The Endangered Species Act: 1973-2018

By Isabelle Bienen, NWNL Research Intern
(Edited by Alison M. Jones, NWNL Director)

NWNL research intern Isabelle Bienen is a junior at Northwestern University studying Social Policy with minors in Environmental Policy & Culture and Legal Studies. Her  research on the Endangered Species Act focuses on a current topic of interest in the US.  Her 5-blog series on US Clean Water Act, its history and significance, will follow soon.

Defining the Endangered Species Act

The U.S. Endangered Species Act [hereafter, ESA] was passed by the U. S. Congress in 1973 due to growing concern over possible extinctions of native plants and animals within US watersheds.1 The previous year, President Nixon had asked the 93rd Congress to develop legislation to prevent species extinction in the United Status due to inadequate efforts up to that point. The resulting act is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Commerce Department’s National Marine Fisheries Service. The ESA’s defined purpose is to “protect and recover imperiled species and the ecosystems upon which they depend.”1 Thus the ESA plays an important stewardship role in US watersheds.

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Endangered Grey Wolf, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Since ESA protection includes safeguarding habitats of vulnerable species, the ESA governing agencies are assigned responsibility of targeted organisms by their habitat locations. The Fish and Wildlife Service is responsible for terrestrial and freshwater organisms, and thus their watershed habitats. The National Marine Fisheries Service is responsible for marine life and habitat.6

Species of concern are labeled either “endangered” or “threatened” under the ESA. The term “endangered” indicates a species that “is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.”The term “threatened” indicates a species that  “is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future.”1 Congress ruled that all plant and animal species, other than pest insects, are eligible for listing by the ESA. . This includes subspecies, varieties and distinct population segments.1

The ESA, via the Environmental Protection Agency, annually provides approximately $1.4 billion of financial assistance to states with species of focus. These funds allow those states to develop local conservation programs. Their available powers, per the ESA, include relocating or  eliminating  ranching, logging, and oil drilling harmful to the species or their habitat.3 The ESA also allows the United States to meet its obligations to several international agreements and treaties, such as CITES [The Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora] and the Western Hemisphere Convention.2 These global agreements provide compelling support for upholding the ESA and its actions. Without the ESA, the United States would not uphold its international responsibilities.

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Critically-endangered Black Rhino, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, Kenya

Achievements of the Endangered Species Act

The success of the ESA is clear, despite critics. The Center for Biological Diversity credits the ESA for preventing extinction of 99% of species on the ESA endangered and threatened lists.7 Going further it says that due to EPA actions from its founding in 1973 to 2013, the ESA has shown a “90% recovery rate in more than 100 species throughout the U.S.”7 Their 2012 study documenting 110 U.S. Northeast species, supported by the Environmental Protection Agency, revealed that 93% of those species are “stable or improving,” while about 80% are “meeting the recovery targets established in Federal recovery plans.”7 These statistics are all indicative of the ESA’s wide-spread success. The NRDC [National Resources Defence Council]  has hailed the ESA as a literal lifesaver for hundreds of species on the brink of extinction.

Additionally, the ESA has received strong public support. A national poll of Americans, administered by the Center for Biological Diversity in 2013, found that 2 out of 3 “want the Endangered Species Act strengthened or left along, but not weakened.”7 Recent polls in 2017 suggest that these numbers indicating ESA support have further increased.  Their results say that 9 out of 10 people support the ESA. It is clear that dismantling the Endangered Species Act – or even weakening it – would go directly against the will of well over half of Americans.

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Sharp-tailed grouse, similar to the endangered sage grouse, Nebraska

Recent Actions

As of July 2018, the Trump Administration initiated efforts to retract the Environmental Species Act. By mid-summer, more than two dozen pieces of legislation, policy initiatives and amendments designed to weaken the law have been proposed by the Trump Administration, and either introduced or voted on in Congress. These actions include:

  • a bill to strip protections from the gray wolf [Canis lupus] in Wyoming and along the western Great Lakes;
  • a plan to keep the sage grouse [Centrocercus urophasianus], a chicken-size bird that inhabits millions of oil-rich acres in the West, from being listed as endangered for the next decade;
  • a measure to remove the American burying beetle [Nicrophorus americanus] from the “endangered” list.  This orange-flecked insect has long been the bane of oil companies that would like to drill on the land where it lives.3
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Endangered Mountain Gorilla, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, Uganda

