Fireflies’ Glow Could Soon Be Extinguished by Human Actions
By Jessica A. Knoblauch
Say goodbye to one of the dreamiest things about childhood. In the Midwest, fireflies are dying off.
For many Americans, it's hard to imagine summer nights without the magical glow of dozens of bioluminescent bodies fluttering above the grasses and fields, and lighting up the dark skies above.
But the die-offs aren't just limited to fireflies — or to the American heartland. As anyone who's been paying attention to the news this summer knows, species across the globe are taking a nosedive toward extinction. The United Nations report on biodiversity that came out in May is just the latest assessment to warn that the health of our ecosystems is "deteriorating more rapidly than ever."
Humans are largely to blame. By spraying toxic pesticides, polluting our air and water, degrading the landscape, and emitting ever more carbon, we've essentially captured nature in a big glass Mason jar, screwed the lid tight, and neglected to punch holes in the top. According to the UN report, these unsustainable actions are causing nature to decline at unprecedented rates and accelerating the rate of species' extinction. Around 1 million animal and plant species — more than ever before in human history — are now threatened with extinction, many within decades.
Scientists say that the estimated 2,000 species of fireflies have been declining for years. Losing these glowing creatures, also known as "lightning bugs" in some parts of the U.S., robs future generations of one of the simplest and most pleasurable joys of childhood. It also robs doctors and researchers of a valuable diagnostic tool. By injecting chemicals found in a firefly's tail into human cells, researchers can detect diseases like cancer and muscular dystrophy.
On a broader scale, losing plant and animal species at an accelerated rate threatens "the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide," warn the UN researchers. Up to $577 billion in annual global crops are at risk from pollinator loss alone.
Yet there's still time — just barely — to turn things around.
At Earthjustice, our attorneys have fought for decades to protect endangered species big and small from harm. Just recently, we successfully defended against attempts by developers to remove endangered species protections for the California gnatcatcher. This adorable little songbird lives in the rapidly declining sagebrush habitat unique to coastal southern California and northern Baja California, which is also home to many other species.
Of course, we know it's not enough to address the extinction crisis bird by bird. The UN report recommends a transformative societal shift toward an economic model where we value nature by restoring, conserving, and using it sustainably. That's why Earthjustice is also tackling the extinction crisis at a broader level.
In the courts, we're defending core conservation laws like the Endangered Species Act, which has a 99 percent success rate in stopping species' extinction. On the Hill, we're supporting bold ideas like the Green New Deal, which lays out a vision for systemic change that matches the scale of the environmental crisis.
We already have many of the legal and policy tools needed to stop a mass extinction. Now we must push for the political will to open the jar and set loose a just and sustainable future for all.
Jessica A. Knoblauch is a former award-winning journalist. She enjoys wild places and dispensing justice, so she considers her job here to be a pretty amazing fit.
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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>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.