Wildlife Management Conflicts – Monitoring Habitat Succession

In order to assure that we retain wildlife habitat values while watching over species that have special regulatory status or modify land management practices under carbon management programs, wildlife managers need to do more than measure volumes of habitat. They must also monitor habitat succession, or some of our most valuable habitat will diminish with no loss of acreage. This can happen before land managers can figure out what happened.

Conservation would not exist if it were not for some form of conflict or shortage. Nobody would ever think to conserve, if everything remained plentiful forever.

Built into the natural world are conflicts between wildlife. The classic example is predator and prey.

DSC_0503 coyote

It is also common for species to compete for habitat. Competition between predators for limited prey is an example. Competition between species for limited food is normal.

Evolution created limits to competition so similar species could fit into niches of its own. Members of the deer family compete to a certain extent, but they also differ in ways so that they can coexist in the same habitat. For example, mule deer and elk are both deer, but mule deer are primarily browsers while elk are grazers.

blacktail tending doe

When man entered the program he modified habitat for his own benefit. Eventually man also became aware that conservation was necessary in order to have abundant wildlife.

Hunters were at the forefront of many early conservation efforts and game animals as well as many non-game species, benefited. Government set aside land for wildlife using hunter’s dollars. As a result, game populations rose and hunters and non-hunters reaped the rewards. Most North American Big Game flourished. Waterfowl numbers increased and systems for measuring numbers of migratory birds were developed.

Waterfowl populations have flourished under close monitoring by hunter-funded programs.

Waterfowl populations have flourished under close monitoring by hunter-funded programs.

Today, conservation is taking a step further. As man steps in to deal with current conservation issues, a another type of conflict is rising. This conflict is only a serious problem if it goes too far, but in order to determine just how far it should go, the problem must first be acknowledged.

The problem is conversion of habitat from early succession to late succession and it has always affected land that has been mismanaged or unattended. Land that has the potential to be excellent wildlife habitat can become nearly worthless if left unattended. With no manipulation of the land to recycle it from mature plants to early-growth plants, habitat can become useless as a wildlife food source.

Tule elk are much more numerous today that they were a century ago.

Through hunter’s efforts, tule elk are more numerous today that they were a century ago.

Development of government programs guided by the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has created a powerful tool for the benefit of non-game species. Now we have Cap and Trade, which seeks to mitigate for carbon emissions. It also is a powerful conservation tool.

Incorporated in these programs is the potential for unnecessary habitat conflict. As government-held land turns its management goals towards managing for single species and old growth habitat, some of the success created by established habitat management may be lost.

Pheasants and ducks benefit from early succession habitats.

Pheasants and ducks benefit from early succession habitats.

The concept of habitat succession is the basis for much wildlife conservation. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecological_succession

With limited lands managed for wildlife, government mandates can force land management away from early succession to late succession habitat. As that happens, hunter-funded habitat management from which  game animals have benefited can be converted to management for habitat which benefits primarily special status species. Cap and Trade programs can lead to an emphasis on late succession habitat that is intended to offset carbon emissions. This process has begun, but it is not yet widely recognized.

Each time a new species is declared threatened or endangered, a new set of management mandates is incorporated into wildlife management programs. These new mandates trump traditional management and can gradually swing habitat management away from early succession growth to old growth habitat. Old growth habitat benefits fewer species and generally not game species.

A management change from early succession to old growth does not create immediate change. Habitat creep continues until suddenly there becomes an awareness that something is wrong. Therefore competition between habitat types may not be identified until a significant portion of habitat has been converted away from prime wildlife habitat. Within a few years, some targeted species may gain, while many will lose. If not appropriately monitored, habitat creep will be difficult to identify as a cause of decline in habitat value.

The first step is make sure that land is not converted from habitat managed for early succession to habitat managed for late succession. Instead, habitat for late succession dwellers should be created from land that is not already set aside as wildlife habitat. That way the creation of  late succession habitat will be in addition to early succession habitat and there will be no net loss of valuable habitat for game and non-game animals that thrive in early succession habitat.

The Alameda whipsnake is a species that thrives in old growth chapparal on our ranch. Although it spends most of it's time in the brush, it hunts for lizards along the grassland edge and rock outcroppings within the stand of mature bushes.

The Alameda whipsnake is a species that thrives in old growth chaparral on our ranch. Although it spends most of its time in the brush, it hunts for lizards along the grassland edge and rock outcroppings within stands of mature bushes.

OR7, A Wolf Conundrum

Conundrum: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conundrum

After spending the afternoon with a gray wolf stakeholder group, I have concluded that California gray wolf  management is a conundrum.

First question: Why is it important to re-establish wolves in California? Answer: It is not very important.

Second question: Why is it important to facilitate the successful rehabilitation of California wolf habitat to accommodate a stray wolf that has wandered into California? Answer: It is not very important.

Third question: What problems do wolves create for California ranchers, conservationists and wildlife managers? Answer: Too many to list.

