Category Archives: US Fish & Wildlife

A Year in Review: Seven Stories that Highlight Hope for Conservation in 2016

Channel Islands fox rebound

The Channel Islands, eight islands off the coast of Southern California, house more of their adorable cat-size foxes (found nowhere else on earth) than ever in recent history. Thanks to conservation efforts including captive breeding of the foxes and relocation of predatory eagles, the population was recently removed from the endangered species list.

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Photo source: Don DeBold

Chernobyl wildlife boom

Though Ukraine’s Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded over 30 years ago, it has left behind a wasteland that most scientists thought would remain barren for years to come. However, in 2014 University of Georgia researchers left dozens of cameras in a heavily forested area of Chernobyl’s 1600-square-mile Exclusion Zone and saw that boars, wolves, foxes, raccoon dogs and many more species had reclaimed the land as their own. “It’s basically an incredibly large sanctuary” for animals, said one researcher of the follow-up study and accompanying photos which were published this year.

Robotic animals used to trick poachers

US authorities have come up with an unexpected but highly successful method to catch poachers: placing remote-controlled robotic animals like deer, bear, and moose in illegal hunting hubs and apprehending those foolhardy enough to shoot at them.

Peanut butter and drones provide a creative way to help adorable ferrets

Native to the US, beautiful black-footed ferrets currently hold the spot of North America’s most endangered species, due in large part to a plague killing prairie dogs, their main source of food. This year the federal government began testing a unique and tasty solution that could drive the ferrets’ population to healthy numbers: using drones to drop peanut butter-flavored pellets laced with plague vaccine on unsuspecting prairie dogs (about 60-90% of prairie dogs fell for the trick in recent tests), helping their populations recover enough to restore a balanced ecosystem to the American grasslands where the dogs and ferrets reside.

Full-time Hedgehog Officer for British Town

Officials in Ipswich, a village on the eastern coast of the UK, have recently noted declines in typically high hedgehog populations, so a local wildlife organization created the post of “Hedgehog Officer”, tasking the British woman who beat around 150 applicants with conserving this adorable local creature.

Jaguars settling in Arizona

Jaguars claimed much of the western US as their own before being completely hunted to death, but 2016 gave two positive signs that some of the creatures may have migrated from northern Mexico into the Arizona desert. A few months following the appearance of a gorgeous male, caught on camera and nicknamed El Jefe, a second male cat was photographed prowling around an Arizona army installation. Though Arizona wildlife officials dampened some excitement with the revelation that the closest breeding population is 130 miles south, the presence of these cats brings hope that more may eventually find their way to their old stomping grounds in the US.

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Strong protections for some of world’s most endangered animals

The 2016 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) concluded by creating tough new regulations against killing and trading endangered animals currently vulnerable to poachers, including African gray parrots, pangolins, and manta rays.

Post by Shannon Cuthbert

Source: Brulliard, Karin. “Nine great news stories about animals in 2016.” The Washington Post. 30 December 2016.

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California Droughts and Wildfires Further Endanger Rare Mountain Frogs

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Photo: Pacific Southwest Region USFWS

Fewer than 400 endangered yellow-legged mountain frogs now remain from the thousands that once crowded hundreds streams throughout California’s San Gabriel, San Bernardino and San Jacinto mountain ranges. Fifty years ago frogs swarmed these streams competing for desirable mates, but are now reduced to surviving in five hard-to-find streams that still trickle down despite five years of heavy droughts.

Scientists have grown more concerned about the frogs’ survival with a nearby wildfire growing each day, the third major fire in a month to overtake the frogs’ habitat. If this most recently endangered patch of vegetation is destroyed, biologists fear winter storms could wipe out the only remaining streams where the frogs live with debris and ash from previous fires. “I’ve never seen things this dry here before,” said Adam Backlin, a U.S. Geological Survey biologist, regarding a population of around 20 frogs in San Gabriel Mountains’ Big Rock Creek. “The last thing these frogs need is drought and wildfire.”

