Thoughts on Threatened Species
It is true that in nature, species come and species go. On rare occasions they even return. Just last week, a globally rare plant, Lobelia boykinii (Boykin’s lobelia), resurfaced in Delaware, a place in which it hadn’t been seen for over a century.
Scientists say that species extinction occurs naturally at a “background” rate of one species per one million species per year. But add in human influences and that rate accelerates. A lot. As in 1,000 to 10,000 times. According to the United Nations Environmental Program, this translates to the loss of 150 to 200 species every 24 hours. And when threatened species include yew trees whose bark contains high concentrations of a compound used in fighting cancer, or reef-building corals that help protect warm water coastal communities from storm surges, the link between the fate of other species and our own cannot be denied. In fact, many researchers believe we are in the midst of a sixth mass extinction.
Despite all of this, people around the globe continue to work to protect plants, mammals, birds, fungi, amphibians, invertebrates, and marine species from extinction. Yes, despite the doom and gloom, this year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the IUCN Red List and the 41st anniversary of the passing of the Endangered Species Act. These landmark initiatives have prevented thousands of species from going extinct.
As threats to biodiversity mount, so does something else: the resolve to do something about it. In this issue, we take a look at some of the people and organizations deeply involved in the protection of threatened species. In doing so, we examine our own role in the protection and regeneration of biodiversity in the face of mounting threats.
Craig Hilton-Taylor, Head of the Red List Unit for the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Global Species Programme, gives us a behind-the-scenes look at what goes into building and maintaining the world’s most powerful tool for conservation. To get the perspective of a national NGO, we chatted with Tierra Curry, Senior Scientist for the Center for Biodiversity and co-author of “On Time, On Target,” a recent defense of the Endangered Species Act.
Jennifer Dowdell reviews the book Telling Our Way to the Sea, biologist Aaron Hirsh’s exploration of human impacts on the Sea of Cortez. Fabien Dubas tells us about species struggling to survive in the Mediterranean Sea.We share news about two regions of the U.S. where shifts in protection have created some dangerously gray area for the gray wolf. Be sure to check out our list of resources on threatened species, catch up on the latest news at Biohabitats, and learn how you can contribute to our growing threatened species album on Facebook. When we say “tell us what you think,” we mean it! Let us know your thoughts on threatened species by commenting on our Rhizome blog .
As Head of the Red List Unit of the IUCN’s Global Species Program, Craig Hilton-Taylor is responsible for ensuring both the quality and availability of what is widely regarded as the world’s most powerful tool for conservation. A data set that includes taxonomic, conservation status and distribution information for more than 71,000 species, and over 2,000 subspecies, The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species ™(hereafter the IUCN Red List) provides a barometer for global biodiversity and guides conservation action and policy worldwide.
Collaborating with experts around the world, working alongside other units of the IUCN Global Species Program, and leading the Red List Unit staff, Craig ensures the scientific rigor of the global assessment—and reassessment–of plant, animal and fungi species, and the placement of those species on the IUCN Red List. He is also responsible for making sure that assessment results are published and made publicly available for worldwide use. In the 15 years since he started the IUCN Red List Unit, Craig has facilitated more than 60 Red List training and assessment workshops in 30 countries, and has authored or co-authored more than 70 publications on the topic of threatened species. He has given voice to threatened plants and animals in all corners of the world, before audiences ranging from international congresses to television viewers. On this, the 50th anniversary of the IUCN Red List, we are thrilled to have the chance to learn more about Craig’s work and how if affects ours.
Can you briefly describe the assessment process for IUCN Red List species?
To begin with, there is a set of rules that we have adopted for how we do assessments. Those rules include a set of parameters which are generally used to estimate the risk of extinction for species (these include population size and structure, population declines, range size, etc.). So we have a set of rules with criteria that have quantitative thresholds which are used to trigger different categories of extinction risk (the rule-set is what we refer to as the IUCN Red List Categories and Criteria). We then use experts to gather data on specific species that will enable us to apply the Red List Criteria to them in order to determine their risk of extinction. For example we look at whether a species meets any of the thresholds for population decline rates, for range area loss, etc.
To do the assessments, we might bring all the experts together in a workshop, and have them share the knowledge and information they have on these species. This also includes information about threats to the species or the habitats in which it occurs. We ask questions like has this species had habitat loss? Why? Is it because of agriculture? If it’s agriculture, is it intensive farming, or slash and burn? We try to drill down to get at the cause of loss. We also ask about conservation actions. What has been done about this species? Is it in a protected area? What other conservation interventions are required and can realistically be achieved in the next five to ten years? The information is all entered into a database and compared against the Red List Categories and Criteria to generate a draft Red List assessment.
Every expert cannot come to every workshop. So after the assessment workshop, there is a review process whereby those who couldn’t come to the workshop check the documentation and conclusions reached at the workshop. They check the information, add to it, and after everyone is happy the assessment is then ready to move to the next stage. Each assessment then gets reviewed by an independent person. Once the review is complete, the assessments are submitted to the Red List Unit where further checks take place (mainly to ensure consistency in approach across all taxonomic groups) and are then published on the IUCN Red List web site. Updates to the Red List website happen generally twice a year.
Is there a regular interval at which Red List species are reassessed?
We have assessed all bird species worldwide, and they have been reassessed every four years since 1988. We’d love to have a set interval like this for all species, but unfortunately that is not the case. With birds, there is such a vast number of very knowledgeable amateurs who can contribute data. We don’t have the same [amount of knowledgeable amateurs] for all other taxonomic groups. We have assessed mammals twice. We did a complete assessment of the world’s mammals in 1996, and we did it again for publication in 2008. We are doing it again now, to hopefully be published next year. The time intervals between assessments can be quite long. Ideally we’d like to assess every group at least once every 10 years, but finding the resources to enable us to do that is a challenge. We also encourage more frequent assessments for species that are listed as Critically Endangered or that are known to be under high levels of threat. In addition we encourage research projects to gather more information on species listed as Data Deficient.
So the interval for reassessment is dependent upon the tools and support you have available?
Yes. We are trying to look at how we could use on-line discussion forums, because then we don’t have to pay to bring people across the world to a workshop. They could just go on line at any point and contribute to the discussion forum. We are trying out this new technology with some mammals, amphibians and reptiles. For the reptiles, it’s a baseline assessment, whereas for the mammals and amphibians, it’s a reassessment. Anybody can add comments provided they are registered, and there are moderators for each discussion, who will take all the comments and distill them down to create the new assessment. We have teamed up with iNaturalist, a Citizen Science initiative that is run out of the California Academy of Sciences. They have the right technology in place for us to use. These on-line discussion forums are still in a trial phase, but they look to be a cheaper and more viable alternative and can involve a wider number of people. [Click here for more on the assessment process and online forums.]
The IUCN is very honest about the shortcomings of the IUCN Red List (e.g., bias toward species from forest ecosystems, low number of assessed marine species). In your time with the Red List Unit, how much progress has been made in improving some of the weaknesses?
We have made very significant progress. When I started this unit we had about 17,000 species on the list. Today we have nearly 72,000. We have tried to focus our efforts more on the areas where we know we are weak. For example, we had a big push on freshwater species, so now we have more freshwater fish, mollusks, and dragonflies, then we had 15 years ago, plus all freshwater crabs, shrimps and crayfishes have been assessed world-wide. We have a marine team working with the IUCN SSC Specialist Groups to assess the status of all marine fish and selected marine invertebrates around the world, so now there are over 4,000 marine fish species (out of the approximately 20,000 known) on the IUCN Red List. We have done complete assessment of whole groups such as the sharks and rays, the tunas, groupers and various other fish groups.
For marine invertebrates we have assessed the status of all warm water reef-forming corals (over 800 species). We have tackled some key ecosystems within the marine environment like mangroves and sea-grass beds, but there’s still a long way to go before we have adequate representation of the marine realm.
Pezuña de Venado
On the plant side, we recently completed the first global assessment of cactus species (about 1,700 species). The number of plant species on the IUCN Red List is going up , and we now have just under 18,500 plants on the Red List and this is set to rise rapidly in the next few years as a result of several new global and national initiatives.
We have identified the key groups we want to cover in the next 10 years (see the IUCN Red List Strategic Plan 2013-2020 for details). For example, we have a big project underway to look into plant species that are important to people for food, timber, and medicine. If we can get a handle on those species, we can provide crucial information on a key set of species that are important to human livelihoods.
There are other areas where we know we are weak. For example we haven’t done much assessment of groups like fungi, algae (including seaweeds), mosses and ferns. There are only four species of fungi, and only a handful of seaweed species on the Red List. Those are two groups with which we are focusing on at present to ensure they are better represented on the IUCN Red List.
