Prickly But Unprotected: 18 Percent of Cactus Species at Risk
By John R. Platt
Nearly a fifth of the world's cactus species are unprotected by the world's national parks and other conservation areas, making them one of the most at-risk groups of species on the planet, a new study finds.
The study, published in the journal Conservation Biology, maps out where each cactus species grows and how those ranges compare to protected areas. The results were not good: 261 cactus species, or 18 percent, only grow outside of protected areas.
Many other species have only a portion of their ranges protected. All told the study calculates that 80 percent of cactus species are either completely unprotected or only partially sheltered by the world's network of protected areas.
This is the first time an entire plant group has been assessed with a "gap analysis"—in conservation science, a measure of how much of the range of a particular species, taxonomic group or other form of biodiversity is formally protected by the nation or government that controls it.
"We should care about cacti," says the study's lead author, Bárbara Goettsch of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, "because they're very important species in arid environments, providing, food, water and shelter for many species. This is also a plant group that's heavily utilized by people for food, medicine, construction or ornamental purposes."
The IUCN previously assessed 1,400-plus cactus species and found that 31 percent were threatened with extinction due to illegal trade and agriculture. Even with that knowledge, Goettsch said the results of the new study surprised her. "We found that more threatened cactus species lack protection by the current network of protected areas than amphibians, birds or mammals," she says. Similar analyses have found that 9.7 percent of all mammal species and 5.6 percent of birds exist completely outside of protected areas. Of species already assessed as being endangered, 32 percent of cacti have ranges outside of protected areas, compared to 26.5 percent of amphibians, 19.9 percent of birds and 16 percent of mammals.
As an example of where cacti are at risk, Goettsch points to Mexico, a country where a lot of cacti species have very limited ranges. "The level of microendemism of cacti there is very high and therefore there are many gap species," she says, although she points out that Mexico "is also the region with some of the highest proportions of species appropriately covered by protected areas."
Conservation biologist Stuart Pimm, president of SavingSpecies, who was not affiliated with the research, says the study provides a significant contribution to conservation. Pimm was the lead author of a paper, published last month in Science Advances, which found that the world's largest protected areas are located in arid or places, where they safeguard a relatively low number of mammal, bird or amphibian species.
"The topic is vitally important," Pimm said, adding that he's especially enthused to see the threats facing an entire group of plants tackled in this manner. He points to a 2013 paper he coauthored about the challenges of conserving plant species. "Most data on plant species are too coarse," he said, meaning does not provide enough guidance for protective efforts.
Despite this latest bad news for cacti, the study also presents opportunities for hope and a strategy for action. The paper's supplemental data provide information on each cactus species, its range and what percentage of that range is protected—information that can help countries improve their conservation efforts. Some priority areas identified by the study include the Sonoran Desert, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, the Andes and the Atlantic Forest region of Brazil.
"The next steps would be to look at these results at the regional level in order to develop conservation action plans," Goettsch said. Plans would need to involve national or regional stakeholders who could establish their efforts based on what each species needs and the threats it faces.
These actions should come quickly, said Michiel Pillet, a conservation ecologist with the University of Arizona who studies endangered cacti. "While research of this type highlights where efforts should be concentrated, it is clear that for successful conservation of this many species—especially given additional threats of climate change—only immediate international efforts will suffice," he said.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
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