Conservation, Nature, Science

Home On the Range? Not So Much for Large Carnivores

New research reveals that large carnivores have lost more than 90 percent of their historic range.
Large carnivores like the cheetah have lost more than 90 percent of their historic ranges. Photo: Shutterstock

A recent study from the Oregon State University revealed that the six largest carnivores in the world have lost more than 90 percent of their historic range.

The researchers mapped the current range of 25 large carnivores and compared them with historic maps from 500 years ago.

“Of the 25 large carnivores we studied, 60 percent (15 species) have lost more than half of their historic ranges,” said researcher Christopher Wolf.

“As many carnivores were historically sympatric [descended from one common ancestor] and are at high risk of future range contraction, conservation should be accomplished at the level of whole predator guilds [groups of species that exploit the same resources, or who exploit different resources in related ways] when possible,” the researchers wrote in their report.

What this means is that contracting the range of one species—either through physical barriers like fencing or the widespread use of land for herds of domestic cattle—can have dramatic effects on large carnivores’ ability to survive in their historic ranges.

“This means that scientifically sound reintroductions of large carnivores into areas where they have been lost is vital both to conserve the large carnivores,” Wolf said. “This is very dependent on increasing human tolerance of large carnivores—a key predictor of reintroduction success.”

The researchers also say that reintroduction programs would be most successful in rural areas with low human population density and limited agricultural and livestock-raising use.

“Also, more large protected areas are urgently needed for large carnivore conservation,” said co-researcher William Ripple.

The good news is that it is possible to help these animals by changing human attitudes about them.

“Many large carnivores are resilient, particularly when human attitudes and policy favor their conservation,” the researchers wrote. “This helps to explain the large carnivore recoveries observed in Europe and elsewhere (e.g., gray wolves in the continental United States).”

Additionally, the relationship between increasing agriculture use and range contractions can be limited when predator-friendly agriculture methods are used.

But human exploitation of former large carnivore ranges isn’t the only thing we need to be on the lookout for.

“In the face of newer threats like anthropogenic climate change, it is critical to continue to monitor large carnivore ranges to ensure the future of these species,” the researchers conclude.

Ultimately, the stability of large carnivore populations is highly dependent on human behavior. Whether that involves evolution of agriculture and ranching methods or limiting the effects of climate change, the ultimate success of reintroducing these species in their historic ranges is dependent entirely on us.

Conservation, Environmental Hazards, Environmentalist, Green

Judge Says More Environmental Study Needed for DAPL Operation

A federal judge has temporarily blocked the Dakota Access Pipeline, saying that the Army Corps of Engineers needs to redo some of its environmental studies.
A Portland, Oregon Dakota Access Pipeline protest solidarity rally. Photo: Diego G Diaz / Shutterstock.com

On June 14, a federal judge put a temporary block on the use of the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline by stating that the Army Corps of Engineers needs to reconsider some of its environmental impact studies.

U.S. district judge James Boasberg said that the corps had failed to take into account the level to which a spill might affect “fishing rights, hunting rights, or environmental justice, or the degree to which the pipeline’s effects are likely to be highly controversial.”

Boasberg had previously rejected two of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s appeals—one based on the fact that construction threatened sites of historical and cultural significance to the tribe, and the other that oil in the pipeline under Lake Oahe would damage sacred waters.

“Now that the court has rejected these two lines of attack, Standing Rock and Cheyenne River here take their third shot, this time zeroing in on DAPL’s environmental impact,” Boasberg wrote in his decision. “This volley meets with some degree of success.”

The judge wrote that while the Army Corps of Engineers had “substantially complied” with the National Environmental Policy Act, federal permits issued for the pipeline were in violation of the law in certain ways. “To remedy those violations, the Corps will have to reconsider those sections of its environmental analysis upon remand by the Court,” Boasberg wrote.

Later on, the judge will consider whether the pipeline must halt operations while the additional research is being conducted. A status conference is scheduled for the week of June 19.

Whether the pipeline is shut during the review or not depends on whether the omissions in the Corps’ analysis can be addressed quickly, or whether they’re large errors that might require more study.