Last question: Why are we holding meetings to make decisions about gray wolf management in California when there is only one known gray wolf in California? Answer:  California politics are out of control and we are driven by  a form of insanity, which is the result of guilt feelings (for all the evironmental destruction man has wreaked on the earth) and an out of control emotional attachment to iconic creatures – like wolves.

I am a wolf fan and I will be thrilled when I see my first wolf and hope to have a wolf  hide hanging on my wall some day, right next to a couple of coyote hides. You can bet that wolf hide won’t be from a California gray wolf.

Here are four possible solutions to the gray wolf situation. The simplest and most cost-effective approach? Have the gray wolf classified as a varmint so that it can be eradicated. This solution is simple, painless, proven and cheap. It worked well for almost 100 years. End of discussion.

If the simple, cheap, proven and painless solution is not acceptable, the second solution would be to work with the US Fish and Wildlife Service to create a recovery plan under the Federal Endangered Species Act. The recovery plan would establish management goals and create opportunities to fund activities like monitoring, study and mitigation for negative impacts to the species and its habitat. Hopefully, this would also create opportunities to manage other species, such as ungulates, that are critical prey species for wolves. But, I have to believe that the last thing the USFWS wants is to drag California into the already colossal fiasco that is taking place in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Minnesota, Oregon and Washington – so odds are that this will not be the approach taken.

Another option is for California to take the lead in wolf recovery using a management plan as a guide. This option could create some problems by attempting to create a wolf program without proper funding. This approach would be particularly undesirable if wolves were delisted by the USFWS or is they make some type of formal decision that California is not important wolf habitat.

The last option  is for California to list wolves under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA) and use the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) as a tool to fund enhancement of wolf habitat and also habitat of related prey species. Land managers and conservationists could use the enormous power of CESA and CEQA to fund mitigation for habitat losses and compensate stakeholders who are negatively impacted by wolves. This type of action would prevent the creation of a (potenitally) huge unfunded mandate (option 3). And, politicians would be making the decision to go forward with a better idea of societal costs. Under this plan, wolves could thrive and so could their prey species.

(A side benefit would be that college freshmen planning a career in wolf management will have their chances for a success enhanced.)

The complexity of  this solution would be mind-boggling and also extremely expensive. Maybe that’s a reason for it to happen.

Californians can’t resist the temptation to spend money – especially on iconic creatures. The best thing about this last option is that it could result in improved habitat for and boost awareness of the other species out there that share wolf habitat – like mule deer. Wouldn’t it be ironical if one stray wolf accomplished all that for California wildlife?

Oh. There is another solution. California’s lone wolf (OR7) could go back home to Oregon and never come back. That would be nice.

Now, having this off my chest, maybe I can go to bed and get some sleep.

How the Endangered Species Act Affects Wildlife Conservation through Highest and Best Use

The concept of highest and best use is most used by developers and appraisers. A developer will tell you that when a property is economically ready to be improved to a more productive use, it’s time for him to step in. An appraiser will tell you that a property’s highest value is based upon the most productive use allowed.

In wildlife conservation, highest and best use can lead to conversion of habitat to rural uses that eliminate or water down habitat quality. Farming, ranching and timber production can be compatible with wildlife habitat or even beneficial in some cases, but as urbanization occurs these wildlife-compatible rural uses are converted.

Further from town, low intensity ranching and public and private forest lands provide habitat where hunting added to the value of the land. Traditionally, hunting has been a huge contributor to maintaining wildlife habitat through game producing habitat manipulation that benefited other species including those that have become endangered or threatened.

Waterfowl hunting adds significant value to farmland.

 However, hunting, ranching and rural living cannot protect land from development as the rule of highest and best use concept applies, meaning that a higher use creates more value and a pressure on the landowner to convert for capital gain.

Now it’s the 21st Century and in comes the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and new mitigation principles. Through the laws associated with the ESA, Federal Agencies (ACE & USFWS) and some state agencies (CDFG) have set up standards for habitat mitigation where permits are required before major capital projects can proceed. This mitigation commonly related to road construction and water projects.

The California Red-legged frog is a listed species.

When “listed” species (those which have high status in the endangered pecking order) are affected, developments must provide mitigation to offset the negative impact the project will have to the subject species.

Mitigation typically occurs on rural lands where the same listed species dwell. These rural lands can be protected in perpetuity and managed specifically for the listed species. When an agreement is signed deeding certain rights from the landowner to the agencies and it is then recorded against the property. In return for protecting the species so the developer can receive a permit to commence the project, the landowner receives cash.

The point of the discussion is that this process has created a new highest and best use for undeveloped land and an entirely new set of values for rural land in California. Not only that, but this highest and best use principle has created a new type of wildlife conservation – highest and best use conservation.

 Rural landowners can now leave their land in open space, while managing their land for endangered species, and also protecting their property values. (Hunting is often a compatible use as well, but not always.) In many cases, the value of California wildlife habitat as a land use is now competitive with all rural and many suburban uses. In other words the ESA is protecting property values far beyond those properties that are currently participating as mitigation sites.