Canary in the old growth

The search for an ecosystem's vital signs

  • A northern spotted owl and its Northwestern old-growth forest habitat

    Forest: National Biological Information Infrastructure; Owl: USFWS
  • A sage grouse in its habitat

    Sagebrush habitat: National Park Service; sage grouse: Bureau Of Land Management
  • A northern goshawk with an image of Douglas-firs in the Northern Rockies

    Forest: U.S. Forest Service; goshawk: Jim Parrish, Utah Division Of Wildlife Resources
  • A tailed frog over an image of a creek in Klamath National Forest.

    Frog: James Bettaso, USFWS; Forest: USFS

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The idea makes intuitive sense, but there's little consensus about what "ecosystem management" looks like or how to gauge its success or failure. Some definitions are based on specific, measurable targets. Some stress "a planning timeline of centuries." And others, written by the timber industry, focus on human needs as key ecosystem components.

Last April, the Forest Service released its latest rewrite of the indicator species rule, touting "ecosystem management" and confirming conservationists' fears that the agency planned to water down wildlife protection. The 2008 version scraps requirements for monitoring indicator species and maintaining native species viability, saying they aren't feasible. A coalition of environmental groups promptly sued, asking for a return to the 1982 rule. A hearing is scheduled this month. According to Taylor McKinnon, public-lands program director for the Center for Biological Diversity, which is one of the parties to the lawsuit, indicator species, along with the viability requirement and the monitoring they demand, help hold the Forest Service accountable for the state of the forests.

"It's the hard measure for the maintenance of ecological sustainability on the national forests," McKinnon says. "There's no guarantee that this ecosystem management is going to happen. ... The Forest Service record is not one that lends itself to discretion on these issues. We need standards."

The hope behind indicator species was that they provided a shortcut to keeping tabs on every plant and animal. But there may be no shortcuts. Scott Mills, a professor at the University of Montana forestry school and author of the textbook Conservation of Wildlife Populations, calls ecosystem management as put forward in the new rule "a hopeful platitude that there's an easy fix." For Mills, wild animals are not a surrogate for the health of the forest; they are the health of the forest. 

"What we really want to know is are the creatures on that landscape doing OK," he says. Mills advocates tracking a suite of "focal species," ranging from the commercially and politically important to those that rely on a particular habitat niche. It would be expensive and time-consuming, but, he adds, "Is there any other way to monitor the health of an intact ecosystem? No."

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