Using Science To Preserve New Jersey’s Natural Heritage

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by Michele S. Byers, Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation

When a plant or animal makes it onto the state’s threatened and endangered species list, it’s sad news with a silver lining. Sad news, because the listing means it’s in danger of extinction in New Jersey. Good news, because help is on the way to protect the species and its habitat. Without intervention, being on the list can be a death row sentence for many species.

So the recent proposal of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to update its threatened and endangered list – for the first time since 2003 – is a mix of good and bad news

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First, the bad. Our state’s list has grown significantly, evidence that habitat loss – from sprawl development and subtle degradation of New Jersey’s ecosystems – is wreaking havoc with our natural heritage.

Good, because six species previously listed as threatened or endangered have been bumped up to a healthier status. Three are now classified as “special concern” and three have been upgraded to “stable.”  It shows that protections can work and that some species can make a comeback!

The best way to protect threatened and endangered species is to protect their habitats, and prevent them from getting on the list in the first place.

Here are some of the changes:

* Indiana bats, black rails, golden-winged warblers, red knots and gray petal-tailed dragonflies are in trouble and will be listed as endangered.

* Ten new species are proposed as threatened – a less imperiled category, but the wrong direction for any species to be heading.

* The category of “special concern” will now have 108 new species. This group has some hope, since species are more likely to stabilize with habitat purchases, restoration of habitat linkages and innovative land management. Their populations are still large enough to rebound.

One change that has generated controversy is the movement of the Cooper’s hawk from threatened status to “special concern.” The recovery is great news, but some fear that the change might allow forests that are currently protected by regulations due to the hawks’ presence to be opened to development.

In the regulated Highlands region, where thousands of acres are protected because of the presence of many species of special concern, changing the threatened and endangered species list does not make a difference.

In other parts of New Jersey, however, removing the Cooper’s hawk and other species from the threatened list would remove regulatory protections from some 45,000 acres.  This is somewhat offset by adding the American kestrel and other species to the list, which will protect about 12,400 acres.  In total, an estimated 31,000 acres will face downgraded protections.

No one I know is more passionate about the fate of endangered species than New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s staff biologist, Dr. Emile DeVito.  As a member of the Endangered and Nongame Species Advisory Committee, Emile contributed to the drafting of the new rules.  He knows the science behind them, and understands the impacts as well as anyone.

“Those 31,000 acres are important for many kinds of natural resources,” he concludes, “but if we have to hang our hat on a bird that’s not threatened any longer, that isn’t scientifically defensible. If all of us, including the state, are going to be effective at preserving all of New Jersey’s natural resources, we have to find additional ways to protect those lands.”

All the changes to the species lists are based in hard science, without regard to policy implications.  That’s the way it has to be if New Jersey is to maintain the integrity of its species protection programs.

You can download and read the full DEP proposal at http://www.nj.gov/dep/rules/proposals/011811b.pdf.  Written comments can be submitted up to March 19 to:

Gary J. Brower, Esq.
Attn: DEP Docket Number: 15-10-12
Office of Legal Affairs
New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection
401 East State Street, 4th Floor
P.O. Box 402
Trenton, New Jersey 08625-0402

For additional information, go to http://www.conservewildlifenj.org/about/explorations/february2011 .

And if you’d like more information about conserving New Jersey’s precious land and natural resources, please visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s (NJCF) website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.


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