Tag Archive | "national wildlife refuge"

Hurricane Sandy- Adapting to Climate Reality, Recovering Stronger

When Superstorm Sandy swept ashore in late October, it left an almost unimaginable level of damage: thousands of residents still displaced, entire communities destroyed, and an economic toll that promises to make Sandy one of the costliest natural disasters in history. But it also swept away our illusions that we can carry on with business as usual in a changing climate.

Sandy exposed incredible vulnerabilities to coastal storms and floods in the region. While the storm was unprecedented, the effects of climate change, namely higher sea levels and larger storms, mean that we can no longer operate as if a recurrence is only a remote possibility.  It’s clear that we cannot simply rebuild; we must also rethink the way we approach recovery efforts, and begin to prepare for future extreme weather events and sea level rise by rebuilding in a way that reduces vulnerabilities to future damage.

Defenders of Wildlife has argued that in many cases, this will require restoring and enhancing natural ecosystems that provide flood control and storm surge attenuation while providing other benefits including clean water, wildlife habitat, and economic and recreational opportunities.  Our publication “Harnessing Nature,” published earlier this year, describes several of these projects and the benefits they can provide.

After a disaster of Sandy’s magnitude, the need for federal assistance to help the region recover could not be more apparent and urgent.  The Obama administration submitted an emergency supplemental request to Congress to address response and recovery that takes this exact approach.  The Senate followed suit and included provisions that ensure recovery efforts mitigate future disaster risks.

The Senate emergency supplemental appropriations bill shows tremendous foresight in its recognition of the role that natural floodplains, coastal wetlands, dunes, natural shorelines and other ecosystem-based measures can play in protecting communities from weather-related disasters.  Defenders of Wildlife specifically support the following elements of the supplemental:

  • Restores national wildlife refuges: The bill provides $78 million for repairs and restoration at affected national wildlife refuges. Thirty-five refuges were closed following the storm and some remain closed. The overall damage to refuges was $78 million – the equivalent of 16% of the System’s overall annual budget – but it would have been much worse had it not been for the natural protection provided by refuge wetlands and dunes.
  • Funds projects to increase the resilience of coastal habitat and assist state and tribal natural resource restoration programs: Through Department of the Interior programs, the bill provides $150 million to “increase the resiliency and capacity of coastal habitat and infrastructure to withstand future storms and reduce the amount of damage caused by such storms; protect natural and cultural values; and assist State, tribal and local governments.” The Department includes many programs that it can deploy to accomplish this important goal through the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the U.S. Geological Survey and other programs.  
  • Funds coastal and estuarine habitat restoration and protection to help buffer communities from storms and recover fisheries- and coastal habitat-based economies: The bill provides $150 million to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) “to evaluate, stabilize and restore coastal ecosystems affected by Hurricane Sandy.” NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service Office of Habitat Conservation has a long track record of success restoring coastal and marine habitat and fisheries, including many large-scale collaborative restoration projects including the Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes.  The bill also provides $47 million for the Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program (CELCP) to “support State and local restoration in areas affected by Hurricane Sandy.”  CELCP provides states and local governments matching funds to purchase (fee title or easements) significant coastal and estuarine lands.  This protection ensures important natural areas continue to provide flood and storm protection benefits to communities in addition to their other ecological, recreational, and economic values.
  • Restores and protects storm-abating wetlands on private lands: The bill provides $125 million to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Emergency Watershed Protection Program.  This program provides funding to remove debris from stream channels, stabilize stream banks and restore damaged uplands stripped of protective vegetative cover.  The program also funds floodplain easements for “restoring, protecting, maintaining, and enhancing the functions and values of floodplains, including associated wetlands and riparian areas… These easements also help conserve fish and wildlife habitat, water quality, flood water retention, and ground water recharge, as well as safeguard lives and property from floods, drought, and erosion.”
  • Funds planning for and construction of flood-reducing projects that support the long-term sustainability of coastal ecosystems: The bill provides $2.9 billion to the Army Corps of Engineers to “reduce future flood risk in ways that will support the long-term sustainability of the coastal ecosystem and communities and reduce the economic costs and risks associated with large-scale flood and storm events in areas…affected by Hurricane Sandy.”  In addition, the bill requires that “efforts using these funds shall incorporate current science and engineering standards in constructing previously authorized Corps projects designed to reduce flood and storm damage risks and modifying existing Corps projects that do not meet these standards, with such modifications as the Secretary determines are necessary to incorporate these standards or to meet the goal of providing sustainable reduction to flooding and storm damage risks.” This important provision requires the Army Corps to reevaluate previously authorized projects in light of Hurricane Sandy and other recent extreme weather events, as well as current scientific projections of future climate-related risks, to ensure projects remain viable and sustainable under changing conditions.  The bill also provides up to $20 million to the Army Corps to support interagency planning with State, local, and Tribal officials “to address the flood risks of vulnerable coastal populations, including innovative approaches to promote the long-term sustainability of the coastal ecosystems and communities to reduce the economic costs and risks associated with large-scale flood and storm events.”
  • Requires federal agencies to plan for future risks of increased extreme weather events and sea level rise in all recovery efforts: General provisions that apply to the whole bill require agencies to be forward thinking to assess future changes in risks and vulnerabilities of recovery projects to extreme weather events, sea level rise, and coastal flooding.  Agencies shall “inform plans for response, recovery, and rebuilding to reduce vulnerabilities from and build long-term resiliency to future extreme weather events, sea level rise, and coastal flooding. In carrying out activities funded by this title that involve repairing, rebuilding, or restoring infrastructure and restoring land, project sponsors shall consider, where appropriate, the increased risks and vulnerabilities associated with future extreme weather events, sea level rise and coastal flooding.”  The bill also encourages the development of better information to base these decisions on, allowing funds to be available “to develop… regional projections and assessments of future risks and vulnerabilities to extreme weather events, sea level rise and coastal flooding that may be used for the planning…, and to encourage coordination and facilitate long-term community resiliency.


