Science Informing Endangered Species Act Decisions and Recovery Planning

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Through the Changing Arctic Ecosystems (CAE) Initiative, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is informing key resource management decisions by better understanding how wildlife populations of special interest to the Department of the Interior (DOI) are responding to rapid physical changes in the Arctic. Below are some examples of how CAE research is informing Endangered Species Act decisions and recovery planning.

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USFWS Polar Bear Recovery Team

Research being conducted by the USGS and CAE is relevant to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Polar Bear Recovery Team of which the USGS is a member. The team has drafted the Polar Bear Conservation Management Plan, which will meet requirements of both the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act. The required plan, when finalized, will guide activities for polar bear conservation in response to the 2008 determination that the polar bear is a threatened species due to the ongoing loss of sea ice habitat from global climate-change.

 

Pacific Walrus Endangered Species Listing Act Decision by the USFWS

In 2011, an Endangered Species Act finding by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that listing the Pacific walrus as threatened or endangered was warranted but precluded by higher priority listing actions, placing the subspecies on the candidate list.  Shortly thereafter, the USFWS agreed to a court settlement to decide whether to propose a listing rule or remove the Pacific walrus from the candidate list by September 2017.  Ultimately, the USFWS decided that the Pacific walrus does not warrant listing as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  In the USGS Changing Arctic Ecosystems Initiative, the USGS undertook a suite of studies after the USFWS 2011 initial finding to refine forecasts of future status of the Pacific walrus population.  These studies included tracking studies to understand walrus movements and activity budgets under differing ice conditions; development of population models and collection of current data on age structure to inform an assessment of trend; and development of an energetic model to link changes in sea ice with changes in activity and walrus body mass.

 

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finds the Yellow-billed Loon is not warranted for listing as threatened under provisions of the Endangered Species Act

On October 1, 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published its “12-Month Finding on a Petition to List the Yellow-billed Loon as an Endangered or a Threatened Species” (Federal Register Vol. 79, No. 190, p. 59195). USFWS finds the Yellow-billed Loon is not warranted for listing as threatened under provisions of the Endangered Species Act. This decision relied in part upon scientific information collected by USGS Changing Arctic Ecosystems Initiative on the North Slope of Alaska, particularly in relation to two of five “Stressors Affecting Yellow-billled Loons” as identified in the Finding.

Stressor: “Research, Disease, Predation”

Uher-Koch, B. D., J. A. Schmutz, and K. G. Wright. 2015. Nest visits and capture events affect breeding success of Yellow-billed and Pacific Loons. Condor 117: 121-129. doi:10.1650/CONDOR-14-102.1

The impacts of investigator disturbance associated with captures and nest visits on nest survival of Yellow-billed and Pacific loons in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A). Investigators knew that field activities likely impacted nesting loons in some way, but there had never been a dedicated effort to study possible impacts. Results of the study suggest that any source of disturbance that displaces incubating adult loons could potentially reduce nest survival and thus productivity of nesting loons. Nest survival during the day following capture of adult loons was substantially lower than when captures did not occur. Nest visits without captures also negatively impacted nest survival, but the magnitude of the effect was much lower. The study provides suggestions to reduce potential impacts of investigator disturbance to nesting loons.

Stressor: “Pollution and Degradation of Marine Habitat”

Evers, D. C., J. A. Schmutz, N. Basu, C. R. DeSorbo, J. S. Fair, C. E. Gray, J. Paruk, M. Perkins, K. Regan, B. D. Uher-Koch, and K. G. Wright. 2014. Historic and contemporary mercury exposure and potential risk to Yellow-billed Loons breeding in Alaska and Canada. Waterbirds 37(sp1):147-159. doi:10.1675/063.037.sp117

Mercury exposure in the Arctic is increasing in fish-eating birds, including loons. Thawing of permafrost and melting of Arctic sea ice has increased natural levels of mercury in the environment. Increases from anthropogenic sources are also likely. To determine risks posed by mercury to loons, the USGS examined contemporary and historical samples from Yellow-billed Loons. Although blood mercury concentrations from most Yellow-billed Loons breeding in Alaska were within natural background levels, individuals that wintered farther west in Asia exhibited elevated concentrations of mercury in feathers. Analysis of historical and more contemporary samples indicates a two-fold increase in mercury levels in Yellow-billed Loons, suggesting that mercury levels in Yellow-billed Loons are elevated.