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Using Section 7 as a Recovery Tool
Photo Credit: Roger Tabor/USFWS
By Kevin Shelley1, Deborah Crouse2, Jeffrey Chan1, Sarah J. Converse3, Andrea LaTier1, Steve Morey4, and Carolyn Scafidi1
Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is one of the most important provisions of this landmark law. Specifically, section 7 (a)(1) charges federal agencies with aiding in the conservation of listed species, and section 7 (a)(2) requires agencies to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service (or NOAAFisheries for most marine species) to ensure that any projects or activities they fund, authorize, or carry out are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of listed species or adversely modify designated critical habitat.
Section 7 consultations typically occur in the Service’s network of Ecological Services field offices. Managing an increasing number of section 7 consultations in a time of diminishing resources has become a challenge faced by many field offices. In this environment, striving to reduce negative impacts as much as possible in every consultation can lead to consultation backlogs that cause project delays, increase costs, capture Congressional and media attention, and fuel public dissatisfaction.
Despite these risks, biologists know that negotiating changes in federal projects can soften the impact on listed species or their habitat and add longterm benefits, thereby providing more opportunities for species recovery. But these negotiations take investments of time, which is increasingly scarce.
An example of this dilemma was the situation recently faced in western Washington State. Located at the southern end of the Seattle metro area of Puget Sound, one of the nation’s fastest growing urban centers, the Service’s Washington Fish and Wildlife Office (WFWO) is also surrounded by over 5 million acres of national forests and parks. With the 1999 listing of the bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus) as a threatened species and a 40 percent reduction in staff levels over the past decade, consultations for the Coastal- Puget Sound bull trout population overwhelmed the field office and created unprecedented backlogs.
There was also a growing concern among biologists that the pressure to reduce the consultation backlog was causing conservation opportunities to slip away. By 2006, it became clear that a "first in, first out" approach to managing the workload was no longer sufficient. Managers realized they needed a more sustainable approach to overcoming the backlog if they were to maximize bull trout conservation.
A Team Approach
In January 2007, WFWO managers committed to the development of a science- based structured decision-making process to assist in prioritizing consultation projects based on their conservation value. This idea caught the attention of the Service’s National Conservation Training Center (NCTC) and resulted in its selection as a case study at the Rapid Prototyping Workshop in July 2007. Dr. Mike Runge of the U.S Geological Survey (USGS), Dr. Tony Starfield (Professor Emeritus, University of Minnesota), and Donna Brewer (NCTC) led the workshop. Dr. Sarah Converse (USGS) and Dr. Steve Morey (Service, Region 1) were lead consultants in the western Washington case study, and Dr. Deborah Crouse (Service, Washington Office) was the facilitator.
Photo Credit: Roger Peters/USFWS
The WFWO invested in a week-long workshop to create a prototype decisionmaking framework. Beyond ranking projects by conservation value, the framework included a means of allocating staff time on each project to maximize the office’s conservation output. Work on the effort continued after the workshop. Eventually, more than 25 people with expertise in structured decision-making, population ecology and modeling, education and training, bull trout recovery, section 7 consultation, database development, geographic information systems, records management, administrative support, and management contributed to the effort.
As the first step in developing a structured decision-making framework, the team set its objective: "to maximize the total conservation benefit from bull trout consultations within the WFWO while completing all consultations within regulatory timeframes."
The team recognized that any solution must be nimble enough to respond to rapid changes in workload volume and complexity. Accordingly, the process was constructed to anticipate and recognize priority consultations, and then, using regulatory timelines and the existing staffing level, optimize the time to be devoted to each consultation by using a workload allocation model.
To prioritize consultations, the team needed to find a way to predict the potential improvements in bull trout conservation that might result from negotiated changes in a project. They captured this additional conservation value in an index called the Potential Value (PV) of a consultation.
Soliciting input from a panel of ESA section 7 experts and performing a statistical analysis on the panel’s work, the team developed a predictive model of PV. The model integrates factors such as project type and scale, the adequacy of the proposed conservation measures, and the potential to influence the project, such as the inclusion of Best Management Practices. The model also integrates bull trout population and habitat characteristics in the vicinity of a project and ultimately generates a PV score for each project on a 0 to 20 scale.
To illustrate, highway construction projects, which often exacerbate the existing threats to bull trout, can offer more opportunity to negotiate improvements than, for example, habitat restoration projects. Therefore, highway construction projects tend to be assigned a higher PV.
The proportion of a consultation’s PV that is achieved depends on the time spent on the consultation. Using input from the panel, the team developed a mathematical relationship to describe the degree of PV that biologists gain as they negotiate beneficial changes in a project over time. The panel’s input illustrated that, at some point, the time spent working a consultation yields diminishing returns. On average, modeled results suggest the first 64 hours of dedicated work on an informal consultation yielded 80 percent of the PV. The subsequent 64 hours yielded only 19 percent of the remaining PV.
Once projects are prioritized, it is necessary to allocate staff time to the office’s entire workload so that conservation benefits are maximized. The Workload Allocation model integrates the expected PVs of consultations within the field office’s workload, the relationship between the time spent on a consultation and realized PV, the number and type of consultations, and the number of biologists available to do the work. With these inputs, projects are assigned either short or long handling times. Those with greater PV are more likely to be assigned longer handling times.
A New Paradigm
Use of the structured decision-making process at the WFWO is producing some important insights that are changing the way biologists view the ESA section 7 workload. Traditionally, they assumed that conservation benefits accrued in proportion to the time invested on each project. They now realize that focusing on individual projects can lead to "overworking" an individual consultation, which results in diminishing returns and reduces the office’s total conservation accomplishment. These insights, and the office’s proactive use of structured decision-making, contributed to WFWO’s manager, Ken Berg, being awarded the Service’s 2008 Science Leadership Award for his support of the use of this and other science-based management tools.
Recognizing this cost of over-working a consultation has motivated biologists toward a new paradigm: to conclude low- PV consultations as efficiently as possible in order to concentrate on projects with a higher PV. They also are becoming more adept at prioritizing their time on the key aspects of high-PV projects that produce the maximum conservation benefit and are refining the information needed to initiate and conclude consultations. In the end, everyone expects that prioritizing consultations according to their PV will lead to greater conservation for each dollar invested and a better workload balance.
1USFWS Region 1, Western Washington Fish and Wildlife Office, Lacey, Washington (firstname.lastname@example.org, 360-753-4325; email@example.com, 360-753-9542; firstname.lastname@example.org, 360-753-9593; email@example.com, 360-753-4068).
2USFWS Region 9, Arlington, Virginia (firstname.lastname@example.org, 703-358-2471).
3USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, Maryland (email@example.com, 301-497-5635).
4USFWS Region 1, Portland, Oregon (firstname.lastname@example.org, 503-231-6108).
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