Watchdog Accuses Trump's NOAA of 'Choosing Extinction' for Right Whales by Hiding Scientific Evidence
By Julia Conley
As the North Atlantic right whale was placed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's list of critically endangered species Thursday, environmental protection groups accusing the U.S. government of bowing to fishing and fossil fuel industry pressure to downplay the threat and failing to enact common-sense restrictions to protect the animals.
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By John R. Platt
It takes a lot of effort and more than a little bit of luck for researchers like André Raine to get to the remote mountaintops of Kauai, where they're working to save endangered Hawaiian seabirds from extinction.
Raine holding a Hawaiian petrel chick. Courtesy Kaua'i Endangered Seabird Recovery Project<p>So, unfortunately, do several species of invasive predators — including feral cats, black rats and feral pigs — that have put these ground-nesting birds, and so many other native Hawaiian species, on the fast track toward extinction.</p><p>"People are always really surprised by this," Raine said, "but it doesn't matter how remote the area, or how apparently inhospitable it is to predators like cats. You're going to find cats and rats and pigs in these areas. There wasn't a single site that we work in that doesn't have all these predators, busy eating the birds."</p>
An endangered chick in the mouth of a feral cat. Courtesy Kaua'i Endangered Seabird Recovery Project<p>Like many island endemics, Hawaii's bird species grew up without mammalian predators, so they're ill-adapted to the teeth and claws that arrived with human society. The cats descended from housecats, while pigs escape from agricultural sites and rats descended from stowaways on ships.</p><p>That's why the Kaua'i Endangered Seabird Recovery Project has spent the past nine years constructing fences and establishing other predator controls — work that is proving essential in giving these native birds a chance.</p><p>The first step in controlling predators is quantifying the threat.</p><p>According to a paper Raine and his colleagues published earlier this year in <a href="https://wildlife.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/jwmg.21824" target="_blank">The Journal of Wildlife Management</a>, introduced predators killed at least 309 endangered seabirds at six monitored breeding colonies between 2011 and 2017. That's quite a blow for each of these endangered species.</p><p>"Newell's shearwaters and Hawaiian petrels have suffered catastrophic declines over the last few decades," Raine said. "Any chick that's lost in the population is one that we can't afford to lose."</p>
Hawaiian petrel. © Ken Chamberlain, some rights reserved (CC-BY-NC). Via iNaturalist.<p>The researchers took on the sad task of collecting the dead and examining the wound patterns to determine which type of predator made the kill.</p><p>Rats, it turned out, killed the most — more than 50% of mortalities — usually from entering the birds' rocky burrows and eating eggs and chicks. That dramatically slows recovery efforts, but the research shows that adult birds who've lost their chicks returned to the same burrows the following year to try again.</p>
Fence Me In<p>Over the past decade, the Kaua'i Endangered Seabird Recovery Project and its many organizational partners have concentrated on establishing predator controls at six of their seven regularly monitored seabird breeding sites.</p><p>Again, this isn't easy to accomplish in these remote, rarely visited locations. Materials must be flown in, ungulate-proof fences built, other traps set, and pig-hunting expeditions organized. All of it must be accomplished and maintained in precarious territory full of wet vegetation, narrow ridgelines and steep canyon walls.</p><p>To make things even more difficult, the human visitors must leave the habitat as undisturbed as possible.</p><p>"If you start making trails in these areas, then you're basically just opening them up to the hordes of predators that are out there," Raine says.</p><p>But the hard work pays off.</p><p>According to the paper, fences and other controls not only keep the invasive predators out, they give the birds the opportunity to thrive.</p><p>The research team used seven years data from the six sites, from before and after predator controls were established, and projected striking results for the future of the two seabird species.</p><p>The first model looked at what would happen to each site without predator controls. It was a disaster — mostly due to cats. "We ran that for 50 years, and we found that all of the colonies dwindle toward extinction."</p><p>The paper, in what Raine acknowledges as gallows humor, calls this the <em>CATastrophe</em> model.</p><p>The second modeling approach incorporated data from successful breeding that took place after more extensive predator controls (fences and traps) were put in place. "We found that the populations increased over those 50 years," Raine said. Under the model, which was based on 2017 population growth rates at sites with predator controls, most sites would see a 50-60% increase over the 50-year projection, while one site more than doubled.</p><p>"It really does show that if you remove the predators, the birds will begin to recover."</p>
