Walleye from #LakePowell new threat to endangered #Colorado pikeminnow

Danielle Tremblay of Colorado Parks and Wildlife holding a Colorado pikeminnow collected on the Colorado River in Grand Junction. An apex predator in the Colorado, pikeminnows used to be found up to six feet long and weighing 100 pounds.

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Gary Harmon) via The Aspen Times:

the endangered Colorado pikeminnow faces a new threat, a predator that eagerly scarfs down young pikeminnow, taking a jagged bite out of the species’ overall numbers.

Unfamiliar predation on the pikeminnow comes from a species of fish that’s native to the flatwaters of Canada and the northern tier of the United States. Walleye is a prized food fish, but its voracious appetite for pikeminnow is proving to be a setback to expectations that the pikeminnow could be removed from the endangered species list.

“Walleye have gone gangbusters in Lake Powell,” said Tom Chart, a fisheries biologist who heads the Upper Colorado River Endangered Species Recovery Program for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

It’s likely that walleye found their way up the Colorado from Lake Powell, Chart said. It’s also possible that the hungry newcomers could have swum down from Rifle Gap and Elkhead reservoirs in Colorado and from two reservoirs in Utah, Red Fleet and Starvation, both near Vernal, said Henry Maddux, director of Utah’s species recovery programs.

On a barely encouraging note, “We haven’t seen walleye reproduce in the rivers,” Chart said. “Yet.”

Walleye nonetheless have taken up residence in waters where they don’t belong, feasting on the young pikeminnow that hatched in the critical 15-mile reach of the Colorado River through the Grand Valley and washed downriver into the slower waters where for eons they have grown to become the apex predators on the river.

The tiny power plant that shapes the Colorado River — merely by existing — @HighCountyNews

From The High Country News (Emily Benson):

Head east from Glenwood Springs in western Colorado today, and you’ll encounter an isolated stretch of I-70 hugging the curves of the Colorado River. But 110 years ago, you would’ve hit “a thriving little city” of hundreds of people living in tents, nestled there between the high walls of the river canyon so its residents could build a hydroelectric plant.

That facility, the Shoshone power plant, still adds energy to the grid, but its true importance lies elsewhere: Shoshone is a cornerstone of the elaborate complex of water rights, laws, agreements and relationships that shape the management of the upper Colorado River. Because of the water rights it holds — and because it returns the water it uses to the river channel — the diminutive plant dictates how the river is managed in Colorado. “It’s an interesting historic relic with huge implications for the ecological health of the river,” says Brent Uilenberg, a manager in the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Upper Colorado Region, “and (for) providing a reliable water supply for East and West Slope human uses.”

Shoshone Hydroelectric Plant back in the days before I-70 via Aspen Journalism

The water system Shoshone has shaped irrigates crops, supports endangered fish and keeps a nearly $8 million rafting industry afloat. Merely by existing, the plant helps keep the demands of Denver and other thirsty cities in check.

In what has long been a source of conflict and compromise among Colorado’s water managers, most of the state’s precipitation falls west of the continental divide, on the Western Slope, separated from the majority of the population by the Rocky Mountains. Since the early 1900s, a series of tunnels and ditches have addressed that mismatch by ferrying water out of the Colorado River basin, supplying cities and irrigating fields east of the Rockies. “The Shoshone power plant has played a dominant role on the river since it first came online,” says John Currier, chief engineer at the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

But Shoshone, because it predates those diversions, keeps some water that might otherwise cross the backbone of the continent in western Colorado. In the world of Western water, older rights get first dibs: So Shoshone gets priority, even if that means managers must let water flow past their tunnel intakes. Less water for eastern Colorado means the river keeps rushing downstream toward Shoshone, and people and ecosystems that depend on it.

Downstream communities draw drinking water from the Colorado, and growers near Palisade and Grand Junction use it to irrigate peaches and other crops. Keeping water in the river has also been fundamental to a collaborative program to recover four species of endangered fish in the Colorado River. “It comes back to, fish need water,” says Tom Chart, the director of the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program.

