Volume 16 - Issue 5

Editor: Laura M. Bies
Reporter: Pamela Thompson

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Wildlife Policy News is intended to foster the exchange of information about policy issues among Society leaders. The opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect official policy of The Wildlife Society unless so stated. Please share this publication with your colleagues. Contents may be reprinted with credit to Wildlife Policy News. We welcome comments and suggestions for future issues This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it .

In this Issue:

  1. Planned Drilling Near Teshukpuk Lake Creates Continuing Controversy
  2. Proposed Bald Eagle Delisting Subject of Lawsuit
  3. Briefing on the Elimination of the CRP and its Effect on Federal Spending
  4. Desert Tortoise Protections Subject of Lawsuit Against BLM
  5. EPA Pesticide Usage Rule Overturned in Compliance with ESA Standards
  6. Judge Rules on Hunting in National Wildlife Refuges
  7. New Report on the U.S. Population and the Environment Released
  8. Conservation Easement Tax Incentives Bill Signed By President
  9. New BLM Grazing Rules Challenged
  10. New Bird Species Discovered in India

Planned Drilling Near Teshukpuk Lake Creates Ongoing Controversy

In late August, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced the sale of leases for lands in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, including areas north and east of Teshukpuk Lake. The sale is scheduled for 27 September, but objections from multiple groups and a preliminary court injunction have temporarily blocked the plan. The area around Teshukpuk Lake has been closed to energy development in the past because of its ecological significance as an important goose molting area and critical calving and insect-relief habitat for the Teshukpuk Lake Caribou Herd. During the planning process for developing oil and natural gas on the North Slope, the BLM released a Record of Decision marking the Teshukpuk Lake Special Area a no-lease zone. However, rising energy demands and concern over American dependence on foreign oil have increased pressure to open up more areas in Alaska to drilling, and the decision to open one hundred percent of the NPR-A was made in early January of this year. The area could yield approximately 2 billion barrels of oil and 3.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, but extraction of these products will not begin for ten years.

Environmental reviews are scheduled as the oil development process gets underway, and there are some restrictions to surface activities including buffers around critical habitat. But an oil spill in March and recent pipeline corrosion problems at Prudhoe Bay, which caused America’s largest oil field to be partially shut down and Congress to hold a formal oversight hearing into BP’s regulatory practices, are causing many to question the efficacy of existing environmental regulations. Some wildlife professionals are also concerned that the proposed stipulations to protect wildlife in the BLM’s June 2006 ROD have not been tested. More than 80 members of Congress also oppose drilling in this area, and sent Secretary Kempthorne a letter in early August citing their concerns over impact to “one of the most important wetland complexes in the Arctic.” Secretary Kempthorne took a helicopter tour of the area in late August and declared the lease of almost 500,000 acres would go forward despite the concerns.

On 7 September, U.S. District Court Judge James Singleton issued a preliminary ruling to temporarily block sale of the leases near Lake Teshukpuk, citing evidence that the decision to drill was based on flawed environmental assumptions. Specifically, the ruling notes that the Department of the Interior was in violation of NEPA by failing to assess the “cumulative impacts” drilling would have on the Alaskan environment, nor were the potential effects on the endangered species of spectacled and Steller’s eiders (two types of sea ducks) taken into account. The BLM filed a brief on 15 September, arguing they had taken the required “hard look” at the effects of drilling, and urged the Judge to reverse his preliminary decision. A final ruling is expected at the end of September.

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Proposed Bald Eagle De-listing Subject of Lawsuit

The bald eagle has been the subject of several lawsuits lately, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) considers the removal of the species from the Endangered Species list. The FWS first proposed de-listing the bald eagle in 1999, but failed to make a final judgment; the agency re-issued the proposal earlier this year, and extended the comment period to 19 June. During that time, the Service has been reviewing comments, drafting voluntary management plans, and re-evaluating the term “disturb” under different laws that regulate interactions with bald and golden eagles. The species has received protections under the ESA since 1978. In mid-August, a federal judge ordered FWS to take the bald eagle off the Endangered Species list by 16 February 2007 unless it can prove it requires more time to deliberate the bird’s standing. The case was brought to the court in October 2005 by a Minnesota landowner who was unable to develop his land within 330 feet of a bald eagle nest. The Endangered Species Act (ESA) requires a final determination be made within one year of publication of a rule proposing revisions in a listing.

