Tag Archives: Endangered Species

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?


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?



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.


Greater sage grouse worth endangered species listing, but other species come first

There’s only so much room on the endangered species list, and greater sage grouse will have to wait in line a little longer to receive protection. A report released today by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declares that the bird is heading towards extinction and warrants listing, but does not take priority for designation as about 250 other species are in more immediate danger.

The announcement serves notice to land managers and the energy industry to bulk up conservation efforts for the grouse, but these efforts will take place without the backing power of listing under the federal Endangered Species Act.

“Voluntary conservation efforts on private lands, when combined with successful state and federal strategies, hold the key to the long-term survival of the greater sage-grouse,” said Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish and Wildlife and Parks Tom Strickland in a press release.

Across the West, greater sage grouse populations dwindled to about 56 percent of their former range. In places like Wyoming’s Red Desert, key habitat for the grouse and an energy development hotspot, populations dropped 90 percent in the last 50 years, according to Lorraine Keith, public affairs officer with the Rock Springs office of the Bureau of Land Management. This 90 percent drop isn’t just because of energy development, the decline started before the energy boom, said Keith. But if the trends of the last 50 years continue, many populations will disappear in the next 30 to 100 years, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The downside of the ruling is that precluding the grouse from listing relies on industry and state agencies to take the necessary management steps to stop the bird’s decline, a practice which so far has left sage grouse shaking in their leks. But the ruling does make conservation efforts for the bird a priority, especially if industry would like development to continue in the West.

“The sage grouse’s decline reflects the extent to which open land in the West has been developed in the last century,” said Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar in a press release. “This development has provided important benefits, but we must find common-sense ways of protecting, restoring, and reconnecting the Western lands that are most important to the species’ survival while responsibly developing much-needed energy resources. Voluntary conservation agreements, federal financial and technical assistance and other partnership incentives can play a key role in this effort.”

Though not listed this time, the federal government has their eye on greater sage grouse. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is adding the greater sage grouse to the endangered species candidate list and will undertake annual reviews of the bird in an effort to make sure it doesn’t slip over the edge to extinction.

While not a perfect outcome for the conservation community, the ruling gives them hope for the bird. “Up to this point we’ve seen plans that predict continued sage grouse declines,” said Erik Molvar, wildlife biologist with the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, “but hopefully this decision will be the wake-up call that’s needed to turn things around and compel corporate interests like the oil industry to start using advanced technologies to achieve major reductions in impacts on the sage grouse, other wildlife, and the American West as a whole.”


Oops! Endangered tuna unwittingly served at sushi restaurants

Yellow fin tuna (Thunnus albacares) and short-beaked common dolphin in a diorama of the eastern tropical Pacific at the AMNH's Milstein Family Hall of Ocean Live. (Image/R. Mickens/AMNH)

Next time you head out to your favorite sushi restaurant, you might want to think twice about ordering the tuna. There’s a good chance the fish on your plate could be an endangered species.

A new study by the American Museum of Natural History conducted DNA investigations on tuna at restaurants in New York City and Denver and found that nearly 30 percent of the tuna tested was actually endangered bluefin, and less than half of that was labeled as such.

A single bluefin tuna can sell for tens of thousands of dollars at market, a popular draw for the fishing industry. But that popularity comes with a price. Western stocks of northern bluefin tuna now hover around 10 percent of their “pre-exploitation” numbers. And last October, the country of Monaco nominated northern bluefin tuna for a listing under a complete international trade ban by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), according to a press release.

The serving up of a critically endangered fish is not necessarily on the shoulders of the restaurants. They might not know they’re doing it, just as consumers might not know they’re eating it. This is because the eight species of tuna are so genetically similar – closer than humans are to chimpanzees – that even with DNA testing, it’s hard to distinguish the difference, and once tuna arrives to the U.S. market, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved marketing label is simply “tuna.” A new and improved method of genetic detective work just might help change all that.

“When you eat sushi, you can unknowingly get a critically endangered species on your plate,” says Jacob Lowenstein, a graduate student affiliated with the Museum and Columbia University in the press release. “But with an increasingly popular technique, DNA barcoding, it is a simple process for researchers to see just what species are eaten at a sushi bar.”

DNA barcoding can be used to identify what animal became which product, even down to the origin of a leather handbag, according to the press release. In the case of the bluefin tuna, DNA barcoding defines a genetic key of 14 nucleotides exclusive enough to identify whether the tuna being served is bluefin. A similar method has been used to identify endangered whales on the Asian market and wildlife being sold in the African bushmeat trade.

With any luck, researchers will develop a handheld barcoding machine that can be used to identify fish on-site.

This study can be found in the current issue of PLoS ONE.