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Alexander Richard Braczkowski, Christopher O'Bryan, Duan Biggs, and Raymond Jansen
A Cute But Threatened Species<p><a href="https://www.worldwildlife.org/stories/what-is-a-pangolin" target="_blank">Pangolins</a> are the only mammals wholly-covered in scales, which they use to protect themselves from predators. They can also curl up into a tight ball.</p><p>They eat mainly ants, termites and larvae which they pick up with their sticky tongue. They can grow up to 1m in length from nose to tail and are sometimes referred to as scaly anteaters.</p><p>But <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780128155073000332" title="Chapter 33 - Conservation strategies and priority actions for pangolins" target="_blank">all eight</a> pangolin species are classified as "<a href="https://www.pangolins.org/tag/endangered-species/" target="_blank">threatened</a>" under International Union for Conservation of Nature <a href="https://www.iucnredlist.org/search?query=pangolin&searchType=species" target="_blank">criteria</a>.</p><p>There is an unprecedented demand for their scales, primarily from countries in Asia and <a href="https://conbio.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/conl.12389" title="Assessing Africa‐Wide Pangolin Exploitation by Scaling Local Data" target="_blank">Africa</a> where they are used in food, cultural remedies and <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/141072b0" title="Chinese Medicine and the Pangolin" target="_blank">medicine</a>.</p><p>Between 2017 and 2019, seizures of pangolin scales <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2020/02/pangolin-scale-trade-shipments-growing/" target="_blank">tripled in volume</a>. In 2019 alone, 97 tons of pangolin scales, equivalent to about 150,000 animals, were <a href="https://oxpeckers.org/2020/03/nigeria-steps-up-for-pangolins/" target="_blank">reportedly</a> intercepted leaving Africa.</p>
Reintroduction of an Extinct Species<p>Each year in South Africa the African Pangolin Working Group (<a href="https://africanpangolin.org/" target="_blank">APWG</a>) retrieves between 20 and 40 pangolins through intelligence operations with security forces.</p><p>These pangolins are often-traumatised and injured and are admitted to the <a href="http://www.johannesburgwildlifevet.com/our-hospital" target="_blank">Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital</a> for extensive medical treatment and rehabilitation before they can be considered for release.</p><p>In 2019, seven rescued Temminck's pangolins were reintroduced into South Africa's <a href="https://www.andbeyond.com/destinations/africa/south-africa/kwazulu-natal/phinda-private-game-reserve/" target="_blank">Phinda Private Game Reserve</a> in the KwaZulu Natal Province.</p><p>Nine months on, five have survived. This reintroduction is a world first for a region that last saw a viable population of this species in the 1980s.</p><p>During the release, every individual pangolin followed a strict regime. They needed to become familiar with their new surroundings and be able to forage efficiently.</p>
A ‘Soft Release’ in to the Wild<p>The process on Phinda game reserve involved a more gentle ease into re-wilding a population in a region that had not seen pangolins for many decades.</p><p>The soft release had two phases:</p><ol><li>a pre-release observational period</li><li>an intensive monitoring period post release employing GPS satellite as well as VHF tracking tags.</li></ol>
Why Pangolin Reintroduction is Important<p>We know so little about this group of mammals that are vastly understudied and hold many secrets yet to be discovered by science but are on the verge of collapse.</p><p>The South African and Phinda story is one of hope for the Temminck's pangolin where they once again roam the savanna hills and plains of Zululand.</p><p>The process of relocating these trade animals back into the wild has taken many turns, failures and tribulations but, the recipe of the "soft release" is working.</p>
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At several points in the history of our planet, increasing amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have caused extreme global warming, prompting the majority of species on Earth to die out.
