Jul 09, 2013

Lower Klamath NWR Almost Bone Dry

Drought at Lower Klamath NWRThe Oregonian recently provided an update on the severe drought conditions at Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge — the nation’s first waterfowl refuge, which is located in southern Oregon and northern California.

According to The Oregonian, the 54,000-acre refuge hasn’t received water since March and the wetlands are largely dried up, which makes it the earliest dry date in 70 years.

Ron Cole, who has managed the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s extensive Klamath refuge system for 10 years, wishes the birds would get more air time.

“You have absolutely carved out the heart of the Pacific Flyway when you dry up the Klamath refuge,” says Cole, who stresses that he’s speaking as an individual, not for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

…the state declared a “drought emergency” for Klamath County in April. The refuge stands behind endangered fish and agriculture for water from Upper Klamath Lake. As a result, its water supply varies widely. In 2010, it got 3,700 acre-feet; in 2012, 24,000. Cole figures it needs 95,000 a year to run at full capacity.

The water wars in the Klamath region have a long and complicated history of intense competition among farmers, tribes, waterfowl, and endangered fish, and opportunities to improve the situation have been largely wasted.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, approximately 80 percent of the Pacific Flyway’s migrating waterfowl pass through the Klamath Basin on both spring and fall migrations, with 50 percent using the refuge. Peak waterfowl populations can reach 1.8 million birds, which represent 15 to 45 percent of the total birds wintering in California. The refuge produces between 30,000 and 60,000 waterfowl annually.

The refuge is also a fall staging area for 20 to 30 percent of the central valley population of sandhill cranes. From 20,000 to 100,000 shorebirds use refuge wetlands during the spring migration. Wintering wildlife populations include 500 bald eagle and 30,000 tundra swan. Spring and summer nesting wildlife include many colonial water birds, such as white-faced ibis, heron, egret, cormorant, grebe, white pelican, and gulls.

As for this year’s severe drought, there might be some hope in the fall if the wildlife can catch a break.

Cole’s hoping for water this fall to support migrating birds — 45,000-acre feet beginning in September would do it. As summer wears on, he’s worried disease and die-offs could spread as too many birds crowd into too few wetlands.

With the current water split, Cole says, “this refuge is just going to be collateral damage.”

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Jul 08, 2013

Population Collapse of the Endangered Hawai’i Creeper

Hawai'i CreeperPhys.org reports that the female population of the endangered Hawai’i creeper is only 22 to 28 percent of the remaining adult population in the southern portion of the Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge. The numbers come from research performed by University of Hawai’i at Mānoa scientists Leonard Freed and Rebecca Cann and raise concerns that the number of females is becoming too low to maintain the species over the long term.

From 2001 to 2007, Hawai’i creeper population declined by 63 percent throughout a 3,400-hectare open forest area at Hakalau Refuge on the windward slope of Mauna Kea, according to trend analyses by Freed and Cann. The scientists observed the male-biased sex ratio along the elevation gradient in a formerly high density section of the forest, including a closed forest area study site that is considered more pristine, and found that it was associated with the population decline in the refuge’s open forest areas. Hakalau formerly had the best population of creepers on the island.

The main threat to the creeper is the non-native Japanese white-eye, which is out-competing the creeper for food.

By 2006 to 2007, Freed and Cann found that the white-eye was replacing the creeper throughout both the disturbed and the pristine areas of the refuge…

“We know the creeper is in serious trouble, and we urgently need to increase adult female survival,” Freed said. “At a minimum, this will include controlling Japanese white-eyes. Also, captive breeding may be necessary to produce females that can be released into the wild to restore the adult sex ratio.”

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May 16, 2013

House Committee Approves Two Pro-Refuge System Bills

The Examiner reports that the House Committee on Natural Resources recently passed H.R. 1300, which would reauthorize volunteer programs and community partnerships for national wildlife refuges through 2017, and H.R. 1384 – the Wildlife Refuge System Conservation Semipostal Stamp Act of 2013 – which would raise money to address the maintenance backlog and operational shortfall of the Refuge System.

