One of world’s two remaining live specimens — female Fatu who lives with her mother Najin on Kenya’s 90,000-acre Ol Pejeta wildlife conservancy — provided the eggs for the project, while the sperm used was from two different deceased males. https://www.dianomi.com/smartads.epl?id=3533
Scientific consortium Biorescue described in a press release late Thursday how the eggs were collected from Fatu in early July before being airlifted to a lab in Italy for fertilisation, development and preservation.
Neither Fatu nor Najin is capable of carrying a calf to term, so surrogate mothers for the embryos will be selected from a population of southern white rhinos.
Ol Pejeta director Richard Vigne told AFP on Friday that he believed in the project’s chances of success, while emphasising the high stakes.
“No one is going to pretend that this is going to be easy,” he said.
“We are doing things which are cutting-edge from a scientific perspective and we a dealing with genetics, with the two last northen white rhinos left on the planet,” said Vigne.
“There are many, many things that could go wrong,” he said. “I think everybody understand the challenges that remain.”
Since 2019 Biorescue has collected 80 eggs from Najin and Fatu, but the 12 viable embryos all hail from the younger rhino.
The project is a multi-national effort with scientists from the German Leibniz Institute backing the Kenya Wildlife Service and Ol Pejeta, and the Italian Avantea laboratory providing fertilisation support.
Kenyan Tourism Minister Najib Balala welcomed the news.
“It is very encouraging to note that the project has continued to make good progress in its ambitious attempts to save an iconic species from extinction,” he said in the press release.
Rhinoceroses have very few natural predators but their numbers have been decimated by poaching since the 1970s.
Modern rhinos have roamed the planet for 26 million years and it is estimated that more than a million still lived in the wild in the middle of the 19th century.
The saiga has seen a dramatic turnaround in fortunes. But even with the current boom, numbers will never return to the millions estimated in Soviet times due to looming threats, including the impact of state infrastructure projects and oil and gas development, said Albert Salemgareyev.
The latest survey, carried out in April, shows not only a big increase in the total numbers, but that one particular population in Ustyurt in the south of the country, has made a dramatic recovery.
In 2015, there were barely more than 1,000 animals left in the area, but there’s been a big increase to 12,000 in this year’s census.
The UK-based non-profit organisation, Fauna & Flora International, has been involved in efforts to protect the Ustyurt population by establishing a new anti-poaching ranger team and using satellite collaring to monitor saiga movements.
David Gill, FFI senior programme manager for Central Asia, said the new census was the best evidence yet that decades of conservation efforts to protect the saiga were paying off.
But he warned against complacency, saying saiga migrate across huge areas, so future development and infrastructure projects that might fragment its habitat remain a concern.
“But this new data is cause for celebration,” he added. “There are few truly vast wildernesses, like the steppes of central Asia, left on the planet. To know that saiga herds are still traversing them in their thousands, as they have done since prehistoric times, is an encouraging thought for those of us who want those wildernesses to remain.”
The International Union for Conservation of Nature classes the saiga among five critically endangered antelope species.
Numbers of the species, which goes by the scientific name Saiga tatarica, have plunged by more than 90% in the late 20th Century, coming close to extinction several times.
Kazakhstan is home to a majority of the world’s saiga, although the antelope also can be found in southern Russia and Uzbekistan.
In the decade after Kazakhstan’s independence the animal was pushed to the brink through poaching for its horns, which are prized in Chinese medicine.
Recent years have seen measures taken by the Kazakh government to protect the saiga population, including a crack down on poaching, with penalties of up to 12 years in prison, and the establishment of nature reserves.
Stephanie Ward, Altyn Dala conservation initiative international coordinator at the Frankfurt Zoological Society, said the antelope is among very few living creatures to have run freely among both Neanderthal humans and the humans of the 21st Century.
“It’s exciting to see their numbers start to recover to levels nearing 1,000,000 individuals, and it speaks volumes about the Government of Kazakhstan’s commitment to their protection,” she said.
The die-off of 2015 was blamed on a bacterium previously present in the saiga which turned into a deadly killer due to excess humidity and higher-than-average daily temperatures on the steppes.
