Tag Archives: Conservation

Mountain plover not warranted for endangered species listing

Nesting mountain plover (Photo/Fritz Knopf)

Here’s some food for thought.

The mountain plover’s populations now range around 20,000 birds left in the world. Across the globe, a very different creature, the saiga antelope, only boasts about 40,000. One of these animals is globally listed as critically endangered, and one was found not qualified for federal endangered species status. Any guesses?

Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, after a review of the current scientific and commercial information found mountain plover not warranted for listing, citing threats to its habitat as less significant than previously thought.

Mountain plovers are a small ground-nesting bird that rely on short-grass prairies and shrub-steppe environments in the American West for breeding habitat. Land use and habitat loss have been a primary suspect in the disappearance of the plover, an animal so good at hiding, that science is just now starting to get a better idea of how many are left. Recent research shows that rather than being pushed out by agriculture, mountain plovers are actually using farmland as a refuge during nesting season.

I want to take this as good news, but with short-grass prairie and steppe disappearing, swallowed up by energy development and overgrazing, active cropland does not sound like the most stable of refuges for a bird of small numbers, stature and a master of camouflage.  My hope is that not being listed will help avoid animosity of the animal by landowners, and perhaps even foster pride and care of the plover so that farmers will not have to contend with being the harbor of an endangered species.

Saiga Antelope, numbers around 40,000, critically endangered and rightfully so.

How many of an animal is left is not necessarily determinant of whether a species should be protected. Many factors go into the decision. But one has to wonder, what makes a population of 20,000 birds so much more stable than 40,000 of another species?

Protecting common species more important than saving endangered ones, new research suggests

Atlantic Cod, the importance of the ordinary animal

The once common Atlantic cod

In wildlife conservation, people tend to pay closer attention to the disappearing creatures. There is a sense of urgency, and rightfully so, to save the few, but new research indicates that it is the common things that need protecting. For if they go, all the ways that they influence the nature of the world will be so disturbed that even the rare will have nowhere left to go. Let’s face it. If things get so bad that even common critters aren’t around anymore, we’re in deep doo-doo.

The research, led by Kerstin Johannesson with the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, looked specifically at marine systems. Johannesson found that a vast number of species in the oceans are so rare, it’s difficult to find even  a few individuals anymore. “Committing most resources to saving individual species is not just an expensive business – it would also risk destroying the foundation for ecosystems,” states a press release on the study.

Common species, found Johannesson, create habitat for other species, so by protecting them, it’s possible to protect the rare animals as well.  Johannesson uses the once common cod in the fjords of the Bohuslän coast as an example of this phenomenon. Their numbers have virtually disappeared.

“Without the big predatory fish, the sea-grass meadows become clogged, with the result that the shallow bays no longer act as larders and nurseries for inshore fish,” Johannesson stated in a press release.

I don’t know if Johannesson’s conservation strategy is the right way to go, moreso than concentrating on endangered species, but who’s to say that we shouldn’t really implement both tactics? Regardless, I have no doubt that we need to understand better the value of the common creatures. After all preventative conservation, sure does sound a heck of a lot smarter and potentially easier than waiting to clean up a mess.

What are your thoughts?

Lead Researcher:

Kerstin Johannesson of the University of Gothenburg


Kerstin Johannesson, Kerstin.Johannesson@marecol.gu.se, 465-266-8611

CAT in WATER Kickstarter Launch!

Support the Kickstarter project to document them in the wild  here.

The fishing cat is up and running! We have 90 days to raise the first round of funds for the CAT in WATER expedition. Check out our Kickstarter project and watch the short video. You can also learn about all the paybacks in store for our supporters. Who wouldn’t want a care package from Thailand and the knowledge they are helping a gorgeous, wild animal in need?

Nature Needs Half

Finally, an idea to show the progress of conservation. My first contribution to Nature Needs Half goes live. Watch the trailer and find out how Nature Needs Half could apply to your home.We can reach the goal, one piece at a time.

Learn more at natureneedshalf.org.


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Sagebrush Ecosystem: Rising from an ancient sea

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Sagebrush country, it kind of makes you itchy and scratchy just looking at it. This is a place where every footstep crackles, and there are no forests to shelter under. You’d never realize that where you’re standing used to lie at the bottom of the ocean.

Look to your feet, the rocks and soil, and you’ll quickly see otherwise. Rocks crumble away revealing more fossil than straight rock. The remains of the ancients run thick through this ground, giving rise to a new ecosystem remarkable for its hardiness and coveted for its carbon.

