lawsuit, and the revised consultation concluded no jeopardy or destruction/adverse modification.  All jeopardy/destruction/adverse modification findings were accompanied by reasonable and prudent alternatives, so none of the projects was stopped because of section 7.
    • The low percentage of jeopardy findings (0.029%) contrasts with the much higher percentages found in past studies: 8.9% from 1979-1981; 17.5% from 1987-1991; and 7.2% from 2005-2009 for FWS fish-related consultations.  The past studies are cited in our paper.

Jeopardy Findings from Section 7 Consultations

    • Although most consultations occurred in the eastern United States, formal consultations were concentrated in the western states (Florida is an exception).
    • The median duration of consultations was 13 days for informal and 62 days for formal.  Only 1,381 formal consultations exceeded the 135-day limit set in Services regulations, though we suspect many of those consultations were unusually complex and could not have avoided an extension.

map 1


    • The most commonly consulted-on species is the Indiana bat (14,979 consultations), but the California red-legged frog is the most common species in formal consultations (722).  The Army Corps of Engineers has the highest number of informal and formal consultations.

Explore the consultation data online

Defenders strongly supports open data and transparency, especially when it comes to the ESA.  That’s why today we’re also releasing a web application for you to explore the FWS consultation data from our study.  The Section 7 Explorer is free to use and requires no registration.

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We all know that FWS has only a fraction of the resources it needs to properly implement the ESA.  Open data is one solution to this problem because it allows the public to help analyze how the ESA is implemented and to create tools like the Consultation Explorer.  With the insights that come from open data, the public can identify better ways to implement the ESA.  For example, our study suggests that regulated entities can shorten the duration of many formal consultations by relying more on programmatic consultations when appropriate.  The Services recently finalized their regulation on programmatic consultations.  If implemented properly, the regulation offers an opportunity to streamline consultations without sacrificing conservation outcomes.  Open data can inform this process.

Open data also allows us to rely less on anecdotes, case studies, and unsupported generalizations when forming opinions about the ESA.  It does so by providing the data to analyze how an entire provision of the ESA works, as we’ve done here.  Empowered by this information, we can all guard against the use of unrepresentative, cherry-picked stories about the ESA.

We hope you’ll join us in encouraging federal agencies to prioritize making their ESA data easily accessible to the public, including as part of the Obama Administration’s 2013 Executive Order on Open and Machine Readable Data.  You might also be interested in reading Professor Dave Owen’s insightful blog post on our study and database.

What’s next?

Our study and the Consultation Explorer are just the start of our extended work on using large datasets to improve the effectiveness of the ESA, while minimizing the transaction costs for regulated entities and the public.  We are now evaluating conservation measures in hundreds of formal consultations to determine the impacts of federal projects on species recovery.  The consultation data include latitude-longitude coordinates of over 40,000 consultations (see image below for example), and we are using satellite images to measure the amount of habitat disturbance that has actually occurred.  We will then apply this technique to millions of acres of designated critical habitat to help answer a longstanding question: to what extent has designation helped conserve species?

Section 7 Consultation Locations

Jacob Malcom, Endangered Species Policy and Science Analyst, led the analysis and publication of the section 7 study and created the Consultation Explorer. Ryan Covington, Conservation GIS Analyst, and Jacob created the map of consultation coordinates. Ya-Wei (Jake) Li, Senior Director of Endangered Species Conservation, wrote this update, with help from Jacob and KC Stover, Coordinator for Landscape Conservation and Endangered Species Conservation.

The Endangered Species Conservation Program at Defenders of Wildlife focuses on developing more effective and efficient ways to conserve endangered species, particularly under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Our approach is innovative, pragmatic, and multidisciplinary, with expertise in wildlife law, policy, science, and on-the-ground implementation.

If you would like to subscribe to periodic email updates like this one from the Endangered Species Program, please sign up at this link.  Updates will not exceed one a month.

If you have questions or comments on any aspects of our work, please email us at esa@defenders.org.