Though wildfires in the area have been common for a long time, they are now coupled with a vast array of factors that would make it difficult for sparse yellow-legged frog populations to recolonize from neighboring populations, as they did in decades past. Now, existing populations have been pushed to the brink of extinction by disease, urbanization, and widespread invasive predators from crayfish to trout and bullfrogs. Backlin notes that many isolated mountain yellow-legged frog populations were already decimated after 2003’s Old fire, 2009’s Station fire, and 2013’s Mountain fire, and are incredibly weak in the face of the most recent fire.

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Just three weeks ago, the Sand fire destroyed 40,000 acres of northwestern San Gabriel Mountain watershed, containing sections of Soledad Canyon, a shelter to both rare arroyo toads and federally endangered unarmored threespine stickleback fish. This week, biologists were alarmed to discover that the Blue Cut fire burned through over 37,000 acres across San Gabriel’s northeastern canyons. They are now rushing to study the fire’s impacts on the yellow-legged mountain frogs’ populations, and questioning whether captive breeding may be the only way to ensure the species’ continued survival.

Federal wildlife authorities started a recovery program for the frogs back in 2010 that involves trout removal, captive breeding, and banning public access to regions where frogs still survive. Authorities hope to keep the frogs alive in carefully monitored aquariums at the San Diego and Los Angeles Zoos, where “insurance colonies” are being maintained with the help of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo, the Memphis Zoo, and the Santa Ana Zoo may join the program within the next year. Everyone involved hopes these efforts will allow the yellow-legged mountain frog to survive long-term, if outside its threatened natural habitat.

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Source: Sahagun, Louis. “California’s drought, wildfires threaten endangered frog.” LA Times. 20 August 2016.

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Threatened Texas Mussel May Spark Conflict Over Contested Waterways

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Photo: Matthew Venn

The US Fish and Wildlife Service recently proposed the Texas hornshell mussel be classified as endangered, opening a new avenue for conflict over already highly-contested water systems throughout the state. The mussel is one of a dozen the USFWS is examining for endangered list inclusion, and if chosen, the mussel’s freshwater river habitats would be specially protected from heavy human usage.

If the species is listed, other mussels may be included as well. “This move provides insight into their thinking” on the remaining species, said Charles Randklev, a mussel expert at Texas A&M University’s Institute for Renewable Natural Resources. The hornshell “warrants some level of protection based on the data I’ve seen,” he said, “and some of the species are not faring as well as the hornshell.” These others include mussel species living in Central Texas’  Colorado, Guadalupe and Brazos river basins in Central Texas, such as the false spike and the Texas pimpleback.

Human activity is to blame for disruption of the mussels’ populations, says the USFWS, through creation of dams and increasingly poor water quality that hurt the Texas hornshell and other Southwest freshwater mussels. “The waterways they call home are being altered and impacted by declining water quality and quantity,” Benjamin Tuggle, the USFWS’s Southwest regional director, reported. “Declining freshwater mussel populations are signs of an unhealthy aquatic system, which has negative implications for the fish, wildlife and communities that depend upon those rivers and streams.”

However, protections bestowed in the best interests of the mussels will have vast impacts on the already much-disputed distribution of water to industries, farmers, and Texas’ growing cities by state river authorities. “With increased human demand, the question is how that affects stream flows,” Randklev said.

Despite Tuggle’s statement that he hopes to work closely with landowners “to benefit both the species and communities that rely upon those flowing waters”, a legal fight between federal and state officials seems likely if the mussel is listed. The state comptroller’s office has commissioned research into how increased habitat protections would harm Texas’ economy. “We’re still examining the proposal, and we also need to look at the species status assessment report,” comptroller spokesman Chris Bryan said.

Once plentiful (and a staple of indigenous peoples), the Texas hornshell mussel is a filter feeder that can grow up to 4 inches long and live around 20 years. This species has vastly declined within the past few decades, according to the Federal Register. The mussels are technically edible but are not considered safe to eat where water is polluted. The mollusk habitates within the Rio Grande downstream from Big Bend National Park and Laredo, as well as in the Pecos and the Devils rivers in Val Verde County.