Here, the faint lemony fragrance of the sage floats in on the breeze. Antelope bolt for the hills, and the  “drip-thoink” calls of male sage grouse echo across the dawn as they try to win the hearts, or at least  reproductive rights, of their ladies.

Nearby Craig, Colo., boasts the largest coal-fired power plant in the state with a 1,304 megawatt capacity. Open pit coal mines and natural gas development serve as a backdrop to rolling hay fields and seemingly endless expanses of sagebrush.

The sagebrush is not endless however. It’s shrinking faster than people know it exists. So here’s my attempt to give it some props. Even if it’s difficult to stand before the sagebrush sea in awe like you would Yosemite and Yellowstone, you can’t help but respect the wilderness that insists on living there.

This isn’t your fluffy, lush Walden Pond wilderness. This is your crawl from a dried up seabed, live where others can’t sort of wild. You fall asleep to shorts and t-shirt kind of weather and wake to 50mph winds and blizzard kind of havoc. But if you have the guts to stop your car and venture out for awhile, you’ll understand that this place fights for every moment of its existence, and it kicks ass.

Fun book blog highlights children’s books worth an Earth Day shout out

Watch book illustrations come to life with this ‘making of’ video for Red Nose Studio.

There’s no shortage of enviro-books for grown-ups, and now kids can start their eco-stewardship early with this healthy crop of stories, carefully selected and reviewed by former Rocky Mountain News book reviewer Jenny Miller. “Where The Best Books Are” doesn’t point to your typical, “let’s take a walk in the pretty woods,” inspired children’s stories. Books that made the shelf boil down complex environmental issues – sometimes inspired by true events — into a format kids can enjoy and absorb.

Take for instance the book, Here Comes the Garbage Barge, based on the 1987 effort of Long Island to offload more than 3,000 tons of garbage onto somebody else. There’s armed resistance, lawsuits and we can’t forget the unlucky, trash-toting sea captain who has to deal with the smell. Somehow the author brings all these elements into a children’s book, illustrated with cool claymation photos. You can even watch a video about how the Red Nose Studio artist made the images.

Who needs dragons when there are real life eco-adventure stories waiting out there?

So check out full reviews and more goodies on the “Where The Best Books Are” blog. Along with the review, Miller provides pricing, age ranges and some fun multimedia along the way. Who knows, you might find being a grown-up won’t stop you from wanting to read more than a few of these titles.

  1. Here Comes the Garbage Barge
  2. Bag in the Wind
  3. How the World Works
  4. The Magic School Bus and the Climate Challenge
  5. The Kids’ Solar Energy Book Even Grown-ups Can Understand
  6. 365 Penguins
  7. We Planted a Tree
  8. Girls Gone Green
  9. 31 Ways to Change the World
  10. The Solar Car Book (you actually get to build a little solar-powered toy car

Elephants in the Oilfields

Forest elephants in the Mbeli River, Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park, Congo. (Photo/Thomas Breuer)

I never thought I’d say this, but could oil and gas development actually be good for wildlife?

If you’re an African forest elephant hanging out in the oilfields of Gabon, the answer looks to be a resounding yes. In fact, new research shows elephants might actually prefer living in active oil and gas fields over the surrounding national parks. So what do the elephants know that we don’t? The new study by the Smithsonian Institute’s Center for Conservation, Education and Sustainability takes a look at this unusual relationship.

Gabon is home to a lot of elephants, about 11,000. The central African country also boasts an incredible level of biodiversity with more than 353 species of plants and 75 species of amphibians in the Gamba Complex of Protected Areas (a network of national parks covering slightly less area than the state of Connecticut) alone. But Gabon is also rich in natural resources, including petroleum, and there are several active energy fields operating in the region, two of which, Rabi and the Gamba-Ivinga, sit between national parks in the Gamba complex.

Usually energy development of this kind conjures images of destroyed environments and absent wildlife. But in Gabon, oil and gas concessions seem to serve as a type of wildlife haven, at least for the elephants, and the study indicates that these fields could also help out the forest’s other inhabitants, including primates.

Past research shows that roads, abandoned villages and croplands likely create new and approved dining spots for elephants. But a land with lots of roads often means a land with lots of hunters, so those dining spots often go untouched by the elephants. As nature would have it, take away the hunters, and the story begins to sound a bit different.

Joseph Kolowski, a researcher with Smithsonian Institute’s and the National Zoo’s Center for Conservation, Education and Sustainability, along with a team that includes six other researchers from the center, the Wildlife Conservation Society and various universities decided to track the movements of elephants in the Gabon region to find out what was going on with elephants in the oilfields.

