This is a long post, but you ought to know the details. The Navy is a step closer to full war operations in two areas:
1.) The Electronic Warfare Range it established without public comment over Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, and
2.) Vast increases in war operations in Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and coastal and offshore waters.
After a delay of 10 months, the US Fish and Wildlife Service signed a Biological Opinion on July 21, covering all proposed activities in the Navy’s Electronic Warfare Environmental Assessment and the Northwest Training and Testing Final EIS. Permits for incidental take of threatened and endangered species managed by the USFWS, specifically bull trout, marbled murrelets, short-tailed albatross, and possibly northern spotted owls, are likely to soon follow. The Navy will issue its Record of Decision later this month, and will have its Fait Accompli despite the fact that to the public, this is anything but case closed.
This Biological Opinion was thoroughly researched and is a combination of retrofitting the missing biological data to support the “finding of no significant impacts” of the Navy’s 2014 Electronic Warfare Range Environmental Assessment, plus a detailed evaluation of the Northwest Training and Testing Final EIS, on what happens to these specific endangered and threatened species when exposed to explosions, sonar, and other threats at sea. No non-listed species are evaluated in a Biological Opinion, so remember, if the FWS calls effects of explosions and sonar on bull trout “insignificant,” don’t automatically interpret the same result for salmon or halibut or other fish not mentioned.
The FWS did us all a favor by going into a lot of detail; the document is a great learning tool, however depressing it is to read. However, a Biological Opinion is just that—an agency’s opinion, so unless the FWS can clearly show that the Navy’s proposed activities will place a species in actual jeopardy, or danger of extinction, it’s difficult for a small agency to resist the immense pressure the Navy has no doubt been applying. And what pressure would that be?
You may recall that just before the Navy’s Northwest Training and Testing Final EIS was published in October 2015 without a public comment period, the Navy was busily trying to convince the FWS that temporary hearing loss, behavior changes, and other impacts on animals and birds that are not visible or obvious injuries should not be considered a form of harm. This is in direct opposition to both the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. A series of email threads (1, 2, 3) obtained from a whistleblower demonstrated the level of the Navy’s determination to undermine the Endangered Species Act by reinterpreting the definition of harm for their own benefit. In the emails they offered to write portions of the Biological Opinion and refused most mitigation measures, including having FWS train their observers. The normal “lifespan” for a Biological Opinion is 5 years, and the FWS asked the Navy to limit it to that. Nope, said the Navy, it’s 20 years. What are the chances that these calculated “probabilities” for species impacts will be accurate in 2036?
The Navy also insisted on drawing a clear line between permanent and temporary “Threshold Shift,” a fancy name for hearing loss. Their long-held position, that temporary hearing loss and behavior changes are not harm, is explained in this letter to the superintendent of the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. The problem is, where do you draw the line on hearing loss for species that depend on hearing for survival? How do you know what damage is permanent and what’s temporary, in a rare, tiny and secretive marbled murrelet? Answer: you don’t, but if you’re the Navy you insist the FWS use a 1974 study by the military on domestic chickens, ducks and geese to calculate “probabilities.” Weight differences alone, never mind the wildness factor, would invalidate such measures. The FWS was obviously forced to come up with another method.
What do the species that depend on hearing do for protection from predators while recovering from not being able to hear properly? Recovery can take hours, days or weeks, and may or may not be a full recovery. And what about repeated noise or explosive events as opposed to one or two? In the case of marbled murrelets, which are on the endangered species list and spend 90% of their lives on or in the water from along the coast to 50 and even 250 miles offshore, it’s not so easy to know what’s temporary and what’s permanent harm when it comes to exposure to undersea and in-air explosions, plus sonar, plus jet overflights. However, the law clearly spells it out: harassment is harm, and according to the FWS, so is any “Threshold Shift.”
On jet noise, the Navy promised (and the FWS repeats in the Biological Opinion) that the jets do not fly lower than 6,000 feet above sea level, but news flash: anyone who lives, or stays at hotels and lodges, or walks the beaches and low-elevation forests of the West End knows from deafening experience (videotaped) that when you can read the numbers on jet fuselages when you’re at sea level, they’re not flying at 6,000 feet. In fact, a FWS biologist reported being concerned about a Growler jet flying so low and near the camera drone her team was testing to photograph wildlife on offshore islets, that there was a potential collision danger. That low swoop, not unusual at all, was probably within the prohibited “threshold distance” of harassing wildlife and causing stress effects like producing fewer young. Will the Navy respect the self-imposed boundaries it gave to the FWS as evaluation criteria? It’s violating them already.
