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Water management, fires identified as top threats to Utah wildlife

E.T., a desert tortoise, Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012, in Holladay.
E.T., a desert tortoise, Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012, in Holladay.
Alan Neves, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A new wildlife action plan identifies top threats to struggling Utah creatures and finds that chief among them is how man uses water and where fires occur, or even more importantly, where they don't.

Non-native species and the competition they cause for resources rounds out the top three "universal" problems faced by more than 140 species identified in the Utah Wildlife Action Plan.

The plan, on the crafting board the past three years and tapping the resources of multiple government organizations and nonprofit groups, was compiled by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and will be reviewed by the Utah Wildlife Board in a Thursday meeting.

Jimi Gragg, the division's project leader on the plan, said the report singles out 142 species with the greatest conservation need, a number winnowed down from about 200 identified in the previous plan released a decade ago.

Gragg said the idea was to settle on a number of species that is more manageable with specific conservation goals that also rope in 13 distinct key habitats types — from wetlands to high desert sagebrush flats.

Utah's species in need of help run the gamut, from the desert tortoise, kit foxes and burrowing owls, to golden eagles and tiny snails.

Threats also vary. In some landscapes, fire is occurring where it has been infrequent before and creating new problems. Elsewhere, fire suppression that has proven too effective is causing unnatural uniformity in the age of aspen stands and other vegetation, presenting challenges for wildlife.

The plan uses a ranking system to identify the severity of a threat to a given species, in the context of the species' abundance, whether it is found only in Utah, and if appropriate, what its likelihood of extinction is on a national scale.

Gragg admits it has been a big undertaking.

"On the one hand, there is tremendous opportunity here, but there is also tremendous challenge in this," he said.

State wildlife action plans grew out of a congressional act in 2001 designed to help states keep animals off the endangered species list.

Utah is among the 50 states, the District of Columbia and several U.S. holdings that opted in and agreed to come up with state-specific plans in 2005. Over the years, Utah has received $11 million in federal funding to help with its conservation of at-risk species, funding that has been matched dollar for dollar from the state.

Congress required a plan update every 10 years, which brings the division to the release of its 2015 blueprint, which includes an implementation plan.

As part of the review of threats, multiple experts gave a frank and candid look at the sources of problems for these species, tossing politics and fundamental realities aside — to an extent.

Gragg said problems for animals are inherently problems that accompany man's interaction with the environment. Among them:

• Allocation and management of Utah's water resources — whether it be diversions, stream rechanneling, nutrient pollution, water rights doctrine of putting the resource to "beneficial" use, and eradication of wetlands.

• Housing, plus siting of roads and other urban development such as utility corridors, railroad lines, flight paths.

• Improper grazing, mining, oil and gas extraction, and wildfire suppression management.

• Recreation, including off-road vehicle use and ski area development.

• Pollution.

The list of threats is extensive, but no more pressing is the availability of water in a state with a diverse topography that is the second most arid in the nation.

"The single biggest threat to the totality of species and their key habitats is the universe of water management," Gragg said, adding the range of how man's use of water has compromised species' survival is immense.

"Whether it is diversions, agricultural use, dams, or if we have irrigated to the last drop, water and its availability is the single biggest threat to wildlife and the best and fastest way to get a whole new lot of listings," he said.

The report observes that 30 percent of Utah's wetlands and aquatic habitats have disappeared since the 1980s and more are at risk. In addition, landscape biologists are just finally getting a better handle on the nuances of wetland management, but to date there has not been a comprehensive statewide assessment of the resource.

While too much management of a resource may be to blame for species' degradation, inaction also plays a key role in some arenas.

The report points out that inactive vegetation management on Utah's vast public lands has led to serious threats to landscapes, and the animals that inhabit them.

Some 1.5 million acres of older conifer stands were identified as good candidates in aspen ecosystems for mechanical clearing or prescribed burns, while 2 million acres of lowland sagebrush acreage is in need of similar treatment.

Of course, Gragg said, even if the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources could wave a wand and get the money it needs to help conserve these priority species, the actions that could be put into play require the collaboration and cooperation of many entities. The agency doesn't fight fires, for example, nor control water resources.

"How do we keep all these species healthy enough so they don't require an emergency room visit, while at the same time providing for economic development and our way of life?" he said.

Gragg said he does believe that Utah residents value their wildlife, their outdoors, and that no one really wants a species to disappear forever.

"It is easy enough for us to go out and count bunnies," he said, "but at the end of the day, if you are not managing the threat, you are not doing much."

Email: amyjoi@deseretnews.com

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