September 7, 2018

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ESA 2018 Opening Plenary Welcomes Ecologists to the Gulf Coast and River Delta Ecosystems

ESA’s 2018 Annual Meeting kicked off with a welcome to New Orleans and ecosystems of the Gulf Coast with a plenary talk by Robert Twilley, the executive director of the Louisiana Sea Grant and a professor at Louisiana State University, entitled “Ecosystem design approaches in a highly engineered landscape of the Mississippi River Delta.”

Meeting attendees and scientists watching the livestream from home were introduced to Louisiana’s love of the mud that built the Mississippi River Delta. These beloved wetlands – and river deltas all over the world – are sinking beneath sea level rise, causing significant threats to natural and social systems. Louisiana loses around a football field of wetlands an hour. This land loss is due to the combined effects of anthropogenic changes to sediment supply and river flow, subsidence and sea level rise, posing an immediate threat to the millions of residents that live in the Gulf Coast region.

Twilley’s presentation described how and why humans have designed the Mississippi River Delta through levees and flood control projects and how an ecosystem design approach can link the multiple-purpose needs of the diverse services and stakeholders that the river system and coastal network provides. Ecosystem design combines systems and design thinking and focuses on a three-layered framework integrating ecosystem, economy, and community resulting in an plan that meets economic and social needs and creates a more sustainable and resilient coast.

The goals of the ecosystem design framework include aggressive reconnections of Mississippi River’s natural flood pulse to the coastal landscape, transforming flood control to controlled floods, relocating port operations, and developing delta communities along a more consolidated and coherent landscape. The ecosystem design framework plan lays out a vision over the next four generations for restoring the environment and leveraging the natural ability of human settlement to adapt and change to a long-term vision of the Mississippi River Delta.

The live-streamed talk is available online for viewing.


Appropriations: During August, the Senate passed two spending packages, including spending bills for the Department of the Interior, the Forest Service, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) added an amendment requiring NOAA and USDA to establish a working group to study ways to deacidify the ocean. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) inserted an amendment providing funding for research on harmful algal blooms and their impacts.

Funding levels for the Interior Department agencies largely remain flat. The Interior receives $13.1 billion in total. The U.S. Geological Survey’s budget remains flat at $1.14 billion. The National Park Service receives a $13.4 million increase over FY 2018 levels, bringing the agency’s budget to $3.21 billion. Similarly, the Bureau of Land Management receives $1.34 billion, an increase of $11 million over FY 2018 levels. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service receives a $19.7 million cut, bringing the USFWS’ budget to $1.57 billion.

The Environmental Protection Agency receives flat funding of $8.05 billion.

The U.S. Forest Service receives $6.29 billion, including $349 million in increased funding for wildland fire management. The Forest Service’s Research and Development program receives $300 million, a $3 million increase over FY 2018 levels.

Lawmakers from the House and Senate are now meeting in a conference committee to resolve the differences between appropriations bills passed by both chambers before the beginning of the 2019 Fiscal Year on October 1, 2018.

Mercury Bill: Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) introduced the Comprehensive National Mercury Monitoring Act (S. 3394). This bill would direct the EPA, in coordination with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, NOAA and USGS to create a national mercury monitoring network to measure and collect long-term data sets on mercury levels in the air, water, fish and wildlife. The bill also creates a scientific advisory committee to oversee the monitoring program and a publically available database of new and existing mercury data.

Other legislative updates:

  • The Senate approved the American Fisheries Advisory Committee Act (S. 1322). Sponsored by Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK), this bill establishes an advisory committee of representatives of the fishing industry, recreational fishing community and fisheries science community to determine how grants for fisheries research, funded by fishery import duties, should be distributed.
  • The Senate passed the Commercial Engagement through Ocean Technology (CENOTE) Act of 2018 (S. 2511). The bill directs NOAA to acquire and coordinate an unmanned ocean observing system program. The bill also directs NOAA to make data collected through this program publicly accessible.
  • The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee voted to pass the Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act (S. 2773) from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). The bill bans the use of driftnets off the coast of California. This bill will now go to the full Senate for a vote.
  • Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN) introduced the Modifying Unaccountable Standard and Simplifying Endangered Lists Act (MUSSELS) Act (H.R. 6668) to remove all freshwater mussel species from the federal endangered species list. An estimated 70 percent of freshwater mussels in North America are “extinct or imperiled.”