The Biden administration announced plans on Friday to reverse policies implemented under President Donald Trump that weakened the Endangered Species Act, a half-century-old law credited with the recovery of the bald eagle, humpback whale, grizzly bear and dozens of other species.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service under President Biden are moving to undo much of the Trump administration’s work that altered the ways habitats of plants and animals on the verge of extinction are kept from total collapse.
The decision to bolster the federal government’s power to protect vanishing plants and animals comes as the world finds itself in the midst of what United Nations scientists say is a worldwide decline in biodiversity that threatens to erode food systems and other key parts of the global economy.
Martha Williams, principal deputy director at the Fish and Wildlife Service, said in a statement that her agency will work with both industry and Native American tribes “to not only protect and recover America’s imperiled wildlife but to ensure cornerstone laws like the Endangered Species Act are helping us meet 21st century challenges.”
Led by former interior secretary David Bernhardt, an expert on the Endangered Species Act, the Trump administration whittled down several long-standing protections for imperiled plants and animals following complaints from loggers, ranchers and other business interests.
For example, the previous administration allowed wildlife officials to take the economic cost of conserving species into account when deciding whether to put a plant or animal on the endangered species list — a move many environmentalists claimed violated both the letter and spirit of the law.
Trump officials also made it easier to remove protections for threatened species, such as the American burying beetle, which once scurried nearly everywhere east of the Rockies but now lives in only a few parts of the country and is further threatened by climate change. Under Trump, the Fish and Wildlife Service weakened protections for the beetle at the behest of oil and gas drillers who must work around the imperiled insect.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service say they will revise or rescind those rules.
David Henkin, a senior attorney at Earthjustice, which sued the Trump administration over the changes, said the Biden administration’s announcement is “excellent news for critically endangered species.”
“As long as they do it quickly,” he added, “we can avoid bad on-the-ground consequences.”
Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, called the announcement “a good start,” urging the Biden administration to update the regulation in a way that safeguards species threatened by rising temperatures.
“With climate change bearing down on us and no serious doubt remaining about the consequences of inaction, we should take this opportunity to update all federal standards as thoroughly as possible to prevent habitat destruction and biodiversity loss before it’s too late,” he said in a statement.
Republicans criticized the move for potentially undermining any push to rebuild roads, bridges and other infrastructure if opposed by environmentalists.
“Many of the reforms put in place under President Trump were born out of input from local communities and the men and women most affected by the policies created in Washington,” said Rep. Bruce Westerman (Ark.), the top Republican on the House panel. “Yet by reinstating burdensome regulations, this administration has once again opened the door for environmental groups to weaponize the ESA and use it to delay critical projects across the country.”
Jonathan Wood, a research fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center, a free-market think tank focused on environmental issues, cautioned that restrictions on how habitat can be developed by humans “aren’t always better for recovering species.”
“The law’s punitive approach does little to encourage landowners to provide or restore habitat for imperiled species,” he said, adding that the Endangered Species Act “too often makes rare species liabilities that landowners and states understandably want to avoid.”
Historically hailed as a success by the World Wildlife Fund and other conservation groups, the Endangered Species Act has helped keep the vast majority — 99 percent — of protected wildlife from extinction.
Yet many supposedly protected species are still far from thriving. A new study by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution this week, for instance, found that something isn’t right with the North Atlantic right whale.
Although the animal is listed as endangered and protected from harvest, it’s still impacted by deadly contact with humans through boat strikes and becoming entangled in fishing nets. Not all those incidents are lethal, but, according to research published in Current Biology, it has led to a startling finding. Right whales are getting smaller.
“We find that entanglements in fishing gear are associated with shorter whales, and that body lengths have been decreasing since 1981,” the study says. “Arrested growth may lead to reduced reproductive success and increased probability of lethal gear entanglements.”
The researchers used aerial photogrammetry data dating back to the early 2000s to measure whales observed for the study, taking 202 measurements of 129 individuals. Based on the findings, the authors determined that a whale born in 2019 is expected to reach a maximum length that’s one meter shorter than a whale born in 1981, a 7 percent decline.
To further protect some of the hundreds of thousands of plants and animals near extinction, Biden campaigned on a plan to conserve 30 percent of the nation’s land and waters by the end of the decade.
So far, though, his administration has offered few details on how it will achieve that ambitious goal, while weathering criticism from Republican lawmakers who call the plan an example of government overreach.
