According to a release put out Tuesday morning by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, a plan has been crafted by a diverse group of stakeholders that includes 35 representatives from Federal agencies, the state of Alaska, the North Slope Borough, Alaska Native organizations, industry and non-profit organizations and the Canadian Wildlife Service, to guide Polar Bear conservation in response to the 2008 threatened species determination.
“We are working with our partners here in Alaska, throughout the US, and internationally to address all threats to polar bears,” said US Fish and Wildlife Service regional director Geoffrey Haskett. “The team we have convened to develop the United States conservation management plan includes a diverse array of perspectives about polar bears, but the one thing everyone can agree on is that polar bears should be conserved, the question is ‘how?’”
The new plan being crafted, will meet the legal obligations under the Endangered Species and Marine Mammal Protection act’s and will contribute to a global plan being drafted by the parties to the 1973 agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bear.
Called the Polar Bear Recovery Team, the team’s goal is to have the draft plan available for a 60 day public comment period in the late fall of 2014. The final plan will be ready for presentation to the international partners during their 2015 meeting.
“The service received over 700,000 public comments during the listing process, so we know the public has a great interest in the fate of polar bears,” Haskett said. “The public will have a similar opportunity to weigh in on how we continue to conserve and manage polar bears into the future as outlined in the plan.”
A public announcement will be issued when the comment period opens on the draft polar bear conservation management plan.
TACOMA, Wash. — You might call Barry Berejikian a steelhead stalker.
The government scientist’s pursuit of these anodramous trout has brought him to the deck of the Chasina, a research vessel that’s motoring through choppy gray waters of southern Puget Sound near the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.
He’s here to lay the groundwork for an experiment that could explain why so few steelhead are completing their journey through Puget Sound and on to the Pacific Ocean.
Since 2007, Puget Sound steelhead have been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Millions of dollars have been spent improving their habitat but the fish are not recovering.
And scientists can’t pinpoint why.
Berejikian aboard the research vessel Chasina. Credit: Ashley Ahearn
Berejikian is surrounded by keg-sized yellow buoys as he stands on the ship’s deck. These buoys are equipped with acoustic telemetry receivers and roped up to 500-pound concrete weights. The crew uses a crane to lift the devices over the side of the boat and drop eight of them 300 feet beneath the waves in a staggered line across Puget Sound.
Once they’re in place, the receiver buoys will float 20-30 feet above the bottom “listening” for fish. Later this spring, Berejikian plans to tag 300 juvenile steelhead in the Nisqually and Green rivers.
The floating receivers will record the tags when the fish pass by, enabling scientists to track individual fish as they make their way north through Puget Sound en route to the Pacific.
These arrays will be set up at four other points in Puget Sound, to chart how far the fish make it once they leave their spawning rivers.
“We want to detect every fish that comes through,” said Berejikian, who works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “It’s kind of an aggressive approach but if you’re going to go to the trouble of doing the study you might as well go for it, so we’re going for it.”
The rivers in this part of the Puget Sound region are producing tens of thousands of juvenile steelhead every year. But scientists believe that only 20 percent of those fish complete their migratory route to the ocean. That has scientists curious about the locations of steelhead death “hot spots” as Berejikian calls them.
“We need to figure out why they’re dying and where they’re dying in order for us to work on management approaches to improving the situation,” Berejikian said.
If you’re a steelhead on your way out of Puget Sound this might be what comes to mind when Berejikian says “death hot spot”:
Harbor seal populations have boomed since the 1970s, prompting scientists to explore whether seal predation is contributing to steelhead mortality. Credit: Ashley Ahearn.
“They eat all salmon species, which would include chinook, coho, steelhead, chum and pink salmon,” said Steve Jeffries, who has studied harbor seals with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife since the 1970s. Jeffries added that there could be other animals preying on the steelhead, like sea lions, cormorants or harbor porpoise, whose populations are also on the rise in Puget Sound.
And of course there are other factors at play: Human population has increased in Puget Sound since the 1970s, as has development along rivers and coastlines.
But seals are still on the list of suspects and one thing’s for certain: there are more seals than there used to be.
Since the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972, harbor seal populations in Puget Sound have risen from roughly 2,000 in the early 1970s, to 13,000 today.
