On February 14, 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it had approved a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) and incidental take permit (ITP) for the Edwards Aquifer Recovery Implementation Program. In addition to providing water to agricultural, industrial, and recreational water users, the Edwards Aquifer is the primary source of drinking water for more than 2 million people. The HCP and ITP cover general activities related to the Edwards Aquifer and associated river systems, including the regulation and production of groundwater for irrigation and livestock purposes, the use of in-stream flows for recreational uses, and other operational and maintenance activities. The species covered by the HCP and ITP include the fountain darter, San Marcos salamander, Texas wild rice, Texas blind salamander, Peck's cave amphipod, San Marcos gambusia, Cornal Springs dryopid beetle, and the Cornal Springs riffle beetle.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Proposes to Downlist the Status of the Wood Stork from Endangered to Threatened
On Tuesday, December 18, 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) proposed upgrading the status of the wood stork (Mycteria americana) from endangered to threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The proposed change is in response to improvements in the population and habitat of the species based on the best available scientific information.
Dan Ashe, Director for the Service, remarked that the proposed reclassification "demonstrates that the [ESA] works" and that "the species is making real progress toward recovery." The wood stork was originally listed (pdf) as endangered in 1984; since that time, the breeding population has substantially improved. Specifically, the average number of nesting pairs has increased from 7,086 to 8,996 over the last decade. While these nesting benchmarks are still below the five-year average of 10,000 needed for delisting, the population increase is encouraging. The wood stork's breeding range has also expanded to twice its former size. The species used to breed primarily in central and southern Florida, but its current breeding range includes wetland areas in Georgia and South Carolina.
The proposed reclassification will not affect any protective or conservation measures in place for the species under the ESA. Rather, it recognizes the improvements in the wood stork's population and is intended to encourage the continuation of collaborative conservation efforts, with the ultimate goal of delisting the species in the coming years.
This week endangeredspecieslawandpolicy.com crossed the 100,000 hits threshold. We thank you, our readers, for your interest in the blog. We will continue to work to provide timely and informative updates regarding legal and policy developments related to the management and conservation of threatened and endangered species.
On November 30, 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) issued a proposed rule (pdf) to list the lesser prairie-chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus) as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). While voluntary conservation planning efforts are ongoing, the Service decided (pdf) to move forward with the proposed rule based on “scientific evidence that the lesser prairie-chicken and its habitat are in decline.” The Service encouraged the public and scientific community to comment on the proposed rule during the 90-day comment period. The Service will make its final determination based on the best available science.
As previously reported, stakeholders are working towards reaching voluntary agreements to protect the lesser prairie-chicken in lieu of listing the species under the ESA. The Service acknowledged these efforts and stated “we are encouraged by current multi-state efforts to conserve the lesser prairie-chicken and its habitat, but more work needs to be done to reverse its decline.” In a letter (pdf) encouraging the Service to consider these efforts when making its decision to list the species, Senator Tom Udall (D - N.M.) expressed concern over the impact of a listing decision on landowners, ranchers and other industries in New Mexico. Others, including Senator Jim Inhofe (R - Okla.), are pleased with the Service's proposal to list the species as threatened, rather than endangered, because it will have less impact on agriculture, highway construction and wind energy development projects in Oklahoma. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), however, is committed to protecting the lesser prairie-chicken without assistance from the ESA. Today, BLM announced that it purchased 1,789 acres of private land in southeastern New Mexico as additional habitat for the species. (San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 7, 2012).
On November 26, 2012, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS or the Service) accepted a petition to delist a distinct population segment (DPS) of the Southern Resident killer whales, which is currently listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The DPS, estimated to include 88 individuals, was initially listed as endangered under the ESA in 2005. These killer whales are "resident" type, fish-eating whales that spend a specific period of time each year in the San Juan Islands and Puget Sound.
On August 2, 2012, the Service received a petition from the Pacific Legal Foundation on behalf of the Center for Environmental Science Accuracy and Reliability, Empresas Del Bosque, and Coburn Ranch to delist the endangered Southern Resident killer whale. The petition asserts that there is no scientific basis for the designation of the Southern Resident killer whale as a distinct population segment, and that the population is part of a larger segment and not in danger of extinction.
Pursuant to ESA section 4(b)(3)(A), the Secretary of Commerce made a 90-day finding that substantial scientific or commercial information in the petition indicates that the petitioned action may be warranted. The Service has initiated a 12-month review of the status of the Southern Resident killer whale to fully determine whether the petitioned action to delist the killer whale is warranted. As part of the review process, the Service solicits scientific and commercial information related to the species.
The 90-day determination that there is substantial scientific or commercial information in the petition does not prejudice the outcome of the more comprehensive 12-month review. Although, the species will remain listed unless the 12-month review process requires a reversal, the future status of the Southern Resident killer whale is uncertain.
Free-Market Habitat Plan as an Alternative to Avoid Listing of Lesser Prairie Chicken Under the Endangered Species Act
On November 5, 2012, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) sent a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) encouraging the Service to consider an innovative approach to support conservation of the lesser prairie chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus): through the use of habitat credit exchanges between companies and landowners. The letter comes at a time when the Service is considering whether to propose to list the lesser prairie chicken under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Currently the Service has determined that listing of the species "is warranted, but precluded."
