SAN DIEGO, Calif.— After nearly 30 years of petitions and lawsuits by the Center for Biological Diversity, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today protected one of Southern California’s rarest butterflies, the Hermes copper butterfly, as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.
The agency also designated 35,000 acres of protected critical habitat in San Diego County. The habitat consists of three units: Lopez Canyon, which includes acreage within Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve; Miramar/Santee; and Southern San Diego.
“Without Endangered Species Act protection, the Hermes copper butterfly would surely be pushed into extinction by Southern California’s rampant development, wildfires driven by climate change and invasive plants,” said Ileene Anderson, a senior scientist at the Center. “I’m relieved to finally see this beautiful little butterfly and its habitat protected.”
The small, bright yellow-orange, spotted Hermes copper inhabits coastal sage scrub and chaparral habitats only in San Diego County and northern Baja. Its survival depends on dwindling patches of its host plant, the spiny redberry. Increasingly frequent and severe wildfires also ravage the butterfly’s primary source of nectar, the California buckwheat. Drought and development have also destroyed dozens of historic populations.
The Hermes copper occupied many San Diego coastal areas prior to urbanization, and still persists in some foothill and mountain areas up to 45 miles from the ocean. The butterfly declined from at least 57 historical populations to only 26 populations in a survey this year.
Devastating wildfires have increasingly burned through key Hermes copper habitat, putting an end to the tenuous existence of many remaining butterfly populations. For example, 2020’s Valley Fire came within just 2.5 miles of a core population of the butterfly. In today’s listing the Service warned that a single large wildfire could wipe out all remaining populations of the butterflies.
Even by the time it was first described in the late 1920s, the Hermes copper was endangered by urban development. By 1980 staff at the San Diego Natural History Museum noted that San Diego’s rapid urban growth put the future of the butterfly in the hands of developers. The Fish and Wildlife Service first identified the butterfly as a potential candidate for Endangered Species Act protection in 1984.
The Center for Biological Diversity and San Diego Biodiversity Project filed formal petitions in 1991 and 2004 to protect the species. A lawsuit was required to force the Service to respond to the second petition, but the agency announced in 2006 that it would not protect the species, despite fires in 2003 that burned nearly 40% of the butterfly’s habitat.
The Center filed a second lawsuit in 2009, but the Service delayed protection by placing the butterfly back on the candidate list in 2011. So the Center sued a third time in May 2019, which finally forced the Service to propose a status of threatened in January 2020.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
WASHINGTON— In a massive attack on imperiled wildlife, the Trump administration announced a series of rollbacks today to the regulations implementing key provisions of the Endangered Species Act.
The three proposed rules from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service would severely weaken protections for hundreds of endangered animals and plants across the country. They would also ensure that hundreds of imperiled species awaiting protection — like the monarch butterfly and the American wolverine — either never get safeguards or face additional, extinction-threatening delays.
One set of regulatory changes would weaken the consultation process designed to prevent harm to endangered animals and their habitats from federal agency activities. A second set of changes would curtail the designation of critical habitat and weaken the listing process for imperiled species. A third regulation would gut nearly all protections for wildlife newly designated as “threatened” under the Act.
The proposals are part of a broader effort by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to undercut protections for wildlife and public lands.
“These proposals would slam a wrecking ball into the most crucial protections for our most endangered wildlife,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “If these regulations had been in place in the 1970s, the bald eagle and the gray whale would be extinct today. If they’re finalized now, Zinke will go down in history as the extinction secretary.”
Under the proposal relating to federal consultations, impacts to critical habitat will be ignored unless they impact the entirety of an animal’s habitat — ignoring the fact that “death by a thousand cuts” is the most common way wildlife declines toward extinction.
The proposal will also prohibit designation of critical habitat for species threatened by climate change, even though in many cases these species are also threatened by habitat destruction and other factors. The proposal will also preclude designation of critical habitat for areas where species need to move to avoid climate threats.