The many steps taken against the ESA in only a few weeks this summer indicates the intensity of its drive to strip the ESA of its powers. The reasons stated for these actions is a concern that the impacts from ESA policies might restrict economic development and some American livelihoods. Some feel those economic impacts outweigh the significance of the ESA’s protection of endangered or threatened  species.3  

Foreseen Impacts and Reactions to Recent Actions

A July 19, 2018, proposal by the Interior and Commerce Departments would require that economic consequences of protecting any species must be considered when deciding assignment to the “endangered” or “threatened” species lists.3 If these actions are finalized, it would be extremely difficult for any new species to be added. However, species currently on these lists and their habitats will continue to be protected.3

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Recovered endangered Brown Pelican, Santa Barbara, California

The proposals, backed by the Trump Administration, have been requested by oil companies, gas companies and ranches.   They have objected to the ESA because they believe it “represents a costly incursion of federal regulations on their land and livelihoods.3 [See Addendum below. ] Despite decades of efforts by lobbyists and libertarians, efforts to overturn the ESA have not had any effect. Recent intensified and coordinated efforts may portend a more serious challenge to our watershed species that are integral to the health of our ecosystems.

Retracting the ESA would be detrimental to the overall web of plant and animal species populations in watersheds across the United States. Their loss would affect their associated habitats, predators and prey  – and ultimately impact human lives. The loss of the ESA would impair the safety and well-being of endangered and threatened species, the health of our watersheds, and the quality of human life.

Today’s reality is that the landmark law that established the ESA could be overturned. The eternal reality is that once a species becomes extinct, that couldn’t be overturned. Extinction is forever.

USA: Massachusetts, Cape Cod, Wianno, piping plover in breeding plumage
Recovered endangered Sand Piper, Cape Cod, Massachusettes

ADDENDUM from NWNL Director Alison M. Jones:  Adding to current concerns being voiced over recent threats to the EPA, today (8/14/2018) on national television, Christie Todd Whitman, former EPA Chair and N.J. Republican, added her voice.  She opined that, while occasional re-examination of regulations can be worthwhile, many current environmental roll-backs “are only being done for individual industries’ bottom line.”

SOURCES

  1. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, accessed 7/25/18, published 2017, IKB, link.
  2. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, accessed 7/25/18, published 2015, IKB, link.
  3. The New York Times, accessed 7/25/18, published 2018, IKB, link.
  4. CNN, accessed 7/25/18, published 2018, IKB, link
  5. National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, accessed 7/25/18, published 2018, IKB, link
  6. The United States Department of Justice, accessed 7/25/18, published 2015, IKB, link
  7. The Center for Biological Diversity, accessed 7/25/18, published 2017, IKB, link. 

 

All photos © Alison M. Jones.

Viceroy Magic

Photos, paintings and a story by John Ruskey

Note from NWNL Director Alison M. Jones:  John Ruskey is a NWNL Partner and friend, and owner of Quapaw Canoe Company which runs expeditions on the Lower Mississippi River, its backwaters, oxbows and bayous. As NWNL highlights the value of the Endangered Species Act, we applaud John for supporting biodiversity on our on willow-ed creek banks. As Thoreau wrote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” Let’s protect their habitat, the loss of which poses the greatest danger to all species. The poised wings of the little Viceroy mimics that pause between heartbeats that Terry Tempest Williams says provides the grace of life, writing: “To protect what is wild, is to protect what is gentle.”

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On Montezuma Island in early July I happened upon a Viceroy butterfly that could not fly — due to an injured wing. So I kept her for observation. 2 weeks later she was still alive, due to a daily regime of water and care, but by the third week she was noticeably weaker.

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On the Mississippi River the Viceroy butterfly (Basilarchia archippus) prefers black willows (Salix nigra) as host plants for laying its small pale green eggs, and if you look carefully you might see examples of its entire life cycle on the leaves, branches, twigs and trunk of one willow tree. The chrysalis disguise themselves as bird poop — they look like slimy green blobs with white and yellow. The caterpillars rear up like a snake when disturbed.