However, the following provisions limit environmental review and public participation, which may lead to poor planning and communities more vulnerable to disaster risks and other concerns. Some even lift environmental review nationwide. We strongly oppose the following elements of the supplemental:

  • Authorizes all pending Army Corps flood protection projects nationwide regardless of urgency, need, or status of environmental and other reviews: The bill authorizes any Army Corps flood protection project that is under study (i.e. any project throughout the nation that was begun before Hurricane Sandy) provided that the Corps demonstrates the project is cost-effective.  Notwithstanding the important provisions on using current science and planning for future risks that also apply to this funding; this provision approves any projects currently under study with the Corps.  Moreover this provision will apply nationwide, authorizing a bevy of projects notwithstanding their compliance with the Water Resources Development Act, Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act or the National Environmental Policy Act. Many of these projects involve large commitments of funding and infrastructure that could have significant impacts to waterways, wetlands, habitat and wildlife. Proper evaluation of impacts to the environment and endangered and threatened species is necessary to prevent unintended environmental consequences. This blanket authorization is damaging and unnecessary and should be revised.
  • Unnecessarily creates new “streamlining” authorities: The bill authorizes the President to establish “streamlined” procedures to expedite providing disaster assistance.  The Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act already include emergency provisions that allow for expedited reviews and changes in procedures to protect human health and safety in response to disasters and emergencies. In fact, provisions of these laws were used successfully during the recent BP Gulf oil spill and Hurricane Katrina. In addition to being simply unnecessary, these streamlining provisions are problematic, first in their lack of specificity in what exactly they authorize, and secondly in creating a deeply concerning precedent for circumventing our nation’s most important environmental and other public interest laws. These sections should be stricken.

This essential funding will provide much needed relief to victims of the devastating hurricane.  By retaining the forward-thinking provisions we highlight, and by striking the provisions waiving public interest requirements, the bill will not just help recover the region from this horrible storm, but will also reduce the region’s vulnerabilities to future extreme events, sea level rise and coastal flooding and the economic costs associated with these issues. 

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Blackwater Map

Wildlife Refuges on Deck for Land Aquisition Funding Vulnerable to Sea Level Rise

There are over 150 national wildlife refuges located in coastal areas, yet the Refuge System has not adequately incorporated projections of sea level rise or other climate impacts into land acquisition planning.  Thus, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may not be maximizing the effectiveness of its conservation investments if it is making fee-title acquisitions or purchasing long-term easements on lands that are going to be underwater within a few decades.

