Sep 212015
 

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, joined by four Western governors, the directors of the Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Geological Survey, and the chiefs of the Forest Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service, "will make a major announcement related to the historic conservation effort for the greater sage-grouse" in Colorado tomorrow.

News organizations have widely reported that Jewell and the assembled agency heads (along with a rancher from Nevada and an executive with Audubon Rockies) will be announcing the long-awaited decision on whether listing of the greater sage-grouse is "warranted" under the Endangered Species Act.

Given the hoopla surrounding the event, the attendance by the governors of Wyoming, Nevada, Colorado and Montana, and the wording of the Interior Department's media advisory, it appears unlikely that the outcome can be anything other than "not warranted."

Of course, that is speculation, but it's informed speculation. Hardly a week has gone by in the last few months without a news release about a new commitment of money and or/land to conserve the iconic sagebrush species, along with a mention of the "unprecedented" landscape-scale effort undertaken by the feds, states and ranchers.

The advisory followed the same script.

"[T]he long-term decline of the greater sage-grouse and its sagebrush habitat has sparked an unprecedented collaborative, science-based conservation effort across 11 western states." It hardly seems possible that the dignitaries are showingup to hear about a proposed listing of the bird.

Indeed, last week Jewell told media attending a briefing sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor that she was "optimistic that a not warranted [decision] is possible," according to an article in the Washington Examiner with the wishful headline, "Interior chief sees no endangered species listing for sage grouse."

""What has happened in this collaborative work is really the way I think the Endangered Species Act should work," she said.

One example of that collaboration is the Colorado Habitat Exchange, announced by Gov. John Hickenlooper last week.

"The Colorado Habitat Exchange works to engage ranchers in voluntary conservation efforts by offering financial incentives to create, maintain and improve habitat on their property," the governor's office said in a news release. "Landowners earn conservation credits for these activities, which they can sell to industry to compensate for development, such as roads, oil and gas facilities and other infrastructure that impact species and habitat."

The state has asked FWS and BLM to "recognize" the exchange. “No one wants to see this bird on the Endangered Species List, and this program is our best chance of keeping the bird off the list, now and in the future,” said Terry Fankhauser, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association.

But Erik Molvar, Sagebrush Sea Campaign Director for WildEarth Guardians, warned that although voluntary conservation is "laudable," conservation banking cannot be used "as an alternative to having real sage grouse protections."

So far, banking's track record is not enviable, he said, pointing to efforts for the lesser prairie-chicken as an example.

Molvar also said he doesn't know what the final decision will be. The government, he said is keeping the announcement "close to the vest."

"There is a growing sense, though no certainty, that the bird will not be listed — at least for now," a story in today's Los Angeles Times said.

More coverage:

Apr 272015
 

Press release

Forest Service info on the Tennessee Creek Vegetation Management Project

Conservation groups, concerned about the effects of a logging project on lynx denning habitat, have filed suit against the Forest Service in Colorado (WildEarth Guardians v. Conner, 15-858, D. Colo.).

The defendant is Tamara Conner, District Ranger of the Leadville Ranger District in San Isabel National Forest.

"Conservationists see the project as an unfortunate example of a new USFS pattern: approving large-scale logging without identifying to the public—or even committing to itself internally—which mountain slopes will be affected, and in what ways. USFS is legally obligated to look before it leaps and keep the public informed," the groups said in their press release.

WildEarth Guardians is represented by the Western Environmental Law Center.

 

Apr 062015
 

Environmental groups are harshly criticizing a move by the Forest Service to reinstate the North Fork Coal Mining Area exception of the Colorado Roadless Rule, which the service said would "allow for temporary road construction for coal exploration and/or coal-related surface activities in a 19,100-acre area defined as the North Fork Coal Mining Area."

The announcement came in the form of a notice to prepare a supplemental EIS that went on Public Inspection this morning.

The revival of the "gaping loophole," tossed out by a federal court last fall, would let Arch Coal "build roads and scrape well pads over thousands of acres of otherwise-protected, publicly-owned national forest and crucial wildlife habitat in the state. The loophole paves the way for Arch Coal to expand coal-mining operations," the groups, including Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club and WildEarth Guardians, said.

(The other groups on the press release are the Natural Resources Defense Council, Defenders of Wildlife, Rocky Mountain Wild, and High Country Conservation Advocates.)