The Nature Conservancy and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department have already begun efforts to maintain this and other threatened river species, taking measures to reduce sediment and contaminants on protected land near the Devils River watershed. In addition, Lower Colorado River Authority and the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority officials are monitoring the addition of any Texas waterway species to the endangered list. “At this point it’s premature to say whether or how future listings may impact the lower Colorado River basin,” LCRA spokeswoman Clara Tuma said. Only time will tell how this potential conflict will play out if the mussel is listed.

The Fish and Wildlife Service will be taking comments from the public regarding the proposed endangered species listing of the Texas hornshell mussel until Oct. 11 before they come to a decision.

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Photo: David O.

Source: Price, Asher. “Texas mussel proposed as endangered, with implications for waterways.” My Statesman. 10 August 2016.

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Endangered Species Face 12-Year Wait to be Listed

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A new study in journal Biological Conservation uncovered that the average time it takes a species to be officially classified as endangered is 12 years, six times longer than scientists say it should be to promote the health and survival of these species.

When Congress first passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973, the process for a species to be added to the “endangered” list entailed being labelled as endangered or threatened by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. In 1982 Congress added an amendment laying out an entire two-year timeline for the process, from a petition submission in favor of the species being added to a final rule being created in the Federal Register.

However, the reality is a bit more complex. “While the law lays out a process time of two years for a species to be listed, what we found is that, in practice, it takes, on average, 12.1 years,” says Dr. Emily Puckett, a recent Division of Biological Sciences graduate at the University of Missouri. “Some species moved through the process in 6 months but some species, including many flowering plants, took 38 years to be listed—almost the entire history of the ESA.”

The study analyzed the length of time it took for the 1,338 species listed for ESA protection between January 1974 and October 2014 to move through the listing process. Researchers also examined if a species grouping affected the speed with which it was listed, and found that vertebrates moved on to the list significantly more quickly than did flowering plants and invertebrates. This finding prompted the study’s authors to conclude there may be a bias in the listing process that undermines the ESA’s official listing policies. “While the [US Fish and Wildlife] Service can account for species groups in its prioritization system, it’s not supposed to be mammals versus insects versus ferns but, rather, how unique is this species within all of the ecological system,” Puckett says. “However, our findings suggest some bias that skews the process toward vertebrates.”

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Long delays in ESA listing have real and severe impacts on endangered species. In fact, the study’s authors cited documentation of several species that went extinct while the lengthy process unfolded. In contrast, species that were listed quickly and had strong conservation plans put in place had greater chances to recover and thrive. For instance, the island night lizard took a mere 1.19 years to be listed, while the prairie fringed orchid took 14.7 years to be listed. In the meantime, the lizard population has been restored and it has been removed from endangered status, while the orchid is still a threatened species.

“The whole point of putting species on the list is they already have been identified as threatened or endangered with extinction,” Puckett says. “Without being on the list, we run the risk that these populations will go locally or globally extinct and there will be nothing to save.”

Sossamon, Jeff. “”Endangered Species Wait 12 Years to Get on the List.” Futurity. 12 August 2016.

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What Does it Mean That More Endangered Species Than Ever are Being Delisted?

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Since Obama took office, 15 animal and plant species have been removed from the endangered species list, more than the total combined number of species removed under all previous administrations since the Endangered Species Act became active in 1973. These include the Louisiana black bear, the Virginia northern flying squirrel, and the Lake Erie water snake, and Brian Hires, a public affairs officer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) believes several more species could be removed from the list, which currently numbers 2000, before the next president is sworn in this January, from the Hawaiian hawk and Gray wolf to certain Humpback whale populations.

