WMI Facilitates Novel Approach to ESA Information Gathering for Northern Rocky Mountains Fisher

WMI Facilitates Novel Approach to ESA Information Gathering for Northern Rocky Mountains Fisher

The Wildlife Management Institute (WMI) recently organized two stakeholder meetings designed to help the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) make a fully-informed decision on the status of the Northern Rocky Mountains (NRM) distinct population segment of fisher. The new approach allowed the Service to supplement their normal process for gathering information to use in making a decision on whether or not a species is warranted for listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). During the meetings, participants with different sources of data and different views about data had the opportunity to discuss their information and perspectives. WMI Western Field Representative Chris Smith reported that the discussions were constructive with a great deal of information exchanged. What the long-term outcome will be remains to be seen.

image of fisher

In response to a petition filed in 2011 by the Center for Biological Diversity and several other environmental groups, the Service must decide by September 30, 2017 whether or not the NRM fisher is warranted for listing as ?threatened? or ?endangered? under the ESA. The ESA requires that the Service?s decision be based solely on ?the best available scientific and commercial data.?

Typically, the Service addresses the challenge of locating all the available information by reaching out to potential sources of information through letters to interested parties or notices in the Federal Register calling for information. Once received, the Service has relied on internal reviews and criteria spelled out in the ESA to decide which data are the best. This approach has led some to question the Service?s consideration or interpretation of their data as well as whether the Service has truly received all ?available? scientific and commercial data. To address this concern, the Service decided to take an additional step as it moves forward with its listing decision on the NRM fisher.

In addition to soliciting information from all interested parties as usual, the Service contracted with WMI to design, convene, facilitate, and document a process that allows parties with an interest in conservation of NRM fisher to share and discuss the scientific and commercial data available to help inform the Service?s decision. Participants in the meetings included Service staff responsible for completing the Species Status Assessment (SSA); representatives from the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service; Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation; the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe from Montana; the Nez Perce and Coeur d?Alene Tribes from Idaho; and non-governmental organizations ranging from the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) to the Montana Trappers Association. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game sent an observer, but declined to participate actively in the dialog.

The meetings were designed to provide an opportunity to share scientific and commercial data on the status, management, and potential threats to the NRM fisher with the Service and each other; discuss views regarding the available scientific and commercial data with the Service and each other; and answer questions the Service may have about scientific and commercial data submitted for consideration. The meetings were not designed or intended to develop a consensus among the diverse interests, advise the Service about which data it should or should not consider in making a decision, or advise the Service regarding whether the NRM Fisher does or does not warrant listing under the ESA

Montana Ecological Services Office Supervisor Jodi Bush, whose office is responsible for completing the SSA, said the meetings were, ?an experiment in trying to improve the way the Service gathers information and helping everyone understand the ESA listing process.?

The meetings gave the Service the opportunity to listen to the discussion and ask questions of those providing data to improve the Service?s understanding of the data and any limitations on its use. The Service?s goal in engaging with diverse interests in these transparent discussions was to increase all parties? understanding of the data that will be considered by the Service in making its decision. The Service believes this will result in a better-informed as well as better-understood final decision.

The first meeting was held in Missoula, Montana on October 11 and 12. A second meeting was held in Coeur d?Alene, Idaho on November 3 and 4. Both meetings followed the same format with the Service providing a brief overview of the general biology of NRM Fisher, the ESA listing process, and their information needs. Participants then spent parts of two days sharing and discussing scientific and commercial data they believe the Service should consider in making its decision.

The information discussed ranged from recent genetic research completed by the Rocky Mountain Research Station, comprehensive distribution surveys, and models of the effects of climate change on habitat suitability to anecdotal observations of trappers, citizen scientists, and Native American traditional ecological knowledge and language. All the parties involved provided positive feedback to WMI and the Service about the meetings and expressed appreciation for the opportunity for an open dialog about the status of NRM fisher.

WMI will prepare a summary of the meetings and a final report for the Service, which will become part of the administrative record for the final decision. In addition to helping the Service, Smith said he hopes the meetings also identify knowledge gaps regarding the NRM fisher that can guide future research and monitoring, as well as increase collaboration among interested parties to address information gaps or conservation needs of NRM fisher. In keeping with WMI?s mission of enhancing the conservation and professional management of North American wildlife, Smith also said these meetings will help evaluate the degree to which this approach reduces questions or controversy regarding the Service?s interpretation and application of data in a listing decision.

Photo Credit
USFWS - Pacific Region, Flickr
November 15, 2016