To get a better picture of the situation, we used the Sea Level Affecting Marshes Model (SLAMM) to assess the threat to the lands within both the acquired and approved boundaries of eight coastal refuges that have been assigned a high funding priority for land acquisitions in the coming year.

We found that sea-level rise impact will not be felt equally among coastal refuges. Great White Heron NWR, in the Florida Keys, is the highest ranked refuge for land protection funding for FY 2013 by the Fish and Wildlife Service, yet it is extremely vulnerable to sea level rise. Two of the refuges we assessed, Great White Heron and Blackwater, face potential net loss of over 40% of refuge lands by 2075, if sea level rises by one meter over the course of the century. On the other hand, four of the refuges have less than 5% of their land area vulnerable. Some refuges, like Blackwater, will face inundation but have newly created wetlands nearby, where the refuge could potentially expand to. Others, like Laguna Atascosa NWR, will face wetlands loss that will not be readily replaced with new areas of marsh. And refuges whose land area consists mainly of low-lying islands, like in the Florida Keys, may run out of land entirely.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Fish and Wildlife Service urgently needs to better understand and incorporate climate change and sea level rise implications into its land acquisition planning to avoid investments that will ultimately be literally under water.

Our summary report with policy recommendations is available here.

The complete report is available here.

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New Studies Highlight the Value of National Wildlife Refuges to Visitors and Communities

With visitation steadily rising each year – up to 45 million people in 2011 – national wildlife refuges are clearly popular destinations, but their value to visitors and the economy has remained largely unquantified.  Two new studies are helping to remedy that problem.

Last month, the U.S. Geological Survey released the results of a study that surveyed more than 10,000 visitors to 53 national wildlife refuges around the nation.  Approximately 90 percent of respondents expressed satisfaction with the recreational opportunities, services, and information provided at the wildlife refuges.  In addition, the survey measured visitor spending in nearby communities.  At Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico, for example, average spending in the area by nonlocal visitors was $82 per day, while local visitors averaged $45 per day in spending.  These expenditures can add up.  According to the 2006 Banking on Nature report, visitors to the nation’s wildlife refuges that year contributed approximately $1.7 billion in sales to local economies.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to release an updated version of that report later this year.

A separate study released last week adds to a growing body of evidence that being located in close proximity to protected open spaces boosts home values.  Researchers from North Carolina State University focused on urban national wildlife refuges in three regions of the country and found that homes within one-half mile of those refuges were valued three to nine percent higher than those located further from a refuge.  Wildlife refuges included in the study were found to boost local property values by $122 million in the Southeast, $95 million in the Northeast, and $83 million in the California/Nevada region.  An upcoming report on ecosystem services will offer an additional measure of the economic value of America’s wildlife refuges.

Though these benefits are undeniably significant, the National Wildlife Refuge System has consistently lacked the congressional investment needed to reach its full potential.  Even at its highest funding level in FY 2010, the Refuge System received only $503 million – little more than half the $900 million that the Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement estimates is needed for the agency to fulfill its conservation mission.  Unfortunately, as Congress looks to make good on the debt deal reached last summer, the Refuge System could see its appropriations slashed by 10 percent or more.  These cuts could force many refuges to eliminate recreation programs or close their doors entirely, and many of the demonstrated benefits that they provide to visitors and to local economies will be lost.

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sunset refuge

National Wildlife Refuges and Sea-Level Rise

The Refuge System is losing ground. Literally. There are over 160 coastal national wildlife refuges, and virtually all of them are experiencing the impacts of sea level rise and coastal storms exacerbated by climate change. Refuges need a system-wide response.

Defenders recently published a new report, National Wildlife Refuges and Sea-Level Rise: Lessons from the Frontlines, based on insights from a national perspective as well as on the ground at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina and Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia. The report includes recommendations for national policy, on the ground habitat management, and for dealing with local communities, many of which are resistant to the management changes necessary to cope with the rising seas. These recommendations include:

To respond to it effectively, refuge managers must:

• Take a landscape-scale approach to conservation throughout the refuge system.

