Extinction on the national forests

Larry Harrell asked recently (with a *smirk* no doubt) if any species have gone extinct on national forests.  Here’s a report (published in 2004) from the Center for Biological Diversity that documents 108 extinctions that occurred between the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973 and 1995.  Two are noted on national forests.  One was a mussel on the Carson National Forest.  Here’s the other:

The San Gabriel Mountains Blue butterfly (Plebejus saepiolus aureolus) was known only from a single wet meadow within the yellow pine forest near the Big Pines Ranger Station, San Gabriel Mountains, Angeles National Forest, California [14]. Its host plant was Trifolium wormskioldii. At a minimum it was seen in 1970, 1980, and 1985. It has not been seen since 1985 [14]. It was not found in a 1995 survey which was a very wet year that would have encouraged reproduction if the taxon still existed [97]. The meadow was still wet, but had been made smaller due to the diversion of some of the water from the natural spring feeding it. The diversion of the spring by the U.S. Forest Service has been suggested as the cause of the species extinction [189].

And it’s been another 20 years since then.  Another species that seems obvious, but its extinction probably pre-dates this study is the ivory-billed woodpecker, which ranged throughout the southeastern forests, and was killed off by logging. The Ocala National Forest in Florida was established in 1908, but ivory bills had apparently disappeared from there by 1940.  The last confirmed sighting was in 1944 in Louisiana.  One of the unconfirmed sightings after that was on the DeSoto National Forest in Mississippi.

It would be good to see more like this:

One rare desert plant has been removed from the endangered species list, and another has been “down-listed,” thanks to successful recovery efforts in Death Valley National Park.

National forest planning has been a contributing factor to the delisting of grizzly bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem, and will be part of the consideration if Canada lynx are proposed for delisting.

24 thoughts on “Extinction on the national forests”

  1. Based on this FWS report, the ivory billed woodpecker had a variety of other issues not related to the National Forests of the southern US. https://www.fws.gov/verobeach/MSRPPDFs/IvoryBilledWoodpecker.pdf

    Although they were once common in some geographic areas, ivory-billed
    woodpeckers began their decline toward extinction by the late 1800s (Jackson
    1996, Tanner 1942). Ivory-billed woodpeckers were hunted for food and
    overhunting was responsible for the initial declines of this endangered bird. By the
    late 1880s, ornithologists raised concerns about the status and trends of the ivorybilled
    woodpecker (Howell 1932). The other major threat to this species was the
    destruction of mature (old growth) forests throughout the southeastern U.S. which
    continued until the 1920s.

    ** the Kisatchie NF was established in 1938 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._National_Forests****

    Chapman (1907) wrote that the range of the ivory-billed woodpecker had
    contracted to encompass the states bordering the Gulf of Mexico and the lower
    Mississippi River valley; even within this range, he wrote that it was only locally
    distributed. By 1913, the ivory-billed woodpecker had been extirpated from
    Indiana, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas (Hornaday 1913).
    The same report concluded that the ivory-billed woodpecker was threatened with
    extinction in Florida and Louisiana. By 1926, many thought the ivory-billed
    woodpecker was already extinct.

    Again, ** the Kisatchie NF was established in 1938 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._National_Forests****

    Tanner’s studies between 1937 and 1939 demonstrated that the ivory-billed
    woodpecker still existed, but in only a fraction of its original range. By the time
    of Tanner’s study, the ivory-billed woodpecker only survived in the Madison
    Parish region of Louisiana, the Santee Swamp of South Carolina, and the
    Suwanee River and Big Cypress regions of Florida. The last verified observation
    of an ivory-billed woodpecker in the United States was in 1969. “

  2. I also found this from the LA Times.. .. yay for getting both sides of the story!

    “In the case of the San Gabriel Mountains blue butterfly, the center found that U.S. Forest Service staff drained the one meadow where it was surviving in 1985. When Fish and Wildlife Service officials ultimately decided it should be a candidate for protection in 1989, it was long gone.

    Suckling said Fish and Wildlife Service officials waited 16 years to even consider the butterfly for listing.

    Matt Mathes, California spokesman for the Forest Service, said biologists in the Angeles National Forest did not recall anything about a meadow being drained in the area.

    “But … we are very, very concerned,” Mathes said. “It is ethically and morally and legally wrong to let creatures go extinct…. It doesn’t even sound right to me that anybody in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the U.S. Forest Service would allow a species to go extinct.”

    I personally don’t think it’s morally and ethically wrong, but it (following the passage of ESA) can be legally wrong.

