Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Guest Column: Wildlife Management Expert John Wrede Critiques SD Governor Daugaard's Take On The Endangered Species Act

Before the Endangered Species Act should be reformed, South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard ought to be honest with himself and the citizens of our state about the underlying reasons why he finds the 1973 law problematic and dysfunctional in its present form. The Governor should also conduct an honest assessment of conditions and prospects in his own back yard before proselytizing that state governments have greater expertise and are more well equipped to administer a program as essential as the Endangered and Threatened Species program which also includes the framework for implementing the Congress in Trade in Endangered Species on a world wide scale.
    The Governor cites a recent trip to Washington with the Western Governors Association to discuss topics of mutual interest; one of which seems to have been the Endangered Species Act.   According to the Governor, an August 2015,  poll conducted by a conservative leaning media company called Morning Consult, that was published by the American Farm Bureau Federation in late September of this year is the incentive for he and other western governors to once again question the efficacy and efficiency of the Endangered Species Act and call for its revision.    Even a casual review of the poll and its raw results allows a reasonable person to conclude that the Governor grasps at straws.  http://www.fb.org/tmp/uploads/150706_topline_FB_v2_JW.pdf   
   Governor Daugaard, nor any of the other members of the Western Governors Association, appear to have reviewed the results of several other polls conducted by other organizations, during the same time frame, which paint an entirely different picture of public opinion about the ESA’s function and necessity in the US.   Polls conducted by groups such as “Center For Biological Diversity” http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/news/press_releases/2013/endangered-species-act-03-04-2013.html, “Defenders of Wildlife”; http://www.publicnewsservice.org/2015-09-30/endangered-species-and-wildlife/new-poll-colorado-voters-support-endangered-species-act/a48350-1, Earth Justice, and some other rather fringe environmental groups tend to reveal that all the political bloviating about ESA fixes are solutions looking for a problem.     For further inquiry, one can absorb the results of this poll of wildlife professionals conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists that unmistakably demonstrates that political meddling and influence into scientific processes is both unwelcomed and unnecessarily troublesome. https://www.hcn.org/articles/political-science.
     Americans and South Dakotans in particular should be acutely aware that there can be no such thing as a political solution to a biological or natural resource problem and since the WGA has been mentioned in a piece about revising the ESA, written by Governor Daugaard in the Rapid City Journal, (October 12, 2015) a rational person can reasonably conclude that the issue is political rather than environmental.   Researching the WGA agenda, it is imminently clear what Governor Daugaards advocacy is really all about and it has very little to do with natural resources, the success or failure of endangered species regulatory policy, or anything of similarity.   Hidden in all the politically inspired rhetoric is the issue of States Rights and one politician’s interpretation of the 10th Amendment vs. another’s.  
      Revision of the Endangered Species Act isn’t the issue.  The entire complaint about the ESA is a microcosm of the merciless political whine concerning the unsubstantiated and unproven claims of Federal Government overreach into the affairs of the individual states!    It’s a commonly heard grievance wafting out of Representative Kristi Noem’s office as well as that of former Governor Mike Round’s and John Thune’s Senatorial chambers. The honest issue is who has control of the ESA and other Federal Acts along with  the belief that the states can do a better job of management rather than Federal management  application of those laws in the several states.  Disregard the Bald Eagle and a scant handful of other species recovered under the Endangered Species Act.   No mention of where the funding for all that comes from or might come from!  
     The bickering and political jousting also avoid any discussion about the purpose for the Endangered Species Act.  In a nutshell, the ESA is nothing more than an early warning system; similar to the “canary in a coal mine” principle, that should show the citizenry and responsible leaders that there are things going wrong with the natural world we depend upon for our existence.  We can continue to ignore or diminish the importance of species decline and disappearance (which also includes plants,  reptiles, insects, [do bees mean anything to anyone] and aquatic organisms) or, under ESA guidelines and requirements, we can actively engage the science and begin the decades long process of trying to restore ecological balance to accommodate species recovery.  

