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On the merits of RTE conservation

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#1 Guest_FishheadDave_*

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Posted 15 November 2010 - 06:14 PM

Since the Endangered Species Act was passed in the 1970s, a substantial portion of the conservation movement has focused on rare, threatened, and endangered species. Since this legislation was passed, there have been a few success stories, but the vast majority of species it covers are still critically imperiled, and the list grows.

By definition, endangered species are rare, and as such their function in current ecosystems is usually limited. There are examples of endangered species as important ecological drivers - wolves in the Yellowstone area are a great example - but these are exceptions. We spend a substantial proportion of our conservation funds on organisms which are minor players in most ecosystems. Meanwhile, we are seeing wholesale reductions in the distribution and abundance of more common species, which form the core of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. For the most part, these large scale changes in the structure and function of ecosystems are ignored, while small changes (in absolute terms) in the population of an RTE species may be cause for immediate attention and multi-million dollar restoration efforts. Along those lines, an increasing body of research is finding that aquatic restoration measures are generally ineffective and expensive, and it is far more fiscally and functionally effective to preserve existing healthier ecosystems.

To use an RTE example from the terrestrial world, Indiana bats are currently listed as a federally endangered species. The Indiana bat is a close relative to the little brown myotis (a very common species), and from what I gather, has a very similar life history. These two species are fairly difficult to distinguish, and identification is based in large part on a few hairs. Within the native range of the Indiana bat, surveys are required to be conducted in advance of large development projects to survey for the presence of this species. While other bat species are surveyed as well, the survey form might as well just be a check box to indicate if Indiana bats are present. Based on my discussions with a bat biologist, even extreme abundance and diversity of non-RTE species are not considered during the permitting process. To make matters worse, a novel pathogen (white nose syndrome) is sweeping through the northeast (and beyond), and is poised to eliminate all but one species of bat in the northeastern United States. While bat biologists desperately need additional resources to study and fight the white nose syndrome pandemic, we are spending millions of dollars to determine the presence or absence of an organism which is only a few hairs different than a hyperabundant relative. Furthermore, these nets used in these surveys may actually be spreading the disease, adding further insult to injury. All of the money being used to survey for this endangered species could be much better spent focusing on the bigger picture, and yet our current legislative framework is inflexible and ineffective. If additional resources are not found soon, the bigger picture problem may wipe out the RTE species anyway.

My goal is not to state that RTE species are not important (I am all for aggressive conservation measures), but I feel like a lot of the conservation movement is missing the bigger picture. Even amongst other natural resources professionals, I often feel like we are blinded in an effort to save RTE species and fail to acknowledge the foundation of entire ecosystems crumbling. As NANFA members, we all want to preserve our native fishes - but given the realities of today's world, what is the best way to move forward? Do we want to expend much of our resources desperately trying to revive an RTE species in its last puddle of habitat, or should we focus on maintaining the broad-scale integrity of aquatic ecosystems? RTE legislation has helped considerably in preserving biodiversity, but should we be using a different approach?

I welcome any and all feedback. My goal here is to stimulate critical thinking about the conservation movement.


#2 Guest_fundulus_*

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Posted 15 November 2010 - 06:34 PM

The bottom line is preserving critical habitat, whether it's Devil's Hole for the pupfish or stretches of river like the Clinch for a number of fishes and mussels. Many species used to be much more widespread until modern landuses came along, most notably birds and large mammals, but examples of fish exist too like Atlantic salmon on a larger scale or palezone and sawfin shiners on a smaller scale.

With all that you're right above preserving larger chunks of remaining ecosystems with their biota. Cost effectiveness is probably found in buying large chunks of territory and managing it entirely or primarily for wildlife. But the RTE species are bellwethers of increasingly shredded habitat. With ongoing mountaintop removal for coal extraction I can only image we'll have more aquatic species reach RTE status as their habitat is destroyed, regardless of the disinformation put out by coal operators about their restoration activities. That might be a case where damage could be avoided in advance rather than trying to pick up and preserve surviving fragments in 30 years.

