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Nearly a half-century ago, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act by a vote of 92-0 in the Senate, and 355-4 in the House. Republican President Richard Nixon said the legislation “provides the federal government with needed authority to protect an irreplaceable part of our national heritage, threatened wildlife. … Nothing is more priceless and worthier of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed.”

As the Trump administration continues to roll back America’s commitment to conservation, we should fear that it will succeed in turning the federal government away from its responsibility to protect species from extinction. The administration recently denied petitions to list 25 wildlife species as endangered.

As Kathleen Hartnett-White, who is a Senate-vote away from becoming the administration’s chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, put it, the Endangered Species Act is “economically harmful” and a “formidable obstacle to development.” So perhaps it should not have come as a surprise when Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced he would reopen areas of sage-grouse habitat to mining, as well as oil and gas leasing. Zinke, along with the U.S. Forest Service, also plans to revisit the state-federal sage grouse conservation plans that successfully led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to decide not to list the grouse as threatened or endangered.

Some critics are encouraging a rewrite of the law itself, arguing that the ESA has failed, because relatively few of the already listed species have been brought to “recovery.” Many states also want more control over determining when a species should be listed, or removed, from the list, and in identifying “critical habitat” for the survival of a listed species.

The Endangered Species Act has prevented some important and iconic species from going extinct, including bald eagles, the Yellowstone grizzly and gray whales. The primary impediment to recovery has always been a lack of resources. A recent study found that most listed species with recovery plans received less than 90 percent of the amount of money needed for their recovery, and that overall funding for the act has declined since 2010. Only sufficient funding from Congress—not changes in the law itself—can fix this problem.

Critics also complain that “consultations”—the required reviews of projects that may harm listed species or their habitat—are costly and time-consuming, and that they increase uncertainty in project planning. In December, the Trump administration announced plans to change the rules governing endangered-species consultations and critical-habitat designations. Yet a recent review of all Fish and Wildlife Service consultations from January 2008 through April 2015 found that no project was stopped or extensively altered due to reviews. On average, approvals took only 14 business days. The 10 percent of consultations that required further review took 61 days. In virtually all cases, the agency acted within the time limits set by the law.

Although determining whether a species is in danger of extinction is based solely on biological grounds—as it should be—economic factors are already considered in identifying habitat that is critical for the survival of a species. In 2015, Wyoming Republican Gov. Matt Mead, as chair of the Western Governors’ Association, launched a review of how the Endangered Species Act was working. One outcome was a Western Governors’ policy statement supporting “all reasonable management efforts to conserve species and preclude the need to list a species under the ESA.”

The 2015 Fish and Wildlife Service decision not to list the greater sage grouse as threatened or endangered illustrates the benefit of this approach. That decision, based on state and federal land-management plans, initiatives by public-land users, and voluntary efforts by private landowners across the remaining 11-state range of the grouse, was a victory for conservation. It proved the wisdom of the authors of the act, who understood that the key to conserving imperiled species was protecting the ecosystem on which a species depended.

As Democratic Washington Gov. Jay Inslee put it: “What is a bird without a tree to nest in? What is an Endangered Species Act without any enforcement mechanism to ensure their habitat is protected? It is nothing.”

Yet the act seems to work best when it encourages voluntary measures to protect habitat. The flexibility built into it has permitted innovative conservation measures that benefit the species, the public-land users and the private landowners who implement those measures. In many instances, federal funding and technical assistance is available to help defray landowner costs and encourage collaborative conservation efforts.

As the rate of extinctions and the loss of biodiversity accelerates, the act is essential for keeping vulnerable species alive. Unfortunately, if President Trump’s administration and Republican leaders in Congress have their way, the Endangered Species Act itself could be extinguished.

Jim Lyons is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is a lecturer at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C.

Published in Community Voices

In the Black River south of Carlsbad, N.M., rare Texas hornshell mussels are trying to multiply.