Can you tell us about one of the latest species to be added to the IUCN Red List, and how it became added to the list? I’d like to know about the species and the assessment process.
I’ll tell you two different stories, and they illustrate different things. We currently have a large initiative to assess the status of reptile species around the world. We have held a number of assessment workshops under this initiative, one of which was in the Western Ghats in India, an extremely rich area for all types of species, particularly reptiles. One of the species being assessed was the Jeypore Ground Gecko. No one had seen this species since it was first collected in 1877. In 2011, during the preparations leading up to the workshop, the local experts involved in the assessment did some field work to see if they could relocate this species and they were successful in finding a small population. Then, just before the workshop, they found another small subpopulation just a few kilometers away. In both instances, the experts also witnessed that the habitat the species was found in was under severe threat from mining, deforestation and replanting with plantation forests, and increasing forest fires. So the Jeypore Ground Gecko came onto the Red List for the first time as Critically Endangered.
The other story is one about the Cocteau’s Skink, a species we were assessing which was only known to occur on the Cape Verde islands off the coast of West Africa. This species is, sadly, listed as Extinct. All attempts to find it had failed, and we are pretty sure it went extinct a long time ago. It’s gone because of large predators, like cats and dogs. It would’ve also been eaten by people. It has taken a long time to gather sufficient evidence to ensure that this species was no longer extant, and that it was not being confused with one of the other skink species on the islands, and so although it probably went extinct a long-time ago, it was only listed in 2013 as definitely being Extinct.
Speaking of extinct species…there has been a lot of press lately about “de-extinction,” the attempt to resurrect extinct species through genetic technology. What is your (and the IUCN’s) opinion on de-extinction?
IUCN does not have an official opinion on this. Trying to resurrect a species from genetics is extremely difficult. There haven’t been any cases as yet where a whole species has been recreated from genetic material. The potential challenges of doing that are enormous. It may well be achieved, but that’s just one individual. How do you get multiple individuals, and once you do, what do you do with them? There has been a lot of talk about recreating the Woolly Mammoth, but where would you put the mammoth once you got it back again? At this stage, we are many, many years away from this becoming a reality. Even though the potential is possibly there, we cannot afford to be complacent and hope that genetic engineering will come to our rescue. We have to do everything else that we possibly can to stop species from going extinct.
[De-extinction] is a bit of a red herring. Many conservationists argue that the technocrats will continue to explore the potential of doing this and good discoveries will no doubt come out of this experimentation, but it’s not going to be the conservation solution to loss of species.
I read that the “traditional” role of the IUCN Red List: identifying particular species at risk of extinction, has been expanded to encompass the use of data for multi-species analyses. Is this what the new tool, the IUCN’s Red List of Ecosystems is all about? Are you involved in that? What can you tell us about it?
I have been involved with the Red List of Ecosystems, but that’s not what we are referring to when we talk about multi-species analysis. Because we are now getting more and more data from whole taxonomic groups, we can now start to put that data together and do multiple-species analyses comparing the results across lots of different groups. That gives you much more meaningful information for guiding conservation policy and planning.
For example, in November of this year, we will hold the IUCN World Parks Conference (an event which happens only once every 10 years) in Australia. This event that brings together people involved in planning, managing and utilizing national parks, nature reserves, etc. Some of these people decide which areas need to be set aside for protection. As species people, we are able to go to this conference and say, “Based on our multiple-species analyses, where we have grouped as many species groups together as possible, here are the important spots for conserving biodiversity.” We then try to see if the protected areas are in the right places (i.e. a Gap Analysis). You can’t do that if you don’t have those multiple data sets.
The IUCN Red List of Ecosystems is a fairly new initiative that is being implemented jointly by the IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management and the Ecosystem Management Program, in consultation with the IUCN Species Survival Commission and the IUCN Global Species Program. They are trying to do something analogous to the species approach, but looking at ecosystems. This includes developing a set of criteria and thresholds, which are currently in their second draft and are being widely tested.
There are lots of tricky issues with this approach which have had to be resolved and some are still being researched to work out the best ways forward. For example, what is an ecosystem? It is hard to define what an ecosystem really is. It occurs in multidimensional space, so it is very difficult to draw boundaries around it. We have to come up with some sort of proxy for an ecosystem. There is no global, agreed classification scheme for vegetation types, marine habitats, etc. The U.S. Geological Survey together with NatureServe, is leading a global vegetation classification initiative, and it looks as though that might give us a suitable proxy for terrestrial ecosystems, although it still has some way to go to before the whole world is mapped. What we do with freshwater and marine environments has yet to be decided. The concept they are trying to measure is ecosystem collapse, because you can’t have extinction with an ecosystem. But ecosystems are naturally changing, and often moving from one state to another, so defining that collapse is tricky as well. The architects of the scheme are keen to get the methodology approved and adopted by IUCN Council this year, but I suspect it may take quite a lot more testing and refinement of the criteria before the system is widely adopted and used. The key thing to remember is that we don’t see the Red List of Ecosystems as THE new approach; it is complementary to the species approach. Together, they can give us a good picture of what is happening to the environment.
In your opinion, which nations, if any, stand out as doing the most to sustain/protect their Red List species and are those efforts working?
We talk more about individual species than individual countries. It’s such a fluid situation out there. Governments change, and [nations] that are doing well can suddenly move backwards. We don’t want to pick on any individual country, but we do like to make sure countries are careful about how they use the Red List. Often countries will take the IUCN Red List, or even their own national list, and have a knee jerk reaction of saying “everything that is threatened must immediately have all sorts of protection.” We encourage countries not to do that, but to look at the causes of the threats, so that they take the most appropriate action for the species. We have a document available which provides guidance on appropriate use of the IUCN Red List data.
We always say that the Red List should feed into your legislation, but it should also be with a whole host of other factors: What resources do you have available? What will the impacts be? Does the legislation affect the real issue?
Can you share a few success stories that can offer both hope and guidance to those of us working to protect and restore biodiversity? Once a species rebounds and comes off of the IUCN Red List, does the IUCN do anything to support its long-term survival?)
That’s one of the things we like to stress with the updates of the IUCN Red List. You can quickly go into the doom and gloom of how many threatened species there are, but there are good cases of species recovery where conservation action has really turned things around.
A classic example from the U.S. is the Black-footed Ferret. That species declined almost to extinction by the late 1970s, and it was all because of what was happening to prairie dogs, the prey species for the ferret. There was a cry from the agricultural community to control prairie dogs, and as the number of prairie dogs went down, so did the ferrets. In 1981, a small population of Black-footed Ferrets was found in Wyoming. The Wyoming Fish & Wildlife department, working with U.S. Fish & Wildlife, took the animals into captivity for breeding and started a reintroduction program. They are doing very well. More than 6,000 animals have been born in captivity and there are 500 breeding adults in the wild. To go from nearly extinct to 500 breeding adults in the wild is fantastic turnaround. But it’s an ongoing effort because they have to make sure the essential habitats of the prairie dogs are maintained and not destroyed by the farming community. They have had to do a lot of outreach and education to communicate why the prairie dogs are important.
To what do you attribute the success of that effort?
It was a concerted effort involving state and national-level government agencies, local conservation societies, individuals working in communities on the ground, and the agricultural community. All those sectors came together. Most of the cases where we have these turnarounds involve all of these different elements: usually some kind of government level, the NGO level, and the community organization – all working together in harmony for the good of the species and the local community.
Once a species begins to rebound, does the IUCN get involved in supporting long-term recovery and survival?
Yes, we do. We have a network of over 120 species Specialist Groups who get directly involved with conservation actions on the ground. We have also recently established a funding mechanism within IUCN called the Save our Species fund, or S.O.S. The motto is “Save our species. Save ourselves.” Money was given by the World Bank and other donor agencies to help set up this fund. People can apply to do species conservation projects on the ground. This fund is directly aimed at highly threatened species on the IUCN Red List for which action is needed on the ground to improve their status. Another similar funding mechanism like this is the Mohammed bin Zyed Species Conservation Fund which also uses the IUCN Red List to guide its investments in species conservation.
It is my understanding that the effects of climate change are putting pressure on biodiversity. Are there any threatened/endangered plant or animal species that might actually benefit from climate change in the future? Are there instances in which the environmental effects of climate change will create more favorable conditions for threatened/endangered species?
We know that there are many species which are not threatened at the moment, which would probably benefit from the impacts of climate change. In general, the more common and often weedy species tend to be more adaptable to these types of changes. They’ll be able to spread and move northward as the climate changes. Certain threatened species which are fairly mobile and adaptable will be able to respond more quickly and easily than species which are immobile and/or have very specific habitat requirements. We have noticed that some of the threatened butterflies are moving further north from southern Europe. Some of changes in the ranges of these species may be detected quite easily, but it is very early in the process to know what the long-term effects are going to be. The big issue is whether there will be suitable habitat for them to move into as the climate changes.
