Increasingly, large predators like mountain lions, alligators and killer whales are moving into ecosystems not traditionally associated with them. Mountain lions have been spotted prowling grasslands, alligators have been seen lounging on Florida beaches and killer whales have been spied swimming in freshwater rivers.
Many hypothesized that the animals were taking over new territories as their populations rebounded due to conservation efforts. But research published in Current Biology Monday suggests that they are actually taking back what was rightfully theirs.
The researchers looked specifically at sea otters on the Pacific coast of the U.S., who have expanded from kelp forests to estuaries, salt marshes and seagrass beds, and alligators in the Southeastern U.S., who have expanded from freshwater swamps into marine habitats like mangroves and seagrasses. The researchers argued, based on both the species' success in these "new" habitats when protected from human interference, as well as historical and archaeological evidence placing both sea otters and alligators in coastal marshes, that the predators were reconquering ground they had occupied before human activity drove them out.
"We can no longer chock up a large alligator on a beach or coral reef as an aberrant sighting," study co-author and Rachel Carson associate professor of Marine Conservation Biology at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment Brian Silliman said in a Duke University press release. "It's not an outlier or short-term blip. It's the old norm, the way it used to be before we pushed these species onto their last legs in hard-to-reach refuges. Now, they are returning," he said.
The study's authors, who, in addition to Duke, came from the University of California Santa Cruz, the U.S. Geological Survey, the University of Florida and Kansas State University, suggested that the same might be true of other large predators moving into new niches, though more research needs to be conducted to confirm this hypothesis.
Examples of other potential reconquests include the movement of orangutans into disturbed forests, river otters into marine wetlands, canines like wolves and coyotes onto beaches and rocky shores and grey, harbor and harp seals from Arctic into subtropical waters.
Taken together, these movements also indicate that large predators are more adaptive than ecologists thought.
"The assumption, widely reinforced in both the scientific and popular media, is that these animals live where they live because they are habitat specialists. Alligators love swamps; sea otters do best in saltwater kelp forests; orangutans need undisturbed forests; marine mammals prefer polar waters. But this is based on studies and observations made while these populations were in sharp decline. Now that they are rebounding, they're surprising us by demonstrating how adaptable and cosmopolitan they really are," Silliman said in the press release.
This is good news for both predators and the ecosystems they are calling home again.
In the press release, Stillman used the example of sea otters' movement into estuaries. This habitat flexibility will help sea otters survive as kelp forests are threatened due to climate change. But it also helps estuaries, because the sea otters eat Dungeness crabs who otherwise eat too many of the sea slugs that prevent the estuaries from being overrun by epiphytic algae fertilized by urban and agricultural runoff.
The study's conclusion argued that its findings should be taken into consideration when determining conservation policy.
"As many of these consumers (and their habitats) are protected and managed by legislation, the habitats they are now re-colonizing (e.g., salt marshes) will also need to be considered as critical habitat in recovery plans. Indeed, as is the case with sea otters and alligators, these 'novel' ecosystems can potentially support much higher populations than current habitats listed as critical," the study's authors wrote.
New Study Is First to Demonstrate That Biodiversity Inoculates Against Extinction https://t.co/GsoGXgDP2b… https://t.co/W30DNURvN9— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1520853013.0
- It's Time for a More Realistic Approach to Conservation ›
- Restoring Seagrasses Can Bring Coastal Bays Back to Life ›
- Otters Can Learn From Each Other and This Might Help Them Survive, Study Finds - EcoWatch ›
- Shining a Species Spotlight on the Asian Small-Clawed Otter ›
Three conservation and animal-protection organizations sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Thursday for funding a Colorado Parks and Wildlife plan to kill hundreds of mountain lions and dozens of black bears without analyzing the risks to the state's environment.
The multi-year plan to kill black bears and mountain lions in the Piceance Basin and Upper Arkansas River areas of Colorado is intended to artificially boost the mule deer population where habitat has been degraded by oil and gas drilling. The killing plans were approved despite overwhelming public opposition, and over the objection of leading scientific voices in Colorado.
