Category Archives: Wildlife

Milkweed is a monarch’s best defense — You can help by David Suzuki

What can you do to help? Plant Milkweed and Don’t Use Roundup!

What can you do to help? Plant Milkweed and Don’t Use Roundup!

The monarch butterfly is a wonderful creature with an amazing story. In late summer, monarchs in southern Canada and the U.S. northeast take flight, travelling over 5,000 kilometres to alpine forests in central Mexico. The overwintering butterflies cling to fir trees there in masses so dense that branches bow under their weight.

The monarch’s multigenerational journey northward is every bit as remarkable as the epic southern migration. Three or four successive generations fly to breeding grounds, lay eggs and perish. The resulting caterpillars transform into butterflies and then take on the next leg of the trip. Monarchs arriving in Canada in late summer are often fourth or fifth generation descendants of butterflies that flew south the previous year.

What may be the monarch’s most striking quirk is its caterpillars’ reliance on milkweed as its sole food source, a phenomenon called “monophagy”. Milkweed plants contain small traces of cardenolides, bitter chemicals monarchs store in their bodies to discourage predators, which associate the butterflies’ distinctive coloration with bad taste. But relying on a single type of plant for survival is a risky strategy that has put monarchs in grave danger.

In the mid-1990s, the eastern monarch population was more than one billion. In winter 2013, the population had dropped by more than 95 per cent to 35 million, with a modest increase to 56.5 million this past winter. As University of Guelph postdoctoral research fellow Tyler Flockhart notes, a single severe storm could extinguish the entire monarch population. A 2002 snowstorm wiped out 80 million butterflies. A similar trend has been occurring west of the Rockies, where the western population overwinters in California and migrates as far north as central B.C.

Roundup Kills Butterflies

Much of the monarch butterfly decline has been pinned on virtual eradication of its critical food source throughout much of its migration path by profligate use of a glyphosate-based weed killer called Roundup, which corn and soybean crops have been genetically modified to tolerate. Blanketing fields with the herbicide kills plants like milkweed. As a result, several U.S. Midwest states — the heart of monarch breeding territory — have lost most of their native milkweed, causing monarch reproductive rates to drop by more than 80 per cent.

A recent study suggests glyphosate is merely the first of a one-two toxic punch from industrial agricultural operations. The second is neonicotinoids, the controversial nicotine-based insecticides that have been identified as a chief culprit in the decline of honeybees, along with a host of birds, bees and butterflies. It appears that even at one part per billion, these chemicals can affect monarch caterpillar development, delivering a potential knockout blow for the imperiled insects.

The good news is that many jurisdictions are catching up with the science. Ontario’s government has proposed regulations to reduce neonic use by 80 per cent over the next couple of years. In early April, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a moratorium on new applications to use neonicotinoids. I hope this marks the turning of the toxic tide, but time is running out.

What can you do to help? Plant Milkweed and Don’t Use Roundup!

While government agencies in Mexico, the U.S. and Canada are scrambling to hatch plans to save monarchs, the scientific community has been clear: A lot of milkweed must be planted over the next few years. One great opportunity is the many thousands of kilometres of linear corridors — rail, road and hydro rights-of-way — that run throughout the migratory landscape and can be modified to grow milkweed and other pollinator-friendly plants.

Yards, school grounds and parks are also perfect for butterfly gardens and milkweed patches, and planting milkweed in your backyard or balcony garden is a great way to help. Be sure to call your local garden center or nursery to ensure they stock native milkweed plants and seeds this spring.

Find out more about milkweed and information about how to bring monarchs back from the brink at the David Suzuki Foundation’s Got Milkweed campaign website. You can also donate to support Foundation volunteers planting milkweed in the Greater Toronto Area.

Planting milkweed may seem small, but the combined actions of thousands of concerned Canadians and Americans stitching together parks and yards with schools and rights-of-way into a glorious tapestry of butterfly corridors could usher in a new, hopeful era for monarch butterflies.

From our friends at the David Suzuki Foundation. Written by David Suzuki with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Communications Specialist Jode Roberts.

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Overpopulation and the Collapse of Civilization by Paul R. Ehrlich

All of the interconnected problems are caused in part by overpopulation, in part by overconsumption by the already rich.

All of the interconnected problems are caused in part by overpopulation, in part by overconsumption by the already rich.

