ESA Policy News: May 18

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here. APPROPRIATIONS: HOUSE CJS BILL CUTS NOAA, RESEARCH INITIATIVES On May 10, the House passed H.R. 5326, the Commerce, Justice and Science (CJS) Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2013, which includes funding for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), among other agencies. The bill passed by a vote of 247-163 with 23 Democrats joining all but eight Republicans in supporting the measure. Democrats supporting the measure included House Appropriations Committee Ranking Member Norman Dicks (D-WA) and House Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Subcommittee Ranking Member Chaka Fattah (D-PA). In total, the bill provides $51.1 billion in funding for FY 2013, $1.6 billion below FY 2012 and $731 million below the president’s FY 2013 budget request. The White House has released a statement of administration policy declaring that President Obama will veto the bill, if it is presented to him in its current form. The administration asserts that the bill’s overall funding level violates those set by the Budget Control Act (P.L. 112-25), agreed to in August of last year, and says  that the cuts included in the bill will be a detriment in furthering “economic growth, security, and global competitiveness” for the nation. While applauding the funding for the Office of Science and Technology Policy as well as the $7.3 billion funding level for NSF, the White House says that significant funding cuts to NOAA would adversely affect the agency’s ability to implement the nation’s fisheries and oceans stewardship programs. The House bill must be reconciled with the Senate CJS bill approved in committee last month.  For additional background on the House and Senate CJS appropriations bills, see the April 20 edition of ESA Policy News. To view the full White House statement of administration policy on the House CJS appropriations bill, click here. HOUSE: SCIENCE SUBCOMMITTEE CONSIDERS POTENTIAL OF OIL SHALE DEVELOPMENT On May 10, the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Energy and Environment convened for a hearing entitled “American Jobs and the Economy through Expanded Energy Production:  Challenges and Opportunities of Unconventional Resources Technology.” “The amount of energy under own soil is striking.  With continued technological advances and the right policies to enable access to these resources, America could become the global leader in energy production for the next generation and beyond,” stated Subcommittee Chairman Andy Harris (R-MD). “The Green River Basin, located in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming, may contain up to three trillion barrels of oil, more potential oil than the rest of the world’s current oil reserves...

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Animal Jurisprudence

AFTER co-authoring a 2005 paper imagining “Re-wilding North America” with giant Bolson tortoises, camels, horses, cheetahs, elephants and lions, Harry Greene received a lot of hate mail. Corresponding ecologists hated the idea of deliberate transcontinental introductions of any kind.

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Fed seeks to inspire community-driven conservation

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) recently announced that it is seeking public input on a proposal to expand incentives for farmers, ranchers and other private landowners to help conserve wildlife. The proposal is part of the agency’s effort to seek innovative ways to improve implementation of the Endangered Species Act. The FWS request for public comment includes solicitation of ideas on how to make existing conservation collaboration tools more effective, such as Habitat Conservation Plans, Safe Harbor Agreements, and Candidate Conservation Agreements. The agency’s effort is intended to lead towards consensus approaches and towards encouraging conservation practices by landowners that help preserve species that are candidates for federal protection. One potential proposal before FWS includes the establishment of conservation “banks” for at-risk species. The conservation banks would sell credits that allow landowners to offset the impact of their activities on at-risk species as well as buy credits that reward landowners for making habitat improvements. Also under consideration is the development of a new agreement to provide landowners with assurances that conservation actions taken to benefit species prior to listing could be used to offset the adverse effects of activities carried out later, in the event the species is listed. FWS is also working on a similar effort with the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service entitled the Working Lands for Wildlife initiative. The collaboration offers financial and technical assistance to farmers, ranchers and forest landowners to restore and protect the habitats for seven at-risk species across the nation, including the  greater sage-grouse, New England cottontail, bog turtle, golden-winged warbler, gopher tortoise, lesser prairie-chicken and the Southwestern willow flycatcher. Interested producers can enroll in the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program on a continuous basis at their local NRCS field office. Public comments on the Endangered Species Act reform proposal are due May 14, 2012 and can be submitted using the following methods: Federal eRulemaking Portal: http://www.regulations.gov. Follow the instructions for submitting comments to Docket No. [FWS–R9–ES–2011–0099]; or U.S. mail or hand-delivery: Public Comments Processing, Attn: [FWS–R9–ES–2011–0099]; Division of Policy and Directives Management; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; 4401 N. Fairfax Drive, MS 2042–PDM; Arlington, VA 22203. Photo Credit:...

