endangered species

Gila Topminnow rediscovered in Santa Cruz River north of Tucson

The Gila Topminnow was once ubiquitous within the Gila River drainage, but its population declined due to introduction of non-native species, water impoundment and diversion, water pollution, groundwater pumping, stream channelization, and habitat modification. It was listed as an endangered species in March of 1967. This guppy-like, live-bearing fish is 1-2 inches long. Breeding males are jet black with yellow fins. Gila topminnow are omnivorous, and eat food such as detritus and crustaceans; but feed mostly on aquatic insect larvae, especially mosquitos.

According to a press release by the US Fish&Wildlife Service (FWS) et al., During a November survey, Gila Topminnows were rediscovered within the Santa Cruz River north of Tucson just downstream of the water treatment plants after a 70-year absence. Topminnows were also found in the Santa Cruz River just north of the sewer treatment plant in Nogales, Arizona, in December 2015.

 

Here is the lede from the press release:

After an absence of more than 70 years, the endangered Gila topminnow has reappeared in the Santa Cruz River in northwest Tucson, fish surveys conducted in November confirm.

Scientists were hopeful native fish would return to the river near Tucson after the river’s water quality significantly improved following upgrades to wastewater treatment facilities releasing effluent (highly treated wastewater) into the river at Agua Nueva and Tres Rios treatment plants in 2013. The native Arizona species, listed under the Endangered Species Act, was rediscovered in the Santa Cruz River near Nogales, Arizona in 2015. Both sections of the river where the fish reappeared depend on releases of effluent, demonstrating the critical role this water plays for the river’s health.

More from the press release: “Finding Gila Topminnow in the Santa Cruz River in Tucson is the most significant conservation discovery since the species was listed as endangered in 1967,” said Doug Duncan, fish biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “We are not certain how the fish made it to the Tucson reach of the river, but we will analyze the genetics of the fish and river flow data to see if we can make that determination.”

How did the fish get into the Santa Cruz River? In my opinion, captive-bred fish were put into the river or they escaped from nearby mosquito-control projects. It is also possible that the heavy rains we had in July washed some into the current location.

From a May 26, 2017 FWS press release:

Pima will have a new ally in the battle against mosquito-borne diseases this summer: endangered Gila topminnow.

The Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD) provided 500 of the native fish, which will be introduced into standing waters in urban county areas. The project is being done under the Department’s federal permits and an Endangered Species Act Habitat Conservation Plan between Pima County and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The three agencies are cooperatively spearheading this effort to reduce threats to public health in the county. The project is part of an overall plan by Pima County Health Department, Pima County Sustainability and Conservation, the Phoenix Zoo and Arizona State University to use the federally endangered fish to target mosquito larvae and reduce the threat of mosquito-borne diseases, such as the West Nile and Zika viruses. This approach is also being considered for future deployment in Pinal County and hopefully other county governments around the state.

Also from FWS: “The species is currently being reared at over 100 locations for reestablishment into numerous sites in Arizona. The Gila topminnow has been released at almost 200 locations in efforts to reestablish populations.”

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Genetics of Mexican wolves – assessment of possible hybridization with other canids

A new study, commissioned by the Pima Natural Resource Conservation District*, examined the genetics of Mexican wolves (Canis lupus baileyi) and assessed the possibility of hybridization with dogs of Native American origin and or/coyotes. You can read the entire study here.

The basic finding from this research and other research cited within the report are that all North American wolves are hybrids with coyotes, and a few are hybrids with dogs. The current captive-bred population of Mexican wolves shows no hybridization with coyotes or dogs, but some previous research did detect some Mexican wolf-coyote hybrids.

Here are some highlights from the report:

The study concluded “living Mexican wolves are not derived from hybridization with Native American dogs. The results also did not indicate recent hybridization between Mexican wolves and coyotes. However, one wolf-dog hybrid was detected in wolves from Idaho. Our study used captive-reared Mexican wolves, therefor future analyses of wild-born wolves and dogs living in the same areas are needed to determine if hybridization is occurring in the wild population of Mexican wolves in Mexico, New Mexico and Arizona.”

The report notes that other studies have found wolf-dog hybrids in northern wolves .

“A second hybridization concern involves wolves and coyotes. Wolves and coyotes share a recent common ancestor during the Pleistocene (Ice Ages) in North America and their subsequent occupation of the same ranges may result in some level of hybridization. Indeed, evidence of historic and recent hybridization comes from mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) sequences, y-chromosome, SNPs and whole genome sequences (WGS).”

