January 7, 2019

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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. 

Federal Government Shutdown Halts, Disrupts Ecological Science

by Nicole Zimmerman

**ESA is collecting updates and publishing them on the “Shutdown Stories blogpost about how the federal government shutdown is affecting the ecological and biological sciences. We request that you send us short posts.  ESA can publish your contribution anonymously or give you attribution. Please consider whether using your personal or work email account is appropriate when contacting ESA at gro.asenull@nosila**

Most federal science agencies, including the National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA, and agencies in the Departments of Agriculture and Interior are shut down after Congress and the president failed to reach a funding agreement Dec. 21.

Nearly 800,000 federal workers are furloughed. Additionally, federal contractors who make-up approximately 40 percent of the federal workforce are at risk of being laid-off because the private company employers are not guaranteed reimbursement for work conducted during a shutdown.

Congress did pass appropriations bills funding the Departments of Energy, Defense, Health and Human Services and the Legislative Branch in Sept. 2018. These agencies and the science they conduct are not largely affected by the shutdown.

It is unclear when the shutdown will end. On Jan. 3, the first day of the new Democratic House majority, representatives approved spending bills that would end the shutdown, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has said that Senate will not vote on a measure that the president will not sign.

In affected agencies, employees who are considered ‘essential’ – such as those responsible for caring for research and zoo animals – continue their work without pay. The Antarctic field season continues because National Science Foundation (NSF) is unable to shutter research bases in Antarctica without ‘severe disruption’. Unlike during the 2013 shutdown, most national parks remain open – but unstaffed – allowing scientists to continue fieldwork in parks without trespassing. Contingency plans for all federal agencies are available online.

The shutdown is impacting scientific collaborations and data collection. Nonfederal scientists are unable to consult with relevant program officers at federal agencies before submitting grants or work with federal collaborators and researchers. At the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire, an NSF Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) site managed by the Forest Service and the Hubbard Brook Research Foundation with collaborators from institutions across the country, researchers are unable to enter a Forest Service building located within the site that serves as the base for the project’s ecological monitoring activities. Snowmobiles that researchers use to traverse the 7400 acre site are also locked away because they are stored in Forest Service facilities. Because of this, researchers are unable to visit data logging instruments for environmental sensors that measure temperature, moisture, streamflow, and other properties. Federal researchers – who make up around 10 percent of the group – were not able to attend Hubbard Brook’s annual winter meeting for collaborators and cancelled talks, leaving blank spots in the meeting’s agenda.

At the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest in Oregon, another LTER staffed by Forest Service and Oregon State University personnel, the shutdown struck during a slow time for field data collection. However, lack of access to federal buildings and equipment and the loss of federal employees is disrupting work. Oregon State University researchers associated with the LTER are also unable to enter offices and laboratories in the Corvallis Forestry Sciences Laboratory because the Forest Service owns the building. Dr. Mark Schulze, the director of the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest, warned that their situation could become more dire with time, “The longer the shutdown continues the greater the risk that we will lose sample points in our long-term records, particularly with the hydrology and climate programs.”

ESA contacted Battelle regarding how the government shutdown is impacting the National Ecological Observation Network’s (NEON) operations and received this reply: “NEON is funded through cooperative agreements between the National Science Foundation and Battelle for completion of construction and initial operations. Battelle has adequate funding for the NEON program to continue operations through Jan. 20, 2019. NEON Construction is funded through February 2019, which coincides with the established end date for this award. The shutdown is delaying approval of some design decisions for the final field site in Hawaii that may delay completion. If the lapse in federal appropriations continues into mid-January, Battelle will need to revisit the funding status with the project team and provide an update, since NEON Operations could become a concern.”

The American Astronomical Society and the American Meteorological Society’s winter conferences, which both started Jan. 6, are impacted with hundreds of federal scientists unable to participate and present research findings. Federal advisory board meetings and other federal meetings are being cancelled.

The Washington Post is reporting that professors who require students to use NOAA data sets are unable to access them. USGS websites displaying real-time data, such as Earthquake and Water and information needed for public health and safety are being updated with limited support. NSF is accepting proposals, but they will not be processed until normal operations resume.

Scientists and all constituents are encouraged to contact their representatives in Congress so that elected officials understand how the shutdown is affecting their district. Contact information for all members of Congress is on the House and Senate websites.