And plenty of other Trump moves, including a decision to deny protections for the monarch butterfly along the West Coast, still remain on the books.
“It’s disappearing,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It may be gone before 2024.”
Fargo, ND, USA / The Mighty 790 KFGO | KFGOThomson ReutersMay 28, 2021 | 8:29 AM
MADRID (Reuters) – The Iberian lynx population in Portugal and Spain rose above 1,000 last year after 414 cubs were born under a joint breeding programme, in a major leap towards conserving the endangered species, Spain’s Environment Ministry said on Friday.
The initiative was launched in 2002 when the number of Iberian lynx, a wild cat native to the Iberian Peninsula, plunged to just 94 in Spain and none in Portugal, due to farming, poaching and road accidents.
By the end of last year there were 1,111 Iberian lynx living in the wild in the region, including 239 breeding females, the ministry said in a statement. The number was a record high since monitoring of the species began, it said.
“With a 30% increase from 2019, this demographic curve allows us to be optimistic and to draw scenarios that distance the big Iberian feline from critical risk of extinction,” the ministry said.
In 2015, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) downgraded the threat level for the Iberian lynx, a spotted nocturnal wild cat distinguished by its beard and ear tufts, to ‘Endangered’ from ‘Critically Endangered’, which the ministry said was thanks to the ongoing conservation efforts.
The World Wildlife Fund, a partner in the programme, said the data was encouraging.
“This is a great success for conservation in Spain and the world. Few species are able to escape from such a critical situation as the Iberian lynx has been in,” said WWF Spain’s chief Juan Carlos del Olmo.
In order to be classified as non-endangered, the Iberian lynx population would need to be above at least 3,000, including 750 breeding females, the WWF said.
Del Olmo said this could be achieved by 2040, but that much still needed to be done to eradicate threats to the Iberian lynx, such as road accidents and hunting, and to improve prosecution rates for killing lynx.
(Reporting by Michael Susin, editing by Andrei Khalip and Raissa Kasolowsky)
About 30 years ago, the animals used to roam the Mt Kenya forest habitat but due to hunting for game meat and trophy, the numbers got depleted.
In Kenya, the population of bongos living in the Aberdare forest and other conservancies is about 30.
But there is hope: The animals are being bred in zoos in Florida, US and this rare antelope is coming back home, thanks to a project initiated by the Meru county government in collaboration with other conservation stakeholders.
The county government has partnered with Kenya Wildlife Service, Kenya Forest Service, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, Mt Kenya Trust and two Community Forest Associations (CFAs) to form a trust that will spearhead the project.
Lewa Conservancy, which is offering technical assistance, has already carried out a feasibility study with findings showing that the project is viable, according to Mr John Kinoti, the community development manager.
“The study shows that once reintroduced, the bongo will not face many challenges since this used to be their home,” Mr Kinoti said in an interview.
Last Friday, deputy governor Titus Ntuchiu unveiled the Meru Bongo and Black Rhino Conservation Trust (MBBR-CT), which has been given the mandate to receive the first batch of bongos from a US-based conservation organisation and set up a sanctuary in Mt Kenya forest where the animals will be bred.
“The conservationists identified the Mountain Bongo as faced with extinction and took a few to Florida for breeding. They are now bringing them back in this project that seeks to conserve the endangered animal,” he said.
Last year, governor Kiraitu Murungi launched the first Mountain Run in Africa to promote tourism, support conservation and help fund the establishment of a cancer institute with the mountain bongo and black rhino targeted in the conservation efforts.
The sanctuary is expected to attract tourists with the two CFAs – Kamulu and Ntimaka – benefitting from fees charged to tourists, thus providing members of the community with income.
County executive in charge of Trade, Tourism and Cooperatives Maingi Mugambi said besides conservation, the project is expected to spur tourism growth in the county.
“This is a big step towards achieving world-class tourism standards and the ripple effects of this project will be felt by members of the community since the revenue generated from tourism activities will go to the CFAs which are owned by members of the community,” Mr Mugambi said.
Updated 3:13 PM ET, Sat May 1, 2021The United States has decided to protect the Yangtze sturgeon under the Endangered Species Act.