“This proposal turns the extinction-prevention tool of the Endangered Species Act into a rubber stamp for powerful corporate interests,” said Hartl. “Allowing the federal government to turn a blind eye to climate change will be a death sentence for polar bears and hundreds of other animals and plants.”
The regulatory proposal addressing listing and critical habitat designations will gut wildlife agencies’ ability to designate critical habitat in unoccupied areas needed for recovery. Even though most endangered species currently occupy small fractions of their historic range, those areas would effectively be precluded from ever helping a species recover.
“Ordinary Americans understand that many species of wildlife have drastically declined in recent years, and that if we are going to save wildlife, we have to let them return to places they used to roam. Denying imperiled wild animals that ability means they have no future,” said Hartl.
Featured image: A bull buffalo lies dead, just outside Yellowstone’s north boundary. Photo by Stephany Seay, Buffalo Field Campaign
On January 12, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) denied Endangered Species Act protection for the iconic Yellowstone Bison. The agency’s decision comes 14 months after Western Watersheds Project and Buffalo Field Campaign petitioned to list these bison as an endangered or threatened species. The groups sought federal protection for the Yellowstone bison because these unique bison herds are harmed by inadequate federal and state management and other threats. In the finding, the USFWS now agrees that the Yellowstone bison are a distinct population of bison, reversing its 2011 position.
“If buffalo are to recover as a wild species in their native ecosystem, science must prevail over politics,” said BFC Executive Director Dan Brister. “The best available science indicates a listing under the Endangered Species Act is necessary to ensure the survival of this iconic species.”
“Friends of Animals is committed to protecting the last wild bison in America. We are disappointed in USFWS’s finding and suspect that the decision was improperly influenced by the interests of private ranchers in the area. We are reviewing the agency’s decision and plan to take further legal action if necessary,” stated attorney Michael Harris of Friends of Animals Wildlife Law Program.
“We petitioned the USFWS to list the Yellowstone bison because of clear management inadequacies and growing threats to this key population of wild bison. The USFWS decision is disappointing because protection under the Endangered Species Act is the only way to counter the management inadequacies and growing threats,” stated Michael Connor of Western Watersheds Project.
The groups’ petition catalogues the many threats that Yellowstone bison face. Specific threats include: extirpation from their range to facilitate livestock grazing, livestock diseases and disease management practices by the government, overutilization, trapping for slaughter, hunting, ecological and genomic extinction due to inadequate management, and climate change.
Federal and state policies and management practices threaten rather than protect the Yellowstone bison and their habitat. Since 2000, more than 4,000 bison have been captured from their native habitat in Yellowstone National Park and slaughtered. The Forest Service issues livestock grazing permits in bison habitat. The states of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming forcefully remove or kill bison migrating beyond the National Park borders.
Once numbering tens of millions, there were fewer than 25 wild bison remaining in the remote interior of Pelican Valley in Yellowstone National Park at the turn of the 20th Century. The 1894 Lacey Act, the first federal law specifically safeguarding bison, prevented the extinction of these few survivors.
The agency’s justification can be found online at: http://buffalofieldcampaign.org/ESA_90_Day_Finding.pdf
Editor’s note: We all know the word mammal, but not many people may have heard about tetrapod species. This group of wild animals includes amphibians, birds and reptiles in addition to mammals. Most people love jaguars and monkeys, but an ecosystem is thriving with all kinds of particular species, also with the ones that are green and greasy or look like little dinosaurs.
Because of their importance researchers want to find out how many tetrapod species have gone extinct in comparison to how many can be rediscovered; just because nobody saw them in between a few years, doesn’t mean that they’re gone. With this “lost and found” method scientists can prove how bad the extinction rate really is, and, in a case of rediscovery, get funding for protection measures.
In our so called civilization there’s no real protection for other than humans, wildlife has to make way when human needs appear. In a natural world where nonhumans needs were also considered we wouldn’t need to count for lost and found species. We would give them their own space and let them be. Yet it seems nowadays the only way to get funding for nature conservancy projects is by research, a method that only speaks to the mind.