“… land use changes following European colonization of North America have favored the spread of coyotes while wolf populations have declined, resulting in substantial levels of hybridization between these two species in some areas (e.g. Eastern North America). This same process also resulted in hybridization with domestic dogs, contributing to three species hybrids in some populations…”

“..all North American wolves …have significant amounts of coyote ancestry. In addition, we detect a strong geographic cline in the proportion of coyote ancestry across North American canids: Alaskan and Yellowstone wolves have 8 to 8.5% coyote ancestry, Great Lakes wolves have 21.7 to 23.9% coyote ancestry, Algonquin wolves have at least 32.5 to 35.5% coyote ancestry, and Quebec sequences have more than 50% coyote ancestry. [A] Mexican wolf… had a coyote ancestry of approximately 11%. The significance of these results, as well as those of previous authors, is that wolf-coyote hybridization occurs naturally, and the process can be accelerated in human-dominated landscapes that favor coyotes.”

“The captive Mexican wolf samples were divergent from other wolves as well as coyotes and dogs of European, East Asian, and North American descent.”

“Additionally, the remnant Mexican wolf population was subject to, and has the genetic signal of, one of the most severe, recent genetic bottlenecks in conservation history. It was founded from just seven remaining individuals separated into three lineages, subsequently inbred in captivity, and then lineages cross-bred to attempt a genetic rescue.”

We see from this study that the science is not settled. There are still several outstanding questions regarding Mexican wolves in the wild.

Question for readers: Should an animal group that is variously hybridized with other animals qualify for protection under the Endangered Species Act?

*About the Pima Natural Resource Conservation District (link)

The Pima NRCD is a State-authorized local unit of government that has been given a broad mandate to provide for the restoration and conservation of lands and soil resources, the preservation of water rights and the control and prevention of soil erosion, and thereby to conserve natural resources, conserve wildlife, protect the tax base, protect public lands and protect and restore this state’s rivers and streams and associated riparian habitats, including fish and wildlife resources that are dependent on those habitats, and in such manner to protect and promote the public health, safety and general welfare of the people.

Arizona’s 42 Conservation Districts cover the entire state of Arizona, and parts of New Mexico and Utah on the Navajo Nation. Arizona’s Conservation Districts are in a unique position to lead local conservation partnership efforts that achieve landscape level results across all land ownerships in Arizona. They have authority to enter into agreements with private landowners, state and federal agencies, tribes, and others to implement a local conservation program in their District. The Conservation District model has proven itself over the last 75 years to be the most effective approach to achieving sound management of Arizona’s natural resources.

Pima NRCD believes private lands provide the tax base that supports most county and state services. Additionally, private lands are the underlying lands for historic federal and state grazing leases, as these lands are the basis for economic productivity.

Disclosure: I am a board member of Pima NRCD.

 

See also:

Wolf attacks on humans in North America

Are Mexican wolves in Arizona actually wolf-dog hybrids?

Endangered Species Act administration changes bode ill for property rights

Since 2012, the Obama administration has relaxed requirements of the Endangered Species Act to make designation of “Critical Habitat” easier for the Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS). This is achieved by changing some definitions and by relaxing scientific standards. This will result in more areas being designated as “Critical Habitat” and impose more restrictions on private property, grazing, and mineral exploration and development.

Details of these changes are discussed in a memorandum by attorney Karen Budd-Falen. Here are the main points of that memo:

Previously “Critical Habitat” was confined to the area where a species was in trouble. Under the new policy, the entire range of the species will now be included, even areas where the species is not in trouble.

“Critical Habitat” will be expanded to include areas where the species does not now exist, but might inhabit that area at some unspecified time in the future. (An example of this is the proposed designation of “Critical Habitat” for the jaguar in large areas of Arizona and New Mexico even though jaguars do not occupy the area.)

Species listing and designation of critical habitat are supposed to be based on the “best scientific and commercial data available.” Now, principles of conservation biology are also included. Budd-Falen notes that many scientists describe conservation biology as “agenda driven” and “goal-oriented” biology.

FWS will no longer publish text or detailed land descriptions of the proposed “Critical Habitat.” They will publish small maps in the Federal Register. This will make it difficult for landowners to determine if their property is included.

FWS is no longer required to consider whether areas should be excluded from “Critical Habitat” based on economic costs and burdens.

Budd-Falen notes that these changes may cause normal operations of a farm or ranch to result in a “take” of an endangered species under the law. Also, as the farmers in California’s Central Valley found out, they were not able to divert water for crop irrigation because it was “needed” for downstream fish in a designated “Critical Habitat.”

Read entire memo

Related:

Repeal the Endangered Species Act

Endangered species listings based on questionable science and lack of independent review

Are Mexican wolves in Arizona actually wolf-dog hybrids?

