SAN FRANCISCO– Conservation groups and the U.S. Forest Service have agreed to have an independent science panel evaluate the service’s selection of plant and animal species as indicators of the overall health of the Sierra Nevada forests. The agreement settles a legal dispute over management of the national forests in California’s greatest mountain range.
The groups brought the suit to restore safeguards for a variety of Sierra Nevada wildlife, such as the Pacific fisher and northern goshawk. The lawsuit challenged the Bush administration’s 2007 decision to dramatically reduce the number of species monitored on the Sierra Nevada national forests -- increasing the risk that industrial activities, such as logging, will harm sensitive wildlife and fragile habitat.
The wellbeing of indicator species reflects the overall health of a forest. If the Forest Service finds that logging, road building or other activities could harm these bellwether species, it must take action to ensure that they are sufficiently protected before allowing those activities to begin.
“We were forced to go to court in 2008 when the Forest Service weakened wildlife protections in the Sierra by eliminating monitoring of dozens of species,” explains attorney Erin Tobin with the public interest law firm Earthjustice, which represented the environmental groups. “This settlement is a positive sign that the Forest Service is willing to listen to sound science, and we applaud the agency for that.”
Monitoring the health of wildlife and its habitat allows managers to understand the impacts that forest management actions have on fish and wildlife populations. Management plans must comply with the National Forest Management Act and the Endangered Species Act, which protect the diversity of fish and wildlife in national forests.
“Everyone agrees that we must use sound science to manage our national forests and this settlement establishes a robust scientific process free of any political or bureaucratic influences. We are pleased that independent experts will now be writing management plans for all ten national forests that span the Sierra Nevada mountain range,” said Craig Thomas of Sierra Forest Legacy.
The independent peer-review of the Forest Service’s indicator species and monitoring plan will be directed by the Conservation Biology Institute, an independent non-profit research center based in Corvallis, Oregon. Conservation biologist, Wayne Spencer of CBI, who has conducted numerous surveys of wildlife habitat in California, will be the facilitator of the study. CBI will select an expert panel of scientists, with diverse approaches to the study of ecological indicators and wildlife monitoring, to spend up to 18 months reviewing management plans for indicator species throughout California’s Sierra Nevada.
“The settlement gives us greater confidence that the management of Sierra Nevada Forests will be based on science, not politics,” said Pete Nelson, federal lands director for Defenders of Wildlife. “This is good news for both Californians and this region’s sensitive wildlife.”
“Protecting at-risk species requires protecting the ecosystems they depend on, both within each national forest, and across the entire Sierra Nevada range. When the Forest Service gutted the Management Indicator Species program they undermined that goal,” explained Lisa Belenky, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “We hope the work of the new science panel will help get this program back on track to protect wildlife in the Sierra Nevada and provide needed guidance on monitoring in a changing climate.”