Their release noted that "[t]he court’s ruling left the door open for the Forest Service to revive the loophole if the agency undertook a new analysis that adequately disclosed the climate pollution the loophole would cause. The Forest Service’s announcement gives the public until May 22 to comment on the proposal."

In California, a collection of other advocates was questioning the wisdom of the Alameda Creek Bridge Replacement Project in Niles Canyon. Caltrans, they said, has not adequately examined the cumulative environmental impacts or the specific impacts on the Alameda whipsnake.

Here's the news release. Scroll down for excerpts from the comments mentioned in the release.

Groups Blast Caltrans Construction Plans in Niles Canyon

For Immediate Release - April 6, 2015
Contact: Jeff Miller, Alameda Creek Alliance, (510) 499-9185

Niles, CA – Local groups are opposing Caltrans’ proposal for the Alameda Creek Bridge Replacement Project in Niles Canyon, exposing it as an overbuilt highway widening project that would increase driving speeds though the canyon and could actually reduce safety for motorists and bicyclists, while cutting down 300-400 native trees and damaging wildlife habitat along Alameda Creek. The Alameda Creek Alliance, East Bay Chapter of the California Native Plant Society, Citizens Committee to Complete the Refuge, Save Niles Canyon, Southern Alameda County Group of the Sierra Club, and Bay Area Transportation Working Group, as well as experts on special-status wildlife species, hydrology and fisheries, and traffic safety submitted more than 50 pages of critical comments last week on the draft Environmental Impact Report for the project.

“This Caltrans project is anything but a simple bridge replacement – it involves widening up to half a mile of Niles Canyon Road, removing hundreds of native trees and excavating along thousands of feet of the canyon, adding large retaining walls,” said Jeff Miller, director of the Alameda Creek Alliance. “Caltrans’ overbuilt approach is simply not needed to make the bridge segment safer.”

Caltrans claims the project to replace the 87-year old Alameda Creek Bridge and add modern safety railings and road shoulders on the bridge is needed for bicyclist and motorist safety. Caltrans proposes engineering the new bridge and its roadway approaches to increase motorist speeds from 35 to 45 mph, while widening the entire roadway through the half-mile project reach to 42 feet, with shoulders. The project would require realigning 1,400 feet of roadway for the western approach and from 300 to 1,190 feet for the eastern approach. Construction would damage significant areas of the canyon with hundreds to thousands of feet of cut-and-fill and large concrete retaining walls, both above the roadway and adjacent to Alameda Creek. It would also require cutting from 284 to 414 native trees and encroaching on habitat for threatened Alameda whipsnakes, steelhead trout and red-legged frogs.

“Caltrans promised a ‘clean slate’ on the Niles Canyon highway safety projects with consideration of public input but this project is more of the same – trying to turn Niles Canyon road into a freeway one segment at a time,” said Miller. “Caltrans should look at alternatives that would replace the bridge at the current speed of 35 mph, which would scale back the need for tree cutting and other severe environmental impacts.”

Background
Caltrans claims the agency is required to increase the design speed of the bridge and its approaches to the posted speed limit of 45 mph. Yet many locations throughout the canyon are posted for 30-35 mph because of tight turns in the narrow canyon. The Federal Highway Administration and Caltrans’ own Highway Design Manual allow a lower than “standard” design speed, based on environmental, safety and other considerations.

The four “alternatives” analyzed by Caltrans in the Environmental Impact Report for the bridge replacement project all increase the design speed, contain the same increases in the turn radius for the bridge approaches, and only differ in how much cut-and-fill and retaining walls would be constructed on the east and west approaches to the bridge. All of Caltrans’ “alternatives” would have severe impacts on riparian trees, endangered species habitat, and the hydrology and habitat value of Alameda Creek. Caltrans did not evaluate whether a 2007 project that installed centerline rumble strips through Niles Canyon has reduced vehicle collisions in the project area.