    • Is it never morally or ethically wrong to let species go extinct in any circumstances, in your personal opinion? Even purposeful eradication? I’m trying to get a sense of where the common ground is if the only barrier to extirpation or extinction is legal. If those wishing to protect the diversity of species that exists or formerly existed across an area cannot appeal to shared values because those values are not in fact shared, legal action (litigation) may be the only tool available, a tool that you generally deem inappropriate for public lands disputes. So where might the common ground be found?

      • John, I’m probably an outlier, as in so many things, but let me explain my personal point of view.

        1) Species can be in the eye of the beholder. What a species, a subspecies, a population or a subpopulation is not necessarily clear and agreed upon. I think we were better off with charismatic megafauna, because at least we know a bison is a bison. Unless it’s partially a domestic cow. Again, species are an idea that humans have and that idea is contested among human, and the idea is only as useful as a social agreement. But in plants, insects, fish and so on, reasonable people can disagree as to species, subspecies, populations and so on. To complicate matters further, evolution is not static. So species are hybridizing, splitting up and so on as time goes on. Should we keep owl “x” from mating with owl “y” to keep a species pure? The ideas of “pure” and “static” are alien to evolutionary geneticists such as myself.

        2) Do we need to do stuff, or not do stuff, and how much? If a species or local population is dying off because it’s habitat, say, is warming and it is a relic on mountaintops, we could move it further north or… stop the planet from warming. Is inaction morally or ethically wrong, or just taking actions that are bad for species.

        3) In many cases, we can stop or start doing things but they may not “work”. Are the ethics of our intention (protect spotted owl, say) or of the reality (they’re still not doing very well)?

        4) If we really wanted to “protect the diversity of species that formerly existed”, for example, should we move people out of central California to get more grizzly habitat in the State? Should we remove cattle and fences from the High Plains and get back to free-roaming bison? Should we stop farming in Indiana and let it go back to forest? I don’t see many ESA cases being brought on those protections. On the other hand, there are quite a few that may keep local westerners from their traditional uses. This definitely raises a social justice question, in my mind.

        So there are social and economic trade-offs with the general idea you have posited. Not to go into the many schools of ethics, but many would consider the impacts to both people and creatures when trying to determine an ethical course of action.

        But again, there aren’t many folks who have researched and worked at the ground level of evolutionary genetics, and also taught Environmental Ethics (at Virginia Tech) , so my views are probably fairly unique.

        • Hi Sharon,

          Thanks for responding. A few more thoughts came to mind on some of the concerns you raised:

          1) “Too difficult/we don’t agree on how to define a species” Congress left it up to USFWS and NFMS to determine this, right? I grew up looking at National Geographic animal cards and encyclopedias on the latest taxonomy – Order, Class, Family, etc. I remember as a kid thinking I had figured it all out when I heard from a teacher that two different species couldn’t produce offspring that could also reproduce. Like a horse and a donkey can create a mule, but a mule can’t bear offspring. Aha, a hard and fast rule for my young mind to help in my own categorization of critters! But of course, I learned there are numerous examples of species who can intermingle and produce reproducing offspring. So I’m aware there are few hard and fast rules in this area.

          But the existence of some level of ambiguity feels like a way to dodge an actual policy response to the population decline of an animal or plant, locally or across its entire range. We know a great deal about the differences and similarities between living things and their respective life cycles and behaviors, so to hone in on the fact that we don’t know everything and probably never will from genetic and other standpoints feels like an excuse not to act.

          Similarly, some say we can’t possibly know the precise degree to which human emissions contribute to climate change, so we shouldn’t address those emissions through policy decisions. Will there ever be a degree of scientific certainty that warrants policy action? “Science” is constantly changing as we collectively learn more through research, observation, modeling, etc. If we never act on what we know at a given point because there is still more we don’t know, well, we will never act.

          (Side note, in the past I’ve seen the argument on this blog that the wolves reintroduced to Yellowstone, etc., were not really the right kind of wolves because they were from Canada and not the same “subspecies” and therefore it was an inappropriate reintroduction. So the notion of subspecies, etc., is used in various ways to make various arguments for and against protection.)

          “Species are not static” – I don’t think there is much support that species are evolving faster than the rate of climate change and other habitat limitations that have occurred since Europeans arrived to North America. (If there are examples of rapid evolution, I’m interested in them.) We don’t expect critters and plants to all be able to adapt to climate change, although some habitat generalists will likely thrive (and already do) in very human-manipulated environments (coyotes, raccoons, opossums, etc.). Within timeframes that are relevant to us, I think it’s important to act. Humans are capable of using hindsight and gathered information to assess what has occurred and then use forethought before undertaking further actions.

          As for hybridization, of course that is tough to prevent among wild creatures, and the ease with which it occurs can inform how we classify species (see above). But again, I don’t think it can be an excuse to avoid action, i.e., “eh, the owls will hybridize themselves out of existence anyway, so why bother….” I think instead it’s a reminder that humans likely facilitate some or most of those hybridization through intentional or unintentional introductions, exposures, and habitat modification or destruction. But if we don’t collectively find any inherent value in the existence of a bison that is (at least mostly) free of cattle DNA, I guess we should collectively announce that.