Trump Administration at the Turn, House Democrats Promise Vigorous Oversight

by Tom Oates

The first two years of President Trump’s administration saw a one-party government with Republicans controlling both the House and Senate of Congress as well as the White House. A bipartisan success came with passing the 2018 Farm Bill, long stalled over Republican calls for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) work requirements. Democrats prevailed, the work rules remained unchanged and the new five-year farm bill was signed Dec. 20, preserving conservation funding at current levels and expanding, by 3 million acres, the Conservation Reserve Program which pays farmers to remove environmentally sensitive land from production

In March 2017, President Trump issued an Executive Order on Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth, directing agencies to promote energy development and reduce regulatory and other encumbrance of production. Indeed many actions were taken supporting those ends, such as auction of federal extraction leases in areas previously off-limits, and the weakening of environmental protections.

In mid-December of this year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and US Army Corps of Engineers announced a revised definition of the “Waters of the United States” (WOTUS) rule, developed during the Obama administration in 2015. WOTUS defines federal authority to protect US streams and wetlands under the Clean Water Act. The proposed rule is pending a 60-day public comment period which will end 60 days after the notice of proposed rulemaking publishes in the Federal Register.

Asked about any analysis of wetlands that would lose protection on the redefined WOTUS, EPA acting administrator, Andre Wheeler said that “We have not done … a detailed mapping of all the wetlands in the country.” However, using the US Geological Survey’s National Hydrography Dataset(NHD), EPA and Army Corps internal 2017 estimates are that 18 percent of streams, virtually all ephemeral streams, and 51 percent of wetlands nationwide would lose federal protection under the new definition, as reported by E&E News.

The Trump administration’s 2018 Regulatory Plan rates WOTUS repeal/replace as a “priority action.” Republican leadership in the House and Senate roundly support it also. They are joined by the US Chamber of Commerce as well as agricultural, shipping and property rights interests. The Ecological Society of America (ESA) objects to the proposed redefined WOTUS with ESA president Laura Huenneke saying that it, “. . . undermines the use of the best available science showing strong benefits of protecting wetlands and upland watersheds”

Following through on a campaign promise, President Trump announced in June 2017 US intent to withdraw from the Paris Agreement of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Under the agreement, Nov. 4, 2020 is the earliest exit possible, the day after the next US presidential election.

Pending the announced withdrawal from Conference of Parties to the Paris Accord, the US continues to participate. At the recent 24th Conference of Parties (COP 24) in Katowice, Poland, the US joined Russia and Saudi Arabia in blocking the “welcome” of a UN report in October calling for “unprecedented changes” to limit the worst of the potential hazards of climate change. Now ‘noted’ by COP 24, the report, by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, points to a 12-year horizon to avoid the worst hardships.

Nevertheless, the Trump administration’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released similarly striking scientific findings. “Volume 2 of the Fourth National Climate Assessment” (NOAA, November 2018) focuses on climate change impacts, risks and adaptations occurring in the US. The assessment’s bottom line finds: “Without substantial and sustained global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and regional initiatives to prepare for anticipated changes, climate change is expected to cause growing losses to American infrastructure and property and impede the rate of economic growth over this century.”

NOAA’s 2018 Arctic Report Card also confirms rapidly worsening conditions with “. . . the second-warmest air temperatures ever recorded; the second-lowest overall sea-ice coverage; lowest recorded winter ice in the Bering Sea; and earlier plankton blooms due to early melting of sea ice in the Bering Sea.”

Meanwhile, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) includes climate change as a leading threat to long-range national security (GAO-19-204SP), noting that “extreme weather events-such as hurricanes and megadroughts-could intensify and affect food security, energy resources, and the health care sector. Diminishing permafrost could expand habitats for pathogens that cause disease. The loss of Arctic sea ice could open previously closed sea routes, potentially increasing Russian and Chinese access to the region and challenging the freedom of navigation that the United States.”

Though the president ignores the work of his own climate change scientists, the White House has not interfered with NOAA’s climate work, said Timothy Gallaudet, NOAA acting administrator said, in comments at the Dec. annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in Washington, DC. The president has never even had a briefing from NOAA climate scientists Gallaudet added. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Energy and Natural Resources chairman, also spoke at that same AGU meeting, telling attendees, “Know that you’ve got an advocate in me for the geosciences in Congress.”

After the 2018 mid-term elections, President Trump is now facing a divided government. Democrats have reclaimed the majority and control in the House of Representatives for the new 116th Congress (Jan. 3, 2019, to Jan. 3, 2021) while the Senate remains in, now somewhat stronger, Republican hands. House Democrats now serve as chairs of powerful committees that affect federal science policy and they wield power to conduct oversight hearings and investigations of the Trump administration and agencies such as Interior and the EPA.

Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Speaker of the House, following the November results said, “We are concerned about what is happening at the EPA.” Meanwhile, House Democrats have set climate change at the fore of their policy agenda. The president, on the other hand, famously said he ‘doesn’t believe’ in climate change. These contingencies set the battle of politics and science in the coming Congress.

The Democratic House caucus, even before settling into to the majority, was riven by newly-elected insurgents demanding a broadly empowered climate-focused select committee to draft a “Green New Deal.” A more limited panel was ultimately agreed following push-back from committee chairs. Rep Frank Pallone (D-NJ), Energy and Commerce Committee chairman, feels that his committee is ready to tackle climate legislation and plans to look at the economic and community impacts of climate change. Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), Natural Resources committee chairman, and Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Science, Space and Technology committee chair, each have pledged climate change hearings.

Grijalva said in a late December interview: “Our first hearings will be on climate change. That’s a given. We will hold a full committee hearing and series of subcommittee hearings. That’ll run the gamut from oceans policy, to Indian country, to public lands and things like wildfire intensity. Climate change has a big role in everything we do so we want to examine it writ large. These hearings will be in February.”

Johnson prioritizes climate change also, saying in a mid-November with E&E News, “. . . we know what the challenges are. We have some ideas to how we might get to the knowledge and procedure which we can address it. The information is not foreign. We are experiencing climate change every day. What we have to decide is a sensible course of research, and sensible course as recommendations for addressing the issues related to climate change.” Rep. Johnson continued, discussing oversight, “The agencies, of course, have changed quite a bit since we’ve had a new president … a very unorthodox president, and his Cabinet seems to be the same as he is. We’ll have to review all of that.” When asked about the recent ban on EPA grant recipients from serving on an EPA advisory committees, established by former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, Johnson replied “I think it’s worthy of review. We certainly will.”

Former administrator Pruitt also proposed the “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science,” rule in April 2018 which would prohibit use of studies using confidential data, such as many health studies. The Ecological Society of America joined nearly 70 other health and scientific groups in opposing the rule as anti-science. This fall, acting administrator Andrew Wheeler seemingly has backpedaled the proposal with the Federal Register noting “EPA will determine a timeline for a decision after it has more fully assessed the comments.” The EPA’s fall 2018 regulatory plan now lists “science transparency” as a “long-term action”, with an anticipated completion date of January 2020.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), chairman of the Oversight and Reform committee, in a Dec. 19 letter, demanded EPA “fully comply” with an outstanding request for documents regarding Pruitt’s conduct in office. In other letters that day, Rep. Cummings also refiled previous requests for documents regarding whistleblower protections and records retention at various agencies.

The Department of the Interior will be seeing more diligent oversight too. Plans to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and in the coastal waters of eastern states are drawing scrutiny from Grijalva of Natural Resources, who has promised specific review of former Interior secretary Ryan Zinke’s policy legacy. “We want to look at who was in the room when they decided on all those oil and gas giveaways, all those leases on public land for extraction,” said Grijalva in a late Dec. interview. He added, “Just because Zinke has left, doesn’t mean our interest in his decisions is gone.”

The ongoing partial shutdown of the federal government, precipitated by Trump’s late demand for border wall funding, takes immediate priority in the new Congress. Pelosi and other House Democratic leaders passed a series of appropriations bills Jan. 3 to fully fund most of the federal government through the remainder of the current fiscal year. The Senate has not passed an appropriations bill.  A compromise would be to provide a short-term continuing resolution for Homeland Security and border funding to open the government while differences are settled between the White House and Congress. 

The Trump administration, with the partial-shutdown, has set a high-stakes test for Pelosi’s leadership of House Democrats. The results of the coming few days are likely to set the tone for relations between Congress and the White House for the next two years.

Executive Branch




Climate Panel: House Democrats announced more details on their plans to create a Select Committee on the Climate Crisis in the 116th Congress. Rep. Kelly Castor (D-FL) will lead the panel. Castor vowed, as part of this role, she will not accept donations from fossil fuel interests – but she will not forbid committee members receiving campaign contributions from fossil fuel companies. House Democratic leadership has also said the new committee will not have subpoena power or the power to craft legislation. The committee’s predecessor, the Select Committee on Global Warming and Energy Independence, had subpoena power. Republicans Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Rep. Garret Graves (R-LA) are both possible ranking members on the climate panel.

