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A Proposal to Leverage More Conservation Benefits from National Wildlife Refuges

Public Protections Natural Resources

How should the United States manage the largest biodiversity conservation system to be greater than the sum of its parts? This vexing question for the national wildlife refuges has received scant attention for the past quarter century. Now the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (Service), which administers the refuge system, has proposed a rule to guide specific refuge decisions to ensure they contribute to a national network rather than incrementally fray the web of conservation.

The proposal is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to strengthen the ability of refuge managers to protect and enhance ecological integrity. The Service should finalize the rule expeditiously. But in revising its proposal, the Service can make small changes that will have big payoffs for the next decade of nature conservation as the challenges of climate and other environmental disruption grow.

Early legislation governing the refuges offered no overarching mission to connect management of hundreds of diverse national wildlife refuges. In 1967, E.O. Wilson and Robert MacArthur published a path-breaking monograph, The Theory of Island Biogeography, revealing that this approach —which conceived of refuges as something akin to isolated island sanctuaries — could not prevent species extinction, regardless of how well the refuges were managed. The need for connections between habitat areas spawned a new discipline, conservation biology, aimed at sustaining populations in the face of ecological threats: a “discipline with a deadline,” Wilson famously called it.

In 1997, Congress recognized what scientists like Wilson, MacArthur, and many others like them discovered: nature reserves must be interconnected to be effective in the long term. The Refuge Improvement Act provided a refuge system-wide mission to “administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation” of animals and plants (emphasis mine). It remains the only public land law that directly incorporates conservation biology into management mandates.

The key statutory mandate to steer the refuge system toward this networking vision requires the Interior Secretary to “ensure that the biological integrity, diversity, and environmental health [“BIDEH”] of the System are maintained” (again, emphases mine). This awkward phrase and acronym are equivalent to what conservation biologists now call maintaining “ecological integrity.”

But the BIDEH mandate languished without a binding rule to translate the statutory command into on-the-ground and in-the-water actions for refuge managers. The proposed rule builds on progress the system already made in its conservation plans. But the Service should revise the proposal to better reflect current conservation science: habitat fragmentation impairs the BIDEH mission by reducing connectivity. The Service should avoid fragmentation for all uses it approves. Where achieving refuge goals requires some habitat fragmentation, the rule should clearly limit it and insist the Service minimize what cannot be avoided. Climate change has exacerbated existing stressors on ecological integrity, but improving connectivity bolsters the resilience of the system to disruptive environmental change.

National wildlife refuges tend to be wetter, lower, and have richer soil on average than other federal land units. On the one hand, that’s good. They are biologically productive and representative of ecosystems otherwise scarce in the federal estate. But the challenge is that they are often at the receiving end of degradation in their watersheds. Congress recognized this problem in the 1997 law with a mandate to acquire needed water rights and, more importantly, to assist in the delivery of “adequate water quantity and water quality to fulfill the mission of the System.” The proposed rule would better assure implementation of the aquatic connectivity component that underpins BIDEH with its strong commitment to “maintain and exercise” water rights.

While the rule as proposed is strong, there are some additions I’d like to see before it is finalized. For instance, except in Alaska, refuges are seldom isolated from nonfederal lands. This leaves them vulnerable to activities outside their boundaries: external threats such as upstream uses that degrade water quality or neighbors that fail to control invasive weeds. While existing Service policy already recognizes that refuge managers should address these threats, the proposed rule promises to “encourage effective interaction and coordination with other land adjoining refuges.” However, it would be more likely to accomplish that aim if it delineated what steps will be taken when other parties refuse to coordinate. When collaborative solutions fail, the rule should authorize refuge managers to participate in state and local administrative proceedings in consultation with Service regional offices. The final rule should also more clearly instruct refuge managers to address threats to all aspects of BIDEH, not just its abiotic components.

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The final rule should also clarify what seems to be a weakly articulated intent to expand the BIDEH mandate to public uses. This would better integrate the BIDEH duty with the compatibility determinations that govern use approvals, which happen more frequently than spending appropriations for conservation management actions. It should bind the Service to the existing compatibility policy, which already prohibits approvals of uses that would conflict with ecological integrity, reduce habitat quality or quantity, or fragment habitat.

Lastly, the proposed rule sets out circumstances under which refuges may undertake certain contentious activities, such as predator control, farming, pesticide applications, and introductions of genetically modified organisms. These are wisely included in subsections providing detailed descriptions of the determinations refuge managers must make to authorize such activities. However, the final rule should clarify the burdens of proof required for approval so that refuge managers may act with confidence as they navigate political controversies.

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The proposed rule is a reasonable interpretation of the Service’s duties and a sensible exercise of discretion, codifying practices and promoting consistency with existing rules. But it should be strengthened in its revision to provide clearer standards for refuge managers. If the Service succeeds, it will wring more conservation out of its existing system and bolster the aim of President Biden’s quest to protect biodiversity with habitat conservation on 30 percent of the country by 2030.

A revised final rule would push the refuge system to live up to its mission as a national network for biodiversity conservation managed by the best science.

Top image taken at Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge, courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Public Protections Natural Resources

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