Executive Branch

Nominations and Appointments

  • White House: President Trump nominated Kelvin Droegemeier to serve as the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy July 31. Droegemeier is a meteorologist and an expert on extreme weather. He resigned as the vice president for research at the University of Oklahoma shortly after the appointment, and he served as the cabinet secretary of science and technology for the state of Oklahoma and as a member of the National Science Board. The position of OSTP director has been vacant since President Trump took office in January 2017. In a confirmation hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Droegemeier emphasized reducing regulatory burden for researchers and maintaining U.S. competitiveness in science and technology. When pressed about climate change work, Droegemeier responded that he is “very excited” to work on climate change. Drogemeier also declined to refute Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-TX) claim that satellite measurements “show no statistically significant warming over the past 18 years.”
  • Interior Department: Trump has nominated David Vela to be the director of the National Park Service. Vela is a career Park Service employee who currently serves as the superintendent of Grand Teton National Park. The acting head of the Fish and Wildlife Service, Greg Sheehan, left the agency the week of Aug. 20, citing desires to spend more time with family in his home state of Utah. Sheehan began as the FWS principal deputy director June 2017 and was the highest-ranking political appointee in the agency.
  • USDA: The Senate voted to confirm James Hubbard as the undersecretary of Agriculture for environment and natural resources. This position oversees the U.S. Forest Service. Hubbard previously served as the state forester in Colorado and as a senior career employee in the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior. President Trump has also nominated Jay Angle to be the director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Angle has a PhD in soil microbiology and has worked as a professor and administrator at the University of Maryland and dean of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Science at the University of Georgia. He currently serves as CEO of the International Fertilizer Development Center, a nongovernmental organization working on fertilizer management in developing countries.
  • National Science Foundation: NSF has picked Karen Marrongelle to serve as the head of the agency’s Directorate for Education and Human Resources. The Directorate for Education and Human Resources supports research on STEM education at all levels. Marrongelle is mathematician who currently serves as the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Portland State University.
  • NASA: Michael Frelich, who has served as the director of NASA’s Earth Science division since 2006, announced that he would retire in February 2019. Frelich led the Earth Science division through 16 major Earth-observing missions and instrument launches.Many of these missions were focused on climate change monitoring.

Clean Power Plan: The Trump administration released a regulation, called the Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule to replace the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan which was designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Coal companies and utilities opposed the Clean Power Plan and after 24 states sued over the plan, the Supreme Court issued a stay on the rule. Overall, the new regulation allows an increase in carbon dioxide and pollutant emissions – an analysis by Resources for the Future found that the new plan would allow 63 percent more CO2 emissions than the Clean Power Plan. In the accompanying analysis of the new regulation, the Environmental Protection Agency notes that the proposed regulation would lead to up to 1,400 more premature deaths a year. Eighteen Democratic Attorneys General, led by New York Attorney General Barbara D. Underwood, have vowed to sue to block the Affordable Clean Energy rule if implemented.

National Science Foundation Operations and Maintenance Funds: NSF Director France Cordova told the agency’s Mathematical and Physical Advisory Committee that the agency plans to augment the budgets of divisions with high operations and maintenance costs – including the Biological Sciences Directorate and the Ocean Sciences Division. The National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) is supported through operations and maintenance funds. Cordova did not share further details about the plan.

NSF “Big Ideas”: NSF has opened its “2026 Idea Machine” competition and is soliciting big ideas that “address compelling challenges” in the STEM fields and are “large in scope, innovative in character, and requires a long-term commitment.” NSF is accepting ideas through October 26, 2018 online and the winning ideas will be announced summer 2019.