However, many species continue to be newly added to the endangered species list, with help from groups like the Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians, who regularly litigate the government when severely threatened animals remain unprotected for years or decades. Brett Hartl, endangered species policy director for the wildlife protection nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity says his group sues when the USFWS does nothing to save imperiled species from plights such as trafficking, climate change, and habitat destruction: “If the Service were to complete its mandates on time and proactively protect species at the verge of extinction, we would not have to sue them repeatedly. They hold their own destiny in their hands.”

Nevertheless, conservative lawmakers have worked to make it easier to delist endangered or threatened species in order to appease various groups, from ranchers and farmers to fossil fuel industry companie, who feel the ESA wildlife conservation efforts they would need to undertake would eat into their profits. Attempting to resolve these conflicts, the Obama administration has negotiated several agreements for landowners to merely volunteer to preserve endangered animals on their land, allowing them to bypass the ESA’s stricter preservation policies.

Hires notes that delisting species is a complex process, as many of the species in question inhabit both private and public lands, often crossing state and even international borders. “Successfully preventing the extinction of a species and recovering it so it no longer requires the ESA is a real team effort,” he says. “It requires intensive coordination and collaborations with state wildlife agencies, private landowners, conservation groups, industry, other federal agencies, and more.” For a species to be removed from ESA protections, the USFWS first examines the current state its habitat, likelihood of disease or predation, and other natural or manmade factors, and then decides whether the species would be able to successfully survive in the wild.

Hires also says that climate change will require conservationists to rethink the way they have traditionally managed endangered species, perhaps by focusing on preserving entire landscapes and ecosystems rather than specific species. “Impacts of climate change include increased size and number of wildfires, insect outbreaks, pathogens, disease outbreaks, and tree mortality,” said Hires. Rising sea levels and temperatures, as well as extreme weather associated with climate change will likely have big impacts on conservation efforts.

Hartl believes that most of the approximately 60 delisted species have fared well “because state management is done in good faith and the species are still protected in a science-based fashion. It only falls apart when states act in bad faith,” he said. “Wolves are a good example—as soon as ESA protections were lifted in Montana and Idaho, wolf populations were reduced due to unregulated hunting and trapping.”

Recently, the USFWS announcement that grizzly bears around Yellowstone National Park could be delisted led to controversy. The proposal would transfer grizzly management to states surrounding the park and would likely initiate grizzly bear hunting seasons. The Yellowstone population has grown from 136 animals to between 700 and 1000 since the species’ inclusion on the endangered list in 1975. However, groups like the Humane Society feel that Yellowstone grizzly bears “are far from recovered.” Humane Society’s President & CEO Wayne Pacelle notes that human-caused grizzly mortality rates are up and that the “bears are facing a range of threats to critical food sources, including white bark pine nuts and lake trout.”

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Similarly, for years wildlife groups have argued over the status of the greater sage-grouse, an imperiled bird whose natural habitat cuts across central states whose economies rely heavily on fossil fuel production. In May the oil and gas industry challenged drilling restrictions imposed by the Obama administration to protect the sage-grouse, even though the current restrictions are still a compromise from more stringent ESA rules. Says Hartl of the complex and often politicized conflicts that conservation efforts can spark, “Questions about when to protect species must be based solely on science in order to avoid parties trying to game the system, at the expense of species themselves.”

Regarding the 15 delistings under Obama, Hartl said “it is a victory and credit goes to the heroic efforts over the last 30 years. It is not the achievement of the Obama administration alone because these successes took years to build up to.”

Source: Phillips, Ari. “The convoluted life of an endangered species—and why more are being saved now than ever.” Fusion. 19 May 2016.

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This Earth Day, Let’s Talk About the Pangolin…

cute_baby_pangolinEstablished April 22, 1970, Earth Day serves to raise awareness of the state and well-being of our planet. One important measure of that well-being is the health and stability of Earth’s more than 8 million known species, from little-known bacteria and fungi to well-loved and long-championed megafauna like elephants and whales. Yet, though all these species serve important roles within their ecosystems and environments, lesser-known species face added challenges for conservationists.