In 2012, there was an article in the journal Science about how southern ocean wind patterns are changing as a result of climate change, and that may be helping albatrosses to find food more rapidly. Albatrosses are all highly threatened. Bird Life International are working with partners all over the world to try to turn the situation around with albatrosses. A couple of the species actually improved in status in the last (2013.2) update of the IUCN Red List. In theses instances, the introduced predators have successfully been eradicated from the islands where the albatrosses breed and BirdLife and their partners have managed to implement measures to minimize the impact of long line fisheries, because long line trawling is one of the main threats to albatrosses. It is not clear in the case of the species downlisted if the observed recovery was also linked to positive impacts of climate change on albatross feeding; it is hard to tease such cause- and-effect relationships out at this stage.
You have been with the IUCN for 15 years. Looking at today’s IUCN Red List versus the IUCN Red List of 15 years ago, what species have become most imperiled during the last decade? Which species have rebounded most impressively?
In terms of most imperiled, I can tell you two different stories. In 2001 we started our first attempt to look at the state of amphibian species around the world. When we released the results in 2004, we were quite horrified at the extent to which frogs were threatened with extinction. We knew that many frogs had just disappeared or had severely reduced populations, but no one could explain why. It took a few years of research to determine that a fungal pathogen known as chytrid fungus, likely operating in synergy with climate change, was wiping out whole frog populations from many parts of the world. That was an incredible discovery, and it prompted a massive attempt to try and get as many of those frogs that were likely to be impacted by the fungus into captive breeding situations until a solution to the chytrid fungus could be found and they could be returned to the wild. This was a real revelation to us: that there are new and novel diseases that appear from nowhere, strike a species, and knock the population quite heavily and often in a short space of time.
A similar story happened in Southeast Asia, where we had 98% declines in vulture populations. There were three or four species involved, and it happened very quickly—within five or six years. It was initially thought that a disease was involved, as it was with the frog story. BirdLife and their partners conducted research and found out that it was the impact of a veterinary drug called diclofenac, which is an anti-inflammatory used in Southeast Asia for treating livestock. In that part of the world, when a cow dies, you leave it out in the field for the vultures to come eat it. By the time the vultures would eat the carcass, the drug was so concentrated that it was lethal to them. In that case, BirdLife and their partners used a combination of captive breeding and reintroduction to try and get the numbers back up again, and they got the governments involved to pass laws to prevent the use of that drug. They have passed the laws, and it will be a slow process to get everybody to stop using diclofenec . They are trying to provide alternative drugs that are cheaper and more readily available. Vulture populations are now beginning to show signs of recovery. The same situation is now potentially repeating itself in Europe and Africa.
What does it feel like to be able to tell those stories? Your work must be incredibly rewarding.
It is extremely rewarding and humbling. When I go to workshops with our experts and I see how much knowledge they have in their heads, it really is phenomenal. It is a huge privilege to get to share that. Trying to fuel that into something you can pass on to the rest of the world, and telling those stories to other people so they will be aware and do something about it is incredibly rewarding.
In your opinion, what impact has the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) had on the conservation of species worldwide?
The CBD is quite complex, as it is dealing with the whole range of biodiversity. It is a strong convention in terms of getting so many different parties together to agree on common targets and then set agendas for the conservation community. The CBD had a set of targets to achieve by 2010 and unfortunately, they failed to achieve those. There was a lot of soul searching after that and at the 2010 meeting of the parties in Nagoya, Japan, they came up with a new strategic plan for biodiversity conservation. [The mission of the plan is to “take effective and urgent action to halt the loss of biodiversity in order to ensure that by 2020 ecosystems are resilient and continue to provide essential services, thereby securing the planet’s variety of life, and contributing to human well-being, and poverty eradication.”] The delegates at the meeting pushed very hard, and came up with a new set of 20 targets, known as the Aichi Targets for 2020. These targets address all of the different issues related to biodiversity conservation, and Target 12 is a key one for the Red List. [Target 12: “By 2020 the extinction of known threatened species has been prevented and their conservation status, particularly of those most in decline, has been improved and sustained.”] All of the targets are very ambitious—probably over-ambitious, but it’s better to strive for the sky and see how much we can achieve.
Under the CBD, countries are supposed to adopt those same targets on a national scale, and by adding up what each country is doing, and working with the global conservation community, they hope to reach the global targets. There is reporting happening at different levels, and the CBD is moving in the right direction. There are, however, some areas where they haven’t been able to achieve the breakthrough many people would like to see, particularly with issues like financing mechanisms and protocols for access and benefit sharing. Overall they are making good progress. We just have to keep working hard to ensure we stay focused and on track as we move toward 2020, when everyone has to report back on how they’ve done with the targets. There is ongoing debate about what indicators are used for the different targets. The IUCN Red List could be used, to some degree, for measuring progress with at least 13 of the targets, but it has only been adopted as a unit of measure for seven of the targets. The identification of threatened species plays a key role in tracking progress toward the Aichi Targets.
Do you believe that the recent arguments put forth by Peter Kareiva and Michelle Marvier, “What is Conservation Science?” (BioScience, 2012) suggesting that ecologists and conservationists have grossly overestimated the fragility of nature and that the loss of species can be inconsequential to ecosystem function, are worthy of consideration?
The authors are not saying that we don’t have to worry about conservation. They are just pointing out that nature can be surprisingly resilient, and yes, we do recognize that. That’s the thing about the Red List approach. With the Red List, we are saying the species have a certain probability of going extinct within a certain time period. But there is also a probability that they won’t go extinct. That’s part of nature’s resilience, and so we do get surprised every now and then.
You can’t just say species are resilient, and that we don’t need to worry about them. You can’t be complacent. You have to take action where it is required and this is what Kareiva and Marvier also argue.
Let’s talk about the connections between humans and endangered species. Should we be saving species from extinction merely because it is morally the right thing to do, regardless of their perceived importance to humans or their contributions to a well-functioning ecosystem?
The moral case is a strong argument for species conservation, but you have to weigh it against all the other arguments. Species are useful to people for all sorts of purposes: food, medicine, ecosystem services, etc. Maintaining species for the sake of the species is certainly a valid argument, but it’s difficult when countries are grappling with lots of conflicting demands on their resources, hence their value to people often takes precedence.
When you have massive over population and you’re trying to deal with poverty issues, you have to balance that with species conservation. You may say, “Investing all this money in this species will not save it, and that despite all the efforts and best intentions that it will carry on moving towards extinction, so let’s stop.” That has been a subject of a few debates here in the U.K. The Zoological Society of London, for example, recently held a symposium which posed the question “When is enough, enough?” i.e., when do you say, “That’s it; we’re not going to spend any more dollars on that species. We’re going to let it go, and if it goes extinct, tough.” That is a very difficult call for anybody to make, but I suspect we’re going to be faced with that situation more and more in the coming years. We as a conservation community need to ensure that enough is done early enough so that we are not faced with too many of these difficult choices.
Based on your experience, what percent of the world’s human population recognizes the link between the fate of endangered species and that of their own?
I talk to a lot of people about this, even my own family. I’d say the vast majority of people do not realize that link. They don’t see how interconnected everything is on the planet. An individual species extinction might not affect you as a person, but eventually, if we lose enough other species, you will feel the impact. We don’t know when that tipping-point will be and what consequences that will have for all of us. The more we can do to keep all species alive and functional, the better for all of us. I’m amazed at how many people say they love nature, but have no realization of how connected they really are to the survival of species.
You must encounter so many situations where the protection of a threatened species is seemingly in conflict with a society’s culture, economy, etc….true?
There is a great story about the Lear’s Macaw, a species of parrot in South America. They are beautiful birds, and were well-known in the commercial pet trade, but no one really knew where they came from. In 1978, the first wild population of them was discovered in northeastern Bahia in Brazil. Clearly the traders knew where to find these birds. They were being very secretive about it, trapping the birds and exporting them to the rest of the world, despite them being listed on CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) Appendix I , which means absolutely no trade whatsoever is allowed for that species. To combat this illegal trade, [conservationists] built awareness programs to tell people what was happening, and that trapping the birds was illegal and should not be allowed. But the local people were actually encouraging the trappers because the parrots were eating their maize. So the various agencies that were working on this had to come up with a scheme to compensate farmers for the maize that was eaten by the birds. Once the farmers were compensated and their livelihoods were secure, they felt responsible to conserve the birds and stop the traders.