Caltrans acknowledges that it has not even begun mitigation for its abandoned highway widening project in lower Niles Canyon in 2011, when the agency cut 150 native trees along Alameda Creek. Caltrans has several other planned safety projects in the Niles Canyon corridor that will cumulatively cut or impact a total of 550 to 650 trees. Caltrans has no timeline for mitigation for tree-cutting impacts from the bridge replacement project and no details about where mitigation tree planting will occur. Caltrans has acknowledged that it cannot find suitable nearby mitigation sites that are acceptable to regulatory agencies, nor can it adequately mitigate for cutting large, mature trees and the loss of the habitat values they provide for native wildlife.
The proposed bridge replacement project does contains some environmentally beneficial elements, including removal of a concrete weir in Alameda Creek which currently serves as a barrier to fish passage, removal of the existing bridge’s in-stream piers, and removal of invasive plants.

A dozen community groups have proposed safety solutions for Niles Canyon Road that do not involve needless destruction of the environmental and scenic values of Alameda Creek or Niles Canyon, and opposed Caltrans’ plans to increase the design speed of the Alameda Creek Bridge and other road segments.

Caltrans initially proposed a three-phase highway safety project that involved widening much of Niles Canyon Road between Fremont and Interstate 680, which would damage habitat for steelhead trout and other endangered species, and remove rare sycamore forest along the creek. Caltrans internally approved phase one of the project in 2006 without alerting the public. Caltrans cut nearly 100 trees in the canyon in spring of 2011. After large public protests, the Alameda Creek Alliance filed suit challenging the inadequate environmental review. A court order in June 2011 halted construction and a settlement agreement in December 2011 forced Caltrans to abandon the project. In 2012 the Federal Highway Administration conducted a road safety assessment for Niles Canyon, finding that Caltrans’ proposed highway widening was not warranted by the safety data. The FHA identified accident hot-spots within Niles Canyon that should be addressed, and noted four other locations in the canyon with higher priority need of safety improvements than the Alameda Creek Bridge.

EXCERPTS FROM COMMENTS

The DEIR avoids any analysis of the cumulative impacts to the Alameda Whipsnake, instead impermissibly focusing on cumulative impacts to AWS Critical Habitat Unit 3. CEQA requires that this EIR consider the cumulative impacts to the species as well as its habitat. In addition, the DEIR briefly discusses four nearby projects with impacts to Alameda whipsnake habitat and/or designated critical habitat:

1) The Arroyo de la Laguna Bridge Project, which is currently in the early planning phase. The DEIR notes that the project will involve impacts to Alameda whipsnake habitat but these impacts and the mitigation associated with the project have not yet been determined.

2) The upcoming Caltrans Niles Canyon Safety Improvements Project, with a preliminary estimate of impacts to 13.5 acres of Alameda whipsnake habitat (both permanent and temporary impacts). According to preliminary estimates, the project will impact approximately one acre of Alameda whipsnake Critical Habitat Unit 3.

3) The I-680 HOV Lanes Project, with impacts to 18.98 acres of Alameda whipsnake habitat (11.7 acres of permanent impacts and 7.3 acres of temporary impacts).

4) The Freeway Performance Initiative on I-680 Project, with estimated impacts to 9.9 acres of Alameda whipsnake habitat (3.1 acres of permanent impacts and 6.8 acres of temporary impacts).

The DEIR fails to discuss seven other completed or anticipated projects nearby with impacts to Alameda whipsnake habitat.

The FHWA report stated that a project to replace and upgrade the bridge, and upgrade the approach curves would not only increases sight distance and design speed, but would actually increase motorist speed. The FHWA report noted the following disadvantages to such a project: “Requires a new footprint for the realigned roadway; Potential impacts to endangered species; Impacts Alameda Creek Bridge during construction and permanently; Environmental impact to Alameda Creek; Potential loss of riparian habitat.

Caltrans also provided tables as part of the DEIR that calculate the number of large, mature native trees (over 20” dbh) that would be removed under the various Project alternatives (Alameda Creek Bridge Replacement Project – Large Native Trees within Impact Areas). Alternative 1 would remove 29 large mature trees (5 Bays, 10 Sycamores, 13 Live Oaks, and 1 Red Willow); Alternative 2 would remove 19 large mature trees (2 Bays, 6 Sycamores, 10 Live Oaks, and 1 Red Willow); Alternative 3A would remove 24 large mature trees (3 Bays, 8 Sycamores, 12 Live Oaks, and 1 Red Willow); and Alternative 3B would remove 20 large mature trees (1 Bay, 7 Sycamores, and 12 Live Oaks). Large mature native trees such as these provide important wildlife habitat through shading of Alameda Creek, stabilization of stream banks, and providing cavities for nesting birds. These habitat attributes of large, mature trees cannot be replaced by planting small trees or planting trees elsewhere; it can take many decades or even a century for replacement trees to reach similar sizes and provide similar habitat attributes.