A recent Arizona Daily Independent article notes that Arizona Game & Fish intends to sue the US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) alleging that the FWS recovery plan is out of date and fails to use the best available science. “Without an updated plan that includes recovery criteria, the Mexican Wolf will remain on the Endangered Species list in perpetuity. To make matters worse, a recent proposal to increase the geographic boundaries for the Mexican Wolf will result in huge swaths of lands becoming blocked off for other uses and in most cases prevent things like energy extraction, mining, timber harvesting and various other forms of economic development.”

There is another issue: there is some evidence that the captive bred and wild Mexican wolves in Arizona are actually wolf-dog hybrids or wolf-coyote hybrids which would make them ineligible for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The Southern Arizona Cattlemen’s Protective Association (SACPA) has archived correspondence regarding this question at http://www.sacpaaz.org/news_education/dna-question/. I will summarize the material.

Besides wild caught wolves, there are three lineages for Arizona Mexican wolves included in the FWS captive breeding program named the ”Ghost Ranch,” “Aragon,” and “Certified” lineages. These are the animals that FWS is releasing into the wild.

The first item in the SACPA archive is a letter dated June 2, 1997, to the FWS from Roy McBride, the person who captured five of the foundational wild Mexican wolves from which the FWS experimental population descended.

Mr. McBride writes that it was the conclusion of the original recovery team that all members of the Ghost Ranch lineage were wolf-dog hybrids, and that he is “shocked” that these wolves were to be included in the captive breeding program. “This was the primary factor behind the decision to seek and capture the remaining wild population, because it was the only pure genetic stock available.” The Ghost Ranch animals were from a private zoo in Carlsbad, N.M. and upon inspection, Mr. McBride had no doubt that these animals were hybrids.

FWS responded that a review of data by a “genetics committee” concluded, in 1994, that all three lines, Certified, Aragon, and Ghost Ranch, were pure Mexican wolves.

The second item is a history of the captive breeding program written in 1986 by Jack B. Woody. At the time of that writing the Mexican wolf was “presumed to be extinct in the United States.”
Woody notes that at the time, there was no taxonomic means of assigning an individual wolf to the Mexican wolf subspecies (Canis lupus baileyi). He also notes that the skulls of the Ghost Ranch lineage have definite characteristics of dogs. Woody says it is unclear whether this trait is due to hybridization or the effects of inbreeding. The genetic base of the captive breeding program is only four wild-caught wolves.

Item three is a summary from the Mexican Wolf stud book, 1987. This report notes some problems with inbreeding.

Item four is a partial transcript from Symposio Sobre Lobo Mexicano, which reported on field investigations of Mexican wolves in northern Mexico and southeastern Arizona. The study shows that the Mexican wolf population in Arizona is transient.

Item five discusses the ancestry and distribution of Mexican wolves in the Southwest. The pedigrees of the founding members of the three captive bred families is murky. This paper suggests that members of at least two of the three lines had some dog-like characteristics.

Item six is a concise fact sheet listing the origins of the three wolf lineages:

The “Certified” lineage was established from one female and two male wild-caught wolves.
The origin of the original “Ghost Ranch” female is unknown. The original male was probably a wolf-dog hybrid according to reports documented at the time. The founders of the “Aragon” lineage were obtained from the Chapultepec Zoo in Mexico City, but the lineage is unknown.

A new paper published in November, 2014, studied the genetics of wolves in North America. The paper is:

Cronin et al., 2014, Single Nucleotide Polymorphism (SNP) Variation of Wolves (Canis lupus) in Southeast Alaska and Comparison with Wolves, Dogs, and Coyotes in North America, Journal of Heredity, doi:10.1093/jhered/esu075.

This paper says that the so-called Mexican wolf is not a valid sub-species; rather it is a hybrid with coyotes and possibly with dogs.

Here is how the paper’s authors put it:

“Our data and those of vonHoldt et al. (2011) also show SNP differentiation of Mexican wolves (C. l. baileyi) from other North American wolves. However, extant and historic samples show
that Mexican wolves lack mtDNA monophyly, share haplotypes with wolves in other areas and with coyotes, (Leonard et al. 2005; Hailer and Leonard 2008), and extant Mexican wolves came from only 7 founders that may have included dog ancestry (although genetic data indicate this is improbable and/or of small genetic importance, García-Moreno et al. 1996; Hedrick et al. 1997). These factors indicate that designation of a Mexican wolf subspecies is of questionable validity. Indeed, North American wolf subspecies in general are questionable and have been described as arbitrary, typological, and an inter-grading series of populations (Wayne and Vilá 2003 and references therein)…This indicates there is unwarranted taxonomic inflation of wildlife subspecies designations similar to unwarranted species designations.”

It appears from these data that FWS is trying to establish a recovery program for an animal that is not a valid species, contrary to the Endangered Species Act.