The letter to the Service explains the "recent success" of using the habitat credit exchange for conservation of the dunes sagebrush lizard (Sceloporus arenicolusin) in lieu of listing the species as threatened or endangered. The approach used in the Texas Conservation Plan for the dunes sagebrush lizard "includes the full mitigation hierarchy of avoidance, minimization and compensatory mitigation, and designates habitat credit exchanges as the means for compensatory mitigation." The habitat credit exchange provides landowners the opportunity to generate income by developing and selling credits that represent conservation action on their land to companies that will receive in exchange "both regulatory assurances and operational certainty."
The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works also sent a letter to the Service on July 16, 2012 applauding the Service's determination to not list the dunes sagebrush lizard because of the voluntary agreements entered into to protect the species, and encouraging the Service to consider these types of agreements when making its determination on the lesser prairie chicken.
The EDF proposal is the most recent of several innovative conservation initiatives based on market mechanisms proposed by the EDF to conserve endangered and threatened species. Prior EDF initiatives included the use of safe harbor agreements to encourage landowners to protect and enhance the habitat of various species starting with agreements to protect the mature longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) forest habitat of the red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis) in the southeast and east United States.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) recently announced (pdf) that it finalized its designation of critical habitat for the northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) in the Pacific Northwest. The final rule designated 9.29 million acres of federal land and 291,750 acres of state land as critical habitat for the species. The final rule reduced the amount of habitat by approximately 4.3 million acres from a February 2012 proposal. The Service asserts that this designation comported with a Presidential Memorandum directing the Department of the Interior to give careful consideration to providing the maximum exclusion of areas from the final rule.
The Service's final rule represents a balancing act between conservation of the northern spotted owl and recognition of the importance of the designated lands to the Pacific Northwest's logging industry. According to the Service, the designation will provide federal agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service, with the information they need to ensure protection for remaining old growth forests, while implementing ecological timber harvests to improve habitat and its resilience to wildfire and insect infestations. The Service maintained that the designation of critical habitat on state lands, primarily in Oregon, will have almost no impact on the states' management of those lands or timber harvests on those lands because a habitat designation affects only federal actions or proposed activities involving federal funding or permitting.
The American Forest Resource Council, which represents logging interests in the Pacific Northwest, said that the draft critical habitat plan ignored threats such as the non-native barred owls (Strix varia) and catastrophic wildfire on the spotted owl populations. The barred owl is a larger and more aggressive species that migrated west in the late 1950s and have spread throughout northern spotted owl habitat. They are displacing the spotted owl populations and compete with the spotted owl for many of the same foods. In releasing its final rule, the Service also announced that it is working on a concurrent strategy to manage barred owl populations.
The Service's final rule substantially increased the amount of land designated as critical habitat relative to the previous rule, issued in 2008 under the Bush administration. The critical habitat designation revised that 2008 rule in response to an order by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has released a public draft recovery plan for the distinct population segment (DPS) of steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss) that occupies California's South-Central Coast. NMFS announced the availability of the draft recovery plan and issued a request for comments in the Federal Register (pdf). Steelhead are anadromous fish that spawn in coastal watersheds, rear in freshwater or estuarine habitats, and migrate to the ocean for the balance of their lives. The South-Central Coast DPS extends from south of San Luis Obispo in the south to north of Watsonville in the north. A map depicting the DPS along with other California populations is available here (pdf). The current deadline to comment on the draft recovery plan is 5:00 p.m. on December 18, 2012.
The California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) recently completed its initial evaluation (pdf) of a petition to list the gray wolf (Canis lupus) under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA). The Center for Biological Diversity, Big Wildlife, the Environmental Protection Information Center, and the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center (collectively, Petitioners) submitted a petition for the listing to DFG on March 5, 2012. DFG recommended the Fish and Game Commission (Commission) accept the petition for further consideration, finding that there is sufficient information to indicate that listing the gray wolf under CESA may be warranted.
DFG noted that the petition to list the gray wolf presented "unprecedented" challenges. According to DFG, Petitioners failed to submit any materials referenced in the petition to the Commission or to DFG and, in some instances, failed to present any reference to support a claim. DFG stated that the petition on its face did not provide sufficient information to indicate the petitioned action may be warranted. DFG nevertheless evaluated the petition on its face in relation to other relevant information it possessed or received during its initial review, as it is required to do by law. Such information included the materials referenced in the petition, which DFG obtained through its own effort.
Very little scientific information exists regarding gray wolves that is specific to California. The only concrete information to date is that a single male wolf - OR7 - first crossed into California in December 28, 2011. Before OR7, the last confirmed wolf in California was in the state in 1924 and, since then, "sightings" have turned out to be coyotes, dogs, wolf-dog hybrids, etc. Anecdotal evidence suggests that gray wolves historically were distributed broadly throughout California, though DFG concludes that the lack of documented reliable observations in the state suggests that the population was not large and has been extirpated for approximately 80 years.
The Commission will vote on DFG's recommendation in early October. As we recently reported, the federal government is currently considering delisting the gray wolf in Wyoming under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) recently announced a proposal to protect 40 different species native to Hawaii under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The Federal Register notice of the announcement can be found here (pdf). The proposal encompasses 37 plant species, including herbs, shrubs, trees, and ferns, and three species of tree snails. The species are native to the Hawaiian Islands of Moloka'i, Lana'i, Kaho'olawe, and Maui. They are found in 11 different ecosystem types.
