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Posts Tagged ‘endangered species’

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/

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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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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Champagne, Please! A Toast to Good News About Threatened Wildlife

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 5, 2015

Gray seals on Cape Cod

Gray seals on Cape Cod

Wildlife biologists and other conservationists often suffer from chronic pessimism—not surprising, given the endlessly gloomy news about habitat loss, species extinction, and the latest delicacy being eaten by rich people in China. (“Boiled baby pangolin, dear?”) But sometimes things go right.

“There are glimmers of light that lead me to feel that what I’m doing is not absolutely mad and idiotic and senseless,” the author and captive breeding proponent Gerald Durrell once remarked. He told me this one morning on the Isle of Jersey while both of us were consuming large glasses of whiskey well before cocktail hour, or even lunch. But we toasted his point because it was a good one: There are success stories, and conservationists should cheer up and celebrate them.

A new article in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution makes the same point, minus the whiskey, and also proposes an agenda for dealing with the almost miraculous—but sometimes complicated—transformation of once-endangered species into commonplace neighbors.

Let’s start with a few of the success

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

For Endangered Species, a Call for Genetic Rescue

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 12, 2014

Before God told Noah to take “two of all living creatures, male and female” into the ark with him, He probably should have consulted with a wildlife biologist. Then He’d have known that extensive inbreeding after the flood would cause the rapid extinction of many of the species Noah had built his ark to save.

We are in roughly the same boat today. Instead of divine floodwaters, the relentlessly rising tide of human civilization is spreading into every corner of the landscape, leaving populations of threatened or endangered species isolated in a few remaining islands of habitat.  These survivors—tigers in India, red wolves in North Carolina, the kakapo parrot in New Zealand, African wild dogs in South Africa, and countless other species—almost inevitably experience inbreeding and reduced fitness, a recipe for extinction.

But a new paper published in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution argues that “genetic rescue” could provide a fix for inbreeding problems.  It’s not about genetic engineering—no Franken-Kakapo—but rather about the seemingly simple business of crossbreeding with individuals introduced from outside populations.

“Genetic rescue has the potential,” conservation biologist David A. Tallmon and his co-authors write, “to be one of the most powerful means to

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Under Pressure, Texas Moves to Stop Ocelot Traffic Deaths

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 15, 2014

(Photo: Ana Cotta)

(Photo: Ana Cotta)

A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece for Takepart about the only U.S. population of the endangered ocelot suffering from roadkills because of poor planning on Texas State Highway 100.  Among other things, I asked readers to phone or email to let the Texas Department of Transportation know how they felt about that.

Now TexDot, as it’s known, says it’s going to fix the problem.  It’s not clear whether this is a smokescreen or the beginning of a genuine improvement.  I’ll keep an on it to see what really happens, and whether it happens soon enough to make a difference.  Meanwhile, here’s the report from

Funding has been secured for four ocelot crossings on Highway 100 between Laguna Vista and Los Fresnos.

After four of the endangered cats were killed on the busy road and years of meetings with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) is prepared to construct four wildlife crossings beneath the roadway similar to this one on Highway 48 near the Port of Brownsville.

Regional TxDOT spokesman Octavio Saenz spoke to the Nature Report about the project.

“We secured funding for four crossings,” Saenz said. “We are still in negotiations or talks, I should say regarding the size of two of those crossings.”

With less than 50 of the rare cats estimated to remain in the wild, Read the rest of this entry »

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

Save Endangered Species: Die Young

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 10, 2013

Endangered yellow eyed New Zealand has a high percentage of endangered birds, like this endangered yellow eyed penguin. (Photot: © paradoxdes / Fotolia).

New Zealand has a high percentage of endangered birds, like this yellow-eyed penguin. (Photo: © paradoxdes / Fotolia).


I apologize for the depressing headline, but that seems to be the message behind this press release from the University of California at Davis.

You would think the authors might have made some effort to disambiguate or disarticulate, or whatever it is careful researchers are supposed to do, these results, with the aim of separating longer lifespan from all the attendant socio-economic and medical changes that make it possible.

That is, we should be able to figure out how to enjoy a reasonably long healthy life without destroying the entire planet.

Not much help here about how to make that happen. So … just die, you miserable buggers.

And, oy, you in New Zealand, die sooner:

As human life expectancy increases, so does the percentage of invasive and endangered birds and mammals, according to a new study by the University of California, Davis.

The study, published in the September issue of Ecology and Society, examined a combination of 15 social and ecological variables — from tourism and per capita gross domestic product to water stress and political stability. Then researchers analyzed their correlations with invasive and endangered birds and mammals, which are two indicators of what conservationist Aldo Leopold termed “land sickness,” the study said.

Human life expectancy, which is rarely included among indexes that examine human impacts on the environment, surfaced as the key predictor of global invasions and extinctions.

“It’s not a random pattern,” said lead author Aaron Lotz, a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology when the study was conducted. “Out of all this data, that one factor — human life expectancy — was the determining factor for Read the rest of this entry »

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The Perils of Pangolins

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 19, 2013

(Photo: Tikki Hywood Trust, Zimbabwe)

(Photo: Tikki Hywood Trust, Zimbabwe)

My latest, published today at Yale Environment 360.

Early this year, a Chinese fishing vessel ran aground in Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Philippines. The 12 crewmen were already in trouble for damaging the protected coral reef. But then the Philippine Coast Guard crew working to re-float the vessel got a look at the cargo: 400 boxes of what may be the world’s most heavily trafficked wild mammal contraband — pangolins, carefully butchered and frozen to be served up as a status symbol on the dinner plates of the nouveaux riches in China and Vietnam.

If you have never even heard of pangolins, much less pangolin poaching, you are not alone. Even conservationists tend not to know much about these armor-plated animals, commonly known as scaly anteaters, perhaps because they are small, uncharismatic, and nocturnal. The headlines tend to focus on bigger and seemingly more immediate problems, notably the slaughter last year of 35,000 elephants for their ivory and 810 rhinos for their horns. But almost unnoticed, the illegal trade in pangolins has raged out of control, to meet demand in East Asia for both their meat and their scales, which are roasted and used, like rhino horn, in traditional medicines.

Within the last year alone:

  • French officials seized 110 pounds of pangolin scales, said to be worth $100,000, being transshipped via Charles De Gaulle Airport from Cameroon to Vietnam.
  •  Customs officials in Vietnam discovered a cargo of 6.2 tons of frozen pangolins being smuggled in from Indonesia.
  • Police in India stopped a shipment of scales taken from 300 pangolins.
  • Police in Thailand stopped a pickup truck carrying 102 pangolins.

Annual seizures run to about Read the rest of this entry »

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