Category Archives: Endangered Species

Both Caribou and Monarch Butterflies in Canada Threatened

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On December 4, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (Cosewic), a group of scientific experts, classified both Canada’s caribou and its monarch butterfly populations as endangered. “Caribou are, sadly, very sensitive to human disturbances, and we are disturbing caribou more and more,” said committee member Justina Ray. “These stressors seem to be interacting in complicated ways with rapid warming in the North.”

The committee’s report notes that: “Many of the great northern caribou herds have now fallen to all-time lows, and there is cause for concern that they will not rebound in the same way they have before.” The group is responsible for classifying wildlife species at risk of extinction, and recommending potential protective actions to the Canadian government.

In order to determine whether caribou herds were at risk, Cosewic examined two different caribou populations: the tundra herd, deemed to be “threatened,” as well as the smaller population of Torngat Mountain caribou which dwell in northeastern Canada, and which were found to be at an even greater risk of extinction. This group was thus labelled “endangered,” and was noted to be facing “imminent” extinction. The report also highlights both habitat encroachment, due to increased forestry and mining, and Arctic global warming as grave threats to Canadian caribous’ continued existence. This October the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) rang alarm bells over Canadian caribou herds’ rapid decline over the past thirty years, and the committee’s findings sadly lend support to this conclusion.

In the same report, Cosewic classified monarch butterflies as endangered, noting that the “remarkably tiny wintering grounds where monarchs congregate continue to be chipped away by habitat loss.”

These migratory creatures regularly fly 4000km south from Canada to Mexico to remain warm as winter approaches. The committee strongly recommends that the butterfly’s habitat in Canada, the United States, and Mexico, all be proctected to ensure the insects have a place to rest each step of their migration.”Otherwise, monarch migration may disappear, and Canada may lose this iconic species,” it concluded.

Lending support to this call, this June, 200 American, Mexican, and Canadian scientists, artists, and academics appealed to the leaders of the three nations to ban illegal logging and mining in the Mexican reserve where monarchs outlast the winter. They also called for a ban on pesticides used to diminish milkweed, which serves as the only food source for monarch caterpillars. For its part, Cosewic called out the use of an herbicide used on genetically modified corn and soybean, which has been detrimental to monarchs as well.

Actions such as those recommended by the committee will go a long way in helping preserve two Canada-dwelling species that rely heavily on diminishing habitats.

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Source: “Canada caribou and monarch butterfly ‘endangered’”. Phys.org. 6 December 2016.

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Giraffes Are Added to Endangered Species List

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On December 8, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which creates and tracks the official global endangered species list, re-classified giraffes from a species of Least Concern to a Vulnerable species, as reported in its Red List of Threatened Species. Vulnerable species face extinction in the relatively-near future if no actions are taken to protect it and its habitat from external threats. Following a Vulnerable status, the next steps are endangered, critically endangered, extinct in the wild, and finally extinct.

Though poaching and illegal trade of other megafauna, from elephants and rhinos to pangolins, has been at the forefront of news the past for years, giraffes have been perceived as relatively safe in the last decade. However, as reported by Damian Carrington at The Guardian, giraffes have dropped significantly in the last 31 years, from 157,000 in 1985 to 97,500 when counted last.

“Whilst giraffes are commonly seen on safari, in the media and in zoos, people—including conservationists—are unaware that these majestic animals are undergoing a silent extinction,” says Julian Fennessy, co-chair of the IUCN’s Species Survival Commission’s Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group. “With a decline of almost 40 percent in the last three decades alone, the world’s tallest animal is under severe pressure in some of its core ranges across East, Central and West Africa. As one of the world’s most iconic animals, it is timely that we stick our neck out for the giraffe before it is too late.”

The giraffes are faced with both habitat destruction, as cities and towns increasingly take over, and poaching, which has been especially problematic of late. While food insecure villagers sometimes kill the animals to eat, Jani Actman at National Geographic notes that many are killed for their tails, which are seen as a status symbol and are often used as a dowry in local cultures.

The New York Times reporter Patrick Healy explains that the red list divides the giraffe into nine subspecies, and that five of those subspecies are rapidly declining, while just two are increasing and one has held stable. Happily, West African giraffes, the smallest group, have grown from 50 in the 1990s to 400 today, but that victory required solid and vast activism and efforts from both the government of Niger and conservation groups.

Derek Lee, founder of the Wild Nature Institute, told Healy that both threats must end in order to save giraffes. “These are problems everywhere for giraffes,” he says. “You need to stop both threats.” Lee believes that funding for anti-poaching efforts will be helpful, but that preventing habitat destruction is much trickier, requiring intervention into land development, mining, and local livelihoods.

The most concerning aspect for some is that so few were aware how perilous the situation had become for giraffes. “I am absolutely amazed that no one has a clue,” Julian Fennessy, executive director of Giraffe Conservation Foundation told Sarah Knapton at The Telegraph. “This silent extinction. Some populations less than 400. That is more endangered than any gorilla, or almost any large mammal in the world.”

“There’s a strong tendency to think that familiar species (such as giraffes, chimps, etc.) must be OK because they are familiar and we see them in zoos,” Duke University conservation biologist Stuart Pimm said in the Associated Press. However, giraffes have disappeared across much of Africa for a century, and is already extinct in Burkina Faso, Eritrea, Guinea, Malawi, Mauritania, Nigeria and Senegal. Their plight is a sad insight into how easily we can overlook the silent destruction of a beautiful and beloved species.

Source: Daley, Jason. “Giraffes Silently Slip Onto the Endangered Species List.” The Smithsonian. 9 December 2016.

