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Archive for the ‘environment’ Category

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.

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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.

Links:

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

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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

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Burmese python

Burmese python

One month from today, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will implement the 2013 Python Challenge. The challenge was created with the goal of reducing Burmese python numbers in the Everglades National Park. A $1,500 grand prize will be awarded to the hunter who kills the most pythons during the challenge, which will take place from January 12 thru February 10. There will also be a $1,000 prize awarded to the hunter who kills the longest python.

The program is designed to involve the general public with python management. Registration for the competition costs $25, and includes a required online training program. The program will teach hunters how to locate the hard-to-track snakes, and how to humanely kill them. The park will be off-limits to any persons not participating in the challenge during the one month time span.

size-burmesepython-160-2645-cb1273158741

Python size relative to 6ft man

The Burmese python, an invasive species native to Asia, has been thriving in the Everglades for the last 33 years. Population numbers in the park are difficult to predict, but could range anywhere from 5,000 to 170,000. The python is thought to have been initially introduced to the Everglades through the exotic pet trade industry, when Python owners who could not manage the growing snakes released them into the park illegally.

The python, which can grow up to 23 feet long and weigh as much as 200 lbs, is decimating native wildlife species within the park. The snakes thrive on the warm, lush habitat and, because of their size, can prey on animals ranging in size from small rabbits to full-grown deer. They also commonly hunt the wood stork, a species of wading bird that is already classified as endangered.

The challenge is aimed at both reducing python numbers and educating the general public about the invasive species. Linda Friar, spokeswoman for Everglades National Park, says the program is designed to see if the public is interested in becoming actively involved with python management. “This is a pilot to see if it will gain public interest in areas that you can hunt so that they would be able to remove and capture these snakes.”

This innovative program could prove to be a successful management tool, should the public show interest through participation. Because pythons can lay up to 100 eggs at one time, infrequent or low-level hunting cannot effectively reduce population numbers. The challenge, should the program work, will be managing hunting around public access to the park, as hunting is not typically allowed in National Parks. Another challenge will be managing the public’s adherence to proper hunting and humane culling methods. Improper hunting could damage the already-fragile environment, and humane culling is necessary for a positive perception of the program.

Allowing the public to hunt pythons could help wildlife officials manage the species at a successful rate. Besides increasing the public’s awareness of invasive species and the damage they can cause, the program could also educate people about the risks associated with python ownership and trade. If the program fails, however, Florida wildlife managers will have to come up with another python management strategy that can surpass the snake’s population growth rate and successfully reduce python numbers in the Everglades.

Links: 

Florida Tackling Python Problem with Hunting Contest

National Geographic Python Fact Page

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A study recently published on PLOS ONE challenged the common belief that natural predators have the most influence on elk disturbance, in the form of vigilance and lack of feeding time. The authors pointed to human  influence as the leading cause of disturbance in areas with a high volume of land use, vehicle traffic, and proximate roads. The study suggests that human interaction can affect as much as 80% of elk vigilance in such areas, surpassing the affect of natural predators, such as wolves, on elk.

The previous school of thought has been that natural predators are the leading cause of disturbance on elk herds. In instances where wolves and elk coexist in the same area, the ‘trophic cascade’, or trickle-down effect, of wolves on elk occurred in two ways: first, elk populations declined in areas populated with wolves due to predation; and second,  vigilance of the remaining elk increased in association with wolf presence. However, the findings of the study suggest otherwise. In areas where human interference is high, the affect of predation on elk herds is decreased, while elk vigilance increases in response to human-caused factors.

The article concludes that the new prerogative for conservationists should be examining the affect of human interaction on species such as elk that are highly sensitive to human disturbance.

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Living in an area that boasts a healthy deer population, and which is also near the elk herds of Rocky Mountain National Park, I have encountered many situations that demonstrate this affect. On a recent trip to RMNP, I witnessed a group of people approaching a herd of elk who were grazing about 50 meters away from a road. The people had parked their cars on the shoulder and were walking off-trail towards the herd. Approaching wildlife in RMNP is permitted in certain areas to the extent that you do not disturb the wildlife. In this case, however, the herd’s bull elk was clearly on high alert, and was monitoring the approaching humans instead of grazing along with the cows.

