The Governance Committee of the Platte River Cooperative Agreement

The Endangered Species Act & Endangered Species

Background on the Endangered Species Act

1. What does the Endangered Species Act say?

The Endangered Species Act of 1973 requires all Federal agencies to use their authorities to conserve threatened and endangered species. In its preamble, the Congress stated that endangered species of fish, wildlife, and plants “are of esthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational, and scientific value to the Nation and its people.” Congress summarized arguments advanced by scientists, conservationists, and others who are greatly concerned by the disappearance of unique creatures, and stated its intent to provide a mechanism to conserve the ecosystems upon which endangered and threatened species depend in order to prevent their extinction.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in the Department of the Interior and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in the Department of Commerce share responsibility for administration of the Act. Generally, the NMFS deals with those species occurring in marine environments and anadromous fish, while the FWS is responsible for terrestrial and freshwater species and migratory birds.

The Act has several major sections, most with implementing regulations, that describe the process for listing species as federally threatened or endangered (including their critical habitat); the recovery process for improving the status of listed species and their habitats so they can be taken off the endangered species list; procedures for federal agencies to consult with FWS or NMFS when an activity authorized, funded or carried out by a federal agency “may affect” a listed species; prohibitions for taking a listed species; permits required to use listed species for scientific purposes or for purposes that may result in incidental taking of a listed species; and penalties for violating provisions of the Act.

2. How are major provisions of the Act carried out?

Listing — The FWS maintains lists of “threatened” and “endangered” species. A species may be classified for protection as “endangered” when it is in danger of extinction within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range. A “threatened” classification is provided to those animals and plants likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of their ranges. When a species is proposed for listing, the public is offered an opportunity to comment. Once listed, a species is given the full regulatory protections of the Act.

Recovery — The ultimate purpose of the Act is to save species from extinction. The FWS’s goal is to recover listed species and remove them from the list. To do so, FWS develops recovery plans.

Even experts initially may have an incomplete understanding of the cause of a species’ decline, which makes it difficult to design an effective plan for recovering the species. Research can usually identify the problem, but this takes time. Once the causes of decline have been correctly identified, and a recovery plan prepared, recovery may not begin immediately because of social or economic obstacles, including lack of sufficient funding. Typically, species recovery is a gradual process that may take years, or even decades, as it is often difficult to reverse all the threats affecting the species for the length of time it has taken to list the species.

Consultation — Under section 7 of the Act, all federal agencies must consult with FWS (or NMFS if appropriate) when any activity permitted, funded or carried out by that agency may affect a listed (or proposed) species or designated (or proposed) critical habitat. Formal “section 7 consultations” result in FWS issuing a “biological opinion” as to whether the proposed federal action is likely to jeopardize a listed species. If so, FWS identifies “reasonable and prudent alternatives” (if possible) to the proposed action which would avoid jeopardy.

Taking — Section 9 of the Act prohibits “take” of a federally listed animal without appropriate authorization. “Take” is defined, in part, as “killing, harming, or harassment” of a federally listed species.

3. The following are some general statistics provided by FWS regarding endangered species nationwide as of October 31, 1998:

a. How many species in the United States are listed as federally threatened and endangered?

(1) 701 species of plants and 474 species of animals are listed.

(2) 36 species of plants and 26 species of animals have been proposed for listing.

b. How many listed species have designated critical habitat?

(1) 120 species have designated critical habitat.

(2) 9 species have proposed critical habitat designations.

c. How many candidate species are there?

(1) 83 species of plants are FWS candidates for listing.

(2) 6 species of animals are FWS candidates for listing.

d. How many consultations have been conducted under section 7 of the Act?

According to FWS records for fiscal years 1987 through 1995:
(1) Approximately 186,000 federal actions were reviewed for impacts to listed species.
(2) 5,046 formal consultations were initiated (2.7% of all federal actions).
(3) 600 jeopardy biological opinions were issued (0.3% of all federal actions).
(4) Of the 600 jeopardy biological opinions, the FWS identified reasonable and prudent alternatives for all but 100 projects (0.05% of all federal actions). Of the 100 jeopardy biological opinions issued without reasonable and prudent alternatives, all but 13 were related to timber sales in the Pacific Northwest.

e. How many listed species have approved recovery plans?

878 species have approved recovery plans.

f. How many listed species have recovery plans under development?

271 species have recovery plans under development.

What is FWS’s view of the current situation for endangered species in the Central Platte area?

1. What are the species of concern?

Four “target species” of particular concern are to be addressed by the proposed Program’s efforts in the Central Platte region:
• whooping crane – federally classified as endangered.
• least tern – federally classified as endangered.
• piping plover – federally classified as threatened.
• pallid sturgeon – federally classified as endangered.

Other endangered and more common species present in the area, or which migrate through the area, are also expected to benefit by the proposed Program.

Whooping Cranes

a. When, where, how and how often do whooping cranes use habitat in the Central Platte region?

Whooping cranes migrate through Nebraska in late March and April on their way to Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada to nest, and from mid-October to late November returning to winter at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge along the Texas coast. Stopovers by migrating cranes in the Platte River area vary from overnight to a few weeks in duration, with longer visits generally in the spring. The Platte River area is one of the most heavily used migration stopover points. Since 1988 an average of eight whooping cranes per year have been confirmed roosting on the Platte River and total use is likely greater because of the difficulties in locating and observing birds at roost sites. The cranes roost in shallow water of marshes, flooded fields, ponds, and rivers and generally select sites with wide, open views isolated from human disturbance. They forage in adjacent cropland, grassland, and wet meadows for aquatic animals, plant tubers, and waste grain.