   In his Opinion article, Governor Daugaard mentions two species of recent controversy as they relate to the Endangered Species Act and he asserts that in both cases, habitat is the primary issue, which is a significant part of the problem but not all of it.   He also asserts that the state and private property owners are in a better position and better qualified to repair, restore and protect habitats; to recover species like the endangered Topeka Shiner or the Greater Sage Grouse; which faced listing as an endangered species until the US Fish and Wildlife Service decided last month not to list the species after succumbing to egregious political and funding withdrawal threats from Congress.  Some might argue that the reason the US Fish and Wildlife Service chose not to list the Greater Sage Grouse is because the 13 individual states with sage grouse populations had developed and already implemented sage grouse management plans that assure recovery of the species to viable numbers across their range. (The reader needs to note the number 13 and keep it in focus for later comparison)   Even a casual review of South Dakota’s Sage Grouse Management plan (started in 2004) is an insult to that notion.  The plan does nothing, can’t do anything, and hasn’t done anything since it was adopted by the Game, Fish and Parks Commission in 2014.  (more on this later)  
     Some may not remember but our distinguished Senator from South Dakota, John Thune, introduced an amendment to a federal spending bill that prohibited the US Fish and Wildlife Service from spending any additional money to gather and evaluate information related to the pending decision to list the Greater Sage Grouse as an endangered species.  Senator Rounds, a known Federal regulation and management antagonist fully supported the measure.   If that isn’t political tom foolery and meddling in a scientific process required by the ESA law, I don’t know what is.  This sort of irresponsible political behavior isn’t just confined to the federal system.

    In reaction to the decision not to list the greater sage grouse, the USF&WS sister organization in the Department of Interior, the Bureau of Land Management,  issued a Notice to Withdraw 10,000,000 acres of land  in Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming from mineral entry.  The notice indicates that the withdrawal is necessary to further protect sensitive sage steppe habitats in those states 6 states.  South Dakota has a considerable amount of public land sage steppe habitat in Butte and Harding County.  Why wasn’t important sage steppe habitat in South Dakota withdrawn from energy and mineral entry?   http://www.minerallawblog.com/mining/mining-on-10-million-acres-in-six-states-impacted-by-blms-proposed-withdrawal/   That withdrawal is now being challenged in court by a collection of enterprises associated with the Energy industries.  

The citizens of South Dakota and particularly those interested in our natural history, wildlife and the outdoors need to review Chapter 34A-8 of South Dakota Codified Law to even begin to understand how our own state officials are complying with a body of state statute law that has been in existence since the Kneip administration ended in 1978.  A review of that body of law and the program associated with it should make it  obvious that State government isn’t  interested or concerned about actively recovering or protecting State listed threatened and endangered species much less those species listed as Federally threatened or endangered.  http://legis.sd.gov/Statutes/Codified_Laws/DisplayStatute.aspx?Statute=34A-8&Type=Statute

