Fires Restore Wetlands for Desert Fish
By Sam Schipani
It may seem strange to burn the area around the wetland as a habitat restoration technique, and even more oxymoronic to do so in order to save an aquatic creature in the desert. But for a nearly extinct species of fish in the arid Owens Valley, a prescribed burn is exactly what the doctor ordered.
After years of planning, the Eastern Sierra Land Trust, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Cal Fire executed a prescribed burn this past December in order to create a sustainable habitat for the Owens speckled dace, a small fish that is listed as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act.
Fish in the desert might sound impossible, but there are several species of desert fish in California. During geographically transformative events that occurred thousand of years ago, these fish found their way to tiny pools and streams that punctuate the dry landscapes during wet periods. As landscapes changed over time, the desert fish have adapted into unique species specialized for their environs. According to Peter Moyle, a biologist at University of California, Davis, genomic testing suggests that the Owen speckled dace's prehistoric ancestors came from around the Mono Lake basin, where volcanic activity blew out the waters and dropped the common ancestor of the Owens speckled dace and other dace species into surrounding areas.
"These fish have been going their own way for a very long time and adapted to very difficult conditions," Moyle says. "If we can restore the speckled dace, you'll have brought back a significant part of the fish fauna in that region. It just belongs there."
Over the past 80 years, the Owens speckled dace has been in steep decline due to water mismanagement, pressures from agriculture, and encroachment by non-native species. Streams and seasonal ponds in the Owens Valley are expected to decline further with climate change-related temperature increases and less snowpack, and what has not evaporated will continue to be diverted for agricultural use. Thirsty cattle, a linchpin of the valley's ranching history, are especially hard on area streams. The little water that does remain is often overrun with invasive plants and non-native fish species. According to Moyle, in the 1920s and 30s, any body of water without catchable fish was considered barren. Fish and Wildlife agencies felt it incumbent to remedy the "problem" by relocating catchable fish to these areas, where they are now incredibly difficult to eradicate. The Owens speckled dace is outcompeted and eaten by species like the Sacramento perch, which can grow over five times as large and makes a quick snack of the little dace.
"[The Owens speckled dace] is a native fish, and it's about to be extinct," says Kay Ogden, executive director of the Eastern Sierra Land Trust. "They're desperate for a place to live right now."
In order to save the desperate dace, the Eastern Sierra Land Trust started seeking suitable locations to reintroduce the species. With the help of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists, the group found the perfect candidate: the Benton Hot Springs Ranch. The spring-fed ponds on the property once contained the Owens speckled dace; with a little help to raise the water level and remove the non-native plants and fish, they could again. The ponds were located on private property owned by fourth-generation rancher Bill Bramlette. Luckily, Bramlette was happy to join the dace restoration efforts. The ranch has been in his family for four generations, and Bramlette is invested in continuing a legacy of responsible habitat management. In 2008, Bramlette signed a conservation easement with the Eastern Sierra Land Trust and agreed to preserve the habitats and prohibit future development in the area.
"I saw an opportunity to do meaningful conservation by working with partners who had access to resources and experts," Bramlette said in an Eastern Sierra Land Trust press release.
With Bramlette on board, the Eastern Sierra Land Trust's staff and volunteers began meticulously removing the invasive hardstem bulrush and cattails choking out the fish habitat in the water. They spent years trying to remove the plants by hand, but the aquatic plants were too aggressive and fast-growing. The only option was to take the plants down in a literal blaze of glory. In 2013, Cal Fire joined the cause to help organize and execute a prescribed burn at the Benton Hot Springs Ranch.
According to Henry Herrera, a unit forester for Cal Fire who worked on the project, properly planning a prescribed burn is a lengthy process, but "the benefits outweigh all the work that goes into it." Besides going through a standard environmental review, the local air quality board must determine whether the wind conditions will impair air quality or cause the flames to stray beyond the prescribed area. Cal Fire also conducts various fire behavior calculations to determine what the ideal environment would be to keep the fire under control. The agency had to check the moisture of the targeted vegetation—too little and it would burn too hot, too much and it wouldn't burn at all. To avoid disturbing nesting birds, most burns can only take place between November and January. Plus, everyone—the Cal Fire crew, the Eastern Sierra Land Trust staff, and Bramlette himself—had to be available. With all the variables at play, it took three years for the stars to align.
"We came really close two years ago and a snow storm came in," says Eastern Sierra Land Trust executive director Ogden. "I cannot even tell you how frustrating that was. But we take fire seriously"
Finally, the Goldilocks conditions emerged. The crews removed heavy fuels like logs, snags, and brush piles away from the site and then started the burn, systematically lighting the perimeter in accordance with the wind. The scene looked apocalyptic as the fire lapped up the brushy plants, but thanks to the careful planning, it went off without a hitch. When the fires subsided, the ponds emerged from clearer and more open to the new possibilities that lie ahead.
Hopefully the Owens speckled dace will have its own phoenix moment soon, but the burn was only the first step in the process to restore the habitat. Next, the water level in the ponds will be raised to drown out any remaining burned and cut plants (all of the plants must be removed—even one aggressive and fast-growing bulrush would start taking over the habitat again). Then, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife will remove and relocate the Benton Pond's non-native aquatic residents. Once the vegetation and non-native predators have been removed from the ponds, the Owens speckled dace will be brought back to its historic home.
The coalition that is working to restore these fish relishes the little victories. According to Ogden, a greater expanse the pond's water surface is already more visible, and birds like ducks, grebes, and herons have returned to the wetland habitats. The Eastern Sierra Land Trust has partnered with Bramlette to host events at the ponds, giving the community the opportunity to view birds and other wildlife in the habitat until the fish arrive.
"It's really fun to see," Ogden says. "Any time that humans can step in and try to collaborate and help save a species, I think it is incumbent upon us to try and do that."
Taiwanese Humpback Dolphin Gets Protected Under U.S. Endangered Species Act https://t.co/Q5vYigvegD @environmentca @ConservationOrg— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1525902007.0
Yet another former Trump administration staffer has come out with an endorsement for former Vice President Joe Biden, this time in response to President Donald Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
- Trump Denies CDC Director's 2021 Timeline for Coronavirus Vaccine ›
- Trump Orders Hospitals to Stop Sending COVID-19 Data to CDC ... ›
- Two White House Staffers Test Positive for Coronavirus - EcoWatch ›
- Trump Admin to Disband Coronavirus Task Force - EcoWatch ›
- Pence Offers 'Prayers' as Hurricane Laura Hits Gulf Coast While ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Every September for the past 11 years, non-profit the Climate Group has hosted Climate Week NYC, a chance for business, government, activist and community leaders to come together and discuss solutions to the climate crisis.
- Covering the 2020 Elections as a Climate Story - EcoWatch ›
- Coronavirus Delays 2020 Earth Overshoot Day by Three Weeks ... ›
By Elliot Douglas
The coronavirus pandemic has altered economic priorities for governments around the world. But as wildfires tear up the west coast of the United States and Europe reels after one of its hottest summers on record, tackling climate change remains at the forefront of economic policy.
- German Business Leaders Call for Climate Action With COVID-19 ... ›
- Climate Activists Protest Germany's New Datteln 4 Coal Power Plant ... ›
By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.