TESTIMONY OF RALPH MORGENWECK, REGIONAL DIRECTOR, REGION 6, U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE, DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR, BEFORE THE HOUSE COMMITTEE ON RESOURCES, REGARDING IMPLEMENTATION OF THE ENDANGERED SPECIES ACT

July 24, 1999

 

Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee, I appreciate the opportunity to discuss how the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service implements the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in the Mountain-Prairie Region. I would like to discuss with you how the Service is implementing several specific tools for effective ESA implementation, and in the context of those tools I will address three species of particular interest to some of you: the Preble's meadow jumping mouse, the mountain plover, and the black-tailed prairie dog.

Introduction

The Service is working aggressively to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the ESA. We have developed partnerships with the States, Tribal governments, local communities and individual landowners to provide flexibility and certainty in the way we administer the ESA. The U.S. economy has never been stronger. At the same time, more species are being protected and recovered than ever before. The American public has demonstrated that they want to preserve our natural heritage while allowing economic development to continue. We are achieving that goal through the ESA.

We continually try to minimize the impacts of the ESA on landowners. We have instituted reforms to provide greater flexibility and certainty to businesses and private landowners. Using this flexibility, our efforts are producing better species conservation and recovery, while promoting cooperation rather than confrontation.

We think people recognize that ESA issues are not the Service's responsibility alone, or the Federal Government's responsibility, but everyone's responsibility. A significant number of private landowners have expressed an interest in helping to implement conservation and recovery activities for listed and nonlisted species and in receiving assurances that they will not incur further land use restrictions in the future. We are responding to the needs of private landowners who are interested in managing their lands in a way that encourages recovery of wildlife, yet are concerned about the potential of future land- or resource-use restrictions that may result. Several tools are helping us meet this goal.

Habitat Conservation Planning

In 1982, Congress created Habitat Conservation Plans (HCPs), designed to protect a species while allowing economic development. An HCP allows the Service to permit "taking" of an endangered or threatened species if that taking is incidental to otherwise lawful activities and is mitigated by conservation measures. The plans are written by the incidental take permit applicant, although the Service may provide technical assistance in plan development when requested.

HCPs have evolved from a process adapted primarily to address single developments, to one that also includes broad-based, landscape-level planning tools used to achieve long-term biological goals. Large-scale, regional HCPs have significantly reduced regulatory burdens on small landowners by providing efficient mechanisms for compliance, distributing the economic and logistical impacts of endangered species conservation, and bringing a broad range of landowner activities under the legal protection of an incidental take permit.

One of the great strengths of the HCP process is its flexibility. Conservation plans vary enormously in size and scope and in the activities they address--from half-acre lots to millions of acres, from forestry and agricultural activities to beach development, and from a single species to hundreds of species. Another key is creativity. The ESA and its implementing regulations establish basic biological standards for HCPs but otherwise allow creativity on the part of the applicants. As a result, the HCP program has produced remarkable innovation. One such case involves the Preble's meadow jumping mouse.

A Memorandum of Agreement was signed in 1995 by Colorado Governor Roy Romer and Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt. This agreement lays the foundation for a cooperative approach to conserving and managing species at risk in Colorado, such as the Preble's mouse, which was listed as threatened in 1998. State agencies, local landowners, and private organizations have been working together to develop voluntary conservation efforts to address identified threats to the mouse and begin recovery efforts. Right now the Service is working with the States of Colorado and Wyoming and local governments (8 counties in Colorado and 1 in Wyoming) to develop HCPs that will help conserve the Preble's meadow jumping mouse while still allowing some development activities. We believe that we can most effectively provide for the long-term conservation of the Preble's mouse by involving other authorities and resources of state and local governments.

Safe Harbors

The Service's new Safe Harbor Policy creates an incentive for non-Federal landowners willing to proactively conserve listed species by providing them with regulatory certainty. Under this policy, landowners who restore, enhance or maintain habitats for listed species receive assurances that the conservation work they undertake will not result in additional regulatory restrictions on the use of their land. Landowners are currently implementing almost 40 Safe Harbor agreements encompassing over 1 million acres. The Service believes that this policy will provide substantial benefits for both endangered species and landowners.

