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Posts Tagged ‘endangered species act’

In response to a successful petition and lawsuit by some of our regional colleagues, last week the U.S.  Fish and Wildlife Service released a mapping of critical habitat for the woodland caribou in the Selkirk Mountains. Some 375,500 acres are designated, most of which is in remote roadless areas in Boundary County, Idaho, with some lands designated in Bonner County, Idaho and Pend Oreille County, Washington. The tiny herd of Selkirk caribou — estimated to consist of about 46 animals — are probably the most endangered mammals in the continental United States.  Comments will be taken on the proposal through January.

In its news release (pdf), the Fish and Wildlife Service describe the habitat and why it’s important:

The southern Selkirk Mountains caribou is a member of the deer family, and it possesses unique biological and behavioral traits. It prefers high elevations above 4,000 feet and steep terrain with old-growth forests. Small groups of mountain caribou migrate seasonally up and down mountain ranges, rather than undertaking the mass group, long-distance migrations some species of caribou are known for. When winter snow deepens, mountain caribou feed almost exclusively on arboreal lichens that occur on old trees (typically 125 years or older), in high elevation forests.

and

The primary threat to the species’ survival is the loss of contiguous old growth forest habitats due to timber harvest and wildfires. Human activities such as road-building and recreational trails can also fragment caribou habitat and facilitate the movement of predators into the caribou’s range.

Indeed, like too many other species, woodland caribou were once found across much of the northern United States, but were forced from their habitats by old-growth logging, hunting and poaching, and roads. Now, their last habitat in the U.S. is under stress by disturbance from snowmobiles and winter recreation. For several years, our friends at Selkirk Conservation Alliance, a party to the caribou lawsuit, have performed aerial monitoring of caribou habitat confirming the threats.

According to the Lands Council, also a party to the lawsuit:

The conservation groups petitioned for critical habitat in 2002 and sued for the designation in 2009.  In 2005, the conservation groups challenged grooming of snow mobile trails into caribou habitat on the Idaho Panhandle National Forest and obtained an injunction on snow mobile travel and trail grooming in a small portion of the forest that is essential for the caribou.  Much of that habitat has now been designated as critical habitat, ensuring these protections will be maintained.

The designation of critical habitat flows directly from the Endangered Species Act, serving the purpose of identifying geographic areas that contain habitat features essential for the conservation of a listed species. The primary legal effect is that critical habitat requires federal agencies to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service on federal actions that may affect critical habitat, federal agencies are prohibited from funding or authorizing actions that would adversely affect critical habitat.

For our friends at the Bonner County Property Rights Council, who have the caribou designation on their agenda for tonight’s meeting, USFWS points out that: the designation of critical habitat does not affect land ownership; critical habitat is not the same as a refuge, a wilderness area or any other conservation area; it does not allow government or public access to non-federal lands; and a critical habitat designation does not impose restrictions on non-federal lands unless federal funds, permits or activities are involved.

In a statement, Mark Sprengel from Selkirk Conservation Alliance says, “The woodland caribou of the Selkirk Mountains are highly endangered and need this habitat protection to survive. Protecting the caribou means protecting the old-growth forests and wild places of the Selkirks, which are cherished by many.”

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To understate it a bit, grizzly bears have certainly been in the news a lot this summer in North Idaho. Two widely publicized incidents have left two grizzlies dead, one hunter dead, and more white-hot debate over the very rare large carnivore. If there’s a universal lesson about anything this summer, it might be that human-grizzly interactions are dangerous for humans and grizzlies alike.

After retreating from 99% of their original habitat range, grizzly bears were listed as a threatened species in 1975 in the lower 48 states.  Currently, grizzly bears are found only in a very few distinct areas in the western United States, but they include the Cabinet-Yaak range in North Idaho and northwest Montana, and the Selkirk mountains in North Idaho, northeastern Washington and British Columbia.

The number of bears in our two recovery regions is uncertain, but current estimates number from the several dozens to the several hundreds. To determine more precisely how many there are, a grizzly bear census may be coming to North Idaho next summer. Federal researchers plan to analyze DNA from hair samples captured at some 800 collection sites to be established across the Cabinet-Yaak Mountains in North Idaho and western Montana. Using DNA and mapping tools, researchers will be able to identify individual bears and their location. The 3-year study will cost more than $1.7 million.

A similar study in the region around Glacier National Park discovered more than twice the number of grizzly bears were roaming the area than were previously estimated. For this reason, much of the financial support for the North Idaho study is coming from some seemingly unlikely sources. Boundary County, Idaho and Lincoln County, Montana are chipping in. So too is Revett Minerals, which has mining interests in Troy, Montana, and has proposed the Rock Creek mine in the Montana Cabinet Mountains above Lake Pend Oreille. Why? Because if the study shows that the grizzly bear population is more robust here, then grizzly-related restrictions on mining and timber activities on federal lands eventually might be lifted.