The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court of Colorado by the Center for Biological Diversity, The Humane Society of the United States and WildEarth Guardians. The lawsuit faults the Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to adequately analyze the impacts of these lethal predator-control experiments under the National Environmental Policy Act.
"It's appalling that the Fish and Wildlife Service bankrolled this killing without bothering to truly examine the environmental risks," said Andrea Santarsiere, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. "Reckless oil and gas drilling has destroyed mule deer habitat, and outdated predator-control techniques can't fix that. Slaughtering bears and mountain lions will only further damage these ecosystems."
The Piceance Basin Plan will last three years. Colorado Parks and Wildlife will use specialized contractors, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services program, to kill mountain lions and black bears using inhumane traps, snares and hounds. The killing will be focused on and around the Roan Plateau, considered one of the most biologically diverse areas in Colorado. Up to 75 black bears and 45 cougars will be killed for a cost of approximately $645,000—75 percent of which will be paid for with federal taxpayer dollars.
"The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service authorizing the use of millions of public dollars meant to promote wildlife restoration to kill Colorado's bears and mountain lions is outrageous," said Stuart Wilcox, staff attorney for WildEarth Guardians based in Denver. "Scapegoating species key to ensuring Colorado's ecosystems remain resilient—because the state wants to ignore the true impacts of the filthy fossil fuel industry—adds insult to injury."
The Upper Arkansas River Plan will last nine years, during which time Colorado Parks and Wildlife plans to kill more than 50 percent of the mountain lion population in the area. Colorado expects the killing of up to 234 mountain lions will cost nearly $4 million, 75 percent of which will be federally funded.
"The Fish and Wildlife Service has an obligation under federal law to evaluate the environmental implications of its actions, relying on the best available science, and to allow the public to review that analysis," said Anna Frostic, managing attorney for wildlife and animal research at The Humane Society of the United States. "The agency has failed to comply with these statutory duties, ignoring potentially devastating impacts on black bears and mountain lions."
Rather than provide an independent analysis disclosing the environmental impacts of the Piceance Basin and Upper Arkansas River plans, the Fish and Wildlife Service tried to adopt an environmental assessment prepared by Wildlife Services, a wholly separate agency, whose purpose is to kill so-called "nuisance" animals nationwide.
Mountain lions and black bears are critical to their native ecosystems. Mountain lion predation produces carrion that feeds more bird and mammal scavengers than that of any other predator on the planet. Black bears' diverse diet of fruits results in broad dispersion of seeds, and their foraging behavior creates disturbances that allow sunlight to reach plants below the forest canopy, making them "ecosystem engineers."
Bears and cougars are vulnerable to persecution and could be extirpated from these two regions as a result of the plans. The Fish and Wildlife Service failed to consider the many substantial environmental harms that are likely to result from the plans, such as the harm to the local ecosystem of this potential extirpation and the suffering and deaths of orphaned cubs and kittens.
Battle Begins to Restore Protections for Greater Yellowstone Grizzly Bears https://t.co/X8DQxHLNQ6 @greenpeaceusa @Sierra_Magazine— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1504645511.0
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The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.
A female mountain lion with three kittens was struck and killed by a car while crossing the six-lane 118 Freeway near Chatsworth, California on Dec. 3. Her three kittens are not expected to survive, the National Park Service announced Thursday.
The remains of the mountain lion, known as P-39, have not been found, but her radio collar was located in the center divider of the freeway. It likely came off as a result of the impact with the vehicle. Her kittens haven't been located yet.
P-39 is the thirteenth mountain lion killed since 2002 on Los Angeles county roads.
About 15 of the big cats are known to inhabit the Santa Monica Mountains, which are crisscrossed by freeways and other roads in the highly populated area. The mountain range extends east-west from the Pacific Ocean to the Hollywood Hills in the heart of Los Angeles.