“We applaud the courts for protecting our laws and regulations from undue political influence, and we will ask the Court to shut down pipeline operations immediately,” Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault said in a statement.

Just days after being sworn in, President Trump issued an executive order directing the Corps to do whatever it needed to do to get the pipeline construction underway. In February, the Corps granted the final easement needed to finish the pipeline.

This decision marks “an important turning point,” said Jan Hasselman, attorney for Earthjustice, which is representing the tribes in the lawsuit. “Until now, the rights of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe have been disregarded by the builders of the Dakota Access pipeline and the Trump administration…prompting a well-deserved global outcry.”

Although the protests by the Standing Rock tribe and its allies were effectively over in February, when the main encampment was cleared and the pipeline completed, this decision by Judge Boasberg shows that the struggle for justice—both for the environment and for the tribe—is not over yet.

Conservation, Nature, Science

Genetic Study of Elephants Reveals Information Vital to Conservation

New research reveals beyond a shadow of a doubt that African forest elephants and African savanna elephants are two distinct species.
New research reveals beyond a shadow of a doubt that African forest elephants and African savanna elephants are two distinct species. Photo: Shutterstock

Starting 1.5 million years ago, a species of giant elephant roamed across Eurasia until it went extinct about 100,000 years ago.

That species, Palaeoloxodon antiquus, was thought to be most closely related to the Asian elephant. But new research says otherwise.

Researchers at the University of Illinois recently published a paper on the genetic evidence that led to this conclusion.

Since the early 2000s, scientists have been aware that there are two species of African elephants—the African forest elephant and the African savanna elephant. It was thought that the two species of African elephants were more closely related to one another than they were to the two species of Asian elephants. They also thought that P. antiquus was more closely related to Asian elephants than to African elephants.

Despite the scientific evidence, it has been difficult to convince conservation organizations that there are two distinct species of African elephants, which has led to conservation efforts that may not be as effective for one or the other species.

But when scientists looked at two lines of evidence from African and Asian elephants—wooly mammoths and P. antiquus—they analyzed mitochondrial DNA, passed down by mothers only, and nuclear DNA, which is a blend of genes from both parents.

The analysis revealed a surprise: not only was P. antiquus more closely related to African elephants than Asian ones, it was more closely related to the African forest elephant than to the African savanna elephant. A common ancestor of P. antiquus and the African forest elephant lived sometime between 1.5 million and 3.5 million years ago, while their closest shared ancestor with the African savanna elephant lived between 3.9 and 7 million years ago.

“With the new genetic evidence from Palaeoloxodon, it becomes almost impossible to argue that the elephants now living in Africa belong to a single species,” said Professor Alfred Roca, a co-author of the study.

How does this help conservation efforts?

First of all, by differentiating between the two species, conservation plans can be developed that preserve and hopefully boost both species’ populations. Secondly, it allows researchers to see the truth about elephant populations in Africa.

“More than two-thirds of the remaining forest elephants in Africa have been killed over the last 15 years or so,” Roca said. “Forest elephants are among the most endangered elephant populations on the planet.”

Roca added that since some conservation agencies don’t see African forest elephants as a different species, their conservation needs have been neglected.

Hopefully, with these new findings, that will no longer be the case.

Conservation, Eco-friendly, Green, Sustainability

Xeriscaping Makes Beautiful Landscapes Even In Droughts

Xeriscaping is the key to having a beautiful landscape even in drought conditions.
Succulents are great to use for xeriscaping because they are drought-tolerant and beautiful. Image via Pixabay

A recent study showed than in 2010, Los Angeles was losing about 100 gallons of water per person per day. Lawns accounted for 70 percent of that water loss.

While that loss was probably mitigated by mandatory water use restrictions that were imposed in 2014 in response to the severe drought in the area, the restrictions were lifted in 2017 after an abundantly wet spring. Will the loss of restrictions inspire Angelenos to keep dumping water into their lawns, or have the majority of them come to see that it’s important to plant native, drought-tolerant species?

