Cart Before the Horse
The Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts (WACD) supports voluntary, incentive-based approaches to conservation, including wildlife habitat management by private landowners. This is supported by policy and evident by WACD’s and districts’ involvement in a myriad of wildlife species initiatives and efforts, such as the Greater Sage Grouse Initiative and Sage Grouse Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances. Local districts invest a considerable amount of time and effort in addressing a multitude of local resource priorities, both through district-initiated programs, as well as through their involvement with the delivery of USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) conservation programs.
However, districts also believe strongly in their role as a local government in participating in state and federal decision making processes.
At the risk of oversimplifying this discussion, the situation at hand is the effort underway to increase and accelerate the reintroduction of the federally listed endangered Black-Footed Ferret with the aim of recovery and delisting. This effort is led by a team consisting of federal, state and non-governmental organizations known as the Black-Footed Ferret Recovery Implementation Team (BFFRIT).
In the past few years there have been a number of actions taken pertaining to this effort. In 2011, there was an effort to obtain national support and creation of a Black-Footed Ferret Initiative through the NRCS. In the fall of 2012, a memorandum of understanding was signed between U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), NRCS, USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. NRCS nationally established a Black-Footed Ferret Recovery Initiative, but according to Wyoming’s State Conservationist, the national office has deferred to the states on whether they choose to initiate one at the state level.
In December 2012, the FWS published a draft Safe Harbor Agreement, Enhancement of Survival Permit and Environmental Assessment for public comment. The final Safe Harbor agreement, a Finding of No Significant Impact and Biological Opinion on the Safe Harbor Agreement were released in October 2013. Last summer, FWS published a Revised Black-Footed Ferret Recovery Plan. The final plan was published in November 2013. One can obtain all of this information from the Black-Footed Ferret Recovery website, blackfootedferret.org. This is an excellent resource for current information on Black Footed Ferret recovery efforts.
In March 2013, FWS also issued a letter in response to Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s request for a block clearance of the ferret, meaning there are no known wild populations of the ferret in the state. Subsequently, section seven consultation is done based on a “block clearance approach.” In that letter, FWS also conveyed their intent to proceed with the “10(j), experimental non-essential, designation.”
The last action, that WACD is aware of, was the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) this fall between the Wyoming Game and Fish, Wyoming Department of Agriculture Natural Resources, NRCS, FWS, BLM, Forest Service and APHIS. In essence the MOU says all of the above will work together to pursue the 10(j) designation, identify and prioritize private land areas for ferret reintroduction, identify incentive programs, offer regulatory assurances, manage prairie dogs, manage plague and modify proposed federal actions on public or split estate lands to avoid or minimize impacts to potential reintroduction areas.
There have been some reintroduction efforts throughout the historical range of the ferrets. In Wyoming, this included reintroduction in the Shirley Basin several years ago. According to participating landowners, the 10(j) designation occurred prior to the release of the ferrets.
Absent some landowner protections from future regulatory action and some incentive to manage for prairie dogs, interest in reintroduction efforts has apparently stalled out. This was driven in a large part due to a threat of litigation from environmental groups who challenged additional reintroductions being pursued with a 10(j) designation. They argued that, given the ferret is a listed species, it should be managed as an endangered species, even where it was reintroduced. An obvious disincentive to a landowner is to have a species reintroduced on their lands and then be subject to regulatory actions as a result of the species presence.
From what has been relayed to WACD, the breeding facilities are bursting at the seams with captive bred ferrets. Hence, there is a need to accelerate reintroduction.
Early in 2011, WACD was contacted by a good friend in the landowner community who had been involved in the prairie dog management efforts and the Black-Footed Ferret recovery teams efforts. He and a representative of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department were seeking our input on a proposed Black-Footed Ferret recovery initiative that would be funded, as proposed, via NRCS through a nationally directed initiative much like the Sage Grouse Initiative. We appreciated the fact that our input was sought out. In response, we penned a letter in March 2011 outlining WACD’s thoughts on what should be factored and considered. A summary of the Board of Directors, our Board represents the 34 districts and are predominately landowners themselves, suggestions and concerns included:
Concerns with the continued diversion at the national level of EQIP funding versus working through the local process established by local workgroups,
Impact of expanding prairie dog colonies on neighboring non-participating landowners,
Multi-resource evaluations should be conducted to ensure consistency with other resource priorities such as invasive species, water quality, etc.,
Regulatory implications to other landowners and land uses should ferrets expand beyond reintroduction sites/areas – the Board concurs that a statewide 10(j) designation is necessary before further reintroduction occurs, and
The source of dedicated funding for prairie dog management in areas bordering the reintroduction areas.
Again, WACD is not opposed to reintroduction and recovery. However it should be done in a thoughtful manner, consider all potential implications, factor all resource priorities and concerns and include consultation with local governments with statutory responsibilities for similar issues, such as the conservation districts and weed and pest districts.
WACD, along with other organizations, including our counterparts in the weed and pest districts, were not quite comfortable that the issues had been addressed. In July 2011, the leadership of Wyoming Weed and Pest and WACD again relayed our concerns to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department with the efforts being pursued absent the 10(j) designation, lack of a dedicated source of funding to manage for and control expanding prairie dog colonies and a request for local government coordination among other issues.
With all of the actions taken to date, it appears to us that the pieces are in place, and the agreements between agencies have been signed for reintroduction to take place. We are reassured by our Governor’s stance that a 10(j) designation must take place before further reintroduction efforts occur.
We sincerely hope that process is in progress. In our opinion it would have been wise for that step to be taken first. To date, it appears that we have a cart full of federal decisions paving the way for reintroduction, but the horse is hitched to the back of the wagon. If reintroduction occurs without this step, the practical implications to other private landowners and federal land uses are that they would not be afforded the protection of the 10(j) rule and instead bear the brunt of full protection of the ferret under the Endangered Species Act.
We are looking forward to the FWS release of the statewide 10(j) as the final piece to this effort – one that is integral to all Wyoming landowners being protected.