(CNN)The United States has placed a new fish on its foreign endangered species list.The US Fish and Wildlife Service determined the Yangtze sturgeon warranted listing as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, according to a press release.The freshwater fish is found within the upper and middle Yangtze River system in China — a major fishing ground.
The Act requires the FWS to list species as endangered or threatened regardless of what country the species lives in. That’s to ensure people under US jurisdiction don’t contribute to further decline of the species, according the FWS, which has more than 600 foreign species on its list.
The agency makes determinations based on a few factors. They include natural or man-made factors such as the present or threatened destruction, modification or curtailment of its habitat or range, overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific or educational purposes, disease or predation and the inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms.
In a document published to the Federal Register, the agency said overharvesting led to the Yangtze sturgeon’s decline. It said current threats to the fish include dams and bycatch, or unintentional catching that happens when fishing for other species. It’s also affected by industrial pollution, riverbed modification and hybridization with non-native sturgeon.China has imposed fishing bans on the Yangtze sturgeon, but the species is still losing numbers. The FWS said it does not have a population estimate for the species but noted natural reproduction of the sturgeon has not been documented in the wild since 2008.
Local and national authorities have also tried restocking, but those sturgeon are unlikely to survive wild conditions, according to the FWS.Listing foreign species as endangered can increase awareness of the species or prompt research efforts to address their conservation needs, the agency said. The move also prohibits people under US jurisdiction from importing listed species into the US or exporting listed species from the US.
For decades, even after whaling ceased, humpback whales have faced challenges to their survival, ranging from ship strikes to warming oceans and climate change. Photo by Stan Butler/NOAA44SHARES
The United States has finalized a rule to protect key ocean habitats used by endangered humpback whales as they migrate and feed in the waters off the U.S. west coast.
This is a tremendous development and one we hope will help speed the recovery of these iconic marine mammals who were once hunted to the brink of extinction for their oil and blubber. Two of the five “breeding stocks” of humpback whales in the world listed under the Endangered Species Act feed along the U.S. west coast where they are in danger of being struck by ships and face other potentially adverse impacts from commercial fisheries, including fatal entanglement in fishing gear. The designation of these areas as “critical habitat” for humpback whales will allow the government to limit activities that have the potential to degrade these crucial habitats.
This is a commonsense protection, but it has been a long time coming. For decades, even after whaling ceased, humpback whales have faced challenges to their survival, ranging from ship strikes to warming oceans and climate change. Until the 1980s, indiscriminate whaling led to populations of some humpback whales declining by nearly 95 percent globally, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Beginning in the 1970s, the Humane Society of the United States and other organizations waged a major fight to protect these animals both nationally and internationally. Our efforts led to humpback whales being protected under the Endangered Species Act, when that law passed in 1973. Eventually, we won an international moratorium on killing humpbacks in commercial whale hunts.
But in 2016, during a review of humpback whale populations, the NMFS divided them into 14 distinct “breeding stocks” and decided only five of these would remain protected under the ESA moving forward—a decision we did not feel sufficiently protected these animals.
The ESA requires the government to designate “critical habitat” for the five listed stocks, something the NMFS failed to do so for five years despite protests by the HSUS, Humane Society Legislative Fund and other organizations.
We are pleased that under the Biden administration, the NMFS has at last taken this important step, and we now urge it to do more to protect these animals by regulating potentially harmful activities in these vital areas.
Humpback whales are iconic animals who are an important part of a diverse ocean ecosystem. They are a source of joy for whale watchers worldwide. No one who has seen a humpback feeding at the surface in waters close to the shore, slapping their long flippers on the ocean surface and leaping completely out of the water in spectacular breaches is ever likely to forget the spectacle.
In 1970 Dr. Roger Payne, a renowned whale scientist, published a record album “Songs of the Humpback Whale,” introducing the world to the complex and beautiful “songs” of humpbacks in their mating grounds. At around the same time a shocked American public saw images in the media of dead humpback whales being dragged onto whaling ships. Today, decades later, this dichotomy continues: whales continue to be among our oceans’ most beloved creatures, even as they face great challenges to their survival. It’s high time these whales get the protections they deserve. Let’s celebrate the progress made for humpback whales today, even as we continue to fight on their behalf.