Additionally, Caltrans admitted at the 2/23/15 scoping hearing for the Project that it cannot find suitable nearby mitigation sites that are acceptable to regulatory agencies, nor can it adequately mitigate for the loss of large, mature trees, and the habitat value they provide for native wildlife by replacing those trees in-kind, i.e. with equivalent large, mature native trees along Alameda Creek.

The proposed Project contains some environmentally beneficial elements, which should continue to be included in a meaningful Project alternative.

These include the proposed removal of a concrete weir in Alameda Creek which currently serves as a barrier to fish passage, removal of the existing Alameda Creek Bridge’s in-stream piers, and removal of invasive Arundo from the Project area. Removal of the concrete weir would allow the stream to take on a more natural morphology and would remove a low flow fish passage barrier. Removal of the existing bridge and building a replacement bridge that would
reduce the in-stream footprint of the bridge piers would improve the geomorphology of Alameda Creek. Removal of the invasive Arundo would improve habitat for native fish and amphibian species.

Gunnison sage grouse listed as threatened

 Posted by on November 12, 2014
Nov 122014
 

New: Transcript of teleconference (added Wed., Nov. 13, 12:30 pm)

See tweets at https://twitter.com/ESWR_Update

Press release announcing listing of GSG as threatened.

It's official: The Fish and Wildlife Service has listed the Gunnison sage grouse as threatened. The service is about to make the announcement on a teleconference, but FWS Director Dan Ashe decided to spill the beans early in a meeting at The Denver Post, whose editorial board does not believe the species should be listed.

Environmental groups were quick to criticize the decision. See below.

Ashe remarks (from teleconference):

"what has been called the Sagebrush Sea...has been in decline."

"we did that [proposed it as endangered] primarily due to habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation."

conservation efforts have reduced threats to the bird (leading to threatened, not endangered, listing)

If anything happens to core population, satellite populations would be essential to help species rebound.

Have been in contact with governor's office to determine what protections are in place now (in preparation for 4(d) rule)

Will be working with NRCS and Farm Services Administration to develop Biological Opinion.

Re: Gunnison sage grouse decision as "predicate" for greater sage-grouse decision:

"These are separate species and a much different fact pattern. The F&WS makes decisions on the facts and the science as we see it in each case. We respond to information that's presented to us."

Greater sage-grouse has a wider range, larger population, he says

Conference opinion: A process has been underway for a month. That conference opinion is with NRCS, in a process of review. We expect to have that completed by time is rule is effective.

Thabault: Basic things that will be covered with NRCS: Implementtion of pro-active measures; Farm Bill programs: Water developments, range management plans.

Earlier version of this story:

The Fish and Wildlife Service will announce its decision whether to list the Gunnison sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act at 11 a.m. Mountain Time -- 1 p.m. Eastern Time.

That's when the service will hold a teleconference to announce its final judgment, which the state of Colorado tried to delay at the last minute.

Gunnison sage-grouse displaying (Credit: Nop Paothong)

That effort was unsuccessful, however. The court-mandated deadline for a final listing decision is today, and FWS will meet it, spokesmen told ESWR.

The service proposed listing the bird as endangered in January 2013. At the time, FWS said it had determined that

the principal threat to Gunnison sage-grouse is habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation due to residential, exurban, and commercial development and associated infrastructure such as roads and power lines. The human population is increasing throughout much of the range of Gunnison sage-grouse, and data indicate this trend will continue. With this growth, we expect an increase in human development, further contributing to loss and fragmentation of Gunnison sage-grouse habitats. Other threats to the species include improper grazing management; predation (often facilitated by human development or disturbance); genetic risks in the declining, smaller populations; and inadequate local, State, and Federal regulatory mechanisms (e.g., laws, regulations, zoning) to conserve the species. Other factors that may not individually threaten the continued existence of Gunnison sage- grouse but, collectively, have the potential to threaten the species, include invasive plants, fire, and climate change, and the interaction of these three factors; fences; renewable and non-renewable energy development; piñon-juniper encroachment; water development; disease;, drought; and recreation.

Erik Molvar, director of WildEarth Guardians' Sagebrush Sea Campaign, said he would be surprised if the species were not listed.

