Category Archives: Good News

Partnering with Gray Wolves to Solve the Conservation Crises of Our Time

Photo: Dreamstime

Original article on DiCaprio Foundation website.

By: Rebecca White

We are enduring the sixth mass extinction of life on our home planet. The Guardian UK recently reported on a studyshowing that 96% of all mammals remaining on earth are humans and livestock. Only 4% are wild mammals. Just since 1970, it is estimated we have killed off 60% of vertebrate wildlife. 40% of insect species face extinction. Scientists have stated that life will need 10 million years of evolution to recover from the onslaught of humanity on the wild world.

These numbers are horrifically difficult to read. On top of this, we are heating our atmosphere to the point at which large swathes of our home may become uninhabitable. And these twin crises – the biodiversity crisis and the climate crisis – are interlinked and self-perpetuating in ways we don’t fully understand.

But there is good news here, too: we are not alone in this battle. If we let it, the rest of life on earth will work with us to avert disaster.

Wolves as Partners in Fighting Climate Change and the Biodiversity Crisis

The gray wolf is a keystone species, without which its ecosystem “arch” falls in a jumble of nonfunctional rocks. It’s an apt analogy: the near-collapse of parts of Yellowstone National Park’s ecosystems after wolves were eradicated last century has become common knowledge.

A series of studies emerging from Yellowstone has explained how some of the park’s damaged ecosystems began to recover once their keystone was reintroduced. It’s a beautiful fact that indeed, rewildingmissing carnivores can restore ecosystems.

Wolves increase biodiversity. In Yellowstone, for example, the return of wolves led to changes in elk behavior that allowed streamside willows and aspen to regenerate. This in turn allowed for the return of songbirds, beavers, fish, and frogs. Wolves also feed their fellow species by leaving partially uneaten prey atop the winter snowpack, and thereby providing a feast for perhaps hundreds of other species from grizzlies to insects to fungi. Wolf-driven processes increase the complexity and health of their ecosystems.

Gray wolves can also contribute to climate stability. As a general proposition, functional ecosystems store more carbon. Beyond that, in some temperate forest ecosystems, the loss of wolves has meant the loss of new trees. Predator scientist Dr. Bill Ripple and others showed that when wolves were absent from Yellowstone, elk browsed all the young trees and shrubs from certain areas, leaving a 70-year gap in tree recruitment. His team found similar results in other North American parks where wolves had been absent for a time.

 

Picture1

Photo showing missing age classes of trees in Canada’s Jasper National Park, where wolves were mostly absent for about 25 years. Image copyright and courtesy of: Bill Ripple

What’s more, wolves create conditions for beavers to thrive. Beavers alter the flow of water through an ecosystem, slowing its flow and providing rich habitat for a complex array of species. Too, beavers build wetlands and ponds, which can lock away a great deal of carbon.

We know that millions of wolves once roamed the North American continent. Now, only 5,000-6,000 grace the lower 48, where many hundreds of thousands once practiced their particular brand of ecosystem services. Many vibrant, carbon-sequestering ecosystems have been lost.

A map of historical gray wolf distribution (shaded gray area) versus current range (bright green) is stark. But dark green areas shows zones to which wolves might still return and thrive, and serve again as ecosystem engineers of the highest order.

 

2

 Map courtesy of the Center for Biological Diversity

From Wolves to the “Warning to Humanity”

Emerging from a deep dive into climate and biodiversity data, Dr. Ripple penned the now-famous “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity, A Second Notice.” It traces worsening trends in key metrics and calls on the world to decarbonize the economy immediately, to protect and restore natural systems, and to control human population growth.

3

Dr. Ripple sent the draft paper to 40 colleagues, hoping a few would sign on. By the time it was published, over 15,000 scientists from around the world had endorsed the warning, which went on to make international headlines and has become one of the most-cited papers ever published. It calls on leaders and citizens worldwide to make immediate and drastic changes in policy and behavior.

But at this critical juncture, when we are literally out of time and must try every potential method to stem ecological collapse, the Trump administration has proposed removing endangered species protections from gray wolves across the lower 48. Again, a mere 5,000-6,000 gray wolves remain here to do the work that hundreds of thousands once performed, and many, many habitats are still empty of wolves.