A major goal of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere (MAHB) ais reducing the odds that the “perfect storm” of environmental problems that threaten humanity will lead to a collapse of civilization.  Those threats include:

  • climate disruption,
  • loss of biodiversity (and thus ecosystem services),
  • land-use change and resulting degradation,
  • global toxification,
  • ocean acidification,
  • decay of the epidemiological environment (plagues),
  • increasing depletion of important resources (think water) and resource wars (which could go nuclear).

This is not just a list of problems, it is an interconnected complex resulting from interactions within and between what can be thought of as two gigantic complex adaptive systems: the biosphere system and the human socio-economic system.  The manifestations of this interaction are often referred to as “the human predicament.”  That predicament is getting continually and rapidly worse, driven by overpopulation, overconsumption among the rich, and the use of environmentally malign technologies and socio-economic-political arrangements to service the consumption.

All of the interconnected problems are caused in part by overpopulation, in part by overconsumption by the already rich.  One would think that most educated people now understand that the larger the size of a human population, ceteris paribus, the more destructive its impact on the environment.  The degree of overpopulation is best indicated (conservatively) by ecological footprint analysis, which shows that to support today’s population sustainably at current patterns of consumption would require roughly another half a planet, and to do so at the U.S. level would take four to five more Earths.

The seriousness of the situation can be seen in the prospects of Homo sapiens’ most important activity: producing and procuring food.  Today, at least two billion people are hungry or badly in need of better diets, and most analysts think doubling food production would be required to feed a 35% bigger and still growing human population adequately by 2050.  For any chance of success, humanity will need to stop expanding land area for agriculture (to preserve ecosystem services); raise yields where possible; increase efficiency in use of fertilizers, water, and energy; become more vegetarian; reduce food wastage; stop wrecking the oceans; significantly increase investment in sustainable agricultural research; and move feeding everyone to the very top of the policy agenda.

All of these tasks will require changes in human behavior long recommended but thus far elusive. Perhaps more critical, there may be insurmountable biophysical barriers to increasing yields – indeed, to avoiding reductions in yields – in the face of climate disruption.

Most people fail to realize the urgency of the food situation because they don’t understand the agricultural system and its complex, non-linear connections to the drivers of environmental deterioration.  The system itself, for example, is a major emitter of greenhouse gases and thus is an important driver of the climate disruption that seriously threatens food production.  More than a millennium of change in temperature and precipitation patterns is now already entrained, with the prospect of more crop-threatening severe storms, droughts, heat waves, and floods— all of which are already evident.  Thus maintaining – let alone expanding – food production will be ever more difficult in decades ahead.

Furthermore, agriculture is a leading cause of losses of biodiversity and the critical ecosystem services supplied to agriculture itself and other human enterprises, as well as a major source of global toxification, both of which pose additional risks to food production.  The threat to food production of climate disruption alone means that  humanity’s entire system for mobilizing energy needs to be rapidly transformed in an effort to hold atmospheric warming well below a lethal 5 degrees Centigrade rise in global average temperature.  It also means we must alter much of our water-handling infrastructure to provide the necessary flexibility to bring water to crops in an environment of constantly changing precipitation patterns.

Food is just the most obvious area where overpopulation tends to darken the human future – virtually every other human problem from air pollution and brute overcrowding to resource shortages and declining democracy is exacerbated by further population growth.  And, of course, one of our most serious problems is the failure of leadership on the population issue, in the United States and most nations. The situation is worst in the U.S. where the government never mentions population because of fear of the Catholic hierarchy specifically and the religious right in general, and the media keep publishing ignorant pro-natalist articles.

A prime example was a ludicrous 2010 New York Times screed by David Brooks, calling on Americans to cheer up because  “Over the next 40 years, the U.S. population will surge by an additional 100 million people, to 400 million.”  Equal total ignorance of the population-resource-environment situation was shown in 2012 by an article also in the New York Times by one Ross Douthat “More Babies, Please” and one by a Rick Newman in US News “Why a falling birth rate is a big problem,” both additional signs of the utter failure of the US educational system.

A popular movement is needed to correct that failure and direct cultural evolution toward providing the “foresight intelligence” and the agricultural, environmental, and demographic planning that markets cannot supply.  Then analysts (and society) might stop treating population growth as a “given” and consider the nutritional and health benefits of humanely ending growth well below 9 billion and starting a slow decline.  In my view, the best way to accelerate the move toward such population shrinkage is to give full rights, education, and job opportunities to women everywhere, and provide all sexually active human beings with modern contraception and backup abortion.  The degree to which that would reduce fertility rates is controversial, but it would be a win-win for society.  Yet the critical importance of increasing the inadequate current action on the demographic driver can be seen in the decades required to change the size of the population humanely and sensibly.  In contrast we know from such things as the World War II mobilizations that consumption patterns can be altered dramatically in less than a year, given appropriate incentives.