Past Mass Extinctions<p>Many species can adapt to slow, or even moderate, environmental changes. But Earth's history shows that extreme shifts in the climate can cause many species to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-11-13/what-is-a-mass-extinction-are-we-in-one-now/11699372" target="_blank">become extinct</a>.</p><p>For example, about 66 million years ago an asteroid hit Earth. The subsequent smashed rocks and widespread fires released massive amounts of carbon dioxide over <a href="https://www.pnas.org/content/99/12/7836" target="_blank">about 10,000 years</a>. Global temperatures soared, sea levels rose and oceans became acidic. About <a href="https://www.britannica.com/science/K-T-extinction" target="_blank">80% of species</a>, including the dinosaurs, were wiped out.</p><p>And about 55 million years ago, global temperatures spiked again, over <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/ngeo578;%20https://www.nature.com/articles/ngeo1179;https://www.whoi.edu/fileserver.do?id=136084&pt=2&p=148709" target="_blank">100,000 years or so</a>. The cause of this event, known as the <a href="https://www.britannica.com/science/Paleocene-Eocene-Thermal-Maximum" target="_blank">Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum</a>, is not entirely clear. One theory, known as the <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2010RG000326" target="_blank">"methane burp" hypothesis</a>, posits that a massive volcanic eruption triggered the sudden release of methane from ocean sediments, making oceans more acidic and killing off many species.</p><p>So is life on Earth now headed for the same fate?</p>
Comparing Greenhouse Gas Levels<p>Before industrial times began at the end of the 18th century, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere sat at around <a href="https://data.giss.nasa.gov/modelforce/ghgases/" target="_blank">300 parts per million</a>. This means that for every one million molecules of gas in the atmosphere, 300 were carbon dioxide.</p><p>In February this year, atmospheric carbon dioxide reached <a href="https://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends/" target="_blank">414.1 parts per million</a>. Total greenhouse gas level — carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide combined — reached almost <a href="https://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/aggi/" target="_blank">500 parts per million of carbon dioxide-equivalent</a></p>
Author provided / The Conversation /CC BY-ND<p>Carbon dioxide is now pouring into the atmosphere at a rate of <a href="https://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends/" target="_blank">two to three parts per million each year</a>.</p><p>Using carbon records stored in fossils and organic matter, I have determined that current carbon emissions constitute an extreme event in the recorded history of Earth.</p><p><a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/gcb.13342" target="_blank">My research</a> has demonstrated that annual carbon dioxide emissions are now faster than after both the asteroid impact that eradicated the dinosaurs (about 0.18 parts per million CO2 per year), and the thermal maximum 55 million years ago (about 0.11 parts per million CO2 per year).</p>
An asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs 66 million years ago. Shutterstock
The Next Mass Extinction Has Begun<p>Current atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are not yet at the levels seen 55 million and 65 million years ago. But the massive influx of carbon dioxide means the climate is changing faster than many plant and animal species <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/gcb.13342" target="_blank">can adapt</a>.</p><p><a href="https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/2019/05/nature-decline-unprecedented-report/" target="_blank">A major United Nations report</a> released last year warned around one million animal and plant species were threatened with extinction. Climate change was listed as one of five key drivers.</p><p>The report said the distributions of 47% of land-based flightless mammals, and almost 25% of threatened birds, may already have been negatively affected by climate change.</p><p>Many researchers fear the climate system is approaching a <a href="https://www.pnas.org/content/115/33/8252" target="_blank">tipping point</a> - a threshold beyond which rapid and irreversible changes will occur. This will create a cascade of <a href="https://sites.hks.harvard.edu/sed/docs/hjs_esa_environment_0510.pdf" target="_blank">devastating effects</a>.</p><p>There are already signs tipping points have been reached. For example, <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/feb/27/arctic-warming-scientists-alarmed-by-crazy-temperature-rises" target="_blank">rising Arctic temperatures</a> have led to <a href="https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?feature=7616" target="_blank">major ice melt</a>, and weakened the <a href="https://www.globalresearch.ca/melting-ice-sheets-and-weakened-polar-fronts-onset-of-climate-tipping-points/5668981" target="_blank">Arctic jet stream</a> — a powerful band of westerly winds.</p>
