Despite a backlog of endangered species issues and a host of current lawsuits, the Fish and Wildlife Service plans to focus firmly on the future.
Climate change is the theme for the agency's $1.65 billion discretionary budget plan for fiscal 2011.
"The budget does reflect a switch in our priorities," said Chris Nolin, head of the service's budget division. "Our primary focus is reorienting the agency so we can address climate change. We need to start looking at climate change in everything we do. That was really the focus of this budget."
The Obama administration has proposed redirecting cash and personnel toward climate research and acquisition of land that would become corridors for wildlife moving as temperatures rise and habitat changes. Some wildlife biologists and environmental groups have welcomed the change, but the agency's budget worries other environmentalists who are concerned the agency may lose ground on endangered species protection.
"We support climate change adaptation. We support renewable energy development. But none of that should be done at the expense of real protections for species," said Noah Greenwald, director of the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity's endangered species program. "With the added threat of climate change, endangered species need even more protection."
Fish and Wildlife Director Sam Hamilton said the new investment is not intended to take away from the rest of the agency's work. Rather, he wants to bolster FWS's mission to conserve wildlife by calling on the agency's 9,000 employees to make climate change planning central in their work.
The heart of the effort is a new program, "landscape conservation cooperatives," which is aimed at uniting federal agencies, states, nonprofits and universities to advise on the service's regional management decisions. Theirs will be the "daunting task," Hamilton said, of helping design strategic regional conservation plans that consider the impact of rising temperatures, water scarcity, disease and invasive species on plants and animals.
The agency plans to launch eight cooperatives this year and to expand the initiative later to cover 21 landscape regions. The budget includes $29 million for climate change planning and science, a 45 percent increase over levels in fiscal 2010, when the program launched. Much of that money would go to the landscape cooperatives.
The budget also makes a significant deposit on land acquisition, $106 million, a boost of nearly 12 percent above last year's levels. After years of diminished funding for buying land, Hamilton said he wants to restore land-purchasing programs with a eye toward creating refuges for species being driven out of their native ranges by climate change.
Hamilton said the goal is to make the agency strategic in land acquisition instead of being opportunistic as it has been in the past.
"Are we purchasing land in the right place? Are we connecting habitat in the right place? Are we planning the right kinds of education in the right places? Are we truly using what the future conditions will be like to help inform us?" Hamilton said. "I don't think we will be strictly opportunistic in the future. ... We will have to be far more strategic in what we do."
Such planning should direct land acquisition efforts for wildlife refuges and for smaller-scale land purchases that federal agencies oversee. For example, developers often have to offset wetlands destruction by purchasing land for conservation. Under current procedure, convenience and ready availability of land drive the process for the new purchases, Hamilton said.
From now on, he said, the agency would try to focus acquisition to have maximum conservation benefits. Instead of setting aside isolated wetlands for conservation, he said, the agency could select areas that could provide large swaths of habitat.
The idea, Hamilton said, is to have the agency be in a position to say, "OK, we have a blueprint for how to build this landscape."
Shifts praised, criticized
With President Obama proposing a freeze on discretionary spending, the service's new climate effort's funding must be balanced by cuts and freezes elsewhere in the budget.
The administration's budget plan would cut $1 million from the department that evaluates whether species need federal protection, while $4 million would be added to expedite the agency's reviews of the effects of renewable energy projects on endangered species.
Some environmentalists see such shifts as having long-term benefits. "Climate change is the challenge of our time," said Mary Beth Beetham, director of legislative affairs for the nonprofit group Defenders of Wildlife. "We need to build resiliency in natural systems to ensure they'll be able to take the stress."
But Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity said the reallocation reflects a budget plan more concerned with ensuring the Endangered Species Act doesn't tie up renewable energy development than with using the act to save species from extinction.
Greenwald particularly opposes cutting $1 million from Fish and Wildlife's listing program for endangered species at a time when the agency is failing to meet its listing obligations. Even under its $22 million budget this year, the program was frequently taken to court for failing to meet the Endangered Species Act's 12-month deadline to respond to new petitions for species listings.
The agency also faces a backlog of 249 "candidate species," plants and animals that the service has acknowledged need federal protection but has placed on a waiting list while it focuses on what it considers higher-priority species (Greenwire, Sept. 8, 2009).
Doug Krofta, who heads the service's listing program, said the agency is on track to address a quarter of candidate species by the end of 2010. But there's no comparable target for fiscal 2011 other than to make "expeditious progress," Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Valerie Fellows said.
"Progress, of course," Fellows said, "depends on available resources."
Refuge advocates disappointed
The administration's proposal also faces opposition from some supporters of the National Wildlife Refuge System. The administration has proposed cutting $3 million from the refuge system's budget, a fraction of the $500 million spent on refuges in 2010 but a far cry from the $75 million increase environmental groups had requested.
The system needs an annual increase of $15 million to keep pace with increases in operating costs, said Desiree Sorenson-Groves of the National Wildlife Refuge Association, the system's nonprofit, nongovernmental booster. To function at full capacity, the system would need an operating budget of $900 million a year and an additional 4,000 employees, she said.
To be sure, the group didn't expect to see a $400 million budget hike for refuges, she said, but it had hoped the combination of a Democratic Congress and an Obama White House would do better.
Other proposed cuts to traditional Fish and Wildlife programs: $6 million from fisheries conservation, $5.5 million from international species and $2.5 million from migratory bird protection.
Agency banking on climate carryover
The proposed funding shifts would leave all of Fish and Wildlife programs "a little stretched," said Nolin, the agency budget chief, but she insisted such efforts would continue to function at a high level.
Nolin emphasized that the endangered species program saw its budget boosted by $21 million from 2009 to 2010 and the refuge system got a $40 million boost then.
Moreover, she said, the climate push figures to yield long-term benefits for all agency efforts.
"We're going to look at how climate is going to affect habitats and populations ... to figure out how we can help them adapt," Nolin said. "But that will also help us with everything else we do."
Hamilton likewise said climate programs would help all service efforts.
Climate change "is not like a category by itself," he said. "Some people describe it as an accelerator. Habitat fragmentation, invasives, all this stuff -- when you factor in climate change ... that is going to increase, accelerate. How do you deal with that?"