December 17, 2018

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The Katherine S. McCarter Graduate Student Policy Award

ESA is now accepting applications for its 2019 Katherine S. McCarter Graduate Student Policy Award. Offered each year, this award gives graduate students an all-expense paid trip to Washington, DC for science policy training with opportunities to meet with lawmakers on Capitol Hill. 

Visit the ESA website for more information and details on application requirements. The deadline to apply is Jan. 13, 2019. 

Trump Administration Moves to Redefine Clean Water Rule, Can't Seem to Locate Applicable Scientific Studies

The Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) proposed a new definition of “waters of the United States” (WOTUS) Dec. 11. The new definition would greatly narrow what constitutes federal waters under the Clean Water Act (CWA) and consequently eliminate federal authority to regulate the pollution in many previously protected waters.

The Consortium of Aquatic Science Societies issued a statement decrying the rule. In a separate statement issued by ESA, President Laura Huenneke rejected the Trump administration’s efforts to weaken the “Waters of the United States” rule. “Today’s action by the EPA undermines the use of the best available science showing strong benefits of protecting wetlands and upland watersheds,” she says. “This proposed rule will affect the commercial and recreational fishery industries that depend on clean water for fish habitat. It will also require taxpayers to pay for costly infrastructure to prevent flooding that wetlands currently provide at no cost by absorbing stormwater. Finally, we know that pollution and contaminants in wetlands move into the food chain through fisheries, ultimately affecting public health.”

Defining the Clean Water Act’s “Waters of the United States” provision has been an ongoing debate, almost since the passage of the CWA in 1972. Narrower definitions have been traditionally pushed by business interests that want less oversight; broader definitions have been backed by environmentalists relying on sound science-with the judiciary often prevailed upon to referee.

The Ecological Society of America opposes this new proposed definition- as well as the Feb. 2017 Executive Order that prompted it- because of its disregard of the sound science which informed the previous 2015 WOTUS rule issued during the Obama administration. Along with other scientific organizations such as The Society of Wetland Scientists, American Fisheries Society and American Institute of Biological Sciences, ESA urged the White House and Congress to defend the 2015 WOTUS rule when it was reviewed by the Sixth Circuit Court last year. In societies’ letter of support, it endorsed the amici curiae brief filed by wetland and aquatic scientists. The letter stated, “The Clean Water Rule was developed using the best available science, technical experts, and >1,000 peer-reviewed scientific studies. The amici curiae brief describes how wetlands, streams, and adjacent waters significantly affect the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of traditional navigable waters, interstate waters, and the territorial seas.”

As outlined by E&E News, the water resources that would now fall within the new proposed rule’s definition include: traditionally navigable waters, tributaries, impoundments, wetlands adjacent to traditionally navigable waters, some ditches, and some lakes and ponds.

E&E News also reports in a separate article that it obtained a slideshow prepared by the EPA and Army Corps under a Freedom of Information Act request to the agencies that finds, “at least 18 percent of streams and 51 percent of wetlands nationwide would not be protected under the new definition.” That 18 percent is comprised of streams, creeks, washes, and ditches that do not flow continuously, known as ‘ephemeral streams’. EPA Office of Water chief Dave Ross when asked for specifics about what would not be covered under the new rule claimed to reporters during an EPA press call held Dec. 10. “If you see percentages of water features that are claimed to be in, or reductions, there really isn’t the data to support those statistics,” Ross said. “No one has that data.” As to wetlands, they would have protection only if they are connected to another federally protected waterway, which is a narrower application as well. These changes in federal protection are a departure from both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.

The complete exclusion of protection for ephemeral streams that only flow after heavy rains or snowmelt makes the proposed WOTUS problematic, especially in regions where they predominate such as the arid Southwest. A 2008 EPA report, “The Ecological and Hydrological Significance of Ephemeral and Intermittent Streams in the Arid and Semi-arid American Southwest,”explains that ephemeral and intermittent streams make up approximately 59% of all streams in the United States excluding Alaska), and over 81% in the arid and semi-arid Southwest (Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Colorado and California) according to the U.S. Geological Survey National Hydrography Dataset. The same EPA report goes on to state, “that ephemeral and intermittent streams provide the same ecological and hydrological functions as perennial streams by moving water, nutrients, and sediment throughout the watershed.” It also notes that “[ephemeral streams provide] wildlife habitat and migration corridors; support for vegetation communities to help stabilize stream banks and provide wildlife services; and water supply and water-quality filtering[.]”