Legislative updates (115th Congress)

  • Both houses of Congress passed the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act (S. 1520, also known as the Modern Fish Act) which would allow NOAA to apply and develop management tools specific to recreational fisheries. Sportfishing and environmental groups both praised the bill’s passage.
  • The House passed the National Integrated Drought Information System Reauthorization Act of 2018 (S. 2200), sponsored by Sen. John Thune (R-SD). This bill reauthorizes the National Integrated Drought Information System through 2023. It also authorizes spending for weather research and algal blooms and hypoxia programs. The bill now goes to the president for his signature.
  • The Senate passed the Defending Economic Livelihoods and Threatened Animals (DELTA) Act (H.R. 4819) which authorizes the US government to work with African governments to fight wildlife crime and promote conservation and economic development in the Okavango River Basin in southern Africa. The House has passed this bill and it now goes to the president’s desk.
  • The Senate passed the Water Infrastructure Improvement Act (H.R. 7279). This bill, sponsored by Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-OH) and Rep. Grace Napolitano (R-CA), codifies the EPA’s “Integrative Planning” initiative into law, which allows states and municipalities to develop integrated plans for wastewater and stormwater management to meet the requirements of the Clean Water Act. The EPA hopes that this approach will allow help promote green infrastructure projects. The House passed this bill in early December.

Nominations: On the last day of the 115th Congress, the Senate confirmed Kelvin Droegemeier as the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Droegemeier is a meteorologist and will be the first permanent OSTP director during the Trump administration. Over 35 scientific organizations, including ESA, sent a letter to Senate leaders in September supporting Drogemeier’s nomination. The Senate also confirmed Mary Neumayr to be the head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). Neumayer served as CEQ’s chief of staff.

The Senate did not confirm some of Trump’s nominees, including Barry Meyers to head NOAA, and David Vela to be NPS director and Aurelia Skipwith to be USFWS director. Trump will need renominate these individuals to be considered in the 116th Congress.

ESA tracks presidential nominations on the Federal Agency Transition page.

BLM: The agency released a draft Environmental Impact Statement for oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Joe Balash, Interior’s assistant secretary for land and minerals management, told reporters that a final environmental impact statement could be released in summer 2019 and the first lease sales may take place in 2019.

CDC: The Climate and Health program has been consolidated into the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s asthma office and the word ‘climate’ has been removed from the program’s name. George E. Luber, the office’s former head, has been reassigned and given a termination notice. The program is responsible for advising state and local health departments on the impacts of climate change on public health. Luber’s termination notice was canceled after the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) intervened. Lawyers for PEER said that Luber was concerned that the CDC was diverting funds appropriated to the climate program to other programs.

EPA: In a proposed rule, the EPA determined that is not “appropriate or necessary” to regulate mercury emissions from coal- and oil fired power plants. The 2011 mercury rule used “co-benefits” – or the indirect benefits of reducing pollutants other than mercury – to determine that the benefits of regulating mercury emissions were greater than the costs. If the proposed rule is finalized, the EPA will continue to regulate mercury emissions from coal and oil-fired power plants, but regulators would be prevented from considering “co-benefits.”

NIFA: Thirty-three scientists and university administrators, including two former USDA chief scientists, have signed a letter to House and Senate appropriators asking them to intervene and stop Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s plan to move the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and the Economic Research Service out of the Washington, DC area. The letter argues that relocating NIFA could hurt the agencies’ ability to collaborate with other science funding agencies, such as the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy and land-grant universities. Perdue announced in August 2018 that he would move NIFA, which provides grants for agricultural research, to a location closer to the country’s farmers and ranchers. Late in the 115th Congress, ten House Democrats, led by Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) introduced a bill (H.R. 7330) that would have blocked the USDA from relocating NIFA and the Economic Research Service. In September, when Perdue announced the move, ESA joined other scientific societies objecting to the speed of NIFA’s proposed move and its lack of information on how the move would affect scientific research.

Interior Department: The Trump administration proposed new rules governing how the agency will handle Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Citing an “unprecedented” increase in FOIA requests since 2016, the new rules would allow the Interior Department to impose monthly limits on the number of records released to individual requestors and allow the agency to deny requests that require “an unreasonably burdensome search.” In November 2018, former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke put Daniel Jorjani, a political appointee, in charge of overseeing FOIA requests. Career employees typically serve in this role. The Interior Department is accepting public comments on this proposed rule through Jan. 28 on the Federal Register.