     As a matter of explanation, the State of South Dakota Endangered, Threatened and Candidate Species listing contains 19 federally listed species of invertebrates, fishes, reptiles/amphibians, birds mammals and plants; 22 state listed species and 6 species that are both state and federally endangered or threatened.  There are more endangered and threatened species identified by the State of South Dakota than by the Federal government in the Endangered Species Act.   The Topeka Shiner appears on that list as both a federal and state listed endangered species.  The State of South Dakota monitors the Topeka Shiner as a part of an active Management Plan promulgated by the SD Department of Game, Fish and Parks.  In spite of SDCL 34A-8, the South Dakota Department of Agriculture has not contributed funding or program assistance in any of the efforts.   Funding for the planning and monitoring program is paid for, in large measure, out of the US Fish and Wildlife Service budget with a small matching contribution from the state.  Neither the state nor the Federal Government has recovery plan for the Topeka Shiner in SD because the species is currently, relatively stable and widely distributed in the state; a condition that likely stimulates the Governors complaint along with the stark reality it takes cooperation and modest funding from other states in the species range to produce a viable recovery plan.  The same cannot be said for the species throughout most the rest of its range.  Currently, habitat for the Topeka Shiner in South Dakota appears to be of good enough quality and quantity to maintain reasonable population densities.  There is nothing in the management plan or in surface water management policy in South Dakota however; that guarantees that condition into the future.   Given the current status of surface water issues in the state, (draining filling of wetlands, drain tiling, agricultural runoff and urban and agricultural  pollution) it won’t take too many years to degrade the habitat for the species the same as it has in Kansas.   In that regard, the Topeka Shiner is representative of a safeguard that could require the state to address problems of water quality, quantity and drainage that it heretofore hasn’t shown much interest in addressing.  Additionally, should South Dakota’s Topeka Shiner population remain stable in the future, it is highly likely that it will be a source population from which reintroductions into former ranges can take place in other states; after habitat recovery has taken place, We can understand why the Governor labors over the absence of endangered species recovery plans!  If authorities honestly felt they were important or relevant to species conservation, the state would have a library full to keep up with its own listings. To date, all we have are incidental monitoring of species that does nothing except illustrate a brief glimpse of species status and trend.    

Governor Daugaard also complains about the Greater Sage grouse listing process and suggests that the state and private landowners are in a better position, better qualified and more motivated to provide habitat for the species than the federal government.   If that were factually the case, there would be ample evidence of state involvement in habitat development and species conservation ever since the Sage Grouse was listed but precluded in 2010.  Factually, the State of South Dakota hasn’t spent one dime on the Greater Sage Grouse habitat development.  Currently, the only habitat conservation and habitat program directed at the greater sage grouse is a federal program, initiated by the United States Department of Agriculture, entitled the “Sage Grouse Initiative” that pay’s private landowners to set aside acreage for sage steppe habitat recovery similar to the popular CRP program.  The Nature Conservancy has also purchased tracts of land in western SD that will be managed to improve sage steppe habitat for sage grouse and other sage brush obligate species.  The only thing that the State of South Dakota does or has done historically, is conduct a statistically incompetent survey of breeding male sage grouse in the spring; the data from which can’t, successfully be incorporated into a long term data set that would more accurately reflect a population trend that is estimated to have declined more than 70% since the early 1980’s.   Comparing South Dakota’s sage grouse population information with that of Wyoming or Colorado as an example, it can be said with a great deal of accuracy that we have no idea what the status and trend of sage grouse populations are in the State and from that; if we have no realistic picture of what sage grouse populations look like, we have no ability to say if the species is or isn’t imperiled in the State.

