Twenty Years of Endangered Species
When the Malpai Group was getting started 20 years ago we really didn't plan on becoming endangered species experts. Our region has one of the highest number of listed species known from any comparable area, with nearly 30 endangered species that live here full time, or migrate through during part of the year. When we thought about endangered species at all, it was mostly to wonder what problems they would cause for us. We certainly didn't think of them as an asset. However, one-by-one, need arose to learn more about our listed species. The Group's efforts have gradually taken a leading role in developing information about the ecology and management needs for several species. We discovered that in some situations their presence can actually be an aid to achieving our landscape goals.
One of the first endangered species projects the Group got involved with was to help the Magoffin family develop reliable water for a Chiricahua leopard frog population. Beginning in 1994 a stock tank that had supported the frogs for many years began to go dry. The Magoffins started hauling water, 1,000 gallons per week, for what turned out to be over two years. The Magoffins asked the Group to help improve the water system at the tank so frogs could be sustained without the herculean water-hauling task. We approached the Arizona Game and Fish Department and received financial support to drill a new well and build a water system that fed a pond for the frogs and a drinker for the cows. That was our first experience with taking on a project that helped an endangered species, and also provided some real benefit to the ranch operation.
Through the interest of a biology teacher at Douglas High School, a Chiricahua frog propagation project was started at Douglas Schools that won national awards and stimulated under-achieving students to get involved with science. The school frog project suffered a setback when the original teacher moved away and concerns were raised about mosquito-born disease. However, the program is getting started again, and we hope that it will be an important source of frogs to help recover the species in our area.
Another unexpected event that caused us to focus attention on endangered species was Warner Glenn's encounter with a jaguar in 1996. After taking a beautiful series of photos of the jaguar, and after lengthy discussion with arguments for and against publicity, the decision was made to print a book with the photos. The jaguar has turned out to be an important symbol for the Group because it, more than any other animal in our region, depends on the large wild country that we are trying to protect. Some of the proceeds from the sale of Warner's book have been used to establish a Malpai jaguar conservation fund, which we have used to help support jaguar studies in their core habitat in Sonora, Mexico.
One of the Groups' major efforts has been to work with land managers to return fire to the landscape as a natural ecological process that is necessary to sustain and restore grassland and savanna woodland habitat. The early steps to accomplish this have been to plan a series of prescribed burns which are beginning to get vegetation structure back into a healthy equilibrium with periodic fire. As we began working toward a programmatic fire management plan for the PeloncilloMountains, endangered species concerns arose for which no one had any answers. Two species in particular, the lesser long-nosed bat and New Mexico ridge-nose rattlesnake, appeared to be vulnerable to fire impacts. The migratory bats feed primarily on the nectar of agave plants that bloom here in the summer, and some biologists were concerned that fire might kill so many agaves that the bat's food supply could be diminished. The rattlesnake lives in wooded mountain canyons where decades of fire suppression has allowed fuels to build up to a level that there is a risk that unnaturally hot fires could kill too many snakes.
We had to find some way to move ahead with fire management while lacking important information about how to manage these endangered species. The solution that we developed was to convene meetings of the experts for each species to share information, identify critical data needs, and develop goals for monitoring and research that would answer those needs. One of the key questions for both species is: how can we measure adverse fire effects in a way that meets the needs of the agencies, and gives us some assurance that fire will not cause unacceptable impacts to the species? In the case of the bat, the answer was relatively easy. The main concern was that too many agaves might be killed by fire. The consensus of the bat and agave experts was that 20 percent mortality due to fire would probably not cause undue hardship for the bats. This number was adopted by the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a threshold to be monitored following prescribed burns. We found that agave mortality was below this level, and in fact fire appears to stimulate seedling establishment. The 20 percent mortality threshold that we established became the guideline used by the Fish and Wildlife Service for all prescribed burning in southern Arizona.
The New Mexico ridge-nose rattlesnake has proven to be a tougher problem to solve. These snakes are so rare in the PeloncilloMountains that it takes 30 man-days of searching to find one! This makes it nearly impossible to know how many there are, or what their population trend may be. Given this uncertainty, our snake advisory committee decided that monitoring habitat could substitute for monitoring the snakes themselves. We worked with the herpetologist, who is considered the most knowledgeable for the species, to make a map of snake habitat, which was then used by the Forest Service as the basis for fire management zones based on where the snakes are most likely to be found. The final step was to get agreement among the experts to set a fire effect threshold, but in this case we used acres of habitat impacted by high intensity fire as a surrogate for direct effect on the snake. In 2003 we used the Baker II Burn as an experiment to see if snake habitat could be monitored on a large enough scale and with enough accuracy to be practical. The result satisfied our snake committee, and after several years of planning, mapping and data collection the Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service are finally ready to finish the fire plan! With the completed plan we will be able to let fire play its natural role in the Peloncillos.
For years, our approach to endangered species was piece-meal, reacting to issues that came up project by project. When the Chiricahua frog was proposed for listing we were concerned that all the work the Magoffins had done would backfire by making them vulnerable to regulatory restrictions. We began looking for a broader, more proactive way to deal with endangered species concerns Talks with USFWS convinced us that a Safe Harbor Agreement could be a tool that can protect a landowner who improves endangered species habitat from burdensome regulation if the improvement results in an increase in the species' population. We completed the SHA in April, 2004, and held the first meeting of the Chiricahua frog advisory committee. We expect that the frog SHA agreement will help us work with landowners to improve waters that will benefit both ranch operations and Chiricahua frogs. Our agreement is now being used as a model by AZ Game and Fish Department to develop a state-wide SHA for the frog.
There are many other species that remain somewhat unknown with regard to how our projects may affect them. We have explored ways to create greater predictability in planning for and managing listed species, and the best alternative appears to be a Multi-species Habitat Conservation Plan. We have developed a HCP with the Fish and Wildlife Service, and we are holding regular meetings with a multi-agency planning team.