The Conservation Column
By Pepper Trail
We made it to November! As I write this in late October, I’ve just dropped off my ballot, and by the time you receive this issue of the Chat, I’m sure most of you will have done so as well. But just in case you haven’t – and this arrives before November 3 – here is some last-minute motivation for you.
Rogue Valley Audubon Society is a non-partisan organization, and does not endorse candidates. We do, however, provide information on environmental policies. Recently, the New York Times, working with the Harvard and Columbia Law Schools, published a list of over 100 environmental rules that have been reversed by the Trump Administration. The full list and details can be found at: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/climate/trump-environment-rollbacks-list.html
For reasons of space, we limit ourselves here to the 17 entries on the list that deal specifically with wildlife issues. But the full list is worth a look, as most of the rollbacks will have indirect effects on wildlife and wildlife habitat. Over the last 4 years, the Trump Administration has:
- Changed the way the Endangered Species Actis applied, making it more difficult to protect wildlife from long-term threats posed by climate change.
- Ended the automatic application of full protections for ‘threatened’ plants and animals, the classification one step below ‘endangered’ in the Endangered Species Act.
- Relaxed environmental protections for salmon and smelt in California’s Central Valleyin order to free up water for farmers.
- Overturned a ban on the use of lead ammunition and fishing tackleon federal lands.
- Overturned a ban on the hunting of predators in Alaskan wildlife refuges.
- Reversed an Obama-era rule that barred using bait, such as grease-soaked doughnuts, to lure and kill grizzly bears, among other sport hunting practices that many people consider extreme, on some public lands in Alaska.
- Amended fishing regulations to loosen restrictions on the harvest of a number of species.
- Removed restrictions on commercial fishing in a protected marine preserve southeast of Cape Cod that is home to rare corals and a number of endangered sea animals. The Trump administration has suggested changing the management or size of two other marine protected areas in the Pacific Ocean.
- Proposed revising limits on the number of endangered marine mammals and sea turtles that can be unintentionally killed or injured with sword-fishing netson the West Coast. (The Obama-era rules were initially withdrawn by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, but were later finalized following a court order. The agency has said it plans to revise the limits.)
- Loosened fishing restrictions intended to reduce bycatch of Atlantic Bluefin Tuna. Nonprofits have filed a lawsuit challenging the rollback.
- Overturned a ban on using parts of migratory birds in handicrafts made by Alaskan Natives.
- Proposed weakening critical habitat protection sunder the Endangered Species Act by making it easier to exclude certain areas, including for public-works projects, such as schools and hospitals, and for public lands leased to non-government businesses.
- Opened nine million acres of Western land to oil and gas drilling by weakening habitat protections for the sage grouse, an imperiled bird. The Idaho District Court temporarily blocked the measure. The Montana District Court also invalidated the directive, nullifying 440 oil and gas leases, but the ruling is on hold pending appeal.
- Rolled back a roughly 40-year-old interpretation of a policy aimed at protecting migratory birds, potentially running afoul of treaties with Canada and Mexico. In August, a New York district court struck down the administrative procedure, reinstating protection for birds. This is likely to be appealed if Trump wins a second term.
- Removed the Yellowstone grizzly bear from the Endangered Species List, but the protections were later reinstated by a federal judge. This is currently under appeal.
So: VOTE! VOTE! VOTE! VOTE! VOTE! VOTE! VOTE! VOTE!
More on Fires and Birds
Last month, the Conservation Column presented some information on how wildfires and smoke affect birds, and Juliet also reported on damage to the Bear Creek Greenway and Ashland Pond from the Almeda Fire. Unfortunately, it appears that Jackson County is taking an aggressive approach to cutting down big fire-killed cottonwoods, even in areas not accessible from the Greenway, such as east of I-5 near Phoenix. This will deprive birds of snags and the soil of nutrients when snags eventually fall and decay.
On the positive side, the county is dropping thousands of pounds of barley and native plant seeds in advance of the fall rains to help replant and stabilize bare soil, and has contracted with Lomakatsi Restoration Project to carry out additional erosion control. Rogue Riverkeeper continues to work with local agencies and organizations on short- and long-term plans. Among other things, they are recruiting volunteers for restoration efforts, ramping up water quality sampling, and starting a photo monitoring program to document restoration over time. As of this writing, fall Chinook have also made their way up Bear Creek. RVAS is looking at ways we can be involved, and we’ll report back on that next month.