But the mind is limited, human brains cannot grasp wholeness, beauty and true meaning of a healthy environment with only thoughts. Often it hinders us to connect to the special beings surrounding us. So in addition to science we as a society need a culture of connection and heartfelt unity to not lose more.
Lost species are those that have not been observed in the wild for over ten years, despite searches to find them. Lost tetrapod species (four-limbed vertebrate animals including amphibians, birds, mammals and reptiles) are a global phenomenon – there are more than 800 of them, and they are broadly distributed worldwide.
Our research, published today in the journal Global Change Biology, attempts to pin down why certain tetrapod species are rediscovered but others not. It also reveals that the number of lost tetrapod species is increasing decade-on-decade. This means that despite many searches, we are losing tetrapod species at a faster rate than we are rediscovering them. In particular, rates of rediscovery for lost amphibian, bird and mammal species have slowed in recent years, while rates of loss for reptile species have increased.
This is not good news. Species are often lost because their populations have shrunk to a very small size due to human threats like hunting and pollution. Consequently, many lost species are in danger of becoming extinct (in fact, some probably are extinct). However, it is difficult to protect lost species from extinction because we don’t know where they are.
Rediscoveries lead to conservation action
In 2018, researchers in Colombia successfully searched for the Antioquia brush-finch (Atlapetes blancae), a bird species unrecorded since 1971. This rediscovery led to the establishment of a reserve to protect the remaining population of the brush-finch, which is tiny and threatened by habitat loss caused by agricultural expansion and climate change.
The Victorian grassland earless dragon (Tympanocryptis pinguicolla) was rediscovered in Australia last year. It hadn’t been recorded for 54 years, and was presumed to be extinct, due to the loss of its grassland habitat and predation by invasive alien species including feral cats. Its rediscovery resulted in government funding to trial new survey techniques to find further populations of the species, a breeding program, and the preparation of a species recovery plan.
Thus, rediscoveries are important: they provide evidence of the continued existence of highly threatened species, prompting funding for conservation action. The results of our study may help to prioritise searches for lost species. In the image below, we mapped their global distribution, identifying regions with many lost and few rediscovered species.
What factors influence rediscovery?
Sadly, many quests to find lost species are unsuccessful. In 1993, searches in Ghana and the Ivory Coast over seven years failed to rediscover a lost primate, Miss Waldron’s red colobus (Piliocolobus waldronae). The research team concluded that this noisy and conspicuous monkey, unrecorded since 1978, may well be extinct. Its demise has been caused by hunting and the destruction of its forest habitat. Further searches in 2005, 2006 and 2019 were also unsuccessful, although calls that were possibly by this species were heard in 2008.
So why is it that some species are rediscovered while others remain lost? Are there specific factors that influence rediscovery? We aimed to answer these questions in our study, in order to improve our ability to distinguish between the types of lost species we can rediscover, from those that we cannot, because they are extinct.
We compiled a database of 856 lost and 424 rediscovered tetrapod species (amphibians, birds, mammals and reptiles). We then proposed three broad hypotheses about factors that might influence rediscovery: characteristics of (i) tetrapod species, and (ii) the environment influence rediscovery, and (iii) human activities influence rediscovery.
For example, body mass (a species characteristic) may positively influence rediscovery, as larger lost species should be easier to find. Lost species occupying dense forests (a characteristic of the environment) may not be rediscovered as searching for them is difficult. Lost species affected by threats associated with human activities (e.g., invasive alien species, which are being spread to new locations by global trade) may not be rediscovered, as they may be extinct.
Based on these hypotheses, we collected data on a series of variables associated with each lost and rediscovered species (for example, their body mass), which we then analysed for their influence on rediscovery.
