Endangered Species Law is under fire

Like most of our federal laws and regulations intended to protect the environment, the Endangered Species Act is under fire because the political party now in power is opposed to government regulations that impose any perceived limitations on economic activity.  There are a number of laws grinding their way through the legislative process that would revise, if not gut the ESA.*

I have mixed feelings about the threats to weaken the ESA because there is widespread agreement that the law could be improved.  When it was created, over 40 years ago, it was based on the scientific knowledge available at the time.  For example, recently available molecular analysis has greatly improved our ability to accurately identify species.

Climate change was but a glimmer on the distant horizon 40 years ago.  Now most people understand that climate change will cause many extinctions that the ESA is powerless to prevent.  Emaciated polar bears standing on small islands of ice are the poster children for the impact of climate change on rare animals.

The political threats to the ESA have focused the attention of the media on specific examples of endangered species and the efforts to prevent their extinction.  Each one illustrates a different issue with the existing law.

Attempts to solve one problem cause other problems

Greater sage grouse

The Greater sage grouse is a critically endangered bird (although not officially designated as such) that requires sagebrush for its home.  In an effort to expand habitat for the grouse, land managers destroyed native junipers that were spreading into grouse habitat.  A few years later they determined that destroying the trees did not produce the desired habitat.  Instead, non-native annual grasses have colonized the bare ground and many sapling junipers are growing from the seed bank left by the trees that were destroyed. (1)

Instead of calling the tree destruction a failed experiment, the scientists now propose to escalate the eradication effort.  They now plan to use herbicides and prescribed burns to eradicate the non-native annual grasses.  Given the persistence of herbicides in the soil, more sagebrush may not be the ultimate outcome.  And the sage grouse are unlikely to benefit from either poisoned vegetation or fires in their habitat.

Some extinctions are the unintended consequence of misguided “conservation” efforts

When European rabbits were intentionally imported to Australia, predictably the population quickly exploded.  A virus was then intentionally imported to kill the rabbits.  Like many biocontrols, the virus spread into the native range of the rabbits about 20 years ago, including into Spain.

Iberian lynx. Creative Commons

The Iberian lynx is very rare partly because it is a picky eater.  Curiously, rabbits are the strongly preferred prey of the Iberian lynx.  There were enough rabbits available for the lynx until the rabbits were wiped out by the virus that was unintentionally imported to Spain.  The population of Iberian lynx plummeted to only 100 known individuals.  That’s when the EU version of the ESA kicked into action.

The Iberian lynx is now bred in captivity, a complex and challenging process likened to “having a nursery for rich kids in which you have a teacher for each kid.”  Needless to say that is an expensive proposition.  Releasing the lynx back into the wild required that 50,000 rabbits (costing $12.30 each) be simultaneously released into lynx territory.  The project cost $42 million over a period of 7 years.  (2)

The Spanish environmental official responsible for the project was visibly irritated when asked about the cost of the program.  He said “some ‘ignorant’ pundits were drawing unflattering comparisons between how much was being spent on the lynx compared to funding allocated to offset social issues such as unemployment.”  The strongest defenses of extreme efforts to save rare species are made by those who earn their living on them. (2)

Growing number of “conservation reliant” species

An article in the New York Times magazine recently asked this rhetorical question, “Should some species be allowed to die out?”  (3) The article focused on Hawaii because it is a place where heroic efforts have been made to save endangered species.  Nearly 50% of 1,280 federal endangered species are in Hawaii.  Over 80% of all endangered species are considered “conservation reliant,” a term used to describe the plants and animals that are permanently on life support.  They will not survive if not permanently tended by humans in hothouses and animal shelters.

Hawaii has the most endangered species because they evolved in isolation in a distant place with no interaction with the outside world until about 700 years ago.  That isolation cannot be recreated without stopping all trade and travel to and from Hawaii.  That is clearly not going to happen.  If the underlying conditions that cause extinctions cannot be reversed, no amount of human effort is likely to prevent the extinction.

Although I consider most of these efforts futile, that is not the conventional wisdom.  There are over 300 comments on the article in the NY Times that are overwhelmingly supportive of the ESA and the heroic efforts to save rare species.

Confiscation of private land

Dusky gopher frog

The ESA enables the government to designate both public and private land as “critical habitat” for endangered animals.  The US Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case about the application of the Endangered Species Act that enabled the federal government to designate 1,600 acres of private land as critical habitat for an endangered frog. That designation will prevent the land owner from developing the land or using it for a different purpose other than providing POTENTIAL habitat for a frog that has not been seen in that part of the country since 1965.  US Fish & Wildlife also concedes that the frog cannot live on the land in its present condition and requires modification to accommodate the needs of this frog.  (4)

Needless to say, private land owners aren’t enthusiastic about the loss of the use of their land for purposes other than supporting a specific rare animal.

Assisted migration?

Torreya taxifolia near Cincinnati, Ohio

Torreya taxifolia, commonly known as Florida nutmeg, was classified as endangered in 1984.  It was attacked by a fungal blight about 70 years ago that has decimated its population in its small native range on the Florida panhandle.  It is an example of one of the major obstacles to keeping rare plants alive because it is very difficult to propagate:

Unlike most plants, the tree has so-called recalcitrant seeds, which cannot be preserved in conventional seed banks because they can’t survive drying. This necessitated the development of a tissue-culture system for the species called somatic embryogenesis. Embryos are surgically removed from fully developed seeds, then cultured in vitro to encourage the formation of multiple embryos. These can be safely preserved in a new cryogenic storage unit obtained by Atlanta Botanical Garden, in which the resulting plantlets are coaxed into a state of suspended animation at -321° Fahrenheit in liquid nitrogen.” (5)

This labor-intensive method of germinating the seeds of Torreya taxifolia has enabled scientists to grow Torreya in several botanical gardens in places distant from its native range.  Tree activists want to introduce the tree to wildlands in distant locations where the fungal pathogen that is killing the tree in its native range doesn’t exist.  This is called “assisted migration,” a controversial strategy that is prohibited by the ESA.  Moving endangered plants and animals requires the approval of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, permission they have so far denied for Torreya.

