Tag Archive | "U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service"


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)


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.

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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.

Posted in National Wildlife Refuges, Public LandsComments (0)

West Front of the Capitol. Photo Credit- Architect of the Capitol.

Secure Capital for Renewable Energy is Good for Wildlife and the Economy

The Obama administration has done a commendable job jumpstarting renewable energy development and is well on its way to achieving the president’s goal of providing enough renewable energy to power three million homes.  Although the administration’s efforts to boost the renewable energy sector have been successful to date, there is little doubt that concern for continuing access to capital –the result of the potential loss of the production tax credit and grant programs, the impact of cheap natural gas, and the failure to agree on a national energy policy that would spur investment in clean energy development — is undercutting the administration’s successful effort to move the clean energy economy forward. This uncertainty – especially for financing and a growing market for clean energy – will continue to thwart the growth of this energy sector.

Congress could address these concerns by extending tax credits (which could be paid for by redirecting current oil and gas production subsidies) and by passing legislation to establish a national goal for renewable energy production or by finally putting a tax on carbon pollution. These solutions would help spur private-sector investment in clean energy and reduce the industry’s dependence on federal subsidies.  The result would be good for economic growth, stimulate employment, and reduce the federal deficit (by reducing federal outlays and generating increased tax revenue over the long term).

Instead, Congress has chosen to do none of the above — leaving the market uncertain while complaining that the Obama administration has no energy policy.  At the same time, anti-environmental members of Congress choose to argue that regulations designed to protect human health and natural resources are thwarting efforts to promote clean energy. Nothing could be further from the truth.

To the contrary, the conservation community has worked in partnership with the solar and wind energy industries to frame policies to guide solar development on public lands and promote responsibly wind energy projects.   With encouragement from the industry and conservation groups, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management is poised to finalize a first-of-its-kind plan for responsible solar energy development on public lands, which should help solar energy projects move forward more efficiently by reducing risk to wildlife and natural and cultural resources.

In addition, the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service recently issued guidelines for wind energy development that were based on the recommendations of a scientific panel (established, in fact, by the Bush administration) and fully-supported by the wind energy industry association and leading conservation organizations. This is ground-breaking progress for the energy sector that has never been seen before and a reflection of a common understanding of the need to develop cleaner, more environmentally-responsible and secure sources of energy.

But to keep the clean energy boom from going bust, our nation’s leaders need to act quickly to shore-up the nascent industry. Congress can start by creating demand for renewable energy, following the lead of some 33 states – most notably California, which has set the highest target aiming to generate 33 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020 – and setting a national renewable energy standard. Although such legislation is currently pending, its prospects for passage are not good, to no one’s surprise.   Congress must also make financing for renewable energy development – solar, wind and geothermal projects – more secure as President Obama has called for time and again. The uncertainty of our nation’s commitment to clean energy discourages investment from the private sector. The oil and gas industry receives billions of dollars worth of incentives each year. For the clean energy industry to take flight, Congress must at least make a commitment to renewables on par with fossil fuels.

Last, but certainly not least, the Obama administration must put in place a national program for siting and permitting responsible clean energy projects. As mentioned earlier, the Bureau of Land Management’s proposed solar-energy program stands as an example of “smart from the start” clean energy policy. It was developed with input from conservation organizations, industry representatives, clean energy advocates, utilities, and investors. The program aims to accelerate solar energy development by guiding projects to low-conflict areas that are least likely to impact imperiled wildlife and sensitive lands. This approach reduces risk for investors and provides developers with greater certainty that their projects can move forward and conservationists with greater confidence that risk to wildlife and the environment will be minimized.

If the clean energy sector goes bust, it cannot be blamed on the Obama administration, the solar and wind energy industries, or conservation groups. The blame will fall squarely on Congress, which chooses instead to complain about the lack of a national energy policy, while blocking any effort to help advance our clean energy future and pointing a finger at others for their failure to lead.

Posted in Renewables, Smart from the StartComments (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)

A National Plan to Combat White-Nose Syndrome

A National Plan to Combat White-Nose Syndrome

Cluster of hibernating Indiana bats (Photo: Andrew King, FWS)

In May, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) published a national plan for the management of white-nose syndrome (WNS), a disease that is currently devastating bat populations in the Northeastern U.S. and quickly spreading. WNS, thought to be caused by the fungus Geomyces destructans, is believed to disrupt the bats’ hibernation, generally resulting in their starvation and death. The new plan is meant to allow for coordination among the many state and federal agencies, tribal governments, NGOs, and research institutions necessary to respond to the rapidly spreading disease. The plan emphasizes the need to minimize human transmission of the fungus by closing caves and enforcing decontamination protocols. It also advocates for the creation of uniform research standards, a secure database of information to aid collaboration, sufficient laboratory capacity, and application of epidemiological science in the study of WNS. At present, the national plan is still a mere framework; a forthcoming implementation plan will be carried out by state and tribal agencies.

