Wildlife refuge in bad shape after hurricane

By Jessica PriestVictoria Advocate

Wildlife Refuge

Whooping Cranes on Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. © Photo by Kevin Sims

Damaged marshland might displace whooping cranes this fall.

Wade Harrell, who is coordinating the endangered species’ recovery for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, got his first look at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on Wednesday after Category 4 Hurricane Harvey made landfall Aug. 25.

“There was an initial sense of shock and awe,” Harrell said, describing how the live oak trees many visitors are accustomed to seeing were stripped of their leaves by strong winds. “It was a lot to process on top of all the work that needs to be done.”

In the marshes, Harrell found a significant amount of debris. Some of the debris was man-made and might take months to remove.

“There were refrigerators in there. Stuff that probably came out of people’s houses in Rockport,” he said.

Before some debris can be removed, the fish and wildlife service will consult with its experts on contaminants.

“It’s sort of like doctors. When they are sworn in, they promise to do no harm. We want to make sure we’re not doing additional harm to the refuge versus what’s already been done. We want to make sure we go in a slow and methodical way,” he said.

Hurricane Harvey’s storm surge also affected the refuge’s freshwater ponds. It has as many as 70 that the whooping cranes could drink from in the past.

The San Antonio Bay shoreline that borders the refuge has also eroded, he said.

The Aransas National Wildlife Refuge covers about 115,000 acres, but the challenge the service faces in its cleanup effort is the refuge is not contiguous. Some parts abut private property, while others are only accessible by boat.

Although many animals call the refuge home, some visitors want to catch a glimpse of the tallest bird in North America, the whooping crane.

Standing at 5 feet, there were only 15 whooping cranes left in 1940. Now, there are more than 300 in the last naturally-occurring flock.

That flock is at Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park but will start migrating south next month.

In the fall and winter, the whooping cranes will forage for food on Texas’ coast, anywhere between Port Aransas to Port O’Connor.

“On any given year, probably about 50 percent of the population is within refuge boundaries,” Harrell said.

The refuge is closed, but Harrell said refuge manager, Joe Saenz, hopes to open a portion to the public as soon as possible.

“We know people are anxious to get out and see some of the changes that I described,” Harrell said.

The hurricane hit the refuge twice, once when it made landfall in Rockport about 48 miles away and then when it traveled back out into the Gulf of Mexico.

The refuge is among eight closed because of the hurricane.

For updates on the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, call 361-286-3559.

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Court throws out policy on whether or not to prosecute on kills of endangered species

FOTWW is pleased to see a court ruling that properly interprets the law to protect endangered species.

Flawed ‘McKittrick’ Policy Ruled Unlawful

Endangered Species

Two adults and one juvenile Whooping Cranes. Photo by Chuck Hardin

TUCSON, Ariz. — Wednesday, a federal judge threw out the Department of Justice’s flawed ‘McKittrick Policy’ under which the government only prosecuted killers of animals on the Endangered Species Act’s (ESA) list of imperiled species when it could prove the killer knew the exact biological identity of the species s/he was harming. The decision came as a result of a challenge brought by WildEarth Guardians and the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance in 2013.

Because of the defective policy, the government declined to prosecute people who killed protected species, including critically endangered Mexican wolves, gray wolves like ‘Echo’ the Grand Canyon wolf — who was shot by a coyote hunter — whooping cranes, condors, and grizzly bears.

“The end of the McKittrick Policy is a crucial victory for critically imperiled animals including Mexican wolves and grizzly bears,” said Bethany Cotton, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians. “Wildlife killers who are either profoundly careless or worse, who intentionally target protected animals, no longer have a get-out-of-jail-free card by claiming they did not know the identity of the animals they kill.”

The Court held: “…the Court agrees with Plaintiffs that the McKittrick policy is outside the range of prosecutorial authority set out in [the] ESA’s comprehensive conservation scheme because it eviscerates the deterrent effect of the ESA criminal enforcement statutes. In other words, prosecutions prevented by the McKittrick policy result in little to no protection for the Mexican wolf and cause direct and real harm…to this protected species.” Opinion at 11.

“The Court’s ruling is a victory for endangered species across the country, but especially for those like the Mexican gray wolf, whose highest cause of mortality is illegal killing,” said Judy Calman, staff attorney for the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. “This decision is an affirmation of Congress’s intent that endangered species recovery should be the highest priority for federal agencies, and that people who harm listed species should be held accountable under the law”

The Court reasoned: “In adopting ESA’s public welfare offenses, Congress recognized that killing wildlife is not an entirely innocent act because a killer is knowingly engaged in a lethal activity, using a deadly device, which places him or her in a position of responsibility in relation to the public. Congress placed the burden to know the identity of the wildlife species being killed on the killer.” Opinion at 40.

“This internal DOJ policy to arbitrarily limit its own prosecutorial discretion was abhorrent and directly conflicted with its enforcement responsibilities. This abdication resulted in dozens of wolves being illegally shot without penalty, which in turn undoubtedly led to additional killings,” said Mark Allison, executive director at New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. “We’re gratified by the ruling and eager to take other necessary steps to ensure that the Mexican gray wolf recovery effort is successful.”

The court’s ruling means the Department of Justice may no longer rely on the unlawful McKittrick policy when making decisions whether to prosecute those who illegally kill wildlife protected by the Endangered Species Act.

“This ruling is important because it ensures careless hunters can no longer hide behind the ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ mindset that led to the tragic deaths of many endangered Mexican wolves and other imperiled animals,” said John Horning, executive director of WildEarth Guardians. “The case powerfully affirms the longstanding ethical tenant that hunters are responsible for knowing their prey—before they shoot to kill.”

The organizations were represented by attorneys Steve Sugarman and Judy Calman.

###

Additional excepts from the ruling:

“Necessarily, the narrow construction of criminal liability under the McKittrick policy, which DOJ has consciously and expressly adopted, is a complete abdication of DOJ’s statutory responsibility under ESA.” Opinion at 17.

“The McKittrick policy, implemented as a prosecutorial policy, moots the power retained by the trial courts to say what the law is and ensures they will not be afforded opportunities to decide what law is warranted and appropriate on facts analogous to those that existed in McKittrick.”

Opinion at 18.

“The McKittrick policy violates the APA because it is based on the DOJ’s incorrect belief that it cannot prosecute mistaken and/or careless wolf takings. The ESA is a public welfare statute and this context defeats the general presumption that mens rea attaches to every fact constituting the offense. Under ESA, it is a misdemeanor offense to knowingly shoot wildlife, if the animal shot is a protected species. Because Congress created this vigorous enforcement scheme to conserve endangered and threatened species, including the Mexican gray wolf, the DOJ has abdicated its statutory responsibility by adopting the McKittrick policy which precludes, without discretion, prosecutions for mistakenly and/or carelessly taking, i.e., shooting, a wolf.” Opinion at 41.

You can read and/or download the court ruling here.

 

***** FOTWW’s mission is to help preserve and protect the Aransas/Wood Buffalo
population of wild whooping cranes and their habitat. *****

Friends of the Wild Whoopers is a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization.

 

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