ESA Policy News: October 20

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston. Read the full Policy News here. APPROPRIATIONS: SENATE RELEASES INTERIOR SPENDING BILL On Oct. 14, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies released is funding bill for Fiscal Year (FY) 2012. In total, the bill provides $29.3 billion for programs funded by the Department of Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other environmental agencies, slightly less than the $29.5 billion approved for FY 2011. The House bill includes $27.5 billion in funding for FY 2012. The bill includes $10.27 billion for the Interior Department in FY 2012, down from the $10.56 billion enacted in FY 2011. EPA would receive $8.62 billion, down from the $8.68 billion enacted in FY 2011. The House bill includes $9.9 billion for Interior and $7.1 billion for EPA. For the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) the bill provides $1.08 billion in funding for FY 2012, less than the $1.11 billion provided in FY 2011. The House bill provides approximately $919.22 million for BLM. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) would receive $1.47 billion for FY 2012, less than the $1.5 billion allocated in FY 2011. The House bill provides $1.1 billion for FWS. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) would be funded at $1.06 billion for FY 2012, less than the $1.08 billion in funding it received in FY 2011. The House bill includes $1.05 billion for USGS. For the U.S. Forest Service, the bill includes $4.56 billion for FY 2012, less than the $4.69 billion allocated in FY 2012. The House bill provides $4.5 billion for the Forest Service. Click here for additional information on the Senate Interior bill or view the House Interior bill here. ENDANGERED SPECIES: JUDGE THROWS OUT INTERIOR RULE LIMITING POLAR BEAR PROTECTIONS On Oct. 17, a federal judge struck down a George W. Bush administration rule that barred the use of the Endangered Species Act to regulate greenhouse gasses. The ruling concerned a rule issued by the U.S. Department of Interior in 2008 that said the polar bear’s designation as threatened in 2008 could not be used as a backdoor way to control greenhouse gases blamed for global warming. The rule was subsequently upheld by the Obama administration. U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan of the District of Columbia ordered the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to carry out an environmental review to meet the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). But, importantly, he upheld FWS’s decision that the Endangered Species Act was not the appropriate vehicle to regulate greenhouse gases. The Center for Biological Diversity,...

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The black-footed ferret’s storied recovery

This post contributed by Terence Houston, ESA Science Policy Analyst This week, the National Zoo’s Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) sent 26 black-footed ferrets into “boot camp” in Colorado to prepare the animals for life outside captivity. A recent Associated Press article indicates that the ferrets will spend at least 30 days in the National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center in Colorado for “preconditioning” for the wild. The training involves exposing the ferrets to underground burrows and prairie dog tunnels (prairie dogs make up 91 percent of the ferrets’ food source).  Scientists say that training gives the ferrets a 10 times better chance of survival in the wild. Black-footed ferrets are among the success stories of the Endangered Species Act. The animals were nearly driven to extinction due to fur trade harvest, habitat loss, prairie dog extermination and Sylvatic plague, a disease humans arriving in North America in the late 1800s brought with them. For the ferrets, the disease is the equivalent of the Black plague. These combined factors led to as few as 18 ferrets that remained in the wild in by 1985. Several state zoos joined forces with the SCBI and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to breed the endangered animals in captivity. FWS developed its Black-Footed Ferret Recovery Plan, which focused on both natural and assisted breeding programs and the establishment of multiple reintroduction sites. Since 1991, over 7,000 captive-bred ferrets have been released into prairie dog colonies. Today, there are an estimated 1,000 black-footed ferrets in the wild, with 19 reintroduction sites across North America and four self-sustaining populations in the states of Arizona, South Dakota and Wyoming. Additional information on the black-footed ferret’s recovery can be found here or by visiting the FWS website. Photo credit:...