Previous Republican and Democratic administrations protected ephemeral streams if they had a hydrological, biological or chemical impact on larger downstream waters. Although these streams do not flow continuously, when they do run, they carry any buildup of pollution or waste in their path to the larger waterbodies these streams feed. These waterbodies are often connected to fishing areas and drinking water sources. By eliminating existing federal protections, those stream-carried pollutants will go unchecked. To decide to no longer protect ephemeral streams because of their seasonal flow is akin to allowing a large polluting vehicle to be exempt from emission regulations because it is only driven three months of the year.

Related to the ephemeral stream issue is the removal of existing protections for wetlands. With a little over half of wetlands being dropped from the definition, this could result in serious problems for wetlands, their ecological systems, and nearby waterways. As the Washington Post reports, “Protection of wetlands and head waters are “critically important areas for the health of rivers and drinking water supplies for Americans all over the country,” said Bob Irvin, president of American Rivers, a nonprofit advocacy group seeking to protect and restore waterways. He said that even though the connection between bodies of water may not appear on the surface, “there may be connections through groundwater.”

There will be a 60-day public comment period on the proposed rule, starting from the proposal’s Federal Register publication in the Federal Register. EPA and USACE are required to review all comments. If past reactions to previous changes to the WOTUS definition are any indication, this proposal will face lengthy court challenges.

Congress Passes 2018 Farm Bill, Funds and Sets Policy for Agriculture and Forestry Program 2023

After months of internal deliberations to resolve differences between House and Senate versions of the 2018 Farm Bill, congressional leaders overwhelmingly approved a final version of the legislation. It now heads to the president’s desk to be signed into law. The Farm Bill authorizes programs within federal agencies and also sets the amount of money that appropriators may allocate.

The $867 billion bill largely cuts the most controversial measures in the House version and contains strong funding for agricultural research and conservation programs.

An explanatory statement that accompanies the bill acknowledges the funding for agricultural research has declined since 2003 and pledges to reverse this trend. The Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), which provides competitive grants for agricultural research, is reauthorized through 2023 with only minor revisions. In the 2014 Farm bill, lawmakers authorized up to $700 million for AFRI. The final 2018 Farm Bill keeps this authorization level, although appropriations have only provided around $400 million for AFRI in recent fiscal years. The Senate version of the bill proposed eliminating the USDA’s rangeland research program, the final bill reauthorizes the program through 2023. Lawmakers legalize hemp and also identify several high priority research areas, including pollinator research and nutrient management.

The bill renames the USDA’s Research, Education, and Economics Mission Area to the Office of The Chief Scientist, which oversees the USDA’s research agencies, including the Agricultural Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

The bill establishes a pilot program entitled the Agriculture Advanced Research and Development Authority (AGARDA), to be administered by the Office of the Chief Scientist with authorized appropriations of up to $50 million from FY 2019-2023. The chief scientist will appoint an AGARDA director who will develop a strategic plan within a year for the program in consultation with the National Agricultural Research, Extension, Education, and Economics Advisory Board, the National Academies and others.

The bill’s final version of the Forestry Title removes measures that would have exempted forest management projects from National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review, however, it does contain a NEPA exemption for greater sage-grouse and mule deer habitat improvement projects that are up to 4,500 acres and “based on the best available science.” The bill also creates a Water Source Protection Program for the Forest Service to work with nonfederal partners on watershed restoration projects and a grant program for forest restoration projects.

The bill’s Energy Title contains considerable mandatory funding for the Renewable Energy for America Program that helps install renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies on farms, ranches and in rural businesses. The Biomass Crop Assistance Program and the Biomass Research and Development Program are eliminated from mandatory funding.

