Threatened Texas Mussel May Spark Conflict Over Contested Waterways

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Photo: Matthew Venn

The US Fish and Wildlife Service recently proposed the Texas hornshell mussel be classified as endangered, opening a new avenue for conflict over already highly-contested water systems throughout the state. The mussel is one of a dozen the USFWS is examining for endangered list inclusion, and if chosen, the mussel’s freshwater river habitats would be specially protected from heavy human usage.

If the species is listed, other mussels may be included as well. “This move provides insight into their thinking” on the remaining species, said Charles Randklev, a mussel expert at Texas A&M University’s Institute for Renewable Natural Resources. The hornshell “warrants some level of protection based on the data I’ve seen,” he said, “and some of the species are not faring as well as the hornshell.” These others include mussel species living in Central Texas’  Colorado, Guadalupe and Brazos river basins in Central Texas, such as the false spike and the Texas pimpleback.

Human activity is to blame for disruption of the mussels’ populations, says the USFWS, through creation of dams and increasingly poor water quality that hurt the Texas hornshell and other Southwest freshwater mussels. “The waterways they call home are being altered and impacted by declining water quality and quantity,” Benjamin Tuggle, the USFWS’s Southwest regional director, reported. “Declining freshwater mussel populations are signs of an unhealthy aquatic system, which has negative implications for the fish, wildlife and communities that depend upon those rivers and streams.”

However, protections bestowed in the best interests of the mussels will have vast impacts on the already much-disputed distribution of water to industries, farmers, and Texas’ growing cities by state river authorities. “With increased human demand, the question is how that affects stream flows,” Randklev said.

Despite Tuggle’s statement that he hopes to work closely with landowners “to benefit both the species and communities that rely upon those flowing waters”, a legal fight between federal and state officials seems likely if the mussel is listed. The state comptroller’s office has commissioned research into how increased habitat protections would harm Texas’ economy. “We’re still examining the proposal, and we also need to look at the species status assessment report,” comptroller spokesman Chris Bryan said.

Once plentiful (and a staple of indigenous peoples), the Texas hornshell mussel is a filter feeder that can grow up to 4 inches long and live around 20 years. This species has vastly declined within the past few decades, according to the Federal Register. The mussels are technically edible but are not considered safe to eat where water is polluted. The mollusk habitates within the Rio Grande downstream from Big Bend National Park and Laredo, as well as in the Pecos and the Devils rivers in Val Verde County.

The Nature Conservancy and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department have already begun efforts to maintain this and other threatened river species, taking measures to reduce sediment and contaminants on protected land near the Devils River watershed. In addition, Lower Colorado River Authority and the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority officials are monitoring the addition of any Texas waterway species to the endangered list. “At this point it’s premature to say whether or how future listings may impact the lower Colorado River basin,” LCRA spokeswoman Clara Tuma said. Only time will tell how this potential conflict will play out if the mussel is listed.

The Fish and Wildlife Service will be taking comments from the public regarding the proposed endangered species listing of the Texas hornshell mussel until Oct. 11 before they come to a decision.

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Photo: David O.

Source: Price, Asher. “Texas mussel proposed as endangered, with implications for waterways.” My Statesman. 10 August 2016.

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Join Us At Washington Square Park for Nat Geo WILD World Premiere Screenings This Wednesday, August 27 at 7:30pm

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Join us this Thursday 7:30 to 10pm for an outdoor film screening under the Arch and the stars at Washington Square Park in New York! Bring a blanket or chair, food and drink (no alcohol). Admission is free, but all attendees must RSVP in order to guarantee seating: info@wcff.org

Operation Sumatran Rhino: Mission Critical

“Operation Sumatran Rhino” is an episode of Mission Critical, a new monthly programming initiative featuring powerful stories of the most incredible and endangered animals on our planet. The new series hopes to inspire a new generation of animal lovers to preserve and protect our world’s amazing wildlife, and will premiere globally in 131 countries and 38 languages. Mission Critical kicks off on television, Sunday, Aug. 28, at 8/7c with the premiere of Panda Babies: Mission Critical. Watch it here:  https://vimeo.com/178076504