• Share information throughout the refuge system to avoid ‘re-inventing the wheel’ in responding to climate change.

• Receive policy guidance and support from FWS for coordinated climate change responses throughout the refuge system.

With sufficient financial support and manpower, coastal refuges can take steps to help mitigate the impacts of sea-level rise and buy time for species and habitats to adapt to the impacts of climate change. Steps that show promise include:

• Plant salt-tolerant species to minimize the impacts of saltwater intrusion.

• Restore altered hydrology to reduce salt-water intrusion and to regain natural marsh-building processes.

• Restore shoreline reefs to minimize climate-change-mediated coastal erosion.

• Work with partners and the public to develop long-term conservation plans for the next century and beyond.

 

A large and growing percentage of the American public is skeptical or confused about climate change. To build understanding and support for climate-change-related work at refuges, managers and staff must engage and convince the people who live near refuges. To do this, refuge managers need support and guidance from FWS to:

• Find and present tangible examples the local community can relate to of sea-level-rise impacts that have already occurred.

• Use modeling tools such as SLAMM to provide dramatic, easy-to-grasp visuals of what the landscape will look like in the future.

• Engage in an open community dialog to find out what’s important to locals and to explore alternatives for reaching their goals.

Only by taking a broad, new perspective to finding creative solutions for addressing climate change-related problems and to educating and involving local communities and partners can FWS meet its conservation mission and preserve our refuges, the network of special places where the needs of wildlife come first.

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arctic refuge

Arctic Refuge Vulnerability Report

Few places on earth are set as squarely in the sights of climate change at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Much of Alaska has warmed over 4oF over the past 50 years, and the northern part of the state where the refuge is located is projected to warm faster than any part of the continent – up to 7oF by mid-century. As the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prepares its conservation plan to guide the Arctic Refuge though the next 15 years, Defenders wanted to know what these changes will mean for 38 species of mammals that call the refuge home.

To get a clearer understanding of how climate change will affect the wildlife of the Arctic Refuge, we conducted a vulnerability assessment, which measures each species’ exposure to climate change, its sensitivity to the changes it will be exposed to, and its potential adaptive capacity in the face of such changes. Exposure is a result of regional climate changes, but may be modified by local microhabitat conditions. A species’ sensitivity is determined by factors including its ecological, genetic and physiological traits such as dependence on sensitive habitats, dietary flexibility, population growth rates and interactions with other species. Assessing adaptive capacity includes considerations such as the species’ dispersal ability, whether there are barriers to its movement, and the likelihood that the species could modify its physiology or behavior, or even has the potential to evolve to match changes in its environment.

We researched the known scientific information on each of the 38 refuge mammals, analyzed projected future climate change for the refuge using ClimateWizard, and input the information into the Climate Change Vulnerability Index, a tool developed by NatureServe to assess the relative vulnerability of species.

We found a wide variation in the vulnerability of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge mammals to climate change. The species most vulnerable are the ones specially adapted to the cold, snow and ice. Six species ranked as “extremely vulnerable”: the polar bear, arctic fox, muskox, collared lemming, brown lemming and tundra vole. A further ten species ranked as “highly vulnerable”; that list included lynx, wolverine, caribou, Dall sheep and Alaska marmot. For the most part, species that live in the boreal forest in the southern portion of the refuge, have flexible habitat needs, or a distribution that extends well into warmer areas—like black bear, beaver, muskrat, gray wolf, and red fox—tended to be less vulnerable.

We hope the results of this assessment will help the refuge managers secure a future for the most vulnerable species, by protecting the sensitive tundra region from disturbance, investing in research and monitoring, and maintaining linkages to habitat areas outside of the refuge.

The full report is available here.

A 6-page summary is available here.  

A detailed description of the methods is available here.

Posted in Climate Change, Imperiled Wildlife, National Wildlife RefugesComments (0)

An End to Feeding on the Elk Refuge

The National Elk Refuge in Wyoming is an incredible resource for wildlife in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Unfortunately, a supplemental feeding program, in place since the refuge was created in 1912, has become a severe hazard to the species it was intended to help.

