The endangered species to-do list
One summer, I spent so much time fishing the stocked pond behind my parent’s house that middle-school boys called me “bass-master.” Most of my 14th birthday presents were lures. I grew up near the headwaters of the Potomac River in western Maryland, and my dad used to hike into those streams to tempt wily brook trout with flies. Unfortunately, I didn’t stick with fishing long enough to do the same.
Last fall, though, I caught my first native trout in New Mexico. It was a small fish, naïve to my novice casting. What made it special was its rarity. Rio Grande cutthroat trout only exist in 10 percent of the their former range in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, in isolated high-elevation strongholds where they’ve persisted through grazing, logging, road and dam building, and affronts from non-native fish. I caught mine in a small wilderness stream deeper than it was wide, flowing through a high, broad plateau where grassland parks bleed into spruce forests.
Rio Grande cutthroat trout aren’t federally protected — yet. But they are among the 252 animals and plants included in two legal settlements intended to clear a backlog of species awaiting evaluation for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act. The agreements, hammered out in 2011 between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and WildEarth Guardians, as well as the Center for Biological Diversity, also aim to reduce legal prodding by the two environmental groups. That will free the agency to focus on listing decisions and designating critical habitat. You can check out this interactive map to see the candidate species in your state.
Fish and Wildlife released a work plan for its effort earlier this month. The list reads like a who’s who of unprotected charismatic and controversial fauna, with the Pacific fisher, jaguar and Sonoran desert tortoise. It also includes dozens of other less sexy species, like nine different kinds of Washington pocket gopher, the Acuna Cactus in Arizona and Coachella Valley milkvetch in California.
Here are just a handful of the work plan animals to watch in the coming year:
Woodland caribou: In the lower 48, they only occur in the Selkirk Mountains of northern Idaho and northeast Washington. They’ve been listed as endangered since 1983 and their final critical habitat was designated in late 2012, on schedule for the work plan. However, they could lose their status. Last year, Bonner County, Idaho, and a snowmobile group, which have long argued that the U.S. caribou aren’t distinct from their neighbors in Canada, filed a petition to delist them. Fish and Wildlife wrote in the Federal Register last December that it “presents substantial information indicating that delisting … may be warranted.” It is now reviewing the listing.
Gunnison sage grouse: These showy grouse of southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah have been on and off the candidate list since 2000. There are only about 5,000 in the breeding population. They’re being observed as a test of consensus-based conservation — where property owners, ranchers and recreationists work on habitat to help the grouse and try to avoid the restrictions that comes with listing. The FWS proposed Gunnison sage grouse for federally endangered status, including a critical habitat proposal, in January. They are taking comments until March 12.
Wolverine: Trapping in the early 1900s decimated these badass giant weasels of the northern Rockies, but now the FWS considers climate change their biggest threat. They birth their young in snow caves and research suggests that they live and die based on spring snow cover and cool summer temperatures. There are only 250 to 300 in the U.S., and on Feb. 1 the FWS announced a proposal to list them as threatened. They are taking comments until May 6. A single wolverine that has been tracked roving from Wyoming to Colorado over multiple winters, has started talk of reintroducing the mustelids to Colorado, which could be a possible high-altitude refuge from warming temperatures.
Lesser prairie chicken: Like sage grouse, lesser prairie chickens have an elaborate courtship dance. They’re also up for their final listing in 2013, due in September, and the subject of a large Candidate Conservation Agreement for voluntary protection on state trust land in New Mexico. The proposed threatened status for the bird, found in New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma, is stirring a fight in places where its designation could affect oil and gas operations.
In 2011, Fish and Wildlife Service pledged to emphasize clarity, science, public participation and conflict reduction while carrying out the Endangered Species Act. Transparency about what they plan to accomplish in the next four years seems like progress. And hopefully that stream in New Mexico will always be teeming with Rio Grande cutthroats.
Sarah Jane Keller is an intern at High Country News.
Wolverine photo by Steve Kroschel courtesy the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Rio Grande cutthroat trout photo courtesy of the National Park Service.