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What’s in a name? Proposed reinterpretation of key words in the Endangered Species Act

This post contributed by Sean Hoban, a post-doc in conservation biology at the University of Ferrara, Italy   How important can five words be?  Very! The 1973 Endangered Species Act states that a species may be regarded as endangered if “threatened with extinction […] throughout all or a significant portion of its range” (my underline, hereafter, SPR).  Remarkably, neither the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) nor National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has had an official policy on the meaning of this phrase for the thirty-nine year history of the Act.  Enter proposal FWS–R9–ES–2011–003 (summarized here), which spells out the Services’ soon-to-be official interpretation of the seemingly innocuous phrase, specifically defining the words “significant” and “range.” As a conservation biologist working for effective species survival, I would like to share my impressions of the proposal, and encourage all to participate in the public comment, extended until March 7.  How these five words are interpreted will have lasting consequences for species’ listing and subsequent recovery plans and management actions. After an insightful review of past legislative battles over SPR, the proposal gets down to business on page 5, stating that a definition of “significant” should include (a) the variable to measure and (b) a threshold for that variable.  Further, a) and b) should be based on biological and conservation criteria. We would probably all agree here!  But read on, controversy awaits. As explained on page 8, in the preamble to the proposal, a portion of a species’ range may be “significant” with respect to a species’ resiliency (ability to recover), redundancy (multiple, distributed “backups”), and/or representation (range of variation).  Also important are “abundance, spatial distribution, productivity, and diversity of the species.” However, these key variables are lacking in the actual proposed interpretation (page 16/17); the actual definition of a SPR is very succinct: “without that portion, the species would be in danger of extinction. If so, the portion is significant.” It is therefore arguable whether the new phrasing improves specificity; this wording seems as open to interpretation and debate as ever.  Further, as noted in several ongoing dialogues on Ecolog-l, and summarized in an open letter by the Center for Biological Diversity, this could “result in species that are severely endangered in portions of their range being denied protection because they are secure in some portion of their range even if that portion is just a fraction.”  Specific examples are argued in recent news articles and blogs.  These commentaries question whether (in the proposal’s words) “the draft policy would result in the Services listing and protecting throughout their ranges species that previously we either would not have listed, or would...

