Environmental Lab’s Conservation Management Plan sets precedent

Published May 5, 2014
EL Director Dr. Beth Fleming, left, joined Conservation Management Plan author Dr. Jack Killgore, EL research fisheries biologist, for the signing ceremony marking the first step in a new way of complying with the Endangered Species Act.

EL Director Dr. Beth Fleming, left, joined Conservation Management Plan author Dr. Jack Killgore, EL research fisheries biologist, for the signing ceremony marking the first step in a new way of complying with the Endangered Species Act.

VICKSBURG, Miss. - As a remarkable first for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), the recent official release by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) of its non-jeopardy biological opinion benefits three listed endangered species without excessive expenditures. This is thanks to the Conservation Management Plan (CMP), developed by the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center’s (ERDC) Environmental Laboratory (EL) team and its collaborators for the Mississippi Valley Division (MVD).

The agreement was signed by former MVD Commander Maj. Gen. John Peabody, EL’s Dr. Beth Fleming, laboratory director, and USFWS’s Stephen Ricks, field supervisor.

EL’s Dr. Jack Killgore, research fisheries biologist, led the ERDC team which created the CMP for MVD and credits USFWS’s Paul Hartfield of the Jackson Field Office as the major co-author and supporter of the research efforts that resulted in a non-jeopardy biological ruling. Leading efforts at MVD were Dr. Barb Kleiss and David Vigh, who supported the conservation plan approach as a new way of endangered species compliance.

Addressing the Endangered Species Act (ESA) began slowly and cautiously, but eventually the USFWS and USACE collaborated on the CMP development, which targets the Interior Least Tern, Pallid Sturgeon, and Fat Pocketbook Mussel in the Lower Mississippi River (LMR).

Highlighting their efforts, the U.S. Department of Interior (USDOI) headquarters’ ceremonial signing of the “Biological Opinion for the Corps’ Mississippi Valley Division Channel Improvement Program in the Lower Mississippi River” will be coordinated in Washington D. C., emphasizing the importance of this project in fostering cooperation and partnerships in conservation efforts.

Killgore and Hartfield are scheduled to join EL Director Dr. Beth Fleming, MVD leadership, USFWS and USDOI officials at the ceremony. The planning memorandum stated, “The Secretary’s participation in this event will serve to endorse wider application of Section 7(a)(1)(of the ESA) as a means to reduce interagency conflict under Section 7(a)(2) of the Act (formal consultation), encourage cooperation and partnerships in conservation efforts, and to cost-effectively recover threatened and endangered species affected by Federal agency actions and programs.”

Killgore addressed why this CMP is important for the Corps.

“The Corps does have obligations under the CMP, which includes continuing dike notching and other projects to diversify habitat, avoid and minimize impacts to important habitat types such as gravel bars where sturgeon spawn, and continue monitoring the populations. Since the Corps was already complying with these requirements in the conservation plan, additional expenditures are not anticipated,” Killgore said.

“It wasn’t until USACE developed its own research and monitoring program and really started collaborating with the USFWS that we were able to conclude that the populations in the lower Mississippi were much healthier than previously thought. We had demonstrated recruitment, in other words for Pallid Sturgeon, they were spawning successfully, the young were surviving and building up the population, and there was no indication that they were on the brink of extinction (as thought in prior years).

“The USFWS started collaborating with ERDC on our field studies to evaluate population status. In a couple of years, they came to the same conclusion that there was indeed a healthy population of Pallid Sturgeon and Least Terns, so we started developing a conversation plan under Section 7(a)(1) of the ESA. There is a reason this plan is different. It was developed from the Corps’ science program at the MVD in collaboration with USFWS,” Killgore said.

This conservation plan applies to just one of the three river sections, defined as the Lower Mississippi River (LMR), stretching 950 miles from the mouth of the Ohio River down to the Gulf of Mexico, while the Middle Mississippi River (MMR) extends from the mouth of the Missouri River to the mouth of the Ohio River (200 miles), and the Upper Mississippi River (UMR) extends from the mouth of Missouri River up to St. Paul, Minn., approximately 700 miles.

“MVD manages all three sections of the Mississippi River, including the largest civil works project in the Corps of Engineers, in terms of length and probably funding, known as the Mississippi River and Tributaries project (MR&T). The MR&T encompasses just the LMR. It started in 1928, and it’s about 90 percent complete today. The ESA requires that the Corps evaluate the impacts of its current projects on any listed endangered species.

Because the Least Tern, Fat Pocketbook Mussel and Pallid Sturgeon were listed by the USFWS as endangered, the Corps had to develop a biological assessment of project impacts.

“The biological assessment, which was part of the Corps’ conservation plan, indicates that the population status of the three listed species in the LMR is stable or expanding, but there is a possibility that the Channel Improvement Feature (CIF) of Mississippi River and Tributaries (MR&T) could adversely affect the species in some situations. At that time, the Corps requested formal consultation under ESA Section 7(a) (2) with the USFWS.

“When the USFWS issued jeopardy BiOp’s for Pallid Sturgeon and Least Terns in other reaches of the Mississippi River Basin, the status of the populations was not clear in many instances. The opposite is true in the LMR. We know the status and documented it in the CMP and expect our non- jeopardy BiOp to exist as long as the Corps continues to diversify and conserve river habitats,” Killgore said.

Fellow EL team members assisting with the written plan included Dr. Todd Slack, Dr. Rich Fischer, Audrey Harrison and Dr. Jan Hoover, who assisted with much of the field research, as well as Dr. Barb Kleiss, MVD technical director and co-author.

“Stephen Ricks, USFWS field supervisor for the Jackson, Mississippi field office, was the leading force behind USFWS’s push to implement the conservation plan approach,” Killgore said.

USFWS stated that “potential conflicts usually involve poorly studied species where Service biologists must use their best professional judgment to assess actions, determine effects, and recommend modifications. In such cases, with no prior planning or commitments by the action agency, the Service must err on the side of the species.”

By studying the species early in the process and adopting ESA conservation provisions, both agencies contributed to effective species recovery strategies and programs in the LMR.

Summing up this impressive, landmark conservation plans, Killgore said, “It’s is all about diversifying habitats and increasing connectivity, all of which benefit the endangered species and other fauna living in the Mississippi River. The LMR is still wild in many respects, and deserves our recognition as a national resource.”