Threatened FWS listings cause alarm for some
A slew of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) proposals to list species in Mono and Inyo counties as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act is ruffling feathers in both counties. Beginning in April with the FWS proposal to list the Sierra Nevada mountain yellow-legged frog and northern distinct population segment of the mountain yellow-legged frog as endangered, and the Yosemite toad as threatened, these proposals have caught residents and County officials by surprise.
The FWS also proposed listing the Bi-State distinct population segment (DPS) of the greater sage-grouse as threatened in October. The FWS simultaneously proposed designating a critical habitat area for the Bi-State sage-grouse, which has two primary Mono County populations in Bodie Hills and Long Valley.
Also in October, the FWS proposed listing the yellow-billed cuckoo as threatened.
County officials have expressed concern less with the listings than with the simultaneous proposal by the FWS to designate critical habitat for the Sierra Nevada mountain yellow-legged frog, Yosemite toad, and Bi-State sage-grouse. Although these proposed critical habitat designations are intended to set boundaries for the protection and recovery efforts for each species, they might also limit some traditional land uses such as hunting, fishing, packing and grazing, in both counties.
According to aquatic ecologist Dr. Roland Knapp, the two critical habitat areas would cover about 80% of Mono County alone (for more on the Sierra Nevada mountain yellow-legged frog critical habitat area, see “Frogs Expose Fish Problem” in the Oct. 5 Green Sheet).
After a long dry spell between listings, which unsurprisingly corresponds to the two terms of the George W. Bush administration, Mono and Inyo county residents and officials are wondering why the FWS has released so many proposals for listings and critical habitat designation at once. The answer: a historic settlement between the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and FWS in 2011. The settlement concluded years of litigation by the CBD over the slow pace of FWS species listings under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Noah Greenwald, Endangered Species Program Director for the CBD, noted that “the Bush administration only listed a total of 62 species the entire eight years, as compared to 522 under the eight years of the Clinton administration. This was based entirely on the administration’s opposition to protecting species,” he said. The Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog, Yosemite toad, Bi-State sage-grouse and yellow-billed cuckoo, were candidates “for all or nearly all the eight years,” he added, “meaning the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledged they needed protection, but did not provide [protection].”
“The status of those species, as you can imagine, was not getting any better while they were in limbo,” said Dr. Knapp. He has studied Sierra Nevada mountain yellow-legged frogs for the past 15 years. Indeed, some species, such as the Alaskan song sparrow and Texas salamander, have gone extinct while awaiting protection under the ESA.
“The Center sued the FWS precisely because species like the frog, toad, grouse and cuckoo were being forced to wait years and in some cases even decades for protection they desperately need to survive,” said Greenwald. The ensuing 2011 settlement requires the FWS to make initial or final decisions on whether to add 757 imperiled plants and animals to the endangered species list by 2018.
The CBD considers this a major victory, Greenwald said. “Species that have been waiting for protection are finally getting it, including the species in your area,” he told The Sheet. “For example, we petitioned for protection of the cuckoo in 1998 and it was made a candidate in 2001 and has thus been waiting for protection for 15 years. This despite the fact that it is severely reduced from its historic range, found at only a handful of locations and facing many threats.”
According to the settlement timeline, the FWS must make a listing proposal for the Sierra Nevada mountain yellow-legged frog, Yosemite toad, Bi-State sage-grouse, and yellow-billed cuckoo. FWS must make a final decision regarding the listing of those species as threatened or endangered during 2014.
However, Dr. Knapp noted that the listing of so many species at one time could have a downside. “Many [species] deserved to be listed long ago, and have declined since then,” he said. But, he added, “All of the determinations coming out at the same time are dividing already scant resources.”
Rick Sayers, Chief for the Division of Environmental Review for the FWS, agreed. Scant resources are “probably the most likely consequence” of the 2011 settlement, he said. “Essentially, there will be a dilution effect,” he said. “It’s not like we had more money than we knew what to do with. This exacerbates an existing condition.”
Sayers said that the FWS receives roughly $20 million appropriation from Congress to list species, and roughly $55-60 million for recovery planning and implementation once a species has been listed.
According to Noah Greenwald at the CBD, it costs the FWS a few hundred thousand dollars to list a species, and another few hundred thousand dollars to designate critical habitat for a species. “The agency [FWS] is chronically underfunded by Congress,” he said.
Gina Scultz, Chief of the Division of Conservation of Classification at the FWS, added that the lack of FWS funding to list species came in part from the amount of money the FWS had to put toward petitions and litigations like the one leveled against it by the CBD. “We were inundated, in the mid-later part of the 2000s, with petitions,” she said. “The ESA has strict deadlines on when to respond to a petition. [FWS] was forced to divert all our resources to making findings.”
The increase in petitions and litigation was likely the result of a moratorium put on listing by Congress in the early 1990s. “That created a backlog,” Scultz said. The FWS also found that, by court order in the late 90s and early 2000s, it had to designate critical habitat for all the species that had been listed under the ESA. Scultz said there were about 1,000 species listed at that time. “Our resources were spent doing critical habitat for already listed species,” she said.
There are now about 1,700 species on the ESA list, Sayers said.
“The real concern of a lot of people is we’ll come out of the [settlement] listing process with listings in name only,” Dr. Knapp said. “The determination will be made, and yet there will be no money to do the next steps, which is writing and implementing recovery plans. Without recovery plans, the listing doesn’t do anything in and of itself.”