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ESA Policy News: January 13

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here. INTERIOR: GRAND CANYON HARDROCK MINING PROHIBITION ENACTED On Jan. 9, the Department of Interior (DOI) announced its decision to ban new hardrock mining claims on more than one million acres around Grand Canyon National Park for the next 20 years. The order was signed by Sec. of Interior Ken Salazar. The withdrawn area includes 355,874 acres of U.S. Forest Service land on the Kaibab National Forest; 626,678 acres of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands; and 23,993 acres of split estate – where surface lands are held by other owners while subsurface minerals are owned by the federal government. The affected lands, all in the vicinity of the Grand Canyon or Grand Canyon National Park, are located in Mohave and Coconino Counties of Northern Arizona. The process for approving withdrawal involved an extensive public comment period in which a wide array of stakeholders, including the Ecological Society of America, participated. To view the ESA letter, click here. For more information on the Interior’s withdrawal, click here. INTERIOR: NEW ENVIRONMENTAL DISASTERS SCIENCE PANEL CREATED On Jan. 6, the Department of Interior (DOI) announced the creation of the Strategic Sciences Group, a team intended to improve federal responsiveness to environmental disasters. The creation of the group is authorized under a recent order signed by DOI Secretary Ken Salazar. Interior officials contend the need to improve communication and coordination between federal scientists representing DOI, the United States Geological Survey and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, among others, led to the creation of the new group. The Strategic Sciences Group will be co-led by Gary Machlis, Science Adviser for the National Park Service Director and David Applegate, United States Geological Survey Associate Director for Natural Hazards. The group was given three months to establish an operational plan describing its organization and high-priority crisis scenarios. Rhea Suh, Interior’s Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management and Budget, is in charge of implementing the order. More information on the DOI order can be found here. PUBLIC COMMENT OPPORTUNITY: WHITE HOUSE RELEASES DRAFT OCEAN PLAN On Jan. 12, the White House National Ocean Council released a draft of its National Ocean Policy Implementation Plan. The plan outlines a series of actions the federal government will take to improve environmental stewardship of the nation’s oceans, Great Lakes and coastal areas. The report instructs federal agencies to post all non-confidential data on ocean research to a new centralized ocean data website over the next three years. It also directs the federal government to streamline ocean and coastal permitting processes and call...

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Great Lakes gray wolves delisted, federal monitoring efforts continue

The United State Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) recent decision to remove the gray wolf from protection under the Endangered Species Act in the Great Lakes states of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan has been met with a wide array of praise from policymakers and conservationists alike, including Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Aside from some concerns about species classification of the population, the move has been met with substantially less criticism than the unconventional legislative action that mandated the delisting of gray wolves in areas of the Northern Rockies. The gray wolf was first granted federal protection after enactment of the Endangered Species Act of 1973. In 1978, the Minnesota population of gray wolves was re-classified as “threatened” under the Act while gray wolves throughout the remainder of the continental United States were listed as “endangered.” The law afforded the wolves protection from unregulated killing and resulted in increased scientific research on wolves as well as education efforts that increased public understanding of the animals. At the time of the Act’s enactment, there were only a few hundred wolves in Minnesota and a small number on Isle Royal, Michigan. Since that time, the Minnesota populations have expanded into new packs that migrated into Wisconsin and the upper peninsula of Michigan. Combined, there are now over 4,000 wolves in the three states. Each of these states has designated federally approved population minimums for its wolves. According to the FWS, Minnesota’s management plan would allow the state’s population to drop from nearly 3,000 to as low as 1,600 wolves. In Wisconsin, where there are an estimated 782 wolves, the minimum population management goal is 350 in areas outside of American Indian reservations. Michigan has set a minimum of 200 wolves from its current population of 687. This new designation does not have any effect on the current federal status of wolf populations outside the Great Lakes’ “distinct population segment.” But what’s to prevent these wolves from being hunted and killed to the point where they have to be reinstated as threatened under the Endangered Species Act? The FWS has published a monitoring plan to track wolf populations in the Great Lakes area. In collaboration with a number of other U.S. federal agencies, including the Forest Service, Geological Survey, and Park Service, the FWS will continue to monitor wolf populations in the Great Lake states for a minimum of five years to ensure that populations remain robust. These federal agencies will work closely with tribal natural resource agencies and the respective state wildlife agencies to monitor wolf populations for threats, including diseases and human-caused mortality. If the status...