But this research will provide only an initial baseline. Most important to bear recovery efforts will be the trend line over time.  Is the bear population increasing or decreasing? Is the biological genetic diversity of the bear population improving or not? A single census, therefore, is unlikely to prove much about the species’ recovery, regardless of the number of bears found.

Moreover, the one thing that grizzly bear research in North Idaho is already very clear about is that the leading cause of death for grizzly bears in the region is human interaction (PDF). More than 50% of grizzly deaths in the Cabinet-Yaak, and 80% of grizzly deaths in the Selkirks are a direct result of human interaction. Categories of human-caused mortality used by researchers included defense of life, management removal, mistaken identity, poaching, train or automobile collision, and “unknown but human caused” in which bears were shot but researchers could not determine the circumstances of the death or incidences of cut off radio collars where no carcass was discovered.

So, for the safety of the humans and the recovery of the bears, regardless of the outcome of the census, human-bear interactions will still need to be managed very carefully.

 

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Idaho and Montana wolves have had a pretty tough week. First, the wolf-panicked Idaho legislature authorized the Governor to take “disaster emergency” actions.  Then, the wolves were a subject of one of the few “policy riders” to survive the government shutdown budget brinksmanship. And on Saturday, even though it may not matter anymore, Judge Malloy in Montana tossed the proposed settlement of the continuing litigation over delisting the wolves from Endangered Species Act protections in the Northern Rockies.

What does it all mean? It’s maybe too early to say, but odds on a wolf hunt this fall are certainly not as long as they were a couple of days ago.

Here’s some of what we’ve been reading about it all:

Idaho legislature passes “wolf disaster emergency” legislation, making westerners look like wimps — Idaho Mountain Express

An editorial about the legislature’s not-exactly-scientific approach to wolves  — Idaho Statesman

Judge Malloy declines to accept the proposed settlement. — Idaho Statesman

The actual Malloy opinion, linked here,  is well-written and fascinating reading. (All the legal arguments, from all the parties, are linked here.)  — via Wildlife News

All that work by Judge Malloy may soon be moot.  The wolf rider is still attached to the federal budget resolution.  — Spokesman Review

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In a move that may, or may not, resolve the federal lawsuit over the delisting of wolves from Endangered Species Act protections, 10 of the 14 conservation and wildlife organizations that filed the lawsuit have agreed to a tentative settlement. Also, the tentative agreement may, or may not, cause Congress to reconsider efforts to delist wolves legislatively.

The agreement would be subject to approval by Judge Malloy in the federal courtroom in Montana, and subject to a number of procedural niceties. The basics of the agreement would return wolves to state management in Idaho and Montana, but not Wyoming or other bordering states with still-recovering populations of wolves. The agreement would also set up a scientific panel within two years to evaluate wolf recovery numbers in the region.

The deal, theoretically, eliminates any need for Congressional action, and notably, the settlement agreement states that it is “null and void” if Congress acts to delist wolves. Still, it appears as if Idaho’s Congressional delegation, all Republicans, are not backing off. However, the deal does have support from Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat. And Senator Max Baucus, a Democrat critical in Congressional budget negotiations, was non-committal.

We’re still parsing the words of the settlement, the words from congressional and political leaders, and words of the organizations involved in the lawsuit. Here’s what we’re reading:

Here’s the actual proposed settlement agreement (pdf)

Clear-eyed reporting and analysis from Idaho Statesman’s Rocky Barker.  And Montana reporting from the Missoulian.

Statements from Rep. Mike Simpson, Sen. Mike Crapo, Sen. Jim Risch, and Sen. Max Baucus.

The statement from the Interior Department regarding the settlement.

Statements from WildEarth Guardians (one of the groups not agreeing to the settlement), Defenders of Wildlife (and the other groups signing on to the settlement) and EarthJustice (formerly attorneys for all the groups, but now, because of the split, not attorneys for any of them).

UPDATE 3/20: More analysis from the Statesman’s Rocky Barker.

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The messy wolf issue is now getting messier, thanks to Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID) in the House and Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) in the Senate. In the “continuing resolution” needed to avoid a shutdown of the U.S. government, the two Congressmen have inserted language that would essentially de-list wolves from being covered under the Endangered Species Act in Idaho and Montana. Recall that a federal judge in Montana had ruled that the wolves must remain on the endangered list due to Wyoming’s failure to submit an approved management plan because the species must be considered one population and managed accordingly.

Regardless of how people feel about delisting wolves, however, the manner by which the Congressmen are attempting the delisting raises serious legal questions about how a federal government with separate branches of government is supposed to work.

The obscurely worded text of the proposed Senate provision (the House version is identical) is here:

“SEC. 1709. Before the end of the 60-day period beginning on the date of enactment of this division, the Secretary of the Interior shall reissue the final rule published on April 2, 2009 (74 Fed. Reg. 15123 et seq.) without regard to any other provision of statute or regulation that applies to issuance of such rule. Such re-issuance (including this section) shall not be subject to judicial review.”

