Friday, February 19, 2010

Bull Trout Critical Habitat Designation Long Overdue-Guest Post by John Young

This post is a guest post submitted by John Young, former and first bull trout coordinator, USFWS and prior to USFWS an employee of NOAA Fisheries. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has again proposed a designation of critical habitat for bull trout in the contiguous United States. The proposal has been thoughtfully prepared, is currently being peer reviewed, and is appropriate relative to the requirements of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), except that it is about eleven years late relative to the statutory requirement.

Much of the delay can be attributed to the obfuscating tactics of the Bush administration aimed at blocking implementation of the ESA. Ridiculous and illegal policy overlays that gutted the science-based products of the FWS and NOAA Fisheries, the Federal agencies tasked with implementation of the ESA, were routine during the eight-year tenure of Bush-appointed Secretaries of Interior. Unqualified but forceful political appointees ruled over the FWS and NOAA Fisheries with an iron hand, defying logic and consistently usurping the scientific foundation of ESA implementation produced by the agencies' biological staffs. However, not only Republicans are to blame. The previous Democratic administration of Clinton was also guilty of similar delay tactics in implementation of the ESA, if not of the outright undermining of scientific integrity.

During both administrations, the unwritten policy of both the FWS and NOAA Fisheries was to ignore the legal requirements of the ESA relative to designation of critical habitat for listed species until forced to do otherwise under threat of lawsuit. The dubious, short-sighted rationale was that critical habitat provides little tangible conservation benefit and tight budget dollars were better spent elsewhere. The fact that designation of critical habitat for listed species is required by Federal law within one year of listing, as Department of Interior solicitors have continually advised, was viewed as an irritation by agency managers, not a responsibility. 

What happens when bureaucrats make the colossally egotistical decision to implement laws passed by Congress, at least theoretically representing the will of the people, selectively? In the case of critical habitat the result is almost always a costly exercise of "delay and pass the buck" that is the poster child of bad government.

The ESA is quite clear relative to the identification of critical habitat in a timely manner and, therefore, plaintiffs seeking proper implementation of the law almost always prevail. When they do, a cascading effect rolls through the FWS or NOAA Fisheries, through the parent agencies of Interior and Commerce, and even affecting budgeting and staffing at the Department of Justice. At the agency level, biologists are hastily assembled to meet court imposed deadlines in an atmosphere of near-crisis. Further up the line, Department of Interior solicitors are engaged and Department of Justice attorneys are assigned. When plaintiffs prevail their legal costs and even travel expenses are paid by the government. The routine, recurring negative publicity that the agencies receive for ignoring their legal mandates is reflected in lowered staff morale, and certainly influences the willingness of peer reviewers from outside the agency to participate in what is often viewed not as a scientific endeavor, but a cynical political exercise. And at the end, the requirements of the law are finally fulfilled, but at greater expense to the individual government agencies and Departments, tremendously greater cumulative expense to taxpayers, and to the detriment of public confidence in government.

For bull trout critical habitat, it is eleven years and still counting. For taxpayers, it is a continuing travesty of government waste and abuse of power. And in the meanwhile, habitat essential to the recovery of this iconic native fish has been left unprotected.

For information on how you can attend a public informational meeting or submit written comments on the proposed critical habitat revision, see this FWS page.

    Friday, February 12, 2010

    Senator Feinstein considering legislation to override the Endangered Species Act

    The magnificent San Francisco Bay and Sacramento River Delta is the largest estuary on the West Coast of North America and the source of the California salmon fishery which provides thousands of jobs and millions of dollars of income to the economy. Tragically, one of the nation's most important ecosystems is collapsing and the salmon populations are endangered. Yesterday, the Pacific Fisheries Management Council announced California's once abundant salmon runs came in at a new all time record low in 2009.

    Unfortunately, greedy water users are putting heavy pressure on Senator Feinstein to introduce legislation to waive Endangered Species Act protections to these endangered fisheries which could have disastrous consequences for California's iconic salmon fishery. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Senator Feinstein is attempting to attach language to the Senate jobs bill that would "divert Northern California water to Central Valley farmers."

    Ironically, this would attach an amendment to the jobs bill that could potentially destroy thousands of family wage jobs. An amendment to waive the requirements under the federal Endangered Species Act could lead to the permanent closure of the salmon fishery, with long-term job losses and economic damage. Such a suspension would likewise harm the Delta farmers who rely on clean Delta water to irrigate their crops.