Sara Amundson is president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund.
“Ropeless was seen as a kind of crazy idea before,” said Mark Baumgartner of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Massachusetts, US. “But now it looks like the only actual solution to the problem.”
In recent years officials in the US and Canada have responded to the dwindling population of whales with a series of closures in key fishing areas, an approach that has at times prompted outcry from fishers, according to marine biologist and WHOI veterinarian Michael Moore.
“Some people say we need to make some hard decisions and let the species go or let the industry go,” said Moore, who heads the Ropeless Consortium, a group that engages researchers, conservationists and industry on ropeless technology. “I don’t believe that’s true.”
With half a dozen or so companies working to develop ropeless gear, the technology varies widely. At its essence the gear allows traps to be dropped along the seabed without the traditional vertical line, swapping surface buoys for GPS or other tracking technology that indicates the location of traps. When it is time to retrieve the traps, an acoustic signal or timer triggers the trap to rise to the surface.Advertisementhttps://c368d927f4dc159ef4af8bdbb7e5a7bd.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
The technology doesn’t completely do away with fishing lines in the water. In commercial lobster fishing, for example, ropes would still be used to connect traps to each other as they sit on the seabed.
“But if there is no rope in the water column, the entanglement risk goes down very substantially,” said Moore, who cited calculations that suggest the risk could drop by as much as 90%.
The technology is not without its challenges, chief among them the high cost of swapping out the million or so vertical lines currently strewn across the whales’ migratory pathways, said Patrick Ramage of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
“We’re not going to be able to put this financial burden on the backs of individual fishermen,” says Ramage. He hoped that governments in the US and Canada as well as philanthropic sources would step in to help cover the cost of the transition.
As companies grapple with the lingering technical challenges, such as how to ensure that the gear placed in the water by fishers is universally visible to others, the technology has also come up against regulatory barriers, said Ramage.
In the US, state and federal regulators have all but barred ropeless fishing, allowing it only for those who successfully wade through a “somewhat daunting” process of applying for an exemption, said Ramage. In Massachusetts, for example, state regulations continue to require at least one vertical buoy rope while fishing.
Among fishers the reaction to ropeless has been divided. In a December letter to state officials, the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association dismissed the idea. “This transition would take hundreds of millions of dollars and decades to implement and outfit every commercial fishing vessel that is on the water,” wrote Beth Casoni, the association’s executive director. Casoni did not reply to a request for an interview.Advertisementhttps://c368d927f4dc159ef4af8bdbb7e5a7bd.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
In Canadian waters, the Acadian Crabbers Association has been testing ropeless since 2018. “When we started, we were very leery as to the possibility of this being workable in a real fishery situation,” said Robert Haché, director general of the association.
But they felt they had few other options, he said. Measures enacted by the Canadian government to protect the whales saw the closure of about 75% of their fishing grounds in the southern gulf of Saint Lawrence last year. “It’s either [ropeless] or our fishery is doomed because we cannot keep on being thrown out of our fishing grounds systematically every year,” said Haché.
A limited trial – carried out by 10 fishers over two weeks last year – yielded promising results. “We’re quite enthusiastic about this because we think that this can work and this is going to work,” said Haché. Plans are in the works for an expanded trial in May, involving as many as 21 fishers who hope to use the technology to fish in closed areas for up to eight weeks.
“For us, it’s the ideal solution to fish in areas that are closed to fishing because of the presence of whales,” he said. He was hesitant, however, to endorse the use of ropeless in open waters. “We’re quite far away from looking at this as being a solution for widespread deployment of fishers and deployment of traps,” said Haché.
This potential compromise – allowing ropeless fishing in closed-off areas – is now being considered by the US federal government, said Moore of the Ropeless Consortium. “In some ways it’s giving back to the industry what has already been taking away from them, rather than taking more away from them … It’s a question of the carrot and the stick really.”
The small incentive could help usher in a healthier coexistence between the whales and the fishing industry, said Moore. With the global population of North Atlantic right whales estimated to have dwindled to 356 in 2019, however, time is of the essence.
“The trauma these animals are going through is utterly unacceptable,” said Moore, pointing to examples of injuries ranging from fishing rope embedded inches-deep in a whale’s lip to a spinal disfigurement caused by the strain of dragging fishing gear.
