Court takes an interest in habitat connectivity – so should the Forest Service

Connectivity is a new buzzword in the 2012 Planning Rule. It is part of the requirement for ecological integrity, but the Forest Service seems reluctant to fully embrace it in its early revision efforts under the new rule.

On June 25th, the Arizona District Court invalidated a Forest Service grazing permit on the Coconino National Forest because the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to consider effects on habitat connectivity in areas designated as critical habitat for the Chiricahua leopard frog. The judge held (in Center for Biological Diversity v. Branton):

Viable dispersal corridors are needed to ensure that the Buckskin Hills can sustain a functioning metapopulation: without them, CLFs would be unable to spread from one stock tank to another, and would be unable to recolonize a stock tank should its local population die out (record citations omitted). Accordingly, adverse modification of the dispersal corridors would “appreciably diminish the value” of (the critical habitat unit). In short, the 2013 BiOp’s failure to account for the maleffects of livestock grazing in dispersal corridors renders its conclusion that the Proposed Action “should not significantly reduce or modify” PCE 2b (record citation omitted) arbitrary and capricious.

This was a project decision involving a listed species and critical habitat. However, the principles of metapopulation dynamics it recognizes should be equally applicable to NFMA requirements that forest plan components provide ecological conditions necessary for viable populations.   This opinion suggests that, where connectivity is necessary for an at-risk species, and where information about the connectivity value of specific areas is available, their locations should be identified in the planning process and probably given special protection by plan components.

In this case, a requirement in the forest plan to apply specific conservation measures to dispersal corridors might have saved this project. Moreover, fixing this project would not prevent the same thing from happening on other projects. This suggests that the Forest Service should amend the plan (which would be subject to the 2012 Planning Rule requirements for viability), or at least reinitiate consultation on the forest plan on critical habitat for this species (based on new information about effects – but wait – this is the 10th Circuit, where that is not required.) What should the Forest Service do?

FYI – Here’s what Defenders of Wildlife thinks the Forest Service should do about connectivity in its forest plans.  (I suppose I should explain that I did the work on this document on a contract, and that I contribute to this blog on my own time, so that I am not intending to represent the views of Defenders of Wildlife here.)

5 Comments

    • What about the certainty of re-burns, especially in this new and warming climate? Many likely outcomes include a complete loss of seed sources and less and less reforestation in some of those burned areas. Different animals require different corridors, and some species really aren’t too affected, being able to use multiple types of landscapes. The problem with designating lands solely for one species is that other species will suffer because of that human action (or inaction). Remember, every decision is a compromise, with impacts and unintended consequences. We need to use site-specific science to choose the best compromise.

  1. Let me get this straight….these leopard frogs inhabit “stock tanks” and “connectivitize” between them to disperse and breed.
    Stock tanks. Hmmm. Are those natural features or anthropogenic subsidies?

    • (There should be a way of automatically seeing the comments on things I post, but I haven’t found it yet – sorry.)

      From the opinion:

      “Historically, CLFs lived in “cienegas (mid-elevation wetland communities
      often surrounded by arid environments), pools, livestock tanks (i.e., small earthen
      ponds), lakes, reservoirs, streams, and rivers” throughout parts of Mexico, Arizona,
      and New Mexico. Id. at 40790-91. During the latter half of the 20th century, these
      habitats were damaged by a wide array of maladies, including nonnative predators,
      drought, disease, and various human activities (such as livestock grazing, mining,
      and development). AR L4643. The resulting damage led to a decline in CLF
      population, which, in turn, led FWS to list the CLF as a threatened species.
      Within the Buckskin Hills, CLFs live almost exclusively in stock tanks, which are the only areas that contain large enough perennial pools to support CLFs on a year-round basis.”

      This makes an interesting side-issue, but I don’t think it detracts from the precedent for connectivity.

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