Downstream of Shoshone, just above where the Gunnison River empties into the Colorado, there’s a stretch of river where endangered Colorado pikeminnow lay their eggs after spring floods have cleared the cobbles of silt. But human demands on the river tax it so much that during drought, it can get close to drying up. To prevent that, water users and managers work within a tangled web of agreements and rules, looking for ways to keep the river wet. The flows that come down from Shoshone anchor that effort. “I always view Shoshone as our first line of protection,” Reclamation’s Uilenberg says.

But that protection hasn’t always been assured: If the power plant needs maintenance or shuts down, it wouldn’t be allowed to exercise its water rights, because water must be put to “beneficial use” under Western water law. To preserve Shoshone’s influence on the Colorado River — to protect the wildlife, farms and economies that depend on it — water districts from both sides of the continental divide formalized a plan in 2012. They agreed upon a protocol for releasing water from upstream reservoirs that would mimic the Shoshone flows should the power plant go offline, effectively preserving the plant’s influence for the long term. Short shutdowns at the aging facility aren’t uncommon, and “hav(ing) that protocol in place to bridge those gaps is key,” Chart says.

A separate deal, however, allows reductions in the Shoshone flows. Xcel Energy, the owner of the plant, has agreed to allow more water to go to Denver during dry periods by running just one turbine — cutting the plant’s water needs in half — when certain conditions are met. But crucially, that “relaxation” of Shoshone’s water rights is typically limited to the season when it would be least impactful to others: mid-March through mid-May, when the Colorado is beginning to run high with snowmelt but irrigation and rafting seasons have yet to begin.

For its part, Xcel says their interests lie simply in running the plant, not in negotiating battles over water, according to Richard Belt, a water resources senior analyst for Xcel based in Denver. “Shoshone has sort of been a neutral third party there, kind of minding its own business,” he says, a role it has played for decades, through deluges and droughts, major repairs and evolutions in water management — and one which the tiny, century-old plant will likely hold for years to come.

The most consequential environmental stories of 2017 — The Washington Post #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

March for Science, Denver, Colorado, April 22, 2017

From The Washington Post (Brady Dennis and Darryl Fears):

President Trump made his mark in the energy and environment world during his first year in Washington. Many of his actions aimed to undo work from the Obama era. Trump all but abandoned the nation’s efforts to combat climate change, and he shrank national monuments that President Barack Obama had established or sought to preserve. Trump scaled back regulations on the fossil fuel industry and pushed for more drilling on land and at sea.

And in turn, much of the world pushed back. Protesters descended on Washington to oppose his policies and campaign against what they saw as an attack on science. Other nations denounced his decision to back out of an international climate agreement, leaving the United States at odds with the rest of the globe.

Meanwhile, extreme weather nationwide wrought devastation. Hurricanes leveled homes, triggered floods and upended lives from Puerto Rico to Texas. Wildfires ravaged California, burning entire neighborhoods to ashes. It was a tumultuous year. Here are some of the most consequential environmental stories we covered along the way.

1. Withdrawal from the Paris climate accord. “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” Trump proclaimed from the Rose Garden in June. With those words, he declared his intention to withdraw the nation from a global effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions in an attempt to fend off the worst effects of climate change. The Obama administration had led the charge for the landmark deal in late 2015, helping to persuade other world powers — and major polluters — such as China and India to pledge to reduce their emissions in coming years.

Trump reversed course, despite widespread criticism from world leaders, claiming that the Paris accord was a bad deal for the United States that would disadvantage American workers. The United States is now the only nation in the world to reject the deal. While the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris agreement cannot officially be finalized until late 2020, the action sent a clear message: Climate action has little place in the Trump administration.

2. A sea change at the Environmental Protection Agency. “The future ain’t what it used to be at the EPA,” the agency’s administrator, Scott Pruitt, is fond of saying. That’s certainly true. In nominating Pruitt to head the agency that Trump once promised to reduce to “little tidbits,” the president chose a man who had long been one of its most outspoken adversaries. As Oklahoma attorney general, Pruitt sued the EPA 14 times, challenging its authority to regulate toxic mercury pollution, smog, carbon emissions from power plants and the quality of wetlands and other waters.

Now, as EPA’s leader, he has acted aggressively to reduce the agency’s reach, pause or reverse numerous environmental rules, and shrink its workforce to Reagan-era levels. He has begun to dismantle Obama’s environmental legacy, in part by rolling back the Clean Power Plan — a key attempt to combat climate change by regulating carbon emissions from the nation’s power plants. Along the way, Pruitt has become one of Trump’s most effective Cabinet members, as well as a lightning rod for criticism from public health and environmental groups.