1 The article also appears on the PNAS website: www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1516938112

Posted in ESA, Federal Policy, Imperiled WildlifeComments (0)


Twain’s Ghost Trout: An Extinct Giant Returns


More than 150 years ago, Samuel L. Clemens raved over the flavor of bacon-fried trout he savored while camping along the transparent shorelines of Lake Tahoe, Nevada. He had arrived with the intention of staking a timber claim but instead returned less than two years later as reporter and columnist for Virginia City’s Territorial Enterprise. After becoming better known as author Mark Twain, those trout would later inspire lines he penned for his classic Tom Sawyer.

Twain’s culinary delight focused on the teaming Lahontan Cutthroat (Oncorhynchus clarki henshawi). In addition to Lake Tahoe, Lahontan cutthroat were native to Pyramid, Walker, and Summit lakes. Lahontan cutthroat were a staple for the Northern Paiute, Western Shoshone, and Washoe tribes. Once dried, the trout could be stored and eaten over cold winter months. Later these trout would feed hungry trappers, explorers, miners, and settlers in northern Nevada. During spawning runs up the Truckee River, commercial fishing could net 100,000 to 200,000 pounds of trout each year, shipped in rail cars as far away as Salt Lake City, San Francisco, and even Chicago.

In 1844 explorer Captain John C. Fremont referred to them as “salmon trout,” and for very good reason. Lahontan cutthroat were huge. The official record was 41 pounds, caught in 1925 by Paiute Johnny Skimmerhorn, but early settlers mentioned fish weighing in at more than 60 pounds. But tragedy struck: competing non-native trout were introduced, headwaters were overgrazed and dammed, lake waters became increasingly diverted and contaminated. Most varieties of Lahontan cutthroat trout were listed as endangered in 1970. The giant form of Lahontan cutthroat from Pyramid Lake, however, faded into extinction by the 1940s.

Or so everyone thought. In the early 1900s, an enterprising Utah man used buckets to salvage a few Lahontan cutthroat from Pyramid Lake and transport them all the way to a small, rugged stream along the Nevada-Utah border near Pilot Peak. There they remained hidden until the 1970s when biologist Bob Behnke re-discovered what he thought might be the missing strain of giant Lahontan cutthroat. Geneticists later confirmed their identity. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service harvested eggs for hatchery rearing, incredibly just a few years before a catastrophic forest fire wiped out the entire creek and all remaining wild trout.

Today, and with man’s assistance, the Lahontan cutthroats have repopulated some of their ancestral home. Pyramid Lake now boasts a rockin’ sport fishery for Lahontan cutthroat that benefits the Paiute tribe. Hearty anglers pioneered fishing from ladders far out in the lake. By 2012, these ghost trout had reached 20-25 pounds, and both anglers and fishery biologists expect a 30 pound fish to be caught within just a few years. After twice dodging extinction, the Lahontan cutthroat is well on its way to recovery.

J. Christopher Haney, Ph.D.

Chief scientist

Defenders of Wildlife

Posted in California, Imperiled WildlifeComments (0)


New Report on Pesticides and Endangered Species: A Milestone but Much Work Remains

On Tuesday, April 30th, the National Research Council will release a highly anticipated study on pesticides and endangered species.  The study is a major milestone toward resolving the clash over how to evaluate the effects of pesticides on endangered species.  To date, the U.S. EPA has disagreed with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service about which scientific methods and assumptions to use when completing these evaluations.

The study will address six key areas of scientific disagreement or lack of consensus among the agencies.  But it will not address any related policy questions, which are an equally important source of disagreement.  To think that the study will resolve the disagreements between the Services and EPA is to overlook the distinction between a science question and a policy question.

Here is one example of this distinction.  To determine the effects of a pesticide on an endangered species, the EPA relies on laboratory tests on surrogate species.  For example, EPA’s guidance document identifies bobwhite quail and ducks as a surrogate for endangered reptiles.  Likewise, minnow and sunfish are surrogates for endangered amphibians.  But of course, California tiger salamanders are not exactly like sunfish, and bog turtles are not exactly like ducks.  When you extrapolate data on ducks to turtles, you must make a lot of assumptions about how ducks are like (and unlike) turtles.  You will never have perfect information about the relationship between the two animals and their response to pesticides.  As a result, you will have scientific uncertainty.