The movement should also highlight the consequences of such crazy ideas as growing an economy at 3-5% per year over decades – forever! — as most innumerate economists and politicians believe possible.  Most “educated” people do not realize that in the real world a short history of exponential growth does not imply a long future of such growth.  Developing foresight intelligence and mobilizing civil society for sustainability are central goals of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere (“the MAHB” – mahb.stanford.edu).

Questions should be directed to joan@mahbonline.org. Paul R. Ehrlich is the Bing Professor of Population Studies in the department of Biological Sciences at Stanford University and president of Stanford’s Center for Conservation Biology. He is the author of The Population Bomb, as well as hundreds of articles.

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In Praise of Wilderness and Moving Beyond Self by Howie Wolke 

Wilderness is the ancestral home of all that we know in this world.

Wilderness is the ancestral home of all that we know in this world.

A few years ago, I led a group through the wilds of northern Alaska’s Brooks Range during the early autumn caribou migration. I think that if I had fourteen lifetimes I’d never again experience anything quite so primeval, so simple and rudimentary, and so utterly and uncompromisingly wild. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, this beheld my eye above all else. Maybe that trek—in one of the ultimate terrestrial wildernesses remaining on Earth—is my personal quintessence of what constitutes real wilderness among a lifetime of wilderness experience. The tundra was a rainbow of autumn pelage. Fresh snow engulfed the peaks and periodically the valleys, too. Animals were everywhere, thousands of them, moving across valleys, through passes, over divides, atop ridges. Wolves chased caribou. A grizzly on a carcass temporarily blocked our route through a narrow pass. It was a week I’ll never forget, a week of an ancient world that elsewhere is rapidly receding into the frightening nature-deficit technophilia of the twenty-first century.

Some claim that wilderness is defined by our perception, which is shaped by our circumstance and experience. For example, one who has never been to the Brooks Range but instead has spent most of her life confined to big cities with little exposure to wild nature might consider a farm woodlot to be “wilderness.” Or a small state park laced with dirt roads. Or, for that matter, a cornfield, though this seems to stretch this theory of wilderness relativity to the point of obvious absurdity. According to this line of thought, wilderness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

Yet those who believe that perception defines wilderness are dead wrong. In our culture, wilderness is a very distinct and definable entity, and it can be viewed on two complementary levels. First, from a legal standpoint, the Wilderness Act of 1964 defines wilderness quite clearly. A designated wilderness area is defined as “untrammeled,” which means “unconfined” or “unrestricted.” It further says wilderness is “an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent human improvements or habitation.” The law also generally prohibits road building and resource extraction such as logging and mining. Plus, it sets a general guideline of 5,000 acres as a minimum size for a wilderness.  Furthermore, it banishes to non-wilderness lands all mechanized conveniences, from mountain bikes and game carts to noisy fume-belching all-terrain vehicles and snow machines.

In addition to wilderness as a legal entity, we also have a closely related cultural view, steeped in mystery and romance and influenced by our history, which yes, includes the hostile view of wilderness that was particularly prevalent during the early days of settlement. Today, our cultural view of wilderness is generally positive. This view is greatly influenced by the Wilderness Act, which means when people speak of wilderness in lieu of legal definitions, they speak of country that’s big, wild, and undeveloped, where nature rules. And that certainly isn’t a woodlot or cornfield. In summary, then, wilderness is wild nature with all her magic and unpredictability. It lacks roads, motors, pavement and structures, but comes loaded with unknown wonders and challenges that at least some humans increasingly crave in today’s increasingly controlled and confined world.

Untrammeled wilderness by definition comes with fire and insects, predator and prey, and the dynamic unpredictability of wild nature, existing in its own way in its own right, with utter disregard for human preference, convenience, and comfort. And perception. As the word’s etymological roots connote, wilderness is “self-willed land,” and the “home of wild beasts.”

