As Year End Nears, Agency Acts on Multiple Species

Venus flytrap

WASHINGTON (CN) – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Tuesday announced a draft plan to protect prairie dogs, corrected an action on leopards, and found that five petitions merit more study.

After recently determining that white-tailed prairie dogs found in Utah, Wyoming, Montana and Colorado did not merit further study in the Endangered Species Act listing process, the agency has now announced a draft plan to protect Utah prairie dogs.

A Utah prairie dog in the grass at Bryce Canyon, Utah. (Kevin Doxstater/National Park Service)

The move is indicative of the agency’s recent efforts to rely on voluntary conservation agreements in an effort to avoid listing species under the ESA. According to the agency, this draft plan is to “create efficiency and certainty for developers.”

“Once again, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has bent over backwards to ensure Utah prairie dogs aren’t in the way of development, yet extreme private property rights groups are asking the Supreme Court to nullify protections,” Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said. “We hope this ridiculous ploy will be rejected by the court. The Endangered Species Act has worked to boost Utah prairie dog numbers without excessive burdens on landowners.”

Prairie dogs are the main prey of black-footed ferrets, an endangered species. The prairie dogs are threatened by eradication programs and diseases such as plague, in addition to habitat loss due to development.

The agency, under their new draft plan, proposed to issue ten-year permits under a General Conservation Plan to three Utah counties to allow a certain amount of “take,” meaning lethal or non-lethal harm, to prairie dogs during development activities. This “streamlined process” allows the counties to issue permits to individual developers to avoid the “time, resources and money, which could hinder economic growth,” required by the previous process where individual Habitat Conservation Plans were prepared and submitted by local developers or governments, according to the agency.

The service also announced a proposal to move five other species along in the ESA listing process, and tacked on corrections to a November 2016 determination that the leopard merited further study. It now says it made two errors in the action, and corrects them to clarify that the agency is evaluating the leopard’s status throughout its range, not just in countries where it is already listed as threatened, and secondly, that the leopard’s range extends to 62 countries in Africa and Asia, not just the four African countries previously noted.

The service determined that petitions to list five species under the ESA have merit and they now advance the species for further study. The Venus flytrap, tricolored bat, oblong rocksnail, sturgeon chub and sicklefin chub will now undergo a more rigorous 12-month review to determine if listing under the ESA is appropriate.

“The insect-eating Venus flytrap naturally occurs within a narrow range of longleaf pine habitat in southeastern North Carolina and northeastern South Carolina. It is believed to have been lost from large portions of its historical range due to fire suppression and loss of habitat from agriculture, silviculture, and residential and commercial development. Poaching for illegal trade is also believed to be a threat, as well as inadequate existing regulations for protecting the species,” the agency said. “The flytrap is legally grown commercially and by hobbyists, and these approved activities do not involve removing plants from the wild.”

The petition for the flytrap was submitted in October 2016 by Donald Waller, a University of Wisconsin-Madison botany and environmental studies professor, and 25 supporters. The flytrap is also found in two introduced populations in Florida and New Jersey, in addition to the populations in the Carolinas.

“This is the first step in what is supposed to be a two year process in protecting imperiled species, but the FWS has a backlog of hundreds of species waiting for protection, meaning these species will likely not see protection for years,” Greenwald said. “The main obstacles are lack of funding for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to make protection decisions and now political interference by the Trump administration.”

The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Defenders of Wildlife conservation organizations petitioned the service on behalf of the tricolor bat in June 2016. Many bat species are faltering due to disease, pesticides and development. In the past, the agency acknowledged climate change was also having a negative impact on bat survival.

“The tricolored bat is found in 38 states and the District of Columbia, from Florida to Canada, west to Colorado, and in Mexico and Guatemala. One of the primary threats to the bat is thought to be white-nose syndrome (WNS), which is caused by a fungus that spreads between individuals in hibernating bat colonies,” the agency said. “In recent years, WNS has killed millions of bats that hibernate in North America, including the northern long-eared bat, which was listed as threatened under the ESA in 2015. Conservation efforts are underway to better understand and address WNS by the service, other federal agencies, universities and partners.”

Bats are one of the many pollinator species that are in decline. In addition to their pollinating services, they have voracious appetites for insects, and provide a valuable agricultural service in that way as well. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, “loss of bats in North America could lead to agricultural losses estimated at more than $3.7 billion per year.”

“We’re glad this little bat is one step closer to the protection it so desperately needs to survive,” CBD’s conservation advocate Michael Robinson said. “If this bat is going to make it, the Trump administration needs to dramatically boost research efforts to find a cure for white-nose syndrome and protect its habitat.”

The CBD and the Cahaba Riverkeeper organizations also petitioned the service in June 2016 for the oblong rocksnail, found only in the Cahaba River in Shelby County, Alabama. Freshwater species struggle in many areas of the country due to water pollution from development and agriculture, as well as siltation and water diversion caused by damming projects and mining activities.

“The Oblong rocksnail was believed extinct until 2011 when a population was found.  It occurs in the Cahaba River in Alabama and has been driven to the brink by pollution from agriculture and urban sprawl.  The southeast is a hotspot of freshwater extinctions,” Greenwald said.  “We need to do a better job protecting the rivers that sustain our way of life in the southeast and elsewhere.”

Missouri River bluff at Yankton Sioux Reservation (National Park Service)

The WildEarth Guardians environmental group petitioned on behalf of the two minnow-family fish, the sturgeon chub and the sicklefin chub in August 2016. These fish are found in several states in the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Like the prairie dogs, these small fish are important prey for a species that is already listed as endangered under the ESA, the pallid sturgeon.

“These rare fish are struggling in the fragmented Missouri River and need the protections of the Endangered Species Act to survive,” Taylor Jones, endangered species advocate for WildEarth Guardians said when its petition for the chub species was announced. “The continued decline of these imperiled fish should be a call to action for the service. Rivers across the West are losing native species at an alarming rate. We must rethink the way we manage our rivers and create a sustainable system for both wildlife and people.”

The service stresses that the positive petition findings for the five species only advance the species in the listing process, it is not a guarantee that the agency will make a positive determination to list the species once the 12-month review is completed. The agency requests submission of relevant scientific information.

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