Federal agencies have been slow to include Gunnison sage grouse habitat protections in their management plans in the bird's range in Southwest Colorado and Eastern Utah, he said this morning. "There's not much protection from federally permitted activities."

Locally, some counties with sage grouse "have been fairly active," he said. Others have not done anything. But "no county has decisively acted to protect Gunnison sage grouse on private land," he said.

Even Gunnison County, which supports some 80 percent of the remaining sage-grouse (which number about 5,000 in total), "has never denied a permit to build or subdivide" in sage grouse habitat, Molvar said.

------------------

PRESS RELEASE 11/12/2014

Contacts:

Clait Braun, Sage Grouse Scientist, (520) 529-4614
Erik Molvar, WildEarth Guardians, (307) 399-7910
Todd Tucci, Advocates for the West, (208) 724-2142
Shelley Silbert, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, (970) 385-9577

Sage Grouse Scientist, Conservationists Challenge Feds'
Failure to Adequately Protect the Gunnison Sage Grouse

Critically imperiled bird needs stronger safeguards to survive and recover

DENVER, CO – A coalition including leading sage grouse expert Dr. Clait Braun and several western conservation organizations announced today a challenge to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s failure to adequately protect the imperiled Gunnison sage grouse. Fewer than 5,000 Gunnison sage grouse remain, yet the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refused to protect the imperiled bird as an “endangered” species, choosing instead a less protective status as “threatened.”

"I have been researching and monitoring Gunnison sage grouse populations and habitat for almost 40 years,” said Dr. Clait Braun, a retired sage grouse expert with the Colorado Division of Wildlife. “Today, Gunnison sage grouse stand at the precipice of extinction due to the impacts of grazing, oil and gas development, residential subdivisions, and other factors; and existing conservation plans and strategies are inadequate to stop this decline. Only science-based approaches to conservation will save Gunnison sage grouse, and it past time to let science dictate appropriate conservation measures.”

“The Endangered Species Act provides the safety net for saving our most endangered wildlife from extinction when other efforts are failing,” added Todd Tucci of Advocates for the West. “But it only works if the most imperiled species, like the Gunnison sage grouse, get real protections on the ground, including adequate critical habitat.”

In January 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing the bird as ‘endangered’ citing ongoing threats and the inadequacy of regulatory mechanisms to prevent the disappearance of the birds in each of the seven remaining populations. Gunnison sage grouse are absent from 90 percent of their historic range. As of January 2013, fewer than 5,000 Gunnison sage grouse remain in just seven isolated populations, six of which are below minimum viable population numbers, meaning those populations are facing serious, short term risk of extinction.

“Imperiled by irresponsible grazing, oil and gas drilling, residential development, roads, powerlines and the cumulative impacts of these threats, the fewer than 5,000 remaining Gunnison sage grouse need the strongest possible protections to ensure they survive and recover,” said Erik Molvar, wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians. “The science is clear, this spectacular dancing bird is endangered and should be afforded the highest level of protection.”

A recent analysis by WildEarth Guardians and Rocky Mountain Wild found that state, federal, and local protections currently in place cannot successfully address the multiple threats to the Gunnison sage grouse and its habitat. Livestock grazing, rural subdivision development, habitat fragmentation by infrastructure such as roads and powerlines, and oil and gas development continue to threaten the survival of the bird. Voluntary conservation efforts are not enforceable and have not led to recovery for the Gunnison sage grouse.

“We can’t gamble on the survival of this bird with the voluntary or scientifically inadequate protections that could be allowed under a ‘threatened species’ designation,” said Molvar. “This year marks the 100-year anniversary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon. Our generation cannot make the same mistakes of doing too little, too late to prevent the extinction of this iconic bird.”

“As a society, we love wide open landscapes, water, and wildlife. The decline of the Gunnison sage grouse is a symptom of our failure as a society to maintain the health of the Four Corners region,” said Shelley Silbert, Executive Director of Great Old Broads for Wilderness. “By protecting the sage grouse, we can restore the sagebrush ecosystem, benefitting many other species of wildlife and respecting the importance the connection to the land holds for our families and communities.”

Advocates for the West will represent Dr. Braun, WildEarth Guardians, Wild Utah Project, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, and Great Old Broads for Wilderness in the expected legal action.