Though it began as a way to sustain the elk population through difficult winters, persistent feeding year after year now draws high concentrations of elk and bison to the area, resulting in crowding and overgrazing, and ultimately damaging the health of the ecosystem and the herds. Of particular concern is the potential for disease to spread through the high-density gathering area.  Both brucellosis and chronic wasting disease are risks increased by the refuge feeding lines.

Defenders was part of a coalition of conservation organizations challenging a 2007 management plan for the elk and bison, which failed to provide a timeline for ending the feeding regime.  The plan also appeared to give illegal veto power to the state of Wyoming such that the Game and Fish Department could block a decision to end supplemental feeding if it was believed to harm local interests.

This week, a federal appeals court confirmed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) obligation to end the practice. While the ruling did not order a deadline for terminating the program, it was an important affirmation of FWS’s obligation to expedite the end of feeding. The ruling unequivocally states that “there is no doubt that unmitigated continuation of supplemental feeding would undermine the conservation purpose of the National Wildlife Refuge System.” In addition, the court rejected the possibility of Wyoming being able to veto FWS action.

Posted in In the Field, National Wildlife Refuges, Northern Rockies, Public LandsComments (0)

Funding the Refuge System – Is the Battle Just Beginning?

Although the FY 2012 Interior appropriations bill (H.R. 2584), which would have slashed funding for the National Wildlife Refuge System and other important conservation programs, was abruptly pulled from the House schedule following word of an agreement on the national debt limit, the battle over deep cuts is just beginning.  As the new fiscal year quickly approaches, debate over Interior Department funding will have to resume after the August recess, potentially in the context of an omnibus measure that would combine this and other agency spending bills.

What does this mean for national wildlife refuges?  While it’s unclear how much the Refuge System will ultimately receive for its operations and maintenance in FY 12, H.R. 2584 would see it funded at only $455 million.  When factoring in rising costs of fuel, rent, and other fixed expenses, this represents a $45 million cut from FY 11.  At this level, the Refuge System would be forced to:

  • Close, or eliminate major programs at, 128 refuges.
  • Eliminate an estimated 200 wildlife and habitat management positions, reducing capacity for inventory and monitoring work, treatment of invasive species, and other habitat management activities.
  • Eliminate about 35 visitor service positions, leaving fewer staff available to coordinate a critical force of refuge volunteers and reducing the quantity and quality of recreational opportunities.  This could be devastating to many communities whose economic well being depends on high visitation at nearby refuges.
  • Eliminate approximately 40 law enforcement positions, leaving only 173 officers to do the work of what an International Association of Chiefs of Police study recommends should be done by 845 officers.

For an agency already stretched too thin, such cuts can be debilitating.  Complicating matters, the debt deal signed into law on Tuesday requires Congress to find $1.5 trillion in federal budget savings by the end of the year, and a further $917 billion in discretionary spending cuts over the next decade.  It remains to be seen where these savings will come from, but growing political hostility over environmental protection does not bode well for national wildlife refuges.

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Climate Change and National Wildlife Refuge Planning

The National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997 directed every refuge to create a comprehensive conservation plan (CCP), a 15-year management plan to ensure the long-term conservation of fish, wildlife and habitats in accordance with the purpose of the refuge and the mission of the System. Secretarial orders issued in 2001 and 2009 made clear that climate change impacts should be include in refuge planning. Defenders of Wildlife analyzed the most recent CCPs as of June 2011 from each of the FWS regions to assess how comprehensively each is taking climate change into consideration.

All eight refuges are at some stage of incorporating climate change into their planning – completing an average of 60% of the criteria — but the level of comprehensiveness varied considerably.

The results, and description of the criteria, are summarized here.

The results of our analysis show that the FWS needs to provide refuge planners with guidance on how to include climate change into refuge CCPs to better prepare refuges, and the wildlife and habitat they protect, for the impacts of climate change.

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Restored Marsh

Why We Need a Broad-scale Approach to Adaptation

 

Restored Marsh

Restored Marsh: Area inside stakes used to be open water. Photo: Noah Matson

Two years ago I had the opportunity to visit Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on the Eastern Shore of Maryland with a few other Defenders colleagues.  The refuge, at over 27,000 acres, is one of the largest protected areas in the state, and is famous among birders and local residents for its large concentrations of migrating waterfowl and shorebirds, bald eagles, and is also home to the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel.  Since the 1930’s, however, Blackwater has lost over 8,000 acres of marsh from a combination of sea level rise, subsidence, and the impact of invasive nutria that eat marsh grass and contribute to erosion.

