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.

Hatcheries: Helpful or Harmful?

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

NWNL research intern Bianca T. Esposito is a senior at Syracuse University studying Biology and minoring in Economics. Her research focuses primarily on how watershed degradation affects biodiversity.

Salmon Fish Ladder.jpgFigure 1. Salmon utilizing a manmade fish ladder to bypass a dam in their quest for migration. (Creative Commons)

“Elders still tell stories about the tears tribal fishermen shed as they watched salmon throwing themselves against the newly constructed Grand Coulee Dam.”
-John Sorois, Coordinator of Upper Columbia United Tribes

What are the impacts of hatchery and why do we need them? Hatcheries were created in the late 1800’s to reduce the decline of fish populations caused by hydroelectric dam development. Hatcheries (Figure 2) are part of a fish farming system that produces artificial populations of anadromous fish for future release into the wild. Upon release, these fish enter a freshwater location, specifically a tributary, with no dam to bypass on their way to and from the ocean. Anadromous fish, such as salmon, white sturgeon and lamprey spend most of their life at sea, but return to their native tributaries in freshwater to spawn. Once anadromous fish spawn, they die off and the life cycle is continued to be carried out by the next generation of juveniles. Since returning to their native breeding grounds is a necessity for anadromous fish, hatchery-raised fish released into tributaries without dams is one way to combat this impediment of migration that dams have created.

In this blog, we will look at hatcheries as they relate to the declining salmon populations in the Columbia River Basin.

Besides hatcheries, another way for salmon to bypass the dams constructed along the Columbia River Basin is with the use of fish ladders or fish passages built on the dams (Figures 1 and 3). However, these methods can be harmful to the salmon. Fish ladders require that salmon climb up many platforms to access the reservoir on the other side of the dam. There is evidence that supports claims of an increased rate of exhaustion in salmon utilizing the ladder. Ultimately this leads to avoidance of the ladder and decreased migration rates of salmon.

Jones_070623_WA_1904.jpgFish ladder at Rocky Reach Dam on the Columbia River

Hatcheries are an attempt to overcome this low success rate of released salmon returning to tributaries. Stock transfers are one hatchery approach whereby salmon eggs are incubated and hatched in one part of the basin and then shipped to streams all over for release. This method of stock transfer is used to re-populate areas in which salmon populations are declining, or in places they no longer inhabit. However, because of the changes in location, these farmed salmon have trouble returning to the reassigned tributary, since  instinctively they would return to their birth stream.

Another major problem hatcheries face is that once artificially-grown salmon are released, they still have to face the same problems that confront wild salmon. These challenges include water pollution, degraded habitats, high water temperatures, predators and overfishing. However, the salmon who mature on the farm have no prior experience on how to handle these threats, which is one reason they face very low survival rates. Overall, these artificial salmon are not considered as “fit” for survival, nor do they have the ability to adapt to the environment in which they are released because they grew up on a farm.

USFWS Fish Transfer to Little White Salmon NFH (19239836984).jpgFigure 2. The raceways where salmon are kept at Little White Salmon National Fish Hatchery in Washington State. (Creative Commons)

In the 1980’s fisheries moved towards a more “ecosystem-management” approach. They began conserving wild, naturally spawning stocks, as well as hatchery-bred fish. Yet, the overbearing problem with this method was that if hatchery-bred fish were to mate with wild fish, it could cause genetic and ecological damage.

A shift has been made towards utilizing “supplementation facilities”, a more natural, albeit artificial environment for raising the fish that includes shade, rocks, sand, and various debris typical of their natural habitat. This natural approach allows the salmon somewhat “ready” for the wild. The idea behind this technique is that after the salmon are released into streams and spend time in the ocean, they know to return to that tributary to spawn, instead of the hatchery. While this method has increased the number of adult salmon returning to spawn, it still bears the negative possibility of genetically compromising the remaining gene pool of the wild fish.

