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:...

Read More

Symposium I of ESA’s Emerging Issues Conference

This post contributed by Celia Smith, ESA Education Programs Coordinator A high standard was set by the first symposium of the Ecological Society of America’s (ESA) weeklong 2012 Emerging Issues Conference, which kicked off Monday at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Conservation Training Center (NCTC) in Shepherdstown, WV. The first of four sessions, Symposium I:  “Protected Areas: Fostering museums, way stations and endpoints” was held in NCTC’s main auditorium, which brimmed with top representatives from a diversity of fields in ecological research, land management and government. On Monday morning, four invited experts spoke passionately about a variety of approaches to conservation targets under global change, the overarching theme of the conference and the topic that each of the nearly 100 attendees will tackle during intensive working groups on Wednesday and Thursday. Despite the highly varied professional backgrounds and presentation topics of the speakers, it was illuminating to observe the common threads that wove through each talk and evoked connections among different ways of looking at specific conservation problems related to anthropogenic climate change. Concepts that frequently found their way into the dialogue between speaker and audience included uncertainty and connectivity, both in a spatial and temporal sense. The first two speakers dealt with the connectivity of past and present, and how rapid change inevitably forces us to compare historical ecological events and circumstances with current challenges and management options. Richard Hobbs of the University of Western Australia began the conversation with his talk, “Intervention, protection and restoration: Are we guardians or gardeners?”  He suggested that we have entered a new “Anthropocene” era in which humans are largely responsible for decisions affecting the environment. “There are many different futures out there,” Hobbs said. “We don’t have much of a clue as to what the future holds… we have an uncertain past and an increasingly uncertain future.” Hobbs argued that this is not a reason to lose hope; we must simply shift our search for solutions toward a style of management that draws both from standard conservation strategies, such as restoration and invasive species control, and new approaches reflecting the Anthropocene “new world order” that are locally focused, contingent, and anthropocentric. This “gardenification” approach would not altogether abandon the conservation strategies of the past, but adapt them to current and future changes. Hobbs stressed that this will require embracing novel ecosystems and seeing ourselves as part of the natural world rather than separate from it. The theme of historical connectivity to present and future decision-making was also addressed by Stephen Jackson in “Is history ‘just history?’ Uses of the ecological past for global-change risk assessment.” “History suggests some hope,”...

Read More

Wintering pythons? Unlikely, but not impossible

This post contributed by Terence Houston, ESA Science Policy Analyst A commonly held sentiment is that cold winters prevent established non-native constrictors like the Burmese python in southern Florida from extending north. However, a recent report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service suggests that adaptability may eventually punch a hole in this notion. The FWS report studied the impacts of the January 2010 winter on the Burmese python and  found that, while the severe cold temperatures caused a decline in populations, the non-native python species also exhibited signs of adaptability. The report also highlights a study that observed ten radio-tracked pythons. Nine of the ten snakes died, but  the study authors also observed non-radio-tracked snakes using underground burrows, deep water in canals, or similar micro-habitats  micro-habitat features of the landscape to sustain themselves. The FWS report also references another study conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in collaboration with Florida scientists that focused on the 2010 winter. The study was quick to note that that particular winter was unusually cold and severe, leading scientists to conclude a number of factors may have been at play.  “It is unclear whether python mortality was exacerbated by the duration of the cold event, the extremely cold temperatures at the end of the period, the sequence of events including a long persistent rain prior to plunging temperatures, or some combination of these factors.” It is worth noting that in the mountainous portion of their native range in Southeast Asia, Burmese pythons do experience cold winters and have been known to hibernate. It has been speculated that only certain northern populations of Burmese pythons are cold-adapted and that these have not yet found their way into the pet trade. The FWS report concludes: “Given the climate flexibility exhibited by the Burmese python in its native range (as analyzed through the U.S. Geological Survey’s climate-matching predictions in the United States), new generations within the leading edge of the population’s nonnative range could become increasingly adaptable and able to expand to colder climates.” While doomsday scenarios of pythons spreading as far north as South Carolina currently appear far-fetched, scientists would note that a wild animal’s natural adaptability mechanisms over time should not be underestimated. Consistently warmer winters brought on by climate change would also greatly aid in the establishment of the Burmese python and other non-native constrictors. Wintering pythons in the U.S. sounds like science fiction now, but every day we are learning that various aspects of science fiction are quickly becoming science facts-of-life. Photo Credit: William Warby  ...

Read More

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...

Read More

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:...

Read More

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...

Read More

ESA Policy News: September 9

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston. Read the full Policy News here. AIR POLLUTION: OBAMA ADMINISTRATION POSTPONES OZONE STANDARDS On Sept. 2, the White House requested the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) postpone plans to strengthen the George W. Bush administration’s 2008 ozone standard. In a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs Administrator Cass Sunstein cites a need to “minimize regulatory costs and burdens” during an “economically challenging time.” Sunstein references Executive Order 13563, which states that the administration’s regulatory policy “must promote predictability and reduce uncertainty.” The letter notes that the Clean Air Act sets a five year cycle to review national ambient air quality standards, effectively allowing EPA to hold off on revisiting the standards until 2013. The EPA in January 2010 had proposed to set the national health-based standard for ozone between 60 and 70 parts per billion (ppb) when averaged over an eight-hour period. The Bush administration had tightened the ozone limits from 84 ppb to 75 ppb in 2008, despite scientific advisers’ recommendations to issue a standard between 60 and 70 ppb. The move earned President Obama rare praise from Republican leaders in Congress. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) released a statement that referred to the ozone standard as “the most expensive environmental regulation ever imposed” and described the president’s move as “a step in the right direction.” EPA Administrator Jackson released a statement affirming that the standard would be revisited at some point and cited the Obama administration’s efforts to address air pollution “as some of the most important standards and safeguards for clean air in U.S. history,” citing reductions in sulfur and nitrogen dioxide, mercury pollutions from power plants and carbon pollution standards for cars and trucks. To view the White House letter, see: http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/ozone_national_ambient_air_quality_standards_letter.pdf To review Executive Order 13563, see: http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/memoranda/2011/m11-10.pdf To view the EPA statement, see: http://yosemite.epa.gov/opa/admpress.nsf/1e5ab1124055f3b28525781f0042ed40/e41fbc47e7ff4f13852578ff00552bf8!OpenDocument APPROPRIATIONS: SENATE COMMITTEE APPROVES FY 2012 SPENDING BILLS During the week of Sept. 7, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved its energy and water development and agricultural appropriations bills for Fiscal Year (FY) 2012. The bills must be voted on by the full Senate and agreed to by the House before they can be signed by the president. Energy and Water The FY 2012 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act includes $31.625 billion in discretionary spending for the Department of Energy, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and water programs within the Department of Interior, $57 million below the FY 2011 level, but still $1 billion more than the House-bill (H.R. 2354), passed in July. It’s also...

Read More

‘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...

Read More