"P-39's death is a jolting call to action for local and state officials to urgently build the corridors necessary to ensure the safe passage that these majestic cats are entitled to," said Jean Su of the Center for Biological Diversity.
"People forget that the Santa Monica Mountains are native mountain lion territory," Su added. "It's our houses and freeways that have directly infringed upon their homes and natural corridors."
Prompted by the repeated deaths of these animals while crossing busy roads, wildlife advocates have suggested bridges and tunnels that could act as passageways.The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) has proposed building a 200-foot long wildlife overpass above the 110 freeway in Agoura Hills.
Separately, the Los Angeles City Council is looking at enacting a wildlife corridor that would require new development to provide access for animals to transit the area. They say it will help to reduce human conflicts.
World's Largest Wildlife Corridor to Be Built in California http://t.co/cyvCHUlrSx @earthislandjrnl @ran http://t.co/Po57mXOyak— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1443370849.0
"The recent headlines featuring mountain lions of the Greater Los Angeles area, such as the death of P-39 on the 118 freeway, highlights the tremendous pressure facing these big cats due to lack of connectivity, urbanization and habitat fragmentation," said documentarian Tony Lee. He is the producer and director of The Cat That Changed America, which tells the captivating story of P-22, perhaps the most famous mountain lion of all time.
P-22, who lives in the shadow of the Hollywood sign, wasn't born there. In search of that territory, which he could call his own, the big, tawny-brown cat had to cross two major freeways and walk through dense urban areas.
However, P-39 wasn't so lucky. The five-year old had given birth to her second litter earlier this year and had mostly stayed in an undeveloped area north of the 118 freeway. Just days before she was killed, she crossed the freeway for the first time.
Today, there are some 4,000 to 6,000 mountain lions roaming California. They inhabit high mountain forests, coastal chaparral and scrubland. They prefer to avoid humans, but conflicts can occur. There have been 15 verified attacks on people since 1986 in the state, resulting in three fatalities.
Source: Mountain Lion Foundation.
Mountain lions are far more likely to be the victims of human actions. At one time, there was a bounty on mountain lions in California. From 1907 to 1963, 12,462 were killed and turned in for the bounty.
But the killing hasn't stopped. Since 1991, 2,542 cougars have been killed under depredation permits and 947 from other causes including vehicle collisions.
One that just barely escaped a death sentence this year was P-45, suspected of killing 10 alpacas on a ranch north of Malibu. The ranch owner was granted a permit to kill the predator, but has since agreed to work with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the National Park Service to either relocate or place the mountain lion in captivity.
Rat poison, which gets into the food chain when homeowners, exterminators and farmers use powerful rodenticides, also threatens the state's mountain lions. More than three-quarters of the cats in California carry the poison in their systems.
In September 2015, a hiker found P-34 dead in a state park in Southern California. P-34, a female cougar, was the "third case of mortality directly from rodenticide poisoning," according to the National Park Service.
But increasingly, people are having to get along with wild animals in urban areas, including mountain lions. And in California, attitudes toward the big cats are changing, thanks in part to P-22.
A healthy-looking P-22 in Griffith Park, Los Angeles.National Park Service
The cat's home, since at least 2012, has been Griffith Park, an urban park that sees 10 million visitors a year. However, few have ever seen the elusive cougar other than in photos.
Griffith Park encompasses just eight square miles. A male mountain needs as much as a 200-square-mile territory.
Inbreeding among cougars inhabiting the Santa Monica Mountains is threatening their long-term survival. A study released in August gave the big cats a near-zero chance of surviving the next 50 years unless more lions become part of the gene pool.
"P22 lives inside Griffith Park, but he is isolated by freeways on every side and has little chance of ever finding a mate. His plight is changing the way Americans think about wildlife management," said Lee. "We cannot have mountain lions dying on our freeways when we have the technology and capability to prevent future mortalities. Mountain lions are territorial animals and need large home ranges and open spaces to survive."
