Report shows endangered species program flaws
SUMMIT COUNTY, Colorado – Federal biologists are falling far short of requirements to track the fate of endangered species, according to a recent report from the General Accounting Office.
The investigative arm of Congress studied how several federal agencies report and tally actions related to animals and plants on the endangered species list. The report showed that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (responsible for managing endangered species) does not have a way to track the reports it requires of other federal agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service.
Out of 497 species listed in the western states, federal investigators said the Fish and Wildlife Service only has a formal database for three of them – the spotted owl, the marbled murrelet and bull trout. Seven other species are tracked by informal means, leaving 487 species without meaningful tracking data.
Investigators found that federal biologists couldn’t come up with an accurate reckoning of the required data in 63 percent of the cases studied.
Biologists said requests for consultations on newly proposed projects often takes priority over following up on previously issued biological opinions.
Top-level Department of Interior officials appointed by the new Obama administration agreed with the findings and said they would direct regional offices to develop better ways to organize the data from various reports to meet the goals of the endangered species program.
“I agree with the GAO report,” said Will Shafroth, assistant deputy secretary for fish, wildlife and parks. Shafroth, who formerly headed Great Outdoors Colorado, said the Fish and Wildlife Service is already working to improve its performance in the area.
“We are still kind of in a reactive mode in response to the last administration,” Shafroth said, adding that the Obama administration just recently nominated a new director for the Fish and Wildlife Service.
In Colorado, the findings of the study are best understood by looking at specific examples, including threatened Colorado lynx and a quartet of endangered fish native to the Colorado River.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in Grand Junction is the central location where most of the studies and reports are compiled. Biologist Kurt Broderdorp has been working on lynx conservation in conjunction with the Forest Service for several years.
Broderdorp said the federal report illustrates some of the problems with analyzing endangered species information from numerous Forest Service jurisdictions that don’t necessarily communicate with each other.
One exception may be the Colorado River endangered fish program, he added. In that case, the water users and other interested parties have established an effective formula for communicating and sharing information that makes it relatively easy to track the program, he explained.
Somehow, federal biologists have to track and measure how the impacts from a logging project on the Routt National Forest, a ski area expansion and forest health work on the White River National Forest, and a new pipeline on the San Juan National Forest add up to affect lynx, for example.
“For lynx, it’s fairly easy,” Broderdorp said. “A lot of it is based on habitat, and some of it is based on mortality,” he said, referring to lynx deaths that have been documented from various causes, including auto collisions and illegal poaching. “We need to have a pretty good understanding of how many actions will result in ‘take,'” Broderdorp said, using the technical term to describe the incidental death of lynx resulting from agency actions.
The agency exempts a certain amount of take and tries to account for it as best as it can, but lynx, and other animals are moving targets.
“We believe there’s more take, but if you’re not tracking it, you don’t know,” Broderdorp said.
To make the tracking easier, the federal biologists look at the landscape on a broad scale. For example, when the White River National Forest revised its management plan in 2002, Broderdorp reviewed the plan and issued a report that set certain requirements for the preservation of lynx habitat. Under the plan, a certain amount of habitat degradation is permitted, but it can’t exceed threshold levels set by the Fish and Wildlife Service.
That means that, when the White River Forest wants to treat an area for forest health, or when it considers permitting a ski resort expansion, it has to meet those standards. For example, a project on the Dillon Ranger District can’t degrade habitat conditions in three adjacent lynx units. Broderdorp said the Forest Service is required to quantify its actions and report them on an annual basis.
The General Accounting Office report questions how well the Fish and Wildlife Service measures and tracks compliance with those requirements. According to the report, the agency must find a systematic way to evaluate that information.
Broderdorp said he maintains a spread sheet and tries to track the effects of all the projects going on across the region, but acknowledges that there is room for improvement.
“We don’t really always do a good as an agency with follow-up,” Broderdorp concluded.