If the bald eagle is removed from the Endangered Species list, both the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act will continue to protect the bird, although there will be no specific protections for the its habitat. The population of bald eagles has swelled from 500 mating pairs in the lower 48 states in the 1960s to an estimate of 7,000 nesting pairs today. In early September, the FWS decided Arizona’s population of bald eagles would not receive special protections as an endangered subpopulation, despite concerns raised by conservation groups including the Arizona Audubon Council. For more information on the proposed delisting of the Bald Eagle, visit: http://www.fws.gov/migratorybirds/BaldEagle.htm.

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Briefing on the Elimination of the CRP and its Effect on Federal Spending

On 7 September, the Environment and Energy Study Institute convened a briefing on the possible economic effects of the elimination of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), a program undergoing review for the 2007 Farm Bill Reauthorization. The CRP allows farmers to voluntarily retire part of their property from production for soil, water and wildlife conservation purposes, in exchange for government payments. In fiscal year 2005, 34.9 million acres were enrolled in the CRP, the majority of which are located in a wide band from the Dakotas to Texas.

Professor Daryll E. Ray, Director of the University of Tennessee’s Agriculture Policy Analysis Center (APAC) presented the economic analysis, which indicated that eliminating the CRP would actually increase farm program costs by $33 billion. This figure comes from APAC simulations on the market effect of increased supply of corn, wheat, soybeans and cotton that would result from acres being taken out of the CRP and put back into farm production. Soybeans would be the most strongly affected, with a predicted drop of $0.90 in price by the year 2015. Elimination of the CRP will increase the supply of these crops and effectively lower their price; along with crop market returns and net farm income decreases, the analysis also predicts government payments will have to increase to subsidize the loss to farmers. APAC’s economic analysis can be viewed at http://www.eesi.org/briefings/2006/Ag&Energy/9-7-06CRP/briefing%20notice.htm

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Desert Tortoise Protections Subject of Lawsuit Against BLM

Conservation organizations filed a suit against the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in mid-August, alleging the agencies have not taken adequate measures to preserve and protect federally threatened and endangered species from threats posed by off-road vehicle (ORV) use in the California Desert Conservation Area. The Center for Biological Diversity, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, The Sierra Club, and others joined in the complaint, which cited the agencies’ failure to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Federal Land Policy Management Act when the BLM designated certain ORV routes in its management plans. The plans leave 95 percent of ORV trails open for use, and legitimize previously illegal routes created from prior off road recreational activities. The area in question covers 7.1 million acres and cuts across 7 counties in California.

The groups bringing suit are particularly concerned about the impact on the Desert Tortoise, which has been listed as threatened or endangered since 1980. A Recovery Plan was proposed in 1994, but the suit argues that the BLM has failed to implement the plan, and this inaction is responsible for the continuing decline in tortoise numbers. The US Geologic Survey recently completed a survey of scientific research evaluating the effectiveness of recovery plans for the desert tortoise. Their findings indicate wide gaps in knowledge on the issue, and cite the tortoise’s long life, difficulty in detection, and multiplicity of threats as impediments to recovery.

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EPA Pesticide Usage Rule Overturned in Compliance with ESA Standards

On 24 August, a federal judge overturned a 2004 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule change that weakened regulations governing pesticide usage, following a lawsuit filed by a coalition of conservation groups including the National Wildlife Federation. The rule, proposed by the Bush administration after a previous suit filed against the EPA regarding the same issue in 2001, allowed the agency to bypass consultation with the US Fish and Wildlife Service when deciding whether pesticide application would pose a risk to threatened and endangered species. When the 2004 rule was originally proposed, sixty-six Members of Congress sent a letter of opposition to the EPA Administrator and Cabinet officials, expressing serious concern over the threat to humans and wildlife and the effect of eliminating interagency checks and balances.

U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour overturned the 2004 rule, stating in his ruling that the “the administrative record is striking in its total lack of any evidence of technical or scientific support for the policy positions ultimately adopted” by the EPA, and there is evidence that these policies would “actually result in harm to listed species.” Also at issue was the EPA’s lack of an Environmental Impact Statement as to the effect of the rule, which violated the National Environmental Policy Act.

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Judge Rules on Hunting in National Wildlife Refuges

In early September, a federal judge ruled the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to examine the cumulative effects expanded hunting programs have on visitors, migratory birds, and endangered species on National Wildlife Refuges. The suit, which targets increased hunting on 37 refuges for a six-year period, was brought by the Fund for Animals, a non-profit organization now a part of the Humane Society. The refuges in questions are mostly located in the South, Midwest, and Pacific Northwest.