(*note: this is just another remarkable feature of the lovely black willows which grace our Lower Mississippi River! For many, the willow is their source of food and shelter: in addition to Viceroy there is the Beaver and us, the Mighty Quapaws… We use willow for cooking, especially for smoking fish and meat. Willow makes the best shish-k-bob sticks. Stands of young Willow make the best shelter when setting up camp in windy or stormy weather. Mature Willow forests provide cool shady spots for hammocks, afternoon naps, and summer camp sites.)

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The Viceroy looks a lot like the Monarch butterfly, but she is slightly smaller (by an inch or so), her oranges are darker (almost cinnamon red sometimes). She has some tell-tale markings that differentiate her: 1) a couple of white spots on a diagonal splash across the fore wing, and 2) a black vein line swooping along outer edge of hind wing.

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Viceroys range across North America from Hudson Bay southwards down the middle of the country, down the Mississippi Valley, westwards to Great Range. My Audubon Guide says “In each life stage the Viceroy seeks protection through a different ruse. The egg blends with the numerous galls that afflict the willow leaves upon which it is laid.  Hibernating caterpillars hide themselves in bits of leaves they have attached to a twig.  The mature caterpillar looks mildly fearsome with its hunched and horny forecparts.  Even most birds bypass the chrysalis, thinking it is a bird dropping. The adult, famed as a paramount mimic, resembles the distasteful Monarch. Since birds learn to eschew Monarchs, they also avoid the look-alike Viceroy. Southern populations of Viceroys mimic the much deeper chestnut-colored Queen instead. In flight the Viceroy flaps frenetically in between brief glides.” (National Audubon Field Guide to North American Butterfiles).

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Concentrating water droplets in her tongue: I watched in amazement the first day Viceroy took a drink of water from a wet rag I had set her on.

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First she explored the rag with her antennae. Seemingly satisfied, she then extended her tongue (proboscis), uncoiling it to its full 1″ or so length. She delicately tapped the saturated rag repeatedly. Then she drew her tongue back in, coiling it into ever-tightening loops. As the coils tightened a tiny drop of water magically appeared where there once had been nothing, like an early morning dew drop.

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I took her on every trip we had in early July. One morning she drank dewdrops from our roll-a-table. According to my Audubon Guide the proboscis is composed of 2 parallel, linked tubes, which work like a pair of drinking straws. It can be coiled tightly up against the face (the Viceroy seems to have a slot between its eyes for doing this, hiding the tongue when pulled all the way in).

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In week 3 she was weakening. I decided to share an apricot-strawberry smoothie I was drinking. She eagerly lapped that up, using her proboscis in the same manner as she had done with water. This seemed to improve her condition. But the next morning she was lifeless. Maybe the smoothie was too much sugar all at once? Or maybe she was ready to die anyway?

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Farewell friend! Thank you for the many hours of beauty you shared in the last days of your life!

Cape Buffalo, Bison and Water

By Bianca T. Esposito, NWNL Research Intern
(Edited by Alison M.  Jones, NWNL Director)

NWNL research intern Bianca T. Esposito is a senior at Syracuse University studying Biology and minoring in Economics. Her research this summer is on the intertwined relationships of biodiversity and our water resources. This is Bianca’s second blog on Biodiversity for NWNL. Read her first blog on wild Salmon here.

This blog compares how water impacts the health of sub-Sahara’s Cape buffalo populations to how North America’s bison impact the health of our water resources.  This investigation covers three of our NWNL case study watersheds: Africa’s Mara and Nile River Basins, and North America’s Mississippi River Basin.

The Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer caffer) is found in Kenya’s Mara River Basin savanna and Uganda’s Nile River Basin plains. The bison (Bison bison) used to dominate the Mississippi River Basin’s Great Plains and are still there in scattered small populations. Both species are large, herbivorous mammals that primarily graze on tall-grass ecosystems. However, their habitats and connections to water differ significantly.