Panda Babies: Mission Critical

“Panda Babies” is the first episode of Mission Critical, a new monthly programming initiative featuring powerful stories of the most incredible and endangered animals on our planet. The new series hopes to inspire a new generation of animal lovers to preserve and protect our world’s amazing wildlife, and will premiere globally in 131 countries and 38 languages. Mission Critical kicks off on television, Sunday, Aug. 28, at 8/7c with the premiere of Panda Babies: Mission Critical. Watch it here: https://vimeo.com/176795841

The full length Wildlife Conservation Film Festival is October 14-24 in New York, celebrating its six year anniversary with ten days of film screenings, panel discussion, field trips, receptions, biodiversity conference and an awards ceremony. For more information visit:WCFF.org. The WCFF is the first and only film festival on the planet whose mission is to inform, engage and inspire the protection of global biodiversity.

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Endangered Species Face 12-Year Wait to be Listed

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A new study in journal Biological Conservation uncovered that the average time it takes a species to be officially classified as endangered is 12 years, six times longer than scientists say it should be to promote the health and survival of these species.

When Congress first passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973, the process for a species to be added to the “endangered” list entailed being labelled as endangered or threatened by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. In 1982 Congress added an amendment laying out an entire two-year timeline for the process, from a petition submission in favor of the species being added to a final rule being created in the Federal Register.

However, the reality is a bit more complex. “While the law lays out a process time of two years for a species to be listed, what we found is that, in practice, it takes, on average, 12.1 years,” says Dr. Emily Puckett, a recent Division of Biological Sciences graduate at the University of Missouri. “Some species moved through the process in 6 months but some species, including many flowering plants, took 38 years to be listed—almost the entire history of the ESA.”

The study analyzed the length of time it took for the 1,338 species listed for ESA protection between January 1974 and October 2014 to move through the listing process. Researchers also examined if a species grouping affected the speed with which it was listed, and found that vertebrates moved on to the list significantly more quickly than did flowering plants and invertebrates. This finding prompted the study’s authors to conclude there may be a bias in the listing process that undermines the ESA’s official listing policies. “While the [US Fish and Wildlife] Service can account for species groups in its prioritization system, it’s not supposed to be mammals versus insects versus ferns but, rather, how unique is this species within all of the ecological system,” Puckett says. “However, our findings suggest some bias that skews the process toward vertebrates.”

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Long delays in ESA listing have real and severe impacts on endangered species. In fact, the study’s authors cited documentation of several species that went extinct while the lengthy process unfolded. In contrast, species that were listed quickly and had strong conservation plans put in place had greater chances to recover and thrive. For instance, the island night lizard took a mere 1.19 years to be listed, while the prairie fringed orchid took 14.7 years to be listed. In the meantime, the lizard population has been restored and it has been removed from endangered status, while the orchid is still a threatened species.

“The whole point of putting species on the list is they already have been identified as threatened or endangered with extinction,” Puckett says. “Without being on the list, we run the risk that these populations will go locally or globally extinct and there will be nothing to save.”

Sossamon, Jeff. “”Endangered Species Wait 12 Years to Get on the List.” Futurity. 12 August 2016.

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Your Favorite Big Mammals Are in Deeper Danger Than You Thought

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A report in the journal BioScience recently revealed that some of the world’s most beloved large mammals could disappear forever if action isn’t taken soon to protect their habitats. Threatened megafauna, which typically inspire more public sympathy and concern than similarly endangered species of plants, bacteria, or smaller animals, in this case include bears, rhinos, and gorillas. In the report, titled “Saving the World’ Terrestrial Megafauna,” a global team of conservation scientists laid out issues of particular concern to these animals’ well-being, including vast deforestation, the expansion of land used for livestock and farming, illegal hunting, and rapid human population growth.

“The more I look at the trends facing the world’s largest terrestrial mammals, the more concerned I am we could lose these animals just as science is discovering how important they are to ecosystems and to the services they provide to people,” said William Ripple, an ecology professor at the College of Forestry at Oregon State University and the report’s lead author. “It’s time to really think about conserving them because declines in their numbers and habitats are happening quickly.”

