Growing Returns

3 urgent areas for Zinke to focus beyond departmental reorganization

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke last week invited members of the conservation community to meet with him to discuss a number of his department’s near-term priorities.

Among these priorities was a “grand pivot” that Secretary Zinke described as a shift from focusing on energy dominance and shrinking monuments to a focus on conservation. When outlining his specific conservation priorities, Secretary Zinke spoke mostly in broad strokes about the reorganization of his department and infrastructure backlogs.

Some of his ideas on the reorganization had merit and we’d be willing to work with his agency to ensure that it is staffed to meet the needs of near and long-term conservation challenges.

While departmental organization and infrastructure needs are both worthy of administrative attention, I’m concerned that these priorities could detract from three urgent environmental and public health needs.

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A rare desert wildflower is no longer endangered, but the law that saved it may be

When most people think about the Endangered Species Act, they picture the bald eagle, the sea turtle or the grizzly bear. They don’t think as often about the grasses, ferns, flowers and conifers that the ESA also protects.

That makes sense when you consider that there are approximately 26 known animal species for every known plant species. But animals, including humans of course, rely heavily on plants for food, oxygen, shelter and more.

Just like animals, plants increasingly face habitat loss, pollution, disease and climate change, which threaten their existence.

There are currently 949 species of plants listed as endangered or threatened under the ESA, including several species of cactus, mint and milkweed – a vital plant for monarch butterflies. But even the more obscure and isolated plants demonstrate how closely plant resilience is tied to the health of both local and broader ecosystems. Read More »

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Why Trump should care about the fate of the sage-grouse even more than African elephants

When the Trump administration announced that it was lifting the ban on imports of game trophies, there was public outcry. For days, my twitter feed was filled with photos of African elephants. It was, in Trump’s words, a “horror show” – one that ultimately ended when the president made the decision to keep the trophy ban in place.

At the same time the trophy ban was making headlines across the globe, a different story was unfolding back home. A great American wildlife conservation story was being rewritten. Read More »

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The wild turkey may be America’s greatest wildlife conservation success story

Three male wild American turkeys displaying full plumage. The turkey’s bald head can change color in seconds with excitement or emotion. The birds’ heads can be red, pink, white or blue. [Photo credit: Larry Smith2010]

When most Americans think about great wildlife success stories, they think about the bald eagle, the peregrine falcon, or possibly the recent news of sea turtle recovery.

What many people forget, or perhaps never knew, is that America’s wild turkey population was once estimated to be approximately 30,000 – a number comparable to today’s estimates for polar bears worldwide.

Thankfully for us (and the gobblers), American wild turkeys now number close to seven million.

So how did the turkey bounce back? The answer lies in what some consider America’s greatest wildlife conservation success story. Read More »

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10,000-acre deal to protect sage-grouse marks milestone in conservation

The imperiled greater sage-grouse avoided an endangered species listing in September 2015 after Western landowners, conservation groups, and state and federal agencies forged a plan to protect its habitat. Read more >>

Today, Kinross Gold U.S.A., Inc., will complete the first purchase of habitat credits to offset impacts to greater sage-grouse through the Nevada Conservation Credit System. The transaction will take place at a signing ceremony in Carson City, Nevada to commemorate the long-term stewardship of nearly 10,000 acres of vital sage-grouse habitat.

Kinross is the first company to participate in the program, buying credits to offset the environmental impacts of its Bald Mountain gold mine in northeast Nevada. The credit projects will include a variety of conservation activities, such as grazing management and fencing maintenance, which will take place over the next 30 years.

The transaction marks a significant milestone in the sage-grouse story, and in America’s conservation history. Read More »

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Why were California's wildfires so deadly? The answer lies in the forest

This post was updated on October 23, 2017.

The intense fires that have ravaged my neighboring communities over the last week have been on my mind constantly.

My heart goes out to those who have experienced great loss – loss of houses, loss of cherished items, loss of pets, and loss of life.

Many of us are left wondering, how could this happen? Could it have been prevented? How can we avoid another extreme event like this?

I don’t have all of the answers. No one does.