Besides the genetic problems faced with breeding artificial salmon alongside with wild salmon, breeding solely within hatcheries can also ultimately lead to inbreeding depression. This results in the salmon having a reduced biological fitness that limits their survival due to breeding related individuals. Additionally, artificial selection and genetic modification by fish farms can also cause reduced fitness in reproductive success, swimming endurance and predator avoidance. Another reason farmed salmon are not as “fit” as wild salmon is due to the treatment they receive in the hatchery. The food salmon are fed is not healthy for them – its main purpose is to make them grow faster. This forced rapid growth can lead to numerous health problems.

Diseases experienced in fish farms are also experienced in the wild. They occur naturally and are caused by pathogens such as bacteria, viruses and parasites. What exacerbates disease in a fish farm is overcrowding, which makes it fairly easy for the disease to spread throughout the hatchery. Specifically with viral infections, those who may not show symptoms of disease can be carriers of the virus and transmit further, whether in the farm or after their release into the wild. Consequently, once they are transported and deposited across river basins to be released, these diseases then go on to affect wild salmon with no immunity to the disease they have acquired. This decline in wild salmon has also caused declining effects in their predator populations, such as bears, orcas and eagles.

John Day Dam Fish Ladder.jpg Figure 3. The fish ladder at John Day Dam in Washington State. (Creative Commons)

Along with all the negatives that come with farm fish, the high production from hatcheries eliminates the need to regulate commercial and recreational harvest. So, because of the production from hatcheries, overfishing continues. Hatcheries have become a main source of economic wealth because they provide for the commercial harvests, as well as local harvests. A permanent and sustainable solution to combat the decline of wild salmon populations remains to be found. This problem continues to revolve around the construction and use of hydroelectric dams which provide the main source for electricity in the region; greatly reduce flood risks; and store water for drinking and irrigation.

The concept that hatcheries are compensating for the loss of fish populations caused by human activity is said by some to be like a way to “cover tracks” for past wrongdoings because it does nothing to help the naturally wild salmon at all. Hatcheries are only a temporary solution to combat the decline of the salmon population.

Jones_070615_BC_3097.jpgFish and river steward on the Salmo River

What we really need is an increase of spawning in wild salmon and to ensure that they have a way to survive the dams as they make their way to sea. Reforestation and protection of small spawning streams is one part of the solution. A more permanent, albeit partial, solution would be to find a way to advance the electricity industry reducing the need for hydropower. Until we find a way to make this happen, hatcheries seem to be a helpful way to continue to support the salmon-based livelihoods, as well as human food needs and preferences. Unfortunately, hatcheries do nothing to help the current situation of wild anadromous salmon in the Columbia River Basin.

In April of this year, the Lake Roosevelt Forum in Spokane WA outlined a 3-phase investigation into reintroducing salmon and steelhead to the Upper Columbia River Basin in both the US and Canada. In March 2016, Phase 1 began, dealing with the planning and feasibility of possible reintroduction. The study, expected to be released in 2018, concerns habitat and possible donor stock for reestablishing runs. All work on the studies are mostly complete and are predicted to be suitable for hundreds to thousands, or even millions of salmon. Forty subpopulations of salmon species have been identified and ranked for feasibility, including the Sockeye, Summer/Fall Chinook, Spring Chinook, Coho and Steelhead. The Confederated Tribe of the Colville Reservation stated they are waiting for one last permit from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Then they can begin the second phase of the decades-long research process using pilot fish release this fall.

Jones_110912_WA_2832-2.jpgChinook hatchery salmon underwater

Phase Two will be the first time salmon have returned to the upper Columbia River Basin in almost 80 years. This blockage came from the completion of the Grand Coulee Dam in the late 1930’s and Chief Joseph Dam in 1955. The Confederation Tribes of the Colville Reservation fish managers plan to truck these salmon around the dam, since constructing a fish ladder would be too costly. Funding currently comes from tribes and federal agencies. Possible additional funding may come from the Environment and Climate Change Canada and the renegotiation of Columbia River Transboundary Treaty.

Renegotiations of the 1964 Columbia River Transboundary Treaty between the United States and Canada is currently underway. The first meeting took place in Washington D.C. on May 29 and 30, 2018. Just weeks ago the U.S. emphasized their stance on continuing careful management of flood risks and providing a reliable and economical power source while recognizing ecosystem concerns. The next meeting will take place in British Columbia on August 15 and 16, 2018. However,  tribes are not pleased with their exclusion from negotiating teams. Tribes excluded consist of the Columbia Basin’s Native American tribes, primarily in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, and First Nation tribes in British Columbia, Canada.