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Deregulation of protections against invasive species can have dire long-term economic consequences

This post contributed by Terence Houston, ESA Science Policy Analyst The debate over the economic consequences of federal regulations intended to curb the prevalence of invasive species continues on Capitol Hill. During a Sept. 14 hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Republican committee leaders released a report entitled “Broken Government: How the Administrative State has Broken President Obama’s Promise of Regulatory Reform.” In his opening statement, Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) asserted that currently, “the regulatory process is broken, being manipulated and exploited in an effort to reward allies of the Obama administration such as environmental groups, trial lawyers, and unions.” The committee report outlines several regulations that Republicans believe have not undergone a sufficient cost-benefit analysis, including a proposed rule from the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) that would designate the Burmese python and eight other snake species as “injurious” and consequently, illegal to transport across state lines. The committee heard testimony from David Barker, a herpetologist and owner of Vida Preciosa International, Inc., a snake-breeding business specializing in pythons and boas. He is also a member of the U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers. Barker said that FWS’s regulation “lacks a scientific basis, being based on a single flawed study that has not withstood scientific review.” Of the establishment of Burmese Pythons in the Florida everglades, he contends “there has been no empirical evidence that their presence has threatened the ecosystem or caused any serious disruption.” Barker asserted that the regulation “threatens as many as a million law-abiding American citizens and their families with the penalty of a felony conviction for pursuing their livelihoods, for pursuing their hobby, or for simply moving with their pet to a new state.” In his opening statement, Committee Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-MD) noted, “with all due respect to our witnesses from the Association of Reptile Keepers, repealing a so-called ‘job-killing’ regulation to allow more pythons, boa constrictors and anacondas into the United States is not the kind of bold, bipartisan solution Americans are looking for to help the economy.” Committee Democrats also put forward several letters that countered many of the arguments of Barker and Chairman Issa regarding invasive pythons. Among these was a joint letter spearheaded by several national and Florida conservation groups including The Nature Conservancy, the Florida Wildlife Federation and the Everglades Foundation that focused specifically on the threat posed by Burmese pythons. The letter states that “monitoring has shown that state and federally threatened and endangered species, including the Wood Stork and Key Largo woodrat, are already being predated by these large constrictors. Because these predatory snakes are cryptic, highly productive and can take advantage...

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‘Threatened’ no more: the Lake Erie watersnake’s road to recovery

This month, the Lake Erie watersnake (Nerodia sipedon insularum) was finally removed from the list of organisms protected under the Endangered Species Act. The achievement is a win for both the species and the ecosystem in which it plays a vital role. With one of the smallest geographic ranges of any vertebrate in the world, this subspecies of snake is only found on the islands of Lake Erie, located in east-central North America. Primarily active between early May and October, depending on temperatures and weather conditions, these non-venomous reptiles spend the warmer months dwelling around the cliffs and rocky shorelines of the lake’s limestone islands. During winters, the snakes hibernate underground. Unlike other Nerodia subspecies, whose coloration varies, the Lake Erie watersnakes have a uniform gray coloring and grow from 1.5- to 3.5-feet long. At the time of its initial listing, the species was threatened by intentional killing and loss of its natural habitat to shoreline development. However, roughly 300 acres of surrounding habitat and 11 miles of shoreline have been protected for the snake since it was first listed as “threatened” on August 30, 1999. Shortly after its listing, the federal government began intensive monitoring efforts of the species, including public outreach programs to promote awareness of the snake and provide information on its important role in the local ecosystem. In September 2003, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) finalized a recovery plan that called for protecting its remaining habitat and providing further outreach to reduce threats to the species. In cooperation with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) and other partners, biologists also worked to minimize threats to the snake through implementing conservation efforts. Recovery criteria include a combined population of at least 5,555 snakes, sustained for six years, and protection of key habitat. Through this successful collaboration between government and the local community, the Lake Erie watersnake population grew to about 11,980 in 2009, and has exceeded the minimum recovery level since 2002. FWS first declared its intention to delist the snake in June 2010. The perpetuation of the species has been critical to the Lake Erie region. During the 1990s, the round goby – an aggressive invasive fish that out-competes native fishes for food, shelter, and nesting sites – established itself in the Great Lakes and caused substantial declines of many native fish populations. These gobies have also been found to carry 25 species of parasites. The predatory Lake Erie watersnakes have helped maintain balance in the ecosystem by keeping the population of invasive gobies in check. Today, 90 percent of the watersnake’s diet is round goby, with the remainder composed of mudpuppies...