Just look at the pangolin: sadly, the most-trafficked animal in the world is one that most have never even heard of. The highly-endangered animal is trafficked for their scales, boiled for use in traditional medicine, for their meat, a delicacy in parts of Asia, and for their blood, used as a healing tonic. From 2006 to 2015, nearly one million animals were poached. In addition to Asia, the US has a huge demand for pangolin parts, so conservation groups must work to raise both local and global public awareness of pangolins to curb this dangerous market before it’s too late. If current trends continue, the pangolin will likely become extinct before the world takes notice.

10abb2b50Docile and nocturnal, pangolins make their homes in savannahs, tropical forests, and brush, with four species known to live in Africa and four in Asia. The insectivores feed mainly on ants and termites and have highly acute senses of  smell and hearing to make up for poor vision. The solitary creatures have rarely been studied in the wild, but  have been known to live up to 20 years in captivity.

This March the United States Fish and Wildlife Service announced a positive development for the pangolin: they will consider including it in the Endangered Species Act.  “The Endangered Species Act is among the strongest conservation laws in the world, and listing all pangolin species under the Act will be a dramatic and positive step in saving the species from extinction,” said Adam M. Roberts, CEO of Born Free USA and Born Free Foundation.

So, though conservation efforts and individual awareness of endangered species are vital every day of the year, Earth Day 2016 is the perfect chance for people to learn more about this gentle and fragile animal and to consider steps necessary to prevent its extinction.

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Source: Swan, Carol Ann. “Earth Day 2016 is for Endangered Species Like the Pangolin.” BlastingNews, 22 April 2016.

 

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Manatees may lose Endangered status

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The West Indian Manatee will lose their status as endangered species under a proposal announced by federal wildlife managers, who say the marine mammals have made a robust recovery since first receiving protection in 1967.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to reclassify the manatee from endangered to threatened in response to a review initiated by a petition from the Pacific Legal Foundation, a free-market legal advocacy group that represents property owners on the Gulf coast. The petition was submitted on behalf of Save Crystal River, a group of property owners concerned about boating restrictions in King’s Bay in Citrus County.

“It’s really a success story,” said Jim Valade, Florida Manatee Recovery Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, on Thursday. “They still need our attention without a doubt, but they are no longer in intensive care per se.”

The agency said the species, one of the first in the nation to be classified as endangered, has increased in numbers over the past few decades and appears robust enough to face a very low risk of going extinct. “Current population estimates are 6,350 manatees in the southeastern continental United States and 532 manatees in Puerto Rico,” the wildlife service wrote in a notice to be officially published Friday. “These numbers reflect a very low percentage chance of this animal going extinct in the next 100 years.”

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A species classified as threatened retains virtually the same protection against being killed, harmed or harassed as one classified as endangered. Government agencies must take them into account in approving construction or other activities that could affect them. No-wake zones and fines for boaters who ignore them will remain in place.

The agency said the reclassification would not affect conservation measures that it credits with the manatee’s rebound, such as the establishment of more than 50 protected areas and restrictions on the construction of docks. But the reclassification would be a step toward removing the manatee altogether from the protected list, which would cost it much of its legal protection. Threatened means the species can become endangered in

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans a public hearing and will accept public comments before announcing a final decision. The 90-day comment period begins Friday. Conservation groups denounced the decision, saying the same threats that landed manatees on the endangered species list persist today.

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Manatee’s have come a long way, but is still threatened by boat strikes, cold stress and undiagnosed mass die-offs in the Indian River Lagoon. An estimated 60% of the state’s manatees rely on artificially warm water generated by power plants to survive.

There are fines for boaters that hit manatees and while these fines would remain  who speed through a “manatee protected area” , most are never caught. 87 manatees were killed in 2015, that is 14 more than in 2014. The record number of manatees killed by boats is 95 back in 2009.

This female manatee seemed to be checking on this young male manatee and having some social interaction. She isn't the mother, but possibly the young one's mother left him up in the springs while she went to feed. He looked bored and forlorn. Is this female manatee a friend of the family?

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