It’s hard to know as of now, but since Southern California is primarily desert, we hope that more Los Angeles residents have gotten in the habit of xeriscaping—landscaping with drought-tolerant, native species.

The fundamental principles of xeriscaping revolve around water conservation. Landscape designers look for ways to reduce the amount of irrigation and maximize the use of what natural precipitation there is.

Soil improvement is a key in xeriscaping. The ideal soil in a water-conserving landscape drains quickly and stores water at the same time. This may seem contradictory, but for many species, increasing the amount of organic material in the soil and keeping it aerated serves this purpose. However, if your xeriscape includes a lot of cacti or succulents, don’t do the soil amendments; those species are designed to survive in the untreated native soils of the region.

Using drought-resistant native plants is important in any xeriscape. Most of these plants have small, thick, glossy, silver-gray or fuzzy leaves; the way these leaves are made helps them to save water. Also, if you must have a lawn, make it a small one to minimize water use. And don’t put plants with high and low water needs in the same area, so don’t plant your succulents next to your lawn or fruit trees.

By covering the soil around plants with mulch, you’ll help the soil retain water, prevent erosion, and block out weeds that compete with the plants you want. Mulch needs to be several inches thick in order to be effective, and it will need more applied (a practice called “top dressing”) as the existing mulch blends with the soil.

When it comes to irrigation, soaker hoses and drip irrigation systems work the best because they help you avoid overwatering and deliver the water right to the base of the plant. They also deliver water at a slow rate, which is ideal for the deep and infrequent watering needed for a xeriscape.

The best thing about a xeriscaped yard is that it’s low-maintenance. You don’t need to seed or mow the lawn, or use massive amounts of fertilizer or weed killer. In fact, the only thing you’ll really need to do is ensure that weeds aren’t growing through your mulch (if they are, thicken the mulch layer) and that if you are using grasses, you keep them taller so that they become a natural mulch that shades roots and helps retain water.

Do you xeriscape? What are your thoughts on the benefits and burdens of xeriscaping? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Conservation, Nature, Science

River Dolphins and Amazonian Manatees Get New Protection

The pink river dolphin, gray river dolphin, and the Amazonian manatee, that will be protected under a new Peruvian law.
The pink river dolphin is one of the species, along with the gray river dolphin and the Amazonian manatee, that will be protected under a new Peruvian law. Photo: Shutterstock

Thanks to a newly developed plan, river dolphins and Amazonian manatees in Peru will finally receive protection.

Researchers from the University of Exeter in England worked with Peruvian officials for more than two years to develop that law.

“These species are only found in the Amazon,” said Dr. Joanna Alfaro, formerly of the University of Exeter. “Neighboring countries like Brazil, Colombia, and Ecuador already had legislation to protect them, but Peru did not. To bring about this legislation, we worked in lose collaboration with the Peruvian government, with support from [World Wildlife Fund] Peru, and held five workshops with local authorities.

Like other species of dolphins and manatees, river dolphins and Amazonian manatees face threats from climate change, fishing, and loss of habitat, not to mention pollution, noise, and boat traffic.

The new law, the National Action Plan for the Conservation of River Dolphins and the Amazonian Manatee, was approved by Peru’s Ministry of Production. It requires conservation and monitoring of habitats. It is also designed to bring about better management of the species’ habitats.

“We are delighted to have been a part in the development of this law, and we are excited to see the plan in full implementation,” said researcher Elizabeth Campbell. “It was a long process, but it showed how government agencies can work with non-governmental academics, private companies, and others.”

Professor Brendan Godley of the University of Exeter, who supervised the research, said, “We believe this action plan will aid conservation and reduce the threats that dolphins and manatees face in the Amazon today. It is a great example where research was used as a baseline for the legal framework to protect biodiversity.”

The University of Exeter project was funded by the Darwin Initiative, a UK-based grant program that helps to protect biodiversity and the natural environment through locally based projects worldwide. It provides funding to countries rich in biodiversity but poor in financial resources to meet their objectives in preserving that biodiversity.