    Over the past two years, the California salmon fishery has been shut down due to the collapse of salmon populations. This has resulted in thousands of lost jobs in California and Oregon, and billions of dollars in lost income, each year. Southwick Associates have estimated that the season closures have cost an estimated 23,000 jobs and $2.8 billion in the California economy alone. Strong protections for the Delta ecosystem could help recover the salmon fishery, which would return approximately $1.4 billion to the California economy, and 94,000 new jobs to California.

    According to the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, the fishery collapse is having devastating consequence to the fishing community. “If we wipe our salmon out, we’ll also be wiping out generations of fishing families from the central California coast to northern Oregon that have all relied on king salmon from the Sacramento River to make a living," said Zeke Grader, executive director of the PCFFA. 

    Instead of overturning our nation's environmental laws, we should be working together on long-term solutions that restore and maintain the health of the environment on which the health of our economy and the quality of our lives depend.  Investments in water recycling, groundwater recharge and cleanup, urban and agricultural water efficiency, and stormwater capture have the potential to yield more water each year than has ever been exported out of the Delta, with significant environmental benefits.

    Friday, February 5, 2010

    The Sage-Grouse, a Symbol of the West, Needs a Real Conservation Plan

    This post is a guest post by Center for Native Ecosystems. It is a part of our occasional series by Endangered Species Coalition Member Organizations.

    By Josh Pollock
    Conservation Director
    Center for Native Ecosystems 

    Once numbering in the millions, sage-grouse have been decimated by decades of loss of sagebrush habitat to development, which in recent years has increasingly included oil and gas development.
    On February 26, 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is scheduled to announce its determination of whether or not the greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act. At issue is an iconic bird that was once abundant throughout the West but is now gone from nearly half of its original range.

    The greater sage-grouse is the largest of the grouse species in North America, and they depend entirely on sagebrush habitat, as it provides food, shelter, and protection from predators.

    Over the past decade, oil and gas development has boomed across the west. Recent studies have confirmed that oil and gas drilling activities are disturbing sage-grouse breeding and nesting sites and leading to population declines in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and other Western states. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that sage-grouse populations have declined between 69 and 99 percent from historic levels. While oil and gas drilling may be one of the more predominant causes of the sage grouse decline, threats also include destruction of sagebrush habitat due to sprawl, agricultural conversion, and wildfire. Almost half of the area identified as potential sagebrush habitat in 1970 is not occupied by sagebrush now. Biologists see the plight of the sage-grouse as a warning that balance needs to be restored to sagebrush landscapes across the West.

    Western states, fish and wildlife agency experts, and federal land managers have been concerned about the status of sage-grouse for many years. In addition to numerous statewide conservation plans, rangewide conservation plans have been produced by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) and by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which manages the majority of remaining sage-grouse habitat in many states. Despite these efforts, population declines have continued, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) studied the bird for the last year to determine whether or not it warrants Endangered Species Act protection. Regardless of how it is accomplished, recovery of the species will be a long and difficult process in a sagebrush ecosystem now fragmented by many uses.

    This sagebrush ecosystem contains some of the most important pronghorn, elk and mule deer habitat in the West, as well as the home range for dozens of other wildlife species. For many, the character of the West itself is at stake. In areas like northwest Colorado, where the largest and most important population of sage-grouse in the state are found, the imperiled bird shares its home with some of the largest elk and mule deer herds in North America. Hunting tags for elk and mule in Moffat County are some of the most sought after in the nation and hunting and fishing alone contribute $30 million annually to the local economy.

    The Fish and Wildlife Service decision due in February is the result of a court order to fix a
    prior decision that had been manipulated by a political appointee in the Bush-era Interior Department. In order to demonstrate their decision will be based on science, not politics, the Fish and Wildlife Service has delayed their decision to incorporate the results of scientific research that was made available late in 2009. This research confirms many of the concerns previously expressed about the impacts of oil and gas development and other threats on the species and documents significant sage-grouse population declines across the species’ range.
    Regardless of particular opinions about the efficacy of Endangered Species Act protection versus other ways to conserve sage-grouse, a wide cross-section of Westerners and decision makers, from rural landowners and local conservationists to federal land managers and elected officials, agree that the West needs an effective plan for conserving sage-grouse in place in order to preserve a vital piece of our natural heritage and an important fiber in the very fabric of our Western landscape.