It is also the ancestral home of all that we know in this world, and it spawned civilization, although I’m not convinced this is a good thing.  So wilderness isn’t just any old unpaved undeveloped landscape. It isn’t merely a blank space on the map. For within that blank space might be all sorts of human malfeasance that have long since destroyed the essence of real wilderness: pipelines, power-lines, water diversions, overgrazed wastelands, and off-road vehicle scars, for example. No, wilderness isn’t merely a place that lacks development. It is unspoiled and primeval, a sacred place in its own right. Wilderness designation is a statement to all who would otherwise keep the industrial juggernaut rolling: Hands off! This place is special! Designated wilderness is supposed to be different “in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape.” (Wilderness Act, section 2c)

Wilderness provides us with some defense against the collective disease of “landscape amnesia.” I began to use this term in the early 1990s while writing an educational tabloid on wilderness and roadless areas. It had begun to occur to me that, as we continue to tame nature, each ensuing generation becomes less aware of what constitutes a healthy landscape because so many components of the landscape gradually disappear. Like the proverbial frog in the pot of water slowly brought to a boil, society simply fails to notice until it’s too late, if it notices at all. For example, few alive today remember when extensive cottonwood floodplain forests were healthy and common throughout the West. So today’s generations view our currently depleted floodplains as “normal.” Thus there’s no impetus to restore the ecosystem. This principle applies to wilderness. Wilderness keeps at least some areas intact, wild and natural, for people to see. We don’t forget what we can still see with our own eyes. Moreover, when we keep wilderness wild, there is less danger that as a society we’ll succumb to wilderness amnesia, and forget what real wilderness is.

Perhaps the most important thing that sets wilderness apart is that real wilderness is dynamic, always in flux, never the same from one year or decade or century to the next, never stagnant, and entirely unconstrained despite unrelenting human efforts to control nearly everything. Natural processes such as wildfire, flood, predation, and native insects are (or should be) allowed to shape the wilderness landscape as they have throughout the eons. Remember, wilderness areas are wild and untrammeled, in contrast with areas dominated by humankind. That domination includes our interference with the natural forces and processes that shape a true wilderness landscape.

It has been said that wilderness cannot be created; it can only be protected where it still persists. There is some truth here, but there’s a big gray area too. Even though most new wilderness units are carved out of relatively unspoiled roadless areas, Congress is free to designate any area of federal land as wilderness, even lands that have been impacted by past human actions, such as logging and road building. In fact, Congress has designated such lands as wilderness on numerous occasions. Once designated, agencies are legally required by the Wilderness Act to manage such lands as wilderness. Time and the elements usually do the rest. For example, most wildernesses in the eastern U.S. were once heavily logged and laced with roads and skid trails. Today, they have re-attained a good measure of their former wildness.

Wilderness is about humility. It’s a statement that we don’t know it all and never will. In wilderness we are part of something much greater than our civilization and ourselves. It moves us beyond self, and that, I think, can lead only to good things.

Perhaps above all, wilderness is a statement that non-human life forms and the landscapes that support them have intrinsic value, just because they exist, independent of their multiple benefits to the human species.  Most emphatically, wilderness is not primarily about recreation, although that’s certainly one of its many values. Nor is it about the “me first” attitude of those who view nature as a metaphorical pie to be divvied up among user groups. It’s about selflessness, about setting our egos aside and doing what’s best for the land. It’s about wholeness, not fragments. After all, wilderness areas—despite their problems—are still our healthiest landscapes with our cleanest waters, and they tend to support our healthiest wildlife populations, particularly for many species that have become rare or extirpated in places that are less wild.

Having made a living primarily as a wilderness guide/outfitter for over three decades, I’ve had the good fortune to experience many wild places throughout western North America and occasionally far beyond. Were I to boil what I’ve learned down to one succinct statement, it’d probably be this: Wilderness is about restraint. As Howard Zahniser stated, wilderness managers must be “guardians, not gardeners.” When in doubt, leave it alone. For if we fail to restrain our manipulative impulses in wilderness, where on Earth might we ever find untrammeled lands?

Finally, when we fail to protect, maintain, and restore real wilderness, we miss the chance to pass along to our children and grandchildren—and to future generations of non-human life—the irreplaceable wonders of a world that is too quickly becoming merely a dim memory of a far better time. Luckily, we still have the opportunity to both designate and properly protect a considerable chunk of the once enormous American wilderness. Let’s not squander that opportunity. We need to protect as much as possible. And let’s keep wilderness truly wild, for that, by definition, is what wilderness is, and no substitute will suffice.

Howie Wolke co-owns Big Wild Adventures, a wilderness backpack and canoe guide service based in Montana’s Paradise Valley, near Yellowstone National Park. He is an author and longtime wilderness advocate, and is a past president and current board member of Wilderness Watch. This piece was first published in “Wilderness: Reclaiming the Legacy” ©2011.  Source: Keeping Wilderness WILD! The blog of Wilderness Watch http://wildernesswatch.wordpress.com

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Mourn for Martha by Richard Grossman

“You don’t know what you’ve got till its gone” — Joni Mitchell

The more people there are, and the more each of us consumes, the more species we unwittingly kill off.