So much more than a wolf numbers game, this decision would turn wolf management over to state fish and game agencies. Although many states across the western U.S. have made headlines for their “green” governors and forward-thinking climate policies, most of our state fish and game departments remain mired in unenlightened, unscientific thinking about predator management. Rather than viewing keystone predators as partners in restoring healthy ecosystems for the benefit of all species, including humans, most “manage” wolves by killing them. In a time of urgent conservation crises, this is a terrible way to manage our precious and dwindling wildlife resources.

Americans are hurtling toward a decision that may make it impossible for our wolves to return home and partner with us in our efforts to stem climate change and biodiversity loss. We must not dismantle this crucial tool; the situation is indeed so dire that we must use all the options available to us. The Trump administration will likely soon finalize its proposal to remove federal protections from gray wolves across the lower 48. With enough voices speaking up to demand that we not only keep endangered species protections in place for our gray wolves, but that we actively work to help their populations recover in areas where they used to roam, we may yet correct that misguided course.

Need Hope? Draw It Down!

The image above is from the website, http://www.drawdown.org.

I could spend hours summarizing what can be found there, but really, I think you should just go to the website and wallow in hope and solutions for a few minutes (or days). Really, we can do this! The world does not have to end for us to draw down greenhouse gases enough to reverse the worst impacts of climate change–in fact, a more peaceful, healthy, and beautiful world is within range. All we have to do is stop fighting with each other, and focus together! Easier said than done, I know, especially when it seems that no one here in the U.S. can get along, but at least there’s a roadmap for a set of solutions. We just have to get on board.

China’s Richest Man Buys American Wildlife Reserve

On the West Coast anyway, there’s been lots of buzz about Chinese investors buying up U.S. properties as investments. Now, Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba and China’s most wealthy individual, has spent $23 million to buy a property in the Adirondack Mountains and turn it into a wildlife preserve. It is a beautiful property — 28,000 acres of rolling, forested mountains with good wildlife habitat and pristine streams, ponds, and river stretches — according to the marketing video, below.

This rural New York parcel, surrounded by Adirondack Park, includes some of the best brook trout fishing in the country. A previous owner donated a conservation easement on the property to the Nature Conservancy. This restriction means that Mr. Ma may now carry out only certain activities on the property. In this case, he may do some logging and construct nine more homes on the land, but may do no commercial development. While enviros were hoping that the state of New York might purchase the property for a public park — or that a nonprofit might do so and hold it until it could be sold to the state — it was simply too expensive. In addition, the conservation easement already in place provides pretty strong protection, so this parcel wasn’t a high priority for state or nonprofit acquisition when compared to other properties at higher risk of development.

Now, if our many American billionaires would join Mr. Ma in protecting wildlife habitat by purchasing it, that would be great!

 

2015 Was Actually a Pretty Good Year for the Environment

You will hear that 2015 was the hottest year on record, but it was also a year of important environmental breakthroughs. Here are several signs that things are starting to get better:

  1. Americans finally believe climate change is real. A recent poll shows 76% of Americans now know climate change is happening. Even a majority of Republicans, whose party has been in aggressive denial about this issue, now understand it’s a problem. Our politicians have the population’s mandate to act. They must therefore stop throwing roadblocks in the path of important and necessary policies, like the EPA’s new Clean Power Plan, which will set the first nationwide limits of power plant emissions (the U.S.’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions).
  2. Other important greenhouse-gas producers, like China, are cutting emissions too. China is a particularly important example — it’s both the world’s largest population center and our largest emitter of Barack Obama, Xi Jinpinggreenhouse gases. The Chinese government is experimenting with carbon trading markets in five cities and two provinces, which altogether contain almost a fifth of China’s population and produce a quarter of its gross domestic product (economic output). This is in preparation for launching a Chinese national carbon trading market in 2017. This is a good sign that China is taking its responsibility to act on climate change seriously.
  3. The U.S. and Cuba are getting along. I posted recently about how Cuba and the U.S. have agreed to work together to monitor marine life in the oceans between the two nations. Because many important marine species cross the international boundary, monitoring them has been challenging. Now the two nations will share data that will make science-based management of fisheries and other ecosystems possible.
  4. Powerful sensors are becoming commercially available. What this means is that realtime data on the presence of toxic chemicals in our day-to-day environment will now be available on a large scale. For example, a large segment of citizens wearing wristband sensors that detect chemical residues could allow for the creation of a large database of chemical abundance. This would allow policymakers to base their decisions regarding the licensing of certain chemicals on real numbers describing how chemicals spread throughout the population. It also means that groups who lobby for tougher chemical safety regulations will have strong data on their side — countering the too-frequent excuse of chemical companies and their lobbyists that “you can’t prove it.”
  5. Scientists finally have a handle on methane emissions. Methane, which is many times over a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, is emitted as a byproduct of many processes, particularly those in the oil and gas industries. With new data in hand, states, scientists, and climate activists are now able to push for stronger regulation of methane emissions. Thanks to a series of 16 research projects conducted over the past five years, there is now strong enough data on this pollutant that the federal government has proposed, for the first time, methane-specific regulations for the nation.

