COORDINATION AND IMPLEMENTATION OF BIODIVERSITY


PERSPECTIVES ON A WORKSHOP

This is a presentation that I gave 3 September 1992 at the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service's "Biologists' Biodiversity Workshop," at Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon. At the time I was supervisor for the national wildlife refuges in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. The objective of the workshop was to acquaint the refuge biological staffs with some of the newer issues of "biodiversity," and to discuss how the concepts could be applied to refuge work and studies. My presentation was the summary for the three day workshop.

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As I listened to the speakers at this workshop, and read through the various papers included in the workshop binder, I got confused. Coming in, I thought I knew what the term "biodiversity" meant. Summing up, it is clear that clearness is not yet an integral part of the definition! To some, biodiversity seems to imply no more than local variety or species richness. To others, it is almost metaphysical, going well beyond numbers of species or organisms to the basic life processes themselves. It is no wonder than an organization like the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service that prides itself on its down to earth practicality has had a hard time committing wholeheartedly to jumping onto such a nebulous bandwagon.

Still, there is something important here, something so significant that it is worth going after despite the difficulty of definition. The best way I can put it is that we need to do all we can to preserve remaining communities and environments in as close to their natural state as we can keep them. Whether we're talking about the tropical rain forest, the shrub-steppe desert, or the ocean depths, we are in danger of losing not just species, but whole systems. And no program that we have in place now is capable of doing the job that needs doing.

These are the problems:

A. Species are becoming extinct and whole habitat types are disappearing or becoming irrevocably fragmented at an alarming rate. No one in our profession needs too many statistics on this point. We are all strongly aware of endangered species, and the plight of the rain forests. During this workshop, we had what for most of us was an enlightening talk about the similar plight of ocean habitats.

B. The "endangered species program" can't keep up with the losses. Legally, listing and then (hopefully) recovering species is too slow and cumbersome. Every individual listing is a full federal rule- making that may take several years to complete. Besides, species that are truly endangered are likely to already be "basket cases" at the time of listing. Spartan efforts on lost causes take time, money and focus away from the bigger issues.

We talk about listed species being surrogates for other species and habitats, but in reality we don't see much spin-off benefit. If that was truly one of the key features of the Endangered Species Act, then often we wouldn't be listing more than one species for any given habitat; the protection given the one would also protect the others. In reality, listing is being used to give recognition and "status," in addition to any real protection.

The endangered species listing process also bogs down because of its recognition of subspecies and local populations as well as "full" species. While there are clearly scientific reasons to be concerned about subspecies and populations, throwing them into the rule-making hopper further slows the process and keeps us from getting to the real meat of the problem.

Finally, we need to recognize that the Endangered Species Act can't really do very much for most species. The Act improves protection against "take" (which few listed species suffer from) and requires greater diligence by federal agencies to protect against actions that could further endanger listed species. But many of the acts and circumstances that are most detrimental to endangered species are not "federal actions," and therefore are outside the purview of the Endangered Species Act.

C. Land preservation measures to date have missed the mark. Although some countries (including the United States) have set aside vast acreages of land under one system or another, only a few of the many species, habitats and ecosystems are included. Mike Scott"s [Dr. J. Michael Scott, University of Idaho] "gap analysis" work progressed from some of his early findings in Hawaii that lands set aside had little to do with lands of high ecological importance. I remember Mike pointing out what a high percentage of designated wilderness in the United States was boreal and alpine in character, and how little representation there was of lowland habitat types. A related problem is the amount of habitat preserved; even when "good" types are set aside, they are not set aside in blocks large enough to be biodiversely and ecologically significant.

D. Most wildlife management and species richness programs have favored the "generalist" species -- the ones that have wide ecological tolerances and that seldom need "management," at all! Included in this list are most of the "game" species, the "edge" generalists, and the introduced pests.

To overcome the shortcomings of our current programs, we need a program that:

1. Anticipates problems before endangerment occurs;

2. Homes in on those species that are most vulnerable;

3. Homes in on those species and ecosystems that are most unique (centers of endemism, for example);

4. Keeps natural processes and interactions working; and

5. Preserves options while we learn what is really important.

 

Fish and Wildlife Service Policy/Strategy

I think Rob Shallenberger made it clear earlier in the workshop that Fish and Wildlife Service is currently involved in biodiversity, but is not really  engaged yet. At the leadership levels in both the Washington Office and the Regional Office, response to date has run the gauntlet from pretty good support, to "I don't understand," to "this too shall pass." Because of all our "joint ventures" [inter-group efforts to preserve certain habitats, mostly for waterfowl], some claim we are already "doing" biodiversity.