The Service's announcement also included critical habitat designation for 39 of the 40 species, totaling approximately 271,062 acres of land, including occupied and unoccupied habitat. Of that total, 192,364 acres are located on Maui, 46,832 acres are on Moloka'i, 25,413 acres are on Lana'i, and 6,453 acres are on Kaho'olawe. Almost half of the designated area was already designated as critical habitat for other listed species. Loyal Mehrhoff, field supervisor for the Pacific Islands Fish and Wildlife Office said of the listing, "The Service is implementing an ecosystem-based approach to the proposed listing and designation of critical habitat in Hawaii - which leads the nation in the number of federally listed and candidate species - to better prioritize, direct, and focus conservation and recovery actions."
Threats to the listed species include: (1) habitat degradation and direct consumption by nonnative pigs, goats, sheep, and deer; (2) direct consumption by nonnative pigs, goats, sheep, deer, other nonnative vertebrates and invertebrates; (3) habitat destruction and modification by nonnative plants, stochastic events (e.g. hurricanes, flooding, etc.), agriculture and urban development, and climate change; and (4) inadequate regulatory mechanisms and other species-specific threats. The Service found that all 40 species face immediate and significant threats throughout their ranges.
The Service announced its proposal to protect the 40 species, native to the Hawaiian Islands of Moloka'i, Lana'i, and Maui as endangered, as well as the designation of critical habitat for 135 species, in June 2012. The Service's announcement follows a 2004 petition drafted by the Center for Biological Diversity asking the Service to list 227 different species under the ESA.
Photo by Hank Oppenheimer, Plant Extinction Prevention Program, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
In an article published in July 2012, in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, Christian Langpap and Joe Kerkvliet of Oregon State University assess the effectiveness of habitat conservation plans. The abstract reads:
Habitat conservation plans (HCPs) have become a key instrument for implementation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) on private land. However, there is no systematic analysis of their effectiveness in promoting endangered species recovery. This paper is the first to provide a comprehensive analysis of the impact of HCPs on species recovery status. We find evidence that HCPs have a significant positive impact on species recovery. Our results also suggest that the recovery benefits are larger when species have relatively larger plans. However, we fail to find strong evidence that multi-species plans covering more species are more effective than plans which include fewer species.
The article is available for purchase here. The authors use data on the recovery status of species set forth by the Fish and Wildlife Service in reports to Congress, together with listed species characteristics, and data regarding HCPs also generated by the Fish and Wildlife Service. They analyze the data using standard statistical tools. The authors urge the federal wildlife agencies to encourage non-Federal parties to develop HCPs, including by reducing the burden on applicants and stream-lining the permitting process.
Monroe County, Florida agrees to take steps to enforce the federal ESA to avoid suspension of the National Flood Insurance Program
According to Ryan McCarthy with KeysNet (June 27, 2012), the County Commission in Monroe County, Florida has agreed to take responsibility for reviewing permits for new development within the county to ascertain whether such development is likely to affect species listed as threatened or endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. The County took this action to avoid suspension of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) there by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Monroe County was the locus of the first lawsuit under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) brought against FEMA for failure to consult with federal wildlife agency officials regarding the impacts of the NFIP on listed species. All federal agencies are required to consult with federal wildlife agency officials under section 7(a)(2) of the ESA whenever they authorize, fund, or carry out activities that may affect listed species. A number of courts have since held that FEMA's implementation of the NFIP is subject to the requirements imposed under section 7(a)(2) though FEMA has refused to proactively comply with those requirements.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) recently announced (pdf) its decision that the Sonoran Desert Area population of bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) does not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The Service's conclusion is the result of a revised 12-month finding on a petition to list the population as threatened or endangered under the ESA. The Service concluded that the Sonoran Desert Area population of bald eagle does not qualify as a distinct population segment (DPS), and that listing the population is not warranted at this time.
The Service originally found that the Sonoran Desert Area population of bald eagles was not a listable entity under the ESA on February 25, 2010. The Center for Biological Diversity and Maricopa Audubon Society challenged that decision in October 2010. On November 30, 2011, the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona ordered the Service to draft a new 12-month finding.Continue Reading...
A judge in the District of Washington D.C. recently denied a request by the Humane Society of the United States to halt the killing of sea lions that prey on endangered spring run salmon and steelhead on the Columbia River. On March 15, 2012, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) reauthorized the removal of California sea lions that congregate at the Bonneville dam and feed on the listed species as they pass the dam. NMFS's authorization would have allowed the removal of up to 92 sea lions annually through 2016. The Humane Society challenged NMFS's decision, claiming that NMFS erred in determining that the sea lion's predation on the listed salmonids was a significant obstacle to their recovery. U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg denied the Humane Society's request to stop the program pending the outcome of the litigation. Judge Boasberg did, however, reduce the total annual amount of sea lions authorized to be killed from 92 to 30. Officials from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife have stated that they did not anticipate the removal of more than 30 sea lions in any one year despite the higher authorization.