And what about the report from a fly-fisherman on the Hoh River, that the forest all around him was “humming like an electrical transformer”? Concerned, he left the forested river area immediately. He has a wife who’s pregnant, and after that experience they’re worried for their unborn child’s health and are thinking of leaving the area permanently. And sonic booms? Expect more of them – not just from Growlers but also from surface-to-air missiles, air-to-surface missiles, and surface-to-surface gunnery exercises.
The Incidental Take Permit for marbled murrelets will likely allow for a total of approximately 112 birds to be “taken” by the Navy over the next 20 years in offshore areas; in inland waters where explosions and a massive amount of pile-driving is occurring, the FWS did a separate consultation with the Navy; we don’t have those numbers because the FWS no longer puts consultations that are public record on its web site, and the Navy usually requires that citizens file a Freedom of Information Act request before releasing any public records. You have to be really determined to get information from our government these days. Maybe 112 murrelets over 20 years does not sound like a lot, but murrelets are extremely secretive birds and the Navy has refused to let the FWS train its observers, so how will they know when they’ve reached their take limit? And if they do, will they admit it, or will they count only obvious, visible injuries as take?
When it comes to “no significant impacts,” the Navy promises a lot, but they, not us, get to define what’s “significant” and what’s not. Sneaking a major controversial document past the public (the 2014 Electronic Warfare EA) so that nobody was aware of it and nobody commented on it guaranteed they got to define “significant” on that one. Later, when we found out, hearing them tell us that in essence we’re all complicit because we didn’t comment, was a confirmation of flat-out cheating.
So, how can we trust the Navy to honestly adhere to the non-discretionary Terms and Conditions of this Biological Opinion? (page 272.) We can’t. Since the Navy already argues with the established legal definition of harm, and since there’s no incentive for them to be honest with us or with wildlife agencies, and since they have the entire congressional delegation kowtowing, well good luck with honesty.
And the mitigation? Here it is: Develop a plan to search for and remove derelict fishing nets, and develop a plan to fund offshore removal of plastic debris. That’s all good stuff, but nowhere near enough mitigation when you consider the total population has gone from 8,926 to 4,290 in 14 years. The FWS probably asked for much more mitigation, and was probably refused.
Another fact that does not jibe is that the Navy gave the FWS “modeled sound levels at a range of altitudes that will result from operating the EA-18G [Growler jet] at three different power settings (78, 85, and 93 percent power.)” [Page 209.] “Unfortunately,” continued the FWS, “none of the power settings in the proposed action (80, 82, and 89 percent power) were included in the modeled SEL [sound exposure level] data” provided by the Navy. Which meant that the FWS had to extrapolate. They came up with a noise exposure threshold for murrelets that limited the jets to 80-89% power settings at altitudes from 2,000 to 6,000 feet. When you compare this restrained scenario to the fact that the EIS shows aerial combat maneuvers (dogfighting) are slated to increase by 244%, and that such flying often involves intensely loud afterburners using 12,000 gallons per hour at full power, it’s hard not to question: did the Navy give the FWS all it needed to truly evaluate noise exposure?
Regarding underwater stressors such as sonar and explosions, the FWS accurately points out, “Although affected murrelets may survive their exposure…, they are likely to have a reduced level of fitness and reproductive success and have a higher risk of predation. Exposed individuals may also experience: lethal injuries that occur instantaneously or over time; direct mortality; lung hemorrhaging; ruptured livers; hemorrhaged kidneys; ruptured air sacs; and/or coronary air embolisms. Murrelets that experience TS [Threshold Shift] are expected to have damaged hair cells in their inner ears and, as a result, may not be able to detect biologically relevant sounds such as approaching predators or prey, and/or hear their mates or young attempting to communicate. Murrelets that lose their hearing sensitivity are at increased risk of predation and reduced foraging efficiency. Some affected murrelets may regain some or all of their hearing sensitivity; however, they are still temporarily at risk while experiencing TS.”
FWS also remarked indirectly on the November 2015 Biological Opinion from the National Marine Fisheries Service by saying that despite NMFS asking the Navy to wait until the time of year when salmon abundance is at its lowest, there is “no guarantee” that the Navy would accommodate such a request during Explosive Ordnance Disposal training.