Another critique against the CBD push to list species could be leveled based on efforts already made by the Bi-state Local Working Group to conserve the Bi-State DPS of the greater sage-grouse. Through a multi-agency effort that includes the FWS, as well as other government agencies, conservation groups, and interested members of the public, the Working Group created a 2004 Action Plan for sage grouse conservation efforts in California and Nevada. The Working Group updated the Action Plan in 2012, with oversight from the FWS, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Natural Resources Conservation Service, Nevada Department of Wildlife, California Department of Fish and Game, and U.S. Geological Survey.
“The genesis, the vision of that plan is to conserve sage-grouse in the Bi-State area of California and Nevada,” explained BLM Bishop Field Manager Steve Nelson. While the intent of the Working Group Action Plan was not to avoid a FWS listing, “if it ensures conservation, a listing would not be necessary,” he said.
Mono County wildlife biologist Tim Taylor explained that what the Bi-State sage-grouse needs most is a connected habitat. “What the Action Plan looks at is trying to establish and keep connectivity throughout [Mono] County and Nevada,” he said. One strategy for establishing and maintaining connectivity is removing pinyon and juniper from sage/shrub habitat in Bodie Hills and Long Valley. These habitats “support our largest core populations within the Bi-State and Mono County,” Taylor said.
In order to implement the Action Plan, the Working Group needs funding. That funding currently comes from the various agencies involved in the Working Group, explained Nelson. “One thing that’s really unique about the Action Plan itself is that all the agencies are bringing different pots of money to the table, so they can implement the Action Plan as it relates to their purview and priorities, on the lands they administer.”
Gina Scultz of the FWS said that such partnerships are not uncommon, and that they can be highly effective in conserving a species before it would require listing under the ESA. “In some cases, species have been able to get the conservation that made it so the species no longer needed to be listed,” she said. “We are then able to focus on the species that are in the most need.”
Rick Sayers added that collaborations like the Bi-state Local Working Group are one of the unintended benefits of the long wait during litigation for new species listings. During this time, he said, some agencies began to wonder, “shouldn’t we try to head that off [ourselves]?” Scultz noted the example of the Coral pink sand dunes tiger beetle in Utah. Without ever listing the beetle, the BLM acted in partnership with the FWS to remove Off Road Vehicles from sensitive areas in the beetle’s current range, and protected the species.
The funding picture might not change very much for the conservation of the Bi-state sage-grouse, should the FWS step in with a listing, Steve Nelson said. “Listing does not bring substantial resources to any of the entities,” he said. “It could change the priorities for some entities, but something special and different would have to happen for us to see a huge pulse in funding.”
Regardless of whether a conservation and recovery plan is created by a Working Group like the Bi-state Local Working Group, or the FWS, “If you’re able to get the funding for a good conservation plan, you can get the same work done,” Nelson said. “It doesn’t really matter to the grouse, as it were, whether they’re listed or not.”
Other government agencies in Mono and Inyo have implemented conservation efforts without any proposed listing by the FWS. Inyo National Forest (INF) Public Affairs Officer Deb Schweizer noted that the Forest Service has “already identified the three species [Sierra Nevada mountain yellow-legged frog, Yosemite toad, and Bi-state sage-grouse] as species of conservation concern for us. We’ve already been making actions over the past several years.” An example of these actions includes planning grazing around when frogs are mating and their tadpoles are active. The Forest Service has also “already done some areas of reintroduction of the yellow-legged frog and Yosemite toads on the Eastside,” Schweizer said.
In the case of the Bi-State sage-grouse, she said, “populations are already in good shape, but because it’s an issue bigger than the Inyo National Forest, and there are areas that are not doing as well, some actions may be coming down [from FWS].”
Addressing the potential impact of a critical habitat designation to land use, Schweizer said, “We feel we can provide fishing and grazing, and protect the fish and grouse. It’s a balancing act, and it’s a tough one. We all agree that these [species] populations have some problems. The issue is, how do you do all of this right?”
If the incentive to list a species under the ESA isn’t to ensure funding, or even to begin conservation efforts, then why list? Once a species is listed, the FWS takes the lead on developing recovery plans, Nelson explained. “But it’s the agencies who are responsible for implementing the recovery plan,” he said. “In the big scheme of things, a listing action is not the saving grace of the species; it’s not going to bring some magical recovery or something like that.”
However, Gina Scultz argued, listing a species often has the additional benefit of making the public aware “that a species is in trouble.”
For instance, how many Inyo County residents were aware of a riparian bird called the yellow-billed cuckoo?
“Listing is the first step to recovery,” Scultz said. Not all threatened or endangered species will be as lucky as the Coral pink sand dunes tiger beetle or Bi-state sage-grouse. For many species, Rick Sayers said, listing offers a variety of provisions of the ESA that will aid protection and recovery.
Sayers noted that many skeptics of the success of the ESA have pointed to the fact that species are rarely de-listed once listed as threatened or endangered. “One can question whether 30-40 years on the list is really enough time to reverse trends,” he said. “We are taking species off the list,” said FWS Public Affairs Specialist Gavin Shire. “Just because more aren’t coming off the list does not mean we’re not making good progress. If it’s taken 100 years for a species to get to that state [of threatened or endangered], 30-40 years may not be enough.”
Scultz also added that de-listing, like listing, takes funding. “De-listing takes away from planning and implementing recovery,” she said.
Not all bad
A FWS listing and critical habitat area for the Bi-state sage-grouse wouldn’t negate work already completed. While the proposed threatened listing and critical habitat area might limit grazing and prescribed burning, it wouldn’t do away with the efforts of the Bi-state Local Working Group, Taylor said. “The Action Plan would absolutely become part of any [FWS] recovery plan. The Service really likes the plan and has been a partner to the plan. They’ve been a key player the whole time.”
Nelson agreed. “I’m still really positive about this one,” he said. “It’s been an amazing conservation effort, in my opinion, to date.”