Hard to find + neglected = rediscovered
On the upside, our results suggest that while many lost species are difficult to find, with some effort and the use of new techniques, they are likely to be rediscovered. These species include those that are very small (including many lost reptile species), those that live underground, those that are nocturnal, and those living in areas that are difficult to survey.
In fact, since the completion of our study, De Winton’s Golden Mole (Cryptochloris wintoni) has been rediscovered in South Africa. This species hadn’t been recorded in the wild since 1937. It lives underground much of the time, so searches were conducted using techniques including environmental DNA and thermal imaging.
Our results also suggest some species are neglected by conservation scientists, particularly those that are not considered to be charismatic, such as reptiles, small species and rodents. Searches for these species may also be rewarded with success. Voeltzkow’s chameleon (Furcifer voeltzkowi), a small reptile species, was rediscovered in Madagascar in 2018.
Lost or extinct?
Unfortunately, our results also suggest that some lost species are unlikely to be found no matter how hard we look, because they are extinct. For example, remaining lost mammal species are, on average, three times larger than rediscovered mammal species. Some of these large, charismatic, conspicuous species should have been rediscovered by now.
Furthermore, one third of remaining lost mammal species are endemic to islands, where tetrapod species are particularly vulnerable to extinction. The Bramble Cay melomys (Melomys rubicola), which was once considered to be a lost species, has recently been declared extinct by the Australian Government. It occupied a small island that has been extensively surveyed – if it still existed it should have been rediscovered by now.
Lost bird species have, on average, been missing for longer than those that have been rediscovered (28% have been missing for more than 100 years), and many have been searched for on several occasions – perhaps some of these species should also have been rediscovered by now.
Nevertheless, unexpected rediscoveries of long-lost species like the Cebu flowerpecker (Dicaeum quadricolor) do occur, so we shouldn’t lose hope, and we should definitely keep searching. However, some searches are being carried out for long-lost species that are considered to be extinct, such as the thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus). Perhaps the limited resources available for biodiversity conservation would be better used to search for lost species likely to still exist.
Thomas Evans is a Research scientist at Freie Universität Berlin and Université Paris-Saclay
Editor’s Note: In order to deter the tribal members and activists from fighting for Thacker Pass, Lithium Nevada has sued them. Unsurprisingly, as a corporation, they have greater funds to sustain their legal action. We appeal for all who can to support in whatever way you can. The details for financial donations are at the end of the post.
Lithium Nevada Corporation has filed a lawsuit against Protect Thacker Pass and seven people for opposing the Thacker Pass lithium mine.
The lawsuit is similar to what is called a “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation,” or SLAPP suit, aimed at shutting down free speech and protest. The suit aims to ban the prayerful land defenders from the area and force them to pay monetary damages which could total millions of dollars.
“This lawsuit is targeting Native Americans and their allies for a non-violent prayer to protect the 1865 Thacker Pass massacre site,” said Terry Lodge, attorney working with the group. “These people took a moral stand in the form of civil disobedience. They are being unjustly targeted with sweeping charges that have little relationship to the truth, and we will vigorously defend them.”
The lawsuit targets Dean Barlese, respected elder and spiritual leader from the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, Dorece Sam from the Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone Tribe, Bhie-Cie Zahn-Nahtzu (Te-Moak Shoshone and Washoe), Bethany Sam from the Standing Rock Sioux and Kutzadika’a Paiute Tribes, Founding Director of Community Rights US Paul Cienfuegos, and Max Wilbert and Will Falk of Protect Thacker Pass, which is also named in the suit.
They are charged with Civil Conspiracy, Nuisance, Trespass, Tortious Interference with Contractual Relations, Tortious Interference with Prospective Economic Advantage, and Unjust Enrichment.
As part of the lawsuit, Lithium Nevada has been granted a Temporary Restraining Order which restricts the defendants and “any third party acting in concert” with them from interfering with construction, blocking access roads, or even being in the area. The accused parties are not involved in planning further protest activity at the mine site.
