- Associated Press - Friday, July 10, 2015

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - South Dakota doesn’t have much on the books to help determine when a species can come off its endangered species list.

That is changing, however, thanks to the non-game biologists at the Game, Fish and Parks Department.

The state list was created in the 1970s as a companion to the federal endangered species act of 1972, which aimed to help stop the loss and begin the recovery of hundreds of native animal species. The state law requires GF&P biologists to review the lists periodically and take a look at each of roughly 24 listed species to where they are at in terms of recovery.

There’s just one problem.

“Our law, though, doesn’t give us a whole lot of direction on how to do that,” said Eileen Dowd Stukel who oversees the GF&P wildlife diversity program.

The law didn’t define what exactly “recovery” meant for a species.

That has left biologists in something of a lurch when it comes to taking action on de-listing a species, the Capital Journal reported (https://bit.ly/1J8DBns ).

The river otter is a good example. The species was nearly wiped out due to over-trapping and habitat loss but over the past few decades, otters have been mounting a comeback. In eastern South Dakota, sightings and incidental trappings have been becoming increasingly common - so much so that the some of the state’s trappers have suggested delisting otters so they can make use of the furs they harvest.

Several states in the river otter’s home range, including Minnesota, have already delisted the fish-eating critters. So has the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Biologists in South Dakota, on the other hand, know that river otter numbers are increasing but they don’t know when otters will meet the delisting threshold, because there isn’t one, technically.

In the past delisting decisions have been made in a sort of ad hoc way, Stuckel said. Because biologists don’t really have much in the way of guidelines to follow they have to use their best judgment.

“We just relied on overwhelming evidence,” Stukel said.

That can open the door to disagreements with the public. Such disagreements have the potential to lead to lawsuits to stop a delisting decision.

“We just felt we weren’t following a process,” Stukel said. “We just felt like we didn’t have a defensible position.”

Bald eagles are another example of a species on the road to recovery. In fact, Stukel submitted a proposal to the GF&P Commission to delist the species in June. A public hearing on the proposal is scheduled for Aug. 6.

Bald eagles were taken off the federal endangered and threatened species list in 2007. Biologists in South Dakota, however, wanted to wait to take eagles off the state list until they were sure there were plenty of eagles hanging around the state, Stukel said. There are now more than 140 active bald eagle nests in the state, according to GF&P surveys.

Bald eagles, owing in part to their fame as the national bird, had their own state recovery plan. It called for at least 25 active nests over a five-year period.

When Stukel and several of her colleagues took a look at taking bald eagles off the state endangered list, they found a system that needed a bit of an update. That update, they determined, would have to include a set of criteria for each listed species to meet before it could be a candidate for delisting.

“The most difficult thing to decide is to downlist or to delist,” Stukel said.

On the other end of the spectrum from bald eagles in South Dakota is another raptor, the peregrine falcon. Peregrines have been on the state endangered list almost since the beginning in the 1970s. At the time, peregrine falcons had been flirting with extinction due to the use of DDT.

Raptors such as peregrine falcons that mostly eat birds were decimated by DDT. The birds they ate were eating the bugs killed by DDT. The chemical built up the peregrines’ systems and caused calcium deficiencies. That led to weak eggshells, which collapsed and killed the chicks inside.

But by 1999, thanks to a ban on DDT and successful re-introduction programs, peregrine falcons were removed from the federal endangered species list.

In South Dakota, however, recovery has been harder to come by. Re-introduction efforts, the most recent of which was tried in Rapid City in 2013, haven’t been very successful at bringing nesting pairs back to the state.

That may actually be due to the state’s natural lack of suitable habitat more than anything else, though, said Casey Heimerl a GF&P wildlife biologist who works with raptors and is trying to figure out what, if anything, to do with peregrines.

“As far as we know, there are only two historical records, so we only know of two (nesting) sites,” she said.

South Dakota didn’t have a whole lot of peregrines to begin with.

That presents a bit of a problem to GF&P biologists such as Heimerl who are trying to come up with recovery criteria for peregrines in the state. There are only two places in the state that naturally meet a peregrine’s nesting requirements, the Black Hills and the Slim Buttes in Harding County.

And with only two historical records, even if peregrines were to re-establish themselves in 50 percent of their historic range there would only be one nesting pair. And if biologists use another common recovery criteria by establishing three or more nesting pairs that each return over the course of several years, there would actually more peregrines in South Dakota than history indicates.

For Heimerl, then, the question is about more than what targets peregrine falcons may or may not need to hit before coming off the state’s endangered species list.

“The first step is to determine whether they should be listed in the first place,” she said.

To do that, Heimerl and her colleagues who are working on reviews of the other species on the list have been gathering data and preparing sets of down and delisting criteria. Once they’ve got that done, Stukel said, their work will be sent to experts on each species as a way to help make sure they aren’t missing anything.

“Once we’ve got that feedback we’ll come up with a new draft,” Stukel said.

The process could take a while but in the end, the hope is to better help species on the brink recover, Stukel said.


Information from: Pierre Capital Journal, https://www.capjournal.com

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