They fitted four elephants, two each in the Rabi and the Gamba-Ivinga oilfields, with GPS telemetry collars. Researchers tracked and correlated location points of elephants with roadways and other disturbed areas during a 20-month period in 2004 and 2005. They also looked at the movements of other elephants in the region outside the oilfields. What they found was nothing short of astounding.

Overall, the elephants collared in the oilfields showed a clear preference for staying within the boundaries of the concessions. They walked shorter home ranges, and liked to hang out near roadways. One female in particular never strayed more than 2.6 km from a road and her home-base centered on the most active area of the Rabi oilfield. It’s the first study, according to the researchers, to show elephants residing almost exclusively within an oilfield. In Rabi, for example, the two elephants tagged there, stayed within the concession 86 and 98 percent of the time.

“Why?” you might ask. True, Rabi is one of the countries largest and most active oilfields, but it’s also one of the best protected. More than 90 percent of the field’s forest remains intact. The oilfield limits road access to industry personnel and rigorously enforces a zero-hunting policy. The fact that there aren’t many people around also helps. In Gamba-Ivinga, the oilfields also limit road access and hunting, but not as strictly as in Rabi, and the oilfield also exists near a village of 9,000 people, many of which are employed by the industry.

Nevertheless, both oilfields provided new foraging opportunities and protection for the forest elephants in this study, showing that not all oilfields are bad, and that managed well, they may even offer benefits not available in the national parks. If only there weren’t more stories like this one associated with mass-scale fossil fuel extraction.

This study is available online early in the African Journal of Ecology.

Migratory birds prefer organic

Going organic isn’t just a popular choice for eco-savvy dieters, turns out migratory birds like it too. A new study out of Lund University in Sweden shows that migrating birds lean towards green when it comes to large-scale monoculture farms, with higher abundances and diversity of birds choosing to stop at organic farms than conventional ones. The findings offer new crops for thought when it comes to managing agriculture for wildlife well-being.

The idea that organic farming is good for wildlife is nothing new. Farming practices that hit overdrive and heavy pesticide use have been linked to drops in wildlife populations. But previous studies focused largely on bugs or resident bird populations. Juliana Dänhardt and Martin Green of Lund University decided to take the research a step further, focusing on migratory bird species.

Migratory birds get hit with a double whammy when dealing with environmental stress. They contend with a lot of the same environmental pressures as resident birds, but enjoy the added baggage that comes from moving into a temporary living situation. These visitors tend to show up at tilling time to an unfamiliar landscape and must fuel up in a hurry before embarking on the next leg of their journey.

Dänhardt and Green wanted to see if organic farming and more diverse cropland would helped alleviate some of these pressures. In 2005, they and their team selected a dozen pairs of farms in Falsterbo, Sweden, one of the richest agricultural regions of the country. The pairs were set up to compare organic versus conventional and diverse versus simple crop farms. During the fall migratory season, they conducted bird surveys to see what happened. Dänhardt and her colleagues found the relationship between birds and farm preference to be a complicated one.

The strength of bird populations was all over the show. Some types of birds did prefer diverse organic farmland, while others were less discerning. And certain species, such as geese and golden plovers, showed a penchant for wide-open monoculture fields. But one overarching trend did emerge from the complexity. Turns out, birds that chose the wide-open fields also preferred the organic version.

At the moment, ag trends in Sweden lean towards encouraging crop diversity as a way to bolster wildlife populations, but this study indicates that supporting organic or low-impact farming practices on large-scale monoculture farms could be another method for helping out those hard-flying, fast-eating, stressed out migratory birds.

The study is published in the online early edition of the journal Oikos.

Saving snails: an invasive species becomes an unlikely hero

A land snail (Photo/ Petr Kratochvil)

Now, I know snails don’t come with the same poster-child charisma factor of more fuzzy, wide-eyed creatures  like pandas or baby tigers. But I hope you’ll imagine a tiny, high-pitched, “Help me!” issuing from the leaf litter at your feet, and stick with these little guys for a minute.

With that said, I’d like to tell you a story of a rat, a snail and a tree. They all live on the tiny island of Anijima, one of several in a chain of islands off the southeastern coast of Japan. The snail is critically endangered. The rat and tree are invasive species. You know those bullies of the natural world, the unwelcome visitors, the home wreckers of entire ecosystems. But before you go, “Oh here comes another invasive species story,” here’s the kicker – one of these encroachers, the tree, is actually in a sense the hero of this story, buying time for the snail and those trying to save it. The study, published online in the journal Conservation Biology, offers conservationists a new framework for restoring native ecosystems.