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Photo Source: Jon Mountjoy

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How Humpback Whales Were Brought Back from the Brink

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Humpback whales have been hunted almost to the edge of extinction for hundreds of years. However, major efforts to protect them in the past forty years have finally paid off in significant and measurable ways, as shown in an NOAA Fisheries announcement this week reporting that 9 of 14 known humpback populations worldwide have now recovered enough to be removed from the US List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife, most of which are in the southern hemisphere. “The data behind the humpback delisting is solid,” says NOAA marine ecologist Robert Pitman, a NatGeo Society grant recipient studying these amazing creatures. “Those of us that have been on the water working with whales for the past thirty to forty years have been amazed at the recovery that we have seen.”

Marta Nammack, NOAA Fisheries’ national Endangered Species Act listing coordinator, notes that while five humpback populations are still struggling and will remain on the list, it makes sense to remove the groups that have been successful at recovering. Each of the fourteen populations that make up the estimated 100,000 total humpbacks are recognized as being genetically distinct, suggesting that the populations’ statuses and threats to their survival should be studied and assessed separately. For example, she says, lethal entanglement in fishing nets is a much greater extinction threat for the 82 humpbacks remaining in the Arabian Sea, as compared with the 10,000 whales in the Hawaiian humpback population. “We may not be able to delist the entire species,” says Nammack, “but by dividing them up the way we did, we can see substantial progress for their recovery across a good portion of the species.”

Prior to the humpbacks, distinct gray whale populations were delisted separately from one another depending on various extinction threats they faced. After a successful recovery, the Eastern North Pacific population of gray whales was removed from the Endangered Species List in 1994, but the Western North Pacific population remains an endangered group.

The delisting of several humpback populations will not mean that they will become instantly vulnerable to hunting and other manmade threats that would cause their numbers to plunge. In fact, every humpback population will remain protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which bans harassing, feeding, hunting, capturing, collecting, or killing any marine mammal in US waters. In addition, the International Whaling Commission has banned hunting humpbacks since 1982.

NOAA Fisheries reported filing two regulations that mandate whale watching and other boats keep a 100-yard distance from all humpbacks. “The decision [to delist] shows the power of the Endangered Species Act. But the job isn’t done,” says Center for Biological Diversity staff attorney Kristen Monsell. She describes the threats that climate change, ocean noise, and ship strikes will continue to pose to humpbacks, making maintenance of existing protections necessary. “We’re lucky to share our oceans with these amazing animals, and we should be doing everything we can to protect them,” she says.

Nammack and Pitman point out that the delisting is exciting news not only for humpbacks, but also for the laws and programs that helped them along the way to recovery. Concludes Pitman, “This is a win for humpbacks and the listing process. Delisting is ultimately what we are all after.”

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Source: Bittel, Jason. “The Plan to Save the Humpback Whales—and How It Succeeded.” National Geographic. 9 Sept 2016.

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California Droughts and Wildfires Further Endanger Rare Mountain Frogs

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Photo: Pacific Southwest Region USFWS

Fewer than 400 endangered yellow-legged mountain frogs now remain from the thousands that once crowded hundreds streams throughout California’s San Gabriel, San Bernardino and San Jacinto mountain ranges. Fifty years ago frogs swarmed these streams competing for desirable mates, but are now reduced to surviving in five hard-to-find streams that still trickle down despite five years of heavy droughts.

Scientists have grown more concerned about the frogs’ survival with a nearby wildfire growing each day, the third major fire in a month to overtake the frogs’ habitat. If this most recently endangered patch of vegetation is destroyed, biologists fear winter storms could wipe out the only remaining streams where the frogs live with debris and ash from previous fires. “I’ve never seen things this dry here before,” said Adam Backlin, a U.S. Geological Survey biologist, regarding a population of around 20 frogs in San Gabriel Mountains’ Big Rock Creek. “The last thing these frogs need is drought and wildfire.”

Though wildfires in the area have been common for a long time, they are now coupled with a vast array of factors that would make it difficult for sparse yellow-legged frog populations to recolonize from neighboring populations, as they did in decades past. Now, existing populations have been pushed to the brink of extinction by disease, urbanization, and widespread invasive predators from crayfish to trout and bullfrogs. Backlin notes that many isolated mountain yellow-legged frog populations were already decimated after 2003’s Old fire, 2009’s Station fire, and 2013’s Mountain fire, and are incredibly weak in the face of the most recent fire.

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Just three weeks ago, the Sand fire destroyed 40,000 acres of northwestern San Gabriel Mountain watershed, containing sections of Soledad Canyon, a shelter to both rare arroyo toads and federally endangered unarmored threespine stickleback fish. This week, biologists were alarmed to discover that the Blue Cut fire burned through over 37,000 acres across San Gabriel’s northeastern canyons. They are now rushing to study the fire’s impacts on the yellow-legged mountain frogs’ populations, and questioning whether captive breeding may be the only way to ensure the species’ continued survival.

Federal wildlife authorities started a recovery program for the frogs back in 2010 that involves trout removal, captive breeding, and banning public access to regions where frogs still survive. Authorities hope to keep the frogs alive in carefully monitored aquariums at the San Diego and Los Angeles Zoos, where “insurance colonies” are being maintained with the help of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo, the Memphis Zoo, and the Santa Ana Zoo may join the program within the next year. Everyone involved hopes these efforts will allow the yellow-legged mountain frog to survive long-term, if outside its threatened natural habitat.

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Source: Sahagun, Louis. “California’s drought, wildfires threaten endangered frog.” LA Times. 20 August 2016.

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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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Wildlife Conservation Film Festival
Biodiversity & Wildlife Crime Conference
Christopher J. Gervais, F.R.G.S.
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