Under our Constitution, the executive branch, the legislative branch, and the judicial branch are separate, with well-known “checks and balances” on each other.  This legislative provision, however, certainly usurps a lot of executive and judicial power.

The executive branch of government is charged with implementing the nation’s laws, and as part of doing so, agencies issue regulations to administer programs. Here, however, Congress is telling which regulation to issue, and when, and regardless whether the regulations comport with existing law — in this case the Endangered Species Act.

Meanwhile, the judicial branch of government is charged with interpreting the laws as applied in appropriate cases brought before a court. Here, Congress is eliminating any such jurisdiction of a Court to do so.

All of this is a complex area of federal jurisdiction and administrative law and would make for a great law school final exam question. In a strictly legal sense, Congress, arguably, can probably get away with what it intends to do here. Unless the president vetoes the entire continuing resolution — his “check” on this exercise of Congressional power in this instance — a provision like the one proposed will be the law of the land.

Ultimately, what this means is that the functional integrity of Endangered Species Act no longer exists. Rather than science, management of endangered species will be left to Congress, to legislate by loophole. This would be an unfortunate outcome beyond the wolves who will be “managed.” We hope during the next week or two of intensive debate, Congress will consider the consequences of this ad hoc loophole approach to governance.

UPDATE 3/7: The folks at NRDC point out that as the Senate takes up the continuing resolution, they have deleted all of the anti-environmental riders attached by the House of Representatives. Except one. This one.

UPDATE 4/10: The deal to avoid the dreaded government shutdown apparently still includes the rider.

UPDATE 4/12: The rider goes even further — it folds in a Wyoming court case too. This post from NRDC sums up the reasons why this rider is just plain bad government.

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On Monday, according to Idaho Reporter, Gov. Butch Otter will be in Denver to talk wolves with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and the Governors of Wyoming and Montana. A legal morass and election-year political grandstanding have made a mess of  wolf management in the northern Rockies, and it certainly needs some high-level discussion.

It isn’t clear what Secretary Salazar will be bringing to the table Monday, but the meeting gives Gov. Otter the best opportunity to reverse his pre-election decision to no longer manage wolves in Idaho. Otter’s nonsensical decision, issued in the heat of his re-election campaign, is almost certain to be reversed. But the question is what political cover will Salazar provide to Otter in order to do so sooner rather than later.

Meanwhile, the stalemate is probably doing everyone an ecological favor. Without a public hunt this year, the wolf population has an opportunity to create the interconnectedness and genetic diversity to more firmly establish the species’ recovery once and for all. Meanwhile, in the Idaho panhandle at least, the elk hunting is actually improved.  Wolves have evidently driven a healthy elk herd from the upper St. Joe to the closer-in Coeur d’Alene forests, where more hunters are being more successful in hunting more elk.

We’re hoping that some semblance of sanity will reign on Monday.  It is past time to settle the issue. Otherwise, long-running lawsuits, long-shot legislation, and ridiculously overheated rhetoric will continue to be the northern Rockies substitute for reasonable wolf management.

(Also worth reading: George Wuerthner on livestock predation. Can ranchers really expect a predator-free landscape?)

UPDATE 11/29Here is the Spokesman-Review’s AP report on how the meeting went. Nothing resolved, they “discussed a path forward,” but it seems Wyoming may still be a problem.

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has just issued the final designation of critical habitat for bull trout, a threatened species found throughout much of the northwest. The action designates nearly 19,000 miles of streams and 488,000 acres of lakes and reservoirs in Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Montana and Nevada.

Bull trout need clean cold water to thrive. Once plentiful, bull trout were found in more than 60% of the Columbia River basin, but are now occurring in less than half their historical range. They were originally listed as a threatened species in 1999.

Critical habitat designations (pdf) provide extra regulatory protection and management considerations for the species. Specific habitat areas are then prioritized for recover actions. Such protections do not affect ownership of land, and do not impose restrictions on non-federal lands (unless related to some action for which federal permits would be required). Overall, nearly 64 % of the designated habitat occurs on federal lands.

The Bush administration proposed habitat protections in 2005 which included less than half the habitat covered under this new designation. The Bush era rules were challenged in Court, and the agency requested a remand in 2009 to re-work the designation, based in part on flaws identified by the Interior Department’s Inspector General.

Bull trout are threatened by poor water quality, habitat degradation and fragmentation, blockage of migratory corridors, past fisheries management, climate change, and non-native invasive species like lake and brook trout.

Like a canary in a coal mine, the sensitive bull trout are an excellent indicator of water quality. Protecting bull trout habitat contributes not only to the species but to water quality throughout their range.

In Idaho, 8772 miles of stream and 170,000 acres of lakes or reservoirs are covered by the designation. In our basin, Coeur d’Alene Lake and the main stem of the Coeur d’Alene River are included. Also designated are the north fork of the Coeur d’Alene River, and the St. Joe River, and most of their tributaries. The Clark Fork and Kootenai Rivers, along with Lake Pend Oreille, Priest Lake, are on the critical habitat list in North Idaho.

 

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