But we do know some things that can help us become more resilient in the face of increasingly intense and frequent fires.

What we know about the California fires

We know that in California, wildfires often occur in October after dry, hot summers. This year, we experienced record heat. When coupled with the high winds we’ve experience in recent months, small fires can quickly become monstrous and deadly.   Read More »

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“We sink or swim together” in the sagebrush sea, and beyond

Western governors, landowners, conservationists and others celebrated the collaborative and bipartisan conservation effort that led to a "not warranted" listing decision for sage-grouse in September 2015.

Today, the Interior Department opened up federal sage-grouse plans to potential changes, despite the concerns of many state, industry, landowner and conservation stakeholders across the country.

John Swartout, a senior policy advisor to Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, said that it would be bad for Colorado if the sage-grouse plan, developed over years with local and state involvement, was eliminated, for fears that this would lead to a future Endangered Species Act listing.

“We didn’t work this hard to throw it all away and get a listing,” he said, echoing concerns of others that upending the plans could ultimately lead to the sage-grouse being listed.

Wyoming Governor Matt Mead reiterated what many western governors have told Secretary Zinke – that the states should be consulted about revisions to the plans because they are ultimately the ones who have to face the consequences if the plans fail and a federal listing is warranted.

“If it was a state by state listing decision, that’d be one thing,” Mead said. “But the way we are with the law right now, if one state gets listed, we all are going to get listed. We sink or swim together.” Read More »

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Sea turtles swim towards a brighter future

Sea turtle populations are showing promising signs of recovery after years of decline. (Photo credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region)

There’s some good news in the animal kingdom. Sea turtles, the beloved green jewels of the world’s vast blue oceans, appear to be bouncing back after decades of decline.

Six of seven sea turtle species are currently listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) – the green, loggerhead, Kemp’s ridley, olive ridley, hawksbill, and leatherback – and many of them have been on the list since 1970. Since then, conservation efforts have made significant strides in protecting nesting beaches, reducing mortality in fisheries and establishing marine protected areas.

Recent research suggests there is hope for beleaguered sea turtles. Important recovery in some local populations has shown that we can turn things around for sea turtles, especially with effective endangered species policy and improved management.

This comeback is promising, not just for turtles, but also for marine ecosystems and the marine economy at large.

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A bird has united thousands. It will not divide us.

An icon of the sagebrush sea, the greater sage-grouse is a sight to behold. Males often gather in large numbers to woo females and strut with chests puffed and spiky tails fanned. (Photo credit: Tatiana Gettelman)

It was a sunny, cool morning – a typical September day in Colorado. I pulled up to the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge and walked towards a stage where the state flags for Colorado, Nevada, Montana and Wyoming waved in the wind alongside the American flag.

It was a good morning. Then-Secretary of the Interior Department, Sally Jewell, had announced earlier that morning that the greater sage-grouse – a bird with habitat spanning parts of 11 western states – was “not warranted” for listing under the Endangered Species Act, thanks to one of the largest collaborative conservation efforts in America’s history.

A success story in the sagebrush sea

Sixteen million sage-grouse once roamed the American West. The Plain Indian tribes lived among the birds, hunting them for food and mimicking the males in their ceremonial dances. Meriwether Lewis spotted them “in great abundance” in 1805 during his expedition with William Clark, providing the first written account of the species.

As of 2010, there were approximately 200,000 to 500,000 birds remaining.

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From 15 birds to flagship status: An American conservation movement takes flight

The whooping crane. (Photo credit: grahamvphoto)

Every year for 15 years, a lone ultralight aircraft took to the skies, tailed by a flock of majestic white and red-capped birds. The young, captive-bred whooping cranes followed their surrogate parent on a migration journey from Wisconsin to Florida, where they spent the winter on the warm Gulf Coast.

This was a pioneering project that took place from 2001-2015, run by Operation Migration, an organization dedicated to recovering endangered whooping cranes. But that was just one of many innovative and collaborative conservation efforts that have helped recover whooping cranes since the species’ numbers fell to only 15 birds in the 1940s. Shortly thereafter the North American conservation movement was born. Read More »

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