See also:

Wolf attacks on humans in North America

The Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy Owl – is it a real species?

The Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium brasilianum cactorum) is an alleged subspecies of the Ferruginous Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium brasilianum). Usually when I write of birds, I seek information at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. But in this case, search for “Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy Owl” or “Ferruginous Pygmy Owl” or “ferruginous owl” yielded no results. When I searched for “pygmy owl” I get an article on the “Northern Saw-whet Owl.” The Sibley Guide to Birds does have a brief article on the “Ferruginous Pygmy Owl” but nothing on the “cactus” variety. In a sense, the Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy Owl is not a species distinct from the Ferruginous Pygmy owl. The same situation holds true for the alleged “southwestern” or “southwest” Willow Flycatcher.

Pygmy owl USFS

The U.S. Forest Service published a long article entitled “Ecology and Conservation

of the Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl in Arizona.” (Link to report)

They described the owl: “The cactus ferruginous pygmy-owl is a small gray-brown or rufous-brown owl, approximately 16.5 to 18 cm [about 7 inches] long. Wingspan is about 12 inches. In comparison with G. b. brasilianum and G. b. ridgwayi, this subspecies exhibits shorter wings, a longer tail, and generally lighter coloration.” Female typically weigh 75g while males average 64g.

“The vocal repertoire of the cactus ferruginous pygmy-owl comprises several calls, some of which appear to be specific to age or sex of the owl. The advertising call of the adult male is heard primarily at dawn and dusk but also during daylight and even moon rise, especially during the courtship period. It is ventriloquial and consists of a prolonged and monotonous series of clear, mellow, whistling notes… During the breeding season, females utter a rapid chitter, possibly a contact call with the male and juveniles and also for food begging.”

Habitat for the ferruginous pygmy owl is variable. ” Partly because of this species’ plasticity

and partly due to the lack of detailed habitat studies, the habitat requirements of cactorum remain poorly understood.”

“In the eastern part of the range, plant communities supporting the cactus ferruginous pygmy-owl are coastal-plain oak associations, mesquite bosques, and Tamaulipan thornscrub in south Texas …, lowland thickets, thornscrub associations, riparian woodlands and second-growth forests in northeastern Mexico.”

“In western Mexico, the owl may occur in Sonoran desertscrub, Sinaloan thornscrub, Sinaloan deciduous forest, riverbottom woodlands, cactus forests, and thornforests…. In Arizona, the owl is historically associated with cottonwood (Populus fremontii) and mesquite (Prosopis velutina) riparian woodlands …and Sonoran desertscrub.”

Pygmy owls are fierce hunters and frequently attack birds larger than themselves including mourning doves and chickens. They also hunt spiny lizards and rats.

The cactus ferruginous pygmy-owl was first described in the Tucson area in 1872 and naturalists described ” the subspecies as common or fairly common along some streams and rivers of central and southern Arizona.” Some authorities claims there was a sharp decline sometime before 1950, cause unknown, but it is speculated that the decline was due to changes in riparian areas. Some naturalists, however, noted expansion along irrigation canals. The story is also complicated by the fact that early naturalists lumped the Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy owl in with the Northern pygmy owl.

However, according to an exhaustive review of the literature by Attorneys opposing a 2008 petition by the Center for Biological Diversity, the owl was, and is, only a sporadic and localized visitor in Arizona and its population has actually increased slightly over the past 136 years. The claim of a sharp decline in population is unsupported by any documentation. Furthermore, because there is no difference between owls in Arizona and those in Mexico, the establishment of a “distinct population segment” in Arizona is unwarranted.

The range maps below put some perspective on the significance of the Arizona population relative to the population as a whole. However, environmentalists are still trying to get the Arizona population of pygmy owls listed as an endangered species.

Cactus ferruginous owl range map

Ferrugious owl range map

See also:

Pygmy owls and property rights

Whatever happened to Pima County’s Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan?

The Flaws in the Endangered Species Act

 

 

Pygmy owls and property rights

The political history of the Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy Owl plays large in Pima County, Arizona. Once again, radical environmental groups are trying to get the owl listed as an endangered species.

The Defenders of Wildlife and the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity are suing the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) to list the owl as endangered (See story in Arizona Capitol Times). They tried the same gambit two years ago (See Arizona Daily Independent story).

The pygmy owl is a natural resident of Mexico with an occasional fringe population in Southern Arizona. I will write more on its natural history in a future article.

Our story begins in the 1990s. The Amphitheater School District purchased land in March, 1994, to build a new high school in northwest Tucson to relieve overcrowding. Groundbreaking was scheduled for October 1997. But, the school district ran into a double whammy from the Endangered Species Act.