As a follow-up to last month’s information, below is another article reprinted from National Audubon, focusing on the impact of the fires in California. Our conditions in southern Oregon are similar to California, so the information is very applicable.
How Do California’s Megafires Impact Birds?
by Andrea Jones, Director of Bird Conservation at Audubon California, and Joanna Wu, Avian Ecologist at National Audubon Society.
Megafire: The new normal
“We’re having to confront the reality that large wildfires, and the destruction that comes with them, are going to be a bigger part of our future here in California,” says Andrea Jones, Audubon California’s Director of Bird Conservation.
Hers is not a controversial opinion. This year is already California’s worst year on record with regard to wildfires – beating out the past several years, which few thought we would ever top. More than a million acres burned across the state in 2017. This year, according to CalFire, as of August 30th, almost 3.1 million acres have burned, toppling previous years and a 5-year average of 310,000 acres. And we are not even close to done with fire season – there are still several months to go.
California is in uncharted territory with its fires, which are becoming more numerous, more frequent, more wide-spread, and more intense, with many started by human causes. These megafires are having severe impacts on communities throughout California and the West, and pose a new stressor to California’s birds, which are already threatened by habitat loss, climate change, pollution, and other factors.
It is important to note here that wildfires are a natural and healthy part of California’s forest, shrubland, woodland, and grassland ecosystems. Fires cycle nutrients and allow natural areas to regenerate properly. Giant sequoias need fire to crack their seed cones and germinate, and many large redwoods remain standing after the Santa Cruz fires.
Birds and other wildlife have adapted to a natural fire regime over millennia, and their populations will not be negatively affected by them under normal circumstances; in fact, studies show that forests with a diversity of burns (i.e., low, mixed, and high severity) may have higher numbers of bird species after a burn. Birds such as the Black-backed Woodpecker, which are found in California’s Sierra forests, are known to move into severely burned areas to forage on dead trees. Fires can create snags (dead standing trees) that the California-endangered Great Gray Owl, Spotted Owl, and other large birds nest in.
Audubon recommends people should put out water sources, such as a bird bath, and bird seed or nectar for hummingbirds during this critical time. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard from people that they never saw a species of bird at their feeders until there was a big fire nearby,” Jones says. “These birds migrating through are going to need some help.”
As we begin to approach the rainy season, it’s a good time to plan for planting plants in backyards and gardens that are native to California, as these are better adapted to drought and fire. Audubon’s Plants for Birds database (https://www.audubon.org/plantsforbirds) can help people find out what plants are appropriate for their area.
Effects of Wildfire on Habitat
Sandy DeSimone is the director of research and education at Audubon’s Starr Ranch Sanctuary in Orange County, and she has studied closely the effects of fire on habitat in Southern California.
“It’s always important to understand that fire is a natural part of almost every California ecosystem, and in many ways is important to its health,” says DeSimone.
DeSimone says that the intense, frequent fires that California has seen in recent years are not normal, and some-times not healthy for habitat.
“There is research that shows that fires that return after five years or less can change habitat type,” she says. “Studies have shown how frequent fires have converted shrubland landscape into non-native annual grassland. A change to a less supportive habitat could spell a lot of trouble for birds and other wildlife.”
Even in areas where habitat does not convert, it will take a few years for complex layers of habitat to rebuild in California’s burned areas, and as noted above in some cases, what returns may not be what was there before.
“Nesting habitat will be at a premium in the parts of the state that have burned in recent years and this could impact an entire generation of birds in some areas if they are unable to find suitable habitat,” note Jones.
There is widespread agreement that California and other states in the West must improve their forest management efforts to reduce the risks of wildfire. Audubon agrees that the State of California must implement an ambitious pro-gram to make the state safer and more fire resilient, but strongly disagrees that State or Federal governments must relax environmental laws or regulations to accomplish these goals.
“The wildfire threats we’re facing today are the result of over a century of poor landscape management in the state, an increase in human development in fire-prone areas, and increasing risks due to climate change.,” says Mike Lynes, Audubon California’s director of public policy. “To reduce risks to people, wildlife, and our economy, the State of California, communities, and stakeholders have to align to better manage our landscapes.
This will require significant public and incentives to private landowners and industry, but it will protect birds, communities, and other wildlife at the same time. We should also be listening to and learning from experienced managers of our ecological resources, including the Indigenous People of California who managed these lands and fire for millennia.”