The more people there are, and the more each of us consumes, the more species we unwittingly kill off.

Although the Ebola epidemic is terrible, there is an invisible epidemic that might end up being even worse for humanity. We depend on the great web of life, but paradoxically we are constantly weakening that web.

We receive services from many different biological species and communities. Plants remove carbon dioxide and harmful chemicals, purifying the air we breathe and liberating oxygen. Various invertebrate animals cleanse both salt and fresh water. Bees pollinate a quarter of our crops.  The list goes on and on.

Unfortunately, we humans are causing animals and plants to go extinct at a terrible rate. There have been five prior eras of mass extinction—the most recent was 65 million years ago when a huge meteor plunged to Earth. The resulting explosion threw up dust that altered the climate for centuries, and ended most of then current life—including dinosaurs.

Scientists estimate that the current rate of extinction of species is about 1000 times normal. The causes of this epidemic include loss of habitat, climate change, introduction of exotic species and pollution. What do these have in common? They are all human-caused. The more people there are, and the more each of us consumes, the more species we unwittingly kill off.

The dodo is a classic example. It was a flightless bird that lived on the island of Mauritius. In the 17th century sailors stopped there to replenish food and water supplies. The dodo had no fear of humans and was an easy target—sailors could walk right up and club them for fresh meat. The last of these innocent animals was slaughtered before 1700.

Closer to home, the passenger pigeon filled the skies of North America in the 19th century. Their annual migrations were estimated to encompass several billion birds! They were easy prey for hunters; sometimes people brought them down simply by throwing sticks or rocks in the air. It was thought that the supply of this delicious meat would never end.

You probably already know the end of this story. The last passenger pigeon, “Martha”, died in the Cincinnati Zoo 100 years ago. Attempts to find a mate for Martha had been unsuccessful. Causes of the extinction were overhunting and loss of habitat, since much of the North American forest was being cut down and plowed. We now know that even if an amorous male had been found, the species still wouldn’t have been saved. Some species have complex social systems and require large numbers to survive. Passenger pigeons were gregarious—they needed huge flocks to breed successfully. Furthermore, from a genetic standpoint, diversity is important to prevent lethal mutations from gaining sway.

We are incredibly fortunate that two other species of birds—the California condor and the whooping crane—were saved from extinction before their numbers reached a critical low figure. There were just 23 whoopers alive in 1941 when protection and a captive breeding program saved the tallest of all American birds. Luckily, this small number of individuals must have had adequate genetic diversity to keep the species healthy, because now there are about 600 of these magnificent birds.

Why not splice some of Martha’s genetic material into the DNA of a related pigeon so the passenger pigeon species can be resurrected? Theoretically, “de-extinction” might be possible using modern genetics, but the concept has problems. Remember they need a huge flock to be sustainable. The major problem, however, is that de-extinction is a diversion from saving species from extermination in the first place. What we really need is the humility to share resources with other species.

To commemorate the centennial of Martha’s final flight, the Smithsonian has established the multimedia program “Once There Were Billions”. Striking statues of passenger pigeons, part of The Lost Bird Project (www.lostbirdproject.org), are on display in Washington.

Bees are in trouble. Colony Collapse Disorder has devastated almost a third of honeybee colonies worldwide. Many native bees species are also being ravaged. What is causing this collapse?  Research points to climate change (some flowers bloom before the insects are ready), harmful mites and a virus. In addition, omnipresent neonicotinoid insecticides—used by us—are killing bees.

Biological diversity is essential for human survival, yet, unthinkingly, we are rapidly destroying species in unprecedented numbers. We should safeguard the web of life, for our own species’ sake.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2014. Dr. Grossman practices obstetrics and gynecology in Durango, CO. For years he has written an award-winning column for the Durango Herald newspaper.

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Species Extinction is a Great Moral Wrong by Philip Cafaro and Richard B. Primack

FrogSharing the Earth with other species is an important human responsibility.

“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature and living by complicated artiface, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge ad sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic  fate for having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein do we err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the Earth.” —Henry Beston, author of The Outermost House

Nearly three decades ago, conservation biologist Michael Soulé published an article titled “What is Conservation Biology?” Its strong and enduring influence stemmed partly from Soulé’s success in articulating an appealing ethical vision for this new field. At its heart was the belief that the human-caused extinction of other species is a great moral wrong. “The diversity of organisms is good,” Soulé wrote, and “the untimely extinction of populations and species is bad.” Other species have “value in themselves,” he asserted—an “intrinsic value” that should motivate respect and restraint in our dealings with them.