A dry wash on the property, which had water two or three days a year, was deemed a “wetland” which required a “404” permit from the Corps of Engineers. The pygmy owl was listed as endangered April, 1997, after a lawsuit brought by the Center for Biological Diversity (then called the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity). The FWS put a hold on the 404 by demanding an impact statement.

In 1997, we saw the following headline in the (now defunct) Tucson Citizen: “Owl habitat expanded across city, virtually every vacant lot affected.” The FWS issued “guidelines” covering the Tucson area which would require private land owners to obtain a biological assessment and a federal permit costing over $3,000 before any land clearing could take place. The FWS guidelines recommend that developers start surveying for owls if their property lies below 4,000 feet and has saguaros, ironwoods, mesquite or palo verde at specified heights and diameters. If a survey finds owls in or near a property, the owner should contact the FWS for mitigation requirements. The government says the guidelines aren’t mandatory, but federal officials warn that those who don’t follow them face lawsuits or prosecution if any owls are harmed.

Pima County supervisors refused to issue building permits for private land in the area, until their lawyer told them that the ban was illegal.

By the way, no owls were observed on the school land, but it was “potential habitat” requiring all the expensive surveys. USFWS admitted in the Federal Register that “he total number of pygmy-owls and their distribution in Arizona are unknown. Survey and monitoring work in Arizona resulted in documenting 41 adult pygmy-owls in 1999, 34 in 2000, 36 in 2001, and, most recently, 18 in 2002.”

USFWS maintained that the endangerment finding was warranted because the Arizona population of pygmy owls was a “discrete population” which ignored the main population in Mexico. Lawsuits by the National Association of Home Builders and the Southern Arizona Home Builder Association sued FWS. The court found that the listing rule did not articulate a rational basis for finding that the discrete population was significant to the whole subspecies. The Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy Owl was removed from the Endangered Species List in 2006.

The Amphitheater high school was eventually built after two years of litigation costing about $1 million in taxpayer money.

That’s only half the story.

In 1998, Pima County used the endangerment listing of the owl as an excuse to institute its very ambitious, but scientifically flawed, Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan. The legal idea behind SDCP was to obtain dispensation from FWS in the form of an Incidental Take Permit under section 10 of the Endangered Species Act. This allow county public works to proceed even if they would incidentally harm some endangered species. To do that the County had to specify which species it was going to protect and how it would do so. SDCP would allow private land owners to opt into the plan and come under its umbrella, but there were strict requirements for land use.

Pima County has yet to obtain a Section 10 permit, but they have incorporated many of the Plan’s land use restrictions into County Code. Property owners are left with the restrictions, but none of the alleged benefits. The County has spend millions of dollars acquiring private land to use as “mitigation” areas. As far as I can tell, there is no action by FWS or Pima County to proceed with the formal Conservation plan.

See Also:

Whatever happened to Pima County’s Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan?

The Flaws in the Endangered Species Act

Endangered Species Act could halt American energy boom

sage-grouseThe recent American energy boom in shale oil and gas could be hindered or halted by federal enforcement of the Endangered Species Act.  The Feds propose to add more than 700 new species for protection under ESA between now and 2018.  Among those are the Sage Grouse and Prairie Chicken, both found in western states.

Putting those birds on the endangered species list will allow federal bureaucrats to limit use of private and state land that have, so far, provided most of the new oil and gas discoveries and production.

According to the Washington Examiner, a principal problem with ESA enforcement is that “Many [federal] reports and studies used to justify ESA decisions have been found to have mathematical errors, missing data, errors of omission, biased sampling, undocumented methods, simulated data in place of more accurate empirical data, discrepancies between reported results and data, inaccurate mapping, selective use of data, subjective interpretation of results, fabricated data substituted for missing data, and even no data at all.”

Furthermore, according to a Congressional Working Group report on the Endangered Species Act, most of the federal agencies that administer ESA are unable to make basic and legitimate data underlying their policies and procedures available to the public, as required by law.

The Congressional Working Group also “found that the ESA, while well-intentioned from the

beginning, must be updated and modernized to ensure its success where it matters most: outside of the courtroom and on-the-ground. A two percent recovery rate of endangered species is simply not acceptable.”

The working group adds, “Americans who live near, work on and enjoy our lands, waters and wildlife show a tremendous commitment to conservation that is too often undermined and forgotten by the ESA’s litigation-driven model. Species and people should have the right to live and prosper within a 21st century model that recognizes the values of the American people and

fosters, not prohibits, a boots on-the-ground conservation philosophy that is working at many state and local levels. The ESA can be modernized to more successfully assist species that are truly in danger. It can be updated so species conservation does not create conflicts with people. All the while, the ESA should promote greater transparency in the way our federal government does business.”