Africa’s Cape buffalo migrate seasonally in large herds on cyclical routes dependent on fluctuations in water availability. They move out of areas with limited resources and into areas where moisture and nutrients are available. Cape buffalo also migrate away from their habitat when water levels increase, since flooding restricts their foraging abilities. In these cases, Cape buffalo move to a drier habitat where, in turn, they may experience drought. Either way, when resources become low, their vulnerability becomes high.

Jones_090927_K_9062.jpgA lone Cape Buffalo bull in Kenya’s Mara Conservancy (© Alison M. Jones)

Africa’s famed Serengeti-Mara Ecosystem is located throughout northern Tanzania and extends into Kenya. Much of this region is situated within the Mara River Basin. In the Serengeti National Park, the migration pattern of the Cape buffalo, similar to that of the wildebeest-zebra migration, is dependent on the fluctuation of rainfall each year. Generally, this journey begins in April when Cape buffalo depart their southern plains habitat to head north. This movement is triggered by the onset of heavy rain that floods the plains, reducing the Cape buffalo’s ability to graze. By May the herd is in the northwest Serengeti, where the dry season lasts through July and proximity to the equator allows rainfall to be more evenly distributed, allowing greater opportunities for foraging. Then, in August, the late dry season hits, causing the herd to move further north. On their venture north, they cross the Mara River into Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve. The Cape buffalo remain here enjoying green pastures until November, albeit subject to drought if there’s no rainfall. In December, usually the first rainfall comes which they sense as the onset of the rainy season. They then trek back into Tanzania’s southern plains for the wet season. From January to April, they graze there on plentiful, nutritious grasses.  

Syncerus-caffer-Masaai-Mara-Kenya.JPGHerd of Cape buffalo in Kenya’s Mara Conservancy (Creative Commons)

When Cape buffalo inhabit dry lands their reproductive success (also referred to as “recruitment ability”) decreases; but their body condition improves due to what seems to be a fat-storing mechanism that anticipates limited future resources. One benefit of Cape buffalo having to cope with drought is that when food supplies are reduced, they forage through peat layers in dried-up underground channels, releasing nutrients otherwise trapped below ground.

A current major concern for this species is that anthropogenic factors (human activity) causing climate change are expected to increase both water levels and drought, which could push the Cape buffalo outside of their protected areas. In 2017, the Serengeti experienced a drought that lasted over a year causing declines in populations of many species, including Cape buffalo. Drought also causes herds of cattle, goats and sheep outside to enter protected lands to graze, creating a competition for resources between wildlife, livestock and humans in both the Maasai Mara National Reserve and Serengeti National Park. If the Mara River – the only major river in the area – dries up, there would be few resources for ungulates. As well, when droughts end, there is always potential for flash-floods which deter herds from crossing rivers to find greener pastures.

Jones_120107_K_0640.jpgA lone Cape Buffalo bull in Kenya (© Alison M. Jones)

When water is scarce in the Serengeti, a decline of Cape buffalo leads to increased lion mortality. When Cape buffalo lack sufficient food due to drought, they become weak and must travel increased distances to quench their thirst. This leaves the herd fatigued, causing some members to fall behind and thus become more vulnerable to predation. Also, after a drought and the rains begin, Babesia-carrying ticks infect Cape buffalo. Infected buffalo become weak or die, allowing easy predation by lions. Unfortunately, their carcasses transfer babesiosis disease to lions. Alone, this disease is not fatal to the lion. However, babesiosis coupled with canine distemper virus (CDV) is lethal.

Babesiosis from Cape buffalo has caused two major declines in Serengeti lion populations. In 1994, a third of the lion population was lost due to this combination, killing over 1,000 lions.

Lions_taking_down_cape_buffalo.jpgLions taking down a Cape buffalo (Creative Commons)

On a smaller scale, in 2001 the Ngorongoro Crater lion population also lost about 100 lions due to this synchronization of disease. Craig Packer, a University of Minnesota biologist, stated, “Should drought occur in the future at the same time as lions are exposed to masses of Babesia-carrying ticks—and there is a synchronous CDV epidemic–lions will once again suffer very high mortality.” He also warns that extreme weather due to climate change puts species at greater risk to diseases not considered a major threat before.  Fortunately, mud-wallowing that Cape buffalo use to cool down their bodies is also an effective shield against infiltrating bugs and ticks once the mud dries.