A diagram showing the weakening Arctic jet stream, and subsequent movements of warm and cold air. NASA<p>This allows north-moving warm air to cross the polar boundary, and cold fronts emanating from the poles to <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10584-019-02458-x" target="_blank">intrude south into Siberia, Europe and Canada</a>.</p><p>A shift in climate zones is also causing the tropics to expand and migrate toward the poles, at a rate of about <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-worlds-tropical-zone-is-expanding-and-australia-should-be-worried-77701" target="_blank">56 to 111 kilometres per decade</a>. The tracks of tropical and extra-tropical cyclones are likewise shifting toward the poles. Australia is highly vulnerable to this shift.</p>
Uncharted Future Climate Territory<p><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/nature16494" target="_blank">Research</a> released in 2016 showed just what a massive impact humans are having on the planet. It said while the Earth might naturally have entered the next ice age in about 20,000 years' time, the heating produced by carbon dioxide would result in a period of super-tropical conditions, delaying the next ice age to about 50,000 years from now.</p><p>During this period, chaotic <a href="https://www.bloomsbury.com/us/storms-of-my-grandchildren-9781608195022/" target="_blank">high-energy stormy conditions</a> would prevail over much of the Earth. <a href="https://www.springer.com/gp/book/9783319572369" target="_blank">My research suggests</a> humans are likely to survive best in sub-polar regions and sheltered mountain valleys, where cooler conditions would allow flora and fauna to persist.</p><p>Earth's next mass extinction is avoidable — if carbon dioxide emissions are dramatically curbed and we develop and deploy technologies to <a href="http://www.ecosmagazine.com/?act=view_file&file_id=EC147p14.pdf" target="_blank">remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere</a>. But on the current trajectory, human activity threatens to make large parts of the Earth <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/41552709-the-uninhabitable-earth" target="_blank">uninhabitable</a> - a planetary tragedy of our own making.</p><p><span></span><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/while-we-fixate-on-coronavirus-earth-is-hurtling-towards-a-catastrophe-worse-than-the-dinosaur-extinction-130869" target="_blank">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
By Jason Bittel
When you walk into the tropical rainforest room at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh, the first thing you'll probably notice are the hyacinth macaws perched in mango trees. The feathers of these massive parrots are so impossibly blue that the birds look like birthday party piñatas. And the first thing you'll likely hear is the trill of the much tinier laughing thrushes as they swoop from tall cacao plants to the indoor-jungle floor. But watch out for Gus! He's the blue-headed great argus pheasant who likes to commandeer the walkway while unfurling his four-foot-tall fan of feathers in an attempt to woo female pheasants.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of the Interior have failed to protect 241 plant and animal species under the Endangered Species Act, according to a federal lawsuit filed last week by the Center for Biological Diversity, as Bloomberg Environment reported.
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The human-caused climate crisis could cause the extinction of 30 percent of the world's plant and animal species by 2070, even accounting for species' abilities to disperse and shift their niches to tolerate hotter temperatures, according to a study published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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By Eoin Higgins
A national hunting group is under fire from animal rights groups for auctioning off the opportunity to spend a week in close quarters with Donald Trump Jr. in Alaska for a luxury "dream hunt" of Sitka black-tailed deer.
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Human activity threatens to make summer nights a little less magical.