Agricultural conservation programs are fully funded in the bill. The total acreage allowed under the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is increased from 23 to 27 million acres by 2023 with instructions to enroll 30 percent of all acres within continuous CRP. To fund this, lawmakers have reduced the rate paid per acre. The Working Lands for Wildlife Program is also expanded and formalized into law. This program improves high priority landscapes for multiples species such as the sage grouse, quail and lesser prairie chicken. Lawmakers reduce funding for the Conservation Stewardship Program, but they increase funding for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program to a projected $200 million per year. The Agricultural Conservation Easement Program is increased to $2.25 billion over the length of the Farm Bill. This bill also creates a “soil health and income protection pilot program” in the prairie pothole region and provides $25 million a year for conservation innovation grants.

The American Bird Conservancy’s press release applauds the bill and highlights the Regional Conservation Partnership Program – this program’s funding triples from $100 million a year to $300 million a year. Other major conservation groups, including the Nature Conservancy and the National Wildlife Federation, celebrated the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill.

Executive Branch


Appropriations: Congress approved a stop-gap measure funding some federal agencies, including the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture, the EPA, NSF and NOAA, through Dec. 21. Lawmakers have already approved fiscal year 2019 funding for the Departments of Energy, Health and Human Services and Defense.

Senate: Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) will serve as the ranking member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in the 116th Congress. The current ranking member, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), will become the ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Technology Committee, replacing Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) who lost his bid for re-election. Manchin is a strong supporter of coal mining who once shot a carbon cap and trade bill in a campaign ad.

Seismic Testing: A bipartisan group of 93 Members of Congress signed a letter opposing NOAA Fisheries’ decision to issue five marine mammal Incident Harassment Authorization permits to companies planning to conduct seismic testing in the Atlantic Ocean. These seismic surveys are the first step toward energy development in the Atlantic continental shelf. The lawmakers, led by Rep. John Rutherford (R-FL), write that the seismic survey will harm marine mammals, fish and coastal economies. Furthermore, communities and public officials will not have access to the results of seismic testing and will not be able to use that information to make decisions about offshore energy development.

Migratory Bird Treaty Act: Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on department’s enforcement of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. In a May hearing, Zinke told Van Hollen that he was “not correct” in stating that the Interior Department’s reinterpretation of the Migratory Bird Treaty would mean that oil companies would no longer pay fines for bird deaths resulting from oil spills. Van Hollen notes Zinke’s statements at that hearing are inconsistent with other guidance from the Interior Department.

Legislative Updates

  • The full Senate and House voted to approve the Endangered Salmon Predation Prevention Act (S. 3119). Sponsored by Sen. James Risch (R-ID) and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), this bill modifies the Marine Mammal Protection Act to allow representatives of state and tribal governments to euthanize up to 920 sea lions a year, to protect endangered salmon species in the Columbia-Willamette-Snake river system in the Pacific Northwest.
  • The House 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 Senate passed this legislation in August.
  • Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) and Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) introduced the Wildlife Corridors Conservation Act (S. 3715 and H.R. 7232). The bill allows federal agencies to create “National Wildlife Corridors” across public and private lands to conserve species. The bill would also create a “Wildlife Movement Grant Program” to support projects on nonfederal land. Beyer introduced similar legislation to the 114th Congress in 2016.
  • Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-WI) and Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI) introduced a bill (H.R. 7170) that would amend the Federal Power Act to require the US Fish and Wildlife Service to consider effects of new fishways on the spread of invasive species. The congressmen cited the proposed construction of a fishway at the Prairie du Sac dam, which keeps both invasive Asian carp and native fish out of the Great Lakes, as the impetus for this legislation.
  • Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) introduced the Arctic Policy Act (S.3739), which would add two additional indigenous representatives to the U.S. Arctic Research Commission to better incorporate traditional knowledge in US arctic science.

Interior: Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke announced he will resign at the end of December amid on-going ethics investigations into his conduct while in office. Zinke’s deputy David Bernhardt will likely serve as acting Interior Secretary until the Senate can confirm a new permanent secretary. Bernhardt is a former oil, gas and water lobbyist who worked in the Interior Department during the George W. Bush administration.

NSTC: The White House National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) released a 5-year strategic plan for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education. The plan spans across the federal government’s $3 billion investment in STEM education. Workforce training and partnering with industry and community organizations are a focus of the plan rather than traditional educational settings.

