Wildlife News

Iraq Creates its First National Park

Early this month, Iraq’s Council of Ministers announced the designation of Iraq’s first National Park. The Mesopotamian Marshes, located in Southern Iraq, are a critical wetland that some consider to be the original Garden of Eden. However, during the Gulf War, then-president Saddam Hussein drained much of the area, reducing the marshes to less than 10 percent of their original size. Following Hussein’s downfall, re-flooding efforts were established with great success. Wildlife that utilized habitat pockets when the drainage occurred was able to fan out as the marshes expanded once again.

Current threats to the marshes include water politics and urbanization. Countries to the north are restricting water flows into the region, forcing Nature Iraq to build an embankment to increase water flows in the spring. Development, and road construction could also affect the park long-term, though this is a double-edged sword. More development could lead to an increase in tourism in the region, which could boost long-term success of the park. Success will also depend on an effective water-sharing strategy.

Deforestation Ban Working in Costa Rica

Researchers from Columbia University recently published their findings on the effectiveness of Costa Rica’s old growth conservation program. The  study, led by Matthew Fagan, found that since the program began in 1996, loss of old-growth forest to agricultural conversion has dropped 40 percent. The study found that the program has succeeded despite an increase in agriculture in the country, mainly in large-scale pineapple and banana exports.

The ban has been less successful in stopping conversion for cattle pasture, however. The researchers wrote, “”Our results suggest that deforestation bans may protect mature forests better than older forest regrowth and may restrict clearing for large-scale crops more effectively than clearing for pasture.” Because pineapple and banana exports in Costa Rica are primarily large-scale operations that are subject to environmental critique, owners are more inclined to adhere to the conversion ban. Cattle ranchers, however, are typically smaller-scale operations that produce meat for local consumption; ranchers see less incentive to adhere to the ban.

U.S. House Proposes Eliminating Funding for Conservation Programs

A proposal made by the House of the Interior’s Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee could eliminate funding to several key conservation programs. Put on the table by the Republican-led committee, the proposal suggests cutting off funding to the State & Tribal Wildlife Grants Program, North American Wetland Conservation Fund, Neotropical Migratory Bird Fund, Forest Legacy Program and Water Conservation Fund.

For contact information for the subcommittee’s chairman and ranking member, click on the link above.

World Elephant Day

August 12th marked the second annual World Elephant Day, a designation begun in 2012 to bring awareness to elephant conservation. Reviews of the past year’s elephant management strategies indicate that ivory poaching and trafficking continue in Asia and Africa, and urbanization, primarily in developing countries, remains a serious threat to elephants’ already reduced habitats.

An increase in public awareness is one positive trend the last year has seen, thanks to programs such as World Elephant Day and sharing through social media sites. However, awareness is the first step in a long process that is necessary to conserve elephants. Political leaders, NGOs, law enforcement officials, and stakeholders will all need to work together to enforce anti-poaching regulations and establish effective conservation policies.

North Spotted Owl (Credit: Wikipedia)

North Spotted Owl (Credit: Wikipedia)

Northern spotted owls have had a tough time of it in recent decades. Just when one threat to the species begins to decline, it seems, another is right there to take its place.

In 1990 the northern spotted owl was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. This spurred a long and heated controversy between loggers in the area, who had built a booming industry around the region’s old growth forest, and conservationists, who viewed the owl as an “indicator species.” The divide grew when, in 1994, Clinton signed the Northwest Forest Plan, which was designed to protect northern spotted owls and other species that depend on old growth forest. Although the plan permitted logging at a sustainable level, its implementation slashed logging on national forest by 90 percent.

While the debate has settled as the northwest slowly rebounded from the loss of its timber industry, the northern spotted owl population remains threatened, and is in fact declining. New threats to the species have prevented the owl from rebounding. Climate change has led to further loss of habitat; winters and hot summers have contributed to a rise in insect outbreaks, fires, and disease in the old growth forests. The other main threat to the northern spotted owl: the barred owl.