The ESA defines the criteria for recovery and removal of endangered status.  The plant must be living on its own “in the wild” and must successfully reproduce naturally for at least two generations.  Given the circumstances of this rare tree and many other “conservation reliant” species, it seems they are permanently doomed to be permanently legally protected endangered species.

The ESA’s reluctance to enable the movement of species from their native ranges is inconsistent with the realities of climate change.  When the climate changes, the vegetation changes.  To prevent that from happening is to doom the vegetation and the animals that require the vegetation to extinction.  The ESA has become an obstacle to survival, rather than a tool to ensure survival.

Improving the Endangered Species Act?

In summary, the Endangered Species Act can be improved to achieve its original purpose as a means of preventing extinctions of plants and animals, as illustrated by the examples listed above:

  • Actions intended to help a rare species should not inflict further damage on the environment, such as biocontrols, pesticides, and killing other animals considered competitors.
  • Plant and animal species that require permanent human intervention to survive should be removed from life support after decades of such intensive care. Humans often make that choice for themselves at the end of life and it is widely considered a humane choiceTriage is an ethical strategy in the medical profession and it should be in conservation as well.
  • Private property rights should be respected by the Endangered Species Act. The political cost of such confiscations are too high a price to pay for the meager benefits to the species in question.
  • If the underlying cause of an extinction is a fundamental change in the environment that cannot or will not be changed, it is pointless to aim conservation efforts at symptoms of the change, rather than causes of the change. For example, if melting Arctic ice opens a corridor between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, it is pointless to try to prevent the movement of sea life between those oceans.
  • Plants and animals that can no longer survive in their native ranges because of changes in conditions, should be carefully considered for introduction to places with suitable conditions.

This wish list has nothing to do with the legislative effort to weaken the ESA.  That political effort is in the service of economic interests, such as fossil fuel exploitation and mining, and is not intended to benefit the rare plants and animals presently protected by the law. 


* “But under the Trump administration, at least 63 separate legislative efforts to weaken the [ESA] act have been undertaken since January 2017, according to the Centre for Biological Diversity.”  New York Times, April 22, 2018.

  1. http://www.argusobserver.com/news/tree-removal-could-spread-invasive-grasses/article_88eba0da-2a5b-11e8-862a-6734dbe7a90a.html
  2. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/31/world/europe/iberian-lynx-spain-portugal.htmlhttps://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/31/world/europe/iberian-lynx-spain-portugal.html
  3. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/13/magazine/should-some-species-be-allowed-to-die-out.html?hpw&rref=magazine&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=well-region&region=bottom-well&WT.nav=bottom-well
  4. https://www.cnn.com/2018/01/22/politics/dusky-gopher-frog/index.html
  5. https://e360.yale.edu/features/for-endangered-florida-tree-how-far-to-go-to-save-a-species-torreya

 

The Endangered Species Act is based on outdated science

We have reported to our readers many times about the changes in scientific opinion regarding invasion biology in the past fifty years, since the inception of the theories that originally supported that discipline.  Now we see an acknowledgement of the changed scientific viewpoint in a critique of the Endangered Species Act by the legal profession.

Holly Doremus is Professor of Law at Boalt Law School at the University of California, Berkeley.  Her critique of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was published by the Journal of Law & Policy in 2010.  She previews her theme in her introduction:

“I am interested in why the ESA came to assume an unrealistically static vision of nature.  First, the Act’s static structure is typical of law in general, which has traditionally embodied the human search for stability.  Second, the Act is inevitably, a product of the political times in which it was drafted and of a rapid and chaotic legislative process, which did not encourage thoughtful examination of the complex contours of the conservation problem.  Third, it followed in part from incorrect but widely shared assumptions about the nature of the problem and potential solutions.  Fourth, scientific understanding was itself in transition as the law was being crafted, moving from a focus on the tendency of ecological systems to approach equilibrium to one on the ongoing dynamics of many systems.” (1)

We will focus on the fourth issue, i.e., how the ESA is in conflict with the reality of constantly changing ecosystems. 

A Static Vision of Nature

The ESA is based on assumptions about nature that were the conventional wisdom at the time the law was passed in 1973:

  • Evolution was considered an historical process that was no longer actively changing plant and animal species.  Theoretically evolution does not end, but at the time the ESA was passed in 1973, it was not believed to occur within a time frame that would be observable by man.  Plant and animal species were therefore viewed as being distinct and unchanging.
  • This view of evolution was consistent with the prevailing public opinion in the United States, which does not believe in evolution.  Many Americans believe that species have not changed since they were created by God.
  • Nature was perceived as reaching an “equilibrium state” that was stable over long periods of time.
  • Early conservation efforts were therefore based on the assumption that once achieved, an equilibrium state could be sustained if left undisturbed in nature preserves.

    Darwin's finches are an example of rapid evolution
    Darwin’s finches are an example of rapid evolution

We now know that these assumptions were mistaken.  Evolution can occur very rapidly, particularly amongst plants and animals with short life spans and frequent generations.   And ecosystems are constantly changing, particularly at a time of a rapidly changing climate and associated environmental conditions such as atmospheric conditions. 