Read more details about these issues at the Environmental Defense Fund website. Photo in body of post taken from EDF website.

Header photo from U.S. EPA. View original post here.

Rewilding: The Last Truly Wild Horses Return Home

The Przewalski’s horse has rebounded from near extinction. There were once only 12 of these pony-sized wild horses remaining in the entire world. Even just a few years ago, all the existing Przewalski’s horses lived in captivity, and the species was listed by the IUCN as “extinct in the wild.”

42-22097706.jpg__800x600_q85_cropNow, thanks to a captive breeding program, there are over 2,000 of them worldwide, with about 350 living in the wild in Mongolia. These little horses are the last truly wild horse species in the world. The American mustang and other well-known “wild horses” are actually feral rather than wild — they descended from domesticated horses that got free and chose to live in the wild rather than go back to captivity.

The Przewalski’s horses are not out of the woods. There are concerns about their survival in the age of climate change should Mongolia begin to experience unusually harsh winters. And it is possible that they may interbreed with feral horses, diluting their bloodline so that they would no longer be a distinct species. But the Przewalski’s horse seems to have avoided the biggest threat to species recovering from near-extinction — a lack of genetic diversity leading to inbreeding and health problems.

Read more at Smithsonian here.

Read more at Newsweek here.

All images taken from the sites linked above.

A Good Day for Chimps

It has been a season of good news for wild animals in captivity. I recently posted an article about SeaWorld’s announcement that it will be ending (some of) its killer whale shows. While this big announcement amounted to no more than media spin to deflect the public outcry raised by the film Blackfish, it does look like SeaWorld is eventually going to have to bow to pressure and end its captive orca programs entirely.

Now, the U.S. National Institutes of Health, which has long been the government body tasked with approving research projects using chimpanzee test subjects, has announced that it will no longer be keeping a supply of captive chimps for this purpose. It will also continue to phase out all the chimp research funding it has, in the past, provided to outside facilities.

Since 2013, the NIH has been in the process of reducing researcher reliance on chimps. Most of its 360 captive chimps were to be retired, with a group of 50 to be kept in case they were needed for future research. Now, in a document leaked by an NIH employee, the head of the agency has stated that these last 50 chimps would be retired, as well.

Last June, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service listed captive chimps under the Endangered Species Act, making it that much harder for the NIH to approve them for research uses. In addition, any researcher wanting to use chimps would have had to show that the planned research would in some way benefit wild chimps. These strict conditions were apparently enough to deter new chimp-based research, because no new applications for chimpanzee projects were received after the status change went into effect.

Some who would like to have access to captive chimps for use in studies to benefit wild chimps and other primates may be disappointed by this news. Chimp research has already been outlawed in many places. So, overseas researchers who, for example, wish to test ebola vaccines meant for wild chimps on their captive cousins may have trouble finding test subjects. The NIH’s director, however, believes that other species of primates still available to researchers can serve as suitable test subjects for these types of vaccine trials.

The NIH is in the process of preparing a retirement plan for its captive chimps as well as those in other facilities it has been funding.

View the Science magazine article here.