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ESA Policy News: August 4

Here are some highlights from the latest Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston. NATIONAL DEBT: OBAMA SIGNS MEASURE RAISING DEBT CEILING THROUGH 2012 The week of August 2, Congress passed and the president signed a bill to increase the national debt by as much as $2.4 trillion. After weeks in which a deal between leaders of both parties appeared elusive, the deal was finally announced the weekend preceding the vote, mere days before the Department of Treasury predicted a default if the debt ceiling was not raised. The plan implemented by Congressional leaders has the skeletal frame of a plan first proposed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) in that it reduces the debt limit in phases, giving the president sole authority to increase the debt. While revenues were left off the table, the administration was able to win on its contention that the debt increase should run through the end of 2012, punting the issue through the next election. In the interim, however, the measure sets the stage for $917 billion in discretionary spending cuts to federal agencies over a 10 year period beginning in Fiscal Year (FY) 2012. It is expected that this will lead to federal agency appropriations even further below what was enacted in FY 2011. The plan provides for debt ceiling increases in two stages: The president may request a $900 billion increase now, of which $400 billion in borrowing authority is immediately available to the U.S. Treasury. This $900 billion is subject to a resolution of disapproval in both the House and Senate. The disapproval measure would be subject to a presidential veto.  Once the debt comes within $100 billion of the debt ceiling, the president may ask for at least an additional $1.2 trillion, which could rise to $1.5 trillion if a Balanced Budget Amendment is sent to the states or the joint committee process described below enacts more than $1.5 trillion in savings.  This increase is also subject to a resolution of disapproval and can also be vetoed by the president, consequently granting him authority to raise the national debt through the end of 2012. The second part of the plan involves up to an additional $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction, to be decided by a joint committee made up of 12 members (six from each chamber). Appointed by the House Speaker, Senate Majority Leader, Senate Minority Leader and House Minority Leader, the committee members will be tasked with developing legislation to achieve at least $1.5 trillion in future deficit reduction by Thanksgiving. The committee members must be appointed by August 16. As part of the deal, both...

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Policy News: June 3

Here are some highlights from the latest Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here. COMMERCE: FORMER ENERGY CEO, NRDC COFOUNDER, NOMINATED TO LEAD DEPARTMENT On May 31, President Obama announced his intention to nominate John Bryson to the post of Secretary of the Department of Commerce. Bryson would bring a lengthy resume working on energy and environmental issues to the department that includes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Bryson is one of the co-founders of the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the United State’s top environmental groups. His credentials include several years as chairman of the California State Water Resources Control Board in the late 1970s and head of the California Public Utilities Commission. Bryson would succeed current Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, whom the president has nominated to serve as ambassador to China.  The president’s transition teams had previously interviewed Bryson for the Energy secretary job before it ultimately went to Steven Chu, according to Democratic officials. Bryson’s nomination requires confirmation by the Senate, where reaction from some Republicans has been highly critical most notably from Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Ranking Member James Inhofe (R-OK). NSF: SEN. COBURN RELEASES REPORT CITING WASTE, MISMANAGEMENT IN SCIENCE AGENCY Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), a known conservative fiscal hawk, released a report May 26 that claims to identify $3 billion in “fraud, waste and abuse” at the National Science Foundation (NSF). In the 73 page report, entitled The National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope, Sen. Coburn, states, “the consensus surrounding the importance of NSF is precisely why it is essential to increase and enhance oversight over agency expenditures.” In response, a number of scientific organizations, including the Ecological Society of America (ESA), issued “Action Alerts” calling upon Oklahoma constituents to contact Sen. Coburn’s office. Sen. Coburn also called for the elimination of NSF’s Social, Behavioral and Economics (SBE) division, questioning whether “these social sciences represent obvious national priorities that deserve a cut of the same pie.” He also charged that some of the work in these and other areas is duplicative of other federal agencies. To view the Coburn report, see: http://coburn.senate.gov/public//index.cfm?a=Files.Serve&File_id=f6cd2052-b088-44c3-b146-5baa5c01552a To view the House Research and Education Subcommittee hearing see: http://science.house.gov/hearing/subcommittee-research-and-science-education-hearing-social-bahavioral-and-economic-science WATER RESOURCES: SCIENTISTS URGE RESEARCH INVESTMENT INTO TOXIC ALGAL BLOOMS On June 1, the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Energy and Environment considered legislation that would expand research into harmful algal blooms that have had numerous adverse environmental impacts, including creating “dead zones,”  in countless waterways. The legislation under review is tentatively titled the Harmful Algal Blooms and Hypoxia Research and Control Act of 2011. The measure,...

