Study: Habitat Restoration Projects Often Fail to
Millions of dollars are spent each year on habitat restoration projects in the Northwest, but not all on-the-ground restoration actions match the highest priority ecosystem and population needs identified in habitat assessments and recovery plans, according to a recent report in the journal Ecosphere.
The study reviewed two decades of habitat projects in the upper Columbia River Basin, finding that 78 percent of restoration projects had a good match with the needs identified in recovery plans for an entire Endangered Species Act-listed salmon population, but the match at the sub-watershed or local scale identified in sub-basin plans was just 31 percent.
The study authors said that salmon populations with more identified ecological concerns did receive more restoration projects, but that the "frequency of ecological concerns in recovery plans did not correlate with their frequency as restoration targets." Instead, the report says, "restoration projects were strongly biased towards less expensive types."
An ecological concern is a change to the ecological conditions essential for long-term viability and recovery of ESA-listed populations, according to the study. Among the list of concerns are water quality, wetlands, fish screening, instream flow, fish passage, nutrient enrichment, upland agriculture, livestock or vegetation and sediment reduction.
"A majority of sub-watersheds contained a suite of projects that matched ecological concerns no better, and often worse, than a random pick of all project types," said lead researcher Katie Barnas, research fisheries biologist with NOAA Fisheries' Northwest Fisheries Science Center. "These results suggest considerable room for increased efficiencies in restoration funding and placement. It is hoped that this information will help funders and managers better target and prioritize restoration actions to address habitat needs."
The report, "Is habitat restoration targeting relevant ecological needs for endangered species? Using Pacific Salmon as a case study," was published online July 15, 2015. The full report can be found at www.esajournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1890/ES14-00466.1
In addition to Barnas, authors are Stephen L. Katz PhD., associate professor, School of the Environment, Washington State University; David Hamm, research scientist, Hamm Consulting; Monica Diaz, data steward, Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission; and Chris E. Jordan PhD., supervisory fisheries biologist, NWFSC.
The issue isn't confined to Northwest restoration projects. A survey of projects across the U.S. found that one-third could be considered part of a larger plan, but just 16 percent of restoration projects were initiated within the context of a watershed management plan, the report says.
Since 1991, 18 evolutionary significant units and distinct population segments of fish in the Northwest have been listed as endangered or threatened. As a result, the Northwest now has the highest density of restoration projects in the U.S.
"Despite the extraordinary financial investment, projects to restore freshwater and estuarine habitat are assessed for effectiveness at the individual project level rather than in the context of the greater recovery efforts, if post-project monitoring is funded at all," the report says.
The study specifically evaluated the Columbia Cascade Ecoprovince of six sub-basins that includes the Chelan, Entiat, Methow, Okanagan, Upper Middle Columbia and Wenatchee river watersheds.
Projects targeting water quality along with riparian condition, and sediment condition and water quality represented almost 75 percent of the projects. Water quality alone was 24 percent of projects. Food limitation, and injury and mortality accounted for just 5 percent of projects and were the least common expressed as ecological concerns.
Water quality and estuary/nearshore projects were both the most expensive and the least numerous, the report says. Water quality projects alone were the most expensive, averaging $2.3 million for each project. Sediment reduction and upland management projects were the least expensive, averaging $55,000 and $85,000 respectively.
There is a positive relationship with the number of concerns and the number of projects addressing those concerns. However, while it seems that more concerns result in more effort, "it does not speak to the appropriateness of the restoration or other potential factors," the report says. In fact, the authors found a number of stated concerns that were untreated in 10 ESA-listed populations. Furthermore, almost half of sub-watersheds in the study "had one or more ecological concerns not matched by a project."
"Aggregating the data from all the assessment units, we found a weaker than expected, and non-significant correlation between project type and frequency of ecological concern," the report says. "This suggests a lack of connection between ecological need and the use of restoration across spatial extent. . ."
Of the concerns that matched needs most, fish screen and instream flow projects always (99 percent of the time) match a known habitat need, Barnas said. There are two reasons for this: "they are very expensive and there is no incentive (social or economic) to put a project in anywhere but the places where they are more necessary."
So, for the most part, fish screening projects are efficiently funded and placed, the report says.
For those planning new habitat restoration projects, Barnas suggests that they ask "is the right type of project being planned for the locations based on habitat need? Projects based on watershed assessments are more likely to treat a prioritized habitat need."
When completing a habitat restoration project, she suggests that they make information regarding their project available so that others can use it in future planning and prioritization of restoration. "Information can be anything from a location and project type to detailed effectiveness monitoring and whether or not success criteria were met," she said.
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