It’s a bizarre and complicated process: Male mussels spit sperm into the river, where the females catch it. After brooding fertilized eggs for about a month, they chuck the larvae into the water. There, the would-be mussels hope to be eaten by certain kinds of fish—attaching to their gills and forming parasitic cysts. Then they develop into juveniles before cutting loose from the fish and wriggling to the river bottom, where they can live for up to 20 years.

Texas hornshells are native to the Pecos and Rio Grande basins of southern New Mexico and Texas, where they help maintain water quality by filtering out sediment and other particulates. They’re the only surviving species of New Mexico’s eight native mussels, and the stretch of river near Carlsbad is one of their last strongholds.

Their troubles are nothing new, though. In 1989, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service classified the Texas hornshell as a candidate for the endangered species list, but had too little information about the mussel to support listing. In 2001, after studies showed that the mollusks were being harmed by low flows in rivers and water pollution, the agency decided protection was justified—but it still couldn’t list them, because too many other, higher-priority species also needed protection. Now, the mussel’s time may have finally come: In August, the agency proposed listing it as endangered.

Most species that have landed on the endangered species list in recent years got there when they did as a result of litigation by green groups, and the Texas hornshell mussel is no exception. Almost no one is happy with this pattern, though.

“(If) the service is simply responding to lawsuits, it’s not being very strategic,” or necessarily focusing on the plants and animals in greatest need, says Ya-Wei Li, an endangered species expert with Defenders of Wildlife. So Fish and Wildlife is now working to reform its process for listing species.

It has proposed prohibiting so-called “mega-petitions,” where environmental groups ask the agency to protect up to hundreds of species at a time, and it recently finalized a new five-tier system for prioritizing decisions on petitions. First in line are species that data clearly show are critically imperiled. Lower down are species for which states are already developing conservation plans, as well as species on which the agency lacks data.

The agency simply can’t keep up with all the petitions it gets to list species, says Fish and Wildlife spokesman Brian Hires. Environmentalists filed petitions on behalf of 1,230 species between 2007 and 2010, enough to almost double the number protected by the Endangered Species Act over the previous 30 years. The overwhelmed agency rarely meets its own deadlines for responding, so environmentalists often sue in response.

The mussel is one of 757 species included in a 2011 legal settlement with the Center for Biological Diversity, in which the agency agreed to deadlines for clearing its considerable backlog. “The states have been frustrated, because we feel like litigation shouldn’t drive conservation,” says Nick Wiley, vice president of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. Wiley says states—the feds’ main partners in endangered species work—are generally pleased with the planned reforms, which they hope will help them prioritize their own data collection and conservation work.

Some environmental groups are also supportive. “This is a very good move for the service to take control of its own destiny,” says Li.

But others argue that the reforms could consign at-risk wildlife to bureaucratic purgatory. “It creates excuses for ongoing delays in decisions on whether species should be protected,” says Tierra Curry, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity. She fears that lower-priority species will slip closer to extinction while they wait for conservation plans or studies that could bump them up in line.

The system also “biases decisions towards popular and well-studied species,” she says, mainly birds and mammals. But some of the most imperiled groups are also the least studied—freshwater mollusks, for instance. The fact that we understand the outlines of the Texas hornshell’s lifecycle makes it fairly unusual among mollusks, Curry notes: For many of the creatures, basic population data doesn’t even exist.

Mussels, snails and insects may well get shortchanged under the new system, Li says. In a perfect world, Fish and Wildlife would be flush with funding, and wouldn’t need to prioritize.

“Nobody likes to make those judgment calls,” he says. But relative to the number of species it’s charged with saving, the agency’s funding is decreasing, not increasing, he points out. One way or another, “there are going to be species that come out ahead, and some that fall behind.”

This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment

On warm fall days on the California coast, it’s not uncommon to see the iconic monarch butterfly flitting through the sky. In some places, so many butterflies are present that it makes an impressive display.