In Boulder, too, I often witness deer who have stopped grazing to monitor approaching humans. Shooing deer out of your garden is one thing–approaching deer when they are grazing on Open Space  is another. Whether we are in a national park or on local Open Space, our presence and proximity to wildlife can affect the animals’ behavior.

The study’s findings indicate an increasing dilemma within conservation efforts. Human interaction is a critical component of conservation support: generally, we are far more likely to support national parks and wildlife preserves if we are allowed to use the protected areas to view wildlife. Consider what would happen if humans were no longer permitted to view bison in Yellowstone National Park, or could no longer go bird-watching in Adacia National Park. Public support, both financial and personal, would likely decrease significantly. But what happens when human interaction has a negative affect on the wildlife these parks are created to protect?

It is a catch-22: national parks and wildlife reserves rely on public support, and that support can only be garnered if the public is permitted to access the parks and wildlife. But public access to wildlife is interfering with some species’ behaviors and restricting the parks’ abilities to protect and preserve wildlife.

Links:

Study Finds the Effect of Humans on Elk Behavior Exceeds the Effect of Natural Predators

Original Article at PLOS ONE

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Besides creating nationwide tax increases, the impending ‘fiscal cliff’ created by budget cut proposals could have a significant affect on National Park Service land and other environmental groups supported by government funding. The budget cuts will take action on January 1st if Congress and the President cannot reach a new deal by the end of the year.

The New York Times recently published a full-page ad, purchased by the National Parks Conservation Association, bringing to the attention of the publication’s 750,000 Sunday readers what is at stake for the National Parks Service (NPS) should the proposed budget go through. The current proposal would cut the NPS 2013 budget by 8.2%, or $218 million. This could result in a reduction of the park’s 258,000 employees, from law enforcement officers to park rangers. The sequester could also force the closures of public venues such as campgrounds, visitor centers, and interpretation sites. The NPS has stated that the budget deficits they are facing are equal to the closure of 200 national parks.

The fiscal cliff will impact more than the NPS, however, and the effects go far beyond a loss in parks jobs and visitor centers. All environmental agencies funded in part by the government will be subjected to budget cuts, and many of these agencies are necessary for local and national economic growth. The National Forest Service, for example, oversees 193 million acres of protected wilderness. The land protected by the NFS, from forests to grassland prairies, supports hundreds of recreational activities. In fact, NFS land brings in $14.5 billion dollars in recreation each year. From camping and hunting supplies to hiking and climbing gear, activities that take place on forest service land provide tremendous economic boosts to local and national retailers.

The budget cuts will also affect the National Wildlife Refuge System, a network of habitats that help protect endangered species throughout the nation. Anyone who hunts migratory waterfowl on NWRS land must purchase a Federal Duck Stamp, which in turn funds wetland conservation and migratory bird protection. A reduction in staff and resources to the NWRS could result in less hunting, which will reduce the funding being  funneled towards conservation efforts.

This trickle-down effect can be seen in other agencies threatened by the sequester. NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, relies on government funding to conduct research on coastal and oceanic projects, from habitat conservation to weather patterns. NOAA is also one of the main agencies working to restore marine habitats after the BP oil spill, and was involved with tracking and responding to Hurricane Sandy. Budget cuts may force NOAA to lay off employees whose skills and expertise are necessary for national restoration and preservation efforts.

In addition to impacting the NPS, the NWRS, NOAA, and the NFS, these cuts will also heavily impact the Bureau of Land Management, the Department of Energy, the US Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy program, and the Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, among many others. In a nation where all public land is affected by a government agency in one way or another, these budget cuts could dramatically alter open space as we know it. The effects of the sequester will reach far beyond national parks. They will discourage economic progress in the cities surrounding wilderness areas, and could reduce the scientific and technological resources we need to understand storms and other environmentally devastating disasters. These groups, agencies, and systems are part of a necessary network designed to protect our wild places and the animals that depend on them, as well as our homes, our towns, and our local economies.