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ESA Policy News: December 9

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston. Read the full Policy News here. CONGRESS: ENVIRONMENTAL RIDERS LOOM FOR MUST-PASS MEASURES Before the first session of the 112th Congress adjourns at the end of next week (or weekend), it will take up a short, but important list of measures to keep the government funded and extend the existing payroll tax cut. Each of these bills could potentially include environmental policy riders to overturn or scale back Obama administration efforts. Congressional Republican leaders appear set on taking up a comprehensive measure that ties a year-long extension of President Obama’s payroll tax cut to the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline project. Earlier this fall, the Obama administration announced it would postpone review of the pipeline project until after 2012 and the president has personally stated he would veto an effort to politicize the payroll tax extension. However, some Members have voiced concern that the president may end up taking back that statement, particularly as the bill also includes an extension of unemployment insurance. Entitled the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2011, the 396-page measure is sponsored by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI). Congressional leaders also have to deal with the remaining appropriations measures, which must be acted on by the end of next week to maintain government funding of several agencies. The House Interior Appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2012 is a virtual Christmas tree “ornamented” with policy riders to restrict various Department of Interior and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations. Provisions incorporated into the House measure include efforts to restrict EPA’s cross-state air pollution rule, curbs on toxic emissions from power plants, industrial boiler regulations, a proposed change in the definition of “navigable waters” under the Clean Water Act, Interior’s withdrawal of acreage surrounding the Grand Canyon from uranium mining and efforts to restrict mountain-top removal mining. Senior Congressional Democrats have already conceded they may need to relent on a few environmental riders in order to pass a bill. Those concerned about the extension of the Keystone XL pipeline or any of the aforementioned environmental policy riders are encouraged to contact their Members and Senators. For additional information on the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act, click here. To contact your Member of Congress, click here. To contact your Senator, click here. ENDANGERED SPECIES: COMMITTEE EXAMINES LITIGATION, EFFICACY SURROUNDING E.S.A. On Dec. 6, the House Natural Resources Committee convened for a hearing examining the effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act. Committee Republican majority members took the opportunity to call for reform of the legislation....

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New report highlights mercury pollution impacts on ecosystems

Earlier this week, the Ecological Society of America, in partnership with the Biodiversity Research Institute (BRI), the Great Lakes Commission and the Northeast-Midwest Institute, cosponsored a Congressional briefing entitled: “Mercury and Air Pollution Impacts on Ecosystems: Policy-Relevant Highlights from New Scientific Studies.” The briefing sought to highlight the findings of a recent report from BRI highlighting mercury pollution in the Great Lakes region. The featured speakers included Charles Driscoll, a National Academy member and professor at Syracuse University and David Evers, Executive Director and Chief Scientist at BRI.  Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) kicked off the briefing with some opening remarks noting the detrimental health effects mercury pollution can have on families in the Great Lakes region. According to the report, emissions of mercury to the air (and subsequent deposition) are now the primary source of mercury pollution to the Great Lakes region. Twenty-six percent of mercury deposition in Canada and the continental United States is from the Great Lakes region, with the highest concentrations in Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin. The presence of methylmercury (inorganic mercury that has been altered by bacteria in the natural environment) affects the entire food-chain of an ecosystem. Plants take up the toxin and are subsequently fed upon by plant-eating insects and fish, which in turn are consumed by insectivores and fish-eating animals, including songbirds, waterfowl and humans. A number of bird species were found to have “high sensitivity” to mercury pollution, including the American Kestrel, the American White Ibis, the Snowy Egret, the Osprey and the Tri-Colored Heron.  The study notes that the U.S.  national bird, the Bald Eagle, is also negatively impacted by mercury, with effects that  include “subclinical neurological damage.” The Bald Eagle was removed from being listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act in 2007. It was declared a federally endangered species from 1967-1995. The speakers noted that fish polluted with mercury can have detrimental impacts on the local economy and human health. “In recent years, we’ve come to appreciate that pollution from mercury and acid rain affects wildlife health as well as human health,” said Evers. Among 15 fish species in the region consumed by people and wildlife, six species have average mercury concentrations above 0.30 parts per million. The report notes that five states in the region “have issued statewide consumption advisories for mercury in fish from all fresh waters, two have issued statewide advisories for mercury in fish from all lakes, and one has issued advisories for specific water bodies.” According to the BRI study, “sport fishing in the eight Great Lakes states supports more than 190,000 jobs and annually has a total economic impact of more...

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