“The air is filled with orange,” says Samantha Marcum, the monarch butterfly coordinator for the Pacific Southwest region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

Marcum, who also works on the Western Monarch and Milkweed Habitat Suitability Model Project, is based near the Lighthouse Field State Beach in Santa Cruz, one of the groves where thousands of monarchs come each winter to escape chilly Western winters. On windy, cooler days, the monarchs can be seen up in the Monterey cypress and eucalyptus trees, clinging to the branches with thread-like legs, stained-glass wings winking in the daylight.

In 1997, an estimated 70,000 monarchs came to the grove. At the last count in 2015, that number was down to 12,000. Lighthouse Field State Beach is one of 50 grove sites recently studied by the Xerces Society in a report published in July, State of the Monarch Overwintering Sites in California, and funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The authors hoped to illuminate the lives of Western monarchs, an understudied population of the species.

The study and the project represent a two-pronged effort by conservationists and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife to study and restore the regions where significant parts of the migratory monarch lifecycle take place. By restoring these lifelines, they hope to head off an Endangered Species Act listing. Monarchs were proposed for listing in 2014, and the Fish and Wildlife Service has promised a decision in 2019.

The latest study tapped into two decades of data gathered during the Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count, an annual assessment of overwintering monarchs on the California coast. The study found a 74 percent drop in Western monarch numbers over the years, the first time that a definitive number has been placed on decline of Western monarchs. What used to be an arriving cloud of 1.2 million butterflies in 1997 to the coast has dwindled to a wisp of 292,674 in 2015.

Monarchs are perhaps best known for their massive migration from the eastern United States to the oyamel forests of Mexico, where many millions of butterflies cling to the trees like a strange form of lichen. The Western monarchs are a smaller, genetically similar population, which breeds west of the Rocky Mountains and overwinter primarily in California, as well as some parts of Mexico.

But the Western monarchs are far less studied than their eastern counterparts, which endangered species conservation biologist and lead author Emma Pelton says is due to their smaller numbers and the geography of the West.

“So much of the West is so sparsely populated, like the Great Basin, western Montana, eastern Oregon and Washington, and those just aren’t areas with a lot of humans out there watching them,” Pelton says.

To understand what is causing the decline of the Western monarch, Marcum says they need more information about where the butterfly’s actual habitat is. While the recent study illuminates exactly how much the Western monarch populations have declined, the precise location of their feeding and breeding grounds is still unknown, as well as how many generations of butterflies it takes to get from their feeding grounds to the overwintering sites in California. Researchers have found that eastern populations with overwintering sites in Mexico take three or four generations of monarchs to get back to the northern United States and Canada. The Western migration is shorter, but much is still unknown about it.

That’s why the Fish and Wildlife Service, in collaboration with the Xerces Society, is carrying out the Western Monarch and Milkweed Suitability Habitat Project, which will identify key breeding and migratory sites. The project will provide that information to land managers in Western states to either proactively protect the sites, or begin restoration projects on degraded habitat, which most often includes planting native species of milkweed, the singular plant on which monarch caterpillars feast.

They’ll also have to contend with a conundrum: The monarch butterfly is widespread and well known, despite its precipitous decline. Since it’s not rare to see one, Pelton says, it can be hard to get the message across that the species is in trouble.

It’s also difficult to easily sum up what the problem is, since many factors are likely driving their disappearance—less habitat, more pesticides, monoculture practices, and climate change all may contribute, Pelton says.

“It’s death by a thousand cuts for monarchs,” she says.

This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s recent announcement that the greater sage grouse does not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act waswidely hailed as a conservation success. Federal officials, along with industry supporters and Western communities across the grouse’s 11-state range, claimed voluntary state and landowner actions were enough to protect the bird and avoid federal restrictions.

But another explanation lurks behind Fish and Wildlife’s decision regarding the grouse and other imperiled species that have dodged or received less-protective ESA listings in recent years: Political interference and a lack of scientific integrity are influencing outcomes and hampering the agency’s work.

