WRNF cuts back on number of species monitored | PostIndependent.com

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WRNF cuts back on number of species monitored

If you’re wondering about the health of our national forests, ask an elk.The U.S. Forest Service and some environmentalists agree on that much, but differ over the agency’s decision to cut back on what other animals and plants it monitors to track the health of the White River National Forest.WRNF Supervisor Maribeth Gustafson has decided to more than halve the number of species or species groups the Forest Service tracks as measures of the impacts of forest management on wildlife and aquatic habitat.That leaves seven so-called management indicator species or species groups on its list.”That’s not good, and we’ll have to consider challenging that. I don’t know if we will or not,” said Rocky Smith, forest watch coordinator for the environmental group Colorado Wild.Any appeals of Gustafson’s decision would have to be filed within 45 days.The Forest Service has been monitoring 16 management indicator species or species groups under the 2002 WRNF management plan. It now plans to keep track of elk, cave bats, aquatic macroinvertebrates, all trout, and three birds: the American pipit, Brewer’s sparrow and Virginia’s warbler.That leaves out current indicator species such as the snowshoe hare and northern sage grouse, as well as vegetative communities such as the alpine willow and piñon-juniper habitats.The agency is trimming down its management indicator species (MIS) list because it believes some species aren’t good indicators of management activities, are too difficult to monitor, or are redundant because of other monitoring that is occurring.”What we try to stress is that our MIS list is not completely static. If something’s not working, we try something else,” said Kristi Ponozzo, spokeswoman for the White River National Forest.For example, she said, the Forest Service plans to use Virginia’s warbler in place of another warbler species monitored in the past because it’s a better measure of activities such as prescribed burning.It removed the black swift because it initially had been chosen to evaluate impacts on waterfall habitats. But the Forest Service has no major activities planned for these habitats, doesn’t have lots of them to begin with, and also has learned that a major waterfall-area activity, recreation, wasn’t affecting the swifts, Ponozzo said.She also noted that the WRNF isn’t the first forest in the Rocky Mountain region to cut back on its list of these species. But that’s exactly what concerns environmentalists. Alex Sienkiewicz, a conservation analyst with the Wilderness Workshop in Carbondale, said the trend is a national one.”There’s much, much debate over the reasonableness of diminishing these MIS lists,” he said.Smith said the problem with that on the WRNF is that there weren’t enough species on its list even before the Forest Service proposed its cutback. The agency needs to track a reasonable number of species, but its list doesn’t cover all habitat areas and ecological types, he said.For example, the agency doesn’t have a species to monitor management impacts in Engelmann spruce forests because they are high up, hard to get to and not good trees to log commercially, he said. But he believes that with recent bark beetle attacks, the Forest Service is likely to want to log some of these trees for salvage timber.Species such as the boreal owl and the marten, a carnivore, would serve as good measures for older forests, but also are excluded, he said.He objects to removing the snowshoe hare because it is a good indicator of habitat for lynx, a threatened species that preys on the hare. Smith said there are other ways to keep tabs on lynx habitat, but tracking hare is a useful one.”I think you shouldn’t remove that tool from the arsenal,” he said.Ponozzo said the Forest Service already manages the forest so as to protect lynx habitat. She points to that as an example of the fact that the MIS program isn’t the only way in which the agency keeps an eye on animals and plants and their habitats.”We monitor for species of viability concern, regionally sensitive species, and threatened and endangered species,” she said.She said arguments can be made that the Forest Services uses too few, or too many, indicator species, or that the whole approach “isn’t even that viable” because it doesn’t work as well as once thought as a way of determining habitat impacts.In fact, new nationwide forest planning regulations implemented last year no longer require the agency to monitor indicator species. However, the change applies to new forest plans, so forests with existing plans must continue to do the monitoring.Contact Dennis Webb: 945-8515, ext. 516dwebb@postindependent.com