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Archive for the ‘Conservation and Extinction’ Category

Climate Change Complicates the Whole Dam Debate

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 14, 2017

Oroville Dam in California. (Photo: California National Guard)

by Richard Conniff/ScientificAmerican.com

With California now on track to have the rainiest year in its history—on the heels of its worst drought in 500 years—the state has become a daily reminder that extreme weather events are on the rise. The recent near-collapse of the spillway at California’s massive Oroville Dam has put an exclamation point on the potentially catastrophic risks.

More than 4,000 dams in the U.S. are now rated unsafe because of structural or other deficiencies. Bringing the entire system of 90,000 dams up to current standards would cost about $79 billion, according to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials. Hence, it has become increasingly common to demolish problematic dams, mainly for economic and public safety reasons, and less often to open up old habitats to native fish. About 700 dams have come down across the U.S. over the past decade, with overwhelmingly beneficial results for river species and ecosystems.

Now, though, a new study in Biological Conservation takes the science of dam removal in an unexpected direction. While acknowledging that reopening rivers usually leads to “increased species richness, abundance and biomass,” a team of South African and Australian authors argues

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Celebrating Psychedelica: Live on The Leonard Lopate Show

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 7, 2017

Swims like a drunken sailor. (© David Hall/seaphotos.com)

I was a guest this afternoon on “The Leonard Lopate Show” on WNYC in New York, talking about species discovery.  The interview runs about 13 minutes and listening to it is definitely better than a sharp stick in the eye. (A courageous listener called in to tell one of the other guests that he didn’t like the sound of her voice. Thank goodness, I didn’t have a call-in segment.)

At one point, I talked about a favorite new species from 2009 named psychedelica. Here’s the background, from my previous post on the discovery:

Once again, science makes my day. Researchers have discovered a wonderful new fish in shallow water off the Indonesian island of Ambon, much visited by great naturalists of the past including Alfred Russel Wallace. And this one just makes you want to keep looking and looking, even in the same places everybody else has looked before, because Mother Nature is such a relentless joker.

University of Washington scientist Ted Pietsch has dubbed the discovery Histiophryne psychedelica because, well, just look at that face. Or consider its swimming behavior, which also suggests that it has been dabbling in mind-altering drugs. It doesn’t so much

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Posted in Conservation and Extinction, New Species Discoveries, Species Seekers Almanac, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

An American Catfish En Route to Extinction

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 23, 2017

The last of a North American heritage (Photo: William Radke)

The last of a North American heritage (Photo: William Radke)

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

It’s the simple declarative starkness of the sentence that catches the eye: “Extinction in the United States is predicted by 2018.” The species in question is the Yaqui catfish, which few Americans have ever heard of, much less seen (or eaten). It is, however, the only native catfish west of the Continental Divide, capable of growing up to 2 feet in length, with the familiar whiskery barbels drooping down from its chin and the flattened underside characteristic of the bottom-dwelling catfish way of life.

The remaining U.S. population, in and around the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Arizona, has been declining by 15 percent a year, according to a new study in the journal Biological Conservation. That decline has continued even as a cooperative restoration effort by federal officials and private landowners has proved highly successful at protecting other aquatic species there. But for the catfish, with population recruitment “essentially zero” (meaning no younger generations surviving), the co-authors conclude that the last few elderly individuals still hanging on represent the end of the species in this country.

Moreover, the threat of U.S. extinction coincides with trouble for the larger Yaqui catfish population in northern Mexico. Its extensive habitat running southwest from the border down to the Gulf of California is now experiencing the same damming of rivers and draining of aquifers that occurred earlier on the U.S. side of the border. Introduction of nonnative channel catfish throughout the Mexican range also threatens to hybridize the last remnants of the Yaqui catfish into oblivion.

The threat to survival of the species coincides with a move in the Republican-dominated U.S. Congress to “modernize” the Endangered Species Act, under which Read the rest of this entry »

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Sorry, Cat Lovers, TNR Simply Does Not Work

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 10, 2017

“Cat eating a rabbit” (Photo: Eddy Van 3000)

While this site is on a bit of a hiatus, I am re-posting this 2014 piece on the feral cat fight.

by Richard Conniff

Various estimates say that anywhere from 20 to 100 million feral cats roam the United States. Together with pet cats that are allowed to wander free, they kill billions of birds, mammals, and other animals every year.

Every time I write about the need to deal with this rapidly worsening problem, certain readers argue for a method called TNR, which stands for “trap, neuter, and release,” or sometimes “trap, neuter, and return.” So let’s take a look at how it might work.