Among the Congressional Working Group conclusions are:

“With less than 2% of species removed from the ESA list in 40 years, the ESA’s primary goal to recover and protect species has been unsuccessful. Progress needs to be measured not by the number of species listed, especially as a result of litigation, but by recovering and de-listing those that are currently listed and working cooperatively on-the-ground to prevent new ones from being listed.”

“Current implementation of ESA is focused too much on responding to listing petitions and unattainable statutory deadlines, litigation threats and ESA regulatory mandates, rather than on defensible policies, science or data to recover and de-list species. This slows or halts a multitude of public and private activities, even those that would protect species.”

“Current implementation of ESA does not clearly identify what is needed to recover and delist species, resulting in a lack of incentives, for state and private conservation, costly mandates,

and wasted resources even in light of increased federal funding.”

“The ESA punishes private property owners and water rights holders and fails to properly account for huge economic and regulatory burdens that also hinder species conservation. The ESA also advances the agendas of groups seeking land and water acquisition and control.”

“The ESA promotes a lack of data transparency and science guiding ESA-related decisions, and there are conflicts of interest and bias in ‘peer review’ of federal ESA decisions.”

“ESA is increasingly becoming a tool for litigation and taxpayer-funded attorneys’ fees. The Obama Administration’s use of closed-door settlements undermines transparency and involvement of affected stakeholders and drives arbitrary mandates and deadlines that do little to recover species.”

“ESA shuts out states, tribes, local governments, and private landowners not only in key ESA decisions but in actual conservation activities to preserve and recover species.”

 For more on this issue see two Washington Examiner articles by Mark Tapscott:

Feds enforcing Endangered Species Act keep data behind policies hidden from public

How the Sage Grouse and Prairie Chicken could end the U.S. energy boom

The Congressional Working Group report (64 pages) is available here.

This article was originally published in the Arizona Daily Independent.

See also:

Repeal the Endangered Species Act

Jaguar Listing and Habitat Designation Based on Junk Science

Proposed Jaguar habitat in Arizona and New Mexico is scientifically and legally indefensible

Forest Service closing in on final Rosemont report

In a meeting for press and legislators on Friday, November 16, Coronado Forest Supervisor Jim Upchurch announced that the Forest Service would not be releasing its Final Environmental Impact Statement on the Rosemont copper project in December, 2012, as planned. He would not speculate on a new date for the report. The Forest Service released its Draft Environmental Impact Statement in October, 2011, and has since received more that 25,000 comments from the public according to Upchurch. Upchurch is being very cautious and thorough to make sure the Forest Service meets its responsibility according to law. At the meeting, both opponents and proponents of the mine expressed frustration on the length of the process.

To begin mining, Rosemont Copper must obtain approvals and permits from local, state, and federal agencies. Rosemont started the process in July, 2006. I commented on this bureaucratic quagmire in my post: Mining and the bureaucracy.

Upchurch attributed the delay to pending action by several agencies:

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) is considering listing as endangered, or imposition of critical habitat for the jaguar, ocelot and several other species. Under the Endangered Species Act, the Forest Service must complete a “section 7 consultation” with FWS before it can issue a decision. Upchurch anticipates a decision from FWS in January or February, 2013. Note that Arizona Game & Fish recommends that FWS withdraw its proposal for jaguar critical habitat (see here), because “conservation of the species is entirely reliant on activities in the jaguar’s primary habitat of Central and South America to be successful. Lands in Arizona and New Mexico make up less than one percent of the species’ historic range and are not essential to the conservation of the species.”

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is still considering air quality impact due to particulate matter that may be released by the mining operation. Rosemont will submit updated air quality models this month. It is anticipated that Arizona Department of Environmental Quality will issue its air quality permit in December, which will probably show that Rosemont is in compliance with all state and federal regulations.

The Forest Service must coordinate with the Corps of Engineers concerning impacts on waterways, but this is somewhat of a circular argument since the Corps of Engineers can’t issue an opinion until it sees the Forest Service’s Final Environmental Impact Statement.

There are issues with 11 Indian Tribes. The mine site is alleged to contain up to 80 cultural sites, including burial sites, that must be considered and mitigated according to the National Historic Preservation Act.

Upchurch said that the process is about 85% to 90% complete. That would seem to preclude calls for starting all over again, something which Pima County and Representative Ron Barber have been promoting. Upchurch also said that the water issues are “mostly” resolved. What remains are mitigation for possible impacts to a few nearby water wells. Upchurch sees nothing in the water issue that would preclude the Forest Service from issuing its final report.

