It appears the federal agency entrusted with protecting fish and wildlife in the U.S. has a new mission - to promote and further wind and solar energy projects on public lands, despite the cost to fish and wildlife programs.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is one of several agencies under the umbrella of the Department of the Interior (DOI). In recent years DOI has evolved into a vehicle to further the Obama administration's push for "clean" energy, using the more than 500 million acres the Department manages to further this goal.
Many Outdoor Wire readers remember the FWS's attempts to abandon operation of the federal fish hatchery system by closing facilities used to propagate recreational species. In other words, the agency wants to concentrate its efforts on "higher priorities," tossing aside its original mandate to mitigate the loss of fisheries to federal dam projects.
For the past four years the agency has been accused of deliberately under-budgeting funds for the operation of the country's 68 facilities, located in 34 states, targeting them for closure, even though strategic partners like the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Corps of Engineers have committed money for their continued operations. These facilities, many a century old, house the agency's fisheries archives, and produce and distribute 140 million fish and eggs valued at more than $5 billion annually to the communities where they are located.
Now, waterfowl management and bird-related projects in at least part of the western U.S. are being abandoned in a similar manner, as the agency focuses its attention and funding on the rush to use public lands for production of wind and solar energy.
In order for these energy projects to materialize before the President leaves office in 2016, the FWS must "fast track" the backlog of permits needed for these energy producers to operate on federal lands. The urgency is so great in the Region 8 office, which oversees California, Nevada and Oregon's Klamath Valley, FWS managers have ordered a halt to most other bird conservation projects (BCPs).
The FWS recently adopted rules allowing wind producers to receive a 30-year permit to kill eagles in these operations, leading several environmental organizations to protest, including the American Bird Conservancy, which filed a lawsuit alleging the FWS violated federal laws when it promulgated the regulation that sanctions the killing of bald and golden eagles.
Now waterfowl along the Pacific Flyway has become a casualty of these new "priorities," spelled out in an internal FWS memo written by Eric Davis, assistant regional director for the agency's Region 8 office. The memo stated "Traditional migratory bird responsibilities - including work on the Pacific Flyway Council, assistance to habitat joint ventures and duck stamp and junior duck stamp programs - will cease for the foreseeable future."
Work on joint venture (JV) projects - with partners like Ducks Unlimited, state wildlife agencies and Delta - will also cease, Davis wrote. These include any work on the Burrowing Owl (unless tied to renewable energy projects) and the Tri Colored Blackbird, which is of special interest because the population has declined from several million to slightly less than 300,000 today, more than an 80 percent decrease.
"Effective now, we will stop working on anything that is not related to renewable energy or the permit backlog," Davis wrote. "The MBP (migratory bird program) priorities have shifted, at least in (Region 8).
"In R8, our top priority is renewable energy. We must evaluate the effects of large-scale wind and solar facilities on bird populations, and we must develop guidelines to minimize the unavoidable adverse effects," wrote Davis. "Nothing else we do will have a bigger impact on migratory bird populations. The MBP (migratory bird program), at least in R8, will be focused on renewable energy for the foreseeable future.
"Renewable energy is an important part of the nation's energy strategy. Our job in R8, probably more so than any other Region, is to figure out how to minimize the impact on bird populations. There will be impacts. All forms of energy have costs ... We must always remember that the alternative is continued reliance on fossil fuels," he wrote.
"We must focus on population level effects," Davis wrote. "The only cases where we are concerned about individual effects are eagles and ESA-listed species.
Davis said the FWS has a significant workload backlog in reviewing (BBCS) Bird and Bat Conservation Strategies for renewable energy projects. "Those projects will be a top priority. We will stop doing other work to address this priority."
In response to Davis' missive, Dr. Frank Rohwer, president of Delta Waterfowl Foundation (DWF), wrote: "This decision by the USFWS regional leadership is absolutely unacceptable. The Service cannot simply put on hold its long-standing and legal mandate to manage waterfowl."
Interestingly, it's exactly the same thing FWS did when it moved toward ending its hatchery mitigation. And it would have succeeded, had political pressure from anglers and their representatives not halted the move.
"With the acute challenges facing ducks and geese in California, this news couldn't come at a worse time," said Rohwer. "The California drought will likely have serious implications for local breeding duck populations, reducing breeding recruitment this breeding season as well as potentially reducing wintering carrying capacity for ducks, geese, and other wetland dependent migratory birds."
Rohwer said that in conversations with other stakeholders, DWF learned the decision to put waterfowl projects on hold in Region 8 was made "with limited consultation and/or deliberation with the Service's partners in the management of our migratory bird resources."
Sound familiar? Even federal hatchery managers were unaware of the FWS plans to shutter hatcheries until the media brought it to light.
"We understand and appreciate the significant pressure you and the agency as a whole are experiencing related to the unprecedented development of industrial wind and solar in Region 8, to meet the renewable energy standard," wrote Rohwer, "Yet the need for adequate permitting resources and necessary research to determine effects should have been anticipated by the Administration, the Department of the Interior and the Service well prior to 'green lighting' development of this magnitude."
Like the fight to keep the federal hatcheries open, the FWS and DOI need to hear from sportsmen and legislators. Tell them to put waterfowl and wildlife protection higher on its priority list, instead of making them another casualty of the administration's headlong rush to sound the global warming alarm while hastily converting our public lands into solar and wind farms.
- Etta Pettijohn