According to a new survey and report compiled by the Union of Concerned Scientists, 73 percent of Fish and Wildlife scientists say political influence is too high at the agency, and a majority believes their office is less effective than it was five years ago. Those alarming figures stand out at Fish and Wildlife, compared with other surveyed federal science agencies, where staff members generally feel scientific integrity is holding firm or on the rise.

During his first inauguration speech in 2009, President Barack Obama pledged to “restore science to its rightful place,” and later ordered agencies to draft scientific integrity policies for the first time ever. Those were welcome steps for researchers who felt politics trampled science-based management during the George W. Bush administration. But the implementation and effectiveness of those policies remain fuzzy.

According to the survey, many government scientists remain unaware of their agencies’ policies or what they mean, says Gretchen Goldman, the report’s lead author. For example, the policies should enable agency researchers to publish their own peer-reviewed research and review agency documents that use their studies and names before they are released, but many respondents admitted they were unfamiliar with those protections, Goldman says. Still, compared with surveys conducted during the Bush administration, scientists at the Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say agency effectiveness is increasing.

But the Fish and Wildlife Service is another story. In addition to scientists’ overwhelming indictment of political influence at the agency, many identified a lack of staff capacity and resources to complete their jobs. Further, more than half of surveyed Fish and Wildlife researchers said the agency seldom or only occasionally collects sufficient scientific and monitoring data to do its work—a much greater proportion than respondents from other agencies.

“That jumped out to me,” Goldman says. “The second you don’t have the ability to use the science, you get more vulnerable to political interference.”

Comments shared through the surveys also indicated concerns over “accommodations to the states,” Goldman adds, which potentially diminish science-based outcomes since states may be more interested in avoiding federal restrictions than doing what’s best for species, such as the grouse.

Allegations of heavy-handed political influence aren’t new, and whistleblower cases have previously exposed questionable decisions. For instance,a whistleblower retaliation case in Texas, settled last fall, documented how a Fish and Wildlife scientist was transferred and basically forced into early retirement after he argued politics and scientific misconduct factored into a nonlisting for the dunes sagebrush lizard, whose habitat overlaps with the oil-rich Permian Basin.

Yet there are some signs of progress. Compared with surveys of Fish and Wildlife’s Ecological Services staff during the Bush years, twice as many employees say morale is now good or excellent, and more feel they are now allowed to speak with the media and public about their work.

Somewhat ironically, Fish and Wildlife declined to make an official available for interview and instead issued a statement via email: “The service is fully committed to the highest standards of scientific integrity, and welcomes the findings from the Union of Concerned Scientists’ survey. We will carefully review the information in the survey and continue our commitment to ensure broad awareness, understanding, and implementation of the Department of the Interior's Science Integrity Policy.”

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment

The cactus ferruginous pygmy owl lives in the desert scrub and mesquite woodlands of central and southern Arizona, Texas and Mexico. It is a small bird with swaths of cream-colored feathers, measuring about 7 inches long and weighing a little more than 2 ounces. It eats insects, rodents and lizards, some of them as big as the owls themselves. It nests in the holes woodpeckers leave in cacti and trees.

And it has now become an emblem in a fight over the meaning of a five-word phrase that has dogged the 1973 Endangered Species Act the way “waters of the United States” has muddied the Clean Water Act: If a species, like the pygmy owl, is at risk of being lost in “a significant portion of its range,” does it merit protection, even if the same species is holding on elsewhere? Or do the inhabitants of that “significant portion” need to be crucial to the entire species’ survival?

Those are the questions the U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the National Marine Fisheries Service sought to address this summer, when they announced a new policy to provide “consistency in the application of that phrase” as it applies to endangered or threatened species. Under the new policy, a species on the decline in "a significant portion of its range" can be listed as threatened or endangered only if that portion is crucial to the survival of the species' entire global population.

In other words, if the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl will persist even after the species disappears from, for instance, the northern Sonoran Desert, the bird doesn't warrant protection.

