Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Further Evaluation of State Endangered Bird Lists in Pennsylvania and New Jersey

An at-risk but unlisted species, the Cerulean Warbler
Photo by Wikimedia user Mdf, used under a Creative Commons License

Last week, Jeffrey Wells of the Boreal Songbird Initiative published an interesting evaluation of state endangered species lists in PLoS ONE. (I wrote about the article here.) Looking primarily at birds, Wells and his co-authors found that states were effective at protecting species that were globally at-risk and for which they bear high responsibility. However, they also protect many species whose overall populations are secure but happen to be rare in a given state. In other words, resources might be wasted on stable populations when they could be better used on more vulnerable ones.

The Philadelphia Inquirer this week has a closer look how state wildlife agencies in this area handle their endangered and threatened species lists. Like the situation nationally, the local lists have uneven coverage: Pennsylvania lists Great Egret and Blackpoll Warbler, but not Cerulean Warbler; New Jersey lists Savannah Sparrow but not the more vulnerable Saltmarsh Sparrow. State officials argue that their mission is local rather than global biodiversity. Pennsylvania officials had a lot more to say than New Jersey officials, so I will quote them below.
"We have this mandate to maintain the health of Pennsylvania's environment, not the world," says Dan Brauning, wildlife diversity chief with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, which has oversight for bird conservation.

"We're down to one site for black terns," he says. "What are we going to do, ignore it because it's fairly common in North Dakota? No." ...

Even if losing a niche species here wouldn't really destabilize a nationally abundant population, "Pennsylvania is a much better place with them than without them," says Brian J. Byrnes, Important Bird Area Coordinator for Audubon Pennsylvania.
They also argued that the state has programs that go beyond the species on their endangered species list.
In order to qualify for a new source of federal funds, states have had to devise "wildlife action plans" for conservation. "The mantra," Brauning says, is "to keep the species from becoming endangered." These plans, too, have lists; in both Pensylvania and New Jersey, the cerulean warbler is included.

Brauning says Pennsylvania dedicates about $300,000 annually toward nongame bird conservation. But federal funding for the state's wildlife action plan has averaged $1 million. That has allowed the state to actually spend more on the cerulean than it has on the sedge wren, which is listed in the state but is common nationally.

Innovative cerulean research is under way in the Allegheny National Forest, Brauning says, adding that in some cases, listing a bird might actually hamper research efforts. As each individual bird becomes more valuable, it's harder to rationalize, say, capturing a few to extract blood and feather samples to get health data. The risk of their dying is too great.
The State Wildlife Action Plans, by the way, is a good program and an important source of funding for local conservation efforts. (Each state has one, and all are posted at the link.) However, I am not sure that this federal funding program is really a replacement for state endangered species lists. Endangered species lists do play a role in funding priorities, but they are just as much about creating a legal framework for protecting species and their habitats from direct harm. It is great that the federal government is funding innovative Cerulan Warbler research through Pennsylvania's wildlife action plan – and I mean that seriously – but what will the state do when someone wants to clearcut a forest on private land that provides important Cerulean Warbler habitat? What will New Jersey do when more coastal developments impinge on Saltmarsh Sparrow habitat? Similar questions could be raised about numerous other species. To some extent these issues can be addressed through strategic land purchases, but states can only buy so much land, even with help from the federal government and private donors.

As I wrote in my previous post on this subject, protecting globally at-risk species, such as the 192 Critically Endangered birds, is primarily the job of the federal government rather than state governments. The federal government is better positioned to implement conservation measures across state borders and cooperate with neighboring countries. If funding is a constraint to listing and protecting more at-risk species, then the relevant budgets ought to be raised; as it now stands, wildlife conservation is a minuscule portion of the overall federal budget. Meanwhile states need to pick up some of the slack left by the federal government and re-evaluate whether their own species lists represent the best use of state resources.