Scientific uncertainty is one of the topics the NRC study will cover.  Specifically, it will evaluate the use of “uncertainty factors” (also known as safety factors) to account for incomplete data when extrapolating from surrogate species to endangered species.  Think of uncertainty factors as a safety margin.  If you assume that an endangered species is 100 times more sensitive to a chemical than is its corresponding surrogate species, then you might use an uncertainty factor of 100.  So if your surrogate species does not show any significant adverse effects up to 10 mg/kg of exposure from a chemical, then you would divide that value by 100 to get 0.01 mg/kg for the endangered species.

But why use a safety factor of 100?  Why not 200, or 38, or 4, or zero?  For many endangered species, we do not know the extent to which they are more sensitive than surrogate species to any particular pesticide.  So we need to make assumptions about how protective we are of endangered species.  A safety factor of 100,000 would be very protective, while a safety factor of zero would offer no protection.  This question of how protective we should be is a policy question, not a science question.  Science can recommend methods for addressing uncertainty (safety factors are not the only method, and some would argue they are not the best).  But science cannot tell us whether we “should” use a safety factor of 0, 10, 100, or 10,000.  The Services and EPA must make those decisions based on their interpretations of the ESA and FIFRA.  In fact, the NRC made a similar observation in its 1995 study titled “Science and the Endangered Species Act.”  There, it noted that “[e]ven though estimates of risk are grounded in scientific information, those implementing the [ESA] often make value judgments when making decisions about listing, jeopardy, etc.”  Thus, the NRC explained, “science by itself is not sufficient input to policy decisions, apart from the objectives and values it serves.”

Unfortunately, agencies are often very reluctant to acknowledge that they are making these value and policy judgments every day.  But unless they do so, we will never fix the current debacle over pesticides and endangered species.  We will never agree on how much risk of harming an endangered species is acceptable under the ESA and FIFRA.  And we will continue quarrelling.  This is why, when I presented at the CropLife America and RISE Spring Conference last week, I emphasized the need for both the Services and EPA to create a framework that clearly describes how they will address risk and uncertainty when evaluating the effects of pesticides on endangered species.  Let’s hope the NRC study motivates the agencies to do so.

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Additional information on a way forward for pesticides and endangered species.



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Defenders Issues New Report on Candidate Species Agreements

Several months ago, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service finalized its schedule for deciding whether to propose listing of almost 200 candidate species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  Many private landowners and state wildlife agencies are eager to conserve these species, with the goal of avoiding the need for listing.  One of their chief tools is candidate conservation agreements with assurances (CCAAs).  By entering into a CCAA with the Service, participants get an important legal assurance: if a species is eventually listed despite the best efforts of the participants, they will not be required to take any conservation actions beyond those agreed to in the CCAA.  Not a bad deal.

The Service regulation that created CCAAs was finalized in 1999 under the leadership of Jamie Rappaport Clark, Defender’s current president and CEO.  Since that time, 27 CCAAs have been finalized, but no one has ever evaluated all the agreements and few people understand how they have been used.  In fact, no online database exists of all CCAAs (the Service’s online database is currently missing four agreements).

Earlier this week, Defenders released a report that evaluates all 26 CCAAs finalized through 2012 (the 27th CCAA was issued after we completed our report).  We evaluated agreements for 1) types of activities covered, 2) types of species covered, 3) number of agreements finalized per year, 4) number of programmatic agreements (applying to multiple participants rather than a single one), 5) duration of agreements, and 6) record of preventing species from being listed.

Our evaluation of the types of activities is perhaps the most interesting.  We assigned each CCAA into one of three categories: those that authorize only activities intended to conserve species; those that authorize reintroduction of species into their former range; and those that authorize both conservation and non-conservation activities.  That’s right—not every activity authorized under a CCAA is intended to conserve a species.  The important point is that the impacts of conservation activities should outweigh those of non-conservation activities, such that the species experiences an overall benefit.