3. The fight over national monuments. Trump issued an executive order in April to review 27 land and marine monuments. But it was clear that two particular monuments were in his crosshairs: Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. Utah’s congressional delegation and its governor had lobbied Trump’s inner circle to reverse the monument designations of these parks in their state even before he was elected.

Utah Republicans called the designations by Obama and President Bill Clinton overzealous land grabs, and shortly after he took office, Trump adopted some of the same language. He promised to end what he called presidential “abuses” and give control of the land “back to the people.” In the end, Trump shrank both monuments by nearly 2 million acres last month, and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said the borders of other monuments in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, as well as in the West, are being reviewed. Native American groups that had requested a Bears Ears designation are leading a wave of lawsuits against the Trump administration’s decision.

4. Drill, baby, drill. Drilling platforms already dot the Gulf of Mexico, where the fossil fuel industry has extracted oil and gas for decades. But the Trump administration wanted to make history. In early November, it did so by announcing the largest gulf lease offering for oil and gas exploration in U.S. history: 77 million acres.

The move was consistent with Trump’s push for “energy dominance.” He and Zinke are also opening more land to coal excavation in the West. One of Zinke’s first acts as interior secretary was to remove a bright and colorful picture of a western landscape from the Bureau of Land Management’s website and replace it with a black wall of coal. Oil prices are climbing after reaching record lows in recent years, but coal is struggling to make a comeback after the rise of natural gas. The Gulf of Mexico promises more oil, but it also might promise disaster. It’s the scene of the nation’s worst environmental disaster, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which fouled beaches and killed untold numbers of marine animals when oil spewed into the water for months.

Is drilling in the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge next? The Republican-controlled Congress greenlighted leases for exploration in the recently passed tax bill completely along party lines. But let the buyer beware. Royal Dutch Shell drilled a $7 billion hole in the Chukchi Sea in 2014 and has nothing to show for it.

5. Action on the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines. As winter began to fade, it became clear that camps of protesters in Canon Ball, N.D., who for months had fought a pipeline that they argued could threaten the drinking water and cultural sites of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, had lost this particular battle. Days after Trump took office, he signed executive orders to revive two controversial pipelines that the Obama administration had put on hold — the 1,172-mile Dakota Access and the 1,700-mile Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would extend from the Canadian tar sands region to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast.

Oil is now flowing through the Dakota Access pipeline. And the company behind the Keystone XL this fall cleared a key regulatory hurdle in its quest to complete the northern half of the pipeline, running from Alberta to Steele City, Neb., when it received approval from the Nebraska Public Service Commission. Opponents of both projects have vowed to continue legal fights, as well as to protest any other pipelines they view as a threat to public health or the environment. But Trump shows few signs of backing down, calling his actions “part of a new era of American energy policy that will lower costs for American families — and very significantly — reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and create thousands of jobs right here in America.”

6. Attacks on the Endangered Species Act. It is arguably one of the most powerful environmental laws in the world, credited with saving at least a dozen animal and plant species from extinction. But who will save the Endangered Species Act, which is under attack by political conservatives inside and outside Washington? Led by Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, who said he wants to “invalidate” the 44-year-old act, some Republicans say the law interferes with commercial development, private landowner rights and excavation of natural resources such as coal and natural gas.

Bishop’s committee passed five bills that would weaken protections for wolves, force federal workers who enforce the law to consider economic impact when deciding how to save animals and strip away a provision of the law that requires the federal government to reimburse conservation groups that prevail in court. The bills have set up a potentially titanic battle between wildlife advocates and lawmakers supporting farmers, housing developers and the oil and gas industry. It’s not the first time that conservatives have attempted to weaken the act, but it is the first time a presidential administration and the department that oversees the act appear willing to go along.