Regardless, these allegations are alarming to the Great Basin Native American communities who believe their religious practices are protected by the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978. The lawsuit’s language places fear in the hearts of Native American people who want to pray and visit their ancestors’ gravesites.
The case references instances of non-violent prayer and protest that took place on April 25th, and a prayer camp named after Ox Sam (survivor of the 1865 massacre and ancestor of Dorece Sam and Dean Barlese) which was established at Thacker Pass on May 11th. On June 8th, that camp was raided and dismantled by police. One young indigenous woman was arrested and transported to jail inside a pitch-black box. In the aftermath of the raid, a ceremonial fire was extinguished, sacred objects were put in trash bags, and tipi poles were broken.
The American Indian Religious Freedom Act states that it is “the policy of the United States to protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent right of freedom to believe, express, and exercise the traditional religion of the American Indian…including…access to sites.”
Dorece Sam, President of the Native American Church of the State of Nevada:
“I take my grandkids to Peehee Mu’huh to teach them to pray for our unburied ancestors whose remains are scattered there, to collect our holy plants, to hunt and fish, and to collect medicinal herbs. The ancestors who were killed at Thacker Pass have never been given the proper prayers for their spirits. Lithium Nevada is desecrating our unceded lands and our ancestors’ resting places.”
Dean Barlese, respected elder and spiritual leader from the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe:
“The Indian wars are continuing in 2023, right here. America and the corporations who control it should have finished off the ethnic genocide, because we’re still here. My great-great-grandfather fought for this land in the Snake War and we will continue to defend the sacred. Lithium Nevada is a greedy corporation telling green lies.”
“Our people couldn’t return to Thacker Pass for fear of being killed in 1865, and now in 2023 we can’t return or we’ll be arrested. Meanwhile, bulldozers are digging our ancestors graves up. This is what Indigenous peoples continue to endure. That’s why I stood in prayer with our elders leading the way.”
“Lithium Nevada is a greedy corporation on the wrong side of history when it comes to environmental racism and desecration of sacred sites. It’s ironic to me that I’m the trespasser because I want to see my ancestral land preserved.”
“Virtually every single accusation against us is a lie, and of course the corporation’s leaders know this. But our actions have scared them, so they are lashing out against classic nonviolent direct-action tactics. And this is yet another prime example of why we need to dismantle the structures of law that grant so many so-called constitutional ‘rights’ to business corporations, like access to the courts.”
Max Wilbert, Protect Thacker Pass:
“Around the world, a land defender is killed every two days. Murdering activists is hard to get away with in the United States, so corporations do this instead. This lawsuit is aimed at destroying the lives of people non-violently defending the land. But we’re not giving up. There are millions of people opposing this mine, and this fight will continue.”
“I’ve been involved in directly petitioning the courts for two years to enforce tribal rights to consultation without success. Now Paiutes and Shoshones are being sued for peacefully defending the final resting places of their massacred ancestors. Lithium Nevada is just another mining corporation bullying Native Americans once again. This pattern has got to stop.”
Lithium Nevada corporation has been locked in legal battles since 2021, when four environmental groups, a local rancher, and several tribes sued the Federal Government to attempt to overturn the permits for the mine. The suits allege failures of consultation, violation of endangered species law and water laws, and dozens of other infractions. The most recent filing in an ongoing Federal Court case brought by three local tribes was filed on Friday, arguing that Lithium Nevada needs to halt construction while it consults with tribes about the Thacker Pass massacre sites. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in California will hear oral arguments in other cases later this month.
The news comes as Lithium Nevada’s parent corporation, Lithium Americas, has been implicated in four alleged human rights violations and environmental crimes related to their lithium mining operation in Cauchari-Oloroz, Argentina.
The defendants are seeking attorneys to join the legal defense team, and monetary donations to their legal defense fund. You can donate via credit or debit card, PayPal (please include a note that your donation is for Thacker Pass legal defense), or by check.