Once you have the local community on your side, it can be a win-win situation. There were about 50 birds in 1978 and now there are over 1000. It has been a fantastic recovery in quite a short term, but it took considerable effort to get all of the different elements in the right place to ensure a successful outcome. Just having the legal framework was not enough.
Many of our readers work to protect threatened species at the project or site scale during planning or design. In these situations, the protection can often be regarded as an “obstacle” to project success. Based on your experience, what are some of the proven keys to protecting species in situations like that in a way that is embraced as the kind of win-win situation you just described.
The IUCN has amazing convening power in bringing together different parties– governments, NGOs, corporate sector, and local communities—and then mediating between them all.
An example of where we have successfully done this is in the waters around Sakhalin Island in Eastern Russia. These waters are of critical significance to the conservation of the Western Gray Whale, as the only known feeding ground for this population lies in these waters. The area is also rich in oil and gas deposits and over the last 10-15 years there have been growing attempts to exploit these resources. Hence it was inevitable that a conflict would arise. To address this threat IUCN has been working with Sakhalin Energy Investment Company to see how best to minimize and mitigate the impacts of its Sakhalin II operations on Gray Whales in the vicinity of Sakhalin Island. The results so far have been extremely positive. But it’s an ongoing effort, because we have to make sure everybody does what they say they are going to do plus it was realized that any comprehensive conservation management initiative must consider the full range of threats to the Western Gray Whale. Hence IUCN is now developing a rangewide conservation initiative for this population which takes into account not only the threats in the vicinity of Sakhalin Island, but also the threats across the entire geographic range of this population.
I imagine the IUCN cannot come to the aid of everyone. So are you suggesting that readers who find themselves in the situations where species protection is viewed as a project obstacle should reach out to their local conservation NGOs to play that brokering role?
Exactly. There are so many good conservation NGOs who can and should engage with the corporate sector to build those relationships.
When it comes to the world’s mammals, I read that the most significant threat is habitat loss. Obviously conservation is critical, but what about ecological restoration? Do you believe ecological restoration has a role to play in saving species from extinctions?
The loss of habitat is the number one threat to virtually every species on the Red List. Hence ecological restoration is one of the tools in our conservation toolbox.
Do you have any final words for Leaf Litter readers?
One of the key things we are trying to do with the IUCN Red List is to provide decision-makers with the necessary information to secure the web of life. But sadly people, especially politicians and business leaders and even the general public, are more interested in paying attention to the economy and dollars. So we have to use the IUCN Red List to demonstrate the close links that exist between species and human livelihoods and what the potential impacts will be to people if those species are lost; hence our promotion of the notion of “nature for nature; and nature for people.”
Species are the building blocks of life. The loss of any species diminishes the quality of our lives and our basic economic security. By saving species we save biodiversity and the natural ecosystems that provide the natural resources we need to live; nature is at the heart of a green economy. The IUCN Red List, as one of the measures of the state of biodiversity, is telling us how our green economy is doing or not doing. For the IUCN Red List to become a more complete “Barometer of Life,” investment is needed to increase the number of experts trained to carry out Red List assessments, to significantly increase the number of species being assessed each year; and to carry out regular reassessments of species groups. Enabling the IUCN Red List to reach its full potential would, from an economic perspective, be one of the best investments for the good of humanity.
Tierra Curry is a Senior Scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, a U.S.-based nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to securing a future for plants and animals hovering on the brink of extinction. Tierra focuses on the listing and recovery of endangered species. Applying science, law, and creative media, she works nationally with individuals and groups in support of the conservation of species and the Endangered Species Act. In 2012, Tierra co-authored “On Time, On Target” a report documenting the success of the Endangered Species Act based on species rates of recovery. That same year, Tierra helped the Center for Biological Diversity win positive Endangered Species Act decisions for 104 animals and plants, and final protection for 33 species, including a San Francisco manzanita once believed to have vanished forever from the wild. Prior to joining the Center in 2007, Tierra worked as an amphibian field biologist, conservation corps crew leader, and community organizer. She holds a bachelor’s in English from Berea College in Kentucky and a master’s in biology from Portland State University.
Can you tell us about one or two new species that have been added to the ESA list recently?
The past two years have been very exciting in terms of new species gaining Endangered Species Act protection because under a settlement agreement with the Center for Biological Diversity and other conservation groups, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed to address the entire backlogged waiting list of “candidate” species by 2018. Candidates are species that warrant protection but that the Service hasn’t been able to prioritize finalizing protection for. Many of them have been sitting on a waiting list for more than 20 years. In the last two years, 107 species that the Center has advocated for over the years gained final ESA protection, and another 28 have been proposed for protection.
How many species are on this waiting list?
As of 2010 there were more than 250. Every fall, the Fish and Wildlife Service puts out the Candidate Notice of Review , where they take stock of all of the species on the waiting list and the progress they’ve made in getting them proposed for protection. In 2013 the number of species on the waiting list dropped to 146 as the result of our settlement agreement, marking the first time in two decades that the backlog is less than 150 species.
How do species get on the waiting list?
There are two ways species can get on the waiting list. The Fish and Wildlife Service can add a species straight to the waiting list if they realize it is in hot water. Citizens can also petition for Endangered Species Act protection for a species. [When that happens] the Fish and Wildlife Service is required to make what is called a “12-month finding.” At the end of the 12 month period, they either say “No, we’re not going to list it,” “Yes, we’re going to propose it for listing,” or “It is warranted but precluded.” Warranted but precluded puts it on the waiting list.
Some of the species that gained final protection last year are a songbird called the Streaked Horned Lark and a butterfly called Taylor’s Checkerspot that live in prairie habitats in Washington and Oregon. Streaked horned lark photo by David Maloney, USFWS.
Two freshwater mussels from the southeastern United States, the Fluted Kidneyshell and Slabside Pearlymussel, from Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi and Virginia [now have protection.] Freshwater mussels are among the most imperiled animals in the world, with more than 70 percent of them being in danger of extinction. They are very sensitive to water pollution and also improve water quality by constantly filtering water. Protecting habitat for them will also help protect water quality for people.
38 species from Maui, including 35 plants and three tree snails, also recently gained final protection.
99% of the plants and animals under Endangered Species Act protection have been protected from extinction. Can you tell us about the 1% that have gone extinct and the lessons that can be gleaned from those extinctions?
Ten species have been delisted due to extinction. Of these, eight were placed on the endangered species list after they were already extinct. Two became extinct after they were protected, the Dusky Seaside Sparrow and the Mariana Mallard. The Dusky Seaside Sparrow was a songbird that lived in marshes along Florida’s Atlantic Coast. It declined initially due to DDT which caused its eggshells to be too thin. Its habitat was then destroyed due to wetland draining for construction and mosquito control. The last bird died in 1987 and it was declared extinct in 1990. The Mariana Mallard was a small duck from the Mariana Islands, near Guam. It went extinct due to draining of wetlands for agriculture and construction and due to hunting. The last bird died in captivity in 1981. It was declared extinct in 2004.
One of the most important lessons to be learned from these tragic extinctions is that we have to protect the habitat that endangered species need to survive. Capturing the last individuals and trying to get them to breed in captivity is to no avail if their habitat is being erased. We humans are going to have to learn to exercise some constraint when it comes to development so that more and more natural habitat isn’t converted to habitat solely for the use of people.
What is the status of the USFW’s 2013 proposal to drop ESA protections for the gray wolf? Has that proposal now been withdrawn?
In summer 2013 the Service proposed to remove gray wolves from the Endangered Species list. That proposal has not been finalized and has generated much scientific controversy. In the places where wolf protections have been lifted and management has been turned over to the states, more than 2,600 wolves have been killed since 2011. Taking that many animals out of the population is certainly going to affect social structure and reproduction. It’s going to undo the hard work people have done for decades to try to restore wolves.
This is an example of political interference with the Endangered Species Act where powerful groups successfully pressure the administration to lessen protections for species even though the scientific information available supports protection of the species. Wolves occupy five percent of their historic range. They are not recovered.
Another recent example of the administration bowing to industry pressure and removing protection for a species is the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard which lives in New Mexico and Texas in sand-dune habitat that overlaps with oil and gas drilling. The best available scientific information clearly indicates that the species warrants protection, and it was proposed for listing as endangered in 2010.The oil and gas industry was outraged and pressured the administration to withdraw the proposed listing, which they did. They are relying on voluntary measures to protect the lizard and on documents which are not publicly available. This is an egregious example of the Obama administration caving to pressure from the fossil fuel industry, ignoring the best available science, and sacrificing an endangered species.
How often does this kind of thing happen? How vigilant must the Center for Biodiversity and other guardians of the Endangered Species Act be?
It happens all the time. Right now, the state of Texas is launching an initiative to oppose endangered species listings for the state because of the conflict with oil and gas development. The state, the counties, and the oil and gas industries are all teamed up and actively opposing the listing of species.
The state of Florida wants endangered species protection to be turned over to the state. The board that would make those decisions has a lot of developers on it. You’d be turning over Endangered Species Act protection to a board comprised of people whose inherent interest is in making a profit off of destroying habitat. We don’t think this has a strong legal basis, and we’re challenging it in court.
The report “On Time, On Target,” which you co-authored, is a compelling defense of the ESA. It concludes that “when judged in light of meeting recovery plan timelines for recovery [as opposed to the # or overall percentage of species that have been delisted] the ESA is remarkably successful.” What brought about that report? What threats was the ESA facing, and from whom?
Periodically opponents of the Endangered Species Act launch campaigns to dismantle it. In recent years these attacks have been spearheaded by the Tea Party. The Endangered Species Act actually enjoys broad public support and support from both democrats and republicans, so the proposals to gut it are packaged as proposals to improve it. The far-right proposals to improve it generally consist of cutting funding , prohibiting the Service from listing any new species, turning endangered species protection over to the states, and relying on voluntary measures to save species. Doc Hastings, a representative from Washington, has led the recent efforts to “fix” the act by claiming that it doesn’t work because species aren’t being delisted. We put together On Time, On Target to provide data on how species are moving towards recovery.
The report attempts to answer the question of how to determine if species are recovering “fast enough.” What is “fast enough?” What was your answer?
Opponents of the Endangered Species Act frequently criticize the law for not recovering species quickly. By the time species make it on to the endangered species list, they are generally in very hot water, and it takes time to stabilize their populations and address the causes of their decline. It’s not realistic to expect them to recover in short time frames. The Florida Panther, for example, isn’t expected to recover until 2085. Species with slow population growth that are facing big threats will take a lot of time to improve. Stabilizing a species that is plummeting towards extinction should be viewed as a success.
The report includes case studies of species that have recovered and species that are likely to be delisted. In looking at these examples, and perhaps at other success stories you have observed or been a part of, what are some common threads that lead to success?
We know that species with designated critical habitat protection and species that have actual recovery plans developed by scientists are more likely to recover than species that do not have designated protected habitat or species that do not have recovery plans.
On the ground habitat improvement is often key to recovering species. For example, the Modoc Sucker, a fish in southern Oregon and northern California, was recently proposed for delisting. The key to the sucker’s improvement was fencing cattle out of the streams where it lived and also no longer stocking predatory trout for sports fishing in its habitat.
Last year the Inyo California Towhee, a bird in the Mojave Desert was proposed for delisting. The keys to its improvement were habitat improvements including removal of feral burros, fencing to protect riparian vegetation, regulation of off-road vehicles, and removal of non-native plants. Collaboration between federal, state, tribal, and non-profit agencies also improves species’ recovery efforts.
Not everyone has knowledge and compassion when it comes to threatened plants and animals. I imagine awareness is critical, but very tricky. As one of my colleagues put it, “How do we move beyond saying “protect the snail darter” to the larger holistic picture, and bring the general public with us and show them how they are part of it all? Have you discovered any keys to successful communication for the protection of threatened species? Any great examples you can share with us?
The fate of endangered species is not separate from the fate of people. By working to save habitats and make them healthier for imperiled plants and animals, we are also helping to safeguard the future of humanity. I spend a lot of time trying to save endangered aquatic animals in the southeastern United States like freshwater mussels and crayfish. These are animals that humans rarely think about, and that most people will never see. But if we can clean up the rivers and streams that they need to survive, we are benefiting human communities too. Our society must learn to value the ecosystem services that natural areas and the plants and animals that live in them provide. For example, mussels filter pollutants out of water, bats eat insects that threaten crops, and snails provide calcium for birds and help build healthier soils.
I agree that people need to learn to value ecosystem services, but how? You mentioned that you work with species humans rarely see or think about. What have you found to be the most effective ways of communicating that connection between species health and our own to generate awareness and action?
One of the things I always do is talk about how people just like being outside, how we feel better when we’re in a beautiful forest , or by a beautiful river. If that river is safe for you to swim in and safe for your kids to play in, it’s going to be safe for the mussels that live there. Healthy habitats benefit everyone. Many communities get their drinking water straight from rivers. With last month’s incident with a coal –industry chemical leak into the Elk River in West Virginia, people in nine counties lost their drinking water for a month, and there are still questions about its safety. The Elk River is one of the most diverse rivers in West Virginia, and it supports a lot of endangered species. The chemical that threatened people’s health also threatened the health of endangered species. We both need clean water.
The right, the Tea Party, and developers have done a fantastic propaganda job of framing the debate as species vs. jobs, and that only liberal people care about endangered species. We have to challenge that. This isn’t a partisan issue. Protecting endangered species and protecting natural habitats is good for everyone. It’s good for Democrats; it’s good for Republicans; it’s good for people.
Many of our readers likely find themselves in the role of protecting threatened plant/animal species at the project or site scale. When doing so, they’re often working with parties that may see the protection of a threatened species as an obstacle to their project. Based on your experience, what advice can you offer readers who may be in a situation where their clients are struggling with the challenges that may be associated with a threatened species on a given site? What is the most constructive way to have that conversation about the importance of threatened species protection, so that it can be viewed as a win-win?
Helping imperiled plants and is a good thing that communities and businesses can be proud of. Helping communities understand the special and unique parts of the natural heritage of their area can foster pride and an interest in trying to help save endangered wildlife. For example, the Lake Erie watersnake became threatened with extinction because humans were killing it. The Service and other groups launched an awareness campaign about the plight of the snake and people rallied around saving it. It was delisted in 2011.
I’m glad you brought up the Lake Erie watersnake. From what I read in “On Time, On Target,” it seems like those who worked on its protection actually took a species that was feared and reviled and turned it into something that the community became so proud of, they took an active role in its protection. How did that happen? What kinds of communication tools were used?
It’s such a great story. That snake was in danger of extinction just because people were killing it [out of fear]. The Fish and Wildlife Service did a fantastic job working with local groups, having meetings, putting up signs, handing out flyers, and educating people that the snake was not harmful and that it was something the community could be proud of. The Lake Erie watersnake has become a poster child for successful environmental education and outreach and changing people’s behaviors.
Being officially listed as an endangered species was a key to this success. That brought resources, funding, and a sense of urgency that other snakes don’t get.
Once a species is off the list, how is its long-term survival supported (in the face of things like climate change, recurring habitat loss, etc.)? Is getting relisted the only way?
When a species is delisted, the Service implements a Post Delisting Monitoring Plan to ensure that populations remain stable. These plans generally cover ten year periods. The process to improve a species’ status to the point that it can be removed from the list generally includes coalitions of support that worked to make on the ground improvements for the species, and these may stay in place after delisting. One of the criteria the Service must look at when it removes a protection for a species is if there are other mechanisms in place to protect it. For example, the Oregon Chub was recently proposed for delisting. Many agencies worked to improve its status, and they are now invested in its survival and likely to continue to take actions to support it.
If the Keystone XL pipeline goes through, what would that mean for endangered species?
There are endangered species in the path of the pipeline, which would be directly harmed: whooping crane, northern swift fox, and American burying beetle. It’s also terrible from a climate change perspective. The tar sands oil is so climate intensive. Everything about it is a terrible idea. It’s going to perpetuate climate change at a time when we’re supposed to be taking action to negate climate change. It threatens all endangered species affected by climate issues, but also the species in its path that are going to get crushed.
What is the Center for Biological Diversity doing to fight against the pipeline?
We filed a lawsuit about the northern swift fox, because we felt that the environmental reviews that have been done have not taken into account the impacts that [the Keystone XL pipeline] will have on that species. We also filed a lawsuit because they were illegally moving American burying beetles to facilitate pipeline construction without the proper permits. The American burying beetle is a very cool, huge beetle that used to eat passenger pigeons before passenger pigeons went extinct. Now there are only a few populations. So where we can, we have done research and identified specific species impacts and then filed lawsuits about them.
We also try to be creative when it comes to make people aware of the Keystone XL pipeline and how important it is to the climate battle. In Portland, Oregon we had a funeral march to bury the Keystone XL pipeline and hundreds of people showed up.
We have a full-time campaigner who follows President Obama everywhere wearing a polar bear suit. We stood out by the White House for a week at Thanksgiving. We find out where he is going for fundraising dinners and show up there. We followed him to Hawaii for his Christmas vacation and even on the golf course, the polar bear was there.
If you had the chance to improve the ESA, what would you do? Are there any aspects of its implementation that could be made more efficient?
Here is a link to [A Future For All: A Blueprint for Strengthening the Endangered Species Act], a report the Center put out a few years ago on specific measures that would strengthen the Act. Among the most important needed actions is for Congress to designate sufficient funding for the Service to be able to designate critical habitat and develop recovery plans for all listed species, and sufficient funding for the Service to be able to protect candidate species and petitioned species in a timely manner.
Do you have any words of advice or inspiration specifically for Leaf Litter readers?
Protecting habitat is the key to protecting species, especially endangered species. That work is so important. For example, the monarch butterfly is not listed as threatened right now, but the migratory population is collapsing. One of the reasons for that is logging in Mexico where they overwinter. Another reason is loss of milkweed. Roundup, which is being sprayed everywhere for genetically modified “Roundup Ready” crops, is killing milkweed, and the monarchs can only eat milkweed. It’s going to take a long time to reverse those policies, because big agriculture is not going to want to stop spraying Roundup everywhere. So it will be people who plant milkweed who save the monarch butterfly. That’s one example of where ecological restoration comes in. At this time of ever increasing human population growth, every single patch of habitat that we restore will make a difference for our collective future
Gray Area for the Gray Wolf
The gray wolf is a keystone predator whose existence helps maintain the health and function of many ecosystems. Once the world’s most widely distributed mammal, the gray wolf has seen its worldwide range decrease by nearly one third thanks largely to extermination by humans.
Since 1974, when the gray wolf was listed as Endangered in the Lower 48 States and Mexico, it has benefitted from the protection of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). News of the species’ reintroduction to Yellowstone National Park and the resultant beginnings of ecosystem recovery inspires hope for the gray wolf. But ESA protection for the oft-maligned and feared creature is being eroded. In Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin, where pressure from ranchers concerned for their livestock is strong, as is pressure from sporthunters who don’t want to share elk hunting opportunities with wolves, ESA protections have been lifted for the gray wolf, and management has been handed over to the states. Federal protections have also been lifted in portions of states neighboring those six states, leaving partial management of gray wolves in the eastern thirds of Oregon and Washington, for example, under state control.
Just how seriously does this shift in protection and management impact wolf populations? Quite severely, according to Amaroq Weiss, West Coast Wolf Organizer for the Center for Biological Diversity. “During the first two years post-delisting, the wolf population declined by 4% in Montana, 11% in Idaho, 16% in Wyoming – with an overall regional decline of 7%. In the western Great Lakes region, it was even more dramatic. The wolf population declined more than 25% in Minnesota after delisting. When the end-of-year-2013 figures come out from these states, now that a third year of aggressive state hunting and trapping has taken place, it’s widely anticipated that reported wolf population numbers will have plunged further.”
The state of Idaho is currently attempting to pass a bill that would use $2 million to create a state wolf control board. According to Weiss, this would lead to the killing of 500 wolves, bringing the total state wolf population down to only 150, the bare minimum the state is allowed to have before the federal government would step back in. The bill has passed the House and is currently before the state Senate.
“Idaho spends only $6,000 per year on each school child in the state, yet the state would spend $4,000 per wolf to kill 500 wolves, under this bill,” said Weiss. “It’s incomprehensible, an outrageous misuse of public taxpayer dollars and an unconscionable way to manage wildlife.”
What happens when the recovery of a species seems at odds with the economy and culture of a sector of society—a sector that may view short-term needs, like a paycheck, over long-term necessities, like the ecological health and function necessary for human survival? Will a solution arise that can address both? Time will tell, but in the meantime, lifted protections clearly mean declining populations for the gray wolf.
Into the Depths: A Review of Telling Our Way to the Sea
Most of my work is focused on the land, contemplating patterns I see in the landscape and designing for enhanced ecosystem services and better ecological function in development and redevelopment projects. While water is a key consideration, it is mainly the relationship to the waters that interface with the land, not the more vast seascapes that dominate the global village we belong to. For many of us we are only aware of a small fraction of the rich diversity that underwater ecosystems hold – these gorgeous and exhilarating seascapes that provide a catalogue of evolutionary history.
I clearly remember the evenings I spent as a child, tuning in with my parents to watch NOVA or National Geographic specials hosted by the likes of Jacques Cousteau and Eugenie Clark (“the shark lady”), for grand underwater adventures, featuring all sorts of creatures in places we could hardly fathom. For a time I was convinced I would grow up to be marine biologist- so enchanted was I by the mystery of the marine environments and creatures like the manatee and beluga whale. Our hosts had made it their life’s work to tell the story of the seas, to bring so many of us to places we might never venture to and help us appreciate the beauty and serenity and richness of the ocean’s living depths.
My own trajectory was to be a landward one, but my love for the sea and its incredible diversity of creatures has never diminished. In recent years, I have come across a handful of incredible writers who have taken documentary-style storytelling and delivered it in the form of engaging and inspiring narrative prose, weaving together beautifully detailed descriptions of deep sea ecosystems and their residents.
In Julia Whitty’s 2007 book, The Fragile Edge, she takes readers into the depths of the South Pacific’s vast collection of atolls, reefs, and lagoons. Sharing her wonder for these far-flung places and just a taste of the diversity of wildlife found therein, she beautifully evokes the experience of diving in diverse underwater ecosystems. Her narrative also contains a weightier agenda, one of caution, a plea for conservation and consideration for better landward practices, to halt the mass extinctions occurring at an alarming rate below the surface and preserve these underwater stores of biodiversity.
Biologist, Aaron Hirsh’s new book, Telling Our Way to the Sea: A Voyage of Discovery in the Sea of Cortez, is the latest nonfiction work to enrich the science writing genre, delving into the deep mysteries of marine ecosystems and providing a meditation on what we have, what we have lost, and the unique role of humanity in both the destruction and the potential for preservation. His is a richly detailed narrative centered around a yearly summer field course on the Baha Peninsula in Mexico, which he teaches with his wife and fellow biologist, Veronica Volny, and their friend Graham Burnett, a science historian.
The summer college course is used as a backdrop for a broader examination of ecological resilience, evolution, and the human role in resource extraction and conservation. The lens this affords us as readers is not only his as a scientist but also his students, a diverse group of young people who are diving below the surface of the Sea of Cortez for the first time – seeing it with wonder and curiosity.
Organized as a series of vignettes that chronicle the summer course from start to finish (including a near miss with a hurricane barreling down on the Baha Peninsula), each chapter focuses on a certain species of significance found in the Sea of Cortez, describing the inherent connections that one organism has to the whole. From the sea cucumber to the fin whale, we are included in in-depth conversations that examine theories of evolution and adaptation developed over the last 3.8 billion years. While Hirsh’s narrative can, at times, be bogged down in the headier details of phylogeny and natural selection, it is interspersed with poetic prose describing the beauty and unique characteristics of each creature and their seascape home, as in this description of swimming with bioluminescent zooplankton and shrimp larva one evening:
“…Veronica sweeps her foot in an arc before her, making a trail of blue milky glow spangled with brighter, yellowish green stars. As we wade in farther, the glow follows us closely, our aura, and the stars swirl into galaxies churned by our movements. When we are in almost up to our waists, we sweep our hands through the water, carving a fleeting calligraphy of light.”
One of the most resonant themes within the book is not just the inherent connection we have to the sea and the multitude of creatures found within its depths, but that with each passing year the diversity of species is being depleted and we are hardly aware of what we are missing. Hirsh mournfully notes early on that “we live among the wreckage, yet we hardly notice that something has changed.” When his students marvel at the multitude of fish and other creatures they see on a dive he recollects the stories he has heard from just decades before, when the number and size of species dwarf today’s. Even amongst the local fishermen he notes that awareness is depleted with each succeeding generation; stories of the diversity of available species turn to myth.
While the message is sobering, there is also hope. There are locals who are leading the crusade for more sustainable fishing and development practices in Bahia de los Angeles and neighboring communities along the Sea of Cortez. Antonio Resendiz, a native of the town, is a tireless grassroots environmental organizer and educator, campaigning for the sea turtles of the Sea of Cortez. They are an especially sensitive and increasingly rare part of the local ecosystem. He tells the story of the turtles to all who will listen, and to those who may not want to. By the end of the book we have been invited to be storytellers as well. It is up to each of us to continue to share these stories and find a way toward an “optimistic future” where we are each players in preserving and celebrating the diversity of life both above and below the surface.
By Fabien Dubas
Although it is a world famous tourist destination and a strong factor in the development of the region around it, the Mediterranean Sea is also often defined by ecologists as a hotspot of biodiversity. Separated from the Atlantic Ocean by only the 14-kilometer Strait of Gibraltar, the Mediterranean hosts the world’s second highest percentage of endemic species. But many of these species are in trouble, and they are attracting the concern of scientists worldwide.
Among such troubled endemic species is Neptune grass (Posidonia oceanica), which creates habitat for many organisms and thus plays a significant role in marine Mediterranean ecosystems. From the surface to the depth of 40 meters, we can observe its large underwater meadows in the zone of sheltered coastal waters. Today, it is categorized by the IUCN Red List of Threatened SpeciesTM as being of “Least Concern,” but it could be reclassified to “Near Threatened” in near future thanks to coastal development, trawling, boat anchoring, and other threats.
The dusky grouper (Epinephelus marginatus) is a fascinating fish. A hermaphrodite, it is born female, but becomes male after 10-15 years. Weighing as much as 65 kg, the dusky grouper is famous for approaching divers without fear. Its friendliness almost got it extinct, however, because of over spear-fishing. Despite a decade-old ban on spearfishing, the dusky grouper is still under pressure from commercial fishing. Since 2004, it has been categorized as “Endangered”
Sadly, the list of Mediterranean threatened species is too long to be listed in this short article. According to IUCN, out of the 519 native Mediterranean marine fish species, more than 8% (43 species) are classified in threatened categories (Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable). What are the main reasons which led those species into such a bad condition? What could possibly affect the decreasing of biodiversity on the Mediterranean Sea?
Why are so many species in peril in the Mediterranean Sea?
The combination of both human and natural impacts explains the loss of biodiversity in the Mediterranean Sea. IUCN ranks the most important causes of threats as follow: habitats loss and destruction, pollution, over-exploitation (unsustainable harvesting, hunting and fishing), natural disasters, invasive species, human disturbance and bycatch.
The beautiful landscape and nice weather make the coast a favorite tourism destination for millions of people. Pollution and habitat destruction are the result of this attraction. The Mediterranean climate is also favorable for harvesting a tasty grape transformed into delicious wine, a process requiring a huge quantity of pesticides and treatments which pollute the water. In all the countries bordering the Mediterranean coast, anthropization is prevalent and directly impacts ecosystems.
And as if that were not enough, over-exploitation by the fishing industry makes species such as bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus) and herring hake (Merluccius merluccius) considered “Endangered” or “Vulnerable” with extinction at the regional level.
Climate change and invasive species are also threats, as they may depredate native species, compete with them for resources, or spread new diseases. For instance, the alga (caulerpa taxifolia), used as a decorative plant in aquaria, has accidently spread along the Mediterranean coast and dramatically altered and displaced native plant and animal communities. Remember Neptune grass (Posidonia oceanica)? It is directly threatened by this alga.
Initiatives to prevent extinction:
To address the decrease of biodiversity and avoid the extinction of species, marine stakeholders are implementing several solutions.
In 1992, under the Habitat Directive, the European Union implemented Natura 2000. The aim of the network is to assure the long-term survival of Europe’s most valuable and threatened species and habitats. In the marine environment, Natura 2000 areas are protected by conservation measures to ensure they are not over-fished or affected by pollutants from sewage or shipping traffic.
However, because of the complexity of biodiversity, it is sometimes impossible to determine whether or not particular specie is endangered. In this context, scientists are working to collect data to be able to clarify the degree of threat and determine if a species is endangered or not. For instance, the Sublimo life + program, funded by the European Union, and implemented by scientists of the University of Perpignan in France, aims to analyze, to monitor and in fine to reduce this loss of marine biodiversity.
We can already observe some progress as a result of conservation initiatives implemented in the Mediterranean Sea.
Established in December 1963, the National Park of Port-Cros, which occupies 1,288 ha of marine areas, is one of the oldest National Parks in France and the first European marine park. Today, scientists affirm that the Park is used by the dusky grouper as a reproductive site. According to Nicolas Gérardin, adviser at the National Park of Port-Cros, the establishment of marine protected areas, combined with the spear fishing ban, have helped the dusky grouper increase from few dozen individuals in the 1970s to over 500 today.
In 2012, the French Ministry of Ecology funded the NAPPEX project. It consists of the deployment of an innovative fish habitat: the Biohut. These cages, installed in harbor along the coast, provide shelter and food for young fish seeking nursery. Scientists who perform the assessment have observed juvenile groupers in the Biohut, along with as seahorses (Hippocampus guttulatus) categorized as “Data Deficient” but considered by many scientists as an endangered species.
The total recovery of fish populations in the Mediterranean is a long-term process that will take decades. Effort must be maintained and global commitment from all stakeholders (fisherman, coastal managers, governments, etc.) must be strong in order to repair past mistakes and preserve this biodiversity hotspot. The efforts needed to conserve the world’s species are a small price compared to goods and services provided by biodiversity.
Chivian, E. and A. Bernstein (eds.) 2008. Sustaining life: How human health depends on biodiversity. Center for Health and the Global Environment. Oxford University Press, New York.
Global Biodiversity Outlook © Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity
Hirsh, Aaron. Telling our Way to the Sea: A voyage of discovery in the Sea of Cortez. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. New York, NY. 2013.
Suckling, Kieran, Noah Greenwald and Tierra Curry. On Time, On Target: How the Endangered Species Act is Saving America’s Wildlife, Center for Biological Diversity, 2012.
Whitty, Julie. The Fragile Edge: Diving and Other Adventures in the South Pacific. Houghton Mifflin. New York, NY. 2007.
References for Mediterranean Sea: Biodiversity Hotspot, but Maybe Not for Long
Cuttelod, A., García, N., Abdul Malak, D., Temple, H. and Katariya, V. 2008. The Mediterranean: a biodiversity
hotspot under threat. In: J.-C. Vié, C. Hilton-Taylor and S.N. Stuart (eds). The 2008 Review of The IUCN Red List of
Threatened Species. IUCN Gland, Switzerland.
Natura 2000 in the Mediterranean Region, by European Commission Environment Directorate General.
Restoring a Maar crater in South Korea
Earlier this winter, Biohabitats president Keith Bowers traveled to Jeju, South Korea to conduct reconnaissance for the restoration of a lakebed and native vegetation to the Hanon Maar Crater, the only Maar crater in South Korea. Maar craters are created when rising fissures of magma come into contact with groundwater. The resultant explosion creates a shallow, steep-sided crater, which typically fills with water. One wall of the Hanon crater has been largely removed to drain the lake and allow rice cultivation and other activities on the crater floor. The surrounding walls are planted with citrus orchards. As Jeju has blossomed as a tourist destination, agriculture is no longer considered to be the best use of the crater. There have been a few proposals for developing the crater for recreation, but at the 2012 World Conservation Congress, Korean ecologists introduced a motion requesting that the IUCN advocate for the restoration and protection of the crater lake and its native vegetation. As a result, Biohabitats was contracted to write a master plan for the restoration of the crater. The master plan, currently in progress, will be an important tool in garnering Korean and international support for the project’s implementation.
Dig This: Grading Near Complete for Riparian Restoration
In our last issue of Leaf Litter, we told you about our work with the City of Fort Collins, Colorado to transform two former gravel mining ponds at the McMurry Natural Area into a well connected riparian corridor. During mining operations a high berm had been constructed along the Poudre River to protect the gravel pits from flooding. We have removed the berm and placed that material in the two ponds to create five types of native riparian habitat: emergent wetland, wet meadow, riparian grasses, willow, and cottonwood. We also moved a small reach of the Poudre River back to previous flow path after high flows threatened to scour-out some prime cottonwood habitat. We’re stoked to report that grading is almost complete and we look forward to start planting in the spring.
Rowan is Growin’…Wisely
Biohabitats, along with our project partners ASG, Urban, and Kernan Engineering are pleased to be getting underway on a two-pronged initiative at Rowan University in Glassboro, NJ. Rowan University is in the midst of an exciting and unprecedented expansion. Over the coming decade, the 225-acre Glassboro campus will be fundamentally transformed as a result of this growth. Biohabitats will help Rowan develop a Stormwater Management and Landscape Master Plan. The plan will devote critical attention to the environmental performance and character of the campus landscape. Working together, we plan to craft a strategy for campus development that accommodates significant building space expansion, but within a network of thriving campus landscapes and high-performing ecological infrastructure. The work consists of two distinct, but related initiatives. Initiative A will be primarily a planning initiative with some development of design typologies, while Initiative B focuses on design documentation and implementation, with transformations of several specific campus landscapes.
Fort Wayne, IN to Maximize Riverfront
The Miami nation, original settlers of what is now known as Fort Wayne, Indiana, recognized the value of a location at the confluence of three rivers. French traders soon caught on and the area became a popular trading post. Today, Fort Wayne, Indiana, where the St. Joseph, St. Marys, and Maumee Rivers meet, is now the state’s second largest city and home to more than a quarter million residents. To maximize the potential of the city’s miles of riverfront city leaders envision a cohesive waterway system that optimizes natural resources and enhances opportunities for recreation, retail, entertainment, and housing. To begin the process, they selected a design team led by SWA Group to conduct the first comprehensive riverfront development study. A key member of this team, Biohabitats is deeply involved in the aquatic and terrestrial ecology and green infrastructure components of the study, and we’re helping to ensure that the ultimate outcome—a comprehensive master plan—integrates habitat, landscape ecology and function, and water quality improvement. Last week, the design team met with citizens, stakeholders and representatives of Fort Wayne to seek their input into the visioning process. The City recently set up a web site to keep people informed about this exciting project. Check it out!
Development Goes with the Flow in Texas
Not long ago, Flewellen Creek in Fort Bend County, Texas, was in trouble. Years of ditching by rice farmers, and then grazing by livestock, had taken a toll on the stream, leaving it severely eroded, separated from its floodplain, and lacking habitat and ecological function. Today, however, Flewellen Creek is not only flowing and functioning naturally, it has become the centerpiece of the 3,200-acre Cross Creek Ranch community. Since we worked alongside SWA Group, Brown & Gay Engineers to help the Johnson Development Corporation restore the creek in 2005 the project has garnered many awards, including Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Parks and Natural Areas restoration award, which was just announced last month. And the good news gets better. D.R. Horton, the developer of a community upstream from Cross Creek, is now collaborating—not only with the design team but with the Johnson Development Corporation—to restore more of Flewellen Creek in Cross Creek Ranch. The final phase includes two miles of restoration, which will include oxbow wetlands, and riparian habitat, and will result in a 260-acre wide park corridor. The developers recognized that working together to restore the upstream reach, rather than simply widening the ditch to convey stormwater then coming in and restoring it, would not only save effort on their part, but also limit impacts on the ecosystem and the lives of residents of the community.
Ranchers Walk the Talk of Sustainability
The Dixon Water Foundation is a unique, Texas-based nonprofit that promotes healthy watersheds through good ranch landscape management. The organization does this through its grant program as well as through four demonstration ranches, where ranchers can learn about land conservation, ecological restoration, and sustainable ranch management. Last summer, the Foundation broke ground on the Betty and Clint Josey Pavilion, a 5,000 square foot gathering place designed to host meetings, workshops, and educational events. Given the organization’s mission, it is not surprising that they intend for the pavilion to become the first “Living Building” in Texas. The Living Building Challenge™ is the most advanced measurement of sustainability in the built environment. Achieving this designation requires adhering to rigorous imperatives under the categories of site, water, energy, health, materials, and beauty. As a key member of the integrated design team led by Lake Flato Architects, Biohabitats helped the Foundation move toward this achievement by creating a decentralized, sustainable wastewater treatment approach for the pavilion. The system, which naturally treats wastewater and then applies it back into the land so that it can percolate back into the ground, includes a septic and equalization tank, a constructed wetland planted with native species, and a subsurface drip irrigation field. Construction of the site is being wrapped up this month and this innovative water system will soon be at work, protecting Texas’s resources and educating others who will do the same, all while keeping in harmony with the local ecology.
Urban Ecosystem Restoration in the Crossroads of the West
In the summer of 2010, a pipeline carrying crude oil from western Colorado and eastern Utah into the Salt Lake Valley ruptured, releasing thousands of gallons of oil into Salt Lake City’s Red Butte Creek. Following a major cleanup and legal settlements, the City of Salt Lake initiated mitigation activities, including the restoration of a reach of Red Butte Creek that runs through a public park. Within Miller Park is a well-loved, wooded haven for the community, but 80% of its trees are non-native, and development upstream has drastically changed the hydrology to the creek, which has severely impacted the its stability, function, and habitat. The little creek (about 5’ wide) had incised 3’ – 4’ in places. Working with the City, Biohabitats crafted a plan to remove the most aggressively invasive tree species and replace them with native forest and riparian vegetation. Red Butte Creek will be restored with minimal impact to the park by raising the channel bed and creating a stable channel cross section. Once restored, the creek will also help improve water quality. Construction is slated to begin this summer, and we look forward to seeing more ecological function and biodiversity in this special place.
We are also helping Salt Lake City restore ecology and enhance the environment of Liberty Lake, a major feature within the City’s second largest public park. Lined with rip rap and concrete, Liberty Lake offers little wildlife habitat and suffers from poor water quality. Working with the City and community members, Biohabitats created a plan to convert nearly half of the Lake’s hardened edge to wetland and improve the vegetative cover on the Lake’s islands using native wetland species. The project also includes the installation of two floating wetlands in the Lake. Construction has begun, and we look forward to seeing the new and improved Liberty Lake late this summer.
Keith Bowers is at The Johnson Foundation’s Wingspread Conference Center in Racine, WI, engaging with other leaders on the role for, and pathway toward, right-sizing the nation’s water infrastructure for the demands ahead. This national dialogue, part of the Foundation’s Charting New Waters initiative, is focused on transforming water and wastewater infrastructure to achieve long-term sustainability and resilience of the nation’s water resources in the face of climate change, energy constraints, diminishing groundwater supplies, financial challenges and other resource constraints.
Biohabitats staff can be found at two Society for Ecological Restoration International (SER) chapter events this month. The Mid-Atlantic chapter holds its annual conference this week at Temple University, and senior scientist Joe Berg, who was recently elected chapter president, wouldn’t miss it for the world. Next week, landscape ecologist Kevin Grieser will be in Minneapolis for the Midwest-Great Lakes chapter’s annual meeting, which will emphasize linking theory and practice.
Next week, senior scientist Kevin Nunnery will be at the Southeastern Lakes Management Conference. Presented by the North America Lake Management Society, this year’s event will be on March 26-28 in Asheville, NC.
On April 25, Keith Bowers will deliver the keynote address at Designing for Success: Ecological Restoration in Times of Change, an event co-sponsored by the New England Chapter of the Society for Ecological Restoration and The Conway School.
Senior ecologist Terry Doss will join colleagues from Mithun, Moffat & Nichol, and Western Washington University to present “A New Aesthetic for the Post-Super Storm World: Marshland to Dunes to Storm Surge Barriers” at the Living Future 2014 unConference in Portland, OR. This year’s unconference takes place May 21-23, will explore the transformative power of beauty and inspiration.
From May 28-30, you can find Neil Williams and Joe Berg in San Antonio, TX at the 2014 Stream Restoration in the Southwest Conference. Joe will present a talk on stream restoration in ephemeral gullies, and Neil will share his experience in the restoration of the urban reach of the Santa Fe River.
This year’s River Rally will take place in Pittsburgh, PA May 30-June 2. Suzanne Hoehne will be one of five urban water experts who will offer advice onengaging communities in watershed planning, restoration & education projects. Don’t miss it!
Water Resources Engineers Phil Jones and Ted Brown will be in Portland, OR June 1-5 for the ASCE EWRI World Environmental and Water Resources Conference Ted will present talks on regenerative stormwater conveyance and a rapid desktop method for screening stormwater outfalls for retrofit potential. Phil will give a talk on green street neighborhood prioritization.
On June 4-5, Ted Brown and Jennifer Zielinski will join federal, state, local and NGO leaders from across the Chesapeake Bay watershed at the Baywide Stormwater Retreat. Hosted by the Chesapeake Stormwater Network and the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, the retreat gives leaders the chance to share information and discuss collaborative strategies to improve stormwater management in the Bay region.
Biohabitats is proud to sponsor the 2014 Ohio Stormwater Conference, which will take place June 4-6 in Akron, OH. Attendees will not want to miss Jennifer Zielinski’s talks on green bulkheads and watershed planning, and Kevin Grieser’s presentation on maximizing funding and resources to meet multiple objectives in stream restoration. In between sessions, be sure to stop by the Biohabitats booth and say hello to Jennifer, Kevin, and Biohabitats Great Lakes Bioregion leader, Tom Denbow.
Crystal Grinnell, Water Resources Engineer & Landscape Architect
As a child growing up in Southwest Montana, Crystal Grinnell spent many a happy summer hiking in the alpine and subalpine environments of the Cascades and Rocky Mountains, captivated by the diversity of wildflowers, including mule’s ear, paintbrush, and wild geranium. Back then, Crystal contemplated becoming a doctor. By high school, her aspirations shifted toward architecture. Little did Crystal know that she would someday apply her affinity for healing, her fascination with plants, and her passion for design to the very environment she so loved as a kid. After working as a landscape architect for seven years and then earning an M.S. in Civil and Environmental Engineering from the University of Washington, Crystal joined Biohabitats. She is already applying her expertise in the holistic treatment and management of water and wastewater to several projects in the Cascadia Bioregion, and we couldn’t be happier. She may not be a doctor, but her work makes us feel pretty great.