Links:

Mother Nature Network

How The Fiscal Cliff Threatens America’s National Parks

The Fiscal Cliff and the Environment

Fiscal Cliff Threatens Environmental Protections that Voters Supported

Don’t Let US Parks Go Over ‘Fiscal Cliff’

NPCA Issues New Graphic Depicting Hardships Budget Cuts Would Impose On National Park System

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Eight months after a herd of bison was removed from Yellowstone National Park and introduced to tribal lands, a legal battle over the management of the herd is nearing its end. The dispute began when, just three days after the bison were moved to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in northern Montana, a livestock and property rights collective sued the agencies involved with the transfer, claiming the introduction of bison to public grazing lands, and allowance for bison to leave Yellowstone National Park in the winter, would compromise grazing areas and expose cattle to disease.

In the past, management of bison has been restricted to Yellowstone National Park. During winter months, any bison that strayed from park boundaries in search of food were hazed back into the park or killed. The proposed management plan would allow bison to roam outside of park boundaries during the winter, extending the protection of the animals even when they left the park. The plan would also protect the bison introduced to the Fort Peck Reservation from hazing or killing. The collective wants the Fort Peck tribe to purchase the bison, which would classify the bison as livestock and allowing ranchers to take action if they damage property or affect cattle.

Brian Schweitzer, Montana’s governor  has supported the bison management plan, stating the collective is only concerned about increased grazing fees. The bison herds may force ranchers to graze cattle on private lands as public land becomes less available. Permits to graze cattle on private land cost 77 percent more  than public land permits, meaning ranchers could pay $22.00 per head of cattle if bison force their herds onto private lands. “The most vocal opponents are the who’s who of public grazers,” Schweitzer said.

The collective is also concerned about the increased risk of disease. Bison, cattle, and elk are all at risk of contracting a disease known as brucellosis. When contracted, it causes the animals to abort their calves. However, there have been no documented cases of bison spreading the disease to cattle. The five reported cases of brucellosis in cattle in 2007 were found to be caused by elk.

The proposed changed are part of the Interagency Bison Management Plan. According to the plan’s website, the IBMP is a management plan “developed by the National Park Service, USDA-Forest Service, USDA-Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service, Montana Department of Livestock, and Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks”. Final testimony and closing arguments of both the collective and the agencies supporting the IBMP were heard on November 5th. District Judge E. Wayne Phillips has until the end of the year to reach a conclusion.

Thoughts

There are other issues taking place here in addition to disease and grazing conflicts. Proponents of the management plan cite the ecological benefits of bison reintroduction as a critical reason to allow the plan to move forward. Bison once roamed the Great Plains by the millions, but in the 1800s they were killed off in record numbers and suddenly faced near-extinction. In addition to being hunted for their meat and hide, they were also exterminated because of a US government initiative to eliminate the Native American’s main food source, forcing the Indians to flee to Canada or starve. By the turn of the century, bison populations in the US had dropped from an estimated 70 million to less than 2,000.

Bison cannot be re-established on the plains in the numbers they once held, but reintroducing bison in manageable numbers could benefit the ecology of their old habitats. Bison support the growth of prairie grasses in a number of ways. They help aerate and fertilize the land, and grass seeds that stick to their hides are spread about as bison roam. Many species, from insects to prairie dogs to birds of prey, benefit from the ecological impact bison herds have on grassland habitats. And because bison were removed from these habitats by humans, as opposed to natural causes, their reintroduction could improve the biodiversity and quality of land in these areas.

The challenge in this case is ultimately one of land management and land use. Ranchers have expanded grazing areas onto old bison ranges thanks to the absence of bison in the wild. These ranchers have become accustomed to grazing cattle on cheaper, public lands, and are also used to grazing herds of a certain size. Adding bison back to the prairies could increase grazing costs for ranchers, and may also force them to reduce cattle numbers as available grazing areas are slashed to make room for bison.

While a ruling in favor of the collective will have a significant and negative impact on the protection and expansion of bison herds in the US, even a ruling in favor of the IBMP and its supporting agencies will not eliminate contention between ranchers and supporters of bison.

Links:

Defender’s Blog

New York Times

Bozeman Daily Chronicle 

Interagency Bison Management Plan

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Map

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