Professor Doremus tells us that ecological scientists played no role in the writing of the ESA and took little notice of the law when it was passed.  The press also ignored the new law, which may have been a factor in its being unnoticed by the scientists who may have been in a position to raise the questions that should have been asked.  “It seems that conservation scientists, like the general-interest press, and most legislators, did not consider the ESA groundbreaking, or even particularly important.” (1) In any case, the problems that have arisen in the implementation of the law were not foreseen by the politicians who passed it, nearly unanimously in 1973.

How does the ESA define “species?”

As its name implies, the heart of the law is how “species” are defined.  In fact, if the law had stopped at providing legal protection for “species,” we would not be experiencing nearly as much difficulty with the implementation of the law.  Unfortunately, the ESA’s “…definition of ‘species’ [is] broad, but not a model of clarity, ‘The term “species” includes any subspecies of fish or wildlife or plants, and any distinct population segment of any species of vertebrate fish or wildlife which interbreeds when mature.”  (1)

Splitting species into sub-species and “distinct population segments” has proved very problematic because taxonomy (the classification of organisms) has always been inherently subjective and will probably continue to be.  The taxonomic system that was popular at the time the ESA was passed was Mayr’s biological species concept which identifies as a species any group that interbreeds within the group but not with outsiders.  This definition is not useful for a species that hybridizes freely, such as the manzanitas of which six species have been designated as endangered.  Professor Doremus tells us that US Fish & Wildlife Service now evaluates the legal consequences of hybridization on a case-by-case basis. 

Since the ESA was passed, many competing definitions of “species” have been proposed by scientistsThere were 22 different definitions of species in the modern literature as recently as ten years ago.  These competing definitions reflect disagreement about appropriate criteria for identifying species—morphology, interbreeding, or genetic divergence, as well as the degree of difference needed to define the boundary between species.   We see these scientific controversies played out repeatedly in the law suits that are interpreting the ESA. 

The identification of “distinct population segments” amongst vertebrates has proved to be even more problematic.  Legal challenges to the determination of distinct population segments have reversed the rulings of the US Fish & Wildlife Service for many species that were considered genetically identical such as the sage grouse (eastern vs, western?) and the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse (found in different meadows in the Rocky Mountains).  In some cases, these rulings were reversed several times, and perhaps will be again!  These reversals reflect the ambiguity of the law, as well as the science of taxonomy.  The fact that the ESA specifically allows “citizen suits” has pushed the regulating agencies to implement the law more aggressively than  politics alone would have predicted.

Species can and do move

In addition to considering species immutable and unchanging, the ESA also takes a static view of where they live.  The concept of “distinct population segments” depends somewhat on the assumption that species of animals don’t radically alter their ranges in the short-term.  The assumption is also consistent with the underlying conservation policies that tend to preserve specific places in order to protect rare species within those places.

We now understand that some ecosystems are internally dynamic.  We recently told our readers of the need for the sand dunes near Antioch, California to move freely in the wind to sustain that fragile ecosystem.  Professor Doremus also tells us about the constantly changing courses of braided rivers in Nebraska that are essential to the sustainability of that unique ecosystem. 

Platte River in Nebraska is a braided river.  Creative Commons
Platte River in Nebraska is a braided river. Creative Commons

In a rapidly changing climate, the preservation of a species may require changing ranges.  If the climate becomes too cold, too hot, too wet, or too dry for a species of plant or animal, its immediate survival may require that it move to higher or lower altitudes or latitudes.  Moving may be a more effective strategy than the adaptation that may be slower than necessary to survive.  Freezing species into their historic ranges does not ensure their survival at a time of rapidly changing climate.  In some cases, a species has become plentiful in the new territory it has freely chosen to inhabit and simultaneously rare in its historic range where it has been designated as an endangered “distinct population.”  Draconian measures have been taken to restore a species in its historic range, where it is no longer adapted to current conditions.  

We leave you with Professor Doremus’ observation about the ESA:  “The ESA’s static view of species, landscapes, and conservation obligations, while entirely understandable, has become a hindrance to effective conservation.  The ESA’s lofty goals of conserving species and the ecosystems upon which they depend cannot be achieved without a more realistic vision of the dynamic qualities of nature and the ability to respond to the changes that are inevitable in dynamic systems.”

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(1)    Holly Doremus, “The Endangered Species Act:  Static Law Meets Dynamic World,” Journal of Law & Policy, Vol. 32: 175-235, 2010.

The Endangered Species Act: Static law meets dynamic nature

Once passed, laws rarely change and when they do it takes an arduous effort that tests a rigid political and judicial system.  Nature, on the other hand, is inherently dynamic and we are usually powerless to stop it from changing even when we try.  So, when a law is designed to control nature, we can expect some conflict between static law and dynamic nature.  Forty years after the Endangered Species Act was passed, that conflict is becoming progressively more apparent and problematic.

San Franciscans recently had an opportunity to comment on the designation of 270 acres of city parkland as critical habitat for the endangered Franciscan manzanita which illustrated some of these conflicts.  This rare plant requires full sun, which predicts that all trees will be destroyed in those acres, as they were for the closely related, endangered Raven’s manzanita.  The seeds of both of these plants germinate only after fires, which may mean that prescribed burns will be required for the long-term survival of the plants.  Restrictions on recreational access are also likely.

Are these sacrifices worth making?  Are the prospects of the long-term survival of these rare plants good enough to justify these sacrifices?  That’s for you to judge.