We do have a "biodiversity" objective for the National Wildlife Refuge System, but so far the emphasis has been on "species richness," and then only when it doesn't interfere with our waterfowl objectives.

If this all sounds like the heart of the Fish and Wildlife Service is not yet into biodiversity, that is the current message. But take heart, I think we will get better at it.

 

What Do We Need to Go Forward?

1. The first thing we need is Service commitment to biodiversity, like we have committed to the endangered species program. But even with successes like the endangered species program to point to, Fish and Wildlife Service is still pretty much a duck and goose outfit, and that mentality runs deep in the organization. In opening this workshop, John Doebel expressed concern that moving into biodiversity programs might interfere with discharging our "trust responsibilities." That sentiment is expressed regularly at the higher levels in the Service, but what does it mean? Our "trust responsibilities" under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act certainly cover many more species than waterfowl, and our "trust responsibilities" under the Endangered Species Act only begin with taking action on listed species; they also include taking action to prevent further endangerments. In other words, the Service is whatever it wants to be, and getting into biodiversity means expanding our efforts toward meeting our trust responsibilities, not competing with other mandates.

2. We need a lot of in-house training, re-training, and un-training. I would hazard a guess that many of the concepts that have been discussed at this workshop are new to many of you. The reason is that most of us are products of "game management" schools, like Humboldt State and Oregon State. Recent surveys by The Wildlife Society and others have shown that many of the traditional wildlife schools are still teaching essentially the same cirriculum they taught in the 1960s. It wasn't until well into the 1980s that wildlife texts began to include information on biodiversity, community ecology, and other topics related to biological and ecological concepts. A survey done by a Wildlife Society committee two years ago showed only 9 of 87 universities checked had courses in biodiversity. [J. M. Scott, chairman, 1991. Conservation of biological diversity: some perspectives and a look at the future of the wildlife profession. A 15 page report delivered to The Wildlife Society Council.]

"Game management" by its very definition teaches us how to manage for harvestable surpluses, and harvestable surpluses are only possible with species that have lots of flex and resiliency. Biodiversity work, on the other hand, requires that we know how to preserve species with very narrow niche requirements -- ones in which vulnerability is very high. The key to preserving these species is in preserving options, and preserving options often requires knowledge of some pretty sophisticated biological principles. Most of the "game management" schools are not yet teaching those principles.

A good way to illustrate the difference between "game management" teaching and "biodiversity" teaching is to look at the concept of "edge effect." Every graduate of Humboldt or Oregon State knows that "edge" [the junction between two or more habitats] is good, because it favors high biomass and local species richness. However, most organisms favored by "edge" are those virtually unhurtable ones that can live almost anywhere, anyway. The narrow niche species are almost always adversely impacted by increase in "edge."

3. We need to inventory. I think it seems to a lot of refuge folks that we spend most of our working hours counting something. Unfortunately, most of the information that we have collected during our counting isn't particularly useful. Even our own Service migratory bird coordinators make little use of our refuge waterfowl count data. The reason is that, statistically or causally (determining why the numbers are what they are), our counts aren't worth very much. Those of you who are running Breeding Bird Surveys each spring are doing a lot more to further the cause of biodiversity preservation than are all of us making the duck counts that we make through the year.

You on the ground have the opportunity to gather better information, either directly or in cooperation with others. We have some excellent examples in Region 1 of the difference that individuals can make. Jim Atkinson, while a biologist at Willapa Refuge, added tremendously to our knowledge of bats, herps and owls in the coastal forest ecosystem. Bill Radke, while at Columbia Refuge, substantially increased our knowledge of Columbia Basin reptiles. We also have plant people and mammal people, and even a few insect people, who are contributing a lot by channeling their efforts into the kind of systematic study that characterized our predecessors in the Bureau of Biological Survey. We lost a lot when we pigeonholed ourselves into being a waterfowl agency, and I think we need to work diligently to get ourselves back on the road toward the goals and priorities of the Biological Survey.