Urban Black-tailed prairie dog gets some love from National Geographic

A black-tailed prairie dog shouts the all clear from its burrow in a suburban Boulder neighborhood of Colorado.

A black-tailed prairie dog shouts the all clear from its burrow in a suburban Boulder neighborhood of Colorado.

On a visit to National Geographic.com today, I couldn’t believe my eyes as I looked at the Photo of the Day pick. There, featured in the little window was a thumbnail of an all too familiar prairie dog. I photographed him a few months back while hanging out along Boulder Creek Trail, and submitted the pic to National Geographic’s Your Shot.

Needless to say I’m jumping and pointing and wanting everyone to see, “make it your wallpaper!” But bottomline, it’s a reminder to me to enjoy local wildlife. Just because a species seems ubiquitous doesn’t mean it is, (the black-tailed prairie dog is being considered for endangered species listing). And even if an animal is common, isn’t it just as cool that we get see them?

Why not head out to take some pics of your own local wildlife? If you get any you like, feel free to shoot me an email, and with your permission and credit, I’ll post some on The Nature Files.  Or better yet, submit it to Your Shot, you never know where it could end up!

To see more photos from moheimphotography, click the name.


Saving the white-shouldered ibis and a way of life in rural Cambodia

Only about 500 of the birds remain in the world,  making the white-shouldered ibis a creature that flirts dangerously

A white-shouldered ibis in Cambodia. Human impact on this critically endangered bird can be beneficial rather than destructive, and could even save it from extinction. (Photo/Hugh Wright)

A white-shouldered ibis in Cambodia. Human impact on this critically endangered bird can be beneficial rather than destructive, and could even save it from extinction. (Photo/Hugh Wright)

with extinction. The once common bird’s number is not up just yet however, as the ibis’ saving grace may lie in their relationship with small-scale farmers of Cambodia, a partnership likely to help save both the bird and a traditional way of life in Southeast Asia.

A new study published in the journal Animal Conservation highlights the work of the University of East Anglia and BirdLife International as they look at the benefits of traditional small-scale farming to survival of the critically endangered white-shouldered ibis.  Farming and cattle grazing create ideal forage land for the birds and opens a clean line of sight for spotting predators and prey. These findings draw attention to the friendlier side of human impacts. But plans for large-scale development in western Siem Pang, Cambodia, threaten both the farmer’s way of life and the ibis’ last hope for survival.

Scientists, conservation groups and the Cambodian government are currently looking at ways to mediate impacts. “The Forestry Administration in Cambodia is supportive of a proposal to make the area a protected forest,” said Hugh Wright, lead author of the study, in a press release “and we believe that this – along with the continuation of local farming methods practiced for generation after generation – will be crucial in saving this once common species from extinction.”

To find out more about the plight of the white-shouldered ibis, check out BirdLife International.


Family dining right whale style

 

For a month after birth, Southern right whale mothers and their calves rest and nurse. Then, like the pair shown here off Argentina, they start to swim faster and farther as they prepare for a long migration in the South Atlantic to reach their feeding areas. A University of Utah study found mother whales teach their calves where to eat, raising concern about whether the whales can adapt as global warming disrupts feeding grounds. (Photo/John Atkinson, Ocean Alliance)

For a month after birth, Southern right whale mothers and their calves rest and nurse. Then, like the pair shown here off Argentina, they start to swim faster and farther as they prepare for a long migration in the South Atlantic to reach their feeding areas. A University of Utah study found mother whales teach their calves where to eat, raising concern about whether the whales can adapt as global warming disrupts feeding grounds. (Photo/John Atkinson, Ocean Alliance)

Mom right whales know best when it comes to mealtime it seems. They lead calves to grub at traditional feeding grounds teaching their offspring generations of knowledge about when and where to find food. In fact whole clans of whales will dine together in the cetacean version of a family-owned dining spot. But this is one family tradition that could lead to starvation for an already vulnerable whale species if climate change causes shifts in food distribution.

Previous research by Vicky Rowntree, research associate professor of biology and a coauthor of the new study at the University of Utah, has already shown the impacts of climate change on right whale populations. When sea temperatures rise, krill disappear and right whales respond by giving birth to fewer offspring. Now these new studies into whale behavior could highlight another problem for the whales when it comes to food.

“A primary concern is, what are whales going to do with global warming, which may change the location and abundance of their prey?” asked Rowntree in a press release. “Can they adapt if they learn from their mother where to feed – or will they die?”

Rowntree and her colleagues collected skin samples from right whales and, using a novel technique in science, combined DNA and isotope analysis to determine whale lineages and where they tend to chow down. They found that related whales congregated in designated areas to feed, and that mothers teach calves in their first year of life where to find food.

Here’s to hoping that right whales will be quick to adapt if the buffet moves elsewhere.


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