The Environment

  Sea Otter, Peregrine Falcon Back From The Brink Of Extinction But Other Species At Risk In CanadaSeptember 28, 2007 19:17 There’s good news and bad news in the report the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) just dropped on the Minister of the Environment’s desk.

The good news: The peregrine falcon and the sea otter no longer face extinction.

The not-so-good news: COSEWIC proposes adding another 36 species to Canada’s official List of Wildlife Species at Risk. Species from all regions of the country, on the land and in the sea, are at risk of extinction.

“Our job is to assess species based on the best available scientific, community and aboriginal traditional knowledge available,” says Jeffrey Hutchings. The Dalhousie biology professor has served as the chair of the committee for more than a year. “What we don’t take into account are the political or socio-economic consequences of our assessments.”

COSEWIC is a national scientific advisory body that assesses the status of wild species, subspecies, varieties, or other important units of biological diversity, that are considered to be at risk in Canada. As an arm’s length body, COSEWIC reports annually to the Minister of the Environment, who can accept the body’s recommendations, reject them or send species back to COSEWIC for further evaluation.

The peregrine falcon was almost wiped out in the 1950s and ‘60s because of pesticide contamination that thinned their eggshells. But since the 1970s, particularly after DDT was banned in Canada, this impressive bird of prey has made a strong recovery.

The resurgence of the sea otter — its rich brown pelt was once prized the world over — is even more dramatic. Extirpated on Canada’s west coast because of the fur trade more than a century ago, sea otters from California were reintroduced to British Columbia in the early 1970s. They’ve since repopulated a third of their historic range along the province’s coastline, and although numbers are still small, the population is healthy and expanding.

"It’s very satisfying to witness the successful recovery of species that were on the edge of extinction. It highlights the importance of endangered species legislation and associated recovery programs in protecting and recovering Canada’s wildlife," says Dr. Hutchings.

If only that legislation could help species like the basking shark, a plankton-feeding fish that grows to the size of a bus; the Eastern pond mussel, decimated by the introduction of the zebra mussel into the Great Lakes; and the Eastern flowering dogwood, one of Canada’s showiest trees which is being destroyed by an invasive species of fungus.

“Habitat loss and disturbance are the biggest threats facing species. This could be the result of factors as diverse as forestry, housing development, or changes to the natural flow of rivers,” says Dr. Hutchings. “Another major threat is the invasion of exotics that can have devastating effects on Canada’s native species.”
  Bush Administration Pushes Climate Change Action Into The FutureSeptember 28, 2007 19:16 President Bush this week called on the world's top emitters of greenhouse gases warming the world to set a "long-term goal" for reducing such pollution, but was vague on how to complete the task.

"By setting this goal, we acknowledge there is a problem," President Bush told representatives of 17 nations attending the Major Economies Meeting on Energy Security and Climate Change held in Washington, D.C., this week. "We must lead the world to produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and we must do it in a way that does not undermine economic growth or prevent nations from delivering greater prosperity for their people." The nations represented at the conference emit more than 80 percent of the globe's greenhouse gases.
  Federal Report Shows Sea Turtle DeclinesSeptember 22, 2007 11:01 After encouraging gains in the 1990s, populations of loggerhead sea turtles are now dropping, primarily because of commercial fishing, according to a federal review.

The report stops short of recommending upgrading the federally threatened species to "endangered" status. But scientists and environmentalists say it should serve as a wake-up call about the future of loggerheads, which can grow to more than 300 pounds and are believed to be one of the oldest species.

"We are very concerned," said Mark Dodd, a wildlife biologist for the state of Georgia. In 2006, the state counted the third lowest loggerhead nesting total since daily monitoring began in 1989.

"As a biologist you're always trying to find that point at which we really have to start doing something drastic if we want to maintain loggerhead populations on our beaches."

The state is not there yet, he said, but it has increased protections for the turtle under its own endangered species law.

The Southeast _ Florida in particular _ is one of the two largest loggerhead nesting areas in the world; eggs are laid and hatched along beaches from Texas to North Carolina. The other major nesting area is in the Middle Eastern nation of Oman.
  Student Proves Giant Whorled Sunflower'S Extreme RaritySeptember 21, 2007 07:46 For several months last spring, the Vanderbilt greenhouse held more individual plants of a rare species of native sunflower than are known to exist in the wild.

The whorled sunflower grows in a rare environment called wet prairie. Jennifer Ellis investigates the sunflowers in an Alabama site where a small population has been found. (Credit: Christopher Brown)Ads by Google Advertise on this site

This unusual bounty was the result of research being conducted by Jennifer Ellis, a doctoral student in the biological sciences department.

The species is called the giant whorled sunflower, Helianthus verticillatus. It was discovered in 1892 but was thought to be extinct until 1994 when it was rediscovered in Georgia. Today, it is known to exist in only four locations in West Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia. It has been a candidate for listing as a federal endangered species since 1999.

In the last four years Ellis has conducted a series of genetic studies of the whorled sunflower that significantly improve the odds that this gangly plant will make the endangered species list. Once a species is listed, the federal government is empowered to take a number of steps to protect it.

"Her study came at a perfect time and gave us answers that we really needed," says Cary Norquist, assistant field supervisor and botanist in the Ecological Services Field Office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Jackson, Miss. Norquist has recommended upgrading the sunflower's application for listing from a low to a high priority as a result of the new information.

One of the questions that Ellis' research answered was whether the whorled sunflower was a distinct species or a hybrid of two common varieties. If it was a hybrid, it would not qualify as an endangered species. "Her work definitely confirmed that it is a distinct species," says Norquist.

The other answer that Ellis has provided is a more accurate count of the number of genetic individuals that exist in the wild. According to previous estimates, there were several thousand whorled sunflowers growing in Coosa Valley Prairie in Alabama and Georgia, about 7,000 acres of which is owned by Temple-Inland Inc.

The timber company donated a 929-acre conservation easement on the most sensitive portion of that area to the Nature Conservancy in 1992 because of the sunflower population as well as the presence of two other threatened or endangered species (Mohr's Barbara Buttons and Tennessee Yellow-eyed Grass). Even though whorled sunflower population estimates at the other known locations were much smaller, the large size of the Georgia population plus the conservation easement there reduced the sense of urgency attached to its case for listing.

The genetic study proved that the field observations of the sunflower had been misleading. The sunflower propagates clonally as well as by sexual reproduction. As a result, many stalks that appear to be individual plants are genetically identical to their neighbors. "I went out and sampled a whole bunch of stalks and then genotyped them," Ellis says. "I found that the whole population in Coosa Valley Prairie consists of about 20 to 40 genetic individuals. If they have the same genotype, then they are the same genetic individual. There can be ten stalks growing together that you would think are ten plants. But, when you genotype them, you find they are all the same genetic individual."

  Herring May Be Endangered BreedSeptember 20, 2007 15:43 An evaluation of Pacific herring stocks in Lynn Canal could land the fish on the endangered or threatened species list, blocking or slowing development in the area.

The National Marine Fisheries Service said the Pacific herring population appears to be in enough trouble to warrant a review under the Endangered Species Act.

Herring stocks in Lynn Canal have declined 85 percent since the 1970s, the fisheries service said in its federal register filings. Commercial fishing of herring has been closed in the area since 1982, but stocks have not rebounded, the service said.

These factors contributed to the decision to review the fish's status at the request of the Sierra Club, fisheries service officials said. Other factors are the proposed development in Lynn Canal, including Berners Bay, that could damage the population's habitat and reduce herring spawning range.

The fisheries service expects to make a recommendation by April 2008 on whether the herring should be listed. The secretary of commerce would then make a final decision.

Any projects proposed within the habitat of an endangered species have to go through additional regulatory requirements, said Erika Phillips, a biologist who is coordinating the review for the fisheries service.

"We would have to conclude whether it would place the species in jeopardy and then recommend conservation measures," she said.

That could affect the Kensington Mine, which is under construction near the canal's last remaining spawning ground for herring.

The listing also could have implications for the proposed Juneau Access Road, which would run north out of town and around Berners Bay.

  Arctic Sea Route OpensSeptember 15, 2007 11:14 The Arctic's Northwest Passage has opened up fully because of melting sea ice, clearing a long-sought but historically impassable route between Europe and Asia, the European Space Agency said.

Sea ice has shrunk in the Arctic to its lowest level since satellite measurements began 30 years ago, ESA said, showing images of the now "fully navigable" route between the Atlantic and the Pacific.

A shipping route through the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic has been touted as a possible cheaper option to the Panama Canal for many shippers.

"We have seen the ice-covered area drop to just around 3 million square km," said Leif Toudal Pedersen of the Danish National Space Centre, describing the drop in the Arctic sea ice as "extreme".

The figure was about 1 million sq km (386,870 sq miles) less than previous lows in 2005 and 2006, Pedersen added.

The Northeast Passage through the Russian Arctic remained partially blocked, but in the light of the latest developments it may well open sooner than expected, Pedersen said.

Polar regions are very sensitive to climate change, ESA said, noting that some scientists have predicted the Arctic would be ice free as early as 2040.
  Gunnison's Prarie Dog Reconsidered for ProtectionSeptember 13, 2007 21:06 Danny Decker, a Cortez farmer with 560 acres of hay, has an enemy lurking in the fields.

Decker is not alone. Local farmers, ranchers, business owners and government agencies grumble and groan when they see this four-legged rodent pop its head out of freshly-dug hole, and many people will do almost anything to get rid of prairie dogs.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently announced the Gunnison's prairie dog, a species found only in the Four Corners, will be reconsidered for the endangered species list, giving the animal that loves to dig up local land federal protection.

"I think that is the worst thing they can do," Decker said.

  Wildlife Disappearing As Never BeforeSeptember 13, 2007 21:01 Life on earth is disappearing with species hurtling towards extinction at an unprecedented rate.

Your view: What can be done to halt the extinction rate of life on earth?
Species highlighted in the Red List
In pictures: the Red List of endangered species
One in four mammals, one in eight birds, one third of all amphibians and 70 per cent of the world's assessed plants now appear on the Red List of endangered plants and animals.

Galapagos coral (top) and humphead parrotfish are both on the Red List
According to the World Conservation Union, (IUCN) which draws up the annual List, the extinction rate is up to 10,000 higher than expected.

Human activity causing loss of habitat through urbanisation, agriculture and deforestation combined with climate change is revealed to be the biggest threat to plants and animals.

There are now 41,415 species on the Red List and 16,306 are threatened with extinction, up from 16,118 last year. The total number of extinct species has reached 785 and a further 65 are only found in captivity or in cultivation.

The Red List is recognised as the most reliable evaluation of the world's species which it classifies according to their extinction risk. Its publication is the latest wake-up call to the pressures facing the earth's fragile ecosystems and its consequences for mankind.

The one small success story on the 2007 Red List is the Mauritius Echo Parakeet (Psittacula eques), which 15 years ago was one of the world's rarest parrots. Following successful conservation efforts it has been moved from Critically Endangered to merely Endangered.

Julia Marton-Lefèvre, Director General of the IUCN said: "This year's IUCN Red List shows that the invaluable efforts made so far to protect species are not enough.

  'Global Extinction Crisis' Predicted By Conservation GroupSeptember 12, 2007 15:19 Gorillas, China's baiji dolphin, Asian vultures and Pacific corals on Wednesday joined the list of species hurtling to oblivion as the World Conservation Union (IUCN) warned of a fast-track "global extinction crisis."

In an update of its famous Red List of biodiversity, the Swiss-based IUCN said it had identified 41,415 species at threat.

Of this, 16,306 species -- equivalent to 39 percent of the total -- are in danger of extinction, 188 more than last year.

"The invaluable efforts made so far to protect species are not enough," said IUCN Director-General Julia Marton-Lefevre. "The rate of biodiversity loss is increasing and we need to act now to significantly reduce it and stave off this global extinction crisis."

The Red List is one of the most authoritative markers of biodiversity.

It is compiled by conservationists, who apply strict criteria to evaluate sightings of the species and the state of its habitat.

Threat risk is graded according to a descending order of categories: "Extinct, or Extinct in the Wild"; "Critically Endangered, Endangered and Vulnerable," applying to degrees of threats of global extinction; "Near Threatened"; "Least Concern," meaning that there is a low risk of extinction; and "Data Deficient", meaning that information is lacking to make an assessment.

One in four mammals, one in eight birds, a third of amphibians and 70 percent of the world's assess plants are in jeopardy, the IUCN said.

The new Red List, unveiled in Paris, placed the spotlight on these species:

-- The Yangtze river dolphin, or baiji (Lipotes vexillifer), hit by pollution, fishing, river traffic and habitat destruction.

A long search for the mammal last November and December proved fruitless, causing it be listed on Wednesday as "Critically Endangered (Possibly Extinct)."

Its extinction can only be confirmed after further surveys are carried out; a possible sighting of the creature, reported last month, is being investigated by Chinese scientists, the IUCN said.

-- The western gorilla (Gorilla gorilla), which moves from Endangered to Critically Endangered. Researchers have uncovered a sudden fall in numbers of the main subspecies, the western lowland gorilla, decimated by the bushmeat trade and Ebola virus.

-- African and Asian vultures, five species of which have moved categories. They include Asia's red-headed vulture (Sarcogyps calvus), which moves from Near Threatened to Critically Endangered, its decline driven by fatal ingestion of the drug diclofenac, used to treat injured livestock.

-- The gharial (Gavialis gangeticus), a crocodile native to India and Nepal, has moved from Endangered to Critically Endangered due to threats to its habitat from dams, irrigation projects and artificial embankments. Its numbers have fallen from 436 breeding adults in 1997 to just 182 in 2006.

-- Reptiles: In an exceptional move, the IUCN decided to add 723 turtles, snakes and other North American and Mexican reptiles to the Red List.

They include a Mexican freshwater turtle called the Cuatro Cienegas slider (Trachemys taylori), endangered by habitat loss, and the Santa Catalina Island rattlesnake (Crotalus catalinensis), persecuted by illegal collectors.

-- The Banggai cardinalfish (Pterapogon kauderni), a species that is only found near the Banggai islands near Sulawesi, Indonesia. The fish enters the Red List for the first time, listed as Endangered. Demand from the aquarium trade means that 900,000 of these fish are being hauled out of the sea each year

"Ninety percent of this species' population has vanished in just a dozen years because of aquariums," said Jean-Christophe Vie, deputy head of the IUCN's species probramme.

Only one species has moved to a lower category of threat: the Mauritius echo parakeet (Psittacula eques).

Fifteen years ago, it was one of the world's rarest parrots; this year, though, it has moved Critically Endangered to Endangered.

  One In Four Mammals Facing Extinction: Report - Abc News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)September 12, 2007 15:17 A new international report reveals that one in four mammals, one in eight birds, and 70 per cent of plants are facing extinction.

The report published by the World Conservation Union says that in the past year more than 16,000 species have been put at risk.

Africa's western gorilla has this year moved into the critically endangered category, decimated by trade in bush meat and by the ebola virus.

China's Yangtze river dolphin is listed as possibly extinct after an intensive but fruitless search to find a single dolphin.

The species has been driven out by fishing, river traffic and pollution.

Several species of Asian and African vulture are now listed as endangered too because drugs used to treat livestock are killing them.
  Most Polar Bears Gone By 2050, Studies SaySeptember 10, 2007 10:56 Two-thirds of the world's polar bears could disappear by 2050 as global warming continues to melt the Arctic's sea ice, according to a series of U.S. government studies released last Friday.

The new findings paint a sobering picture for polar bears, whose dependence on sea ice makes them particularly vulnerable to warming temperatures.

"Our results have demonstrated that as the sea ice goes, so goes the polar bear," said Steven Amstrup, a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) wildlife research biologist in Anchorage, Alaska, and leader of the polar bear studies.

USGS conducted the studies to help the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determine whether polar bears warrant protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. That decision is due in January 2008.

(Read: "Polar Bears Proposed for U.S. Endangered Species List" [December 27, 2006].)

Kassie Siegel is a climate change activist with the Center for Biological Diversity in Joshua Tree, California. The new studies, she said, represent a watershed moment in the climate crisis.

"If we don't change the path that we're on now, then it will be too late," she said. "Polar bears will become extinct."

Polar Bears and Sea Ice

Scientists estimate that 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears live throughout the Northern Hemisphere in areas that are covered by sea ice for extensive periods.
  Polar Bear Population Seen DecliningSeptember 07, 2007 19:19 Two-thirds of the world's polar bears will be killed off by 2050 — and the entire population gone from Alaska — because of thinning sea ice from global warming in the Arctic, government scientists forecast Friday.

Only in the northern Canadian Arctic islands and the west coast of Greenland are any of the world's 16,000 polar bears expected to survive through the end of the century, said the U.S. Geological Survey, which is the scientific arm of the Interior Department.

USGS projects that polar bears during the next half-century will disappear along the north coasts of Alaska and Russia and lose 42 percent of the Arctic range they need to live in during summer in the Polar Basin when they hunt and breed. A polar bear's life usually lasts about 30 years.

"Projected changes in future sea ice conditions, if realized, will result in loss of approximately two-thirds of the world's current polar bear population by the mid 21st century," the report says.

Polar bears depend on sea ice as a platform for hunting seals, which is their primary food. They rarely catch seals on land or in open water. Because the general decline of Arctic sea ice appears to be underestimated, scientists said their forecast of how much polar bear populations will shrink also may be on the low side.

"There is a definite link between changes in the sea ice and the welfare of polar bears," said USGS scientist Steven Amstrup, the lead author of the new studies. "As the sea ice goes, so goes the polar bear."

Amstrup said 84 percent of the scientific variables affecting the polar bear's fate was tied to changes in sea ice.

As of this week, the extent of Arctic sea ice had fallen to 4.75 million square miles — or 250,000 square miles below the previous record low of 5.05 million square miles in September 2005, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center.
  Found In A Fridge: One Of The World'S Most Endangered SpeciesSeptember 05, 2007 22:01 TWO of the world's most beautiful creatures are found stuffed into a fridge in Hanoi - a rare insight into the lucrative trade in endangered animals across South-east Asia that makes a mockery of international conservation treaties.

Vietnamese police this week found the two frozen tigers in an apartment, along with two soup kettles filled with animal bones in an outdoor kitchen.

A 40-year-old woman confessed to police that she had hired three experts to cook tiger bones to make traditional medicines that she sold for about £400 per 100g.

"The tigers could have been bought in Myanmar [Burma] or Laos and transported back to Vietnam by ambulances or hidden in coffins," said Vuong Tri Hoa, a forest ranger.

And there is the problem: while more developed countries in South-east Asia, such as China and Vietnam, have taken strong steps to stamp out the illegal hunting of endangered animals, impoverished states such as Laos and Burma either will not or cannot.

Demand for exotic animals across South-east Asia remains high - newly affluent Chinese prove excellent customers.

Three of the world's nine tiger sub-species fell extinct last century, and many scientists believe a fourth, the South China tiger is already "functionally extinct".

Poached from forests and sold to traders for as little as £5, almost every part of Asia's biggest big cat has commercial value.

Skins are sold as rugs and cloaks on the black market, where a single skin can fetch as much as £10,000.
  Whales Get Blown Off: Federal Court Says Navy Can Do Sonar TestingSeptember 04, 2007 08:40 A federal appeals court allowed the Navy on Friday to resume using underwater sonar blasts in anti-submarine warfare tests off Southern California despite possible harm to endangered whales, saying the nation's military needs come first.

"The safety of the whales must be weighed, and so must the safety of our warriors. And of our country," said the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

The 2-1 ruling suspended an Aug. 6 injunction by a federal judge in Los Angeles that ordered the Navy to halt the sonar experiments during training exercises off the Channel Islands planned through January 2009. Three of the 14 scheduled tests had already been conducted before the judge intervened.

In her ruling, U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper said the underwater sound waves could harm nearly 30 species of marine mammals, including five species of endangered whales. She said the Navy's planned protective measures were "woefully inadequate and ineffectual," and cited the Navy's estimate that the tests would cause 466 permanent injuries to whales.

The appeals court said Cooper had failed to consider the need for military preparedness.

"We are currently engaged in war, in two countries," said Judge Andrew Kleinfeld in the majority opinion, joined by Judge Consuelo Callahan. "There are no guarantees extending from 2007 to 2009 or at any other time against other countries deciding to engage us, or our determining that it is necessary to engage other countries.

"We customarily give considerable deference to the executive branch's judgment regarding foreign policy and national defense," the court said.

In dissent, Judge Milan Smith said the nation's environmental laws apply to the armed forces. He said the Navy is conducting similar tests all over the world and would suffer no hardship by delaying its Southern California exercises until it adopts adequate protective measures.

"There is no 'national security trump card' that allows the Navy to ignore (the environmental law) to achieve other objectives," Smith said.
  Judge Oks Rule That May Endanger SpeciesSeptember 04, 2007 08:39 A federal judge has upheld the government's practice of allowing development to proceed even if it is discovered after a project begins that the work could endanger protected species.

The National Association of Home Builders praised the ruling Friday, saying its members might have had to delay some projects if U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan had not agreed with the ``no surprises'' approach to development.

``The vast majority of endangered species exist on private property, and there is no way to protect endangered species unless sufficient incentives are given to private landowners,'' said Duane Desiderio, the trade group's vice president for legal affairs.

The case affects a pair of rules which allow landowners and developers to obtain a permit that lets them off the hook for incidentally killing, injuring or harassing rare animals, and damaging or killing rare plants. Development projects must be accompanied by a plan for addressing protections for the natural places where plants and animals live.

But the government reserves the right to revoke a permit if killing a plant or animal makes it more likely the species will go extinct in the wild.

Environmental groups that had sued the government to overturn the two rules expressed disappointment Friday but said they had not yet decided whether to appeal Sullivan's ruling. On Thursday, he found the two rules consistent with federal laws, including the Endangered Species Act.

Sullivan also wrote that ``it is appropriate for the court to presume'' that the government will protect endangered species, despite issuing 379 permits authorizing the killing of rare plants and animals between 1994 and 2002.