Jones_070614_BC_0372.jpgMural of human usage of salmon in British Columbia

NWNL Director’s Addendum re: a just-released study: Aquaculture production of farmed fish is bigger than yields of wild-caught seafood and is growing by about 6% per year, yielding 75 million tons of seafood.  While it is a very resource-efficient way to produce protein and improve global nutrition and food security, concerns are growing about the sustainability of feeding wild “forage fish,” (eg: anchovies, herring and sardines) to farmed fish so they will grow better and faster. These small fish are needed prey for seabirds, marine mammals and larger fish like salmon. A June 14 study suggests soy might be a more sustainable alternative to grinding fishmeal for farmed seafood and livestock.

Bibliography:

Close, David. U.S. Department of Energy, accessed June 5, 18 by BE, website
Northwest Power and Conservation Council, accessed June 12, 18 by BE, website
Animal Ethics, accessed June 12, 18 by BE, website
Aquaculture, accessed June 12, 18 by BE, website
Luyer, Jeremy. PNAS, accessed on June 12, 18 by BE, website
Simon, David. MindBodyGreen, accessed on June 14 by BE, website
Kramer, Becky. The Spokesman-Review, accessed on June 14, 18 by BE, website
Harrison, John. Northwest Power and Conservation Council, accessed on June 14, 18 by BE, website
Schwing, Emily. Northwest News Network, accessed on June 14, 18 by BE, website
Office of the Spokesperson. U.S. Department of State, accessed on June 14, 18 by BE, website
 The Columbia Basin Weekly Fish and Wildlife News Bulletin, accessed on June 14, 18 by BE, website

Unless otherwise noted, all photos © Alison M. Jones.

The Forgotten Forests of Egypt

By Joannah Otis for NWNL

This is the sixth of our blog series on the Nile River in Egypt by NWNL Researcher Joannah Otis, sophomore at Georgetown University. Following her blogs on the Nile in Ancient Egypt, this essay addresses the importance of trees and indigenous flora to Ancient Egyptians. [NWNL has completed documentary expeditions to the White and Blue Nile Rivers, but due to current challenges for photojournalists visiting Egypt and Sudan, NWNL is using literary and online resources to investigate the availability, quality and usage of the main stem of the Nile.]

2nd blog 2Willow Tree

Trees played a symbolic role in early Egyptian life as they were associated with both Ra, the sun god, and Osiris, god of the afterlife. Sycamore trees were thought to stand at the gates of heaven while the persea tree was considered a sacred plant. According to ancient myths, the willow tree protected Osiris’s body after he was killed by his brother Set. These trees and others served as physical manifestations of the gods that Egyptians worshipped. Their importance speaks to the dependence this civilization had on the indigenous flora of the Nile River Basin.1

Historic records indicate that Ancient Egypt developed a forest management system in the 11th century CE, but later tree harvesting eliminated much of these forests. This, along with the gradual transition to a dryer climate in Egypt, spelled the demise of the sacred persea tree.2  Sometimes referred to as the ished tree, it was first grown and worshipped in Heliopolis during the Old Kingdom, but later spread its roots in Memphis and Edfu. It is a small evergreen tree with yellow fruit that grew throughout Upper Egypt. Egyptians held that the tree was protected by Ra in the form of a cat and closely associated it with the rising run.3 The persea was believed to hold the divine plan within its fruit, which would give eternal life and knowledge of destiny to those who ate it. To the Egyptians, the tree’s trunk represented the world pillar around which the heavens revolved. It was also considered a symbol of resurrection and many used its branches in funerary bouquets. The persea tree no longer grows in Africa, likely because the climate is dryer today than it was in the time of the Ancient Egyptians.4

EGDP007693Persea fruit pendant from Upper Egypt c. 1390-1353 BCE

 