USFWS: The agency declined to list 13 species under the Endangered Species Act. Environmental groups petitioned all of these species for listing between 2007 and 2014. USFWS notes that the Ozark pyrg, a freshwater snail historically found in Arkansas, does not meet the definition of an endangered or threatened species because it is extinct. These are the species declined from ESA listing: Cedar Key mole skink, Florida sandhill crane, Fremont County rockcress, Frisco buckwheat, Ostler’s peppergrass, Frisco clover, MacGillivray’s seaside sparrow, Ozark pyrg, pale blue-eyed grass, San Joaquin Valley giant flower-loving fly, striped newt, Tinian monarch and Tippecanoe darter. Individuals or organizations with additional scientific information on these species are encouraged to submit their information to the officials listed on the Federal Register notice.

The trispot darter, a freshwater fish found in Alabama, Georgia andTennessee, has been listed as a threatened species. USFWS has proposed a section 4(d) rule for the species, which would allow the incidental take of the species during certain habitat improvement activities. The agency has also proposed designating 181 river miles and 16,735 acres as critical habitat for the species. Public comments on these rules can be submitted through Feb. 26, 2019.

White House: President Trump issued an executive order promoting ‘active management’ of American forests to improve forest conditions and reduce wildfire risks. The executive order directs the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior develop plans by March 31 to treat a combined 4.25 million acres to reduce fuel loads, treat 2.7 million acres to protect water quality and mitigate flooding risks arising from forest fires and treat 1.5 million acres for invasive species. The executive order also directs agencies to increase timber harvests on federal lands – the Forest Service is directed to offer 3.8 billion board feet of timber for sale. In 2018, the Forest Service sold 3.2 billion board feet and in 2016, the agency sold 2.9 billion board feet. Agencies are encouraged to streamline environmental reviews to meet these goals and to minimize public comment and consultation periods.

Offshore Drilling: Nine Atlantic state attorneys generals, led by Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh (D), joined a lawsuit initiated by environmental groups challenging the Trump administration’s decision to allow energy companies to conduct seismic testing off the Atlantic coast, the first step toward offshore drilling in Atlantic federal waters.

Grizzly Bears: Lawyers representing the federal government have asked the Ninth Circuit of Appeals to reverse a federal judge’s decision which returned endangered species protections for Yellowstone area grizzly bears. The states of Idaho and Wyoming, as well as hunting groups, have filed similar appeals.

Children’s Climate Lawsuit: The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled to allow the Justice Department to appeal previous lower court decisions that allowed the Juliana v. United States case, also known as the Children’s Climate Lawsuit, to go to trial. In this case, 21 youths, ages 11 to 22, sued the U.S. government for insufficiently addressing climate change and infringing on their right to a safe climate. The case was originally scheduled to go to trial in October 2018 but a series of legal challenges kept the trial from beginning. Lawyers representing the federal government now have until mid-January to file a challenge with the Ninth Circuit Court.


Australia: The country’s government announced in a budget plan that it willreduce research funding by AUD 328.5 million (USD 235.6 million) over the next four years, despite forecasted budget surpluses for 2019-2022. In 2019, the Australian federal government provided AUD 1.92 billion (USD 1.34 billion) in research block grants.

Japan: Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said that the country willwithdraw from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and allow commercial whaling in the country’s exclusive economic zone. As a result of the withdrawal, Japan will cease its “research” whaling operations in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. Japan has unsuccessfully pressed the IWC to allow commercial whaling in international waters for years.

The Koreas: The South Korean Ministry of the Environment has started work on a conservation plan to ensure that the biodiversity of the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea is protected as the countries move toward diplomatic relations. Korean ecologists say that the area has become an accidental refuge for species over the last 65 years and contains over 100 “endangered or protected” plants and animals.

Scientific Community

IPBES: ESA is assisting the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services with the task of soliciting early career fellows nominations of for their upcoming Assessment of Invasive Alien Species. Fellows will attend meetings and workshops, receive training, and be paired with a mentor for the assessment period. The deadline to apply to ESA is Jan. 25, 2019. Email Jill Parsons, associate director of science programs, at gro.asenull@llij with any questions. To learn more, please visit the IPBES website

NASEM: The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine will hold a public release webinar for the new consensus report Forest Health and Biotechnology: Possibilities and Considerations on Tuesday, Jan. 8 at 2:00 pm Eastern Time. Visit this page for more information and to register for the webinar.

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. NSF plans to use these ideas to inform the creation of “Integration Institutes” that would support collaborative research teams. For more information, see the Dear Colleague letter.

Federal Register Opportunities

During the funding lapse, Federalregister.gov is not being supported.

Public Meetings, many of which are live-streamed: 

Note: meetings may be impacted by the federal government shutdown.

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.