At the meeting, one “reporter,” John Dougherty, producer of an attack documentary film against Rosemont, several times commented that Rosemont’s proposed dry stacking method for tailings would result in the largest such dry stacked tailings dump in the world. Dougherty was implying some imagined danger. However, dry stacking of tailings is a much more stable method than conventional wet tailings. It also saves and recycles water. (See my post on dry stacking here.) This is an example of one of the many spurious issues with which Rosemont and the Forest Service have to contend. Dougherty’s comments got no traction from Upchurch.

In general, Upchurch said that as they get more and more information, the information shows that the mining project will have fewer detrimental impacts than some fear or allege.

See reporter Tony Davis’ take on the meeting in the Arizona Daily Star here.

As Tony quoted me in his article: “The process to approve this mine seems endless, and many people are frustrated. ..Maybe it means the laws controlling the process need to be changed.” Indeed, much of the delay is caused by inefficiency and lack of coordination in and among federal agencies. The Rosemont saga is nearing its seventh year in bureaucratic purgatory. Meanwhile, the projected benefits for jobs and our economy remain deferred.

Proposed Jaguar habitat in Arizona and New Mexico is scientifically and legally indefensible

JaguarA new report from the Pima Natural Resource Conservation District (PNRCD) shows that the proposal by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) to designate Critical Habitat for the jaguar under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is scientifically indefensible because it is based on flawed data, and it violates laws such as the Data Quality Act.

PNRCD requests that FWS withdraw its proposed rule “because habitat ‘essential’ to the conservation of the jaguar as a species does not exist in either Arizona or New Mexico under any scientifically credible definition of that term, because designation of critical habitat therein cannot possibly help save jaguars, and because the economic consequences of adding yet another layer of regulation and restriction on national security, resource production, water use, hunting and recreation during the worst recession on record since 1929 far outweigh any possibly discernible benefit to jaguars as a species that might be gained by designating critical habitat for them north of the Mexican border where they are but rarely transient…”

See report and supporting material at: http://www.sacpaaz.org/comments-on-proposed-jaguar-critical-habitat/

Some highlights:

For Critical Habitat to be established under ESA, the FWS must show that the area in question is essential to the jaguars conservation and survival as a species, not merely whether the area in question could host or has hosted individual, transient jaguars.  “Contrary to the claim of the Service in this proposed rule, recent, documented sightings of four or five individual jaguars on singular occasions, two of which occurred over a decade and a half ago, are not scientific evidence of current jaguar residency in or occupancy of the United States for purpose of critical habitat designation. Nor are these sightings scientific evidence that such brief, male-only transience represents use of habitat by jaguars essential to their collective existence or conservation as a species because the jaguar’s breeding range spans two continents, ends in northern Mexico, and the jaguar’s actual epicenter of abundance is located in South America.”

 The study shows how FWS is using opinion of so-called jaguar experts rather than hard data.  This goes counter to the requirements of ESA which states that design of Critical Habitat much be based on the best scientific data available rather than upon concepts and principles of conservation biology which rely on assumptions.

 The study examines reports of jaguar sightings in Arizona and New Mexico and shows why they do not meet the standards of scientific evidence of “essential” habitat.  The study documents that several jaguars were transported into the U.S. for the purpose of big game hunts and “seeding” a population for future hunts.  Jaguar sightings can be attributed to some of these jaguars rather than natural ranging of jaguars.

 The study also alleges that  false and mis-representative statements, published in the  2011 Arizona Game & Fish Department Jaguar Conservation Assessment, have been used by FWS to form a basis for Critical Habitat designation.

 The study shows FWS “misrepresents the distribution of jaguars within the United States by erroneously claiming that jaguars once occurred as far north as Santa Fe, New Mexico.”  PNRCD shows, however, that FWS errs in its attribution because the claim is actually based on a jaguar sighted near Santa Fe, Argentina, and not from New Mexico or the North American continent at all.

 The PNRCD study notes that “The premise that resident populations of jaguars existed in Arizona and New Mexico before 1900 is unsupported by the scientific record, and the scientific record of jaguars killed in Arizona and New Mexico after 1900 is fraught with discrepancies, inaccuracies, duplications and unreliability.”  The study also notes “that neither Padre Kino nor Juan Mateo Manje make any mention of jaguars in what is today Arizona despite their many entradas into southern Arizona conducted during the late 1600s and early 1700s, and when it is also considered that the Spanish offered no bounties on jaguars, ever, in what is today Arizona and New Mexico, respectively.”  If a natural population of jaguars  existed in Arizona in the early days, one would think that someone would have taken note.

