Growing Returns

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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Dear Congress, protect the integrity of the ESA

The bald eagle was listed as endangered in 1963. It was successfully recovered and delisted by 2007.

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is one of our nation’s bedrock environmental laws, preventing the extinction and helping the recovery of many American icons, including our national symbol – the bald eagle.

The act had the unanimous support of the Senate and a near-unanimous vote in the House when it was signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1973. Today, 90 percent of American voters still support the law and want to see it maintained.

The ESA’s ongoing bipartisan history and continued support from the American public sends a clear message to Congress: Protect the integrity of the ESA. Read More »

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The “dean of endangered species protection” on the past, present and future of America’s wildlife

Michael Bean is a prominent wildlife conservation expert and attorney. He is also the author of The Evolution of National Wildlife Law, a leading text on wildlife conservation law. Many consider Bean “the dean of endangered species protection.

Few people know more about wildlife conservation in America than Michael Bean. A renowned expert in wildlife policy and programs, Michael is hailed as an innovative thinker who has consistently found effective ways to protect our nation’s endangered species, pioneering techniques like Safe Harbor agreements and Habitat Conservation Plans that have helped many animals at risk of extinction.

Michael started working at EDF in 1977 where he directed our wildlife conservation policy initiatives for several decades, during which I came on board and had the honor of working closely with him. In 2009, Michael went on to join the U.S. Department of the Interior as counselor to the Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and later as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary.

Today, we are fortunate to have Michael back as an advisor to EDF, and to have him share his insights on the current state of our country’s wildlife programs and policies. Read More »

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Let’s make ESA listings extinct, not wildlife

Prairie-chicken

The listing process for the lesser prairie-chicken was tumultuous, with a 2016 ruling that stripped the bird of its previous federal protections and sparked questions about ESA implementation, in addition to what moral obligation humans have to protect wildlife. Photo credit: USDA NRCS

Since the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works held a hearing two weeks ago to discuss the “Modernization of the Endangered Species Act (ESA),” a new public debate over the act’s effectiveness has begun, even if the arguments on each side haven’t changed much.

On one hand, reform proponents point to the fact that only 47 of 1,652 species have been removed from the Endangered Species List since 1973. On the other, the act’s defenders note that nearly every species on the list has been saved from extinction.

Yet those may be the wrong metrics. Instead, we may want to ask why those species end up on the list in the first place, and whether we are taking common-sense approaches to wildlife conservation before they do. Read More »

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How Interior pick can make good on Trump’s promise to honor Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt

On Tuesday, President-elect Trump vowed to honor “the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt … one of our great environmentalists.” How will he make good on this promise with his Interior pick? (Credit: Harvard College Library)

Let’s face it. Over the last 30 years, when a democrat is elected president, the environmental community tends to let out a sigh of relief and cheer the appointment of a conservation-minded Secretary of the Interior. Aggies and industry, meanwhile, prepare to hunker down and fight against more endangered species listings and greater restrictions on public lands.

When a republican is elected president, enviros dust off their armor and prepare for battle against the likes of James Watt and Manuel Lujan – two former Interior secretaries known for their anti-environmental, anti-ESA agendas – while farmers and energy industry staff anxiously await the promised freedom of relaxed regulatory burdens.

Appointees on both sides take office prepared to undo the so-called “overreach” of the previous administration. But the new appointees often overreach themselves, resulting in years of lawsuits and delays in achieving their ideological master plan.

Lawyers prosper, but it’s not clear that anyone else does. Meanwhile, the environment continues to suffer. Read More »

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Trees are dying in California, increasing risk of fire. What can we do about it?

On June 22, the Forest Service announced that a record 66 million dead trees in the southern Sierra Nevada. Credit: Dawn Rain, Kings Canyon National Park, California, United States via photopin (license)

On June 22, the Forest Service announced that there is a record 66 million dead trees in the southern Sierra Nevada. Credit: Kings Canyon National Park, California (license)

Scientists from the U.S. Forest Service estimate that as many as 26 million trees have died in the Sierra Nevada over the last eight months, creating a landscape at risk for massive wildfires.

Sierra Nevada forests require fire to maintain ecological integrity and periodic fires create patches of complexity that actually enhance biodiversity and ecosystem integrity. But tree mortality at this level creates an immediate risk to human communities and plant communities.

Why are trees dying?

Changes in weather that stress trees or exacerbate other stressors like bark beetle infestations are driving the current wave of tree mortality. Temperatures are increasing at a faster rate at higher elevations and precipitation patterns are changing. Specifically, more precipitation is falling as rain and less as snow, which leads to faster runoff and less percolation into the soil. And despite a relatively wet winter, California is still locked into its fifth year of drought.

These dynamics have been particularly acute in the southern Sierra Nevada, where precipitation continues to be below normal. Tree mortality is highest in the southern part of the range as seen in this map.

So what can we do about this? Read More »

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