Interior Reorganization: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke released a final reorganization plan dividing the Interior Department into 12 regions. The new regions are intended to be based on watersheds and ecosystems. The revised regional map more closely matches state boundaries than earlier maps released by the Interior Department, in response to push back from state governors. Top Interior officials have said that reorganization will allow agencies will be able to streamline decision-making better and help state and local officials trying to coordinate with Interior agencies. An email from Zinke to Interior staff said that, at this point, no employees will be relocated as a result of the reorganization.

USDA Reorganization: Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced plans to reorganize the USDA Aug. 9. In the plan, the Economic Research Service (ERS) would report to the Office of the Chief Economist, rather than the Research, Education and Economics mission area. Employees of ERS and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) would be relocated to to-be-determined locations outside the Washington, DC area. Perdue cited efficiency and an interest in moving the agencies close to agricultural communities. ESA joined with other societies in penning a letter to Congress requesting more information about the decision, the relocation process, and the need to involve the scientific community in any relocation decisions.

National Institute of Food and Agriculture Stakeholder Input: NIFA is seeking stakeholder input on priorities and emerging issues in food and agriculture. NIFA has posed three questions: “In your field, what is the most-needed breakthrough in science/technology that would advance your agricultural enterprise?” “When considering all of agriculture, what is the greatest challenge that should be addressed through NIFA’s research, education and extension?” and “What is your top priority in food and agricultural research, extension, or education that NIFA should address?” NIFA is accepting responses to these questions on an online input form. NIFA is also holding inperson listening sessions in Hartford, CT; New Orleans, LA; Minneapolis, MN; and Albuquerque, NM.

Pentagon: The Department of Defense submitted public comments expressing concerns with the EPA’s proposed “Transparency in Science” rule. The comments, written by the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Energy, Installations and Environment, noted that EPA should not restrict the use of “high-quality studies” where the underlying data are not available. The Pentagon’s comment continues that the rule may create bias against past studies where data are unavailable and studies published outside the U.S.

Roadless Rule: The U.S. Forest Service took the first step toward allowing increased timber harvests in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska by announcing in the Federal Register that the agency is beginning the National Environmental Policy Act process for drafting a roadless rule specific to Alaska. The Forest Service’s 2001 roadless rule prohibits road construction and timber harvests and other extractive activities on 58.5 million acres of National Forest System land, including 15 million acres in Alaska. Nationally, roadless areas nationwide provide habitat for more than 2,100 threatened, endangered, or sensitive animal and plant species. The Tongass National Forest has 20 species determined to be sensitive and is home to significant populations of species that are federally threatened or endangered in the lower 48 – including grizzly bears, marbled murrelets and wolves. The agency is accepting scoping comments in the Federal Register through October 15, 2018.

In the legislative branch, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) introduced the Roadless Area Conservation Act of 2018 (S. 3333), which makes 2001 roadless rule into permanent law. The House version of the farm bill includes an amendment from Rep. Don Young (R-AK) to give Alaska an exemption from the roadless rule.

Burying Beetle: Two entomologists have told The Washington Post that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rushed and may have manipulated research and scientific advice provided to the agency to support the conclusion that the American burying beetle is not threatened by agriculture and should be upgraded from endangered to threatened status. Douglas Leasure and Wyatt Hoback were asked to help the agency with a Species Status Assessment in late 2017 and worked with the agency for about a month in 2018. Leasure and Hoback said that the agency ignored published research on the beetle and asked the researchers to combine a map they created of beetle’s habitat in Nebraska with another map of potential cropland in other states – Montana, the Dakotas and Wyoming – with different soil ecology than Nebraska.


Grizzly bears: A federal judge in Montana has delayed a planned grizzly bear hunt in Wyoming and Idaho for two weeks, stating conservation groups and Native American tribes made a case that allowing the hunt would cause “irreparable harm” to the Yellowstone-area population of grizzly bears. The ruling also agreed with conservation groups that the USFWS failed to consider the impact of the delisting the Yellowstone grizzly bears on other North American species of grizzly bears.

Migratory Bird Treaty Act: Eight state attorney generals have filed a lawsuit challenging the Interior Department’s reinterpretation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (see ESA Policy News, May 29, 2018). The new interpretation states that the Migratory Bird Treaty does not apply to ‘incidental take’ – or non-intentional killing of birds. In a statement, New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood said that the interpretation hurts states due to the “ecological, economics, scientific and economic value” of migratory birds to states.