BLM: The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released its final Environmental Impact Statements for revisions to the 2015 sage-grouse conservation plans in Utah, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada and Northern California and Wyoming. The 2015 conservation plans were the result of unprecedented collaboration between federal agencies, industry, states and conservation groups. The new plans eliminate the “sage grouse focal area” designation on around 9 million acres of sage grouse habitat. The governors of Oregon and Montana declined to make major revisions to their state’s sage grouse conservation plans and 1.8 million acres sage grouse focal areas remain in those states. This revision opens the land to drilling and mining. The governors of Utah, Colorado and Idaho have expressed their support for these revisions. The BLM assures that the revisions do not lift protections of the bird species and instead gives states “flexibility” to allow more activity in the bird’s habitat. In June 2018, a group of 20 sage grouse scientists wrote that there is “no scientific basis to support weakening” sage grouse conservation plans.

NOAA: The agency’s Arctic Program released its 13th annual Arctic Report Card. The report’s international authors warn that the Arctic continues to warm at double the rate of the rest of the world – resulting in warmer average temperatures, thinner sea ice and less terrestrial snow cover. The region has also seen an increase in harmful algal blooms and microplastic contamination. Caribou and wild reindeer populations have declined around 50% in the past 20 years.

NSF: The Directorate for Biological Sciences is looking for high-level ideas on fundamental biological research questions that are poised for major advances, span multiple levels of organization in living systems and combine expertise from multiple biological sub disciplines. For more information, see the Dear Colleague letter.

USDA: The Senate Agriculture Committee approved Scott Hutchins as USDA’s undersecretary for research, education, and economics. During his nomination hearing he said that he accepts the conclusions of the Fourth National Climate Assessment and sees a critical role for his office to address pests and invasive species through APHIS.

USDA APHIS: The agency released its strategic plan for fiscal years 2019-2013. APHIS is the lead agency for response to agricultural pests and diseases. It also regulates genetically modified organisms, administers the Animal Welfare Act and conducts wildlife damage management activities. The strategic plan stresses customer service and reducing regulatory burden. An analysis of the plan by the Center for Invasive Species protection found that the new plan emphasizes animal pests and zoonotic disease – rather than plant pests.

USDA NRCS: Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue appointed Matt Lohr to be the chief of USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Lohr is a former Virginia state lawmaker and agriculture commissioner. He is the first permanent NRCS chief in the Trump Administration, replacing acting NRCS chief Leonard Jordan. Lohr will provide leadership for NRCS and its mission to support America’s farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners in their voluntary conservation efforts through a network of over 3,000 offices in communities nationwide.

USFWS: Sonoyta Mud Turtle: The US Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to designate 12 acres of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona as critical habitat for the endangered Sonoyta mud turtle. The proposed rule is open to public comment on the Federal Register until Feb. 4, 2019.

USFWS: Whistleblower Program: Documents obtained by the National Whistleblower Center under the Freedom of Information Act show that that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can only account for $13,704 of the $5.6 million appropriated to the agency for a whistleblower program that would reward individuals that report wildlife crime. A report by Earth Island Journal links the failure of the USFWS whistleblower program to the impending extinction of the vaquita porpoise.


Border Wall: The Supreme Court rejected an appeal from environmental groups attempting to block the construction of a wall along the US-Mexico border. This decision leaves in place a lower court ruling which rejected claims that the Trump administration ignored laws requiring environmental reviews of the project.

Days later, the San Antonio Express-News reported that that border wall construction will begin on the National Butterfly Center’s property along the border in Mission, TX as soon as February as a result of the court ruling. Marianna Wright, the National Butterfly Center’s executive director, warned that construction would harm the volume and diversity of species on the property.


Alaska: Following Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s (R) inauguration, a website detailing the state’s actions on climate change is no longer accessible to the public. The website highlighted former Gov. Bill Walker’s (I) efforts to combat climate change, including a key climate report, meeting notes, and a list of environmental policies and proposals. State officials said that the website was taken down as part of an effort to remove Walker’s name from state websites, but it is unclear if the climate change site will return. Dunleavy has vocally disapproved of Walker’s climate change initiative, calling it a waste of money. He believes the causes of climate change are still up for debate and that Alaska should not allocate money for “problems that we really can’t affect.” 

Michigan: The State Senate approved legislation that modifies state wetland laws and makes it easier for farmers and property owners to fill in wetlands and take other actions in wetlands that are not connected directly to a large waterway. Opponents said that this legislation would leave over 4,000 inland lakes unprotected.