     What the Governor doesn’t mention is that, like the greater sage grouse, there are other sage brush obligate species on the state imperiled list that have neither a management plan or recovery plan in place.   http://gfp.sd.gov/wildlife/threatened-endangered/rare-animal.aspx
 Among those on the list are the Brewer’s Sparrow and Sage Thrasher;  two sage steppe obligate species whose existence is entirely dependent upon the quality and quantity of Sage steppe habitat anywhere within their range which includes parts of western South Dakota.  These facts beg the question; as a sage brush obligate species like the previous two, why isn’t the sage grouse listed as threatened or endangered on the states’ list? If habitat was really an issue, why doesn’t the state have an active, reasonably funded program to restore and conserve the sage steppe biome in South Dakota?  If the State and its private landowners are more qualified and prepared to develop and protect habitat for sage brush obligate species; why hasn’t it been done at the first sign of sage grouse declines in the 1980’s or since the Brewers Sparrow and Sage Thrasher were listed as imperiled well before the sage grouse was considered for federal listing as an endangered species.   Further, why are the Sage Grouse and Topeka Shiner privileged with a management plan while most of the other species are only monitored periodically to determine status in the same habitat and have no habitat or population recovery plan?  The State of South Dakota has an “All Bird Conservation Plan “that identifies priority species of concern in South Dakota.  The plan presents habitat requirements for those species and identifies possible habitat management options.  Serious, viable or  comprehensive plans that actively attempt to perform those acts necessary for the conservation, management, protection, restoration, and propagation of endangered, threatened, and nongame species of wildlife as stipulated in SDCL 34A-6 are missing.   To this author’s knowledge, the Bald Eagle is the only species listed as both State and Federally endangered in South Dakota that has been recovered and delisted.  The State of South Dakota has never had a formal Bald Eagle Recovery Plan.  The effort has been funded and implemented entirely by the Federal Government.  Furthermore, whenever a species is listed, the federal government pays the lion’s share of the costs of the recovery program.  A good example of that is the Black Footed Ferret recovery effort which South Dakota has obstructed for many years due to the mammals symbiotic relationship with prairie dogs, another species that has dwindled in numbers and distribution across its range in North America.  The governor has no standing to complain about program costs when a species is federally listed.  In the early 2000’s when the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, were developing the Greater Sage Grouse Conservation Assessment and Greater Sage Grouse Conservation Strategy, State conservation plans and stakeholder groups were already functioning in Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, and Washington to locate funding sources and develop large scale projects to preserve and enhance sage steppe habitat.  South Dakota wasn’t one of those states in spite of research conducted by SDSU that confirmed habitat on the edge of the sage grouse range could  be more productive and species diverse than that of the core located in Wyoming and Montana.  
   Careful examination of the Governors examples of poor federal management and recovery of endangered species reveal some details that he has either forgotten or chose not to address in his remarks about ESA.  The Governor asserts that the States have developed management plans and realized enough success from implementation of those plans to convince the Fish and Wildlife Service that the Greater Sage Grouse does not need to be listed as an Endangered Species.  He also asserts that those planning efforts and the projects implemented from those plans guarantee a secure future for the species.  He doesn’t say where.   South Dakota’s plan has no actionable habitat projects or programs.  In fact, the goals, objectives, and responsibilities in the plan are immeasurable, are so imprecise and non-specific as to be useless, they have no timeline for accomplishment, the plan fails to state who is responsible for implementing the plan and there is no budget to fund the plan.     If one compares South Dakota’s plan to that of any of the other State plans, it should be plainly obvious that it does nothing for habitat development and species conservation and was never intended to do anything.  http://gfp.sd.gov/wildlife/management/plans/docs/SageGrouseManagementPlan.pdf
During the Rounds Administration, it was well known by wildlife professionals in the state that concern for the status and trend of sage grouse and their habitat was limited to a handful of landowners and others in Western part of the state.  The general attitude of the administration was; “We shouldn’t care if the species is threatened and may be possibly federally listed.  If the “Fed” lists the species, it will be one less thing we have to pay for, so let them list it.”  It will be the Fish and Wildlife Service’s problem then, not ours!”  That was before the Bakken Oil Boom fully blossomed and state authorities became aware that it could spill over into Harding, Butte, Perkins and portions of Meade County thereby providing mineral royalty and severance tax windfall for cash strapped state and county governments.  After those possibilities hit home, the attitude about a Sage Grouse listing as an endangered species changed.  Listing the species would effectively bring significant change to oil and gas development, public land grazing ( Harding County has in excess of 500 square miles of land owned by the state and much of that land is primary sage grouse range.  
   The State of South Dakota was the last state to produce a Sage Grouse Management Plan and that plan was not completed until long after the greater sage grouse was considered for listing in 2010.  Every other state plan in the sage grouse range in the Western US was completed prior to 2006 and some plans, like those in Wyoming, Colorado and Idaho have only been in the implementation stage for less than 10 years.  Other states are just barely into the implementation phases of their plans and neither North Dakota or South Dakota have implemented their plans at all.  In fact, North Dakota’s population of sage grouse has nearly disappeared due entirely to oil and gas development, overgrazing and West Nile virus.  Further, habitat plans and projects are set up to be monitored and measured annually and assessed for their value to the conservation effort.  A project involving Sage Brush habitat improvement cannot measurably improve the sage steppe landscape for 6 years and some projects take longer than that.  Successful sage brush reintroductions take up to 10 years to respond successfully and positive changes in grazing systems take a minimum of 3 years to measure.   The only plans operational prior to 2010 were Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Washington.  Pointedly, there is no evidence out there to date, to show conclusively, that state efforts to conserve and protect sage steppe and the greater sage grouse are sufficient to warrant delisting the species.    Understanding that, one has to question the validity of the Governors Statement that the states have shown the Fish and Wildlife Service they are capable of restoring the species to viable numbers across the range.  In this authors professional opinion, The Governor spins a web full technical holes.  

