FWS Decides Not to List Long-Living Tree Impacted by Climate Change

On October 7, 2019, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) published a notice in the Federal Register announcing the agency’s 12-month findings that a dozen species are not warranted for listing as endangered or threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  In particular, the FWS decided not to list the yellow-cedar (Callitropsis nootkatensis), a slow-growing but commercially in-demand tree that occurs from southern Alaska to northern California.  According to the FWS, yellow-cedars can live 500 to 700 years, with some individuals documented up to 1,600 years old.

A collection of environmental groups originally petitioned the FWS to list yellow-cedar as an endangered or threatened species on June 24, 2014.  The groups cited two main issues specifically facing the populations of yellow-cedar in Alaska: (1) climate-change-induced root freezing that leads to tree death, and (2) old-growth logging practices that target healthy yellow-cedar in southeast Alaska and British Columbia.  Somewhat counterintuitively, the petition stated that increased spring temperatures due to climate change leads to a greater risk of the trees’ roots freezing, as a lack of snow cover exposes the fragile root systems to deadly freezing temperatures.  Additionally, the groups claimed the long-lived species is further threatened by its status as a main economic driver of major timber sales in the Tongass National Forest.

Initially, the FWS concluded that the yellow-cedar might warrant listing, publishing a 90-day finding to that effect on April 10, 2015.  The FWS then requested more information from governmental agencies, tribes, the scientific community, industry, and other interested parties on the yellow-cedar’s biology, as well as the present or future threats the species might face, specifically including the potential effects of climate change on yellow-cedar and its habitat.  After over four years of more in-depth study, the FWS has concluded in the recent 12-month finding that the yellow-cedar does not warrant listing under the ESA.  While the FWS did find that yellow-cedar is experiencing a decline “primarily caused by a changing climate in the core of its range,” it also concluded that the area affected by climate change represents less than 6 percent of the species’ range, and, therefore, the species is expected to persist.

In addition to its 12-month finding on the yellow-cedar, the FWS also made negative 12-month findings on petitions to list the following 11 species:

  • Two salamander species: the Berry Cave salamander (Gyrinophilus gulolineatus) and the Peaks of Otter salamander (Plethodon hubrichti);
  • Two beetle species: the cobblestone tiger beetle (Cicindela marginipennis) and the Scott riffle beetle (Optioservus phaeus);
  • Two darter species: the longhead darter (Percina macrocephala) and the redlips darter (Etheostoma maydeni);
  • Three plant species: the Florida clamshell orchid (Prosthechea cochleata var. triandra), the Ocala vetch (Vicia ocalensis), and the yellow anise tree (Illicium parviflorum); and
  • Two reptile species: the Panamint alligator lizard (Elgaria panamintina) and the southern hognose snake (Heterodon simus).

Nossaman’s Endangered Species Law & Policy blog focuses on news, events, and policies affecting endangered species issues in California and throughout the United States. Topics include listing and critical habitat decisions, conservation and recovery planning, inter-agency consultation, and related developments in law, policy, and science. We also inform readers about regulatory and legislative developments, as well as key court decisions.

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