Originally located in eastern forests across the US and Canada, barred owls have been making their way west, and now overlap all of the northern spotted owl’s range. The barred owl is larger and more resilient than the northern spotted owl, and is increasing competition in the northern spotted owl’s already scarce habitat. As pressures from a shrinking habitat and aggressive competing species increase, northern spotted owl populations continue to decline, as much as 7.4 percent per year.

Barred Owl (Credit: Wikipedia)

Barred Owl (Credit: Wikipedia)

Wildlife officials with the US Fish and Wildlife Department have developed a four-year experimental plan to kill barred owls in select areas of northern spotted owl range. The purpose of this experiment is to see if northern spotted owls rebound in areas where barred owls are less—or no longer—prevalent. Each area will be split in half. One half of each area will serve as a control area, where no barred owls will be killed. The other half will permit barred owl killing. These test areas will occur mainly on tribal and federal land, and will be located in northern California; in the Cascade range near Cle Elum, Washington; within the Oregon Coast range; and in the Klamath Mountains. The test areas will encompass 1,207 square miles, equaling about 0.05 percent of the northern spotted owl’s habitat.

Officials are not yet sure whether government or publicly contracted hunters will be tasked with hunting the barred owls, or how the killing will occur and what regulations will be set. Any hunting of the owls will require a special permit under the Migratory Bird Act, since barred owls are considered a nongame species.

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This experiment brings up several ethical dilemmas. Some opponent’s of the plan believe that officials are intervening in a natural process. If the barred owl naturally made its way into northern spotted owl habitat, the effects of that should, critics argue, be left to nature to sort out.  However, according to the FWS, it’s likely that  “the barred owl’s westward movement was caused by changes to the environment in the Great Plains as people increasingly settled there and dramatically altered the landscape.” So, how ‘natural’ is the barred owl’s presence in northern spotted owl range?

Further, we have to ask: would the northern spotted owl be better prepared for the barred owl’s invasion if the northern spotted owl population hadn’t declined due to logging? Or, if there was more available habitat, would the two species be able to co-exist in such a way that barred owls wouldn’t threaten northern spotted owls?

We are left with another pressing question: What is the ultimate cause of of this issue? Is the barred owl invasion an ultimate cause of the northern spotted owl’s decline? Or is the barred owl’s effect on northern spotted owl populations the result of the ultimate cause: habitat loss? Furthermore, if barred owls are an indirect cause to the decline in northern spotted owl, how would killing them be an effective long-term management strategy for preserving the northern spotted owl?

Of the proposed experiment, the FWS says:

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has identified competition from barred owls as one of two main threats to the northern spotted owl’s continued survival (habitat loss is the other). We are currently proposing an experiment to test the effects of removing barred owls from certain areas of spotted owl habitat to see if it would benefit spotted owls.  Removal of some members of a common species to protect or recover a rare species, while not unheard of, is not a typical management practice, and it is one we propose only in the most serious conservation situations.”

It looks like this experiment is putting the cart before the horse. I didn’t see any FWS studies examining the potential for northern spotted owls to naturally rebound if barred owls are eliminated from their habitat. Will population numbers still suffer as forest fires, fragmentation, and disease continue to reduce habitat? Is the naturally-occurring presence of barred owls a sign that nature is letting the northern spotted owl run its course? Or, conversely, if barred owls were pushed westward by human population growth, are we ethically responsible for managing the effects of their migration into northwest old growth forests?

Of course, I don’t have answers to these questions. I am only compelled to ask them. Wildlife and environmental management is rife with ethical debates such as this one, and the ways in which we protect and preserve nature will continue to require modification as the human population expands. Knowing when—and how—to intervene, or when to step aside, will only become more challenging.