7. Epic hurricanes and wildfires. Last year around this time, a strange wildfire rushed through the Tennessee mountains, killing 14 people, destroying homes and apartment buildings, and threatening a major recreation area in Gatlinburg. The 2017 fire disasters, some of which are still burning, were much more monstrous than that Great Smoky Mountain inferno. Two California fires, the Sonoma fire that burned north of San Francisco and the Thomas fire that burned north of Los Angeles, driven by fierce Santa Ana winds, have combined to kill 45 people, burn more than a half-million acres, destroy nearly 2,000 structures and cost hundreds of millions of dollars to fight. The Thomas fire appears to be finally contained near Santa Barbara after burning the second-most acreage in state history.

But fire wasn’t even the costliest disaster this year. Hurricane Harvey’s death toll in and around Houston was nearly double the number who perished in the two fires and sent 30,000 people in search of shelter. Miami, Jacksonville and Naples, Fla., were devastated by Hurricane Irma, which immediately followed Harvey. They were followed by Hurricane Maria, which leveled much of Puerto Rico and left at least 50 people dead, but that is probably a drastic under count and the toll could be as high as 500.

8. Criminal charges mount in the Flint water crisis. In June, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette charged the director of the state’s health department and four other public officials with involuntary manslaughter for their roles in the Flint water crisis, which has stretched into its fourth year. In addition to ongoing worries that thousands of young children were exposed to dangerous levels of lead in the city’s contaminated water supply, the crisis has been linked to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that contributed to at least a dozen deaths. The manslaughter charges were the latest reckoning.

According to Schuette’s office, the investigation into the decisions that led to tainted water for a city of nearly 100,000 people has resulted in 51 criminal charges for 15 state and local officials. It remains unclear how many of the charges will stick. But the cases serve as a reminder of the human toll of the tragedy and how, even today, many residents in the largely low-income, majority-minority city trust neither the water from their taps nor the public officials charged with ensuring it is safe.

9. Climate march on Washington. It didn’t draw nearly the crowd that the Women’s March did in January. And it didn’t get as much national attention as the March for Science that came only a week earlier. Even so, on a sweltering Saturday in April, tens of thousands of demonstrators descended on Washington to mark Trump’s first 100 days in office. Their plea: Stop the rollback of environmental protections and take climate change seriously.

Building on a massive demonstration three years earlier in New York, the People’s Climate March brought its message — and its many clever signs — to the White House. “Don’t destroy the Earth. I buy my tacos here,” one read. “Good planets are hard to find,” another read. “Make Earth Great Again!” read another. Trump wasn’t around that day to witness the protests on his doorstep, and the march’s organizers didn’t expect to change his mind. But they were gearing up for a long fight ahead. By the next morning, some participants met to discuss how to get more allies to run for public office. “It can’t just be a march,” one activist said. “It has to be a movement.”

@UW: Fish to benefit if large dams adopt new operating approach

Here’s the release from the University of Washington (Michelle Ma):

Dams and fish have never been best friends.

The San Juan River’s Navajo Dam and reservoir above.U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

Thousands of dams built along U.S. rivers and streams over the last century now provide electricity for homes, store water for agriculture and support recreation for people. But they also have significant downstream impacts: They reduce the amount and change the timing of flowing water that fish rely on for spawning, feeding and migration.

Recognizing that many large dams are here to stay, a University of Washington team is investigating an emerging solution to help achieve freshwater conservation goals by re-envisioning the ways in which water is released by dams. The hope is that “designer flows” downstream from dams can be tailored to meet the water needs of humans while simultaneously promoting the success of native fishes over undesirable invasive fish species.

The team’s approach is described in a paper appearing Dec. 18 in Nature Communications.

“Rapidly changing water availability demands new dam management strategies to deliver water downstream that balances human and ecosystem needs,” said senior author Julian Olden, a UW professor of aquatic and fishery sciences. “So, the question is whether designer flows can be engineered to meet human water demands, and take advantage of mismatches between native and nonnative species’ responses to flow to provide the greatest conservation benefit.”

The Navajo Dam on the San Juan River.Photo credit Mike Robinson via the University of Washington.

The researchers examined the designer flow concept in the San Juan River, a major tributary to the Colorado River that flows through parts of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. Every drop of water is significant in this arid landscape, and along the river’s roughly 380-mile length, the mighty 402-foot Navajo Dam is impossible to ignore. The river is home to at least eight native fish species, but over the years a number of invasive fish species have also taken up residence, including predatory channel catfish, red shiner and common carp.

