A federal networking program that helped broker the international agreement to protect the transboundary Flathead River has quietly shut down, according to many non-governmental organizations that depended on its connections.
“It’s the most stark example I’ve ever seen of an administration changing and something winked out of existence,” said Erin Sexton of the Flathead Lake Biological Station, which worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Landscape Conservation Cooperatives. “I understand from the colleagues I worked with that they’re being reassigned. It appears the money’s gone. These things aren’t going to happen anymore.”
The Landscape Conservation Cooperatives set up 22 programs throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico in the early Obama administration. They grew out of the Department of Interior’s strategy of landscape-scale conservation work started in the Bush administration. The Trump administration recommended eliminating the program’s budget in its 2017 budget proposal and the two budgets since, although Congress appropriated about $12 million for the LCCs each of the past two years.
The Great Northern LCC, which included Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, British Columbia and Alberta, has not held its semi-annual meetings since spring 2017. While Yvette Converse of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is still listed as Great Northern LCC coordinator in Bozeman, she said she has been reassigned to pallid sturgeon recovery, and referred all questions to an FWS office in Denver. The staff officer there did not respond to a list of questions emailed by the Missoulian.
The Great Northern LCC helped federal, state and non-governmental groups work on issues such as keeping aquatic invasive species out of the Columbia River watershed, protecting wildlife migration corridors, defining grizzly bear habitat standards, and adapting to wildfire challenges. Gary Tabor, president of the Center for Landscape Conservation at the Montana State University, said the federal program kept scientists with parallel missions from duplicating one another’s work.
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“The LCCs were involved in over 300 large, collaborative landscape efforts,” Tabor said. “We don’t want to lose what we had in this process. We’re just going to have to re-create this.”
In addition to helping fund and share scientific work, the Great Northern LCC was the communication link that Montana and British Columbia leaders used to broker a 2010 deal protecting the Flathead River headwaters along Glacier-Waterton International Peace Park from energy and mineral development.
“That was the mechanism used to save the Flathead watershed,” Tabor said. “The British Columbia government used the LCC in that capacity during the Vancouver Olympics.”
The demise comes at a time when other parts of the federal government are sending mixed messages on cooperative work. Last year, the U.S. Forest Service unveiled its “Toward Shared Stewardship” strategy of improving communication among federal, state, tribal and private stakeholders in dealing with wildfire across boundaries. But the fiscal 2020 Trump budget proposal eliminates or cuts all but one of the programs by a combined $29.65 million from FY 19 levels, according to a statement by the National Association of State Foresters published in Wildfire Today.
“What is concerning is there wasn’t any clear signs the program was not successful,” Sexton said. “If you have increased efficiency, more communication, networked science, and economic efficiency, why wouldn’t you try to bring capacity to something like that? In the short time the cooperatives were on the landscape, they had a lot of success.”