Monday, January 10, 2005

Species Recovery

Wolf at Columbus ZooIn the last weeks, there have been a bunch of stories about endangered species recovery and possible changes to the Endangered Species Act. I blogged on some of the issues raised before (and before that). The fundamental problem in many cases is that the ESA is not perfect.

Western governors seem to have their own ideas:

The most controversial proposal is change the law so it requires the use of “best science” rather than “best available science” to determine if a species is endangered. If the current research weren't conclusive, then more studies would have to be done, which would likely delay the listing of a species. …

Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, chairman of the Western Governors' Association, said recently that the Endangered Species Act has been a failure at its mission of bringing back species and must be changed.

“More than 1,000 species have been listed under the act, but less than 1 percent has been successfully recovered,' Owens told a business group. …

Another proposed change is to require that requests to conduct certain activities on private land affected by the act be answered within a certain time.

But Ralph Morgenweck, regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, argues that rules are strict because a species is not listed until it is at death's door. ”The species are in bad shape. They didn't get that way overnight and it will not go in the other direction overnight,“ he said

The claim that too few species have recovered is so idiotic. Professional police forces have existed in America for 150 years, but crime is a bigger problem now than it was then. That doesn't argue for eliminating the police. It means we need to be on the constant lookout for new ideas and ways to adjust our strategy. Same for the ESA.

Conservationists, ecologists and wildlife managers know what ought to happen, which goes back to Thinking Like A Mountain.

In some instances, very directly. Aldo Leopold, in A Sand County Almanac , is talking about the extirpation of wolves when he introduces the ”land ethic.“ It is with that in mind that I link this story from the Times (also covered by the Christian Science Monitor):

Killing a gray wolf in Idaho or Montana will soon get easier under new rules issued Monday by the Fish and Wildlife Service. The animals are still formally protected by the federal Endangered Species Act, but starting in 30 days, they can be killed if a landowner believes a wolf is in the process of attacking livestock or other animals. The old rules required physical evidence of an actual attack - bite marks or a carcass.

It's a pretty small change, but watch a rash of wolves crop up who were ”threatening“ livestock. In the old days, not only could you kill a problem wolf, but Defenders of Wildlife would compensate your losses. You just had to exhaust non-lethal means first.

A similar change is afoot for grizzlies (LA Times reg. required, use

CODY, Wyo. — On April 12 of last year, state Game and Fish officers shot dead a dangerous nuisance known as Bear #G92, after the grizzly repeatedly broke into buildings searching for food on a ranch near here.

The 5-year-old male was the first of 19 grizzly bears to die in the region surrounding Yellowstone National Park and one of 50 killed in the lower 48 states, making 2004 the worst year for grizzly mortality since the animal was added to the endangered species list in 1975.

The death rate in Yellowstone, where the grizzly population is estimated at 600, was 2 1/2 times higher than the 15-year average. …

Some opponents of delisting contend that last year's mortality rate underscores the bears' vulnerability to encroaching development. They argue that once exempt from the highest level of federal protection, the bears will be safe only inside Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, areas too small to sustain a viable population of grizzlies. …

”In some ways I see hunting of grizzly bears in the future as a positive tool,“ said Kim Barber, the U.S. Forest Service's grizzly bear and wolf coordinator for the Rocky Mountain region. ”The only way the bear is going to survive in the Yellowstone Ecosystem is to have public support for it. Hunting will help.“

Florida fish marketLet's pretend we didn't see that last part. It's a shame anyone who could say that would be responsible for managing anything tricky, like a predator that uses lots of land and has to survive at low densities.

In contrast, bison got a stay of execution. As someone who submitted a comment on the plans to allow hunting of bison years back, I'm surprised to have mixed feelings about that. A controlled hunt of ten animals wouldn't harm the burgeoning population, and it would have the effect of making the animals popular. It would also put to lie the notion that the demand for hunting rights is related to brucellosis, since killing ten animals isn't about controlling disease spread.

The other story is a silly fight over what to do with feral horses in the Southwest. Judy Blunt wrote a sensible Op-Ed in the Times titled ”Live Free and Die.“ People were worked up that some of the horses rounded up every year are getting put down, and she takes the bleeding hearts out back and beats some sense into them, concluding:

Game are controlled through hunting and predation; cattle graze under strict regulations. Only the wild horse is allowed to multiply unchecked, and with catastrophic results. Sanctuaries would keep healthy horses out of costly, unsanitary feedlots, while sending older, unadoptable horses to slaughter would give their herds a better chance at survival. A side effect would be the rejuvenation of our depleted public lands to the benefit of all species. Americans have a chance now to become part of a sustainable solution before we stand guilty of loving our wild horses to death.

When will people learn that we need to introduce wolves everywhere, eliminating the scourge of feral horses, cats, and dogs, as well as controlling exploding deer and bison populations. I'm at least half serious about this. Thinking like a mountain means figuring out how to keep wolves in the places we like without getting eaten in the process. I've found deer tracks in the middle of Lawrence, but I've never seen deer in town. I think it's likely there are some coyotes around too, since there are some reliable sightings of coydogs at least.

What ought to happen to ESA? We ought to keep it in place, more or less unchanged. We ought to supplement it with a bill that allows endangered ecosystem protection. So old growth forest in the Northwest would be protected regardless of the spotted owl's relationship with barred owls. Once that regime was in place, we could think about adding cost-benefit analysis into species protection. Maybe, if there were a guarantee that hotsprings were being protected, people would be willing to put the snail darter at greater risk. It would depend on the extent to which snail darters and their required habitat are integral to the system, as well as the cost of protecting them, cumulated over 150 years.

The other problem that could be solved would be to increase the number of gradation in protection status. At the top, a FWS director pointed out that species don't get to death's door right away, so why not establish a system for classifying at-risk species that need monitoring and protection. There would be a less stringent process for listing species, oversight would be more lax, but the needed protection would exist, and people would know that it was to their advantage to take look out for that species.

I'm not a lawyer, or an environmental policy expert. I don't know what the details would look like, nor who exactly would oppose this, or even if it would work. I think it would. I'll get into the science behind why I think that later.

My Land is a Good Land“ by Pete Seeger from the album God Bless The Grass (1966, 2:21).