By integrating multiple decades’ worth of data about dam operations, river hydrology and fish species abundance into a multi-objective model, the researchers were able to identify specific water-release schedules that benefitted native fish over the invasive fish — while still ensuring that all of the domestic and agriculture needs that rely on the San Juan River’s water are met.

“We were also pleased to discover that our model predicts that the ecological benefits of designer flow releases do not evaporate during times of drought,” Olden said.

This method can guide water management in any river with large dams, Olden said. It’s particularly relevant in more arid regions of the American Southwest where water is at a premium, but major rivers like the Columbia or the Mississippi, which are similarly peppered with dams, also could have their dams programmed to release water in ways that aim to benefit both humans and freshwater ecosystems.

The key to the researchers’ approach is capitalizing on the fact that invasive fishes have only a recent evolutionary history in these river systems. Consequently, important life events of invasive fishes — such as spawning and habitat use — show slightly different relationships to patterns in streamflow compared with native fishes. The designer flows in their study exploited these small differences to identify dam releases during certain times of the year that would benefit native fishes and be detrimental to invasive fishes.

These tailored water releases are not trying to mimic the natural flow of a river before it was dammed, but rather emphasize the most important flow events for native fish in an altered river system, the researchers explained. According to their model, water releases in the San Juan River should occur in late winter, late summer and mid-autumn to get the best outcomes for native fishes over invasive ones.

Fly fishers on the San Juan River below the Navajo Dam.U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

While both designer and natural flows were predicted to be beneficial for native fishes, they found that designer flows could lead to double the loss of invasive fishes in the river, compared with a dam-release scenario that mimicked natural water flows, before the dam existed. Occasionally, dammed rivers will flush a deluge of water downstream, attempting to mimic natural river flows — but with mixed success for fish. This study suggests that such efforts could be better optimized.

This work is still in the modeling phase, and the researchers want to look next at how these water-release practices could potentially benefit other aspects of dammed river systems, such as restoring shoreline vegetation, benefiting aquatic insects and even bolstering river recreation by manipulating the water releases to encourage formation of large sandbars. Ultimately, the researchers hope to test their designer flows in a real river system, in cooperation with dam operators, engineers and water users.

“Let’s be honest: Carefully tweaking dam operations all year round to implement a designer flow regime would require a giant leap of faith, but anything new we do in water resource management involves some risk,” Olden said. “If we don’t try, we’ll never know how much better we actually could do.”

The paper’s lead author is William Chen, a recent graduate of the UW’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences and the Quantitative Ecology and Resource Management Program.

The study was funded by the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program and Olden’s H. Mason Keeler Endowed Professorship.

Ranchers, conservationists work to create a water market that benefits ranchers and fish — @WaltonFamilyFdn

Lower Green River Lake

From The Walton Family Foundation (Sheldon Alberts):

As director of Trout Unlimited’s western water and habitat program, Scott [Yates] builds partnerships with private landowners to find creative ways to reduce demand for water in the arid Colorado River basin.

The search for innovative ideas is driven by fears of future water shortages – and conflicts – in a region where a rapidly growing population, extended drought and changing weather are all combining to threaten supply. Declining snow pack and water supply also puts critical fish and wildlife habitat at risk.

Because the system, agricultural producers and fish all need water, there is significant incentive for cooperation among different stakeholders.

Some of the most promising water management solutions are being tested along the mountain-fed tributaries of the upper Green River, near the headwaters of the Colorado River system.

For more than a century, farmers and ranchers in Wyoming’s high desert rangeland have relied on irrigation water from these streams to raise crops and cattle, sustain their livelihoods and build the state’s agricultural economy.

Trout Unlimited has worked with landowners to construct fish passages to prevent trout from getting stuck in irrigation ditches and save water by improving the efficiency of aging canals, some of which were dug in the 1880s.

Over the past three years, the conservation organization has also focused on helping landowners enroll in the System Conservation Pilot Program, which compensates ranchers and farmers in the upper and lower Colorado basin for voluntarily reducing water consumption.

Started by the Bureau of Reclamation and large municipalities including Denver and Las Vegas, the program aims to help stabilize water levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell. In Wyoming, landowners are paid to stop irrigating in early July when mountain runoff is lighter and trout benefit most from having more water in the stream.