Candidate Conservation Agreements

The Service is emphasizing the use of Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances (CCAA), to conserve declining species before they need the protection of the ESA. Early conservation preserves management options, minimizes the cost of recovery, and reduces the potential for restrictive land use policies in the future. Addressing the needs of species before the regulatory restrictions associated with listed species come into play often allows greater management flexibility to stabilize or restore these species and their habitats.

In the Mountain-Prairie Region, Candidate Conservation Agreements on the Gunnison sage grouse, Colorado cutthroat trout, spotted frog, least chub and arctic grayling have improved conditions for those species and made it possible for us to continue to keep them off the list of threatened and endangered species.

Although not a candidate at this time, the black-tailed prairie dog could benefit greatly from cooperative conservation strategies that may keep it off the list. The black-tailed prairie dog may occupy 700,000 acres at present (a decline of 95% or more from historic accounts). This decline is largely due to conversion of native prairie to agriculture, extensive poisoning, and the inadvertent introduction of a disease into North America. This disease is foreign to the evolutionary history of the species, and may result in complete elimination of prairie dogs in affected colonies. Recent declines in occupied habitat for the species, within the last 10-20 years, include a 50% reduction in Montana, a 70% reduction in Mexico, and a 70% reduction in South Dakota.

In March 1999 the Service made a positive 90-day finding in response to petitions by the National Wildlife Federation and the Biodiversity Legal Foundation to list the black-tailed prairie dog pursuant to the ESA. A positive petition finding acknowledges that substantial information exists that listing may be warranted. As a result of this 90-day finding, the Service is currently conducting a review of all available information regarding the species' status throughout its 11-state range and will decide if listing the species is "warranted" or "not warranted." Completion of the review and issuance of a 12-month finding on whether or not listing is warranted are anticipated in late 1999 or early 2000.

State wildlife and agricultural representatives from all States within the range of the black-tailed prairie dog have met with the Service and the petitioner to discuss development of a conservation agreement. As a result of this cooperation among the States and others, a draft conservation strategy for the prairie dog is now circulating for comments.

Significant conservation potential for the species exists on Federal and Tribal lands. The Service has worked with some Tribes to encourage more holistic prairie management efforts. One of these Tribes is now an active participant in a black-footed ferret recovery effort and another Tribe is planning a similar effort. These Tribes appear to have balanced their interests in livestock production and the conservation of wildlife.

The Service has also met with the National Park Service, to discuss its plans for increased attention to black-tailed prairie dog conservation on its lands, and with the National Forest Service, who has preliminary plans for more intensive and extensive management of this species on its National Grasslands in Nebraska, North and South Dakota, and Wyoming.

Regardless of the eventual decision about listing, the Service believes that a major conservation effort is needed to protect the remaining large prairie dog complexes, and to restore some areas as well. Species such as the black-footed ferret, swift fox, mountain plover, burrowing owl, and others are dependent to some degree on viable prairie dogs colonies. Some of these are already listed under the Act or are proposed for listing, and others are experiencing declines. The Service is strongly encouraging the Federal land management agencies (Bureau of Land Management, U. S. Forest Service, National Park Service) and States, assisted by private organizations and landowners, to aggressively pursue a comprehensive conservation agreement for the black-tailed prairie dog that would in turn likely benefit other species as well.

4(d) Rules

For species which do need to be listed, the Service is expanding its use of special rules to minimize the regulatory impact on landowners of listing species as threatened while providing the protection necessary for the species' conservation. Section 4(d) of the Act allows the Service to issue a special rule for a threatened species with prohibitions against take specifically tailored to the conservation of that species. Once these measures are developed, they replace the general prohibitions that normally apply to a listed species. As an example, the Service has proposed a special 4(d) rule for the Preble's meadow jumping mouse in Colorado and Wyoming to allow continuation of certain on-going activities (such as agriculture) in the mouse's habitat consistent with the species' conservation needs.