As we previously reported, in October 2011, a NOAA task force, made up of representatives from state and federal agencies, tribes, and interest groups, voted to recommend that NMFS permit Oregon and Washington to remove up to 85 California sea lions a year in order to protect listed salmon and steelhead. NMFS had suspended its program in July 2011 in the wake of an agreement (see earlier post) between wildlife advocates and the two states to temporarily suspend lethal sea lion removal as well as legislation introduced in the House of Representatives that would permit the states to remove sea lions without complying with the MMPA (see prior post regarding H.R. 946).
The Humane Society's effort to stop the removal of the California sea lions is their third since NMFS first authorized the program in 2008.
10,000 Pages of Draft Bay Delta Conservation Plan Planning Documents Released for Public Review and Comment
On February 29, 2012, the California Natural Resources Agency released approximately 10,000 pages of "preliminary" draft planning documents relating to the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) for public review and comment. The documents fall into two categories: Draft BDCP documents, and Draft Environmental Impact Report/Environmental Impact Statement (EIR/EIS) documents (see the list below for details).
The BDCP is being developed in compliance with the Federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the California Natural Communities Conservation Planning Act (NCCPA) to provide the basis for the issuance of endangered species permits for the operation of the state and federal water projects over the next 50 years.
The documents are not being released as part of the formal public comment on the BDCP or the BDCP EIR/EIS, but rather as part of an ongoing effort to include stakeholders and communities in the BDCP planning process. Drafts of the BDCP Habitat Conservation Plan/Natural Communities Conservation Plan (HCP/NCCP) and the EIR/EIS are anticipated to be released for formal public comment this summer.
According to the Resource Agency, on February 29, 2012, it released the following preliminary drafts of the following for public consideration and (informal) comment:
BDCP Chapters and Effects Analysis (DRAFT)
- Chapter 3 – Conservation Strategy
- Chapter 5 – Effects Analysis
- Chapter 8 – Implementation Costs and Funding Sources
- Effects Analysis - Technical Appendix (Construction Effects on Covered Fish)
BDCP EIR/EIS Chapters (DRAFT)
- Chapter 5 - Water Supply
- Chapter 6 - Surface Water
- Chapter 7 - Ground Water
- Chapter 8 - Water Quality
- Chapter 11 - Fish and Aquatic Resources
- Chapter 12 - Terrestrial Resources
- Chapter 16 - Socioeconomics
- Chapter 25 - Public Health
- Chapter 28 - Environmental Justice
- Chapter 31 - Other CEQA/NEPA Required Sections
- Chapter 32 - Public Involvement, Consultation, and Coordination
- Chapter 33 - List of Preparers
- Chapter 34 - References
- Chapter 35 - Acronyms and Abbreviations
- Chapter 36 - Glossary and Index
- Executive Summary
However, according to the "library" link on its website, it appears preliminary drafts of the following BDCP documents have also been released on February 29th:
- Chapter 1 - Introduction
- Appendix 1.A - Evaluation of Species Considered for Coverage
- Chapter 2 - Existing Ecological Conditions
- Appendix 2.C - Climate Change Implications and Assumptions
- Appendix 2.B Vernal Pool Complex Mapping for the BDCP
- Appendix 2.A - Covered Species Accounts 2-29-12 02/29/2012 28.33 MB
- Appendix 3.C - Avoidance and Minimization Measures
- Appendix 3.A - Background on the Process of Developing the BDCP Conservation Measures
- Appendix 3.D - Natural Community and Covered Species Habitat Existing Condition - Acreages by Conservation Zone
- Chapter 3.1 and 3.2 - Conservation Strategy
- Chapter 3.3 - Conservation Strategy - Biological Goals and Objectives
- Chapter 3.4 and 3.5 - Conservation Strategy - Conservation Measures and Important Regional Actions
- Chapter 3.6 - Conservation Strategy - Adaptive Management and Monitoring Program
- Chapter 4 - Covered Activities and Associated Federal Actions
- Appendix 5.F - Biological Stressors on Covered Fish
- Appendix 5.K - Effects on Natural Communities, Wildlife, and Plants
- Appendix 5.J - Scenario 6 Comparison
- Appendix 5.I - Other Federal Regulatory Analyses
- Appendix 5.H - Aquatic Construction Effects
- Chapter 5 - Effects Analysis
- Chapter 6 - Plan Implementation
- Chapter 7 - Implementation Structure
- Chapter 8 - Implementation Costs and Funding Sources
- Appendix 8.A - Implementation Costs Supporting Materials
- Chapter 9 - Alternatives to Take
- Chapter 10 - Integration of Independent Science in BDCP Development
Thus, those interested in reviewing or commenting on the BDCP, the technical reports and appendices, and/or the preliminary draft EIR/EIS should visit the BDCP website for the latest publicly available drafts.
Two headlines highlight the challenges associated with integrating scientific information into public policy
Two stories covered in recent news highlight the challenges associated with integrating scientific information into public policy, including in the arena of agency decision-making respecting threatened and endangered species. One, available here (The Observer, Feb. 18, 2012, by Robin McKie), covered the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). At that meeting, AAAS President and accomplished biologist Nina Fedoroff expressed profound dismay about what she perceives as a growing anti-science movement. As was reported in The Observer, "[certain] institutions, acting as covers for major energy corporations, are responsible for the onslaught that has deeply lowered the reputation of science in many people's minds in America. This has come in the form of personal attacks on the reputations of scientists and television adverts that undermine environment laws." The archetype example of the anti-science movement in action, according to sources cited in the article, is the debate over the scientific basis for the theory of anthropogenically generated climate change.