The Antioch Dunes

Lange's metalmark butterfly, USFWS photo
Lange’s metalmark butterfly, USFWS photo

Let’s consider those questions within the context of the Antioch Dunes, a National Wildlife Refuge northeast of San Francisco which is the home of three endangered species, including Lange’s metalmark butterfly.   Antioch Dunes was designated as a national wildlife refuge in 1980, four years after the metalmark was given endangered status.

It is 55 acres along the southern shore of the San Joaquin River east of the city of Antioch.  Historically it was a system of enormous sand dunes that was an accumulation of glacial sands washed down from the Sierras over millennia.  Some of the dunes were as high as 120 feet.  Because it was a unique habitat, surrounded by different vegetation, it was home to many endemic species that existed only there.  As the dunes were diminished by decades of mining for building materials, those endemic species became progressively more rare.  The remaining dunes were fragmented into two segments separated by a gypsum plant that spews gypsum dust onto the plants.  This is just one of many factors that have decimated the population of plants and insects.

Lange's metalmark caterpillar on naked-stemmed buckwheat.  USFWS photo.
Lange’s metalmark caterpillar on naked-stemmed buckwheat. USFWS photo.

Historically, the dunes were unstabilized sand, known as “transporting dunes.”  The sand shifts in the wind, which some plants are specifically adapted to.  The host plant of Lange’s metalmark, naked-stemmed buckwheat, is such a plant that requires the shifting sands for its long-term survival.  The buckwheat is the only plant the metalmark will lay its eggs on.

The “creative destruction” of the shifting sands also helps to control the non-native weeds that compete with the native plants.

When Lange’s metalmark and two rare plants (Antioch Dunes evening primrose and Contra Costa wallflower) were given endangered status in 1976, the owners of the property assumed that the federal government would soon purchase the land for their long-term protection.  They sold most of the remaining sand in preparation for that sale.  The short-term consequence of endangered status was not positive because the sand dunes were further depleted by the rush to profit before the sale of the land to the federal government as a wildlife refuge.

Efforts to recover the population of Lange’s metalmark butterfly

Antioch Dunes evening primrose.  USFWS photo.
Antioch Dunes evening primrose. USFWS photo.

Managers of Antioch Dunes have trucked in tons of sand to restore the dunes.  They have aggressively managed the non-native weeds that compete with the host plant of the butterfly and other rare plants.  They use herbicides and prescribed burns in addition to hand-pulling the weeds.  They have planted thousands of the rare plants in an attempt to restore the population. 

In 1986, they closed the dunes to the public—except for a monthly guided tour—after the dunes were trampled by thousands of people trying to catch a glimpse of Humphrey, the whale that lost his way into the delta and had to be coaxed back out to sea by playing recordings of whale vocalizations.

After a one-day peak count of 2,342 butterflies in 1999, the population plummeted to only 45 in another one-day count in 2006.  Clearly something drastic had to be done to turn the decline around.  A captive breeding program began the following year.  A biologist at Moorpark Community College in Southern California captured a few ovulating females and carried them home to Moorpark to lay their eggs.  The story of how the butterflies and their offspring were tended by students at the college is mindboggling:

“Each [of the 27 newly-hatched butterflies] had to be fed two or three times a day, by hand, with a Q-tip soaked in honeywater—an aggravating job that wound up taking all morning.  In the afternoon, the [new generation of butterflies brought from the dunes] were transferred onto potted buckwheat plants so they could keep laying eggs.  (Students assemble homemade enclosures for each butterfly by shoving the buckwheat through the bottom of an upside-down quart-sized clear plastic deli container…ventilating it, and sealing it off from pests with duct tape and toilet paper.)  The other butterflies, meanwhile, spent their afternoon split into groups of four or five.  The hope is that these adults will pair off and breed, and students sign up for one-hour ‘mating watch’ shifts to keep them under observation…The students also have to move the containers frequently from place to place, in and out of shade, to keep the butterflies inside from getting too hot or too cold, and to try to catch a certain mysterious quality of dappled sunlight that appears to put the insects in the mood. “ (1)

This labor-intensive, tedious exercise has been done annually since 2007.  In 2008, the enterprise was able to reintroduce 30 butterflies to Antioch Dunes.  In 2012, the total annual count of butterflies at Antioch Dunes was 32, up from 28 the previous year.  Not much to show for the effort of the Moorpark students and faculty.

What are the prospects for survival of Lange’s metalmark butterfly?

As you might expect, the answer to that question varies depending on who you ask.  Two of the oldest, most experienced butterfly experts—Jerry Powell (Emeritus Professor, UC Berkeley) and Rudi Mattoni—say it’s hopeless.  They find the continuing effort laughable.

Powell has been studying the Antioch Dunes for decades.  He sees the selection of Lange’s metalmark as the sole insect species on which to lavish attention and support, extremely stupid.  All the insect populations on the Antioch Dunes have been decimated by encroaching civilization.  All the plants and animals at the Dunes form a complex ecosystem that can’t be separated into a few species that can be saved in isolation from their community.  Powell was interviewed by the author of Wild OnesHe told me that any work to recover the Lange’s is decades beyond the point of diminishing returns, and even if it were possible, the agency’s strategies were, in his opinion, completely misguided.”