Our report also recommends improvements to CCAA implementation.  We found that Service biologists have been implementing CCAAs in innovative ways that are not discussed in the CCAA regulation or draft handbook.  We underscore eight of these innovations and encourage the Service to consider incorporating them into its CCAA guidance documents.
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This CCAA report is the third in a series of Defenders reports on improving endangered species law, policy, and science.  In case you missed them, the first report describes some of our strategies for making the ESA more effective and efficient, and the second report reveals serious flaws with the Service’s decision last year to withdraw its proposed rule to list the dunes sagebrush lizard and recommends ways to avoid these problems in future listing decisions.  A week after we published the second report, we filed a notice of intent to sue the Service over the withdrawal.

Click here to view the CCAA report

Louisiana pine snake, a candidate species. Photo courtesy of Louisiana Conservationist

Louisiana pine snake, a candidate species. Photo courtesy of Louisiana Conservationist


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


Pesticides and Endangered Species: A Small Step Forward

Earlier this week, four federal agencies released a report on how they intend to improve the pesticide registration and consultation processes.  This is a small but noteworthy step toward resolving the debacle over how to ensure that pesticides use complies with the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  To date, the story of pesticides and endangered species is mostly one of head on collisions, culminating in litigation by both environmental groups and pesticide registrants.  Recently, however, the agencies responsible for implementing federal pesticide and endangered species laws have attempted to work collaboratively to resolve some of their differences.  This new report is one such effort.

The report was issued by the U.S. EPA, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, and U.S. Department of Agriculture, all of which play a role in administering the ESA and the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), which is the federal law that regulates the registration and use of pesticides.  The report describes various process improvements intended to achieve three goals: (1) earlier stakeholder involvement when pesticides are evaluated for registration or re-registration under FIFRA; (2) earlier adoption of conservation measures to reduce the adverse impacts of pesticides on endangered species; and (3) an ESA consultation process that is more focused and efficient because it already incorporates risk-reduction measures.

Defenders believe these are laudable goals, as explained in our comment letter on a draft of the report from October 2012.  Our letter also described how the agencies could improve the draft report.  Unfortunately many of these recommendations were not adopted.  Here are two unresolved issues.

First, EPA will hold focus group meetings to better define the intended uses of pesticides as early as feasible and incorporate early risk reduction measures to minimize the adverse impacts of pesticides on wildlife.  We encouraged EPA to allow all interested members of the public to participate in these meetings.  The final report, however, does not explicitly indicate that this will happen, instead focusing on “affected registrants and possibly other stakeholders via invitation.”  While we realize that registrants and users are in the best position to provide information to EPA at this early stage of the registration process, it remains unclear how the goal of “public participation and transparency” is advanced when participation appears limited by default.  Non-registrants may have important contributions, particularly on ways to “adopt risk reduction measures before registration review beings.”

Second, the report describes how the agencies will make greater use of informal consultation in evaluating the risk of pesticides to endangered species.  The final report, however, lacks clarity on how the agencies will work together to accomplish this goal.  For example, the proposal does not specifically discuss the role of EPA’s 2004 Ecological Risk Assessment Process, which guides the agency’s biological effects determinations for listed species.  As a result, it is unclear how that process would fit within the process improvements described in the report.

On the other hand, we are pleased to see some of our comments addressed in the final report.  For example, we noted that it was legally inaccurate for the draft report to claim that “Service regulations require that [reasonable and prudent alternatives (RPAs)] be both technologically and economically feasible to the action agency and the applicant.”  This sentence implies that both the action agency and the applicant must agree to the feasibility of any RPAs, a requirement that is not explicitly supported by either the Services regulations at 50 C.F.R. §402.14(g) or the Section 7 Consultation Handbook.  The final report contains language that fixes this technicality.