I would also argue about Indiana bats... they have different summer habitat use than little browns which reinforces their interesting status. Regardless, they all face big problems that are poorly understood.

My own worries are about spring endemics in the mid-south that most people have never heard of like flame chubs and spring pygmies. Both species need relatively small patches of the right habitat and do well with fragmentation, apparently, but the fragmentation is reaching crisis proportions. At least some flames will probably survive in obscure spring runs in remote countryside that no one will know about, but the spring pygmies are up against the wall at the moment. Are they worth saving, which would cost $15 million to give the weasley landowner (long story) the money he wants for 30 (I think) acres of land? That's a totally subjective decision, even though I'd say yes.

#3 Guest_Newt_*

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Posted 15 November 2010 - 09:12 PM

RTE species also provide leverage to save those habitat chunks. For example, take two military reservations in Tennessee. Fort Campbell and Arnold Air Force Base are both huge chunks of real estate in areas that were historically a mosaic of deep-soil prairie, oak savannah, and fire-influenced hardwood forest, the so-called Barrens. Between them they contain most of the remnants of that system; nearly all the rest has succumbed to agriculture, urbanization, and fire-suppressed forest types. Arnold is aggressively managed for native habitats and contains two national natural landmarks. Fort Campbell is mostly in pine monoculture and row crop fields; the barrens remnants include a few parcels saved by against-the-grain land managers, and the areas managed only by explosives. The difference? Arnold has federal RTE species, including gray bats and Eggert's sunflower (now delisted).

#4 Guest_Brooklamprey_*

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Posted 15 November 2010 - 10:16 PM

My own personal work and direction has long been focused less on detailing RTE species and more on the concept of "Keeping common species common". This message has often been quickly glossed over by a good deal of the Environmental and Biological community in favor of the poster endangered. I agree very much with the statement that much attention is focused on very few while the vast majority of species are being ignored and yet they are also in a perilous predicament.

There is definitely a disconnect here that needs addressed. Much focus, funding and attention is always first and foremost placed on RTE species. Meanwhile those species that are "common" suffer from flat out information blackouts. It seems that often times attention is only placed on a species after it becomes a RTE but never really before hand. This constant react only when needed behavior does not really help much in dealing with the issues or problems we have in the overall conservation of our resources.

#5 Guest_travishaas_*

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Posted 16 November 2010 - 12:13 AM

The importance and plight of common species seems like it's beginning to become more widely appreciated. I was encouraged by an article by Kevin Gaston published in Science last January, called "Valuing common species". It's a quick read (one and a half pages).


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#6 Guest_exasperatus2002_*

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Posted 16 November 2010 - 08:58 AM

Big brother is only concerned with the bottom dollar. With the wide variety of pollutants and land use, it's to costly to protect the whole of the ecosystem. Regulations that would need to be passed to limit pollution isnt very popular among the the corporations that make the mess & the politicians that may try to pass something to tighten limits. Just look at the last federal regs that were going to be used to help fight global warming. That went far didnt it? Or how about the asian carp that are about (if they havent already) going to be entering the great lakes. Or the susquehanna river in Pennsylvania which have hermaphroditic smallmouth bass because of all the chemicals in the water. We just get some table scraps to make it look like they care about the environment & whats going to be lost forever while they just dont care about anything other then the lobbyists & special interest groups that are lining thier coffers. This is why NANFA and other dedicated hobbyists are so important to conservation. Like many Haplochrines from Lake Victoria, at some point what we keep & breed in our tanks may be the last hope for many species due to mans greed & ignorance.

Edited by exasperatus2002, 16 November 2010 - 09:03 AM.

#7 Guest_Irate Mormon_*

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Posted 17 November 2010 - 12:01 AM

Big brother is only concerned with the bottom dollar.

Well then, the question is, who gets to pay? Big Brother is whom?

#8 Guest_FishheadDave_*

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Posted 17 November 2010 - 09:24 AM

Travis - that was a very interesting article and echoed many of my concerns. Thanks for sharing it. Its refreshing to see this issue is receiving some attention, and to hear everyone's perspective.