He described entanglement as a “human-caused traumatic disease” that has pushed the species to the brink. “For the past 20 years I’ve been having nightmares about what these animals are going through.”
Scientists caution high death rate is outpacing births
Population of whales estimated at around 360
Associated Press in BostonSat 3 Apr 2021 12.47 EDT
North Atlantic right whales gave birth over the winter in greater numbers than scientists have seen since 2015, an encouraging sign for researchers who became alarmed three years ago when the critically endangered species produced no known offspring at all.
Survey teams spotted 17 newborn calves swimming with their mothers between Florida and North Carolina from December through March. One calf died after being hit a boat, a reminder of a death rate experts fear is outpacing births.
The calf-count equals the combined total for the previous three years. In a dismal 2018, scientists saw no births for the first time in three decades. Still, researchers say greater numbers are needed. The population of the endangered marine giants is estimated to have fallen to about 360.Advertisement
“What we are seeing is what we hope will be the beginning of an upward climb in calving that’s going to continue for the next few years,” said Clay George, who oversees right whale surveys for the Georgia state government. “They need to be producing about two dozen calves per year for the population to stabilize and continue to grow.”
Right whales migrate each winter to waters off the south-eastern US. Spotters fly over the coastline during calving season, scanning the water for mothers with newborns.
Flights over Georgia and Florida ended on Wednesday, the last day of March, typically the season’s end. Spotters will monitor waters off the Carolinas through 15 April, hoping to pick up overlooked newborns as the whales head north.
This season’s calf count matches 17 births recorded in 2015. The record is 39, confirmed in 2009. Scientists suspect a calving slump may have been caused by a shortage of zooplankton in the Gulf of Maine and the Bay of Fundy. They say the increase in births could be a result of whales being healthier after shifting to waters with more abundant food sources.
“It’s a somewhat hopeful sign that they are starting to adjust to this new regime where females are in good enough condition to give birth,” said Philip Hamilton, a researcher at the New England Aquarium in Boston.
Regardless, conservationists worry that right whales are dying, largely from manmade causes, at a faster rate than they can reproduce. Since 2017, scientists have confirmed 34 right whale deaths in US and Canadian waters, with the leading causes being entanglement in fishing gear and collisions with boats and ships.
Considering whales were documented in the same period with serious injuries, researchers fear the real death toll could be at least 49. Thirty nine births have been recorded since 2017.
“If we reduced or eliminated the human-caused death rate, their birth rate would be fine,” Hamilton said. “The onus should not be on them to reproduce at a rate that can sustain the rate at which we kill them. The onus should be in us to stop killing.”
The US federal government is expected to finalize new rules aimed at decreasing the number of right whales tangled up in fishing gear used to catch lobster and crabs. Proposals to reduce vertical fishing lines and modify seasonal restricted areas have met with heated debate. Fishermen say the rules could put them out of businesses. Conservation groups insist they aren’t strict enough.
The National Marine Fisheries Service received more than 170,000 public comments on the proposed rules after a report was issued on 31 December, said agency spokeswoman Allison Garrett. She said final rules should be published this summer.
Garrett said the fisheries service is also considering adjustments to federal rules that since 2008 have imposed speed limits on larger vessels in certain Atlantic waters during periods when right whales are frequently seen. A report in January found mariners’ compliance with the speed rules had improved but still lagged below 25% for large commercial vessels at four ports in the south-east.
“We’ve long known from the survival estimates that more right whales are dying than those we see,” said George, the whale survey coordinator for Georgia. “They need to be producing a lot more calves. But the big issue is we’ve got to significantly reduce the number than are being entangled in fishing ropes and struck by boats.”
US Judge Blocks Nevada Grazing; Sage Grouse Totals DwindlingMore
FILE – In this April 20, 2013, file photo, male greater sage grouse perform mating rituals for a female grouse, not pictured, on a lake outside Walden, Colo. A federal judge has blocked a Nevada project that would expand livestock grazing across 400 squares miles (1,036 square kilometers), of some of the highest priority sage-grouse habitat in the West and accused the government of deliberately misleading the public by underestimating damage the cattle could do to the land. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File) THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
The ruling comes as scientists continue to document dramatic declines in greater sage-grouse populations across 11 western states — down 65% since 1986 and 37% since 2002, according to a new report by the U.S. Geological Survey.