Overall, Cape buffalo rely heavily on rainfall patterns; but climate change is disrupting traditional migratory patterns by raising water levels or causing drought. Both extremes present negative impacts to the Mara River Basin and the biodiversity that inhabits it.  

North America’s bison – a bovine counterpart to African Cape buffalo – historically occupied The Great Plains west of the Mississippi River. Early settlers recorded 10 to 60 million bison openly roaming the fields. Like Cape buffalo, bison also migrate in search of food. Their migration paths used to cover vast territory, thus paving the way for many current roads and railroads. A major threat to  bison – as with most species – has been habitat loss due to human infringement, as well as well-documented, extensive hunting by new settlers heading west. By 1889, only approximately 1,000 bison remained in North America.

Jones_121024_TX_6814.jpgFarmed bison in Texas (© Alison M. Jones)

Due to recent conservation efforts, bison populations are rising; however, not to past numbers. Currently, they are found only in National Parks, refuges and farms. As of 2017, approximately 31,000 pure wild bison remain in 68 conservation herds. “Pure wild bison” are those not bred with cattle for domestication. However, only approximately 18,000 of the remaining population “function” as wild bison. This count excludes very small bison herds used for research, education and public viewing – or bison held in captivity waiting to be culled by protected areas such as Yellowstone National Park due to required limits.

Bison inhabiting the Mississippi River Basin, which drains throughout the Great Plains, have many positive impacts on its waterways and tributaries. Yellowstone Park, where the Yellowstone River drains into the Missouri-Mississippi River system, is the only place in North America where bison continue to freely roam as they used to. In Yellowstone, bison occupy the central and northern area of the park where they migrate by elevation, seasonally choosing food according to abundance, rather than quality. In the winter, they select lower elevations near thermal hot springs or rivers where there is less snow accumulation.

Bison positively affect water supplies when they wallow and paw at the ground. This results in intense soil compaction that creates soil depressions in grasslands. After many years, this soil depression tends to erode since bison don’t like to wallow on previously-created depressions. However, during the rainy season, wetland plants and vegetation grow in these wallows created by bison dust-bathing and trampling. For a short time many species enjoy these ephemeral pool habitats before they disappear in droughts or floods. Meanwhile bison wallows increase species diversity that would otherwise not be present in grasslands.

A_bison_wallow_is_a_shallow_depression_in_the_soil.jpgBison rolling around in a dry wallow (Creative Commons)

Bison have other positive impacts on water. As they trample through streams, they widen available habitat and alter water quality. Even after a bison dies, it can still contribute to the health of its ecosystem. Their carcasses are a nutritious food source for wolves, coyotes and crows. Studies suggest that bison carcasses take roughly seven years to fully decompose, during which time their remains release nutrients such as phosphorus and carbon into rivers. These nutrients sustain microbes, insects, fish and large scavengers of the area. A bison carcass can also provide sustenance for local fish since maggots, green algae and bacteria grow over their bones during decomposition. Bison carcasses also deposit nutrients into the soil which fertilizes plant regrowth.

Bison can negatively affect water resources, by decreasing native plant diversity due to overgrazing. However, they graze on only grass, which allows forbs (non-woody flowering plants) to flourish, adding biodiversity in grasslands. As well, when bison urinate, they deposit nitrogen into the soil, a key nutrient for grass growth and survival. Their urine also becomes a selectable marker allowing them to return to formerly-grazed pastures during the season. This constant reselection of grassland, allows combustion in ignored, non-grazed pastures, since fire tends to occur in tall grass with nitrogen loss. After fires, the bison are attracted to newly-burned watersheds because of C4-dominated grass which grows in dry environments. Bison select C4-dominated grassy areas because they have low plant diversity, unlike less-frequently burned sites where forbs are abundant. Thus, bison’s pasture preferences allow for more biodiversity, creating healthier watersheds.  

