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Archive for the ‘environmental policy’ 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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Last week, a Montana judge dismissed the lawsuit filed against supporters of Montana’s Interagency Bison Management (IBMP), effectively permitting bison to roam on a 70,000 acre range outside of Yellowstone National Park boundaries.

The lawsuit was filed by the Park County Stockgrowers Association and the Montana Farm Bureau Federation in response to changes made to the IBMP in 2011, which included an addendum allowing bison to roam outside of park boundaries. The petitioners argued that allowing bison to roam on public and private land outside of the park would expose cattle in the area to brucellosis, a disease that causes cattle to abort their fetuses. Bison living within the park, along with elk and deer in the area, have tested positive for the disease, which can be transmitted to cattle through contact with an infected animal or the infected animal’s fluids.

According to the petitioners, the changes made to the IBMP failed to adhere to the Montana Environmental Policy Act and the Montana Code,  and that the changes violated the petitioners’ “right to a clean and healthful environment.”

Park County Attorney Brett Linneweber was dissapointed with the ruling, claiming that it failed to consider alternatives such as moving bison to Indian reservations. However, last year’s relocation of a herd of bison to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation has drawn heavy criticism from ranchers in the area.

The 78-page ruling, issued by District Judge E. Wayne Phillips, acknowledged the petitioners’ argument that bison pose a threat to people and cattle, but said that such a threat is part of co-existing with Montana’s wildlife. Judge Phillips concluded his report by saying, “In this case there is certainly a large potential of over-abundance of bison . . . That refusal, however, is beyond the purview or jurisdiction of a Montana District Court.”

The petitioners have 60 days to decide whether to appeal to the Montana Supreme Court.

Links:

Strange Bedfellows Hold Ground for Bison in Montana

Judge Upholds Montana’s Free-Roaming Bison Plan

Complete Ruling

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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.

***

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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By the end of December, 200 to 250 prairie dogs will be relocated to Broomfield’s Great Western Reservoir Open Space to accommodate the expansion of the city’s Lake Link Trial. The prairie dogs, who are currently living in open space behind Legacy High School, are being moved to allow for a new section of paved trail that will run through the area they currently inhabit. The prairie dogs will be moved by volunteers using non-lethal relocation methods such as humane traps. This particular project, and the policies it implements, demonstrates the city’s prairie dog management policies, and also highlights some of the main issues with current prairie dog conservation methods.

Prairie dog relocation is a contentious issue along the Front Range and throughout Colorado, creating tension between conservationists and landowners. While prairie dogs seem to be everywhere, they actually qualify to be listed as Threatened and Endangered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Of the original prairie dog populations in the United States, only 2% remain today. Relocating prairie dogs is considered a preferred management tool. Extermination incites a negative public reaction, while avoidance is becoming increasingly impossible due to urban expansion and development projects. But although relocation is  typically practiced instead of extermination, the reality is that even relocation will affect prairie dog populations. As few as half of a relocated colony’s residents may survive and establish in the new location. The practice of relocation is far from ideal, and can have detrimental affects on a prairie dog colony. 

Public approval also has a major impact on the policies, strategies, and management of prairie dogs. Despite the negative impact of relocation on declining prairie dog numbers, the general public slightly prefers relocation to extermination, although overall public support of prairie dog conservation efforts is not high. According to the publication City and County of Broomfield Policies for Prairie Dog Conservation and Management, 46% of residents don’t think public and private sectors are responsible for relocating, instead of eradicating, prairie dogs residing in areas slated for development, meaning they will support a development project over the prairie dog relocation effort it might instigate. And while 47% of residents oppose the use of poisoning as a means of prairie dog eradication, 40% support it.

Public support is also dependent on the financial stipulations set for relocation projects, which has led to the implementation of a maximum relocation budget. According to City and County of Broomfield Policies for Prairie Dog Conservation and Management, 60% of residents polled support relocation projects when they are performed by volunteers when possible. In accordance with this study, and due to the benefit of having public support of relocation projects, the city has set a $4,500 per-project budget for prairie dog relocation projects. This budget accounts for heavy volunteer involvement, and does not allow for the use of for-profit entities to perform the relocation efforts.

Further complicating relocations is the fact that prairie dog relocation does not only affect prairie dogs. Many animals depend on the effects of a prairie dog colony in an area. Deer mice and cottontail rabbits benefit from the security a colony provides, while hawks depend on these habitats for hunting. Prairie dogs also help aerate and fertilize the land, which promotes healthy soil and allows grasses and native plants to thrive in the area. Burrowing owls also depend on prairie dog colonies; they use abandoned prairie dog burrows for nesting grounds. In fact, a portion of Broomfield’s $4,500 relocation budget goes to the analysis of a relocation’s impact on local burrowing owl, a species listed as threatened in Colorado by the USFWS and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Any relocation projects scheduled for the owl’s nesting season between April 1 and July 31 must perform a full burrowing owl impact assessment before carrying out the relocation.

Great Western Reservoir Open Space

Finally, the issue is exacerbated when relocation areas are considered. The Great Western Reservoir Open Space (GWROS) is Broomfield’s preferred relocation site. The area contains 124 acres of land suitable for prairie dog habitat, and could house as many as 560 prairie dogs. Other potential relocation sites include Mitchum Open Space, which is considered suitable for small-scale relocations only, and Dry Creek Business Center and Interlocken Open Space Parcel, which are each only two acres in size. GWROS is therefore the city’s best relocation option, boasting native vegetation, pre-established prairie dog colonies, and sufficient space for more colonies. However, the area’s capacity is restricted. The amount of available space left in GWROS will continue to decline until the area reaches its limit, and at that point prairie dog relocation projects will have to find alternative suitable habitats.

Relocation isn’t a perfect solution to prairie dog management. There are spacial, financial, and environmental issues that accompany every relocation effort. However, relocation is the best option we have for now, as urban expansion continues and prairie dog habitats are reduced. And while prairie dogs continue to be viewed as pests by many landowners and contractors, they are in fact a threatened species, and one upon which the entire prairie ecosystem depends. The protection and management of prairie dogs could prove to be a critical tipping point in prairie conservation.

Links:

Daily Camera Article

City and County of Broomfield Policies for Prairie Dog Conservation and Management

OSMP

Burrowing Owl

Photo Credit

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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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