I know all of you are working hard out there, and that most of you don't have much time for basic natural history surveys. But you are making choices about where you put your emphasis. We in the Regional Office and Washington Office aren't requiring that you do a lot of specific surveys and studies, not like we were in the 1960s and 1970s. You have a lot of choice about how you spend your time. Refuge staffs can make a lot of decisions about what gets done. If you feel that there are more important things to do than what you feel you are mandated to do, come to your District Supervisor with a counterproposal. You might find that we agree with you, and that we'll give you the flex you need to do the more productive things.

In addition to your own efforts, you can also get volunteers, graduate students, and others to work with you. A lot of the information we need to know is far from "rocket science;" other people can be trained to collect it. You can also work cooperatively with other organizations and agencies. Money is always limiting, but we've been able to get some pretty good inventories and analyses done for the investment of only a few thousand dollars to The Nature Conservancy, a heritage group, local botanical society, or other organization.

Inventory also involves finding out from others the significance of what you have on the refuges. That 200-acre grassland on your refuge may be pretty uninteresting and species-poor from your point of view, but it may be the only place left in the county with a remnant population of grasshopper sparrows, the species on which they depend, and the species with which they interact.

4. We need to work more closely with others who are working on a broader scale than we do on refuges. One that that was discussed during this workshop is to team up with the Gap Analysis workers in each state, to provide basic information, and also to help them ground-truth the data that they have.

5. We need to get ourselves out of the "tinkering" mode until we know what we're tinkering with. We're fighting tradition and mythology here, and are also fighting our own needs to be innovative, creative, and up-to-date. But the truth is that we can do irreparable harm by "managing" habitat when we don't really consider the impacts.

As an agency, we have been very guilty of small thinking and short-term thinking. We've convinced ourselves that management for a few species of waterfowl, plus an emphasis on preservation and management of wetlands, is good for wildlife and the environment, generally. If you didn't know it before this workshop, I hope you realize now that we have been fooling ourselves. We are still putting most of our emphasis on a few species that probably need the help less than the majority of other species in the world. And it isn't just that our emphasis doesn't help other species -- it may also hurt them. I mentioned earlier the dangers inherent in unthinkingly subscribing to creating "edge effect." To play the biodiversity game, we need to subscribe to a whole new set of guiding principles. Consider:

   a. There are no empty niches. Most of our game management tinkering has assumed that if there wasn't a comparable species visible, it was okay to move something in. In fact, even our most benign introductions -- like chukar and ring-necked pheasant -- changed something, even if we're not smart enough to know what. Something happened that affected native species, like competition for food or breeding sites, over-predation on native insects, or overutilization of a native plant.

   b. Good land management is not necessarily good wildlife management -- and definitely not always good biodiversity management! The mythology that "good management" and "wise use" are good for everything is just that -- mythology. The truth is that most management we do favors only those species with wide ecological tolerances. If often hurts the narrow niche species, the ones most vulnerable and most extincton-prone.

   c. Not every management tool is right for you. It seems that we are prone to jumping onto bandwagons. One of the current ones is prescribed burning, which sets back plant succession and certainly does enhance the habitat for some species. But God made hardstem bulrush for a reason, and some species -- just like some old-growth forest species --have need for what to us looks as decadent as ancient forests look to some loggers. Steve Bouffard has questioned recently our apparent single-mindedness in opening up and setting back marsh habitats with fire. 

   We might also give thought to the types of water areas we are creating and managing. In our zeal to have more space for ducks and geese, let's remember that there are other species out there with other needs. It was only a couple months ago that I visited Toppenish Refuge, and heard John Annear expressing concern that our program to "invigorate" the Toppenish marshes might be bad news for the last local populations of pond turtles, rails, and bobolinks.

   d. Finally, remember to stay humble. We don't know all there is to know about things out there. Remember the paper delivered earlier in this workshop about the adaptations of various populations of crossbills to very specific types of coniferous trees. [M. Willson, Biodiversity at the community level: ecological processes. U. S. Forest Service, Juneau, Alaska.] Managing conifers too broadly or too narrowly could have disastrous effects on some populations of crossbills. The biodiversity-wise biologist realizes that crossbills are not just crossbills, and conifers are never just conifers.


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