The willow tree has grown in Egypt since prehistoric times and is usually found in wet environments or near water. Today, its timber is used for carving small items, but centuries ago, its branches were strung together to form garlands for the gods. Willow leaf garlands in the shape of crowns have also been found in the tombs of pharaohs, including Ahmose I, Amenhotep I, and Tutankhamen, to align them with Osiris.5 After being murdered by his brother Set, Osiris’s body was placed into a coffin and thrown into the Nile River. Around this coffin, a willow tree sprang up to protect the godly body. Towns with groves of willow trees were believed to house one of the dismembered parts of Osiris and thus became sacred spaces.6

Although of lesser importance, the sycamore tree was also considered a sacred plant. It was generally thought of in relation to the goddesses Nut, Hathor, and Isis who were sometimes depicted reaching out from the tree to offer provisions to the deceased. As a result, sycamores were often planted near graves or used to make coffins so the dead could return to the mother tree goddess.7 Other significant trees include the Tamarisk, which was sacred to Wepwawet, and the Acacia tree, which was associated with Horus.8 Each of these trees contribute to the great biodiversity of the Nile River Basin and served religious purposes for the Ancient Egyptian people.

2nd blog 3Model of a Porch and Garden with Sycamore Trees from Upper Egypt c. 1981-1975 BCE

Sources

1 “Tree (nehet).” EgyptianMyths.net. Web.
2“Country Report – Egypt.” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Web.
3“Ancient Egyptian Plants: The Persea Tree.” reshafim.org. 2002. Web.
4 “The Tree of Life.” LandOfPyramids.org. 2015. Web.
5“Ancient Egyptian Plants: The Willow.” reshafim.org. 2002. Web.
6Witcombe, Christopher. “Trees and the Sacred.” Sweet Briar College. Web.
7Witcombe, Christopher. “Trees and the Sacred.” Sweet Briar College. Web.
8“Tree (nehet).” EgyptianMyths.net. Web.
All photos used based on fair use of Creative Commons and Public Domain.

Grass is #1 US crop and is very water-dependent

Using satellite imagery, NASA’s Christina Milesi has been studying the impact of lawns on America’s fresh water resources. Research indicates there’s at least 3 times more surface area of lawns in the U.S. than irrigated corn, making it the largest irrigated crop.

How do lawns hurt the environment?

 fertilizers run off into drains, contaminating drinking water

 fertilizers pollute rivers and streams and damage ecosystems

 watering lawns depletes our freshwater reserves

chemical herbicides / pesticides are health risks to humans and wildlife

lawns infringe on viable habitat for pollinators like bees

 an hour of gas-powered lawn mowing produces as much pollution as four hours of driving a car

Consider Xeriscaping!

Screen Shot 2014-07-14 at 4.36.09 PM

USA California, Santa Barbara, Firescape Garden by firestation on Stanwood

View more xeriscape gardens here.

 

For further reading:

Lawn Pesticide Fact Sheet

Assessing the Extent of Urban Irrigated Areas in the United States.

National Climate Assessment is required reading for all

Today’s New York Times front page –

U.S. Climate Has Already Changed, Study Finds, Citing Heat and Floods

NWNL has witnessed the effects of climate change over 8 years of expeditions to document watersheds in North America and Africa. From wading through flooded towns, running from hurricanes, interviewing farmers tackling long-term drought, trekking with pastoralists with thirsty cattle and many things in between. Click on images below for captions and links for related articles.

The interactive digital version of the new 840-page National Climate Assessment report is at www.globalchange.gov.  It’s complex, so NWNL recommends two articles that summarize the issues as outlined.

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/climate-change-projected-worsen-across-u-s-federal-study-finds/

Seth Borenstein’s account emphasizes that the report’s value lies in that it is written in less scientific language than others and that it underlines how climate change is already affecting our pocketbooks in areas ranging from our health to our homes.

http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/nowhere-run-climate-change-will-affect-every-region-u-s-n98396

An NBC News account delineates climate change impacts, region by region. Reading these reports today, NWNL has noted the current and expected climate disruptions in the Pacific NW region for its one month Snake River Basin expedition which starts tomorrow.  We are looking forward to hearing local stakeholders’ solutions for mitigation and resilience in the face of continued extreme climate events.