We met with refuge staff who took us out on the refuge in airboats to see first-hand the marsh, the marsh loss, and the marsh restoration the refuge had implemented.  The refuge had experimented with using a dredger to spray mud onto former marsh to raise the marsh bed, followed by planting marsh grasses to stabilize the soil.   Through these projects the refuge has restored 20 acres of marsh, and that marsh has remains today, over a decade after the restoration was completed.  A success story.

But the refuge continues to lose 300 acres/year.

So with that restoration success story in mind, the refuge staff have an audacious proposal: barge or pipe mud and soil from the dredging of the Baltimore harbor approach channel in the Chesapeake Bay to the refuge to repeat the marsh restoration on thousands of acres, a cost of over a billion dollars.

Two hundred miles south from Blackwater lies the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, also a low-lying coastal refuge facing the impacts of sea level rise.  Alligator River is mostly made up of “pocosin”, a type of forested wetland found in the coastal plain of eastern North Carolina.  The refuge, along with surrounding refuges, is home to the only wild population of endangered red wolves in the world.  There, refuge staff, the Nature Conservancy and other partners are implementing adaptation measures to slow coastal erosion and salt water intrusion to protect the refuge’s forests and marshes.  Most projections of sea level rise put a large portion of the refuge under water in the next 50 years.

If I was the refuge manager for Blackwater, Alligator River, or any of the over 160 coastal national wildlife refuges in the country, I would probably be thinking about similar adaptation strategies to stem the impacts of sea level rise on the place I was sworn to protect.  But the impacts of climate change force a different focus, and a different scale of thinking.  As stewards of protected areas and wildlife populations, we have to ask – why does it matter if Blackwater or Alligator River goes under water?  What are our conservation goals and how are they affected by the impacts of climate change and where, given those impacts, should we target scare conservation dollars?

For Blackwater, which was established primarily for migratory birds, the real question is how will sea level rise impact migratory bird habitat throughout the Chesapeake Bay, not only at Blackwater.  It may be cheaper to restore or create new habitat elsewhere in the Bay, for instance closer to the available dredge material from the Baltimore Harbor approach channel.  These are questions an individual refuge manager cannot answer alone.

For Alligator River, while important for migratory birds, its critical importance to biodiversity conservation is providing habitat for endangered red wolves.  The loss of over half the refuge in the coming decades will have a significant impact on the red wolf population.  So the question for managers is will we have a viable population of red wolves with this loss of habitat?  Regardless of the answer to that question, the recovery plan for the red wolf calls for the establishment of three populations, and with the impending impacts of sea level rise on the only existing population, there should be renewed emphasis on establishing the two additional populations.  Again, these are decisions an individual refuge manager cannot make alone.

Wildlife and natural resources climate change adaptation forces us to take a broad-scale view.  Before zeroing in on the impacts of climate change on a particular place, we need new mechanisms and institutions to help policy makers, managers, and scientists work together to understand how wildlife and habitats will respond to the impacts of climate change regionally and across jurisdictional boundaries.

The Obama administration has launched a number of initiatives that hold some promise for achieving this goal.  The Interior Department is establishing Landscape Conservation Cooperatives, or LCCs, to bring partners together to better understand landscape-scale resources and challenges like climate change.  LCCs have been hampered, however, by competing agency missions and confusion over the LCCs’ unique role compared to other programs.  The administration is also crafting a National Fish, Wildlife, and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy.  The National Strategy is an opportunity to call for broad-scale assessments and planning for adaptation to assist local managers in making strategic adaptation decisions.

Protecting Blackwater, Alligator River, and all of our refuges from the impacts of climate change is important.  But we should do so in the context of addressing the much bigger task before us, figuring out how to make entire systems of wildlife and habitat resilient to climate change.