TNR is an idea with enormous appeal for many animal welfare organizations, because it means cat shelters no longer have to euthanize unwanted cats: They just neuter and immunize them, then ship them back out into the world. It’s a way to avoid the deeply dispiriting business of putting animals down, not to mention the expense of feeding and caring for the animals during the usual waiting period for a possible adoption. And it enables animal shelters to put on a happier face for donors: “We’re a shelter, not a slaughterhouse.”

TNR advocates generally cite a handful of studies as evidence that this method works. The pick of the litter is a 2003 study that supporters say shows TNR enabled the University of Central Florida to reduce the feral cat population on its Orlando campus by 66 percent. On closer examination, though, what that study showed was that

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Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , , | 6 Comments »

Japan Pulls Slowly Back from the Bloody Business of Elephant Slaughter

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 5, 2016

(Photo: Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)

(Photo: Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)

by Richard Conniff/Takepart.com

Though China has earned much of the blame for the massive slaughter of elephants across Africa over the past decade, Japan has been an equal partner in this continuing environmental crime—and a stubbornly determined one. When delegates to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species voted in October to close all domestic ivory markets, Japan obstinately declared that it was not subject to the decision. Japan’s minister of the environment publicly denied that his country’s extensive ivory industry, largely devoted to the production of hanko—personal stamps, or seals, used in lieu of a written signature—trafficked in poached ivory.

But developments over the past few months suggest that this resistance may be weakening. In November, Hankoyo.com, one of the larger online retailers of ivory hanko, announced it would no longer sell ivory, and specifically cited the need to end poaching in Africa as the motive. Two other hanko retailers—Toyodo and Shoeido—have also announced an end to ivory sales.

Many others, including Yahoo Japan—described as “the world’s largest online dealer of elephant ivory,” have yet to follow. But the pressure to extend the movement against ivory appears to be growing both from the international community and at home in Japan. In the past, said Masayuki Sakamoto, executive director of the Japan Tiger and Elephant Fund, neither the government nor the press was

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Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Climate Change Killed This Little Guy. Can Relocation Save Other Species?

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 22, 2016

A cousin of the now-extinct Bramble Cay melomys. (Photo: Luke Leung/University of Queensland)

A cousin of the now-extinct Bramble Cay melomys. (Photo: Luke Leung/University of Queensland)

by Richard Conniff/Takepart.com

Australian scientists were “devastated” in 2014 when they visited the tiny island home of the Bramble Cay melomys, the Great Barrier Reef’s only endemic mammal, and found no one home. They described it as probably “the first recorded mammalian extinction due to anthropogenic climate change.”

What really hurt was that they were visiting the island on a rescue mission, to find enough individuals for a captive breeding project. The ambition was to rebuild the population and reestablish it in some more hospitable habitat. They were too late: Repeated storm surges had wiped out the plant that was the major food source for the melomys, and the last few members of the species, the product of a million years of evolution, were probably swept out to sea and drowned.

That painful example has many conservationists thinking hard about what they call “assisted colonization.” That is, they are wondering whether and how to move species to places they have never lived before—because that may be their only chance

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What Trump’s Triumph Means for Wildlife

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 11, 2016

As a brown bear lunges for fish, a gray wolf waits for scraps in Alaska's Katmai National Park. (Photo: Christopher Dodds/Barcroft Media/Getty Images)

As a brown bear lunges for fish, a gray wolf waits for scraps in Alaska’s Katmai National Park. (Photo: Christopher Dodds/Barcroft Media/Getty Images)

by Richard Conniff/Takepart.com

For people who worry about the nation’s (and the world’s) rapidly dwindling wildlife, the only vaguely good news about Donald Trump’s election might just be that he doesn’t care. This is a guy whose ideas about nature stop at “water hazard” and “sand trap.” Look up his public statements about animals and wildlife on votesmart.com, and the answer that bounces back is “no matching public statements found.” It’s not one of those things he has promised to ban, deport, dismantle, or just plain “schlong.”

More good news (and you may sense that I am stretching here): Trump is not likely to appoint renegade rancher and grazing-fee deadbeat Cliven Bundy to head the Bureau of Land Management. When Field and Stream magazine asked Trump early this year if he endorsed the Western movement to transfer federal lands to state control (a plank in the Republican platform), he replied: “I don’t like the idea because I want to keep the lands great, and you don’t know what the state is going to do. I mean, are they going to sell if they get into a little bit of trouble? And I don’t think it’s something that should be sold.”

This was no doubt the real estate developer in him talking, but his gut instinct against letting go of land will surely outweigh the party platform. “We have to be great stewards of this land,” Trump added. “This is magnificent land.” Asked if he would continue the long downward trend in budgets for managing public lands, Trump said he’d heard from friends and family that public lands “are not maintained the way they were by any stretch of the imagination. And we’re going to get that changed; we’re going to reverse that.”