Mattoni spent decades trying to save several species of rare butterflies in Southern California from extinction.  At the age of 76, he abruptly threw up his hands and moved to Argentina.  The author of Wild Ones interviewed him via Skype:  “’There’s a clause right near the top [of the Endangered Species Act] that nobody remembers,‘ he said, ‘And it’s the whole soul of the Endangered Species Act.’  It begins, ‘The purposes of this Act are to provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered and threatened species depend may be conserved.’”  Then Mattoni explained why he walked away from a long career of trying to save rare butterflies, “The butterflies were just a means to preserve wild places, but all the attention got lavished on the butterflies themselves…Once the habitat is gone, it’s gone,” Mattoni said.  ‘It’s too complex—you can’t put these things back.’”

So, where does the author of Wild Ones find a more optimistic viewpoint for the survival of the metalmark or least ideas about what to do to save it?  He interviews Brent Plater, former lawyer for Center for Biological Diversity, now owner of his own legal-suit machine, Wild Equity Institute.  Plater tells him that he is preparing to sue to prevent the opening of gas-fired energy plants near Antioch Dunes.  The plants will be less polluting than petroleum fuel plants, but Plater isn’t a “better-is-best” kinda guy.  He doesn’t want ANY energy producing plants near the Antioch Dunes because they increase nitrogen levels in the air and nitrogen encourages the growth of non-native weeds that compete with the rare native plants.  The Wild Equity website announces that suit was filed on July 24, 2013, against EPA for approving permits to the builders of the new energy plants.

The Shifting Baselines Syndrome

What distinguishes the optimists from the pessimists in this debate?  Age is one difference.  Wild Ones tells us about the “shifting baselines syndrome” which explains why the old scientists are less likely to be optimistic than the young lawyer.  We form our opinion of what is “normal” in nature when we are young.

When Professor Powell and Mr. Mattoni were young the Antioch Dunes were teeming with insects, the sand dunes were nearly intact, and the native plants were still thriving.  Compared to that baseline, the Antioch Dunes are totally trashed and the prospect of returning them to their previous glory seems preposterous to them.

Mr. Plater’s view of what is normal for the Antioch Dunes is a small population of butterflies, native plants overrun by non-native plants, and sand that was trucked in and bulldozed into dunes. It’s not difficult to improve on that landscape.  Reducing nitrogen levels in the air seems a suitable improvement.

Furthermore, Powell and Mattoni are no longer earning their living trying to save rare butterflies, while Mr. Plater’s suit will fill the coffers of his non-profit institute if he wins or even if he just tries.  He and his colleagues were recently awarded $386,000 for their legal “expenses” for their suit on behalf of two endangered species at Sharp Park near San Francisco despite the fact that they didn’t win that suit.  When one earns one’s living trying to save rare butterflies, surely one believes it is a worthwhile effort.

What is worth doing?

The author of Wild Ones doesn’t offer a particular answer to this question, but he does point in a direction.  He visits two neighboring populations of metalmark butterflies.  One population in Mendota, about 120 miles away from the Antioch Dunes, looks identical to the Lange’s metalmark, in his opinion.  But DNA tests say it’s not identical to the Lange’s metalmark.  The metalmark population near Mt. Diablo, just ten miles away, looks less like the Lange’s metalmark, but its DNA is very similar, just .5% (one-half percent) difference in their DNA.

The proximity of these sub-species of metalmarks illustrates one of the issues with the Endangered Species Act.  DNA analysis, which was not readily available when the Endangered Species was passed, is making it possible to split species into more and more sub-species.  The smaller the populations of sub-species, the more likely they are to dwindle as the climate changes and habitat disappears.  The Endangered Species Act would be a less blunt instrument if it applied to species, rather than to small, isolated populations of sub-species.

The author of Wild Ones tells us about a breeding program for a butterfly in which markedly different physical characteristics were achieved in just seven generations.  He wonders if by selective breeding of the butterfly that is very closely related genetically to Lange’s metalmark, we would have a butterfly that not only looked identical but would be nearly identical genetically.  Echoes of Frankenstein come to mind.  Is it a freak show or is it a way to resurrect the Lange’s metalmark with a lot less fuss?  Again, we leave that to you.

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Jon Mooallem, Wild Ones, Penquin Press, New York, 2013

Franciscan manzanita: The confiscation of public land

Update:  US Fish & Wildlife published the final rule designating critical habitat for Franciscan manzanita on December 20, 2013.  230.2 acres of land in San Francisco have been designated as critical habitat:  46.6 acres of federal land, 172.8 acres of parks owned by San Francisco’s Recreation and Parks Department, and 10.8 acres of private land.  The complete document is available here.  The document responds to public comments and explains any differences between the proposed designation and the final rule.  It makes interesting reading. 

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On September 5, 2012, US Fish & Wildlife (USFWS) announced that Franciscan manzanita is now an endangered species.  In 2009 the single plant known to exist in the wild was discovered during the reconstruction of Doyle Drive.  It was transplanted to an undisclosed location in the Presidio in San Francisco.

In addition to the conferral of endangered status, US Fish & Wildlife has designated 318 acres of  land in San Francisco as critical habitat for the Franciscan manzanita.   Critical habitats are places where the endangered plant is either known to have existed in the past or they are places that provide what the plant needs to survive.

Five of the eleven places in San Francisco designated as critical habitat are on federal land in the Presidio.  (Details about all the critical habitats are available here.)  Forty of the 318 acres are on private land.  Six of the critical habitats are in 196 acres of San Francisco’s city parks:

  • Corona Heights
  • Twin Peaks
  • Mount Davidson
  • Glen Canyon Park (erroneously called Diamond Heights by US Fish & Wildlife)
  • Bernal Hill Park (erroneously called Bernal Heights by US Fish & Wildlife)
  • Bayview Hill Park

The taxonomy of manzanita is ambiguous

There are 96 species of manzanita in California (1).  The ranges of most of these species are extremely small because the manzanita hybridizes freely and therefore adaptive radiation has resulted in a multitude of species, sub-species, and varieties that are adapted to micro-climates.  Many of these species are locally rare, which is consistent with the fact that 6 species of manzanita have already been designated as endangered, two of which are limited to the San Francisco peninsula:  Raven’s manzanita and Franciscan manzanita.