Conservation, Nature, Science

Logging Threatens Leatherback Turtles

Leatherback turtles are under threat from fishing nets, marine debris like plastic, and now it seems that even distant logging activities are threatening the species.
Baby leatherback turtles like this one can become the victims of predators if their way from nest to ocean is impeded by logging debris. Photo: Shutterstock

Leatherback turtles face a number of difficulties, all of which threaten the species as a whole. They are often caught in fishing nets or eat marine debris like plastic. Many of their nesting sites are under pressure from tourism and other human activities. And now it turns out that even logging is a danger to them, despite the fact that it rarely happens near beaches.

The problem is that logging creates quite a lot of debris, which ends up washing ashore on the beaches where leatherback turtles make nests and lay eggs. These turtles have to lay their eggs far enough up the shore that they won’t be flooded by high tide. But that debris can get in the way of mothers building nests, who have to spend more time on that process and have to build their nests closer to the tideline.

Once they hatch, baby leatherback turtles make their way across the sand and down to the water, but that is becoming increasingly difficult in areas subjected to logging debris. The turtles have to navigate around the debris, which requires them to use up more energy and puts them at increased risk of predation. While not every turtle makes it to the water—where they can start eating to replenish the energy spent getting there—with increased obstacles, even fewer are doing so. Over time, this could result in an overall decrease in the leatherback turtle population, which is already struggling.

“Leatherback turtles are already under immense pressure, from fisheries bycatch, and are also one of the species prone to ingesting marine plastic litter,” said Prof. Brendan Godley of the University of Exeter. “Our research clearly indicates that logging presents another threat. It is now paramount that beach cleanup operations are built into logging activities to prevent further damage to the species.”

Luckily, leatherback turtles are a favorite of environmentalists, tourists, and other people with the social clout or budget to try and affect change on their behalf, so the odds are good that they will at least be supported with beach cleanup activities.

“Simple measures could make a real difference, such as repositioning organic waste areas, or salvaging the wood debris as an energy source,” said Dr. Adolfo Marco Llorente of the Doñana Biological Station. “It is also essential that logging practices [which] reduce the impact on the marine environment are implemented.”

Conservation, Sustainability

Global Veganism Would Result in More Agricultural Land Use

A vegan diet may not necessarily be the best use of our agricultural lands.
Photo: Shutterstock

Among vegans, it’s common to hear the idea that eating vegan is better for everyone, including the planet itself. Discussions of greenhouse gas created by grazing animals are commonly a part of this. But according to a study published in Elementa, a purely vegan diet wouldn’t be the best way to make use of existing agricultural lands. Going vegan would feed fewer people and would result in having to convert more land over to agriculture.

The study is premised on the idea that there are three main kinds of agricultural land use. Grazing land is used to raise animals, perennial cropland for raising foods like grain and hay to feed animals and which are harvested multiple times per year, and cultivated cropland for raising foods such as vegetables and fruits. But vegan diets would eliminate the use of perennial cropland, which would waste a significant amount of land that could be used for growing food (directly or indirectly). It’s important to remember that these kinds of land are not all suited to one another. Grazing land tends to be bad for growing crops, for example.

This is also compared not to current land use based on diets, but on projections of land use, which included 10 different diets, including the “current diet” of Americans. Vegan diet-based land use would feed more people than the current model, but it wouldn’t feed as many people as either egg and dairy-friendly vegetarian (ovolacto vegetarian), dairy-friendly vegetarian (lacto vegetarian), or two different omnivorous models would. Less meat and more vegetables makes land use more efficient, but totally removing animals is not the most efficient.

While none of this means that vegan diets are meaningless, or that people who follow them are bad or a threat the world’s ecology, it does mean that veganism can’t save the world. But philosophical veganism isn’t usually about the environment anyway, it’s about animal rights, so whether this argument convinces any vegans remains to be seen.

Ultimately, though, the researchers write, “the findings of this study support the idea that dietary change towards plant-based diets has significant potential to reduce the agricultural land requirements of U.S. consumers and increase the carrying capacity of U.S. agricultural resources…Diet composition matters.”