The Navy’s at-sea war operations discussed in this EIS will primarily be in Washington’s inshore, coastal and offshore waters. Marbled murrelets are found from northern California to Alaska. In Washington, nesting habitat is the big issue, so any efforts to ensure reproductive success are a priority. Although murrelet numbers in general are declining, the Washington population is going down five times faster than elsewhere. We doubt any biologist would agree that a population decline of 5.1% to 7.7% per year in Washington is sustainable, yet the FWS concluded, “the Service determined that this level of anticipated take is not likely to result in jeopardy to the marbled murrelet.” What does this mean? That eventual extirpation (local extinction) of this bird in Washington waters is acceptable in trade for militarizing the region, because it’ll still be found elsewhere? What do we do when the Navy wants the “elsewhere,” too? How do we justify throwing away the money American taxpayers have paid for recovery of species that the Navy doesn’t seem to mind bombing in peacetime?
There’s much more on impacts, and we haven’t discussed the bull trout or short-tailed albatross yet, but let’s use an analogy for marbled murrelets: Suppose you’re having dinner with a romantic partner in a super-cool restaurant called the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. Suddenly someone walks in and starts firing a cannon. You’re both going to stop eating, run for the nearest exit, and you probably won’t return to that place for awhile. Your blood pressure will rise and your ears might bleed or hurt from the noise if you’re not in the blast zone and are killed outright, but you won’t know how badly damaged your ears are for awhile. You’ll feel stressed and afraid, and any thoughts of romancing your partner will be gone. Now imagine that happening regularly and frequently over the next 20 years, in the places you eat, gather and rest. Got the picture? War games are no games for birds, whales, seals or fish. Or the people over whose heads the Navy is conducting them.
So tell us please, Navy, how do you propose to monitor any of these impacts to murrelets and other species when you won’t allow independent observers aboard, and, according to your emails, you won’t even allow your own observers to be trained by the agency with wildlife expertise?
The FWS did its homework and included so many citations it’ll take awhile to find and read them. But some sources they used are not the strongest evidence on which to base conclusions. None of the three citations for the chapter on the northern spotted owl, for example, actually studied the northern spotted owl or its habitat in the Pacific Northwest. They studied the much larger Mexican spotted owl, in New Mexico and Colorado. There is not enough peer-reviewed research on the northern spotted owl, so the FWS had to extrapolate. The southwestern habitats that these three studies evaluated are rocky canyons and forests, while the northern spotted owl prefers old-growth forests with dense canopy closure. One southwestern study evaluated helicopter and chainsaw noise, which are different from jet noise, but there is no jet noise study on northern spotted owls. Ironically, the FWS is evaluating the northern spotted owl for downgrading its status from threatened to endangered, but there’s no funding for new research.
Another study extensively cited was an unpublished, non-peer-reviewed Air Force evaluation of jet noise on Mexican spotted owls in Colorado. It contained a lot of information the FWS found useful, but that study evaluated noise from F-16s and Tornados, not Growlers. The maximum sound intensity of those jets is far quieter than a Growler. An F-35, for example, is similar to a Growler, and has 126 times the maximum sound intensity of the F-16. The human ear perceives that 126 times more intense, or higher pressure, sound as being more than four times louder. Therefore, it is possible that the Air Force study along with the incomplete Growler sound levels provided to the FWS by the Navy, combined with their proposed increases in aerial combat and electronic warfare, caused an underestimation of the actual level of sound exposure.
So the public should ask itself: Would federal wildlife agencies allow this level of peacetime harassment and injury of threatened and endangered species to any organization except the military? Would they accept this much “direction” and interference from anyone but the military? Would a National Park that’s also a World Heritage Site be so powerless to stop the ruin with any other entity but the military?
Who has the power to stop it but remains mute? Our congressional delegation, that’s who. Every one of them is so pro-military that they are happy to throw anyone and anything in the Navy’s way under the bus.
Let’s put it another way: Should the public be forced to sacrifice this much of our natural heritage during peacetime in return for spending more than 55 percent of all federal discretionary funding on a military that behaves so disrespectfully? US military expenditures are greater than the next ten largest countries combined, yet the Pentagon has not been able to pass a federal audit since 1994 and cannot account for trillions of dollars. Do we therefore believe that the Navy will admit accountability when the degradation of the most biologically rich and diverse rainforest and National Park in the United States becomes even more obvious? Or when whales no longer visit our waters in the numbers we’re used to?
Where does it stop? With a sustained, informed public effort that tells our so-called representatives that we’re mad as hell, we’re not going to take it anymore, and we are going to remind them of that during this election year.