February 22, 2019
By Stephen Lee
Stronger storms, more frequent wildfires, and longer droughts are devastating endangered species’ habitats across the country, according to conservationists who have begun measuring their precise impacts.
Their findings are both more detailed and more alarming than previously known, drawing on a combination of Google Earth satellite data and purpose-built algorithms.
The software, developed by Defenders of Wildlife, not only lets analysts measure how much habitat has been destroyed but also pinpoints exactly where lands have been damaged.
For example, the group recently found that a single storm—Hurricane Michael, which battered the Florida panhandle last October—wiped out 17 percent of the St. Andrew beach mouse’s critical habitat, along with 14.5 percent of the piping plover bird’s habitat.
Elsewhere, the 2017 Frye fire in southeastern Arizona burned roughly half of the endangered Mount Graham red squirrels’ habitat, Defenders of Wildlife found.
“We’re hoping this new science will inform conservation policy,” said Michael Evans, a conservation data scientist at Defenders of Wildlife who helped develop the software. “It’s one thing to predict that these events will happen, but now we have the ability to measure their impact.”
The federal government isn’t legally required to consider this kind of data—or even to restore protected lands that have been damaged by natural disasters. The Endangered Species Act only bars “the government coming in and actively destroying that habitat,” said Rebecca Riley, legal director of the Natural Resource Defense Council’s nature program.
However, the Interior Department is required to prioritize the most important actions needed to help an endangered species recover. If remedying the effects of a natural disaster is deemed the highest-priority action, then that work should be done first, said Michael Bean, who served as deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife, and parks at Interior under President Barack Obama.
But only in rare cases has that happened. For example, when Hurricane Hugo walloped South Carolina’s Francis Marion National Forest in 1989, it toppled pine trees home to the nation’s largest concentration of red-cockaded woodpeckers. In response, the U.S. Forest Service sent in teams to insert artificial cavities in the trees that remained to provide nesting habitat for the birds.
“It was largely successful in averting a catastrophic loss of woodpeckers,” said Bean, now retired.
The Interior Department’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service didn’t respond to an interview request.
But Interior can run into funding problems even when it wants to do help a species by responding to a natural disaster, said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity. The budget Congress apportions to the Fish and Wildlife Service is only a fraction of what’s needed to help species recover, the center estimated in 2016.
Other times, local conservation groups or state governments intervene to help restore destroyed habitats themselves. But that type of local recovery work “is pretty hit and miss, and mostly miss,” Greenwald said.
The problem of restoration is likely to grow even more acute as climate change brings about more and stronger extreme weather events, according to Bruce Stein, chief scientist at the National Wildlife Federation.
“Traditionally, restoration has been defined as recreating historical conditions,” Stein said. “Given directional changes in climatic conditions, that may no longer be feasible in many areas.”
Even as they devastate habitats for some species, extreme weather events also can create or improve habitats for others.
“Some species will benefit from the creation of new snags, downed woody debris, and brush piles,” said Carli Segelson, a spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
“For example, the brown-headed nuthatch, Carolina wren, and screech-owls may all benefit from new cavities in snags,” she said. “Downed logs are used as important cover for snakes, shrews, and mice.”
Species like beach mice are “uniquely evolved to survive in dynamic coastal systems that may be washed over by storm surge,” Segelson said. “With adequate food resources, beach mice can reproduce quickly and re-colonize areas that were over-washed.”