A second story, available here (Los Angeles Times, Feb. 22, 2012, by Neela Banerjee), covered the admission by Dr. Peter Gleick, President of The Pacific Institute, that he lied to obtain documents regarding climate change from The Heartland Institute. As the Los Angeles Times reported, "[a] noted California scientist and environmental activist has admitted that he assumed a false identity to obtain and distribute internal documents from a libertarian group that questions climate change." Dr. Gleick apologized for his actions explaining he was frustrated by attacks upon climate change science and scientists. It is unclear how his actions may affect Dr. Gleick's professional life though it appears likely to have adverse consequences. Fox News reports that "[t]he Task Force on Scientific Ethics for the well-respected American Geophysical Union has quietly expunged the name of committee chairman Peter H. Gleick from its website."Continue Reading...
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and California Department of Fish and Game Approve San Diego County Water Authority's Habitat Conservation Plan
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) have approved the San Diego County Water Authority’s (Authority) Natural Community Conservation Plan/Habitat Conservation Plan (NCCP/HCP), which is expected to contribute to the conservation of San Diego County’s natural resources, while providing a more efficient endangered species permitting process for the Authority. The 55-year plan satisfies the requirements for incidental take authorization under California’s Natural Community Planning Act and the federal Endangered Species Act.
The comprehensive plan covers 63 plant and animal species and their habitats that may be adversely affected by Authority activities, including the construction, operation, repair, and maintenance of current and future water supply infrastructure facilities. The 63 species include 26 plants, 13 birds, nine reptiles, eight mammals, five invertebrates, and two amphibians. Of the 63 species covered by the plan, 18 are currently listed as endangered or threatened under the state and/or federal Endangered Species Acts. The plan covers roughly 922,000 acres in San Diego County, which encompasses areas served by the Authority and its member water agencies. The plan also includes a small portion of land in south-central Riverside County.
The Authority submitted the NCCP/HCP, along with a draft Environmental Impact Report/Environmental Impact Statement (EIR/EIS), to FWS and DFG in March 2010 (pdf) as part of its application for an incidental take permit. A final EIR/EIS was issued by the Authority and FWS in February 2011 (pdf) in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the California Environmental Quality Act. A record of decision (pdf) was issued under NEPA in September 2011. The final NCCP/HCP and EIR/EIS documents are available here.
Concurrent with approval of the NCCP/HCP, FWS issued an incidental take permit (pdf) to the Authority that allows limited impacts to the listed species. If any of the remaining species covered by the plan become listed in the future, they will automatically be added to the permit.
According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, the three agencies “worked closely and collaboratively to find a way to comprehensively address potential endangered species impacts from the water authority’s projects and activities.” (San Diego Union-Tribune, Jan. 9, 2012, Mike Lee). Jim Bartel, field supervisor for FWS’s Carlsbad office, also stated that the plan “is a great example of innovative and effective environmental planning.”
As Peter Fimrite reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, this week a lone gray wolf (Canis lupis) crossed the border from Oregon into California. This marks the first time since 1924 that a wolf was seen in California. The species was hunted to extinction within the state, due at least in part to concerns about the risks it posed to humans. The species is listed (pdf) as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. It is not listed under the California Endangered Species Act.
The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) recently reopened the public comment period for its proposal to designate additional critical habitat for endangered Hawaiian monk seals (Monachus schauinslandi). As we previously reported, on June 2, 2011, NMFS proposed revising the critical habitat for the Hawaiian monk seal pursuant to section 4 of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) by extending the current designation in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands out to the 500-meter depth contour, including Sand Island at Midway Islands; and by designating six new areas in the main Hawaiian Islands, including Kaula Island, Niihau, Kauai, Oahu, Maui nui, and Hawaii. NMFS provided a 90-day comment period, ending August 31, 2011.
NMFS received numerous requests for an extension of the comment period. The requests identified that additional time was needed to more fully consider the proposed rulemaking and provide comments on the proposed designation. In response to those requests, NMFS elected to extend the deadline. The public will now have until January 6, 2012 to comment on NMFS's proposed designation.
Documents and reference materials related to the proposed rulemaking are available via the NMFS Pacific Islands Regional Office Web site: http://www.fpir.noaa.gov/PRD.
A NOAA task force, made up of representatives from state and federal agencies, tribes, and interest groups, voted on Monday to recommend that NOAA Fisheries permit Oregon and Washington to remove up to 85 California sea lions a year in order to protect listed salmon and steelhead. Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (“MMPA”), NOAA is charged with protecting marine mammals such as the California sea lion; but, NOAA is also the lead agency responsible for saving Columbia River salmon and steelhead, which are listed under the Endangered Species Act ("ESA"). Since 2002, California sea lions have been preying on stocks of salmon and steelhead below the Bonneville Dam, where the species congregate as they prepare to move upstream.
NOAA has twice authorized lethal removal of California sea lions in this area. In 2010, a lawsuit filed by the Humane Society stopped the program briefly (see NMFS Suspends Lethal Removal of Sea Lions in Oregon and Washington). When the program resumed, the Humane Society filed a second lawsuit, halting the sea lion removal again.
NOAA expects to make a decision by March 2012 on whether to grant a new permit.