Its numbers have shrunk to less than a quarter of what they were a half century ago, the USGS said Tuesday. If current trends continue, there’s only a 50% chance most of their remaining breeding grounds known as “leks” will still be productive in 60 years, it said.
Citing concerns about grouse, U.S. administrative judge Harvey Sweitzer sided with conservationists in Nevada and suspended approval of new grazing permits for a swath of rangeland larger than Rhode Island. It stretches to Utah and includes a ranch once owned by Bing Crosby.
The senior judge at the Interior Department’s Office of Hearings and Appeals in Salt Lake City ruled March 19 the Bureau of Land Management failed to adequately examine potential harm to the grouse as required by the National Environmental Policy Act.
An administrative judge since 1970, when President Nixon signed the act into law, Sweitzer’s decision could have ramifications for several permits approved across the West in the final months of the Trump administration under a 2017 initiative dubbed “Outcome-Based Grazing.”
Then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said it loosened restrictions on ranchers to provide more flexibility to meet long-term rangeland health goals. Critics called it a “public land grab.”
“Instead of living up to its promise to conserve, enhance and restore sage-grouse habitat, BLM embraced habitat-destroying livestock grazing actions guaranteed to drive down bird numbers,” said Katie Fite, public lands director for WildLands Defense, which won the stay of the permits pending administrative appeal.
She said Sweitzer’s decision is a “well-justified rebuke to BLM’s industry-biased grazing program that goes to great lengths to circle the wagons around livestock interests at the expense of wildlife, biodiversity, watersheds and myriad public uses.”
Interior Department press secretary Tyler Cherry declined comment on the administrative ruling in an email Wednesday to The Associated Press.
But the department said in a statement Tuesday the decline of sage grouse documented by USGS reflects the overall loss of sagebrush habitat over decades from a variety of forces ranging from wildfires to energy development.
“The Interior Department is reviewing actions the Trump administration took to undermine carefully constructed land management plans to help conserve sagebrush habitat,” spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz said.
Nevada’s Winecup-Gamble ranch was among 11 designated as demonstration projects in 2018 under the “Outcome-Based” initiative along with ranches in Oregon, Colorado, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
Sweitzer agreed with WildLands Defense’s argument the grazing levels approved for Winecup-Gamble in December are substantially higher than the average number of cattle that actually grazed there the past decade. The stay he ordered is akin to a temporary injunction in U.S. district court.
He said the agency ignored rangeland health assessments its own experts conducted in June when they determined the allotments “are not currently meeting the seasonal habitat needs of sage-grouse.”
USGS says the latest study is the most expansive ever on the declining status of the hen-sized bird, which is considered an indicator species for the overall health of sagebrush-related ecosystems from the Rocky Mountains to the Sierra.
The Nevada project covers 1,460 square miles (3,781 square kilometers) of public and private land, including 860 square miles (2,227 square kilometers) of federal land with priority grouse habitat. More than one-third of those U.S. lands are considered sage-grouse strongholds with the highest densities of grouse and other criteria key to the species’ survival.
Sweitzer said the misrepresentations in the bureau’s environmental assessment stem from the baseline it used to calculate increases or decreases in cattle numbers permitted under various alternatives.
The agency’s comparisons are based on maximum allowable levels established in earlier allotments, sometimes decades ago, he said. Instead, the baseline should be the average actual use the previous 10 years.
As a result, he said, the 30% reduction the agency cites in what it portrayed as a grazing-reduction alternative “is illusory.”
Likewise, the bureau never addressed the effects of the real increase anticipated under the “Outcome-Based” alternative it adopted, he said. “In fact, the EA goes farther than silence on the subject and actively misleads the public.”https://ca09e136b725b6f1b3907ba1d3314e92.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
Environmentalists said the new USGS study highlights the urgency of addressing loss of grouse habitat regionwide.
“We cannot ignore this alarm bell,” said David Willms of the National Wildlife Federation in Denver. “This report shows that much more needs to be done to restore sagebrush habitat so that sage grouse populations recover and that all wildlife that lives in this ecosystem thrives.”
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