In an article published in the journal BioScience titled “What is Conservation Science?” Peter Kareiva and Michelle Marvier attempt to update Soulé’s conservation philosophy, but lose sight of this moral commitment.

Specifying the ethical principles that they believe should guide conservationists, they give a prominent place to increasing human wealth and “working with corporations.” Recognition of the right of other species to continue to flourish is nowhere to be found. In fact, the article’s rhetoric serves to normalize extinctions and make readers more comfortable with them. For example, it describes concern for the local extinctions of wolves and grizzly bears in the United States as “nostalgia” for “the world as it once was” and suggests that people need not keep other species on the landscape when their continued presence is incompatible with our economic goals.

Unfortunately this position does not appear to be an aberration in this one article, but rather an essential part of the view that conservationists should accommodate ourselves to the new realities of the Anthropocene Epoch (so named due to the pervasive impact that human activities now have on Earth’s ecosystems).

An earlier essay that they published with Robert Lalasz, “Conservation in the Anthropocene,” also contemplates mass extinction with equanimity—because such extinctions will not necessarily change whole ecosystems or inconvenience human beings. There, the authors argue that: “… Ecologists and conservationists have grossly overstated the fragility of nature … In many circumstances, the demise of formerly abundant species can be inconsequential to ecosystem function. The American chestnut, once a dominant tree in eastern North America, has been extinguished by a foreign disease, yet the forest ecosystem is surprisingly unaffected. The passenger pigeon, once so abundant that its flocks darkened the sky, went extinct, along with countless other species—from the Steller’s sea cow to the dodo—with no catastrophic or even measurable effects.”

Presumably these extinction events were indeed catastrophic for the species in question! And also, perhaps, for other species that preyed on or otherwise interacted with them. But such catastrophes do not appear to count morally for the authors; they are not real catastrophes as long as the “ecosystem functions” that benefit humans remain intact. This is shortsighted. There is an extensive body of ecological research showing that even though there is often redundancy in biological communities, as species are lost, ecosystems start to lose functionality and become more prone to collapse. Leaving aside the scientific absurdity that some of the most abundant tree and bird species in North America could disappear with “no measurable effects,” there is an ethical blindness here that is even more troubling.

According to recent studies, humanity could extinguish one out of every three species on Earth during the next few centuries if we continue on our current habitat-destroying, resource-hogging path. In one sign of the times, in 2008, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the polar bear as threatened with extinction due to the effects of global climate change. Those of us who love wild nature receive such news with lumps in our throats. Yet in response to this threat Kareiva, Marvier and Lalasz had this to say: “Even that classic symbol of fragility—the polar bear, seemingly stranded on a melting ice block—may have a good chance of surviving global warming if the changing environment continues to increase the populations and northern ranges of harbor seals and harp seals. Polar bears evolved from brown bears 200,000 years ago during a cooling period in Earth’s history, developing a highly specialized carnivorous diet focused on seals. Thus, the fate of polar bears depends on two opposing trends—the decline of sea ice and the potential increase of energy-rich prey. The history of life on Earth is of species evolving to take advantage of new environments only to be at risk when the environment changes again.”

Such a glib statement (“seemingly stranded on a melting ice block”) is both scientifically unjustified and morally obtuse. As Kierán Suckling, Executive Director of the Center for Biological Diversity, correctly points out, “no credible scientist believes that polar bears, who hunt from sea-ice platforms, will rapidly evolve to sustain themselves hunting harbor seals in open water.” And equating past extinctions due to natural causes with the possible extinction of the polar bear due to human-caused rapid climate change fails to acknowledge the human responsibility for this threat. Karieva and Marvier suggest that the polar bear’s fate depends on “two opposing trends” as “the environment changes,”—when it really depends on whether or not humanity substantially reduces our greenhouse gas emissions.

Extinguishing species through the continued expansion of human economic activities appears to be morally acceptable to too many, as long as this destruction does not harm people themselves. But this view is selfish and unjust. Human beings already control more than our fair share of Earth’s resources. If increased human population and economic demands threaten to extinguish the polar bear and many other species, then we need to limit our population and economic demands, not make excuses that will lead to greater ecological damage.