          2) I do think taking action that is bad for species (however defined) carries some moral/ethical weight when it is done knowingly. Of course that is balanced by human needs – there are qualifications to right and wrong based on all considerations, as with all things in life. But humans are the most adaptable of all creatures, with ingenuity to learn from the past, think things through to find optimal solutions, and adjust when necessary. We collectively could make different choices to minimize/mitigate further habitat degradation, climate change impacts, etc.

          3) We can learn from our mistakes and if something doesn’t work, re-examine the issue to find other possible solutions, as I noted above. I think the ethical/moral weight comes when we don’t do anything different when what we are doing is causing harm or not working, at least not on its own. Sometimes there are multiple factors at play and addressing just one or a few isn’t the sole answer.

          4) I suppose I walked into a trap with the “formerly existed” reference. But no, I’m thinking more straight-forward than re-locating the human population of Central Valley. What I had in mind was that there exists suitable habitat within grizzly bears’ and wolves’ historic range that is not currently occupied by those creatures. Cascades, the Sierras, parts of the Rockies, etc. Wolves are slowly dispersing back into some of those areas. Grizzlies probably won’t unless we reintroduce them.

          “Traditional users” don’t want to see these animals return to their historic range, you imply. Traditions can be based on arbitrary timeframes. What has been a tradition for 200 years was not a tradition in most locations in North America before that. Why elevate ranchers’ traditional uses over indigenous tribes’? Yes, social justice questions. Traditions are also not always “good.” We learn the consequences of “traditions” are not always positive. If we relied on “tradition” as the basis for what we collectively deem appropriate, we would still have even more things going on that are harmful to people, to water, to the land, to the air. Humans are adaptable and can change behaviors based on information and economic incentives and hopefully, shared values that also evolve over time.

          • Well, I am very sure that campsites would be easier to get if grizzlies were re-introduced back into Yosemite. Would BBQ’s be banned in the Tahoe Basin, because grizzlies can’t stop following their noses? How much would it cost to make all dumpsters into grizzly-proof trash receptacles? Would we need an armed person on every school bus, to protect children from bears and wolves, as children are picked up in front of their homes? Re-wilding seems a LOT more complicated (and impossible) if you include impacts on humans.

  3. The Mt Graham Red Squirrel (Coronado NF) is down to less than 100 animals after the Frye Fire last year. FS is trying everything to help them rebound but it’s unlikely to work.

  4. Actually, my question was about how many species have gone extinct in the last 30 years on National Forests. An additional question might be; How many of those species went extinct, in those 30 years, due to Forest Service projects?

  5. The plot thickens.. apparently the San Gabriel Blue may not be/have been a species but rather a subspecies .. this site says it was:

    “The San Gabriel Blue, an undescribed subspecies, is extinct. It lived in wet meadows of the Big Pine Recreation Area in the San Gabriel mountains of southern California until the U. S. Forest Service drained the meadows. Excluding the San Gabriel Blue, the species has The Nature Conservancy Global Rank of G5 – Demonstrably secure globally, though it may be quite rare in parts of its range, especially at the periphery.”
    Here’s a definition of “undescribed species” Undescribed species: A species which has never received a species name in a formal scientific publication for which a very detailed description (and comparison with all known closely-related species) is required. http://entomology.ifas.ufl.edu/molecrickets/mcri001d.htm

    I think Larry’s original question was about species, not subspecies.

    • Sharon: “I think Larry’s original question was about species, not subspecies.”

      Well, more important than that, his questions was very specific,

      “How many species have we lost, in the last 30 years, within our National Forests?”

      And the reason for this question was in direct response to username, “2ndLaw” who gave a bizarre out of touch reference about change over 200,000 years, which had zero to do with NOW. But anyway, back to this point of something going extinct 100 years ago. Yes, what humans did in gross ignorance over 100 years ago was bad, but this is entirely different from our understanding today of various ecosystems and the way modern land management should proceed now. So again we have the question still unanswered and vague references to the deep century ago past. So instead of answering the question about the past 30 years, we get examples from a century ago or some vague reference to a subspecies of the same kind of butterfly found in many places. This doesn’t mean no one should care about protecting things, but it does expose further nonsense like this example below,

      “and species that have gone extinct since 1985, whether we knew about them or not. ”

      And yet that doesn’t provide a satisfying answer to the question either. It’s a mere faith-statement. This is like an Astrobiologist (astrobiology – the science discipline of “could”, maybe” & “might”) saying,

      “Yes – The Red Planet is teeming with tiny microbes, we just haven’t found them yet.” (space.com)

      And now when trying to further clarify, Sharon is accused of having a bad case of the “nits” ??? This post wasn’t about caring for or saving Nature. As it’s intended purpose for posting was plainly admitted in the first paragraph, it was specifically directed at a much disliked opponent.

