Wildlife Action Plans: A new tool for utilities

Austin Kane
Science and Policy Analyst
Environmental Law Institute
Washington, D.C.

Utilities own and manage a considerable amount of land, waters and infrastructure throughout the country, which provides a unique opportunity to conserve wildlife habitat. Many of the nation's electric, water and sewer utilities have already taken substantial steps to protect and restore wildlife in addition to meeting environmental regulatory requirements. For example, utilities manage land to protect water recharge areas, protect species within their rights-of-way, convey conservation easements on lands suitable for wildlife, sponsor stream cleanups and habitat restoration, carry out environmental education, and conduct biological research.

Utilities now have a new tool available to them to inform their management, planning, and voluntary conservation efforts: state wildlife action plans. Every plan evaluates the status and condition of species of conservation concern and identifies actions needed to protect these species and their habitats. Because they identify a variety of habitat conservation, management and research priorities, the wildlife action plans can help utilities design better management practices and develop effective conservation programs to minimize adverse impacts and enhance benefits to wildlife habitat.

State Wildlife Action Plans
All states and territories committed to developing state wildlife action plans by 2005 in order to receive federal funds from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the protection of important wildlife species and their habitats. These plans use all existing information to assess the condition of wildlife species and habitats, identify threats, and recommend needed conservation actions. The wildlife action plans complement the state wildlife agencies' conservation activities that are aimed at managing abundant game and sportfish species, on one hand, and protecting threatened and endangered species, on the other hand. By focusing on preventive conservation of species and habitats, the wildlife action plans can help landowners and managers take steps that can bolster fish and wildlife before they become imperiled.

The wildlife action plans are plans for wildlife, not plans for agencies. State fish and wildlife agencies developed these action plans in coordination with many stakeholders, and the plan's strategies are designed to be implemented by the public, private landowners, utilities, companies, and other organizations in addition to state wildlife agencies. The first task of the planning process was to identify species in need of conservation based on various criteria, including low or decreasing populations. These species are primarily referred to as "species of greatest conservation need." Most states included federal and state endangered species, but the selection criteria for species of greatest conservation need was flexible; thus, states have significantly different number of species included in plans. In addition, states identified priority habitats for these species, and most plans include broad, habitat-focused conservation actions as well as specific actions for individual species.

A Resource for Utility Management
Many wildlife action plans include specific strategies for utilities that could enhance opportunities to conserve wildlife. For example, some plans make recommendations regarding right-of-way management, while others suggest best management practices for utility lands. In some states, the plans supply species and habitat information that can support wildlife-sensitive development and planning decisions as well as assist utilities in meeting regulatory requirements. Utilities can use the species and habitat information provided in the plans to make more effective management decisions and carry out more strategic voluntary conservation efforts. In April, a group of water, sewer and electric utility associations, including the American Public Works Association, met in Washington at the nonprofit Environmental Law Institute (ELI) to discuss ways in which wildlife action plans may be useful to their members. Specific opportunities for utilities to use wildlife action plans include:

  • Protecting habitat for species listed in plans on utility property, where appropriate. For example, the San Jose Wastewater Treatment Plant in California works to protect the habitat of two marsh species, and its effluent helps maintain marsh levels. It also has set aside 30 acres of burrowing owl habitat to ensure its protection. These three species are listed as species of greatest conservation need in California's Wildlife Action Plan.

  • Using wildlife action plan species and habitat information to guide infrastructure decisions such as siting facilities or expanding operations. Plans could be useful when siting substations or when applying for permits to expand operations.

  • Developing standard practices for operations and maintenance activities and for land and water management using priority species, habitat designation, and conservation actions from the wildlife action plan. Utilities can use wildlife action plans to develop standard land management practices such as altering mowing schedules and techniques, controlling invasive species, and identifying important corridors to maintain habitat connectivity to better protect grassland and scrub-shrub habitat and early successional wildlife.

  • Using the wildlife action plan to build on existing voluntary conservation and stewardship programs and to develop new projects. A water utility in Washington reviewed the state wildlife action plan and noted that it would be able to incorporate conservation actions from the Puget Trough Ecoregion section into parts of its existing stewardship program.

An Opportunity to "Join the Coalition"
In addition to providing direction on practical on-the-ground conservation actions that utilities can take, the wildlife action plans also provide an opportunity for building community partnerships and getting involved in a broad, bipartisan, grassroots coalition of wildlife supporters that are working to boost public funding for wildlife conservation. The wildlife action plans are supported in every state and nationally by a coalition called Teaming with Wildlife. This coalition—including more than 5,000 organizations nationwide, made up of state-level coalitions in every state—includes a broad range of organizations, agencies, and businesses that support wildlife conservation. By getting involved in this coalition, utilities can add their voice to the wide range of interests that support greater funding for preventive conservation of fish and wildlife.

For more information on wildlife action plans and contacts for each state, please see www.wildlifeactionplan.org.

For more information on ELI's wildlife-related projects, please visit http://www2.eli.org/research/landbio_bio_projects.htm.

For more information on the Teaming with Wildlife coalition, please visit www.teaming.com.

For additional information on corporate wildlife conservation and environmental stewardship through cooperative efforts, please visit the Wildlife Habitat Council's website at www.wildlifehc.org.

Austin Kane is a Science and Policy Analyst at the Environmental Law Institute. She works on the Invasive Species Project and on projects under the State Biodiversity Program. She can be reached at (202) 939-3243 or kane@eli.org.