The genetic relationship between these two species of manzanita is ambiguous, which is reflected in the constantly shifting opinions of biologists about the taxonomy (species classification) of manzanita.  The 2003 Recovery Plan for Raven’s manzanita recounted the long history of these shifting views.  For some time, Raven’s and Franciscan manzanitas were considered the same species.  Then, for an equally long time, they were considered sub-species of the same species, Arctostaphylos hookeri.  It was not until 2007, that Raven’s was reclassified as a sub-species of Arctostaphylos montana.  Presently, Franciscan manzanita is classified as its own species, Arctostaphylos franciscana. 

Clearly, this history of the biological opinion regarding these two species of manzanitas suggests they are closely related and morphologically (AKA anatomically) similar.  The Recovery Plan concludes, “The idea of ‘pure’ species in Arctostaphylos, with its many poorly defined taxa and prevalent hybridization has often been difficult to apply over the history of taxonomic work in the genus.”

To add to the confusion regarding the provenance of Franciscan manzanita, some biologists are of the opinion that the individual plant that was discovered on Doyle Drive is actually a hybrid, not a pure-bred Franciscan manzanita.  The East Bay Regional Park District botanical garden in Tilden Park has planted a clone of the individual plant from Doyle Drive.  It is labeled as a hybrid of Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, which is one of the few species of manzanita with a wide range.

This is the label on the “Doyle Drive” manzanita in Tilden Park Botanical Garden, indicating that it is a hybrid.

The park ranger who led us to this plant in the Tilden garden, pointed out that the plant is morphologically distinct from the Franciscan manzanita that has been resident in that garden for about 50 years.  He expressed his opinion that the Doyle Drive manzanita was properly labeled as a hybrid.

In what sense is the Franciscan manzanita “endangered?”

Franciscan manzanita has been available for purchase in nurseries for about 50 years.  It has been propagated by taking cuttings and therefore they are presumed to be genetically identical clones.  However, given that this plant has been sold to the public for a long time, we have no way of knowing exactly where they have been planted or if some have successfully reproduced by germinating seeds.  For all we know, this plant is thriving somewhere, perhaps even in a place we might call “wild.”  Perhaps the plant found on Doyle Drive was purchased in a nursery!

The individual plant found on Doyle Drive has been defined by USFWS as Franciscan manzanita despite the fact that some biologists consider it a hybrid of another species.  We understand that the motivation for designating this individual as an endangered species and providing it with critical habitat is based on an assumption that it is genetically different from the Franciscan manzanita that can be purchased in nurseries and that the chances of survival of the species may be improved by cross-fertilization of these two plants such that greater genetic diversity results from their union.

Yet we are offered no evidence of the genetic composition of the Doyle Drive individual or Franciscan manzanita sold in nurseries.  Nor are we provided any evidence that the Doyle Drive individual is even a genetically “pure” Franciscan manzanita rather than a hybrid of another species altogether.

If we weren’t being asked to devote 318 acres of land to the propagation of a plant with such ambiguous taxonomy, we might not question how little information we have been provided.  The technology of mapping the genome of this plant is available to us.  Why aren’t we making use of this technology to resolve these ambiguities?  The cost of planting 318 acres with this endangered plant far exceeds the cost of such genetic analysis.

We aren’t told what it will cost to plant 318 acres with this endangered plant, but we know that the cost of the recovery plan for Raven’s manzanita and lessingia was estimated as $23,432,500 in 2003.  Presumably that is an indication that the proposal for Franciscan manzanita will be a multi-million dollar effort.  The cost of transplanting the single plant from Doyle Drive to the Presidio was reported as over $200,000. (1)

Thirty years of endangered status for Raven’s manzanita has not saved this plant

We have already made the point that Raven’s and Franciscan manzanitas are closely related.  In its proposal for the designation of critical habitat for Franciscan, USFWS confirms this close relationship by referring us to the Recovery Plan for Raven’s.  In other words, the characteristics and horticultural requirements of these two species are so similar that a separate Recovery Plan for Franciscan is not necessary.  The Recovery Plan for Raven’s is applicable to Franciscan.

Therefore, we should assume that the fate of the recovery effort for Franciscan will be similar to that for the Raven’s.  Raven’s was designated as endangered in 1979.  Its first recovery plan was published in 1984 and the second in 2003.  Many 5-year reviews of its endangered status have been done during this 33 year period.  The most recent 5-year review was published in June 2012; that is, very recently.

So what does USFWS have to show for 33 years of effort to save Raven’s manzanita from extinction?  Almost nothing:

  • Clones of the single plant in the wild exist in several botanical gardens.  These clones are genetically identical and their growth in maintained gardens does not meet ESA standards for recovery.
  • “The wild plant has been observed to set seed although no natural seedling establishment is known to have occurred.” (6)
  • The plant has been the victim of twig blight several times, but the fungus cannot be treated because it would damage the mycorrhizal fungi in the soil upon which the plant is dependent.
  • The seeds depend upon animal predators for dispersal which are largely absent in an urban area.
  • The pollinators of manzanita have not been identified and therefore there is no assurance that they still exist in this location.
  • The 5-year review concludes that:  “…recovery sufficient to warrant full delisting is not projected in the foreseeable future for [Raven’s manzanita] and may not be possible.”