Both bills now go to the full House for a vote.

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May 13, 2013

SpaceX Wants to Claim Part of Merritt Island NWR

The Orlando Sentinel recently reported on the brewing battle between SpaceX — a California company owned by billionaire Elon Musk — and those looking to protect refuge habitat.

SpaceX wants 150 acres in an area known as Shiloh, which is surrounded by the healthiest part of Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. SpaceX continues to perform commercial launches on traditional sites, such as Kennedy Space Center, but the company believes that by getting land outside the federal complexes, they can avoid “bureaucratic” inconveniences.

The Volusia County Council recently voted 6-1 to support the spaceport.

The lone “no” vote was Patricia Northey, who said the project would harm the refuge and the eco-tourism that has bloomed around it. “You wouldn’t put a spaceport in the middle of the Grand Canyon,” she said. “This is our Grand Canyon.”

While it’s true that NASA launches have operated in relative harmony with Merritt Island NWR in the past, the land that SpaceX wants will likely impede the use of controlled burns, which help wildlife and habitat at the refuge, and might also close down areas to tourism.

Environmentalists also fear the public-closure zone for launches would be enormous, covering even the Intracoastal Waterway, the primary close-to-shore channel for commercial and recreational boats.

The Florida Natural Areas Inventory describes the 40 miles of coastline bordering the refuge and the national seashore as the longest non-urbanized stretch of Atlantic beach in Florida. “This is the last bastion of pristine coastline,” said Dan Daniels, a United Waterfowlers of Florida board member. “This is stuff that there isn’t any more of.”

Ted Forsgren, advocacy adviser for the Coastal Conservation Association, said “the refuge is a big money maker for the county now. You’re going to lose a lot of jobs if that lagoon is messed up.”

If SpaceX doesn’t get the Merritt Island NWR land they want, their next choice is a piece of property near Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. According to ABC 13:

The Florida refuge encompasses 140,000 acres. The Texas refuge is a mostly narrow string of more than 100 separate tracts that have been pieced together to create a wildlife corridor along the final 275 miles of the Rio Grande. There are about 5,700 refuge acres within three miles of the launch site.

“Probably the biggest thing that all refugees are fighting is habitat loss and fragmentation,” said Robert Jess, a project leader for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who oversees the refuge. “Boca Chica is an anchor point of a wildlife corridor that extends into the Texas ranchlands to the north and then south into Mexico. It kind of ensures our connectivity and genetic exchange for ocelot populations.”

A draft environmental impact statement by the FAA:

acknowledged the project likely will “adversely affect” some endangered species, including the piping plover, northern aplomado falcon, jaguarundi, ocelot, and sea turtles

Ironically, SpaceX is owned by Elon Musk, who was just in the headlines for quitting Mark Zuckerberg’s political action committee after it ran ads supporting oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Musk is known as being pro-environment and opposed the ads. But does he oppose damaging national wildlife refuges just so he can avoid “bureaucratic red tape” for his rocket ventures.

According to the Orlando Sentinel:

SpaceX founder and billionaire Elon Musk told the Texas House Appropriations Committee last Friday that the Lone Star state is now the front-runner as he and his company seek a site for operating a more-bureaucratic-free facility for launching commercial rockets into orbit.

“Right now, Texas is in the lead,” Musk told the Texas lawmakers, according to the San Antonio Express News.

“It concerns us greatly,” said Jerry Sansom, chairman of the Titusville-Cocoa Airport Authority, which operates Space Coast Regional. “When you look at the Texas legislature, they’re taking him very serious that they’re going to do everything they can to sweeten the pot.”

So does sweetening the pot include ignoring the environmental impact of a spaceport in or near prime wildlife habitat? It remains to be seen what will play out in Texas, but in Florida, Clay Henderson, an Audubon activist and founder of the Friends of Canaveral wants the U.S. Interior Department “to take a formal role in the Shiloh assessment and not leave that task to the FAA only.”