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Policy News: May 20

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston. Read the full Policy News here. SENATE: GOP MEASURE TO EXPAND OFFSHORE DRILLING IS REJECTED On May 18, the U.S. Senate rejected S. 953 by a vote of 42-57.  The Offshore Production and Safety Act of 2011 sought to expedite and expand offshore oil and gas drilling nationwide..  Sponsored by Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the bill–similar to legislation the House passed in recent weeks—would would require new lease sales in the Arctic, Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico and set deadlines for several upcoming Gulf of Mexico lease sales. The bill was opposed by every Senate Democrat. Five Republicans, including Sens. Jim DeMint (SC), Mike Lee (UT), Richard Shelby (AL), Olympia Snowe (ME) and David Vitter (LA), also voted against the bill. Democratic senators from Louisiana and Alaska expressed concerns that the bill does not contain provisions to share oil and gas revenues with coastal states. Sen. Snowe maintained that the measure fails to give states a role in determining what activities are allowed off their coastlines. HOUSE: APPROPRIATIONS COMMITTEE RELEASES AGENDA FOR FY 2012 BILLS House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY), announced May 11 the schedule for completion of work on the twelve fiscal year (FY) 2012 appropriations bills. The plan also includes the total planned funding for each of the twelve bills, which fund federal agencies. In total the appropriations bills would reduce spending by over $30 billion compared to FY 2011 and $121.5 billion less than Ppresident Obama’s FY 2012 budget request. The Commerce, Justice and Science spending bill would be funded at $50.2 billion, $3 billion less than the FY 2011 enacted level and $7.4 billion less than the president’s request. The Energy and Water Appropriations bill would be funded at $30.6 billion, $1 billion less than the FY 2011 enacted level and nearly $6 billion less than the president’s request. The Interior and Environment Appropriations bill would be funded at nearly $27.5 billion, $2 billion less than FY 2011 and $3.8 billion less than the president’s request. NATURAL GAS: SCIENCE COMMITTEE DISCUSSES EPA HYDRAULIC FRACTURING STUDY The House Space, Science and Technology Committee met May 11 for a hearing examining a draft Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study on hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking.” Hydraulic fracturing involves using high-pressure injections of water, chemicals and sand to open cracks that release gas trapped in rock deep underground. It’s become a key ingredient of a dramatic surge in gas extraction across the nation, resulting in soaring domestic reserves and low prices. The expansion of the practice has also...

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Policy News: May 6

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston. Read the full Policy News here. MINING: COMMITTEE HEARING HIGHLIGHTS INDUSTRY CONCERNS OVER EPA REGS The House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment met May 5 for the first in a series of hearings entitled “EPA Mining Policies: Assault on Appalachian Jobs.” The hearings are in reaction to the Obama administration’s review of coal mining projects and the recent interim Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidance for issuing mountaintop removal permits in Appalachia. The guidance is currently under review of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Of the hearing’s four witnesses, none was opposed to mountaintop removal mining. Coal industry supporters on Capitol Hill believe the guidance, which sets the first-ever numeric standard for water conductivity—which  EPA says measures degradation from mining debris—is a significant departure from previous federal oversight of mountaintop removal mining. The mining technique being targeted by the guidance involves dynamiting mountaintops to expose coal seams and disposing of debris in adjacent valleys. Critics of the guidance assert it amounts to new regulations without having gone through the rulemaking process.  Proponents of the guidance maintain that Appalachian mountaintop removal mining is particularly harmful to both ecosystems and people, while producing only a fraction of America’s overall coal output. ENDANGERED SPECIES: NORTHERN ROCKIES GRAY WOLVES DELISTED, PUBLIC COMMENT OPPORTUNITY FOR GREAT LAKES POPULATIONS On May 4, the US Department of Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) published a final rule to remove gray wolves in Idaho and Montana as well as parts of Oregon, Utah and Washington, from the threatened or endangered list under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The move comes per the direction of language in the recently enacted  appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2011. The wolf delisting provision was championed by of House Interior and Environment Appropriations Chairman Mike Simpson (R-ID) and Sen. John Tester (D-MT). Conservation and scientific groups are concerned that the delisting could pave the way for removal of additional species through legislative means that circumvent—as this one did—the usual delisting process. Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar touted the delisting as “a success story,” comparing the gray wolf to the recovery of the whooping crane, brown pelican and bald eagle. Interior Deputy Secretary David Hayes noted that the agency will continue to apply the ESA’s “post-delisting monitoring requirements” to help ensure the wolf populations continue to flourish under state management. Some, such as Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), claim the delisting language did not go far enough. Hatch is the lead sponsor of S. 249, the American Big Game and...

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