Proposed revisions (pdf) to the draft Santa Clara Valley Habitat Conservation Plan / Natural Community Conservation Plan (HCP/NCCP) were released last month to address the hundreds of comments received regarding the draft plan, which was issued in December 2010. The draft plan and comment letters are available for viewing here.
The Santa Clara Valley HCP/NCCP is intended to identify conservation and mitigation measures to protect species listed under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the California Endangered Species Act (CESA), while allowing for orderly development and public agency activities. The conservation measures, including land preservation and habitat protection, are intended both to mitigate the environmental impacts of planned development, public infrastructure operations and maintenance activities, and to enhance the long term viability of endangered species. Over 20 listed species will be covered under the plan, including the California tiger salamander, California red-legged frog, western burrowing owl, and Bay checkerspot butterfly. The plan will include approximately 520,000 acres, primarily in the south portion of Santa Clara County, and is expected to have a 50-year permit term.
The plan is being prepared by the cities of Morgan Hill, Gilroy, and San Jose, the County of Santa Clara, the Santa Clara Valley Water District, and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, in consultation with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) and the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG). The plan’s overall planning process has cost approximately $5.1 million to date, which has been shared by the plan applicants. The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors and the City of Morgan Hill voted in late September to continue their participation in the plan. Other plan applicants, including the San Jose City Council, will face similar decisions this month.
Once the plan is approved, resource agencies (including the Service and DFG) will issue permits to local agencies to allow limited impacts to endangered species. Local agencies will then administer the permits by providing third-party take authorization for specific projects, rather than having permits issued by a state and/or federal agency. The draft plan calls for private developers and public agencies to pay fees of up to $16,600 per acre for land they wish to develop.
Proponents expect the plan to benefit local developers by streamlining the environmental permitting process, as well as ultimately reducing costs. Publicly funded agencies that build roads, bridges, and sewage treatment plants also support the plan because it would save time and money by expediting the often lengthy environmental review process.
Opponents of the plan, including the Santa Clara County Farm Bureau and the Cattlemen’s Association, assert that agricultural and livestock development should not be assessed development fees, and urge the plan applicants to consider alternative fee arrangements. Others are concerned that the fees for larger infill projects, from 2 to 10 acres, remain too high at about $4,000 an acre.
Fish and Wildlife Service Advocates Adaptive Management Approach to Recovery of Mojave Populations of Desert Tortoise
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) recently announced (PDF) the availability of the 2011 Revised Recovery Plan for the Mojave Population of the Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) (PDF). The Plan calls for an adaptive management approach, something the Service says is necessary to "accommodate changing management needs" of the species. In contrast, an earlier earlier recovery plan, finalized in 1994, focused on traditional mitigation measures to achieve recovery of the threatened desert tortoise.
Key elements of the 2011 Recovery Plan include developing, supporting, and building partnerships to facilitate recovery; protecting existing populations and habitat, and instituting of habitat restoration where necessary; augmenting depleted populations in a strategic, experimental manner; monitoring progress toward recovery, including population trend and effectiveness monitoring; conducting applied research and modeling in support of recovery efforts within a strategic framework; and implementing a formal adaptive management program that integrates new information and utilizes conceptual models that link management actions to predicted responses by Mojave desert tortoise populations or their habitat.
The Service characterizes the 2011 Recovery plan as a "living document." Ren Lohoefener, director of the Service's Pacific Southwest Region, stressed that the "ability to conserve the Mojave population of the desert tortoise and lead to eventual recovery of this threatened species depends on science and innovation." The 2011 Recovery Plan calls for regional recovery implementation teams that bring together individuals from land management, scientific, conservation, and land use groups to work with the Service to implement, track, and evaluate recovery actions. According to the Service, "[b]y continuous examination of vulnerability, exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity of the desert tortoise, resource managers will be able to update the Plan as it is being implemented with conservation measures that will help the desert tortoise recover."
The 2011 Recovery Plan's adaptive management approach is highlighted by the Service's current plan to add a chapter focusing on measures related to renewable energy projects, something that environmental groups claim is sorely lacking. The Service notes that, when the Recovery Plan was being developed, they did not anticipate the extent to which the landscape of the desert ecosystems in the Pacific Southwest might become modified as a result of newfound federal renewable energy priorities. While the Recovery Plan does discuss renewable energy development in a number of locations (for example, it notes that impacts from large-scale energy development might impact the desert tortoise through habitat fragmentation, isolation of desert tortoise conservation areas, and the subsequent possibility of restricted gene flow between those areas), it does not provide a single, comprehensive strategy for addressing renewable energy. The Preamble to the 2011 Recovery Plan notes that the new chapter on renewable energy "will act as a blueprint to allow the Service and [its] partners to comprehensively address renewable energy development and its relationship to desert tortoise recovery."
Pursuant to a state law (pdf) enacted in 2010, the legislature required the California Natural Resources Agency to convene a cabinet-level committee to develop a strategic vision for the Department of Fish and Game and the Fish and Game Commission, and submit it to the governor and Legislature before July 1, 2012. The state has established a website that describes the committee, referred to as the executive committee, a citizen commission, and a stakeholder advisory group. The stakeholder advisory group is holding a series of meetings over the next 10 days to address a variety of topics including sustainable financing, governance and mission, natural resources stewardship and protection, and science. The meetings are open to the public.