The 43 scientists note that large mammals have widespread impacts on their ecosystems, and affect everything from regulating disease risks for humans and maintaining healthy populations of animals lower down in the food chain, to preventing wildfires and spreading seeds. The experts examined global trends confronting lions, rhinos, wolves, zebras, tigers, elephants, and other animals, concluding that “Most mammalian megafauna face dramatic range contractions and population declines.In fact, 59 percent of the world’s largest carnivores and 60 percent of the world’s largest herbivores are classified as threatened with extinction on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List. This situation is particularly dire in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, home to the greatest diversity of extant megafauna.”

The scientists finished the report with a call to action for world leaders: “We must not go quietly into this impoverished future. Rather, we believe it is our collective responsibility, as scientists who study megafauna, to act to prevent their decline. We therefore present a call to the broader international community to join together in conserving the remaining terrestrial megafauna.” Hopefully their voices and research will not fall on dull ears, but will help leaders and the public come together to take measures to save these large creatures, beautiful and vital for our planet’s health.

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Source: Silva, Christina. “Humans Cause Animal Extinction: Large Mammals Including Elephants And Gorillas Are Under Threat, Study Finds.” International Business Times. 27 July 2016.

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How Four Adorable Kittens Provide New Hope for Rare Scottish Wildcats

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Credit: Alex Riddell/RZSS

One could argue that the four Scottish wildcats born recently at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland’s Highland Wildlife Park are among the most important kittens alive right now. These kittens reflect a chance for one of the rarest feline subspecies on the planet to survive into future generations. Scottish wildcats are barely larger than housecats, but have earned the nickname Highland Tiger due to their ferocious personalities and large tails. However, fierceness has not been able to save these wildcats from near-extinction, brought on by habitat loss and decimation by farmers and game-bird hunters seeking to prevent the wildcats from hunting farm animals and birds. Conservationists estimate only a few hundred of the cats remain in the wild, and frequent interbreeding with feral and domestic cats makes it difficult for scientists to get an accurate population count.

Luckily, as part of the Scottish Wildcat Action initiative, Highland Wildlife Park has been making efforts to breed the cats in captivity, leading to the successful births of four wildcat kittens this May, three from one litter and one from a second. They join 21 other kittens produced by the Park’s adult wildcats, one of which died from a congenital liver defect, and one after being transferred to another zoo. Several of the surviving 19 kittens have successfully been placed at parks around Scotland in attempts to breed the cats at other locations and to reduce inbreeding at each zoo. Breeders plan to release the kittens into the wild once they’re fully grown.

Previous genetic tests on the Highland Wildlife Park’s captive wildcats have suggested that all the cats have hybrid genes and are not purely Scottish wildcats, but these cuddly kittens hold as great a hope as any to continue the line of the critically endangered subspecies, and may even be the only chance left to prevent their extinction.

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Credit: Peter Trimming

Platt, John R. “Adorable Kittens Represent Hope for Nearly Extinct Scottish Wildcats.” Scientific American. 21 July 2016.

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60% of Adélie Penguins Could Disappear This Century

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New research shows that climate change may vastly devastate Adélie penguin colonies by 2099. Nearly two-thirds of the penguins, which live only in Antarctica, could be gone within this century due to warming sea surfaces not conducive for penguin chicks. In a Scientific Reports study, researchers warned that the excessive warmth linked with climate change is extremely harmful to the species. “It is only in recent decades that we know Adélie penguins population declines are associated with warming, which suggests that many regions of Antarctica have warmed too much and that further warming is no longer positive for the species,” lead author Dr. Megan Cimino said.

Adélie penguin colonies are centralized across the West Antarctic Peninsula (WAP), among the fastest-warming places on Earth, and populations have already shown declines in response. More than any other region, WAP has faced warmer than normal sea surface temperature in recent years, a condition known as “novel climate”. According to Cimino, penguin numbers have decreased by around 80% since significantly higher temperatures were noted. “These two things seem to be happening in the WAP at a higher rate than in other areas during the same time period,” Cimino noted.