Conservation biologists, with our knowledge and appreciation of other species, are the last people who should be making excuses or making light of extinction.

LeopardA Matter of Justice, Not Economic Convenience

To be clear: We do not think there is anything wrong with people looking after our own legitimate needs. This is an important aspect of conservation. Kareiva and Marvier are right to remind us that protecting ecosystem services for human beings is important. They are right that concern for our own wellbeing can sometimes motivate significant biodiversity preservation. We believe that people should preserve other species both for their sakes and for ours.

But it is a mistake to reduce conservation solely to concern for our own well-being, or to assume that it is acceptable to extinguish species that do not benefit humans. Such an overly economistic approach to conservation leads us astray morally. It makes us selfish, which is the last thing we want when the very existence of so many other life forms is at stake. Fairly sharing the lands and waters of Earth with other species is primarily a matter of justice, not economic convenience.

Natural species are the primary expressions and repositories of organic nature’s order, creativity and diversity. They represent thousands of millions of years of evolution and achievement. They show incredible functional, organizational and behavioral complexity. Every species, like every person, is unique, with its own history and destiny. When humans take so many resources or degrade so much habitat that another species is driven extinct, we have taken or damaged too much and have brought a meaningful story to an untimely end.

At its core, the science of conservation biology affirms that knowledge about the living world should go hand in hand with love and respect for it. Biologist Colin Tudge put it well in his book The Variety of Life: “The prime motive of science is not to control the Universe but to appreciate it more fully. It is a huge privilege to live on Earth and to share it with so many goodly and fantastical creatures.”

From this perspective, even one human-caused extinction is one too many. From this perspective, the goodness of the human career on Earth depends as much on how well we appreciate and get along with other species as on how well we do so with other people.

Michael Soulé is right: other species have value in themselves and a right to continued existence. Human beings should preserve them whether or not it is convenient or economically beneficial for people.

Dr. Philip Cafaro, PhD is Professor of Philosophy at Colorado State University, an affiliated faculty member with CSU’s School of Global Environmental Sustainability and Book Review Editor of Elsevier’s Biological Conservation journal. His main research interests are in environmental ethics, consumption and population issues, and wild lands preservation. He is the author of Thoreau’s Living Ethics and Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation, among other books. 

Dr. Richard B. Primack, PhD is Professor of Biology at Boston University and Editor-in-Chief of Biological Conservation, an Elsevier journal focusing on the protection of biodiversity.  His research concerning the effects of climate change on the plants and animals of Massachusetts is the focus of a new book titled Walden Warming: Climate Change Comes to Thoreau’s Woods.

First posted on 12 February 2014 at: http://www.elsevier.com/connect/species-extinction-is-a-great-moral-wrong   Reprinted with permission.

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Majestic Whooping Cranes Face Uncertain Future by the David Suzuki Foundation

Despite the many years and millions of dollars dedicated to the recovery of the whooping crane, continued habitat degradation darkens its recovery horizon.

Despite the many years and millions of dollars dedicated to the recovery of the whooping crane, continued habitat degradation darkens its recovery horizon.

The whooping crane has long been the flagship of the conservation movement. The majestic bird—North America’s tallest—flies more than 8,000 kilometers each year, breeding in northern Alberta and wintering in marshes along the Texas coast. Still, its future remains uncertain.

Today we think of species becoming endangered when sprawling big box stores and subdivisions displace remnant natural areas within and around our cities or when large-scale industrial resource extraction fragments wilderness areas.

Whooping cranes have a longer history. In the late 1800s, Canadians began farming the prairies, expelling cranes from their breeding habitat. At the same time, Americans drained west coast marshes, where whooping cranes overwintered. Hunting also contributed to their decline.

North America was once home to more than 10,000 cranes. By 1938, the population reached an all-time low of 14 known adults.

In the early 1940s, the conservation movement leapt into action.

Over seventy years later, after significant breeding-area protection, captive breeding, aircraft-led migration and relocation efforts, the whooping crane has made a slow, often tenuous comeback.

Today there are several captive-bred and non-migratory populations, but only one—shared by the U.S. and Canada—that is self-sustaining and wild. That group breeds every year in Wood Buffalo National Park, which straddles the Northwest Territories and Alberta, and winters in Texas, flying about 4,000 kilometers each way. Although the population has been steadily increasing—there were 74 nests counted in Wood Buffalo National Park in 2013 and a few breeding pairs outside the park—it still faces a number of perilous risks in Texas and Alberta—not un-coincidently, the oil kings of North America.