“In higher elevation country like the upper Green River, ranchers have shown remarkable interest in marketing late-season water flows. It’s after haying season and their crop is already baled and harvested, so they have less need to irrigate,” Scott says. “That’s good news for fish because the water that flows in late July, August and September is of really high value to them – especially during drought years.”

Detailed Colorado River Basin map via the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

If streams become too shallow, water temperatures rise and trout die off. Streams can dry up and become disconnected from the main stem of the Green River.

While many of the creeks in the upper Green River are small, Trout Unlimited has sought to enlist multiple landowners to participate in water markets. “When you do that, there is a significant amount of land and a significant amount of water. It adds up.”

The Walton Family Foundation supports Trout Unlimited as part of its strategy to address the supply/demand imbalance of water throughout the Colorado River basin, which includes pursuing a flexible market-based water management system in cooperation with the agricultural community, rewarding water efficiency and restoring targeted flows.

Whether conversations about water management in the West occur in major cities, ranch houses or small town bars or coffee shops, they have the potential to stir controversy.

“These rural communities depend on that resource for their livelihood. It’s a hot bed issue,” Scott says.

The key to getting buy-in from landowners on reducing water use, he says, is to design a solution that adds value to their operation.

“The goal is to create a market so if it makes economic sense for a landowner to take land out of production – temporarily, on a voluntary and compensated basis – they can choose to leave the water in the stream,” says Scott. “That improves the overall reliability of the Colorado River system and provides maximum benefits for both ranchers and fish.”

Trout Unlimited staff work in small agricultural communities throughout the West, so they can build personal relationships with landowners and listen to their concerns and ideas.

“You have to bring something to the table that works for the community,” Scott says.

“The potential with water markets is that water can be acquired temporarily. The water right stays attached to the land. That’s important for landowners.”

For Scott, the personal reward is seeing the tributaries feeding the upper Green River remain healthy and viable for fish.

“The small streams draining out of the Wyoming Range support some of last native habitat for Colorado River cutthroat trout populations,” he says.

Cutthroat trout historic range via Western Trout

Many of these streams are no wider than a one-lane road but produce trout 16 inches long.

“That signifies that the fish have everything they need. The water is clean, and there’s enough of it, for the most part,” he says.

“You can’t get any closer to great fly fishing than right here. It is truly one of the last great places.”

Drones are changing the way conservation is conducted — @Nature_Org

From The Nature Conservancy (Jan TenBruggencate):

They can track feral animals, survey invasive species, check fencelines and photograph rare plants on the highest, steepest cliffs. In doing so, the Nature Conservancy’s newest conservation workers float like butterflies over the native forest.

“Drones are revolutionizing the way conservation can be conducted, and for far less than the cost of a helicopter or sending in ground teams,” said Alison Cohan, the Conservancy’s director for Maui Nui forest programs.

Unmanned aerial vehicles—drones—are performing jobs that would otherwise be time-consuming, dangerous and, in some cases, impossible. And with every passing week, wildland managers are identifying new applications for this remarkable technology.
Like herding—using drones as airborne sheepdogs to move feral animals out of areas where they threaten native plant communities. Or taking drones out over the ocean to assess the health of coral reefs. Or flying up the side of a tall native palm to inspect flowers and fruit, to confirm it is a new find or an endangered species.

“We started thinking about this years ago, but the technology wasn’t there yet,” said Trae Menard, director of forest conservation for The Nature Conservancy of Hawai‘i.

FAA CERTIFICATION

Menard led the Hawai‘i program into the world of drones. At first, the batteries didn’t last long enough. They were far too expensive. And they didn’t have first-person viewing—the ability for the operator to see what the drone is seeing in real time.

About two years ago, those matters had been largely resolved. Drones were cheaper, you could view their imagery on an iPad or a cell phone, they were linked with cameras of superb quality, and they had enough power to do real work. But the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ruled that to use a drone for non-recreational purposes would require a pilot’s license.

“We would have needed pilots on staff,” said Melinda Ching, the Conservancy’s senior regional attorney.

Ching worked with the mainland law firm Morrison & Foerster, which in turn worked with the FAA to develop a special certification for conservation drone operators—detailed enough to ensure public safety, but you didn’t need to know how to fly a full-size plane.