Wildlife Officials Move Ahead With Killing Barred Owls

AP Newsbreak: Feds to start shooting barred owls

Northern Spotted Owl Recovery Information Site: Barred Owl Threat

Bighorn Sheep (Photo Credit: NPS)

Bighorn Sheep (Photo Credit: NPS)

An outbreak of pneumonia is killing bighorn sheep in the Mojave National Preserve. The origin of the outbreak is unknown, but an angora goat was found in the vicinity of Old Dad Mountain. Goats can carry diseases like pneumonia that wild sheep have no natural defense against, though the goats may not present symptoms of the disease. Pneumonia has a 50%-90% mortality rate for bighorn sheep, and contact is not required for transmission. And because there are no treatment or vaccination options available, pneumonia outbreaks can eliminate entire herds.

A 2010 pneumonia outbreak decimated bighorn sheep populations in the western US. Surviving sheep become carriers of the disease, and pass it along to their offspring, making natural recovery nearly impossible. According to the NPS website, pneumonia outbreaks have reduced herds of bighorn sheep in western states by up to 90 percent.

Last week, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife conducted a three-day survey by helicopter of regions where affected or potentially affected herds of sheep are found. the results are still being compiled.

NPS story here

This blog has had to take a backseat as work and life have become busier. I will find a balance between the three soon, and begin posting more regularly here. Thanks to any readers who have stuck around despite the lack of consistent posts.

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Defenders of Wildlife CEO Jamie Rappaport Clark recently published an interesting article examining the ethics of de-extinction. De-extinction, or the practice of using preserved DNA to bring extinct animals back to life, might sound like something out of a science fiction novel, but in reality scientists have the tools they need to make this possible, thus shifting the conversation from ‘can we’ to ‘should we’.

The most popular examination of de-extinction is, arguably, the book and movie Jurassic Park. Stephen King’s story appealed to the curious masses, popularizing the concept of bringing back prehistoric species. Although restoring  dinosaur populations is outside the realm of current scientific capabilities, there is a potential to re-introduce other prehistoric creatures. According to Clark, the woolly mammoth is one species scientists are looking at bringing back. As Clark mentions, with the new-found ability to recreate extinct species comes a new-found responsibility to examine whether doing so is ethical. She points out that the woolly mammoth was driven to extinction by several factors: hunting, climate change, and habitat loss. The habitat the woolly mammoth once occupied no longer exists in the same state. Furthermore, how will the mammoths learn behaviors like foraging skills and predator response if there are no previous mammoths to teach it? Most likely, they would have to exist in artificial habitats controlled by humans. What, then, is the purpose of de-extinction if the mammoths wouldn’t be able to occur naturally in the wild? The purpose is obvious: to satisfy human curiosity. 

The passenger pigeon is another species that is being considered for de-extinction. This bird succumbed in part to habitat loss but primarily to hunting, and herein lies another ethical challenge. Humans played a major role in the extinction of the passenger pigeon, hunting the birds en masse for their meat. Should we bring back this species that we’ve already driven to extinction once? Isn’t this treating the effect, not the cause? And does this pave the way for a global apathy towards current conservation efforts? Clark says, “There is a real threat that the excitement of de-extinction could unintentionally undermine current species conservation.” If we have the option to ‘bring back a species later,’ what motivation are we left with to preserve species and habitats now?

Bringing a species back from extinction to satisfy a human curiosity is no less selfish than the behaviors that led to that or other extinctions in the first place. The argument about the ethics behind de-extinction seem to come back to this point: de-extinction treats the effect instead of the cause. We need to prioritize the conservation of species that are facing extinction today, in current ecosystems and climate stages, instead of trying to bring back species that have already been driven to extinction. Focusing on de-extinction takes money and resources away from conservation crises that are occurring now. We need to stay present in our conservation efforts. Bringing back the woolly mammoth might quench our curiosity about this ancient species, but it won’t help preserve species that are in peril today*.

Link: De-Extinction: A Lifeline or Pandora’s Box?

*To be fair, it could be argued that, in some cases, bringing back an extinct species might help restore a struggling population of a specific endangered species, but I can’t speak to those hypotheticals.