With the wide variety of pollutants and land use, it's to costly to protect the whole of the ecosystem

And here's where I think our current approach is backwards. In contrast to conservation efforts with RTE species, many of which have little relevance to human society*, conservation of common (yet imperiled) species helps to preserve the major ecosystem processes, which support the foundation of our existence and provide tremendous benefits to humans. I feel like many Americans have observed decades of expensive RTE conservation projects, with little to no benefit to humans, and are leery of conservation in general. Afterall, institutions like the ESA are expensive and by the assessment of many outside the conservation movement, interfere with daily life rather than improve it. Conservation measures which focus on common species could be far more cost-effective, and produce far greater benefits to human and nature alike.

When dealing with RTE conservation, we are often forced to work in challenging locations. For example, in the case of the spring pygmies, we are talking about spending $15,000,000 to preserve a very small parcel of land. The land is expensive not because of its great ecological importance (from a functional standpoint), but rather because its slated for development. Now, I realize that in today's world $15,000,000 doesnt go nearly as far as it used to, but its hard to argue that the same amount of funding would go much further elsewhere. In other less developed areas, it might be possible to preserve an entire intact, healthy watershed for the same cost, particularly if conservation easements are employed.

The healthier watersheds we still have are in many cases at risk or rapidly declining. We may not have the luxury to save them later, and our track record with existing RTE projects is less than stellar. There is a fixed amount of money available for conservation - which approach serves the greater good? Given our current fiscal crisis, we need to be smarter than ever before in how we spend our conservation dollars.

*On the record, I recognize that species have intrinsic worth, well beyond their utility to humans. But at the end of the day, we rely heavily on ecosystem services, and we need to protect the underlying ecological infrastructure that provides them.

#9 Guest_daveneely_*

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Posted 17 November 2010 - 10:26 AM

Are you just trying to stir the pot?

I think the whole issue of ecosystem services is highly overblown; oftentimes equivalent "function" can be served or restored by including (selected) exotics or even completely nonindigenous communities. Consider the whole idea behind Paul Martin's rewilding approach towards the North American megafauna -- introducing an African fauna composed of big mammals somewhat distantly related to stuff that occurred in NA prior to the Pleistocene. The actual components of the assemblage often don't seem to matter, from a purely functional perspective.

Besides, until things get really dire, the vast majority of people don't even give a hoot about having access to clean water, let alone the fish that require it. You think trying to convince people that they should save the snail darter is hard? We have a legal tool (the ESA) that gives us TEETH to actually do something, and RTE efforts that establish critical habitat protect the rest of the aquatic communities in that watershed. What tool do you have for protecting stonerollers (and even if you wanted to try to enact some legislation that would protect them, how far do you think it would get in the current political climate...)?!

I'd argue that many of these people outside of the conservation movement complaining about the ESA interfere with MY daily life; that their bad or outdated farming procedures, failure to follow BMPs for resource extraction, or discharge of harmful materials stand in opposition to my (newly designated) Constitutional Right to hunt and fish, by direct TAKE of wildlife/fisheries resources through habitat degradation...

#10 Guest_mikez_*

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Posted 18 November 2010 - 07:28 AM

I was out yesterday with reps from the state showing them the trout streams in the hopes they would make the "Cold Water" designation.
When I asked what protection, what "teeth", the designation would provide, the answer was a sheepish but honest "not much".
She then said for "teeth" we would have to prove a protected species was present.

Besides wetland protection, RTE status of a component of a given habitat is the ONLY legal protection of that habitat. Proof of that is the successful effort of developers [through their lackeys in Boston] to delist several protected species which were constantly slowing [but rarely stopping] new developments.

#11 Guest_fundulus_*

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Posted 18 November 2010 - 09:00 AM

Besides wetland protection, RTE status of a component of a given habitat is the ONLY legal protection of that habitat. Proof of that is the successful effort of developers [through their lackeys in Boston] to delist several protected species which were constantly slowing [but rarely stopping] new developments.

Another reason both to vote and be politically engaged, although silly poop will still happen.

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