An edited volume recently released by Resources for the Future Press and Earthscan focuses on federalism and the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA). The editors are Kaush Arha and Buzz Thompson, both of whom are associated with the Woods Institute at Stanford University. According to these editors, the volume "explores the critical role that states can and should play in protecting the nation's vast wealth of biodiversity." The volume includes case studies of federalism and the ESA focused on individual species and chapters that address federalism and the ESA at the conceptual level. I co-authored a chapter with Eileen Sobeck of the U.S. Department of the Interior regarding listing decisions, conservation agreements, and state-federal collaboration. The volume is available for purchase from the publisher and online retailers.
On June 30, 2011, the Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) issued a revised recovery plan (PDF) for the Northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina). Most people are familiar with the spotted owl because of the intense media attention it received during the 1990s when a fight erupted over whether to continue to allow timber harvesting in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, which conservationists argued was causing loss of critical habitat for the species. The Service first issued a recovery plan for the spotted owl in 2008, and numerous parties challenged that plan in court. In 2009, the Service filed for a voluntary remand of the 2008 recovery plan and critical habitat designation.
The Revised Recovery Plan has three main provisions for achieving spotted owl recovery: protecting "high value" habitat, actively managing forests to improve forest health, and reducing competition from barred owls (Strix varia).
When the spotted owl was first listed in 1990, the main threat to the species was the loss of habitat due to timber harvest and catastrophic fire. As a result, logging restrictions were implemented. But since that time, another threat, competition from barred owls, which have moved into the spotted owl's range, has grown significantly. The Service currently views the threat from barred owls as "extremely pressing" requiring "immediate consideration." Barred owls are "larger, more aggressive, and more adaptable than spotted owls" and are believed to "displace spotted owls, disrupt their nesting and compete for food." In addition, there have been observations of barred owls killing spotted owls and mating with the females. Therefore, one of the main provisions of the Revised Recovery Plan is to manage the barred owl, including experimental removal, using both lethal and non-lethal methods.
The Revised Recovery Plan does not include a mapped habitat conservation network, and the Service is under court-order to issue a proposed critical habitat designated by November 15, 2011 and a final critical habitat designation by November 15, 2012.
As reported in the New York Times, the spotted owl is "declining by an average of 3 percent per year across its range." (New York Times, June 30, 2011 by William Yardley.) While the Revised Recovery Plan proposes to expand protected areas for the spotted owl, scientists are uncertain whether the barred owl can be managed adequately to allow recovery of the spotted owl. It is expected that the Revised Recovery Plan will also be the subject of future litigation.
A plan to remove four dams along the Klamath River, which flows from Oregon through California to the Pacific Ocean, has major proponents including the federal government, the States of California and Oregon, and a number of environmental groups. But in a June 13, 2011 report (pdf), an independent review panel has raised serious questions regarding the likelihood that the dam removal proposal will achieve the principal conservation goal of increasing the population of Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) in the Klamath River system.
The panel acknowledged the potential benefits of the plan for Chinook, noting that the "Proposed Action appears to be a major step forward in conserving target fish populations compared with decades of vigorous disagreements, obvious fish passage barriers, and continued ecological degradation." But the panel went on to express uncertainty regarding the relative benefits of the plan for the species. It noted that there are many limiting factors on Chinook salmon in the Klamath River system, and voiced "strong reservations" that the plan will be implemented in a manner that addresses those limiting factors other than the presence of the dams, which include water quality problems, disease, interbreeding with hatchery salmon, and predation. Furthermore, the panel noted the possibility that there would be conflicts between management options to meet the needs of Chinook salmon and other fish that are presently listed under the Endangered Species Act or that could be listed in the near future.
One news article reporting the release of the report included a grim assessment by one of the panel members: "'I think there's no way in hell they're going to solve' the basin's water-quality problems, said Wim Kimmerer, an environmental research professor at San Francisco State, one of six experts who reviewed the plan. 'It doesn't seem to me like they've thought about the big picture very much.'" (Los Angeles Times, June 25, 2011, by Bettina Boxall.) It is unclear what fallout will result from release of the panel report.
The wildfires in Arizona have raged through forests and burned down homes, but as recently reported by the Washington Post, three packs of endangered Mexican gray wolves (Canis lupus baileyi) appear to have been spared. (Story by Associated Press, June 23, 2011). Firefighters have spotted two of the three packs moving around with their pups, and researchers were able to confirm the survival of at least three wolves from the third pack via radio collar data. It is currently unknown whether pups from the third pack have survived the fires, but a spokesman for the Arizona Game and Fish Department said that they are confident that all of the wolves and their pups are alive.
The story notes that given the extent of the fires, it is unlikely that the Mexican spotted owl (Strix occidentalis lucida) has fared as well.
In 2008, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration ("NOAA") authorized Washington, Oregon, and Idaho to "lethally remove" individual sea lions that congregate below the Bonneville Dam and continue to eat listed salmon and steelhead after non-lethal deterrence methods prove unsuccessful. Under the current program, after a sea lion is identified and trapped it is either transported to a new location or euthanized. Earlier this month, however, a task force convened at NOAA's request recommended that the controversial program be liberalized, and that sea lions be shot on the spot as a visual deterrent to the remaining population. The recommendations of the task force will now be considered by NOAA, and potentially incorporated into a new rule governing the program.