Credit: NPS.gov

Credit: NPS.gov

Last week, Montana State Governor Steve Bullock vetoed the remaining two bills that would have threatened the progression of wild bison reinstatement in Montana. Of the fourteen bills originally proposed, three made it through to be approved or vetoed by Gov. Bullock. The first of those three bills was vetoed in April.

The bills were part of a legislative effort to halt Montana’s efforts to restore free-roaming bison in areas around Yellowstone National Park and within the Fort Peck Reservation. The ‘anti-bison’ bills, including one that would have allowed farmers to shoot bison that wandered onto private property, could have derailed bison recovery efforts. Defeating these bills clears the path for ongoing and new bison recovery work, including management of the Fort Peck bison herd.


Defenders of Wildlife

The otter dined on a white sucker, eating in front of the camera for several minutes. CREDIT: City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks

The otter dined on a white sucker, eating in front of the camera for several minutes. CREDIT: City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks

Earlier this month a wildlife camera recorded images of the first confirmed American river otter sighting in Boulder in a century. The otter was filmed along the Boulder Creek, east of the city center. According to Christian Nunes, a wildlife ecology technician for Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks, the otter was caught on camera twice: once on February 26th, and again on March 7th.

Shortly after the photos were released, the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo released a statement that the critter caught on film was not Kitchi, an American river otter that escaped from the zoo three years ago. Kitchi would have had to travel from Colorado Springs to Boulder, a route that is more or less geographically impossible due to otters’ need to remain along riverbanks for food.

The river otter has recently been de-listed from endangered to threatened along its range in Colorado. Urban expansion and pollution caused otter numbers to decline in the early to mid 1900s. Restoration efforts that began in the late 1970s have helped reestablish otter populations in many of the state’s riparian ecosystems.


Daily Camera


Denver Post

Professor Douglas Macmillan and PhD student Daniel Challender recently spoke at the CITES conference in Bangkok on their paper challenging current wildlife trade policies. They argued that addressing wildlife conservation from an economic standpoint, as opposed to the more common moral or ethical standpoint, is the key to reducing poaching and seeing measurable progress in the conservation of species that are heavily poached.

Aggressive conservation practices that are currently in place encourage illegal wildlife trade and distribution on the black market. Challender  said, “Aggressive enforcement measures are simply driving trade into the hands of powerful and highly organized crime syndicates.” He continued, “In simple terms, wildlife populations are best protected if their values alive exceeds their value dead…”

The focus, they conclude, should instead be on ensuring that wildlife is worth more alive than it is dead. The paper suggests implementing a trade ban to simplify issues surrounding wildlife trade and.

The authors concluded that without new conservation incentives, we could see widespread extinction of highly threatened species.

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The challenge, as the paper states, will be to maintain public interest and funding for wildlife conservation despite a marketing strategy that relies on economics instead of ethics. This issue demonstrates differences in the valuation of wildlife between cultures. In developed countries wildlife can be seen as a national treasure, and something worth preserving and protecting. However, in many under-developed countries, wildlife is a means of income, whether through hunting, illegal poaching and trade, or farming and domestication. Even between cultures in developed countries, though, opinions and values placed on wildlife can differ. Bison are viewed by some as a cultural icon, while others view bison as nuisance and a threat to their livelihood. This difference of opinion within cultures likely occurs in underdeveloped communities as well.

The main point I drew from this article is that placing a moral value on wildlife is not enough to ensure the conservation of a species. It does not prevent illegal trade or poaching, and it’s possible that these activities threaten the species even further, due to habitat destruction and harmful poaching methods. Instead of trying to win the battle with ethical pleas, we should be creating economic incentives to dissuade poachers from taking wildlife illegally, and to dissuade traders from purchasing poached wildlife. Further economic incentives could come in the form of reporting by locals of confirmed poaching instances, although the potential social implications of that would be another issue to consider altogether. Whatever the methods, it’s clear that we need to re-evaluate current wildlife trade prevention methods and update protocol so that endangered species are being better protected.


Conservationists Call for Radical Change to ‘war On Poaching’