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Species decisions will affect use of land, water

Issue Date: May 20, 2020
By Christine Souza

The Northern spotted owl, California spotted owl, Pacific fisher, yellow-billed cuckoo, mountain lions, four species of native bumblebees—current or proposed protections for these and other species absorb the attention of farmers, ranchers, foresters and land managers, and organizations that represent them.

Private landowners invest in a multitude of conservation projects and comply with both state and federal Endangered Species Act regulations, but rarely see protected species recovered or delisted.

"When the species statutes were enacted in the early 1970s, most Americans had charismatic species in mind, like the grizzly bear," California Farm Bureau Federation Senior Counsel Chris Scheuring said. "But now, there are hundreds of plant and animal species listed under the federal act alone. It is a long list and usually a one-way ticket—despite occasional successes such as with the bald eagle, species generally don't come off. Most people will tell you that the species statutes have not been broadly effective in achieving their purpose, which is to recover species to the point that they can be delisted."

Enactment of species statutes, Scheuring said, also has "broad and system-level effects on the human economy."

Modoc County rancher Sean Curtis said the listing of the Northern spotted owl 20 years ago "turned the Northwest upside down and wiped out many communities," particularly through restrictions on logging, "and the species is still in danger."

A Farm Bureau leader who serves as interim county planner and director of natural resources for Modoc County, Curtis said a recent court decision was favorable for the timber sector, noting that the approach to setting aside owl habitat was not successful and should be re-examined.

"You have people saying this means we didn't save enough old-growth habitat, and other people saying the real threat was the predatory barred owl," Curtis said. "The single-focus approach is frustrating. If there's something wrong, you try to fix it with the one thing (regulatory agencies) have control over, when in most cases, that particular thing isn't causing the problem to the species."

For the California spotted owl, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced last November it does not require protection under the ESA, but the agency is working to conserve its habitat, noting that wildfire is one of the owl's biggest risks.

"Forestry has taken on greater importance in the last five years due to the massive wildfires," said CFBF policy advocate Robert Spiegel, who added that foresters continue to be concerned about required owl protocols, such as buffers for nesting birds. "Oftentimes, the passion behind the debate rules the day as opposed to real, functional efforts to repopulate and protect the species. I think to be successful, you have to have participation from a wide group of individuals, to limit the impacts both to the species and to those impacted by it."

In another species regulation affecting forestry, the FWS published a final rule this month that identifies as endangered the southern Sierra Nevada population of the Pacific fisher. The action distinguishes that population from a Northern California/Southern Oregon fisher population, which the agency said does not warrant listing.

A proposed rule for revised critical habitat designation for the western distinct population segment of the threatened yellow-billed cuckoo, which involves parts of California, could affect farmers along rivers and streambanks where the birds breed and raise young. CFBF joined other agricultural groups and water districts in comments to the FWS about the proposal.

Justin Fredrickson, CFBF environmental policy analyst, said the habitat proposal includes about 35,000 acres along the Sacramento River that could potentially affect dam operations, water diversions, levee work and other activities, adding that "layers of regulatory requirements and permitting hurdles" could make necessary projects and activities "far more costly and time-consuming." The proposed rule would also affect more than 100,000 acres along the Califonia-Arizona border on the lower Colorado River and a half million acres total, spread across seven Western states.

CFBF associate counsel Sunshine Saldivar said various species are being considered for protection as threatened or endangered under the California ESA, including the mountain lion.

In April, the California Fish and Wildlife Commission determined listing the lion in Southern California and the Central Coast under the California ESA may be warranted, and the species is now undergoing a one-year status review by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The concern among ranchers, Saldivar said, is "whether depredation permits will continue to be issued despite the new candidacy status, because you cannot 'take' an endangered or threatened species."

"A depredation permit is a last resort for ranchers to manage mountain lions and protect their herds," she said, "so therefore, the listing could jeopardize the viability of ranches."

However, she said, the department is not ruling out issuing depredation permits, adding that CDFW could agree to implement what's informally known as the three-strikes mountain lion depredation policy.

Another petition of interest to farmers statewide is the potential listing of four species of California native bumblebees, which, Saldivar said, "would set an interesting precedent, because currently there are no insects listed under the California ESA." She added that CFBF is part of a coalition to challenge the legality of the petition. The bumblebee petition is still undergoing a status review.

Scheuring said Farm Bureau supports species conservation efforts that focus on voluntary and collaborative partnerships. That includes on-farm actions to help enhance habitat, such as delaying harvest of field crops until tri-colored blackbirds nesting in the fields have fledged, or planting milkweed as habitat for the Monarch butterfly, which is currently under federal review for listing.

"We continue to have largely the same, top-down statutes that we had when they were passed almost 50 years ago that, frankly, haven't worked," Scheuring said. "It has long been an objective of the Farm Bureau and many other organizations to improve species statutes, to get away from the single-species orientation and have something more holistic that is more responsive to sound science."

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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