Posted in Climate Change, Imperiled Wildlife, National Wildlife RefugesComments (0)

At Midway Atoll, Birds Take a Hard Hit from the Tsunami

The stories pouring out of Japan paint a heartbreaking picture of the enormous toll last week’s earthquake and tsunami have taken on the country and its people, and of the long road to recovery ahead.  That same violent earthquake also generated another tsunami that swept across the Pacific Ocean and eventually washed over a set of coral islands in the Hawaiian archipelago.  Now, as the process of rescue and recovery continues in Japan, a different sort of disaster response has begun about 2,000 miles away.

Midway Atoll, established as a national wildlife refuge in 1988, is usually a thriving home to endangered Hawaiian monk seals, threatened green sea turtles, 21 species of seabirds, and a diverse array of other wildlife.  Today, refuge staff are sifting through the damage, counting carcasses and rescuing those animals that made it through.  It is estimated that tens of thousands of Laysan albatross chicks nesting on the islands were killed when they were carried off with the water, and 1,000 of the adult and subadult birds are dead.  Others survived, but they are injured or stuck under toppled vegetation and debris.  Thousands of Bonin petrels, which nest in burrows, were likely buried under the sand.

While the losses are great, Midway Atoll has certainly rebounded from tsunamis and other natural disasters in the past.  Many plants and animals have adapted to such disturbances.  So, why should we worry now?  Because this time, a tsunami isn’t the only problem.  Ocean acidification, invasive species, and marine debris are ongoing threats.  And sea-level rise could put much of the habitat under water.  Together, these stresses could push the ecosystem beyond its ability to recover.

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A New Vision for the National Wildlife Refuge System

Wildlife comes first.  That, in a nutshell, is the vision the National Wildlife Refuge System gave itself in 1998, nearly 100 years after the first refuge was established.  It seems an obvious (and overdue) vision, but consider that it was only a year earlier that Congress finally passed organic legislation uniting the more than 500 refuges under a mission to conserve wildlife and providing clear guidance for their administration.  For a system whose prior management had been unevenly applied among its various units, this simple statement was a logical place to start.

More than ten years later, it’s time for the Refuge System to move forward.  Many of the challenges remain the same – insufficient funding, a lack of public recognition, and a host of on-the-ground threats like land development and invasive species.  But now we need to address new challenges, such as climate change, and we have a flood of new information to inform our management decisions.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is formulating a new vision to guide the Refuge System through the next decade.  Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced the release of their draft last week.  As we at Defenders review and comment on this document, we’ll be looking for a clear vision statement that prioritizes biodiversity conservation both within and beyond refuge boundaries, and we’ll be looking for an implementation strategy to achieve it.  You can add your voice to the discussion through April 22.

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Stopping the Privatization of a Federal Island

Stopping the Privatization of a Federal Island

Photo of a piping plover

Credit: Katherine Wittemore/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

New York’s 840 acre Plum Island has been in federal ownership since 1901, but under a law passed during the Bush Administration, the government is considering selling the land to the highest bidder.  Parts of the island currently serve as a Department of Homeland Security animal disease research facility while 90 percent of the island exists as a de facto nature reserve for wildlife including seals, osprey and threatened piping plover sand roseate terns.  The island is part of a National Audubon Society Important Bird Area and we hope to see all or most of the island made into a National Wildlife Refuge.

There are two outcomes that will maintain the wildlife value of the island for the public: keeping the search facility in place, or if is moved, transferring the land to the Department of Interior as opposed to a private buyer.

New York Congressman Tim Bishop has been trying to stop the move which would close the island’s research facility and replace it with a new $900 million facility in Kansas.  It’s not clear that an island in the middle of Long Island Sound is the best place to research animal diseases, but it’s certainly a better place that putting the research in the heart of ‘cow country.’  The National Academy of Sciences estimates that if the new facility is constructed in Kansas, there is a 70 percent chance that foot-and-mouth disease would be accidentally released outside the facility during its 50 years of operation, causing a $9-$50 billion impact on the U.S. beef industry.

If the animal disease research facility is moved, a strong coalition of groups – including Defenders of Wildlife – is working to convince the government to keep the land instead of selling it to a private buyer.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has indicated its interest in making the island into a National Wildlife Refuge.

Sign a petition here if you want to add your name to the growing list of people asking Congress to stop the sale of these precious federal acres of wildlife habitat.

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