USFW assures that ‘best available science’ will be used; asks for public input
CNMI officials, biologists, and landowners shared their concerns at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the proposed listing of 23 Marianas species as either threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act at a public hearing last Wednesday night.
While some warned against the continuing “federal blockades” of CNMI ocean, land and restrictions on property, others took shot at the credibility of the science that supported the listing, calling it “outdated” or “baffling” and urged more studies to be done.
Tyler Willsey, a biologist at the CNMI Division of Fish and Wildlife, and part of both a DFW and Service survey on some of the proposed species on Rota, compared the two approaches, saying that where the Service failed to find species, DFW—in their recent December survey—“were finding them everywhere.”
“Maybe the biologists with the [USFW] crew that were looking for these species maybe were not species experts, and maybe did not have a search image dialed to be able to find them because they were found in areas that I know we were looking, and we found them pretty easily,” he said.
Willsey believes the burden of proof should fall on the Service to show a need for this listing. “Where are the threats? Where it is happening? Has a decline been documented for these species?” he asked.
“I feel like there is no baseline data, and if there was baseline data—based on the surveys I’ve witnessed—I don’t think it was very accurate…I feel like there should be documented decline in the species to warrant the protection by the ESA, and I don’t feel like that’s been adequately documented because there was no baseline,” he said.
Jill Liske-Clarke, another biologist at DFW, described herself as a conservationist but found as a scientist the proposed listing “very troubling.”
“This species status should be reserved for the species that truly warrant it, that truly need that extra protection. We’ve got 18 species that got added at the end [from the original candidate of five species], that we kind of got blindsided as an agency, unaware that these were coming down the pipe. So we didn’t have the opportunity to collect the data that we really need.”
Liske-Clarke was also part of the team that spent four days on Rota exploring some of the species proposed.
“And in four days, we found hundreds, if not thousands of individuals of these different species, especially the plants. And there is no other way to describe it; some of these species are downright common on Rota. Common. I am little bit baffled as to how they could have gotten to the point as proposed for listing. If we are to give the [Service] biologists the benefit of the doubt, perhaps they’re basing their listing proposal on their experience in Guam,” she said.
But she added the status and trends of these species in Guam cannot determine the listing status, and urged for more exploration to arrive at decision based on “good, sound science.”
A court order appears to have triggered the listing.
In 2011, the Service settled with the Center of Biological Diversity, after a decades-long push by the environmental group to get the Service moving on candidate species for ESA protection waiting in their backlog.
Five candidate species were in the Marianas.
But in his testimony, Sen. Arnold Palacios said that if the Service is to comply with a court order then they should move on with the original candidate species, and separate the rest.
“To do this, where we continue to lump everything together, is an injustice. We got to get this right. I was talking to some of the folks on Rota. And they are worried, and they have a right to be worried. We just went through setting aside a large piece of property to mitigate for the Marianas crow, which was listed as endangered. A large piece of public land,” he said.
Kristi Young, USFW Deputy Field Supervisor, acknowledged the implications of the lawsuit, telling Saipan Tribune that “because this is all driven by litigation, we are required to submit our final recommendation by Sept. 30 to the Federal Register.”
She expects the final listing to be published in early October.
“[CBC] sued several years ago over lack of progress on several actions that we were listing related actions. The final settlement agreement that we negotiated with them was that over the course of six years we would look at the all of these species that we considered candidates for listing under the [ESA] and would determine whether they warrant listing or taking off the list completely,” she said.
She added that they are doing over 250 species nationwide, with a good portion of these from the Pacific.
“There were five species [in the Marianas] that were on the candidate list for some time. The process of going through the rule making…is a bit of complex process. And to be honest, we don’t get the funding for that often, so we wanted to take advantage of this opportunity to look and see if there are any species that also warrant protection,” she said.
She assured though that once a species is proposed for listing it “doesn’t automatically guarantee” that it would be listed.
“Our concern there is that’s there’s been a difficulty with lack of funding to implement the regulations that are in the books here in the islands and…we are going to be identifying these things. These things can be rectified,” she said.
She said with the one-year period until the final listing, they would be “gaining new information” and looking if there were conservation measures or programs being developed to protect these species
Ken Foote, USFW public affairs specialist, said that by law, the Service must use the “best available scientific data” in their final ruling.
“Unfortunately, sometimes we don’t have the manpower to really examine all of these [species], and everybody knows logistically it’s hard to get to some of these places—so that’s where we really need to rely on the locals,” he said.
“And not just the scientists; we can get a lot of information from the farmers, the local landowners that are out in the woods. They may know more than some of the scientists. We really want that input.”
The comment period for the proposed listing closes on Feb. 11.