Anijima is part of the Ogasawara Island chain, a remote group of islands off Japan nominated for World Heritage listing. It’s also snail central. These islands are home to more than 100 species of land snail, 94 percent of which are endemic to those islands. Many of the snails have disappeared over the years, thanks in part to habitat loss and introduced predators.

Anijima was the exception. No one has lived there since the 1830s, and until recently, the environment looked much like it did 100 years ago. But a plant, the Casuarina tree has taken over the mid-western part of the island, converting natural forestland into a monoculture of dry coniferous forest. This delivered a significant blow to the land snails, as the snail’s home was turned into less ideal living quarters. Another blow came with the introduction of black rats in the 1930s. These voracious predators, gobble up the slow-movers, and since about 2006, have enjoyed an unprecedented population boom on the island, likely due to the eradication of goats – a competitor for food – and of feral cats – the rat’s main predator. In short, things weren’t looking good for the snails.

One might think, “Well, if you want to save the snails, just go in there and clear out the invasives.” But not all invasive species are created equal, and one scientist, Satoshi Chiba, with Tohuku University in Japan, has figured out that the Casuarina tree is actually helping the snail weather the rat boom.

Chiba looked specifically at the Ogasawarana genus of snails, a critically endangered group of snails considered a “natural monument” by the Japanese government. They are the only group of snails on the island still living on native vegetation on the island. Chiba surveyed plots in both Casuarina-laden habitat and native habitat, clearing sites of leaf litter, counting and identifying snail species and then returning everything to its place. Chiba also checked for rat carnage, and found that while initially, the tree causes a decline in snail populations, once the rat population went crazy, the Casuarina tree actually provided the snail with a better refuge from the predator than the snail’s native habitat.

The ground litter in the Casuarina habitat is deeper and denser than the snails’ natural environment. Black rats like to forage at the surface, and thus, the snails stand a better chance of avoiding a rat’s tooth and claw in the debris of a Casuarina forest.

The lesson here is not that an invasive species is necessarily good, but that there is an order to things when it comes to restoring an environment impacted by multiple non-native species. For Anijima Island, and the Ogasawarana snails, if they are to be saved, it’s likely that the black rats need to go before the invasive trees.

So, do you care a little more about a tiny mollusk? I don’t know, but at the very least, the story has a rich history, and just think how many other species suffering from a similar tale this study could help.

Trouble in love town for the faithful Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog

Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog. (Photo/Devin Edmonds)

Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog. (Photo/Devin Edmonds, http://www.amphibiancare.com)

Most people consider loyalty an admirable trait, but for the Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog, faithfulness to a compromised breeding ground just might spell doom for the species. In many places, the frog’s habitat is drying up or swarming with ravenous introduced trout. A new study released by the USDA Forest Service in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences details the extent of this troubled relationship, and provides insights key to giving the frog a chance at survival.

Mountain yellow-legged frogs, (of which there are two species), adapted to live in high alpine lakes, in environmental extremes too cold and harsh for most amphibian species. This specialty helped the frogs thrive, but in the past century, the once common Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog has disappeared from more than 90 percent of its range. In 2003, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ruled that the mountain yellow-legged frog “warranted” endangered species listing, but was precluded due to the need to list more high priority species.

Likely culprits for the frog’s decline include the usual suspects like disease and contamination, but new research shows that the periodic drying up of habitat and predation from introduced trout coupled with the frog’s loyalty to specific breeding spots is pushing the animal ever closer to extinction.

Yellow-legged frogs need up to four years for their tadpoles to mature. So if a pond dries up, the species could lose up to four year-classes of offspring, issuing a serious blow to that particular population. The study also found that for some of the best ponds left for the frog, introduced trout then threaten the species. Offer a trout a yellow-legged frog and it won’t turn you down, no matter what the life stage of the dangling amphibian.

Kathleen Matthews and Haiganoush Preisler, scientists with the USDA Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Research Center, conducted a 10-year study to measure the fidelity of yellow-legged frogs in Kings Canyon National Park, east of Fresno, Cali. They used mark-recapture techniques, and observed frog tendency to return to lakes even for locations that tended to dry up in low snowpack years, or where frogs had previously encountered predatory fish.

Fish removal appears to be a strong restoration technique, and projects underway show a rebounding in the order of tens of thousands of frog and tadpole populations in lakes where non-native fish have been eradicated. There may just be a little bit of hope yet for the garrulous hoppers, especially if restoration efforts incorporate knowledge of site fidelity into their tactics.

You can learn more about the natural history and restoration efforts behind this little frog at MYLfrog, or download the USDA Forest Service study here.


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