Strategic Habitat Conservation
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Strategic Habitat Conservation


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SHC in Action in the Klamath Basin

Chinook salmon. Credit: USFWS.
Chinook salmon. Credit: USFWS.

For years, the Klamath Basin of southern Oregon and northern California has been a flashpoint for conflicts over water use and species conservation. On the other hand, and out of these conflicts came a remarkable approach to collaborative and strategic conservation.

The headwaters of the Klamath Basin begin in the mountains east of the Cascade Range in southern Oregon. From there, these waters drain an enormous watershed, creating one of the largest lake and wetland complexes in the western United States.

These waters and wetlands support tremendous biodiversity, hosting more than 80 percent of the waterfowl in the Pacific Flyway on their annual migrations, and sustaining the third largest salmon run on the West Coast. However, both salmon runs and waterfowl populations have declined markedly over the last century.

Water is also a critical economic resource in the Basin, which has a long history of highly productive farming and ranching. Thousands of people in the Basin depend on Klamath water for to irrigate their crops and sustain their cattle.

Water shortages over the past decade have led to both degradation of water quality in Klamath Lake and reduced water allocations for agriculture to sustain the endangered Lost River and shortnose suckers. The situation has generated both conflict and controversy as the needs of each of the Basin’s many water interests –farmers, tribes, commercial salmon fishermen, and wildlife refuges – have often conflicted with one another. For years, the parties have been divided, entrenched and litigious.

The prospect of a solution seemed impossible in 2001 and 2002 when a dry year resulted in the federal regulators stopping the flow of irrigation waters that historically fed agriculture, while tribes, environmentalists and fishermen experienced one of the worst salmon die-offs in U.S. history. Tensions and suspicions among the communities of the Klamath Basin ran deep.

Amidst the turmoil and discontent, however, leaders began to emerge from the local communities. People were thinking about solutions in terms of solving them themselves; not by lawyers and judges in distant courtrooms.

“This was one of the most contentious water wars in the west,” said Matt Baun, a spokesman for the Service on Klamath Basin issues. “It was inspiring to see people put away their lawsuits and PR campaigns, for a chance at solving a number of societal and environmental problems.”

As one observer stated during the negotiations, farmers and ranchers on the one side, and tribes and fishermen on the other, who once stood toe-to-toe were now standing shoulder-to-shoulder in developing an agreements that would meet the needs of irrigators, fish, tribes and wildlife refuges.”

About the same time that negotiations for the Klamath Agreements began in earnest (about 2006-2010), the Service came out with its Strategic Habitat Conservation (SHC) initiative which was to be the Service’s primary conservation tool to successfully and effectively carry out wildlife conservation activities into the future.

“The key features of SHC – biological planning, conservation design and delivery, post-project monitoring, and the use of the best science and data to inform management decisions were all woven into the Klamath Agreements,” said Matt Barry, the Klamath Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Service’s SHC handbook notes the need for conservation and wildlife agencies to inspire “investor confidence” – in much the same way that publicly held companies do with a well-structured and forward thinking business plan. For a company the idea is to make a profit for investors and serve customers with useful and valuable products.

For a conservation product, such as that described in the Klamath Agreements, the “investors” are the communities of the Klamath Basin who have struggled for years with rotating environmental/water allocation crises. In this example, investor confidence is high because these investors helped to write the agreement/business plan.

“The product that we are seeking to produce is a restored Klamath Basin that supports healthy populations of salmonids, waterfowl and the recovery of endangered Lost River and shortnose suckers,” said Laurie Sada, field supervisor for the Service’s Klamath Falls Fish and Wildlife Office. “For years, federal and state agencies have been working with irrigators, tribes and other conservation partners to re-balance available water in the Klamath Basin in ways that meet the conservation needs of these species while also helping to meet the needs of irrigators, tribes and a power company in terms of water availability.”

For its part, the Service, made sure the conservation elements of the Klamath Agreements were consistent with the principles of SHC. The Service and its conservation partners developed agreements that outline explicit objectives, strategies and costs – all of which are essential elements of SHC.