As a result of the judge’s ruling, FWS may have to conduct an environmental assessment of its hunting programs, and possibly revise some of its hunting policies; the judge did not, however, approve the Plaintiffs’ request to grant specific mandates to cease hunting on these refuges. David Eisenhauer, a spokesmen for FWS, emphasized the importance of hunting in the refuge system: “Hunting gives resource managers a valuable tool to control populations of some species that might otherwise exceed the carrying capacity of their habitat and threaten the well-being of other wildlife species, and in some instances, that of human health and safety.”

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New Report on the U.S. Population and the Environment Released

The Center for Environment and Population recently released a report detailing the environmental impacts of rising population density on the U.S. The report focuses on how the trends of rapid growth, suburbanization, and concentration of populations in coastal communities are directly linked to rapidly vanishing species, water pollution, and global climate change. The report looks at national, regional, and state-by-state trends in population and environmental stress, and examines the issue from a “per-capita environmental impact” perspective. The findings highlight the fact that the “U.S. is the only industrialized nation in the world experiencing significant population increases,” and has “the largest per-capita environmental impact in the world.” It also found that there are approximately 6,700 known plant and animal species at risk of extinction in the U.S. The release of the report coincides with a new peak in the U.S. population, which is predicted to reach 300 million in the fall. The report is available at http://www.cepnet.org/documents/USNatlReptFinal.pdf.

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Conservation Easement Tax Incentives Bill Signed By President

On 17 August, President Bush signed H.R. 4, the Pension Reform Bill, into law. Language in the new law grants increased tax deductions for conservation easements, which are legal agreements between a landowner and a land trust or government agency limiting uses of the land to protect its conservation values, and abuses thereof. Easements ensure that millions of acres of wildlife habitat across the country remain healthy and intact, as well as improve water quality to maintain healthy watersheds. In addition, easements can protect critical wildlife migratory corridors, promote outdoor recreation activities and tourism, and create “buffers” to development when situated adjacent to existing public lands like national parks.

The bill raises the maximum deduction a donor can take for donating a conservation easement from 30% of their adjusted gross income (AGI) in any year to 50%, allows qualified farmers and ranchers to deduct up to 100% of their AGI, and increases the number of years over which a donor can take deductions from 5 years to 15 years. The law authorizes these incentives for two years. However, in light of the clear conservation benefits of the provisions, supporters of the legislation are working to extend them.

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New BLM Grazing Rules Challenged

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released new rules regarding grazing regulations on 12 July, which would limit public input in day-to-day grazing decisions and revise ownership of certain range titles. The new regulations mandate the BLM to consider the “social, cultural and economic effects” of decisions on ranchers and enable permit holders to share in the ownership of new fences, wells, and pipelines. The new rules also limit public participation by changing the definition of “interested publics,” and narrowing the BLM’s duty to consult, cooperate, and coordinate with the interested public. A federal judge in Idaho recently passed an injunction against enactment of the new regulations, set to take effect 11 August, until two lawsuits against the BLM are resolved. One suit, filed by the Western Watersheds Project, argues that the BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act and misrepresented the nature and scope of the effects of the new regulations would have on soil erosion, water quality degradation, and harms to fish and wildlife. The other suit, brought by a coalition including the Natural Resources Defense Council and National Wildlife Federation, focuses on the exclusion of public input from public land management. The judge held that these were sufficient claims to warrant an injunction and has ordered the attorneys from both sides to meet and discuss possible outcomes.

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New Bird Species Discovered in India

A new bird species has been observed in Northeastern India, at the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary near the Chinese border. The discovery was made by an amateur ornithologist and professional astronomer, Ramana Athreya, who named the bird Liocichla bugunorum after an indigenous group that lives in the area. Athreya took photographs and feathers, recorded the bird’s song, and wrote detailed descriptions of the bird before releasing it, noting “We thought the bird was just too rare for one to be killed... With today’s modern technology, we could gather all the information we needed to confirm it as a new species.” Athreya first observed the bird in 1995, but only earlier this year caught one in a mist-net, which allowed him to distinguish this species of Asian babbler from its closest neighbor, the Liocichla omeiensis of Southwest China. The newly discovered species is approximately 10% larger than L. omeiensis , although its beak is smaller, and has different plumage and calls. A paper describing the new species is available at http://www.indianbirds.in/images/IB%5B1%5D.2.4.Liocichla.pdf.

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