09 July 2020

Thinking ahead: The magic of EPM

Written by: Jessica Sattler

I got lucky, if you can really call anyone lucky in the midst of a global pandemic. Unlike some others in my cohort, my assigned project for the Directorate Fellows Program was both close to home and already had very little field work involved.

The project description would mostly have me in the office on a computer working with a program called the Effect Pathways Manager (EPM).

Why does EPM work matter? It provides an incredibly useful and informative tool for both scientists and stakeholders to determine how a proposed action (like a construction activity) might impact a species of concern - like magic!

The process for each species looks a little something like this:

Background research: Luckily, you don’t have to be an expert on a species in order to figure out how they might be affected by certain activities. There is a plethora of resources to read through and absorb, including formal research papers and official US Fish and Wildlife Service documents like Species Status Assessments, Designations of Critical Habitat, and Final Rules on the status of the species. The trick is to pick out the key information you need for the next steps in the process.

Establishing life stages: Life stages are typically described very early on in listing and recovery documents, where the basic biology and life history of the species are detailed. These are probably the easiest categories to pick out from the literature, although sometimes terminology varies between different sources. Do I call this young bird a juvenile, or do I call them a nestling? A hatchling? One source says one thing and the other says another, so which to choose?

Establishing resource needs: Resource needs get a bit more complicated. While some resource needs are applicable to the species as a whole, they are often broken down further by life stage depending on how each life stage utilizes that resource. The removal of a bush, for instance, would have a very different effect on an adult bird versus an egg – the adult can fly away, but the egg would likely be crushed. Resource needs aren’t always spelled out, either, which means sometimes I need to dig to find the information I need, or I need to draw conclusions based on the information I’m provided.

Establishing effect pathways: This is the most involved part of the process. Here I must determine how certain activities (for example: use of off-road vehicles) might impact the species. I start at the highest level possible, which is usually a general construction activity, like the expansion of an airport runway. That high-level activity is then broken up into the smaller parts that make up that activity, and the idea is to try to encompass as much impact as you possibly can. So that includes taking into account things like off-road vehicle use, laying down cement, or spraying pesticides. For this example, if we introduce pesticides into the environment, that reduces the amount of insects available for the bird to eat, which reduces that animal’s overall fitness because it has to expend more energy to find food.

Adding conservation measures: Conservation measures are where I can try to address some of the impacts these activities have on the species. If an activity produces high levels of noise that might startle a bird away from its nest, abandoning the eggs, I can suggest conducting that activity only outside of the bird’s breeding season.

This basic framework can be applied to any species you can think of, be it a bird, a plant, or a fish!

Agency: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Program: US Fish & Wildlife Service - DFP

Location: Carlsbad Fish and Wildlife Office

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