2016 was full of challenges for wildlife. With an increasingly anti-wildlife, hostile Congress, the illegal takeover of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and an Interior Secretary nominee that raised serious concerns for wildlife conservation, there were certainly setbacks and frustrating outcomes. But this year had plenty of wins and success stories too: the first female panther crossed the Caloosahatchee River, the first phase of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan kicked off in September and President Obama permanently banned new offshore drilling in huge areas of the Atlantic and Arctic Ocean. Here’s a look back at this year’s good news.
- Public Lands Victories in California: The year started off with a landmark victory for public lands. In February, President Obama announced he would be designating three national monuments in the California desert – Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow and Castle Mountains national monuments. The president’s proclamation conserved 1.8 million acres of California’s most ecologically important and scenic areas for generations to come.
- Fish and Wildlife Service steps up for wolves, bears and other carnivores: In August, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) posted a final rule prohibiting Alaska from applying its “predator control” program to National Wildlife Refuge System lands in the state. Alaska’s controversial program authorizes the culling of native carnivores through aerial gunning, baiting, trapping, and killing mother bears and cubs and wolves and pups in their dens to inflate deer, moose and caribou populations. The announcement of the predator rule was a great way to end the summer.
- A Battle Won for NC Red Wolves: In September, Defenders scored a big victory in court for North Carolina’s dwindling population of wild red wolves. A federal judge in North Carolina has issued a preliminary injunction barring the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from removing native wolves from the wild unless they pose an imminent threat to human safety or property. In recent years, FWS had been removing wolves simply because some vocal landowners don’t want them there – a significant departure from years of prior practice. Lawyers for Defenders of Wildlife and our allies argued in a court hearing on September 14 that a preliminary injunction was needed to stop the agency from further harming the world’s only population of wild red wolves. On September 29, Judge Terrence Boyle of the Eastern District of North Carolina issued a ruling preventing the Service from unnecessarily trapping and killing any more wolves.
Red wolves still need serious help from FWS to survive and recover in their North Carolina habitat. We’re keeping the pressure on FWS to recommit to the red wolf recovery effort and resume releasing captive red wolves into the wild, managing coyotes in the recovery area to prevent hybridization and we are undertaking a serious coexistence effort to create social acceptance for wolves in the wild of North Carolina. This battle will certainly continue in 2017.
- Big cats on the move: Fantastic news for endangered Florida panthers came out in November, when wildlife officials announced they had documented a female panther north of the Caloosahatchee River. For decades, these imperiled cats have been found only in the southern tip of Florida. On rare occasions, a male would be seen north of the river, but unless females also started roaming that far north, the species couldn’t truly expand. Now, there’s proof that at least one female has made the journey, bringing with her the hope that the population of Florida panthers can truly grow and thrive. She’s not the only big cat making moves: in addition, a second jaguar may have been spotted in Arizona, and a new ocelot den was discovered recently in south Texas! These stories show that there is hope for the recovery of America’s most interesting and imperiled wildlife, but there is still a long way to go. That’s what makes Defenders’ work on recovery plans, protecting habitat and working within the states to create habitat and corridors so important.
- The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan: Way back in 2008, Defenders of Wildlife embarked on a mission with federal and state agencies and our conservation partners to create a plan that would promote “smart from the start” renewable energy development in the California desert that directs development towards lands with lower habitat and wildlife values. On Sept. 14, 2016 Interior Secretary Sally Jewell signed the first phase of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), completing almost a decade’s-worth of hard work to conserve the most intact desert lands in the country and iconic wildlife like the desert tortoise all while promoting a clean energy future. For more on the DRECP and what it means for wildlife, read California program director Kim Delfino’s blog.
- Wildlife Corridors: On Dec. 7, Representative Don Beyer (D-VA) introduced the Wildlife Corridors Conservation Act of 2016, which aims to establish a National Wildlife Corridors System to connect important habitats for native fish, wildlife and plants. The more habitats are connected, the better the chance that wildlife will survive the stresses of habitat loss, fragmentation and climate disruption. Connecting our public wildlands and waters is key to the survival of a diverse array of treasured species, from the grizzly bear to the monarch butterfly. To learn more about connectivity, click here for a blog from Defenders’ Senior Policy Advisor on Federal Lands Peter Nelson.
- President Obama protects federal waters from drilling: Just in time for the holiday season, wildlife lovers were gifted with great news: President Obama permanently banned new offshore drilling in parts of federal waters off the Atlantic Coast and in the Arctic Ocean. This will reduce the threats posed by offshore oil and gas development to imperiled and endangered species in these two regions, including North Atlantic right whales and humpback whales, sea turtles, belugas, polar bears and walruses. Withdrawing these waters from oil drilling will make our oceans healthier and safer for marine and coastal wildlife, and will help protect local communities and local industries like fishing and tourism from the harmful effects of oil and gas extraction. And it marks the important recognition that we cannot achieve the nation’s climate change goals if we continue to expand oil and gas development into new, pristine environments like the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans.
- Continuing resolution spares wildlife: On Dec. 9, the Senate voted on a continuing resolution that funds the federal government until April 28, when the national budget will be considered again. For four months at least, endangered species, wildlife and habitat in the United States will be spared from anti-wildlife provisions that were shoehorned into FY 2017 spending bills, including riders that would end all federal protections for gray wolves in the continental United States, block Endangered Species Act protection for the lesser prairie-chicken and force the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to allow the state of Alaska to use intensive predator control practices (such as killing mother bears and cubs and shooting wolves and coyotes with pups) on national wildlife refuges in Alaska. However, the fight isn’t over yet. All of these riders and more could very well be back on the table in 2017, so wildlife advocates and our allies in Congress will need to be vigilant and keep the pressure on to pass a clean budget, free of riders that attack the Endangered Species Act or our wildlife, water, lands and air.
- A step forward for sharks: On Dec. 28, the National Marine Fisheries Services (NMFS) published a proposed regulation to protect the oceanic whitetip shark in the Federal Register today in response to a petition filed by Defenders of Wildlife. The regulations would give the shark threatened species status under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The public has 90 days to comment on the proposed regulation. The oceanic whitetip shark is a victim of the international shark fin trade; it is also frequently killed as bycatch in other fisheries. We’ve already lost at least 70 percent of these sharks across the globe, and this proposal is a step towards making sure they aren’t lost forever for the sake of a delicacy.
There was plenty to celebrate in 2016. We must now look ahead to the New Year and the challenges we will face in 2017. With the support of conservation advocates across the country, there will be many more victories for wildlife to come.