Key objectives include increasing the production of Chinook salmon in the Klamath Basin and providing for increased and reliable water for Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge. The strategy outlined to meet these objectives is clear: to take action to rebalance the allocation of water in the Basin for both conservation and agriculture.

The principles of SHC define these actions. For example, the Klamath River Fish Habitat Assessment Program, another good example of collaborative conservation among many partners in the Klamath Basin, has identified limiting factors for Chinook salmon.

The program identified 18 different factors known to limit salmon production in the Basin, with the most important being water quality (excessively high water temperature and nutrients),fish health (unnaturally high adult and juvenile fish mortalities), fish habitat (degraded watershed and riparian areas, fish passage barriers, and in-stream flow), and water quantity (as influential to the previous mentioned factors).

In order to increase salmon production, the Agreements call for the removal of four hydroelectric dams, reintroduction of Chinook to the Upper Basin, and completion of a series of riparian and in-stream habitat restoration projects within all the major spawning reaches in the Basin. Specific costs are also detailed in these Agreements.

Removing dams and engaging in riparian an in-stream improvement projects will significantly address these limiting factors. Further, as outlined in the Agreements, a team of federal, state and Tribal Fish Managers will prioritize what restoration work is done to offer the most benefit to the resource based on a peer-reviewed Fisheries Restoration Plan.

“The Service, working in close collaboration with its Tribal and agency partners, is currently validating and calibrating a model that will allow managers to run state of the art simulations of juvenile Chinook salmon production under different in-stream water flow management and restoration alternatives,” said Nick Hetrick, a supervisory fisheries biologist with the Arcata Fish and Wildlife Office.

Hetrick also noted that a sub-model is also being employed that will simulate the prevalence of the parasite Ceratomyxa shasta – one of the major contributors to poor fish health in the Klamath River. This model was developed in collaboration with the Service’s Arcata Field Office and the Service’s California-Nevada Fish Health Center. Other partners included USGS’ Columbia River Research Laboratory and the Salmon Disease Lab at Oregon State University.

In keeping with the emphasis on monitoring in the SHC approach, restoration actions as called for in the Klamath Agreements will be intensively monitored by a team of conservation partners in the Klamath Basin. This team has recently begun developing a fisheries restoration and monitoring plan, which will be used to identify how restoration goals are being met. This plan is co-authored by the Klamath Basin Fish Managers, which consists of state, Federal and Tribal agencies. Data and information from this monitoring effort will be shared with Fish Managers and will be used to inform decisions and adaptive management. The monitoring plan, which is expected to begin implementation this year, is intended to include the following key elements that will guide and direct our efforts:

  1. Status and Trends Monitoring: At the time of plan implementation, dams will be in place and reservoirs will be included within the geographic bounds of this effort. If the Secretary of Interior determines to proceed with dam removal as proposed under the Klamath Hydropower Settlement Agreement (KHSA), the character of the Basin will change significantly; monitoring targets and associated methodologies will adapt to reflect this change.

  2. Data Related to Environmental Water: Monitoring of water quality and quantity can also be reasonably expected to change following dam removal and full implementation of the KBRA and KHSA.

  3. Effectiveness Monitoring: Effectiveness monitoring is intended to assess the performance of restoration actions. This section will be directly linked to the restoration plan component and would need revision with the implementation of a new Phase II Restoration Plan.

  4. Limiting Factors: Results of earlier limiting factors monitoring will inform later work, and this element should be subject to periodic review to assess scientific uncertainties; the need for periodic review is consistent with the timing of the Phase II Restoration Plan.

  5. Data System: Data management technology can undergo rapid evolution, and periodic review would help ensure that the data management approach remains the best available.

A good example of monitoring in this way has already been undertaken by the Service and conservation partners in the Sprague River sub-basin of the Klamath Basin and could serve as a model for the monitoring efforts in other parts of the Klamath Basin as the plan is developed.