It is not the clarification conservationists wanted. If the interpretation sticks, some say, the 1973 law will have fundamentally changed — reverted, in fact, to the 1966 Endangered Species Preservation Act that the 1973 law was written to improve.

“The 1966 law was deemed inadequate in part because scientists pointed out that actions taken only to prevent the complete extinction of a species were likely not to (work),” says Michael Paul Nelson, a professor and environmental ethicist at Oregon State University. “It defined 'endangered species' merely as 'species at risk of extinction.'”

The phrase “significant portion of its range” allowed wildlife agencies to list species whose numbers were diminishing in the U.S., even if global populations were stable.

In a recent New York Times editorial, Nelson and Michigan Technological University Ecologist John Vucetich argued that the new policy threatens to reduce the act to “a mechanism that merely preserves representatives of a species, like curating rare pieces in a museum.”

The bald eagle might never have merited protection were the policy in effect back in the 1970s; while hunting and DDT were decimating it, it still thrived in Alaska and Canada. The gray wolf wouldn't have been listed, either. The new interpretation of those five words has already been used in the process of delisting the wolf and to deny protection to the wolverine. And it has already contributed to the delisting of the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl.

The cactus ferruginous pygmy-owl’s disappearance from parts of its northern range toward the end of the 20th century wasn’t a mystery: Development had surged in the northern Sonoran Desert. In 1997, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the bird as endangered, developers were livid.

“The bird's listing is ‘dishonest,’” Alan Lurie, executive director of the Southern Arizona Homebuilders Association, told Tony Davis, who reported on it for High Country News. "Experts tell me the bird is prolific in Mexico (so) it is not truly endangered."

Lurie was partially right: The pygmy owl was first listed on the grounds that it was a “distinct population segment” from the pygmy-owls on the Mexican side of the border, which it technically wasn't. Developers sued, and in 2006, the pygmy owl’s listing was overturned.

Yet the owl was clearly endangered in the northern Sonoran Desert. So the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned again for the bird’s protection, arguing this time that it was “in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.”

At first, Fish and Wildlife agreed. "They actually drafted a proposed rule to list them, arguing for various reasons that we were right," says Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the organization in Portland, Oregon. In that draft, which the Center for Biological Diversity obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, “the Sonoran Desert Ecoregion” was deemed “significant,” and the listing of the pygmy-owl within it was warranted.

Then something changed. “Two years later, they looked at that draft policy and said, ‘Nope, you’re not right. Even if (the pygmy owl) were lost in the Sonoran Desert, the species as a whole would be OK.’” A new draft in 2011 claimed that the Sonoran Desert pygmy owl’s “contribution to the viability of the species” wasn't important enough to list it. The petition was denied.

It was the exact—and to Greenwald and Nelson, deeply flawed—interpretation the Interior Department had been pushing for since 2000, and the exact interpretation that had already been struck down by the Ninth Circuit in a case involving the flat-tailed horned lizard in 2001.

And it was the exact interpretation many conservationists were hoping the Obama administration would overturn, not support, in its clarification. “The policy itself is a political decision to try and limit the scope of the ESA,” Greenwald says. His organization will likely sue again, on behalf of the pygmy owl.

Michael Paul Nelson says the new policy also misses the point. “Many of us would suggest that the ESA is not only about preserving curiosities and the cabinets necessary for those curiosities, but about preserving the role that native species play within ecosystems,” he wrote in an email from the field, where he’s studying the impact of old-growth versus second-growth forests on fish.

The Obama administration’s new policy states clearly that the ESA is “only about preventing the complete extinction of a species, no more,” Nelson says. “I would guess that the citizens of the United States, then and now, might have a very different answer.”

Judith Lewis Mernit is a contributing editor of High Country News, where this story originally appeared.

Published in Environment

This spring, the Gulf of California’s shores near the mouth of the Colorado River were littered with dead bodies. They weren’t casualties of the drug trade; instead, they were victims of another international market—the Asian desire for wildlife.

