A 'Clumper’s' View of Strategic Habitat Conservation
Chuck Hunter. Credit: USFWS.
Chuck Hunter has been clumping species and habitats together for at least two decades. It’s his way of seeing the world.
Now a division chief for the National Wildlife Refuge System in the Southeast Region, Hunter’s love of long lists and Excel spreadsheets to organize broadly defined habitats and their associated species began when he was a field biologist in Arizona.
“I started realizing you really need to focus on species that showed stress and strain when you work toward restoration,” Hunter said. “That challenged the notion that if you benefit habitats for some species, you harm others. One way you deal with that is to work in a larger area, across a landscape.”
After moving to Atlanta in 1989 to work in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Endangered Species Program for the Southeast Region, he read the encyclopedia of Southeastern ecosystems, titled “Biodiversity of the Southeastern United States.” For Hunter, it was seminal literature. Published in three parts in 1993, the books spell out the specific functional processes of lowland terrestrial, upland terrestrial and aquatic communities, examining the plants and animals that dominate each community and how they interact.
The books got him to start thinking about how individual endangered species and high priority migratory birds fit into their ecosystems and how they define and are defined by their habitat needs. Hunter does not remember who recommended the books, but nine years later they remain, dog-eared, at the top of one of the many piles of reports, studies and journals covering nearly every surface in his office.
Hunter’s thinking further evolved through long discussions with people like Ronnie Haynes, the Southeast Coordinator for the Partners for Fish and Wildlife, and the team behind the Lower Mississippi Valley Joint Venture, including the late Charles Baxter, Seth Mott, Randy Wilson, Chuck Loesch and Bill Uihlein, now the Assistant Regional Director for Science Applications in the Southeast. Service Director Dan Ashe, then a Science Advisor to the Director, was “part of the discussions from Day 1,” Hunter said. They asked each other questions like “If we do a better job for forest birds, not just water birds, what would that entail?”
Trying to figure out how much conserved habitat was needed, and where, “started with birds,” Hunter said. “Then other species were considered, to better understand the desired conditions within the habitat… We wanted to know ‘how do bears, bats, reptiles and amphibians fit in?’”
The discussions helped shape the Southeast Region’s commitment to biological sequestration in the Lower Mississippi Valley. Starting in the late 1990s, the Service began working with partners including The Conservation Fund and energy companies to replant native bottomland hardwoods on former farmland. Areas chosen for restoration were those expected to provide the highest values for wildlife.
Hunter’s broadly defined habitats and lists of associated species got a full airing at the Southeast Region’s Biologist Conference in 2009. For many, Hunter’s way of organizing landscapes is an obvious way to engage in Strategic Habitat Conservation, adopted by the Service in 2006 as its conservation model. The model starts with biological planning, which requires knowing how much conservation is needed for which species and where.
Hunter sees the surrogate species approach as not far from where his thinking has evolved. The Service recently adopted the approach as the best way to engage in Strategic Habitat Conservation: by selecting species to represent many others, the Service will be able to most efficiently and effectively design functional, natural landscapes capable of sustaining abundant fish, wildlife and plant species.
Still, Hunter has questions. Like, how do we know we’re choosing the right species?
“The assumption is that surrogate species will pull along other species,” Hunter said. “That’s an assumption that we need to continually test.”
That’s true with more than just surrogate species. Strategic Habitat Conservation can only work when assumptions are tested, and biological plans modified to reflect new information.
Stacy Shelton, USFWS Southeast Region