Which raises a highly relevant and yet unnoticed issue.

    When the US Fish and Wildlife Service reacted to petitions to list the Greater Sage Grouse prior to 2010, there were 13 states with sage grouse populations that were engaged together in conservation assessment and planning efforts.  South Dakota and North Dakota were two of the 13.  Now, according to both the Department of Interior and the Western Governors Association, there are only 11 states that will be involved in habitat conservation and recovery of the greater sage grouse across the range of those states.  Specific states are not mentioned but it should be noted that the Department of the Interior and USDA Forest Service have withdrawn substantial acreages of public land from oil and gas entry and significant modification of grazing regimes in the Great Basin and adjoining states which represent the core of Sage Grouse range in the Western United States to help with sage grouse recovery plans.  Since North Dakota’s population of birds is gone or nearly so any effort at trying to implement North Dakota’s plan would be futile.  The only two states left on the fringe of their range are California and South Dakota.  The reader can be the judge of which state will sell it’s natural heritage down the river in favor of short term oil and gas leasing and rapacious, poorly managed grazing management.   

    Governor Daugaard indicates that State Government and South Dakotans know all about habitat development and understand the importance of wildlife habitat to our culture and economy.   That might be partially true if one considers all the clamor over the loss of pheasant habitat in central and eastern South Dakota, the brouhaha of the Governors Pheasant Task Force, and the resultant legislative attempt at establishing a viable and perpetual fund for pheasant habitat development.  It can’t be true much less honest if one considers that the Governor and the State Bureaucracy seem to ignore all other habitat types and species in South Dakota and blame federal law for trying to protect species and habitat that ultimately have been a neglected state responsibility for at least 40 years………….. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the Endangered Species Act or its purpose…… There is, however, something very wrong with the orientation and philosophy of Governors and state agencies that are unabashedly negligent in the stewardship of the public’s assets and their honesty and credibility to suggest repairs to laws and programs that aren’t broken!   Governor Daugaard has stated on several occasions, including in an address to the South Dakota Legislature, that state leaders and the legislature need to practice better stewardship of South Dakota’s assets.  While he was likely thinking about the state’s tax revenue, budget and public programs at the time, it’s not too late to remind him that South Dakota’s wildlife, wild lands, water, soil and scenic beauty are an equally valuable asset in the state’s inventory that deserves more than casual and cavalier attention.  For many of us old timers, our quality of life is directly connected to those things and we’d like to pass that on to our kids and grand kids.

John Wrede is a retired South Dakota Conservation Officer, Regional Wildlife Manager, and former Chairman of the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies Sage and Columbian Sharp-tailed Grouse Technical Committee with more than 20 years of training and experience in grouse and other wildlife monitoring and management.  After retiring from SDGF&P in February of 2007 with 31 years of service to the State of South Dakota, he worked as a Biological Research Technician for the Northern Great Plains Inventory and Monitoring Network of the National Park Service in the Black Hills Region for four years designing and conducting wildlife, plant and water monitoring survey protocols.   An upland and big game hunter for more than 55 years, Wrede lives with his wife and family in Rapid City.

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