Jones_121024_TX_7314.jpgMural near of Native Americans on bison near Masterson, Texas (© Alison M. Jones)

Each of these two similar bovine species have significant, but different, relationships to water availability and quality within their river basins.  The African Cape buffalo migration is guided by water fluctuations. This could impact their future since anthropogenically-caused climate change could incur longer and more frequent droughts and increased flood-water levels to an extent that would drive Cape buffalo out of their protected habitats. In contrast, North American bison herds improve the health of waterways in the Mississippi River Basin in several ways. Nutrients from their decomposing carcasses add to the health of tributary streams and rivers; and their mud wallows support greater diversity of wetland and grassland flora.

Whether we look at watersheds in Africa or North America, it is clear that it is as important to study how biodiversity is affected by water availability, as how watershed water quality and quantity affects its biodiversity. Any changes to these ecosystems due to climate change could drastically affect the biodiversity and health of these watersheds.

Bibliography:

Briske, David. Springer Series on Environmental Management, accessed June 19, 2018, via link.
van Wyk, Pieter. MalaMala Game Reserve Blog, accessed on June 19, 2018, via link.
Bennitt, Emily. Journal of Mammalogy, accessed on June 19, 2018, via link.
Wilcox, Bradford. Springer Series on Environmental Management, accessed June 19, 2018, via link.
Chardonnet, Philippe. Gnusletter, accessed on June 19, 2018, via link.
Defenders of Wildlife, accessed on June 20, 2018, via link.
Coppedge, Bryan R.
The American Midland Naturalist, accessed on June 20, 2018, via link.
Polley, H. Wayne.
The Southwestern Naturalist, accessed on June 20, 2018, via link.
Crow, Diana.
Smithsonian, accessed on June 20, 2018, via link.
Knapp, Alan K.
American Institute of Biological Sciences, accessed on June 20, 2018, via link.
North Arizona University, accessed on June 25, 2018, via link.Dybas, Cheryl Lyn.
BioScience, accessed on June 25, 2018, via link.
Water Resources and Energy Management (WREM) International Inc., accessed on June 25, 2018, via link.
Defenders of Wildlife, accessed on June 26, 2018, via link.
Yellowstone National Park, accessed on June 26, 2018, via link.
Huffman, Brent. Ultimate Ungulate, accessed on June 26, 2018, via link.
Department of Primary Industries, accessed on July 9, 2018, via link.
Popescu, Adam. New Scientist, accessed on July 9, 2018, via link.
Hoagland, Mahlon B. Exploring the Way Life Works: The Science of Biology, accessed on July 9, 2018E, via link.
White, PJ. Yellowstone Association, accessed on July 9, 2018, via link.

Wild and Scenic River: Merced River

Sections of California’s Merced River were added to the Wild and Scenic River System at two separate times, November 2, 1987 and October 23, 1992. The designated sections include  the Red Peak Fork, Merced Peak Fork, Triple Peak Fork, and Lyle Fork, from their sources in Yosemite National Park to Lake McClure; and the South Fork from its source in Yosemite National Park to the confluence with the main stem. A total of 122.5 miles of the Merced River are designated under the Wild and Scenic River System. 71 miles are designated as Wild, 16 miles are Scenic, and 35.5 miles are Recreational. No Water No Life visited the Merced River in Yosemite National Park during the fifth California Drought Spotlight Expedition in 2016. For more information about NWNL’s California Drought Spotlight please visit our Spotlights page.  For more information about the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act read the first part of this blog series. Here are a few pictures of the Merced River from the 2016 expedition taken by NWNL Director Alison Jones.

Jones_160927_CA_5991Sign marking the Jan 2, 1997 flood level of Merced River in Yosemite National Park
Jones_160927_CA_5996View of the Merced River in Yosemite Valley from Sentinel Bridge
Jones_160927_CA_6088Sign explaining Merced River’s early name “River of Mercy” in Yosemite Valley
Jones_160927_CA_6002View of Merced River in Yosemite National Park with Half-Dome in the background

 

Source:

https://www.rivers.gov/rivers/merced.php

All photos © Alison M. Jones.