  6. We’re into picking nits aren’t we?

    NFMA’s diversity requirement became law 42 years ago. It has been 33 years since the last time anybody saw a subspecies (which are eligible for protection under ESA) on the Angeles National Forest that the Forest Service should have known was considered at risk by some experts, and it failed to take steps to keep it from being extirpated from the Forest, and may have actively contributed to its demise. And then there’s the mussel on the Carson, other species on this list that may have been on national forests but not noted, and species that have gone extinct since 1985, whether we knew about them or not. I think it is safe to say that something that could have been listed under ESA has gone extinct on a national forest since NFMA required the Forest Service to take steps to avoid it.

    The ivory-billed woodpecker was present on the Ocala National Forest when it was established in 1908 and it is now extinct. It is probably a good bet that on every national forest that came into existence supporting ivory-billed woodpeckers, the last birds were extirpated from that national forest by habitat loss caused by Forest Service actions (i.e. logging).

    • Yep, some people just love to blame the present-day Forest Service for what happened in the past. A favorite ‘pastime’ of opponents of the Forest Service, and active forest management. Why not focus on today, and today’s management plans? (or is that not advantageous to fundraising and money ‘extraction’?) If eco-groups are lying in order to boost donations, then what else are they lying about (and justifying)?

      • And commodity groups never lie, unless we are talking about tobacco, food, drugs, carbon loading and global warming, ….

        • Well, then, I’ll support your efforts against most of them. Looks like you’ll have a lot of work ahead of you. The facts still remain, and everyone should support the truth.

          Lying to your followers to get their money. What could go wrong?!?

        • But we’re talking about our world here that we understand and can figure out the facts and interpretations. So things on the lying spectrum (TLS) by commodity groups are equally open to questioning on this blog.

    • No it’s absolutely not picking nits.. it’s saying if you have a claim, you need evidence to support that claim.
      If the woodpeckers were gone from the Ocala by 1937, 36 years before the passage of ESA.

      We didn’t know as much about the environment in the 30’s and 40’s.. otherwise there would have been no Dust Bowl or above ground nuclear testing.

  7. I think the better question is how do national forests do in terms of endangered species performance – a question that has positives and negatives for the species in question based on its habitat needs. For the red-cockaded woodpecker, the long rotations of longleaf pine, annual burning, low basal area/acre which can produce woodpeckers, quail, gopher tortoise, etc. and some wood has always been too complicated for USFS Reg 8 whereas Ft. Benning, Ft. Stewart, Eglin AFP and DOE Savannah River Site have growing populations all the while probably cutting more board feet, burning more acres and having real (military or nuclear weapons missions). Why is that? Well it is cultural. USFS likes T&E where it is compatible with cookbook forestry OR where they occur in wilderness or that RARE II stuff that is quasi-wilderness. My experience is that when there are opportunities to use forestry with T&E benefit first and still considerable wood production second (yet still profitable), most USFS silviculturists balk and feel as if forestry for anything other than traditional forestry’s sake is beneath them. Of course it doesn’t help that much of the USFS wildlife staff is not up to snuff compared to their state or other fed agency counterparts and simply are used to rubber stamp an effects analysis for some traditional timber sale.

    • Treeman, that’s very interesting, I’d like to hear the “FS southern silviculturist” view of that. As a westerner hearing the words “annual burning” it sounds like lots of NEPA and lots of bucks.

  8. Good observation Treeman. I think this is the essence of the analysis that should be going on as part of forest plan revisions regarding lands suitable for timber production. According to the planning regulations, such growing and harvesting a “regulated crop of trees” must be compatible with the management of the area for other resources like at-risk species. Typically “suitable” is the default answer of the Forest Service on paper (in the forest plan), but in practice they still want to maximize the volume they get off of these sites. When they find they can’t do that, the species often gets the blame. (This is a reason why the ASQ in current forest plans was rarely achieved.) I think the funding process is maybe more a reason for this problem than silvicultural bias. On suitable lands they get money to get the cut out. Let’s make “not suitable” the default in forest planning and make the Forest Service demonstrate how it could harvest crops of trees while meeting the needs of at-risk species. (Looking forward was actually my point with my closing comments in the original post.)

    • That hasn’t been true, at all, in the Sierra Nevada National Forests since 1993. My old Ranger District has gone from 65 million board feet, down to 2 million board feet, and is currently about 5.5 million board feet, all from thinning.


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