Chinese demand for the swim bladders of the giant totoaba fish, thought to aid fertility, inspired the poaching of hundreds of the rare fish. The single organ was removed; the carcasses were left to rot.

The totoaba, which can reach 6 feet long and weigh more than 200 pounds, has been protected since the ’70s by both the Mexican and U.S. governments. But with one totoaba bladder bringing more than $10,000 on the Asian market, there's major incentive to catch the fish illegally.

Poachers turned to totoaba after a similar species of fish in China was eaten nearly to extinction, says Jill Birchell, a special agent for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

China has become the world's largest market for wildlife products, and as its native animals vanish, Chinese consumers seek substitutes. This means that in this country, animals that have historically faced little pressure from hunters suddenly become targets.

"This kind of large-scale trade and consumption of wildlife has never been part of Chinese tradition or culture," writes the Asia regional director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare China, Grace Ge Gabriel. "It is the disastrous and abnormal consequences of today’s highly industrialized chain of wildlife poaching, smuggling, transportation and trade."

Here in California, trappers killed 1,500 bobcats last year, an increase of 50 percent over the previous year. Most pelts were shipped to China, where a single skin sells for $700 or more. The state's commercial abalone fishery was shut down in 1997, but illegal capture of the shellfish is rampant; a single abalone brings $100 to $150 on the Chinese market. Ninety-five percent of geoducks, long-necked clams found off the coast of Washington, now end up in China, where they're worth up to $150 per pound. And manta rays have nearly vanished from the Sea of Cortez, killed for the parts of their gills called rakers, which are prized as ingredients in a Chinese health tonic.

Now that China's wild bears have been wiped out, black bears in the West are sought for their gallbladders and paws. It is true that some 10,000 bears are "farmed" in China—kept alive in cages to keep producing bile—but many consumers prefer wild-sourced bear parts. In Alaska and Canada, polar bears are hunted for hides; Chinese collectors will pay $5,000 for a pelt.

This huge spike in demand reflects increasing Chinese affluence. As the nation’s middle class expands, so does its desire for "status" goods: fur coats, exotic meats and fish, ivory carvings and so on.

"Many people in the upper middle class want to emulate the wealthiest Chinese," says Quentin Fong, of the University of Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program. Traditional Chinese medicine, which uses plants and animal parts to treat illness and enhance sexual performance, is also a major source of demand. Although its ingredients are often ineffective as well as illegal, traditional medicine continues to gain in popularity.

We've seen this pattern before in the American West. Bison, beaver and the Lahontan cutthroat trout all disappeared into the maw of a nation hungry for meat and fur. While China currently leads the way, the United States is thought to be the world's second-largest market for wildlife products.

Demand for wildlife parts in China, however, is on a much larger scale. Although all of Asia is involved in the wildlife trade, China's sheer size alone puts it at the heart of the problem—with 1.3 billion people and an economic growth rate of around 9 percent—all compounded by a government that has largely refused to crack down on wildlife trafficking.

Here at home, we also lack the resources to protect dwindling wildlife populations from local poachers, let alone from the growing demands of a global marketplace. Some attempts are being made to stanch the flow; a bill introduced in the California Legislature this spring seeks to ban commercial bobcat trapping. (Assembly Bill 1213 passed the Assembly on May 28 and is now in the Senate’s hands.) But game wardens are few and far between, and tackling international poaching and smuggling rings can require years of coordinated efforts among many agencies.

It’s not that different from the drug war: The real key lies in reducing demand. But controlling China's appetite for wild animals will take hard work on many fronts, including stronger laws, better enforcement and, most importantly, education, to discourage the use of animals for status symbols or for ersatz medicine. As Fong says, "Chinese people are concerned about sustainability and the environment, but that has not yet transmitted to behavior change.”

Meanwhile, each time one species of Western wildlife disappears, pressure ratchets up on those remaining, and time is running out for all of them.

Jodi Peterson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. She is the magazine’s managing editor in Paonia, Colo.

Published in Community Voices