Agua es Vida

By Connie Bransilver for NWNL
(Edited by Alison Jones, NWNL Director)

Photographs by Connie Bransilver

Connie is a Founding Senior Fellow at International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP, NWNL’s Fiscal Sponsor). She  recently returned to her native New Mexico from Naples, FL. Connie has been a professional nature photographer for 26 years, working in all seven continents. Her major work has been with rare lemurs in Madagascar, and human-wildlife interactions throughout Indonesia. See more of her work on her website.

IMG_6579 Rio Grande north of Montano.jpgRio Grande north of Montano, New Mexico

Throughout the middle Rio Grande Basin acequias (ditches) and the public paths on either side, connect neighbors, knit communities, irrigate agricultural fields in season, and are now caught in a Gordian Knot of rights to scarce water. Their cultural and social significance for traditional Hispanic and tribal communities are deep. But after the mid 1800s, when the United States acquired the southwest from Mexico, the value of water, always scarce, ran counter to those values.

Understanding the centrality of the acequias in traditional agrarian life along the Rio Grande is understanding the dependence of Native American, Spanish and eventually, even Anglo lives in honoring, beneficially using, and exploiting the waters. Traditionally, acequias provided water for all uses, along with communal obligations for their care and maintenance. They endure because of “querencia,” meaning attachment to place and respect for the land, nature and the miraculous water that sustains body, mind and spirit. The questions of who, if anyone, owns the rights to what water usage has split villages and cultures, and clogged courtrooms for hundreds of years.

IMG_4314 Acequia path dogwalker.jpgAcequia path dog-walker 

Rio Grande headwaters lie in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado. Passing through New Mexico the Rio Grande trickles along 1,885 miles into the Gulf of Mexico, creating the Texas-Mexico border and making the Rio Grande the fourth longest river system in North America. Agua es Vida; so custody battles between Colorado, California, the Navajo Nation, pueblos along the river, burgeoning cities (like Albuquerque), and dams (like Elephant Butte holding water for Texas and Mexico) result in traditions butting against new laws and regulations, and fierce court battles without clear resolution.  Demands grow as water becomes increasingly scarce.

Once alive and sacred, the Rio Grande formed the centerpiece of the Puebloan world. Wide, muddy, meandering, shifting braids of water, sometimes drying to a trickle, other times widening into a broad swamp (or cienega), taking homes and fields hostage, are now harnessed by technology, governed by an elaborate web of laws and uses for economic growth.  Therein lies the essential conflict: competing claims challenging ownership of the flow.

IMG_4358 Weir open for flow.jpgWeir open for flow

The first Spaniards reached the middle Rio Grande around 1541, but did not find the gold they sought. Instead they found, and used, the natives who suffered at their hands until the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. By 1692 Spain had sent armed soldiers, settlers (including, we now know, many Jewish “conversos” fleeing the Inquisition) and priests to tame the Indians.  With Juan de Oñate and his men came the systems of acequias and land rights via massive land grants from the King and Queen of Spain to secure settlement. Foreign to the native populations living along the river, this Iberian mastery of controlling and distributing water was rooted in the Moorish occupation of Iberia, and also in ancient Rome and the Middle East. Native Americans had instead lived with the rhythms of the river, never aiming to master it. Those who survived, and whose pueblos remained viable, soon adopted the network of acequias to maintain their agriculture, still based on the golden triangle of corn, beans and squash that provide a nearly complete human diet while simultaneously regenerating the soil.  Spanish recipients of huge land grants applied their own brand of subsistence agriculture. Both communities honored the land and the water.

IMG_4359 Acequia, paths and adobe home.jpgAcequia, paths and adobe home

Spain yielded to Mexico, then Mexico lost this land to the United States in 1847 in the Mexican-American War.  Then followed a wave of Anglos arriving from the East who sought fortune. They also brought a profound ignorance of the indigenous, irrigation-based culture that had sustained this fragile land for centuries.

Now the mighty Rio Grande’s life-giving waters are shrinking. Warmer winters yield less moisture, increasingly delivered as rain rather than snow in the headwaters. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change notes that the San Juan Mountains are “at the bull’s eye of the future drought region.”1 While Anglo technocrats consider the acequias as anachronisms, the acequias have recently joined into a state-wide umbrella organization to push back against unrestricted transfers of water rights.  In this part of the world, water rights, or the right to use water transfer separately from surface rights.