Climate projections reveal that this region will continue to experience increasingly frequent years of novel climate this century, presenting a threat that could ravage already-fragile penguin populations. Researchers examined a wide range of global climate models and satellite data, as penguin colonies can now be seen and studied from space. Based on their findings, 30% of current Adélie penguins could disappear by 2060, and 60% could be gone by 2099.

Intriguingly, researchers found that in areas where climate change is slow, Adélie numbers are “steady or increasing”, further strengthening the link between climate change and Adélie decline. Scientists hope that these slow-to-warm spots will become refugia, or places for once widespread but now isolated animal populations to survive, even if that survival remains tenuous. East Antarctic peninsula Cape Adare, is one such spot where climate changes have been less extreme. Said Cimino, “The Cape Adare region of the Ross Sea is home to the earliest known penguin occupation and has the largest known Adélie penguin rookery in the world. Though the climate there is expected to warm a bit, it looks like it could be a refugium in the future, and if you look back over geologic time it was likely one in the past.”

Extrapolating on current climate change patterns, these scientists predicted surviving Antarctic penguins will concentrate in southern Antarctica over the next century.

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Source: Worley, Will. “Climate change ‘to devastate penguin populations in Antarctica by up to 60 per cent by the end of the century’.” Independent. 29 June 2016

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British Town Recruits Dedicated “Hedgehog Officer” to Protect Local ‘Hog Population

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The Suffolk Wildlife Trust was recently flooded with applications after posting a two-year position for Ipswich Hedgehog Officer, salaried at £24,000 annually. This role comes on the heels of Suffolk’s year-long “Going the Whole Hog” campaign, intended to reverse a decline in these shy, nocturnal creatures. The Heritage Lottery Fund and British Hedgehog Preservation Society provided funds to create the role.

The position drew international interest from countries as diverse as Russia, Taiwan, Poland, Spain, Germany, and Hungary, and a trust spokeswoman said they were “overwhelmed” by the global attention. “We thought we would get a good response, but we were overwhelmed by the numbers who responded and the international reach. Applications have closed now and we’re really excited to go through them, and to start the interview process next week. The person we’re looking for will have an inspirational, and quite unique mix of skills, which will make the face of hedgehog conservation in Ipswich.”

The role was created after a Suffolk Wildlife Trust survey revealed hundreds of Ipswich locals had seen hedgehogs, both dead and alive, in their area. Conservationists feel that having an officer dedicated entirely to preserving these tiny, spiny mammals will maintain the town’s standing as a hedgehog hotspot. “The response to our hedgehog survey was fantastic,” said Simone Bullion from the trust. “What was particularly evident is that our urban areas are very important. Hedgehogs still look to be hanging on in our towns, so it is imperative we do all we can to keep them there and make conditions even more hedgehog friendly.”

In the past two years, nearly 12,000 hedgehogs have been spotted in the county, with about 2,500 in Ipswich alone. The trust notes there is a “rich natural network” for hedgehogs across Ipswich, “including its beautiful parks as well as the cemetery, allotments and churches”. However, more measures must be taken to ensure that hedgehog numbers remain stable. Once hired, the new officer will raise community awareness of how individuals can make their yards and gardens into hedgehog havens. Simple actions such as leaving gaps in fences, preserving areas of garden “litter” like dead leaves, and putting out fresh water and food (pet food, minced meat, and boiled eggs are favorites) will encourage hedgehogs to feel at home. Even small efforts can have a big impact in helping these adorable creatures to thrive in urban spaces, allowing Ipswich to safeguard their well-loved ‘hogs for years to come.

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Sources: “Ipswich hedgehog officer post gains worldwide interest.” BBC News. 16 July 2016. “Ipswich proves to be a hotspot for hedgehogs.” BBC News. 5 March 2016.

 

Wildlife Conservation Film Festival
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Christopher J. Gervais, F.R.G.S.
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