“We have no confidence FAA will address any environmental concerns,” Henderson said. “They never met a bird they didn’t want to kill.”

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May 02, 2013

Impact of Sequester Cuts Felt at Lee Metcalf NWR

Lee Metcalf NWRThe Montana Standard recently published an article that highlights the many problems that the sequester is having — and will have — for the National Wildlife Refuge System, which is a land system already cut to the bone and heavily reliant on volunteers to get much of the work done. The article focused on how the sequester cuts are impacting Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge in Montana.

On the same week that Congress passed legislation to end furloughs of air traffic controllers after being deluged by complaints, [Refuge Manager Tom] Reed was creatively trying to come up with plans to retain a Youth Conservation Corps crew and find a way to retain scheduled public events without offering his employees any additional pay for hosting them…

The Bitterroot Valley refuge’s budget took a 6.2 percent cut as a result. But the cuts don’t stop there. “Agencies are holding monies back right now because of the unclarity of the situation,” he said. “Right now, our budget has been cut by 10 percent.”

Region wide, Reed said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service currently has 37 vacant positions that can’t be filled because of a hiring freeze. On top of that, seasonal positions aren’t being filled.

That means Reed can’t hire a YCC [Youth Conservation Corps] crew coordinator at this point.

“I’m trying to get creative and maybe find a student intern to fill that position,” he said. “I’m looking at a number of options right now.”

Many refuges rely on the Youth Conservation Corps to perform vital seasonal work at refuges around the country, but now the sequester is impacting those jobs as well.

Wendy Wigert of the Montana Youth Conservation Corps said that organization is dealing with a good deal of uncertainty about what sequestration will mean over the long run…

“We’re probably worried more about next year,” she said. “The 10-year impacts could be devastating for us.”

“The biggest issue that people are bringing up right now is they just don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said.

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Apr 28, 2013

Bill Supports Continuation of Wildlife Refuge Volunteer Program

The Courier Post reports that Rep. Jon Runyan, R-N.J. and other congressional representatives have been promoting a bill that would allow the volunteer program in the National Wildlife Refuge System to continue.

Authorization for volunteer programs at national wildlife refuges expires at the end of fiscal 2014. Runyan’s bill, which he described as a “common-sense bipartisan piece of legislation,” would extend the programs through fiscal 2018.

Volunteerism in the nation’s wildlife refuge system has soared from 4,251 people in 1982 to more than 56,000 people working 2.15 million hours in 2012.

That’s roughly equivalent to more than 1,000 full-time employees — or $47 million in wages.

It’s hard to imagine even Tea Party Republicans having a problem with a bill that gives the federal government free labor to the tune of 1,000 full-time federal employees.

Friends groups and volunteers in the Refuge System help run nature programs, maintain land and water trails, run gift shops, manage hunting and fishing programs, work in Visitor Centers, operate wildlife web cams, lead bus tours, and provide clean-up and maintenance services — all for free, because they value the National Wildlife Refuge System.

It’s time for Congress to recognize this massive citizen commitment to the Refuge System and 1) reauthorize the volunteer program and 2) stop cutting the Refuge System budget, which is clearly a land system that is already cut to the bone, or it wouldn’t be relying on volunteers to do almost 20% of the labor on refuge lands.

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Apr 28, 2013

Sequester Brings Cuts to Guam NWR

The Pacific News Center reports that due to sequester cuts, the Guam National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center will now be closed Monday through Friday, beginning May 1.

Access to the Refuge’s self-guided Nature Trails, beach, picnic and fishing spots will remain open to the public during regular operation hours from 7:30 – 4:00 p.m. daily.

The refuge is composed of 1,203 acres (371 acres of coral reefs and 832 acres of terrestrial habitat) owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and 22,456 acres (mostly forest) of refuge overlay owned by the Department of Defense in Air Force and Navy installations. The Ritidian Unit, which is owned by the Fish and Wildlife Service, was created from a small decommissioned, specialized naval installation.

The refuge receives over 90,000 visits a year from island residents and tourists.

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