“Morrison & Foerster has a whole team that does aviation law. We were able to influence regulations for small commercial operations and to develop a remote pilot certification. The Nature Conservancy’s examples of conservation use were cited in the commentary on the new rule,” Ching said.

MULTIPLE USES

The Conservancy’s Hawai‘i forest program operates drones from three of its offices—Kaua‘i, Maui Nui and Hawai‘i—and in just six months to a year of use, their value has become apparent. Shalan Crysdale, the Conservancy’s Hawai‘i Island director for forest conservation, listed a few of his drone applications:

● Assessing the effectiveness of a mountain slope to serve as a natural barrier against pigs by flying a drone out over the edge to measure its steepness.

● Gathering close-up imagery of suspect incipient weeds in remote areas, specifically vines in Ka‘ū that appeared to be banana poka or bitter melon, but were proven to be native hoi kuahiwi, or Smilax melastomifolia.

● Identifying endangered plant species in remote areas, such as Pritchardia lanigera, a rare loulu palm, in Ka‘ū preserve.

● Mapping trails and village sites within lava fields along the Hīlea coast at Kawa Bay.

“Shalan has also used drones to make a video for a grant proposal,” Menard said. “We realized that this could be an outreach tool, a way to bring the forest to the people.”

Maui Nui’s Cohan said her teams have used drones to check on the effectiveness of herbicide treatment on invasive Monterey pine, Mexican weeping pine and Sugi pine. Those weedy trees often grow on steep slopes that are too dangerous to access regularly on foot.

“We are able to fly these areas to do pre-and post-treatment comparisons—to monitor the dieback,” she said.

Drones are used on several islands to scout possible fenceline routes for natural geological barriers where fences can terminate. And once fences are in place, the drones can check their condition—to see whether pigs or deer have breached the wire mesh, or whether trees have fallen and damaged the fences.

LOWER COSTS, INCREASED SAFETY

At the Conservancy’s Kānepu‘u Preserve on Lāna‘i, drones are used to check on whether deer have managed to gain entry to the state’s best remaining natural assemblage of dryland forest, with its mature stands of native ebony (lama) and olive (olopua) sandalwood (‘iliahi) and Hawaiian gardenia (nā‘ū).

And if deer are observed, Cohan said, the buzzing drones can be used to drive them out of the protected forest area. “We can do this work at far less cost and with greater safety than traditional helicopter and ground operations,” she said.

Lucas Behnke, the natural resource manager for Kaua‘i, is one of the Conservancy’s certified drone pilots. He was licensed in September 2016.

“The drone changes the angle from which we can observe the environment,” he said. “That perspective is the most exciting part about drones.”

Of course, it’s not all good. Drones can also cause problems.

“They make a lot of noise. They clearly can affect invasive ungulates (hooved animals like goats, pigs and deer), but they also have the potential to affect bird behavior,” Behnke said. “We need to be careful.”

That said, drones have the potential to allow researchers to regularly fly the forest and create images that map changes over time—seasonal changes, changes in weed invasion, changes in forest composition, even progression of diseases through the landscape.

The Conservancy’s drone corps is anxious to hook up forward-looking infrared capacity to the drones—perhaps to identify the presence of invasive ungulates under the canopy. With the help of heat-sensors, drones could also potentially identify remnant hot spots after forest fires have been largely extinguished, Menard said.

MARINE APPLICATIONS

The Conservancy’s Hawai‘i marine program is also experimenting with drones. Community-based Program Manager Manuel Mejia and Fellow Bert Weeks are testing whether a drone called the “aquacopter” can be used to detect coral bleaching and the regrowth of invasive algae on patch reefs in O‘ahu’s Kāne‘ohe Bay.

The aquacopter can be programmed to land on water and uses a camera on its underbelly to capture underwater photos and video as it moves from point to point along a pre-determined flight path. “If we are successful, the aquacopter could substantially reduce the long man hours normally required for surveying,” Weeks said. “Another potential application is using the cameras to create 3-D models of the reefs.”

As Conservancy staff continue to identify new uses of existing drones, the drones themselves are getting better. The expectation is that engineering advances will create drones that are smaller, lighter and have a longer battery life.

“It’s powerful. A new frontier,” said Menard. “It’s changing the way we do conservation.”