News blog

Two bats, an owl and a polar bear


Things are hopping these days at the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency that implements the Endangered Species Act. Yesterday, longtime FWS staffer Dan Ashe was finally confirmed as the new head of the agency, more than six months after he was nominated. He was sworn in this morning. Ashe has long championed proactive conservation in the face of climate change, and this focus was part of the reason a handful of Republican senators who held up his confirmation. But David Vitter, a Louisiana senator, held Ashe in limbo just because he was handy. Vitter was protesting the lack of new permits for deepwater oil drilling, managed by the Department of the Interior, and so held up the first handy nomination within that department, even though FWS don’t have anything to do with drilling permits.

Also this week, the agency announced it will begin a “status review” of two bat species threatened by, among other things, the fungal disease known as white-nose syndrome. A recent Smithsonian feature on the syndrome reports that a million bats have fallen to the disease in the past four years. The eastern small-footed bat (Myotis leibii) and northern long-eared bat (Myotis septentrionalis) have been particularly hard and may join the endangered species list. The agency has twelve months to decide on their status.

owlphoto1.jpgAnother development, from the other end of the epic listing and management process: the release yesterday of the “final revised recovery plan” for the threatened northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina), perhaps the most contentious endangered species of all time. Back in the 1990s, the spotted owl was at the centre of a environmental battle that sharply divided the Pacific Northwest. The new plan consolidates the latest science on the owl and outlines a coordinated strategy for protecting it. This includes the experimental culling or transportation of barred owls, a formerly eastern species that has recently begun muscling in on the spotted owl’s turf. The plan is a revision of one proffered by the agency back in 2008. That version was criticized by conservation groups and challenged in the courts, and so the agency took another look at it. Now that the plan is done, attention will turn to the designation of certain areas as “critical habitat” for the iconic bird, lands that will then be aggressively protected from logging or other disturbance.

polar bears250.jpg

And finally, also yesterday, a federal court declined to overturn the 2008 FWS listing of the polar bear (Ursus maritimus) as threatened due to the expected effects of climate change on their far north habitat. The State of Alaska and other groups had argued that the agency couldn’t predict the future. United States District Judge Emmet Sullivan decided that the agency’s decision-making process was rational, even if reasonable people could disagree about their decision. “In the Court’s opinion, plaintiffs’ challenges amount to nothing more than competing views about policy and science,” he writes in his opinion.

images courtesy FWS


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