Scientific Community

“Blockchain Salvation”: The Environmental Law Institute released a brief on the implications of blockchain technology for environmental professionals. The report notes that activities like bitcoin mining use a large amount of electricity. However, block chain and peer-to-peer technologies have potential beneficial applications for environmental programs  — for example, blockchain is being used to track illegal fishing and store information about rights to genetic information from plants and trees. Blockchain could also be used for carbon credit training and to improve the efficiency of the electric grid. Additionally, the report warns that standards for blockchain are needed and the “buzz around blockchain” may be “overblown.”


Australia: Prime Minister Malcolm Turnball was removed from power by conservative members of his Liberal Party after proposing to set targets for carbon emissions, as part of the country’s participation in the Paris climate agreement. Turnball has been replaced by Treasurer Scott Morrison, who once brought a piece of coal into Parliament to show his support for coal.

France: French minister of ecological and solidarity-based transition Nicolas Hulot abruptly left his post Aug. 28, citing concerns that the French government and other counties are not doing enough to address climate change and biodiversity loss. Hulot’s resignation comes after Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron’s government moved to loosen hunting laws and reneged on commitments to reduce the country’s reliance on nuclear energy. Hulot is a celebrity environmentalist in France and the former host of a nature TV show.

China: African swine fever, a contagious and deadly disease affecting domestic pigs and wild boars, has spread to four provinces in northeastern China. This is the first confirmed outbreak in East Asia – the disease spread from Africa to the country of Georgia in 2007 and then to Russia, Poland and the Czech Republic. There is no vaccine or treatments available for animals infected with African swine fever. In response to the outbreaks, the Chinese government has euthanized thousands of pigs, disinfected agricultural facilities and imposed new restrictions on the movement of pigs.

Canada: A judge has suspended the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project, citing concerns about the projects’ impact on endangered orca whales and insufficient consultation with First Nations peoples. The project would increase Canada’s capacity to move oil from Alberta’s tar sands to the Pacific coast for export. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government had recently moved to buy pipeline from developer Kinder Morgan, to ensure that the pipeline is built.

Europe: Eleven European science funding organizations have announced that by 2020 they will require their grantees to publish work supported by their organizations in Open Access journals. These organizations provide a combined €7.6 billion euros ($8.83 billion) in grants each year.



New Jersey: Governor Phil Murphy (D) ordered the closure of state lands to black bear hunting Aug. 20. Under former Governor Chris Christie (R) the state had allowed an annual black bear hunt, and in 2017, 409 bears were taken.

In other New Jersey state news, Governor Murphy vetoed a bill that would have imposed a five-cent fee on plastic grocery store bags, stating that the bill’s approach was “incomplete and insufficient” and loopholes in the bill would undermine the goals of the program.

California: Governor Jerry Brown (D) is proposing new logging regulations in response to the state’s worst wildlife season in 10 years. The Governor’s plan includes allowing private owners of properties less than 300 acres to cut trees up to 36 inches in diameter without a state permit, provided that the harvest intended to reduce fire risk and allowing landowners to build roads up to 600 feet long on their property without a permit. Under current regulations, landowners are required to get a permit to remove trees larger than 26 inches in diameters. The state of California has required landowners to apply for a timber harvest permit for logging activities since the 1970s. It’s unclear when the California State Legislature will consider the legislation.

The California State Legislature passed a bill aimed at stopping offshore drilling off the state’s coast. The bill prohibits the California State Lands Commission from approving any infrastructure in state waters as such as pipelines or piers that would led to expanded capacity for off-shore oil production in federal waters. The bill comes in response to Trump administration efforts to open federal waters to off-shore drilling.

Federal Register Opportunities

Public Meetings, many of which are live-streamed: 

Opportunities for Public Comment and Nominations:

Visit this page on ESA’s blog for updates on opportunities from the Federal Register, including upcoming meetings and regulations open for public comment.