Looking ahead, the four agencies must resolve numerous science and non-science issues if they are to fix the problems with the current pesticide registration and consultation processes.  The National Academy of Sciences is expected to release a study in a few weeks recommending how the agencies can address six science questions that have plagued them for decades.  But science alone cannot save the day.  As explained in my book chapter on this topic, the agencies must also address risk-tolerance, funding, and other issues that are fundamental to ensuring that pesticide are used in a manner that does not unduly harming endangered species.



Posted in Agriculture, Imperiled WildlifeComments (0)

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, UncategorizedComments (0)


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)


Slate, Spending and Species Recovery

Anyone in wildlife conservation circles in Washington DC knows Defenders fantastic reputation as an effective advocate for more federal spending on endangered species recovery.  I’m proud of all the successes my colleagues Mary Beth Beetham and Robert Dewey have achieved to get more funding for wildlife, but Congress continues to allocate too little money to cover the necessary steps to recover all species.  Many endangered animals and plants get less than $5,000 a year – far too little to allow them to recover.

Given how little funding there is, we also have to think about how to use this funding effectively to do the most good.  We’ve just published a report advocating for increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of endangered species policy in the U.S. by doing a better job of prioritizing resources.  This means finding objective ways to allocate dollars to do the most good.  Figuring out cost is relatively easy but how do you figure out the value side – which species deserve more attention.  Slate has just published a nice story on this issue following one that Scientific American published last year.  We’ve focused much of our effort in examining how New Zealand is approaching prioritization.

New Zealand looks at the taxonomic distinctiveness of its species and the likelihood that management will succeed and compares those to cost to find better ways to allocate endangered species recovery funding.  Their government scientists think that this approach will allow them to save almost 50% more species for the same amount of money.  A more complicated system may be appropriate in the U.S.  For example, a system that values wide-ranging species or species with particular cultural values might better account for some of the reasons that polls consistently show that American want to see endangered species protected.  We do not have such a system in place now, but Defenders is working to try to make such a change in policy possible – so that the money we do have is used to save as much wildlife as possible.

Posted in Imperiled WildlifeComments (0)


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)

Grassland Conversions Threaten Lesser Prairie Chicken

Grassland Conversions Threaten Lesser Prairie Chicken

LPC Habitat conversion map

Lesser prairie chicken habitat on converted acres. Copyright Environmental Working Group.

The lesser prairie chicken, one of our nation’s iconic grassland birds known for its unique breeding behavior, is also one of our most at-risk species. A new report released by Defenders of Wildlife and Environmental Working Group shows that increased crop insurance subsidies are threatening to convert even more of the grasslands that these birds need to survive.

To read more about lesser prairie chickens and farm subsidies, see our fact sheet.

Lesser prairie chickens rely on a diversity of grassland habitats, including short- and mid-height grasses and forbs together with shrubs to provide cover. Loss of this diverse habitat is one of the biggest threats to the lesser prairie chicken’s continued survival.  As a result, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service decided in 1998 that the species warranted protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.  Unless the situation improves for the prairie chicken, it may become federally protected by next fall as part of the Service’s six-year plan to issue final listing decisions for over 250 candidate species.

Based on our report, “Plowed Under: How Crop Subsidies Contribute to Massive Habitat Losses,” more than 1.5 million acres of habitat have been converted to cropland in counties where the lesser prairie chicken is found between 2008 and 2011. This is despite investments by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). In FY11, NRCS spent $11 million on improving land management and increasing and enhancing lesser prairie chicken habitat on 458,000 acres. However successful these activities are, even these investments won’t be enough to stem the loss of lesser prairie chicken habitat given the current rate of conversion.

Although the fate of the 2012 Farm Bill is currently up in the air, one thing is certain: increasing crop insurance subsidies without requiring basic environmental protections creates incentives for farmers to plow up more grassland and wetlands. The Senate passed a bi-partisan amendment to its Farm Bill that attaches basic environmental requirements to crop insurance subsidies. To protect the lesser prairie chicken and our nation’s other iconic wildlife, conservation compliance must be included in any Farm Bill Congress passes in 2012.

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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)

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.