In conjunction with Berejikian’s steelhead tagging, Jeffries plans to tag 12 harbor seals this year. The tags on the seals will track their movements. They’ll also act as receivers, like the floating buoys on the bottom of Puget Sound, recording if there are any tagged steelhead that come within range.
“If we find out that the seals are feeding over here and the steelhead smolts are swimming through the same area then you’ve got this special overlap and it’s more likely that there is a predation going on,” Jeffries explained.
And if the seals are eating the out-migrating juvenile steelhead?
“I don’t know the answer to that question,” Jeffries said. “Harbor seals, all marine mammals, are protected so any action that would come out of this would have to be vetted in a resource management arena.”
Jeffries said right now it’s too early to say if seals are a major contributor to steelhead mortality in Puget Sound. “It’s a long time in the future ‘til we would actually do anything proactive to reduce predation.”
We also do fair amount of reporting on the strange things people do to try to save individual species in peril: putting fish in trucks, removing a dam, relocating deer, and shooting one kind of owl to save another.
But what interests me the most are the big picture questions. Here are three questions conservation scientists are debating, inspired in part by this excellent conservation literature review.
1) Is It Time To Triage?
Governments and conservation groups have a limited amount of money to spend trying to recover endangered species. Those dollars are typically allocated to species judged to be the most at threat, the most ecologically unique and significant and the most charismatic. Scientists say tigers, pandas and spotted owls all benefit from a disproportionate share of conservation funding.
Researchers with the University of Queensland in Australia and the Department of Conservation in New Zealand have sparked a vigorous debate over the need to include two more criteria: the cost of management and the likelihood that an attempt to save a species will succeed.
The question of whether to stop trying to save some charismatic, highly imperiled species so funding can go to more help conserve more viable populations seems particularly relevant in the Northwest, where scientists are debating a potentially costly and risky campaign to save the spotted owl by shooting barred owls.
It’s also an idea that appears to have influenced local groups like the Wild Salmon Center, which has proposed protecting the Northwest’s strongest salmon runs and healthiest rivers as the most effective approach to salmon recovery.
2) Is There A Universal Minimum Viable Population?
Small populations are particularly vulnerable to extinction due to random catastrophe, variation in birth and death rates, and other factors. The idea of a minimum viable population was first introduced by biologist Mark Shaffer in a paper in 1981.
Getting an accurate population count of an endangered species is surprisingly difficult, and some scientists have argued for universal benchmarks for all species: 50 individuals for short-term survival, 500 individuals for the genetic health of a species, and 5,000 individuals for long-term viability.
However, many researchers have rejected the idea and argue that a species’ life history, size, environment and rate of decline all affect what constitute a viable population size.
In a recent study, authors Curtis Flathers et al, write that while marbled murrelets in the Northwest number in the tens of thousands, the species is still endangered by loss of nesting habitat and depletion of its food sources.
They offer the passenger pigeon as an example of a species that seemed abundant but ended up extinct.
“The extinction of the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius), perhaps the most abundant land bird in North America during the 1800’s (numbering 3–5 billion individuals ), stands as a sobering reminder that population size alone is noguarantee against extinction.”
3) Should We Be Assisting Migration?
The Oregon Climate Change Research Institute has reported that Humboldt squid from the tropics have moved into Oregon waters, birds are migrating earlier and moving further north, and small mammals in Eastern Oregon are contracting their high-elevation ranges.
Forest ecologists are predicting that climate change could threaten tree species like coastal yellow cedar and alpine whitebark pine.
Some scientists argue that many species will not be able to move or evolve quickly enough to survive climate change, and are calling for human intervention to assist migration of threatened species through the creation of seed banks and other strategies.
Where do you stand on these debates? Let us know the endangered species stories you think we should be covering.
Forty years after the passage of the federal Endangered Species Act, the state and Snohomish County remain squarely on the edge of that preservation frontier.
More than 40 animal species in Washington are listed by the federal government as either endangered or threatened under the law, signed by President Richard Nixon on Dec. 28, 1973. Many others are listed as species of concern.
Among creatures found in waters in and around Snohomish and Island counties, seven species of fish or marine mammals are listed under the act.
Of the local fish species and orcas, salmon and bull trout were listed in 1999, the killer whales in 2005 and the other fish species in 2010.