A 56-mile-long by three-mile-wide stretch of the Platte River’s Big Bend Reach between Lexington and Denman was federally designated as Critical Habitat for the whooping crane in 1978 and is given special protection under the Endangered Species Act.

b. What is the status of the whooping crane compared to its recovery goals?

The Aransas-Wood Buffalo whooping crane population is the species’ only wild migratory flock. It is experiencing a gradual positive population trend overall, although some years exhibit stationary or negative results. As of January 1999, it included 183 individual cranes. The FWS’s Recovery Plan goals to reclassify the species as “threatened” rather than “endangered” are 90 nesting pairs in three separate populations, 1,000 individuals in the Aransas-Wood Buffalo flock, and maintenance of these levels for 10 consecutive years.

Interior Least Terns and Piping Plovers

a. When, where, how and how often do interior least terns and piping plovers use habitat in the Central Platte area?

The interior least tern and Northern Great Plains population of piping plover nest along the central Platte River wherever suitable habitat is available. The birds typically arrive in early May and remain through August. Both species nest on the river on dry, flat, sparsely vegetated sand or gravel bars, often surrounded by a wide, unobstructed, water-filled channel. These birds have also colonized sand and gravel pits, dredged islands and reservoir shorelines. Foraging habitat in and along the river or other bodies of water is essential since the least tern’s diet is mainly small minnows. The piping plover primarily eats invertebrates living in the moist sand along the water’s edge.

b. What is the status of the interior least tern and piping plover compared to their recovery goals?

In 1996, there were approximately 5,776 adult least terns observed, of which 1,022 were in Nebraska, with 446 along the Platte River. The FWS’s Recovery Plan goals are a population of 7,000 birds, with 750 breeding birds along the Platte River. The populations must be stable for 10 years after reaching these levels before reclassifying the species would be considered.

In 1996, there were 3,026 piping plovers counted in the Northern Great Plains population (United States and Canada). There were 1,339 birds counted in the United States, with 366 individuals counted in Nebraska, of which 203 were along the North and South Platte and Platte Rivers.

Counting “pairs” of birds is more difficult because of the possibility of not seeing all of the nests. Therefore, the number of pairs reported should be considered conservative and may not necessarily be double the number of individuals counted. With this in mind, there were 91 piping plover pairs observed along the North and South Platte and Platte Rivers (including sand pit sites and the shore of Lake McConaughy). Twenty-four pairs of piping plovers were counted along the central Platte River.

The FWS’s Recovery Plan goals are 1,300 breeding pairs in the United States, with 140 breeding pairs along the Platte River. Populations must remain stable for 15 years after reaching these levels before reclassifying the species would be considered.

Pallid Sturgeon

a. When, where, how and how often do pallid sturgeon use Platte River habitat?

The pallid sturgeon lives and feeds near the bottom of large, turbid rivers which carry large amounts of silt, sand, and organic matter and provide the variety of depths, water velocities, and bottom structures to offer nursery, spawning, and foraging areas. Because of extensive water development, much of the species’ historic range no longer provides suitable habitat for the pallid sturgeon. Between 1980 and 1997, 12 pallid sturgeon were identified in the lower Platte River between the mouth of the Elkhorn River and the Missouri River near the Platte River confluence.

b. What is the current status and trends for pallid sturgeon compared to their recovery goals?

Pallid sturgeon observations show a downward trend in population. An average of 50 pallids were observed each year in the 1960s, 21 each year in the 1970s, and only six each year in the 1980s. It has been estimated that there are between 320 to 640 pallid sturgeon in the Missouri River isolated above the Gavins Point Dam, and 1,500 to 6,000 below Gavins Point, including the area near the mouth of the Platte River. Estimates for the Mississippi River range from 6,300 to 16,600 pallids.

The FWS’s 1993 Recovery Plan states that de-listing may be considered when pallid sturgeon are reproducing naturally in the wild and populations are stable and self-sustaining within each of six specified priority areas, including the area near the mouth of the Platte River.

2. How has the habitat of the four target species has been adversely affected?

A reduction in total flows and changes in the timing of flows have allowed the river channels to become narrower, more stable and more vegetated in the central Platte. As a result, there is now less wide channel and bare sandbar habitat than previously existed. Flow changes may also have affected the availability of the turbid, high flow conditions preferred by the pallid sturgeon in the lower Platte.

3. What if a threatened or endangered species is found on my property? Are there restrictions on how I can use my land?

Federally listed species are protected by the ESA and should not be harmed or bothered in any way. Harm or other forms of harming a protected species can amount to a “taking” of the species under the ESA and there are penalties for actions that constitute such a “taking.” In the case of migrating whooping cranes or nesting least terns and piping plovers, you should keep your distance and not approach the birds or their nests. Landowners should be able to conduct normal agricultural activities without disturbing these birds or their nesting sites. If a landowner proposes a project that requires federal funds or permits, the ESA requires the agency approving those funds or permits to check with the FWS before proceeding. The FWS would then advise the landowners regarding ways to reduce the impact to the affected species without changing the purpose of the proposed project.

4. Who can answer my questions about the endangered species of concern?

The Fish and Wildlife Service and other participants in the Cooperative Agreement process have considerable detailed information about the target species. A primary contact for specific information on these species would be the Grand Island Field Office of the FWS. Their phone number is (308) 382-6468. Press “0” for the receptionist, who can direct your call to the appropriate staff person. Their address is: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 203 West Second Street, Federal Building, Grand Island, Nebraska 68801. In addition, other agencies and organizations (i.e., Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, the public power and irrigation districts and conservation organizations) have significant information and expertise on these species.

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