Despite the many years and millions of dollars dedicated to the recovery of the whooping crane, continued habitat degradation darkens its recovery horizon. According to COSEWIC, Canada’s independent science assessment body of at-risk species, U.S. chemical spills are one of the biggest threats: “…the greatest concern is in the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway on the Texas coast. Numerous oil and gas wells and connecting pipelines are located in bay and upland sites near the cranes’ winter habitat, and many barges carrying dangerous, toxic chemicals travel the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway daily through Whooping Crane winter habitat. A spill or leak of these substances could contaminate or kill the cranes’ food supply or poison the cranes.”

Although the birds have a national protected area in Canada to breed, they still need to survive along their migration and stopover route—right over the Alberta tar sands. One of the most serious threats to the population is juvenile birds dying during their migration from Wood Buffalo to Texas. They risk landing in toxic tailings ponds, flying into power lines and exposure to water and air contaminated by the bitumen extraction process.

The fact that there is only one self-sustaining wild population of crane heightens the risk of a single, catastrophic event.

Crane recovery efforts cannot be done in isolation. National parks that protect Canadian breeding areas are important, but insufficient if the cranes can’t safely make their way back to Texas for their blue crab feast.

For the whooping crane—and for Canada’s over 300 other at-risk species—we need to find ways to maintain healthy, functioning ecosystems even where development occurs.

Source: Our friends at the David Suzuki Foundation – “solutions are in our nature”. <http://davidsuzuki.org/issues/wildlife-habitat/science/species-at-risk-act/majestic-whooping-crane-faces-uncertain-future/>

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Climate Change: Pacific Ocean Acidity Dissolving Shells of Key Species by Paul Rogers 

What many people do not realize is that nearly a third of carbon dioxide emitted by humans is dissolved in the oceans. Some of that forms carbonic acid, which makes the ocean more corrosive.

What many people do not realize is that nearly a third of carbon dioxide emitted by humans is dissolved in the oceans. Some of that forms carbonic acid, which makes the ocean more corrosive.

In a troubling new discovery, scientists studying ocean waters off California, Oregon and Washington have found the first evidence that increasing acidity in the ocean is dissolving the shells of a key species of tiny sea creature at the base of the food chain. The animals, a type of free-floating marine snail known as pteropods, are an important food source for salmon, herring, mackerel and other fish in the Pacific Ocean. Those fish are eaten not only by millions of people every year, but also by a wide variety of other sea creatures, from whales to dolphins to sea lions.

If the trend continues, climate change scientists say, it will imperil the entire ocean environment.

“These are alarm bells,” said Nina Bednarsek, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle who helped lead the research. “This study makes us understand that we have made an impact on the ocean environment to the extent where we can actually see the shells dissolving right now.”

Scientists from NOAA and Oregon State University found that in waters near the West Coast shoreline, 53 percent of the tiny floating snails had shells that were severely dissolving—double the estimate from 200 years ago. Until now, the impact on marine species from increasing ocean acidity because of climate change has been something that was tested in tanks in labs, but which was not considered an immediate concern such as forest fires and droughts.

The new study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, a scientific journal based in England, changes that. “The pteropods are like the canary in the coal mine. If this is affecting them, it is affecting everything in the ocean at some level,” said one of the nation’s top marine biologists, Steve Palumbi, director of Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove.

The vast majority of the world’s scientists—including those at NOAA, NASA, the National Academy of Sciences and the World Meteorological Organization—say the Earth’s temperature is rising because of humans burning fossil fuels like oil and coal.

But what many people do not realize is that nearly a third of carbon dioxide emitted by humans is dissolved in the oceans. Some of that forms carbonic acid, which makes the ocean more corrosive.

Over the past 200 years, the ocean’s acidity has risen by roughly 30 percent. At the present rate, it is on track to rise by 70 percent by 2050 from preindustrial levels. More acidic water can harm oysters, clams, corals and other species that have calcium carbonate shells. Generally speaking, increasing the acidity by 50 percent from current levels is enough to kill some marine species, tests in labs have shown.

If people reduce emissions of fossil fuels, cutting carbon dioxide levels in the decades ahead, the damage to the oceans can still be limited. “But if we keep on the emissions profile we have now, by 2100 the oceans will be so harmed it’s hard to imagine them coming back from that in anything less than thousands of years,” Palumbi said.

“We are in a century of choice,” he said. “We can choose the way we want it to go.”

Source: http://www.mercurynews.com/science/ci_25664175/climate-change-pacific-ocean-acidity-dissolving-shells-key

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