Learning curve



If the wildlife news of the last few months is any indication, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is on the road to enlightenment, or at least, loitering on the sidewalk. In particular, three of their recent actions suggest the agency is learning from its mistakes.

Lesson 1: No otter is an island

On Monday, the agency announced the first of three public hearings on its proposal to end the 24-year-old southern sea otter translocation program, which is widely considered a failure.

In 1987, when the program began, the agency moved 140 sea otters from Monterey Bay to San Nicolas Island 60 miles off the coast to establish an experimental otter colony. The idea was that this “just-in-case” population would be protected from oil spills or other disasters that were more likely to occur within the otter’s home range, California’s near-shore waters from San Mateo County south to Santa Barbara County. The agency hoped the colony would thrive on the island and serve as an insurance policy, of sorts, for the species' future survival.

Congress authorized the translocation program on the condition that Fish and Wildlife create a zone that was off limits to otters, in order to assuage the fears of fishermen and off-shore industry, who viewed the new colony -- and the federal protections it enjoyed -- as threatening to their business. As a result, "the government declared waters from Point Conception to the Mexican border a 'no-otter' zone, and promised to round up any that strayed into waters along the Southern California mainland, where they dine on the same shellfish fishermen seek,” reports the L.A. Times.

But because the otters didn't recognize the feds' imaginary boundaries and refused to obey their “Stay!” command (those lousy, no-good otters), the "no-otter" zone and experimental colony didn’t take. According to the the L.A. Times, “many of the otters relocated to the island swam away to return to their parent population along the Central Coast, disappeared or died.” Lilian Carswell, Fish and Wildlife's southern sea otter recovery coordinator, told the paper:

About half of the otters we brought out there, we don’t really know what happened to them…We learned that the basic, underlying concept was flawed: that you can move sea otters in this mechanistic way and expect them to do what you want them to do instead of what they want to do.

Lesson 2: If at first you don’t succeed, add, add addendums

In an August press release, the Center for Biological Diversity criticized the Fish and Wildlife for failing to address renewable energy development in the agency’s revised recovery plan for the desert tortoise, a southwestern species that was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1990:

The plan is silent on global climate change, a key force threatening the tortoise’s survival, and the development of renewable-energy sources in its habitat, something that the agency says it will address “soon.”

In the revision, the Service did at least promise to publish an addendum to the plan with “a supplemental chapter” that will focus on renewable energy and tortoise recovery “in a manner that could not have been envisioned when Plan revision began” in 2007.

Really? The agency honestly didn’t foresee in those antiquated, bygone days – four years ago – that renewable energy might be a growing industry in the tortoise’s sun-shiny southwest home? Two years before the draft plan was developed, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 was passed. It calls for the government to develop enough non-hydropower projects to produce 10,000 megawatts of renewable energy on public land by 2015. But the Service says:

…when Plan revision began we did not anticipate the extent to which the landscape of desert ecosystems in the Pacific Southwest might become modified as a result of the nation’s renewable energy priorities (since 2009, an emphasis on renewable energy has resulted in a large increase in the number of proposed utility-scale projects within the range of the desert tortoise in California).

The face-saving tone of the plan's preamble, in which Pacific Southwest Regional Director Ren Lohoefener admits the plan "does not provide a single, comprehensive strategy for addressing renewable energy," suggests its authors have come to recognize their lack of foresight.

Lesson 3: Fish and Wildlife officials should know something about fish and wildlife

Julie MacDonald had a degree in civil engineering and zero science background when she was appointed to serve as Fish and Wildlife’s Deputy Assistant Secretary under George W. Bush. She resigned in 2007 after an inspector general’s report revealed that she had tampered with scientific reports, the endangered species list, and generally made decisions based on politics rather than good science (read more about MacDonald and other environmental criminals in HCN’s blog “Gutter Trash”).

The episode seriously tarnished the agency’s image. Fortunately, the Department of the Interior learned its lesson: The Service’s new Deputy Director, Dan Ashe, who started in June, has promised to polish up the agency’s blemished reputation.

It helps that Ashe actually knows a little something about the resources he’s been appointed to manage. He has a degree in marine affairs and 16 years experience in the agency, including a six-year gig as science advisor to the Service’s director. In a recent interview with Land Letter (subscription only), Ashe promised to help restore the agency’s credibility and commitment to science-based decision-making:

Ashe said the agency needs to make sure that an autonomous, science-driven decision making process endures no matter who is president or secretary, and he hopes to implement such a framework during his time in office.

With these lessons under its belt, the Service is headed in the right direction. I wish it well on its journey and will be rooting for it all the way: “Three cheers for hindsight. Hip, hip, hooray!”

 Marian Lyman Kirst is an intern for High Country News

Images courtesy of the USFWS and flickr user markcbrennan