 PNRCD provides thorough review of the historic records of jaguar occurrence for Arizona and New Mexico. As the PNRCD’s review clearly reveals, many of those records heretofore assumed by all researchers to be accurate and reliable are, in fact, both inaccurate and unreliable.  Moreover, this review found that ten fatal flaws compromise the scientific integrity of both the characterization of those records by editors, researchers and the Service to date, and, all conclusions and models of alleged suitable jaguar habitat and residency based on the use thereof.

 These ten, fatal scientific flaws are:

1) Use of inaccurate and unreliable records.

2) Reliance on the unfounded assumption that all recorded natural history of jaguars in Arizona and New Mexico began in the year 1900.

3) Reliance on and propagation of the false assumption that all sightings of jaguars in Arizona and New Mexico are of “naturally occurring” animals when many were actually of foreign origin and imported and released by humans for hunting purposes.

4) Failure to examine primary records and adequately verify cited data and literature for accuracy (an universal error).

5) Failure to present the specific dataset used in the model.

6) Failure to cite data sources or other sources for specific records.

7) Speculation that the location where a jaguar was killed, or in some cases where it was first sighted in the United States, somehow represents its preferred natural habitat.

8) Failure to acknowledge the existence of data rejected or omitted, and failure to explain why certain data was rejected or omitted when the reason is neither obvious nor apparent to the reader.

9) Failure to identify a specific jaguar in an occurrence record.

10) Failure to properly verify the data to prevent according duplicative records to the same jaguar.

 The last part of the PNRCD study shows how the FWS proposal fails to conform to the law in designating Critical Habitat for the jaguar.

See also:

Jaguar Listing and Habitat Designation Based on Junk Science

Jaguars versus the Rosemont mine

Should the Acuna cactus receive Federal protection?

Acuna-cactus-300x225The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) is proposing to list the acuna cactus (Echinomastus erectocentrus var. acunensis)  as an endangered species and establish critical habitat for it in Arizona.  Will such a listing and critical habitat actually have a positive effect on the cactus?

As described by FWS, the Acuna cactus is a small, spherical cactus, usually single-stemmed, that can be up to 16 inches  tall and 3.5 inches wide.  Rose, pink, or lavender flowers which are produced in March.  The fruits are pale green and contain small, black seeds.   This cactus occurs in valleys and on small knolls and gravel ridges of up to 30 percent slope in the Arizona Upland subdivision of the Sonoran Desert scrub at 365 to 1,150 m (1,198 to 3,773 ft) in elevation.

In a press release, FWS says, “Current evidence suggests that the acuña cactus and Fickeisen plains cactus are in danger of becoming extinct in the foreseeable future.”  The Arizona Daily Star puts it more dramatically: “Small cactus in Organ Pipe National Monument faces extinction.”

Let’s look at the threat assessment according to FWS (from Federal Register vol. 77, no. 192):

Urbanization:

Urbanization near Ajo and Florence may have direct or indirect effects on the cactus, but these areas comprise “less than 21 percent of known living acuna cactus individuals.”  “The majority of the range in the United States is protected from urban development because populations are on Federal lands, where little or no development will take place. In addition, most populations of the acuna cactus are relatively remote or otherwise protected from the effects of urbanization. We conclude that urban development and site degradation is not currently a threat to any entire population of the acuna cactus.”

Cattle grazing:

About 65 percent of acuna cactus occur in National Parks or National Monuments and are thus protected from cattle grazing.  Cattle grazing is not a threat.

Border Activities:

About 78 percent of known living acuna cactus live along or near the U.S.-Mexican border.  FWS concludes that “cross-border violators” are a threat the cactus habitat.

Invasive species:

Throughout the Sonoran Desert invasive species such as bufflegrass, red brome, and Lehmann’s love grass “have altered nutrient regimes; species composition and structure; and fire frequency, duration, intensity, and magnitude.”  However, FWS is not aware of any effect on populations of acuna cactus and concludes that invasive species pose no threat.

Mining:

FWS says, “We are aware of no acuna cactus populations that are currently impacted by active mining.”   “We conclude that current and future mining activity is not a threat to the acuna cactus and its habitat.”

Drought and Climate Change:

After a very long discussion, FWS concludes that “drought and the effects of climate change, combined with insect predation, rise to a rangewide level threat.”

Disease or predation:

FWS concludes “that predation is a threat that is resulting in significant population impacts to the acuna cactus, and this threat is expected to continue into the future.”

To summerize, FWS says that the cactuses are threatened by “border activities,” climate change, and by predation or disease.

Wryheat conclusion:

Listing the cactus as endangered and establishing critical habitat will only make the “border activity” problem worse because it will limit enforcement activities.

I do not see how the endangerment listing and establishment of critical habitat could have any impact on the effects of climate change, predation by animals, or upon disease.

The conclusion, therefore, is that the acuna cactus should not be listed; it’s just a waste of time, money, and resources.

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