Reasons cited for the decline of the fish are many, including pollution, overfishing and loss of habitat. In the case of killer whales, dwindling supply of their diet staple — chinook salmon — is a major contributing factor, officials say.
Supporters claim many success stories for the Endangered Species Act, with bald eagles and peregrine falcons among the more prominent examples.
Gray whales were taken off the list in 1994 and steller sea lions just this year.
According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife, 99 percent of the hundreds of species listed since the Endangered Species Act became law have been prevented from going extinct.
The law protects species by preventing them from being harmed or captured and by regulating human activity in their habitat areas.
Perhaps the best feature of the Endangered Species Act, some say, is that it keeps the species’ problems in the public spotlight.
“It has pulled people together to talk about what to do,” said Daryl Williams, environmental liaison for the Tulalip Tribes.
Recovery for many species, however, is slow and not guaranteed.
“Listing is a way of sort of planning for recovery, if you will,” said Brent Norberg, a marine mammal biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Seattle.
The southern resident orca population, for example, had 88 whales in 2004, the year before it was listed under the ESA. The population now is down to 80, according to the Orca Network, a Whidbey Island-based group that tracks the whales.
“Because they’re so long-lived and their recruitment is so slow and their numbers are so small, it’s going to be quite a lengthy process,” Norberg said.
The EPA was created and Endangered Species Act was passed after pollution and declines in species had reached alarming levels, Ruckleshaus said. The Cuyahoga River in northeast Ohio, for example, famously caught fire in 1969.
“The public demanded something be done about it and the president responded,” he said.
He said the endangered species law might have overreached.
“We passed laws that promised levels of perfection that probably weren’t possible. It’s hard to do it, to be honest with you,” Ruckleshaus said. The law has been refined over time, he said.
Among those stories is perhaps the most high-profile recovery: the national symbol, the bald eagle.
The eagle’s numbers in the 48 contiguous states declined from roughly 100,000 in the early 19th century to only 487 nesting pairs in 1963, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife website.
Several measures were taken to help the eagle, beginning with the 1940 Bald Eagle Protection Act, which made it illegal to kill an eagle. The pesticide DDT, found to have thinned the eggshells of eagles and other birds, was banned in 1972.
Still, “listing the species as endangered provided the springboard” for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to accelerate recovery through captive breeding, law enforcement and nest-site protection, according to the agency’s website
Bald eagles rebounded and they now number about 10,000. The eagles were taken off the list in 2007.
The Endangered Species Act’s effect on salmon is not so clear, the Tulalips say.
Development that destroys habitat is not restricted enough to offset the losses, Williams said.
“We’re still losing habitat faster than we’re gaining it from restoration,” he said.
The problem is inconsistency in rules among various agencies involved in environmental protection, said Terry Williams, fisheries and natural resources commissioner for the tribes.
Also, because of the ESA, some habitat restoration projects have to jump through the same hoops as other construction, causing delays in measures that could help fish, Daryl Williams said.
“I kind of have mixed feelings about it,” he said.
Those restrictions may be a necessary evil, said Norberg, of the fisheries service.
For example, if creosote-soaked logs are being removed from a waterway, if it’s not done properly, it could result in creosote finding its way back into the water, “so it does as much harm as it does good,” he said.
Restrictions also can affect landowners’ use of their property. This not only angers some property owners but can defeat the intent of the law, said Todd Myers, environmental director for the Washington Policy Center, a right-leaning think tank in Seattle.
Because the law governs use of land where a listed species is found, some landowners take steps to eliminate habitat for a species on their property so it won’t be seen there, Myers said.
“You get a regulatory stick that puts landowners at odds with habitat recovery,” he said.
A better way, he said, is to reimburse landowners for measures taken to preserve or promote habitat, he said.
“That at least takes a step toward making a landowner a partner as opposed to an opponent.”
Despite the ESA’s flaws, “it is working well in terms of bringing all the various parties together to talk and to plan accordingly,” Norberg said.
The decline of the salmon might not be reversed without it, Ruckelshaus said.
“It is an extraordinarily complex problem,” he said. “But for the ESA I doubt we would have paid the attention to it we have, and I think that is absolutely necessary for it to recover.”