This was apparently enough, in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s upset election, for Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife, to suggest that

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Posted in Biodiversity, Business Behaviors, Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Hundreds of Millions of Birds Have Gone Missing

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 5, 2016

All the earth & sky no longer loud with skylark's voice.  (Photo: Arterra/UIG via Getty Images)

All the earth & sky no longer loud with skylark’s voice. (Photo: Arterra/UIG via Getty Images)

by Richard Conniff/Takepart.com

You might think that what happened to the passenger pigeon couldn’t happen today. We know better than to allow a species with a population in the billions to dwindle away to nothing over the course of a few decades, don’t we?

Sadly, no. In fact, it’s not just one species this time. It’s an entire world of migratory songbirds—turtledoves, skylarks, cerulean warblers, wood thrushes, yellow-breasted buntings, and many more—on flyways touching every continent.

The sort of industrial-scale hunting that wiped out the passenger pigeons a century ago is once again part of the story: For instance, a study early this year estimated that hunters and trappers, mostly in the eastern Mediterranean, are illegally taking 11 million to 36 million birds each year for food, the pet trade, and sport. Likewise, hunting of entire flocks in China has caused a 90 percent decline in populations of yellow-breasted buntings, once common across Eurasia but now more easily found on the dinner plates of the nouveaux riches.

But while the scale of this needless killing is shocking, the bigger problem for migratory birds, according to a new analysis published in the journal Science, is

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Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

Texas Shows It’s Too Scared to Stop Folks from Gassing Wildlife

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 28, 2016

Texas rattlers have good reason to be defensive  (Photo: Matt Meadows/Getty Images)

Texas rattlers have good reason to be defensive (Photo: Matt Meadows/Getty Images)

by Richard Conniff/Takepart

Roughly 125 years ago, Theodore Roosevelt together with a few other pioneering thinkers introduced the idea of “fair chase” in this country. In essence, it holds that if you are going to hunt and kill animals, you should do it ethically, in a way that doesn’t dishonor the hunter, the hunted, or the environment. No canned hunts, no jacklighting, no hunting of animals that are helplessly incapacitated, no commercial slaughter of species like bison and passenger pigeons for the meat market. It was the beginning of the American conservation movement.

That piece of history came to mind as I was reading the latest news out of Texas.

Early this week, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission walked away from a proposal to ban the practice of catching rattlesnakes by spraying gasoline fumes into their dens. Collectors grab the dazed snakes as they bolt from their homes to escape the toxic fumes. You might not imagine such a practice would even exist in the 21st century, much less be a subject of heated debate. But in the small town of Sweetwater, Texas, a rattlesnake festival is the major fund-raiser for the local chapter of the Jaycees, a nationwide nonprofit ostensibly “focused on sustainable impact locally and globally.” At this year’s festival, the Jaycees bought more than 25,000 snakes caught by gassing and proceeded to chop off their heads as a form of public entertainment.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife commissioners, who describe themselves on their website as “honorable” men and women, Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , , | 15 Comments »

It’s Time for the Fur Trade to Protect Big Cats in the Wild

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 22, 2016

The 20th century fur trade killed at least 182,564 Amazonian jaguars for their pelts. (Photo: Mauricio Lima/AFP/Getty Images)

The 20th century fur trade killed 182,564 Amazonian jaguars for their pelts. (Photo: Mauricio Lima/AFP/Getty Images)

by Richard Conniff/Takepart.com

Reporting last month for National Geographic magazine, I came away with a contrarian approach to the fur trade:  Animal rights activists have always wanted to ban fur farming, “but banning doesn’t stop people from wearing fur,” I wrote. “It just moves production to areas where no rules apply,” notably China. A more logical approach would be to keep fur farming legal, particularly in North America and Europe, under regulatory and marketplace pressures intended to make it a model for the entire livestock industry.

Interviewing people who work in the trade, I added one other idea: They know customers increasingly seek assurance that animals are being farmed as humanely possible, and on environmentally sustainable lines.  New industry initiatives like Europe’s WelFur farm inspection system explicitly aim to meet those expectations.  So why not go a step further? Why not set aside a percentage of each fur coat to support conservation of fur-bearing animals in the wild? It would of course be a marketing tool. But it would also begin to compensate for the unregulated commercial exploitation of spotted cats and other species in the past.  I’ll get to the industry response in a moment. First the news:

A study out this week in the journal Science Advances aims to calculate just how devastating that trade used to be. A team of researchers Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »