Sunday, July 22, 2012

Who didn't start the fire? Some difficulties in (sage grouse) conservation

Apologies for another title with an 80s musical reference. 2012 has been one of the hottest and driest on record and that has meant "wild" fires. While national attention was drawn to Colorado's blazes, I've been more drawn to reports on Oregon's largest wildfire in 150 years. This Oregonian article in particular does a great job of spelling out the politics of the fire. Was it the ranchers, the BLM, or the weather that started it? I'm not sure, but I think the consequences of the fire are intriguing.

That's because the fire has put the sage grouse at risk by burning a large chunk of prime habitat - and that matters because the sage grouse is a keystone species for emerging forms of conservation. The sage grouse is a big and beautiful bird that lives in the western United States and depends on sagebrush for habitat. The decline of the grouse, it seems, has a lot to do with habitat fragmentation cause by new energy development in the West: wind turbines, transmission lines, oil drilling, and mines. The bird does neat things like group mating calls. The grouse and its ways have been at the center of scientific-legal scandal. In 2004 the Bush administration decided it didn't need any protection, but a more recent court ruling, in 2010, noted that the decision-making proccess in that case was faulty. FWS has replied that listing the species is still "warranted" but also thinks that there are bigger fish to fry, er save, at least until 2015 when it will reconsider listing.

So the sage grouse is instead now implicated in an assortment of "new" conservation efforts that aim to pre-empt regulatory burdens in the first place. In part, these efforts stem from the fact that the bird is still a candidate species and not actually listed. In 2010, the same year Interior/FWS called for protecting, but not listing, the bird, NRCS jumped in and created the Sage Grouse Initiative, seeking to do "wildlife conservation through sustainable agriculture." SGI's voluntary approach - via conservation easements and Conservation Innovation Grants - is key. According to SGI itself, it represents an "excellent example of how NRCS is orchestrating a paradigm shift in recovery for at-risk species. Instead of regulatory burdens, the Initiative takes a voluntary approach that benefits agriculture and sage grouse – along with a suite of other wildlife species too, from pronghorn to mule deer." SGI works with ranchers to help them do things like: change grazing patterns, move fences, and remove invasives (junipers) that benefit sage grouse habitat. The hope is that the bird ultimately won't have to be listed and that rancher income can be buffered at the same time.

I'll argue that the other reason why the grouse is a model for new conservation is because of the scale of its habitat and the species's extensive range. The Willamette Partnership has thought long and hard about scaling-up habitat conservation. Along these lines, it's developed a metric for sage grouse/sagebrush, with the idea, I think, that it could be portable to any context where one might want to save sage grouse habitat. It would be much harder for a more localized endangered species like the red-bearded Jackson County lark (fictional bird) or even the fairy shrimp (real!) to get this kind of energy behind it.

Here's what I'm bringing the bird back to: I wonder what the fire can tell us about "new" conservation. For right now, I'll answer with a question: how do conservationists, agencies, ranchers, etc. account for the dynamics of ecosystems within a regulatory, or better yet, a "pre" regulatory ESA? The question certainly goes beyond assessing future climate change, though the uneven effects of climate change, like drought and fire, are undoubtedly a huge source of project risk. I think there are two specific, but interrelated kinds of questions to be asking here: how do you effectively make sage grouse habitat into a credit or unit of sale/funding and what are the rules governing the life of this mitigation credit or best management practice or whatever. I'll start with the latter question. If a rancher signs up to protect the sage grouse, but then a fire comes along and destroys the protected habitat, what do you do as a regulator? What's the rule? Hold the rancher responsible? And what if the rancher had already sold credits to a developer making an impact elsewhere? Is the developer responsible (they would be in TMDL mitigation, but not 404)? In the end, part of the answer is: well whose fault was it anyway? But as the Long Draw fire shows, that's not an easy question to answer.

There's more than a question of liability here too. How do you create a non-linear or a non-equilibrium currency, one that accredits changes in ecosystem states over time? Or do you? As a regulator you probably want verifiable results of sage grouse protection, preferably with a 5-10 year timespan because you are operating within a legal climate that calls for the bird's protection. So you might prefer a set of performance standards that asks for no fire on the conservation site. That sort of conservation might not look like the kind The Society for Sage (fictional) might ask for. That group might say, well fire is a regular component of the sage ecosystem. A rancher might then reply, how can I be certain that fire is going to give me all the sagebrush I need to sell credits?

That's a completely fictional conversation, but a Willamette Partnership report on biodiversity markets raises several of the questions I've asked here. What's clear is that there's going to have to be some sort of balance between what works for sage grouse/sagebrush and what works for regulators and what works for conservationists and what works for ranchers and the politics of that tradeoff will be interesting to watch as climate change burns on all around us.

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