IMG_4323 Weir releasing irrigation water.jpgWeir releasing irrigation water 

And what of the competing needs for water? Increasingly the courts are looking at Queen Isabella’s 1492 will, forming the basis of Pueblo, Spanish and Mexican claims to water. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo officially ended the war with Mexico, acquired Nuevo Mexico and other lands in the West, and honored existing claims to water that were in place at the time. Those rights extend back to the 1492 will. Thus the claims to precious water in the Middle Rio Grande — between Cochiti Dam to the north and Elephant Butte Dam to the south, where half the state’s population resides — may ultimately be defined by that 500-year-old Spanish document.

In the meantime, my village, Los Ranchos, and all the adjacent villages along the Middle Rio Grande, share the pathways and rural culture of the web of acequias. Neighbors greet neighbors and work together to maintain the water flow – Hispanics, Anglos, Indians and all the mixtures among them. Questions about how the river can meet all the demands of its people might even be turned around. Maybe current residents value the agricultural ambiance and natural environment supported by the water and the acequia systems more than continued growth. A broader conversation on the value of water might begin now.

IMG_6578 Rio Grande north of Montano from balloon.jpgRio Grande north of Montano from balloon

Footnotes

 

  1. Reining in the Rio Grande – People, Land and Water, Fred M Phillips, G. Emlen Hall, Mary E. Black. University of New Mexico Press, 2011.

Other Sources

Iberian Origins of New Mexico’s Community Acequias, Jose A. Rivera, University of New Mexico and Thomas F. Glick, Boston University. NewMexicoHistory.org.
Prior-appropriation water rights,” Wikipedia.
“New Mexico files counterclaim in water suit: Texas accused of mismanaging water, hurting farmers in NM,” Michael Coleman, Albuquerque Journal Washington Bureau, Albuquerque Journal, May 24, 2018.

 

Wild and Scenic River: Missouri River

The Missouri River is the longest U.S. river – longer even than the Mississippi River into which it flows.  Two sections of the Missouri River that flow between Nebraska and South Dakota have been protected from development under the Wild and Scenic River Act, established in 1968.  Fifty-nine miles were added on November 10, 1978, and thirty-nine miles on May 24, 1991.  Taken together,  ninety-eight miles of the Missouri River have been classified as being of “Recreational” importance, based on their many access points, roads, railroads, and bridges.  The designated areas are from Gavins Point Dam to Ponca State Park NEB and from Ft. Randall Dam to the Lewis and Clark Lake.

According to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System website, these two designated stretches of the Missouri River are among the last free-flowing segments of the river, and thus still exhibit the river’s dynamic character in its islands, bars, chutes and snags – characteristics that make it a “braided river.” The Missouri River is the primary western tributary to the Mississippi River, a NWNL case study watershed. For more information about the these reaches of the Missouri River, view the NWNL 2017 Missouri River – Nebraska Expedition on our website.

The following pictures are from that expedition and the 2017 Central Platte River Basin expedition. For more information about the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act read the first part of this blog series.

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All photos © Alison M. Jones.

 

Sources:  

https://www.rivers.gov/rivers/missouri-ne-sd.php

Wild and Scenic River: Snake River

On December 1, 1975 the Snake River in Oregon was added to the Wild and Scenic River System. 32.5 miles of the river are designated as Wild; and 34.4 miles as Scenic. In addition, the Snake River Headwaters in Wyoming is also in the Wild and Scenic River System. 236.9 miles of the Snake River Headwaters are designated as Wild; 141.5 miles as Scenic and 33.8 as Recreational. The Snake River is a major tributary to the Columbia River, one of NWNL’s Case Study Watersheds. The following photos are from various NWNL expeditions to the Hells Canyon reach of the Snake River in both Oregon and Idaho, part of the designated section of the river. For more information about the Snake River view the NWNL 2014 Snake River Expedition on our website. For more information about the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act read the first part of this blog series

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All photos © Alison M. Jones.

 

Sources:

https://www.rivers.gov/rivers/snake.php

https://www.rivers.gov/rivers/snake-hw.php