Endangered Species Triage Way Too Late

Study suggests many endangered Rim Country species already past the point of no return

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U.S. Fish and Wildlife photo

The Chiricahua Leopard Frog is found in a number of streams, ponds and even stock tanks below the Rim — like Fossil Creek and Ellison Creek.

They hop, flutter and swim all across Rim Country. Feathered and slimy and scaled, they have one terrible quality in common. They’re endangered — down to their last few clumps of trees, miles of stream or sheltered springs.

And even though the law requires the federal government to make strenuous efforts to save species like the Chiricahua Leopard Frog, Desert Bald Eagle, Mexican Garter Snake, Yellow-billed Cockoo, Southwest Willow Flycatcher and headwater chub — they’re all probably doomed.

At least, that’s the conclusion that emerges from a recent study published in the journal Biological Conservation, which concludes once a species’ population falls below 5,000 it’s probably too late to save them.

The study led by environmental scientist Lochran Traill concluded populations with fewer than 5,000 adults remain far too vulnerable to a single disaster — like a fire or a drought — to survive long-term.

“Small populations have therefore reached a point of departure: away from the ability to adapt to changing environmental circumstances and toward inflexible vulnerability to those same changes,” wrote Traill, after conducting a mathematical analysis of a large number of previous studies.

The researchers said the current rate of extinction hasn’t been matched in about 250 million years, when a mass extinction wiped out 70 percent of all living species. Estimates suggest that the current rate of extinction is 1,000 times higher than before human beings came on the scene.

The findings suggest that federal policy lavishes resources on already doomed species, while neglecting protections for those species that still have a chance.

In effect, the bureaucracy may have reversed the concept of medical triage — where doctors with limited time and resources on a battleground set aside the patients too gravely injured to save and focus instead on those patients that still have a chance.

“The Endangered Species Act does not provide us with that option,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokesman Jeff Humphrey of the plight of endangered species in Rim Country and throughout Arizona.

In some cases the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service doesn’t undertake studies of dwindling species until someone files a lawsuit. And if the preliminary study finds evidence that a species is dwindling toward extinction, the dying critters will end up on a strange, new limbo list — for whom a threatened or endangered species listing is “warranted but precluded.”

That means the evidence shows the species is dwindling toward extinction, but the lack of resources to do the additional studies precludes moving forward, said Humphrey.

The most recent Rim Country resident up for possible listing is the Northern Leopard Frog, which generally occurs above the Rim.

The rare amphibian can survive in high altitude streams and ponds that freeze over, usually by burrowing down into the mud and laying entombed through the winter.

The Northern Leopard Frog’s range takes up where the already endangered Chiricahua Leopard Frog leaves off. The Chiricahua Leopard Frog is found in a number of streams, ponds and even stock tanks below the Rim — like Fossil Creek and Ellison Creek.

Humphrey said even if the preliminary study of the Northern Leopard Frog suggests it’s nearing extinction in Arizona, the species will likely land on the “warranted but precluded” list.

The Endangered Species Act requires the Fish and Wildlife Service to do a preliminary study to determine if a species is in danger of extinction. Once a species is actually listed, the law requires the government to figure out what “critical habitat” the creature needs to survive — and then to take steps to protect that habitat.

However, the “warrant by precluded list” constitutes extinction’s waiting room and doesn’t provide the money to undertake the critical habitat studies necessary to come up with a fully developed plan to save the species.

Other Rim Country species, like the headwater and bonytail chub that live in Fossil Creek and other Rim Country streams, already languish on the “warranted by precluded” list.

“We just don’t have the resources” to complete the listing studies for those species, said Humphrey. “So we look to the species that are most unique and most threatened and those are the ones that are prioritized for immediate listing with our discretionary funds.”

In the meantime, federal biologists are increasingly moving toward focusing on endangered habitats on which a whole set of threatened species rely — like streamsides in Rim Country.

Most of this region’s endangered species live in riparian areas, which throughout Arizona remain critical for a vital portion of the life cycle for some 90 percent of all species. Unfortunately, an estimated 95 percent of Arizona’s riparian areas have been substantially degraded.

Streams like the East Verde, Fossil Creek, Tonto Creek, the Verde River and the Salt River all shelter endangered species — including the Desert Bald Eagle, the Yellow-billed Cockoo, the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher, the Mexican Garter Snake, the Northern Leopard Frog and the Chiricahua Leopard Frog — plus a host of native fish, like the Apache Trout, headwater chub, Sonoran Sucker and speckled dace. Even endangered species like the Mexican Spotted Owl, which relies on the closed canopy of an old growth forest, benefit from a foraging area that includes a streamside.

Protecting those streamside habitats essentially protects that whole complex of threatened and endangered species, said Humphrey.

“In the past, we would do a critical habitat (study and designation) for each individual species. But it makes sense to look at the system wholistically and designate habitat for a whole suite of characters.”

That could save millions on overlapping studies — and also protect more such habitat based on the use by several different threatened species.

“If you have a stream where you’ve got nesting willow flycatchers, you could have roundtailed chub and spikedace occupying that same stream. So why are we going to the expense of designating separate critical habitats when they’re all relying on the same ecosystem?” he concluded.

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