According to Matt Barry, the Klamath Basin Coordinator, “we have a detailed evaluation report for the Sprague River that was generated by an interdisciplinary science team based on more than 100 completed restoration projects in the Sprague Basin, and we are working on formalizing a collaborative restoration implementation protocol for the Kamath Basin based on SHC principles.”

LCCs, Surrogates and SHC–Connecting all the Dots

In addition to salmon and waterfowl, the Klamath Basin is home to several high profile species such as sage grouse, fisher, northern spotted owl, bull trout, coho salmon, and Lost River and shortnose suckers. These species range across a diverse landscape. Modeled after the successful Department of the Interior’s Landscape Conservation Cooperatives (LCC), the Service is organizing an LCC-type of initiative in the Klamath Basin as long-term instrument to carry out conservation actions and improve resource management efforts among partners in the Klamath Basin.

Surrogate species will help us to address habitat limitations, a key feature of the Klamath Agreements. One surrogate species selected by the Service is Northern pintail. Population

objectives have been developed which will help Refuge managers and others in establishing goals for habitat improvements on the Lower Klamath NWR including other wetland habitats that serve the nearly 200 species dependent on wetlands.

Chinook salmon has been selected as a surrogate species and a representative for a number aquatic species in the Klamath Basin, such as Pacific lamprey, coho, and steelhead. It is an indicator for improvements in fish health and river and riparian ecosystems. A third surrogate selected by the Service is Lost River and shortnose suckers. They serve as indicators for water quality improvements, ecosystems and other aquatic species in Upper Klamath Lake and its tributaries, for example, the bull trout. Another surrogate includes the acorn woodpecker that represents oak woodland upland habitats.

In addition to the value of surrogate species as means to focus and report on priority conservation work, surrogates also have great value in communication on conservation of natural resources. We have made great progress employing the principles of SHC, LCCs and surrogate species, but there is much more to do.

The Service and its partners have encountered several challenges, and have had to address them as part of the learning process. These challenges include:

Process Issues

* One of the primary challenges was how to select surrogate species that would be representative of a vast Basin landscape which includes numerous habitats -- rivers, lakes, streams, ocean, and estuary, old growth forests, conifer forests, oak woodlands, meadows, wetlands, and sage steppe ecosystems.

* Many native species inhabit the Klamath Basin. Identification of surrogate species was dependent on our knowledge of the species in the area. It is possible we could miss good surrogate species as a result of our lessened knowledge and confidence.

Staff/Resources issues

* We decided to use our SHC coordinator as a team leader to work with representatives from the four Service offices in the Basin. This approach helped us to address existing workloads and also devote considerable attention to establishing surrogates.

* The Klamath offices represent a great example of how relatively small offices work effectively. Supervisors and staff set priorities and work in teams across the Basin to achieve conservation goals.

Clarity in Communications

* LCCs, SHC and Surrogate Species are all related, but they were “rolled out” separately – sometimes years apart. Re-directing staff resources to achieve these goals, while keeping other initiatives moving forward was, at times, challenging.

* Moving forward we see opportunities to make significant headway in the Klamath Basin on the Service’s priorities of surrogate species, SHC and LCCs. We look forward to developing a strategy to engage stakeholders and find the resources that will help get us achieve our conservation goals.

“Steve Thompson, the former Regional Director, recognized the value of SHC as a foundation for the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement. We continue to consider SHC a powerful tool for conservation in a changing world,” said Ren Lohoefener, current Regional Director for the Pacific Southwest Region, where conservation partnerships, conservation science, conservation design, conservation delivery, and post-project monitoring interplay and inform future decisions.

“The conservation challenges of the Klamath Basin are as big and complex as any in the country and the hard work and resolve of the local tribal, agriculture, fishing and conservation communities to develop strategies to restore the Basin while working in concert with one another is a remarkable achievement,” said Lohoefener. “This approach to strategic and collaborative conservation is a good model for future conservation efforts nationwide.”




Last updated: December 11, 2014

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