While a national plan is a step in the right direction, witnesses at a recent hearing held by the House Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular Affairs stressed that without implementation, this plan achieves nothing for the bats. They also stated unequivocally that a lack of funding has thus far hindered research needed to answer the many remaining questions about the disease. With a recent U.S. Geological Survey study estimating that bats provide pest-control services worth $12-$174 per acre per year to agriculture, failing to act could result in an increase in crop losses as the disease spreads to more agricultural areas, as well as lost tourism revenue, forestry losses due to insect pests, human disease spread by mosquitoes, and costs associated with having to list more bat species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Just this week, FWS announced a 90-day status review to evaluate whether the eastern small-footed bat and the northern long-eared bat warrant listing under the ESA due solely to losses from WNS.

Indiana bat (Photo: FWS)

Unfortunately, threats to bats abound. For example, a member of Defenders’ staff is participating in a project with the Emerging Wildlife Conservation Leaders Program to minimize the effects of guano harvest in order to help preserve bat populations. White Nose Syndrome is perhaps the greatest threat, occurring at an intersection that includes endangered species policy, wind energy development, issues concerning recreational access to caves where bats hibernate, and more. Combating WNS will ease the cumulative impacts of these threats and allow more adaptability in all policy arenas concerned with bat survival today. At this point, increased funding for research is the key in the battle against WNS. Funding is necessary to determine bat and infection locations, the mechanism by which G. destructans attacks, and the fungus’ vulnerabilities. Only armed with that information can we move beyond defensive measures against the spread of WNS, to a solution.

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife, Public LandsComments (0)

Trade offs in time and costs in developing Habitat Conservation Plans (HCPs)

Co-authored with Jake Li

The USFWS has approved more than 500 Habitat Conservation Plans, allowing developers, private landowners and state and local governments to move forward with projects that may harm endangered species.  The Plans and the process for approving them are widely criticized for many things, but in particular because they take so long to finalize.  For example plans in Yolo County, California and for the Sonoran desert of Pima County, Arizona took more than eight years to complete.

It’s unclear why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) doesn’t offer more transparent choices to developers when initiating development of an HCP.

For example, at the time an applicant walks in the door of a USFWS office, there is a certain amount of information known about the site where a development will occur and the likely impacts of that development – that information represents the ‘best available science’ at the time.  In most cases that information provides the agency with very little certainty about the endangered species that will be impacted, the magnitude and significance of those impacts, and the options for avoiding, minimizing and mitigating those impacts.  Nevertheless, some information is available to agencies and they could move forward with the applicant in developing an HCP.  The likely outcome would be very high mitigation requirements based on estimates for the most robust characterization of the population of species that might be present on the development site.  The USFWS policy handbook on this subject already makes allowance for this approach by saying that where “the applicant insists consultation be completed without the data or analyses requested…” USFWS is expected to give ‘the species the benefit of the doubt.” The applicant, in securing a quicker answer would accept a trade off of mitigation costs that better (but as yet unavailable) science could reduce.

In contrast, an applicant who works with the USFWS to exhaustively document the wildlife on and near the development site and to work with the USFWS to try to minimize and avoid impacts to that wildlife may typically have a much lower mitigation cost, but will end up funding expensive research and perhaps more importantly, waiting years for the results of the research they fund.

If time is the most important factor for a developer of a project seeking an HCP from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it’s not clear why they shouldn’t have more choices to pursue a quicker, but more expensive route to a finalized HCP.  USFWS could offer such an outcome without resulting in worse outcomes for wildlife and perhaps even with better results, since applicants will sometimes be paying for beneficial wildlife activities that ‘not yet available’ science would have shown were not required.

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Table with examples of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife's recovery priority system

Recovery priorities for endangered species explained

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a complicated job in managing the conservation and recovery of more than 1,300 U.S. species protected under the Endangered Species Act.  In 1983, they established a priority system, to help them make choices on where to invest in developing recovery plans and implementing those plans – and to provide transparency to the public on those choices.

The system has 36 ranks for wildlife and plant species and uses the following nested variables to sort through species:

  • Degree of threat: Species are assigned to either a high, moderate or low degree of threat.  High means that extinction is almost certain in the immediate future because of population decline or habitat destruction.  ‘Moderate’ means extinction is not immediately likely to occur if investments in recovery are temporarily delayed.
  • Recovery potential: Species are assigned one of two categories – high or low recovery potential.  ‘High’ potential for success are species with threats and biology well-understood and recovery actions that are either not intensive or are actions that have been used before and have a high probability of success.
  • Taxonomy:  The most genetically distinct species receive a higher priority.
  • Conflict:  Because of 1982 amendments to the ESA, species which are in conflict with construction, development or other economic activities are meant to be a higher priority for the agency.

The system works like this:

Table with examples of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife's recovery priority system

In practice, there is little evidence that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service uses this system in deciding which recovery plans to implement and which actions to fund.  This 2008 report to Congress provides the latest information on the priority ranks of each species.  In 2005, the Government Accountability Office concluded in a report that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does not have a process to measure the extent to which funding is aligned with this and other priority systems.

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dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.