Private Landowner Incentives

Through its Pilot ESA Private Landowner Incentives Program, the Service is encouraging the conservation of listed and non-listed species on private lands. This $5 million program (in fiscal year 1999) provides incentives for private landowners to enter into Safe Harbor Agreements and Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances. In the Mountain-Prairie Region this year, we funded $450,000 worth of ESA-related projects on private lands, including Preble's meadow jumping mouse projects in both Wyoming and Colorado and black-tailed prairie dog work in Montana. If funding for this program continues, we plan to continue these and other worthwhile projects in fiscal year 2000.

One species in particular that could benefit from private landowner incentives is the mountain plover. The Service proposed to list the mountain plover as threatened in February 1999. A species is designated as threatened when it is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range. Grassland birds as a whole are experiencing the highest rate of decline among bird groups, with mountain plover populations declining the most of any grassland bird. The decline of this species, as well as other prairie natives, is indicative of the overall reduction and degradation of grassland ecosystems, which provide habitat for many birds, mammals, and fish.

The best available information suggests that the population of mountain plovers has declined by more than 50 percent since 1966 to fewer than an estimated 10,000 birds. The decline of mountain plovers likely is due to a combination of several factors, including the replacement of grasslands with agricultural or urban areas, agricultural practices on grasslands, and decline of native herbivores, such as prairie dogs. Mountain plovers have been observed nesting on cultivated land in some areas, and nests may be destroyed or abandoned during planting season. Biologists are trying to determine if spring tilling and planting on the drylands of southern Wyoming, eastern Colorado, southwestern Kansas and northwestern Oklahoma may be a factor in the species' decline, and if so, how to provide for farmers' needs as well as the needs of the species.

At public meetings held this spring within the mountain plover's range, the public had an opportunity to provide any information on the mountain plover and its habitat that would help us evaluate the status of the species. Representatives from the American Farm Bureau Federation assisted with the public hearings in Greeley and Lamar, Colorado. We have also developed a dialogue with the Colorado Farm Bureau and local agricultural producers in Colorado to seek solutions to mountain plover conservation on private lands that will not impact farming and ranching activities. An important Federal partner in our efforts is the Natural Resources Conservation Service and their local representatives.

Conclusion

In closing, the Service is making great efforts, with limited resources, to ensure that implementation of the ESA is flexible and scientifically sound. We have endeavored to fairly protect landowners' interests, while providing incentives to manage in ways that benefit endangered species. The Service is fully committed to finding this balance between economic development and endangered species protection. To continue making progress in implementing the ESA, an increase in funding for our endangered species program is necessary.

As of May 1, 1999, there were 1,181 domestic species on the List of Endangered and Threatened Species; this represents a 30 percent increase in just 5 years. Consultations, habitat conservation planning and recovery workloads have increased tremendously at the same time that the Administration has been working to streamline and expedite the consultation and HCP processes. The Service anticipates that approximately 500 HCPs will be in some stage of development or implementation by fiscal year 2000. More than 40,500 requests for consultations from federal agencies will be reviewed in fiscal year 2000, many of which could result in work delays in certain areas if not reviewed in a timely manner. Furthermore, the interest among private landowners in the new conservation tools I have discussed, Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances and Safe Harbor Agreements, is already great and is expected to grow. The demand for these new types of voluntary conservation agreements and the tremendous growth in the number of HCPs has combined to generate a significant increase in workload pressures.

The Administration recognizes that increased funding support is essential to continue our successful record of reform. The President's fiscal year 2000 budget request for endangered species is an important step in providing adequate funding to allow the Service to provide greater technical assistance to private landowners and to expedite consultation and permitting actions throughout the nation.

Finding that balance between economic development and wildlife conservation requires early, open discussions between all parties involved in order to mesh the two needs. I am confident that with full implementation of the Administration's reforms, the Endangered Species Act will continue to protect the most vulnerable biological resources of the nation without imposing undue burdens on individual citizens.

Mr. Chairman, this concludes my prepared testimony. I would be happy to take any questions.

Disclaimer: All statements are not the opinions or position of those testifying, rather they are the official positions taken by the Administration.