By David Kirby
Do you live in a state that's a top killing ground for top predators?
A new analysis released by the Center for Biological Diversity found that Texas, Oregon, Minnesota and California are the states where the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Wildlife Services killed the most black bears, mountain lions, wolves and bobcats in 2015.
Nationwide, Wildlife Services eradicated 731 bobcats, 480 black bears, 385 wolves and 284 mountain lions. It also killed 68,985 coyotes—almost 17,000 in Texas alone—and 3,109 foxes.
The program exterminated 3.2 million animals last year. Roughly half of those belonged to invasive species, but the other half were native to their regions.
The federal government created Wildlife Services in 1915 to kill predators that feed on livestock. Today, it offers its services not only to ranchers but also to fruit and vegetable producers that suffer damage from deer, birds and rodents and to timber companies that call on the agency to kill bears that strip bark from trees to reach insects and sap.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, which has published an interactive map of state-by-state data, Texas was the deadliest state in 2015, with 609 bobcats and 23 mountain lions killed. That was followed by Oregon, with 193 black bears, 27 bobcats and 91 mountain lions; Minnesota, with 220 wolves, two bobcats and one black bear; and California, with 121 black bears, 80 mountain lions and 15 bobcats.
Nationwide, Wildlife Services eradicated 731 bobcats, 480 black bears, 385 wolves and 284 mountain lions. It also killed 68,985 coyotes—almost 17,000 in Texas alone—and 3,109 foxes.
Killing methods involved traps, snares, poisoning and firearms, including those deployed from helicopters and airplanes.
The vast majority of eliminated animals belonged to non-predator species, such as rodents, reptiles and birds.
But the taking of predators is the most problematic part, according to Michael Robinson, conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity.
"There's been enormous advances in our understanding of the critical roles that predators play in maintaining the health and integrity of their ecosystems," he said. "Scientists are now finding very important connections between predators and the vegetation that their prey species rely on."
When wolf populations are culled, for example, elk have less fear of foraging on tree saplings that grow along streams. But when wolves return, elk tend to avoid those areas, "which allows the saplings to grow into fairly large trees that support migratory birds and beavers," Robinson said. "This blanket policy of destroying predators undermines the integrity and function of entire ecosystems. It defies science."
USDA spokesperson Lyndsay Cole defended the program.
"Of the 24 million animals that Wildlife Services encountered in 2015, 86 percent were chased away from the location where damage was being caused," Cole wrote in an email. "Of the three million animals euthanized, 89 percent were either invasive species ... or native blackbirds covered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's blackbird depredation order." Some 711,000 blackbirds were killed in 2015.
"Lethal control is used only if nonlethal options have been unsuccessful," Cole wrote, "or if nonlethal tools and techniques are impractical or economically infeasible."
Brooks Fahy, executive director of the group Predator Defense, which has opposed Wildlife Services for more than 40 years, said state wildlife agencies also depend on the USDA to kill predators that prey on game for hunters.
"They're funded through sales of hunting licenses, so they try to artificially create high levels of species that hunters like to hunt," Fahy said. "But hunters kill the biggest, most robust animals while predators kill the weakest animals, keeping the gene pool strong by leaving the animals that are the healthiest and most productive."
Fahy said the numbers, including how many cubs die after their parents are killed, were underreported. Dogs and other domestic animals are also trapped or poisoned.
Both Robinson and Fahy said the agency has no government oversight and lacks transparency in its operations. Journalists, for example, are barred from witnessing culls.
"I have fought to implement changes at Wildlife Services for years and for years I have been met with resistance at every turn," Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., wrote in an email.
"Taxpayers are spending millions each year to fund a bloated and mismanaged government program ... that uses federal dollars on cruel and lethal animal population control techniques," he wrote. "The agency needs far stronger oversight to ensure that they are spending their federal dollars wisely, and reform is urgently needed."
This article was reposted with permission from our media associate TakePart.