We can’t appreciate the significance of the utter failure of this effort without some mention of the extreme methods used to overcome these obstacles.

The seed of manzanita is germinated by fire.  However, the exact relationship between fire and germination is not known.  Therefore, many complex experiments have been conducted on the few viable seeds produced by the Raven’s manzanita in a futile effort to determine the winning combination.  These experiments are described in detail in an article in Fremontia (1).  In short, various combinations of fire, heat, cold, smoke, liquid smoke, etc., were tried and failed to determine exactly what triggers germination of manzanita seeds.

We should remind our readers of the legal definition of “recovery” according to the Endangered Species Act.  According to the 5-year review for Raven’s manzanita, here are two of the criteria for recovery toward which there has been no progress in 33 years:

  • “At least five spontaneously reproducing variable populations are established in reserves…in San Francisco…”
  • “At least two sexually reproduced generations are established within the Presidio.”

Frankly, it is no longer credible to expect the recovery of Raven’s manzanita and this failure implies the same fate for Franciscan manzanita.

Can the public parks of San Francisco meet the horticultural requirements of Franciscan manzanita?

The public parks of the City of San Francisco cannot meet the horticultural requirements of the Franciscan manzanita because it requires fire to germinate its seeds. 

All of the critical habitats proposed by USFWS in San Francisco’s public parks are designated “natural areas.”  According to the DRAFT Environmental Impact Report of the “Significant Natural Resource Areas Management Plan,” prescribed burns are prohibited in the natural areas.  Therefore, unless there are unplanned wildfires in the six public parks proposed as critical habitat, it will not be physically possible to “spontaneously reproduce” this plant, as required by the Endangered Species Act. 

Granted, the City of San Francisco could revise its management plan for the natural areas to allow—or even require—prescribed burns in the six parks proposed as critical habitat.  In that case, the citizens of San Francisco would be subjected to air pollution and risk of causing an uncontrolled wildfire in surrounding residential communities.  The Natural Areas Program would be subject to even more criticism than it already endures.

The Natural Areas Program is extremely controversial in the City of San Francisco because it destroys healthy non-native trees, it sprays pesticides on non-native vegetation in public areas, it destroys the habitat of wildlife, and it limits the public’s recreational access to trails which are often fenced.  Subjecting the natural areas to prescribed burns is surely the bridge too far for the public which would jeopardize the future of the entire program.  Why would the City of San Francisco be willing to push the public over the edge by requiring prescribed burns in six urban parks in densely populated residential communities?

Furthermore, some of the proposed critical habitat is in heavily forested areas, which are not compatible with the requirement of manzanita for full sun.  As they were on behalf of Raven’s manzanita, these trees would be destroyed.  The City of San Francisco is already planning to destroy 18,500 trees over 15 feet tall to accommodate its desire to reintroduce native plants to forested areas. (3)  How many more trees would need to be destroyed to accommodate Franciscan manzanita?  How much more carbon dioxide would be released into the atmosphere by the destroyed trees?

Bayview Hill is one of the proposed critical habitats which are heavily forested.  According to SNRAMP (3), 17.16 acres of Bayview Hill is forested.  Given that Bayview Hill is the only proposed critical habitat which is outside the known historic range of Franciscan manzanita, the loss of 17 acres of trees does not seem a fair trade for a plant with few prospects for survival.

The proposed critical habitat in Glen Canyon Park (inaccurately called Diamond Heights by the proposal) is also forested in a portion of the 34 proposed acres of critical habitat.  This is a park in which the destruction of trees is being hotly contested.  The community in this park does not need the additional controversy of tree destruction for the sole purpose of planting an endangered species.

Proposed critical habitat in other city parks is likely to be controversial for other reasons, primarily because additional restrictions on recreational access will undoubtedly be required to protect this endangered plant.  Bernal Hill is an example of a city park with a huge community of visitors who will undoubtedly be enraged by further loss of recreational access.  They have already been squeezed by the restrictions imposed by the Natural Areas Program.

This proposal for critical habitat is not good public relations for the Endangered Species Act

The City of San Francisco is the second most densely populated city in the country.  It is comprised of only 29,888 acres.   There are only 3,317 acres of City-managed parks in the city. (2) The proposed critical habitat in City-managed parks is 196 acres, 6% of total City-managed park land in San Francisco.

Please ask yourself these questions:

  • Does it make sense for 6% of all City-managed park land to be permanently committed to planting an endangered plant which can be purchased in nurseries?
  • Does it make sense to confiscate 6% of all public parks for a plant the identity of which we are not certain?
  • Does it make sense to throw the public out of 6% of all public parks on behalf of a plant that will never be able to spontaneously reproduce unless there is an accidental wildfire?

We think the answers to these questions are no, no, and no.  This is an ill-advised proposal which makes a mockery of the Endangered Species Act.  This is an important law that is trivialized by a proposal that will be physically impossible to implement without endangering the public and damaging the environment. 

Comments on the proposed critical habitats will be accepted until November 5, 2012. Comments may be submitted online at the Federal eRulemaking Portal at http://www.regulations.gov (Docket Number FWS–R8–ES–2012–0067) or by U.S. mail to:

Public Comments Processing
Attn:  FWS–R8–ES–2012–0067
Division of Policy and Directives Management
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
4401 N. Fairfax Drive, MS 2042-PDM
Arlington, VA 22203.