Although approximately 40 sea lions have been killed or removed since the initiation of the program, the United States Army Corps of Engineers reported that sea lion consumption of salmon and steelhead around Bonneville Dam grew from 3,846 in Spring 2007 to 5,095 in Spring 2010.
The burrowing owl (pdf) is a species broadly distributed in the western United States that also occupies other parts of the continental United States as well as Central and South America. The species is resident in much of the State of California. Populations of the species have declined in certain areas of the State over time, but the population in Imperial County increased with the expansion of agriculture in the region over the past century. It was recently reported that the Imperial County population, which was as high as 5600 pairs in the past decade, totaled less than 4900 pairs in 2007 and 3600 pairs in 2008.
The burrowing owl is classified as a species of special concern by the California Department of Fish and Game. In addition, it is subject to protect under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. In 2003, a number of environmental groups filed a petition (pdf) to list the species under the California Endangered Species Act, but the Fish and Game Commission declined to list the species. The burrowing owl is a covered species under a number of regional habitat conservation plans in southern California including the San Diego Multiple Species Conservation Program Plan (pdf) and the Western Riverside County Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan.
Recently, a number of news outlets reported that the population of the palila (Loxioides bailleui), a Hawaiian songbird that the Fish and Wildlife Service listed as endangered in 1967 under the predecessor to the 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA), has decline dramatically in recent years according to surveys conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey and other entities. In a five year status review of the species (pdf), the Fish and Wildlife Service previously identified the population decline.
From 2003 to 2007, the estimated number of palila on the southwestern slope of Mauna Kea declined by 58 percent, the first statistically significant population decline for the entire period of annual monitoring that began in 1980.
5-year review at 14 (2009). Among the reasons for the decline are habitat loss, drought, and predation by feral cats. The State is in the process of building a fence to protect the species' remaining habitat. The U.S. Geological Survey has expended significant resources on research and recovery efforts (pdf). The palila was the subject of extensive litigation under section 9 of the ESA in the 1980s.
Home to endangered species, marine mammals, and nationally significant commercial and recreational fishing resources, the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem is under assault. When the Deepwater Horizon oil platform exploded on April 20, sinking two days later, it began spewing oil into the Gulf’s ecosystem. Recalling that the infamous Exxon Valdez oil spill released just over 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound, on May 27 scientists estimated that the Gulf spill, hopefully now capped, released between 17 million and 27 million gallons of oil, making it the largest spill in U.S. history
Already oil is washing ashore along the Gulf Coast states, but the damages were felt from the very first days of the spill. Many charter boat fishermen watched helplessly as virtually all of their spring, summer, and fall bookings canceled. The multi-million dollar shrimp fishery, together with other major Gulf commercial fisheries, face economic ruin as the spreading oil approaches critical nursery and habitat areas. Federal and state agencies are mobilizing for the expected strandings of marine mammals and other wildlife populations. Valuable wetland and marsh areas may be lost.
Sadly, scientists who assess and manage all of these resources have varying degrees of data to assess the impacts of the spill. In the case of the deep ocean ecosystem where much of the spilled oil resides, scientific knowledge is spotty at best. It may be years before the full impact of this spill on the Gulf’s ecosystem is known. In some instances, we may never know because we do not have the environmental baseline data for the environment that existed before the spill.
Federal and state agencies are in the process of assessing the economic and environmental damages from the spill. But if the Exxon Valdez case is any guide, it could be 20 years before we finish the legal battles regarding who pays and what environmental restoration is required. Chief among these battles will be the process by which natural resource agencies assess natural resource damages (“NRD”) under the Oil Pollution Act (“OPA”). The OPA NRD provisions parallel those in Superfund. However, Superfund’s NRD provisions have generated substantial debate about the process by which damages are assessed and one can expect this debate to be replayed in OPA with respect to the Gulf spill. Already industry and environmental experts are lining up for what promises to be an epic battle.
Members of Congress are also closely watching the impact of the oil spill on their constituents, industries, and the ecosystem. As this drama unfolds, the need for biological information will be critical. And the legal and legislative battles that will flow from this spill may set legal precedents and highlight the need for regulatory and legislative changes.
In a speech at the Department of the Interior, President Obama announced a new national conservation effort titled the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative.
The President described the Administration’s plans to roll out the Initiative in the following way.
"In the months ahead, members of this administration will host regional listening sessions across America. We’ll meet with everybody -- from tribal leaders to farmers, from young people to businesspeople, from elected officials to recreation and conservation groups. And their ideas will help us form a 21st century strategy for America’s great outdoors to better protect our natural landscape and our history for generations to come."
President Obama went on to elaborate on four major components of the Initiative.
"First, we’re going to build on successful conservation efforts being spearheaded outside of Washington -– by local and state governments, by tribes, and by private groups -– so we can write a new chapter in the protection of rivers, wildlife habitats, historic sites, and the great landscapes of our country."
"Secondly, we’re going to help farmers, ranchers, property owners who want to protect their lands for their children and their grandchildren."
"Third, we’ll help families spend more time outdoors, building on what the First Lady has done through the “Let’s Move” initiative to encourage young people to hike and bike and get outside more often."
"And fourth, we want to foster a new generation of community and urban parks so that children across America have the chance to experience places like Millennium Park in my own Chicago."
News outlets, including the Washington Post, covered the announcement.