Habitat Loss<p>"Lots of <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/wildlife" target="_self">wildlife</a> species are declining because their habitat is shrinking," Lewis said in a <a href="https://now.tufts.edu/news-releases/lights-out-fireflies-face-extinction-threats-habitat-loss-light-pollution-pesticides" target="_blank">Tufts press release</a>, "so it wasn't a huge surprise that habitat loss was considered the biggest threat."</p><p>However, some firefly species are particularly vulnerable because they require very specific conditions. The Malaysian firefly <em>Pteroptyx tener</em>, famous for its synchronized light shows, needs mangroves to flourish. Previous research had noted the species' decline due to the clearing of mangroves to plant <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/palm-oil">palm oil</a> plantations and aquaculture farms.</p>
Light Pollution<p><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/light-pollution" rel="noopener noreferrer">Artificial light</a> is a major problem for fireflies because they use their famous bioluminescence to find mates, and bright human lights can disrupt these courtship signals.</p><p>"In addition to disrupting natural biorhythms – including our own – light pollution really messes up firefly mating rituals," study coauthor and Tufts PhD candidate Avalon Owens explained in the press release.</p>
Pesticides<p>The use of agricultural pesticides like organophosphates and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/neonicotinoids" rel="noopener noreferrer">neonicotinoids</a> threatens fireflies, especially during their larval stages, when they spend as many as two years living below the ground or underwater. This makes them especially sensitive to pesticides that end up on lawns or in the <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/soil" rel="noopener noreferrer">soil</a>, according to Popular Science.</p><p>While more specific research is needed on the impact of these chemicals on fireflies, the evidence suggests that they are harmful to the glowing bugs as they are to other insects, the Tufts release explained.</p>
'Insect Apocalypse'<p>Indeed, the plight of fireflies is reflected across the insect class. A <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/insect-apocalypse-will-have-dire-con-sequences-for-all-life-on-earth-report-warns-2641341433.html" target="_self">November 2019</a> study warned that 41 percent of insects are threatened with <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/species-extinction" rel="noopener noreferrer">extinction</a>, which could lead to an "insect apocalypse" with serious consequences for humans and other life on Earth.</p><p>Dave Goulson, the University of Sussex biology professor who authored that study, <a href="https://edition.cnn.com/2020/02/03/world/fireflies-extinction-risk-scn/index.html" target="_blank">told CNN</a> that the threats of habitat loss and pesticide use were also the leading causes of the overall insect decline.</p><p>"Of course fireflies are particularly vulnerable to light pollution, more so than perhaps any other insect group, so it makes sense that this also emerges as a major concern," Goulson said.</p><p>Lewis expressed hope that focusing the spotlight on fireflies could raise awareness about the plight of insects generally and build the will to save them.</p><p>"Fireflies are actually an insect that everybody can get behind," she told Popular Science.</p>
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An Andean condor in the conservation breeding program at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh. John R. Platt / The Revelator / CC BY-NC-ND 3.0<p>The deaths are particularly alarming because condors already face a range of other threats, including illegal hunting, lead poisoning (similar to <a href="https://therevelator.org/saving-california-condors/" target="_blank">California condors</a>) and collisions with power lines.</p><p>On top of that, their populations grow slowly under the best of circumstances.</p><p>"Condors have a very low reproductive rate," Piña explains. They don't reach sexual maturity until they're 9 or 10 years old, and then they only nest every two years and raise a single chick at a time.</p><p>It's now likely that more Andean condors are dying than are being born.</p><p>"These deaths occur at a rate and on a scale that does not allow the natural recovery of individuals to the population," says Piña.</p><p>And it's not just the condors being killed. The bodies of animals from eight other species have been found near dead condors, according to the paper. These include American black vultures (<em>Coragyps atratus</em>), kelp gull (<em>Larus dominicanus</em>), Molina's hog-nosed skunks (<em>Conepatus chinga</em>) and pumas (<em>Puma concolor</em>).</p><p>The poisons are also potentially harmful to humans. "There are oral records of cases of people poisoned by the placement of these poisons," Piña says. This poses a risk for officials tasked with cleaning up kill sites. The EPA links acute short-term <a href="https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2016-09/documents/parathion.pdf" target="_blank">parathion exposure</a> to central nervous disorders, depressed red blood cell activity, nausea and other health risks.</p>
An Andean condor spreads its wings at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh. John R. Platt / The Revelator / CC BY-NC-ND 3.0<p>With the condors fulfilling so many important roles, and the frequency of poisonings increasing, how do we solve this problem?</p><p>Piña and his fellow researchers recommend a three-tier approach.</p><p>The first involves educating livestock owners about the importance of condors and the health risks from the pesticides. "We believe that working on education about the dangerousness of the use of these toxic baits is one of the lines of action needed to address this problem," Piña says.</p><p>That won't solve everything, he acknowledges, because some people already know the poisons are dangerous but use them anyway.</p><p>That brings us to the second solution: protecting livestock. "It's essential to find ways to reduce predation without affecting environmental health," Piña says. "An example could be the incorporation of cattle protection dogs, which have been shown to considerably reduce predation in Patagonia Argentina." The researchers have started studies with cattle breeders to understand various techniques already in use in different parts of the country, as well as how ranchers perceive livestock losses they experience.</p>
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