*********************************

Bibliography

(1)      Gluesenkamp, Michael, et al., “Back from the Brink:  A Second Chance at Discovery and Conservation of the Franciscan Manzanita,” Fremontia, V37:4/38:1, 2009-2010

(2)      Harnik, Peter, Inside City Parks, Trust for Public Land, 2000

(3)      San Francisco Recreation and Park Department, “Significant Natural Research Area Management Plan (SNRAMP),” 2006

(4)      San Francisco Recreation and Park Department, “DRAFT Environmental Impact Report for SNRAMP,” 2011

(5)      USFWS, “Designation of Critical Habitat for Franciscan Manzanita,” September 5, 2012

(6)      USFWS, “5-Year Review of Endangered Status of Raven’s Manzanita,” June 2012

(7)      USFWS, “Recovery Plan for Coastal Plants of the Northern San Francisco Peninsula,” 2003

Formidable odds against reintroduction of Mission Blue butterfly

Mission Blue butterfly. Wikimedia Commons

The Mission Blue butterfly is a federal endangered species which existed historically on Twin Peaks in San Francisco.  San Francisco’s Natural Areas Program has been trying to reintroduce the Mission Blue to Twin Peaks for several years, so far with limited success.  Visit the Save Sutro website for a detailed description of these efforts which began in 2009.

The “Recovery Action Plan for the Mission Blue Butterfly at Twin Peaks Natural Area” acknowledges the difficulty of this undertaking.  It cites a study of 226 attempts to reintroduce butterflies where they have been extirpated (locally extinct).  These attempts lasted an average of 15 years.  Only 29 of the attempts were ultimately successful.  So what are the odds of success on Twin Peaks?

Identified obstacles to success

The federal Endangered Species Act requires that a recovery plan be written for each endangered species.  These recovery plans are a valuable source of information about each endangered species, the factors that resulted in their endangered status, and the plans to promote the recovery of the population.  From the recovery plan for the Mission Blue, we learn of several issues that make its reintroduction problematic at best:

  • The Mission Blue is dependent upon just 3 species of lupine for its development.  Two of these exist on Twin Peaks, but the predominant species is infected with a fungal pathogen which flares up during warmer, wetter weather.  The small population of Mission Blues on Twin Peaks crashed in 1998 when the fungal pathogen killed many of the lupines. 
  • The lupine is crowded out by scrub species if natural disturbances such as fire do not prevent natural succession from grassland to scrub such as native coyote brush.
  • Non-native species of plants are also competitors of the native lupines and their growth is encouraged by higher levels of nitrogen in the soil found in urban environments as a result of the burning of fossil fuels. 

The Natural Areas Program cannot control these factors:

  • There is no known cure for the fungal pathogen that is killing lupine.  In wetter years, it is likely to kill some of the lupine on Twin Peaks again, as it has in the past.
  • The Draft Environmental Impact Report for the Natural Areas Programs says that prescribed burns will not be conducted in the “natural areas.”  Prescribed burns are conducted by the State parks department periodically on San Bruno Mountain, where a viable population of Mission Blue butterflies exists.  This method of preventing natural succession to scrub in order to maintain a population of the butterfly’s host plant will not be an option on Twin Peaks. 
  • We should probably assume that existing automobile traffic in San Francisco will continue to contribute to nitrogen in the soil for the foreseeable future.  Higher levels of nitrogen will promote the growth of the non-native vegetation that competes with the native lupine upon which the Mission Blue depends.

Unidentified obstacles to success

Pesticide Application Notice, Twin Peaks

In addition to the issues that have been identified by federal and local recovery plans, the Natural Areas Program has introduced a new threat to the Mission Blue.  Herbicides are being used on Twin Peaks to control non-native vegetation.  Twin Peaks was sprayed with herbicides 16 times in 2010 and 19 times in 2011.  Are these herbicides a factor in the limited reproductive success of the Mission Blues that have been reintroduced to Twin Peaks?

A recently published study reports that the reproductive success of the Behr’s metalmark butterfly was significantly reduced (24-36%) by herbicides used to control non-native vegetation.  Two of those pesticides are used on Twin Peaks, imazapyr and triclopyr.  Triclopyr was used most often on Twin Peaks in 2010 and imazapyr in 2011.

The study does not explain how this harm occurs.  It observes that the three herbicides that were studied work in different ways.  It therefore speculates that the harm to the butterfly larva may be from the inactive ingredients of the pesticides which they have in common, or that the harm comes to the larva from the plant which is altered in some way by the herbicide application.  Either theory is potentially applicable to the herbicides used on Twin Peaks and consequently harmful to the Mission Blue.

Native plant advocates would like us to believe that the herbicides used to eradicate non-native plants are not harmful to animals, including humans. In fact, they don’t know that. The truth is that no one knows if herbicides are harmful to animals because there is almost no research that would answer this question.  The tests required by law by the Environmental Protection Agency to put new chemicals on the market are very limited.  The honeybee is the only insect on which the EPA is required to test chemicals before they are put on the market.  No tests are required for butterflies or any other insect. 

US Fish & Wildlife funded the research on the Behr’s metalmark butterfly which suggests that herbicides are harmful to butterflies.  US Fish & Wildlife is also the co-sponsor and co-funder of the reintroduction of the Mission Blue butterfly on Twin Peaks.  Will US Fish & Wildlife advise the Natural Areas Program that herbicide use on Twin Peaks should be stopped? 

In a more perfect world we would have the wisdom to stop using pesticides until we had some scientific evidence that they are not harmful to us and the animals with which we share the planet.