Both houses of the state legislature also approved a bill that prevents state regulators from imposing stricter environmental regulations than required by federal law, unless there is a “clear and convincing” need.


Plan S: Members of the cOALition S, the Wellcome Trust and UK Research and Innovation, are seeking a consultant to explore “strategies and business models” to help academic societies adapt to Plan S. In the statement, cOAltion S acknowledges that their plan to require scientists receiving funding from 11 European agencies to publish in open access journals could likely hurt revenues for academic societies and the events, fellowships, services and grants that they provide.

Chinese science agencies have also pledged their support for Plan S. The agencies said that they intend to make the results of Chinese government-funded research free to read upon publication. It is not clear when or exactly how they will implement open access policies.

Tanzania: The government banned all genetically modified organism (GMO) trials and directed The Tanzania Research Institute to destroy GMO research evidence. Researchers are shocked by the move and they are using social media accounts to express their disapproval.

United Kingdom: Environment Secretary Michael Gove has proposed a plan that would require developers to deliver a “biodiversity net gain,” meaning that developers must leave habitats better off for wildlife than they were pre-development. This could include the creation of green corridors, planting more trees or forming local nature spaces. In the case that green improvements on-site are not possible, the plan proposes charging a fee which would go toward habitat enhancement elsewhere. This proposed plan would apply to developments covered by the Town and Country Planning Act.

In England, the Independent newspaper is reporting that for the first time in 800 years, there is a wild beaver in Devon. Small numbers of beavers that are tagged and monitored live in England, although no one seems to know how the beaver that was spotted came to live in the wild. Beavers were hunted to extinction in the UK. They became a protected species across most of Europe in the 1920s and today there are about 600,000. 

United Nations: Countries attending the U.N. Convention on Climate Change in Poland agreed to adopt a “rulebook” detailing how countries will meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement.

At the beginning of the conference, the U.S., Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait blocked language in a resolution that said the U.N. body “welcomes” the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report on 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming. Judith G. Garber, the head of the US delegation, highlighted the U.S.’s success in reducing carbon emissions and emphasized that the US will continue to use fossil fuels – as well as other energy sources. The U.S. also held a side event at the conference promoting “clean coal” and natural gas. Meanwhile, a group of 48 countries that are most vulnerable to climate change criticized the U.N and developed counties for “decades of inaction.”

Meanwhile, countries attending the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity rejected a moratorium on the release of organisms carrying gene drives, a genetic-engineering technology that can spread mutation rapidly throughout a population. Some potential environmental management applications of the technology include reducing malaria in mosquitoes and managing invasive species. Instead, countries agreed to new treaty language that calls to limit gene drives and assess the risks on a case by case basis.

Scientific Community

Golden Goose Award: Research organizations are looking for nominations for the Golden Goose Awards – this award honors federally funded research that “may be odd, obscure or serendipitous but ends up having a major impact on society.” For best consideration for the 2019 award, nominations are due Jan. 21, 2019 and can be submitted online here.

National Academies of Sciences: The Water Science and Technology Board is looking for experts to serve on the Committee on Independent Science Review of Everglades Restoration Progress. The committee examinesprogress toward meeting the goals of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan and denies issues that may impact progress toward meeting the plan goals. To submit a nomination, go here.

The Ocean Studies Board will hold its spring meeting April 23-25, 2019.

National Academies of Sciences, A Decadal Survey for NSF’s Division of Earth SciencesInput from the scientific community is needed to inform a study, Catalyzing Opportunities for Research in the Earth Sciences (CORES) that will provide advice that the National Science Foundation’s Division of Earth Sciences can use to set priorities and strategies for its investments in research, infrastructure, and training in the coming decade.  Submit input here.

National Academies Environmental Engineering Report: Five grand challenges for environmental engineers are identified to address complex societal problems as the world’s population grows. Read the press release.

“Science Under Siege at the Department of the Interior”: The Union of Concerned Scientists released a report detailing how the Interior Department, under the leadership of Ryan Zinke, has “systematically suppressed” science – including the science of climate change and science-based protections for wildlife. The report recommends that Congress should increase its oversight of the Interior Department and scientists and other stakeholders should talk to their representatives and participate in public comment periods.

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.