Category Archives: habitat destruction

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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First Mammal Made Extinct by Manmade Climate Change

YWQ4NzExMzNjNyMvbExMbWZqTEg5NUxOckZBUFdTaldMTDE1c1prPS8weDM6OTAweDQ0OC85MDB4NDQ2L2ZpbHRlcnM6cXVhbGl0eSg3MCkvaHR0cDovL3MzLmFtYXpvbmF3cy5jb20vcG9saWN5bWljLWltYWdlcy92d3JhZ2FsZ2psbndwcDRmY29zMGN5cDZwb2FlZ2d6dmRmdHRyN29ocSource: Queensland Government

Queensland, Australia environmental researchers reported that the Bramble Cay melomys, a rodent species found on a small island in the eastern Torres Strait, appears to have been completely eradicated from its only known habitat. Also called the mosaic-tailed rat, this tiny creature marks the first mammal that has disappeared due to human-caused climate change, though experts warn it will likely be the first of many: a 2015 report noted that ⅙ of the world’s species are in danger of climate change-based extinction.

This melomys was the only mammal species native to the Great Barrier Reef, and in 1845 European sailors first noticed the rats living in high density around Bramble Cay, a small coral cay on Queensland’s north coast. The island is a significant wildlife hotspot, and remains the most important breeding ground for green turtles and several seabirds within the Torres Strait.

In 1978 the melomys population was estimated at several hundred, though they were last seen in 2009, leading to an extensive 2014 search for the creature. Since then, a report led by Ian Gynther from Queensland’s Department of Environment and Heritage Protection, in partnership with the University of Queensland, has recommended the species be labelled extinct.

As part of their search, researchers laid 150 traps on the island over six nights, and thoroughly examined the vegetation they typically inhabit for signs of life. After no evidence that any Bramble Cay melomys’ remained, the report’s authors concluded that extensive flooding due to rising sea levels was the “root cause” of the extinction, killing many animals and destroying 97% of their habitat from 2004 to 2014. Around the Torres Strait, sea levels have risen at twice the global average between 1993 and 2014. “For low-lying islands like Bramble Cay, the destructive effects of extreme water levels resulting from severe meteorological events are compounded by the impacts from anthropogenic climate change-driven sea-level rise…Significantly, this probably represents the first recorded mammalian extinction due to anthropogenic climate change,” the authors noted.

The Queensland government website suggests that attempts to restore the population are futile. “Because the Bramble Cay melomys is now confirmed to have been lost from Bramble Cay, no recovery actions for this population can be implemented,” it says. However, the report’s authors hold out hope that there might be an undiscovered population of the creatures in Papua New Guinea. They posit that several melomys may have initially arrived at Bramble Cay by floating over on debris from the Fly River region of New Guinea. Thus, the authors recommend surveying Papua New Guinea to see if the rodents or their close relatives could be living there.

Ecologist John White of Australia’s Deakin University said this extinction marks the beginning of a long battle for wildlife conservationists: “I am of absolutely no doubt we will lose species due to the increasing pressures being exerted by climate change,” he said. “Species restricted to small, low lying islands, or those with very tight environmental requirements are likely to be the first to go…Certainly, extinction and climatic change has gone hand in hand throughout the history of the world,” he said. “So, if this is one of the first, it is more than likely not going to be the last.”

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What Does it Mean That More Endangered Species Than Ever are Being Delisted?

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Since Obama took office, 15 animal and plant species have been removed from the endangered species list, more than the total combined number of species removed under all previous administrations since the Endangered Species Act became active in 1973. These include the Louisiana black bear, the Virginia northern flying squirrel, and the Lake Erie water snake, and Brian Hires, a public affairs officer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) believes several more species could be removed from the list, which currently numbers 2000, before the next president is sworn in this January, from the Hawaiian hawk and Gray wolf to certain Humpback whale populations.

However, many species continue to be newly added to the endangered species list, with help from groups like the Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians, who regularly litigate the government when severely threatened animals remain unprotected for years or decades. Brett Hartl, endangered species policy director for the wildlife protection nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity says his group sues when the USFWS does nothing to save imperiled species from plights such as trafficking, climate change, and habitat destruction: “If the Service were to complete its mandates on time and proactively protect species at the verge of extinction, we would not have to sue them repeatedly. They hold their own destiny in their hands.”

Nevertheless, conservative lawmakers have worked to make it easier to delist endangered or threatened species in order to appease various groups, from ranchers and farmers to fossil fuel industry companie, who feel the ESA wildlife conservation efforts they would need to undertake would eat into their profits. Attempting to resolve these conflicts, the Obama administration has negotiated several agreements for landowners to merely volunteer to preserve endangered animals on their land, allowing them to bypass the ESA’s stricter preservation policies.

Hires notes that delisting species is a complex process, as many of the species in question inhabit both private and public lands, often crossing state and even international borders. “Successfully preventing the extinction of a species and recovering it so it no longer requires the ESA is a real team effort,” he says. “It requires intensive coordination and collaborations with state wildlife agencies, private landowners, conservation groups, industry, other federal agencies, and more.” For a species to be removed from ESA protections, the USFWS first examines the current state its habitat, likelihood of disease or predation, and other natural or manmade factors, and then decides whether the species would be able to successfully survive in the wild.

Hires also says that climate change will require conservationists to rethink the way they have traditionally managed endangered species, perhaps by focusing on preserving entire landscapes and ecosystems rather than specific species. “Impacts of climate change include increased size and number of wildfires, insect outbreaks, pathogens, disease outbreaks, and tree mortality,” said Hires. Rising sea levels and temperatures, as well as extreme weather associated with climate change will likely have big impacts on conservation efforts.

Hartl believes that most of the approximately 60 delisted species have fared well “because state management is done in good faith and the species are still protected in a science-based fashion. It only falls apart when states act in bad faith,” he said. “Wolves are a good example—as soon as ESA protections were lifted in Montana and Idaho, wolf populations were reduced due to unregulated hunting and trapping.”

Recently, the USFWS announcement that grizzly bears around Yellowstone National Park could be delisted led to controversy. The proposal would transfer grizzly management to states surrounding the park and would likely initiate grizzly bear hunting seasons. The Yellowstone population has grown from 136 animals to between 700 and 1000 since the species’ inclusion on the endangered list in 1975. However, groups like the Humane Society feel that Yellowstone grizzly bears “are far from recovered.” Humane Society’s President & CEO Wayne Pacelle notes that human-caused grizzly mortality rates are up and that the “bears are facing a range of threats to critical food sources, including white bark pine nuts and lake trout.”

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Similarly, for years wildlife groups have argued over the status of the greater sage-grouse, an imperiled bird whose natural habitat cuts across central states whose economies rely heavily on fossil fuel production. In May the oil and gas industry challenged drilling restrictions imposed by the Obama administration to protect the sage-grouse, even though the current restrictions are still a compromise from more stringent ESA rules. Says Hartl of the complex and often politicized conflicts that conservation efforts can spark, “Questions about when to protect species must be based solely on science in order to avoid parties trying to game the system, at the expense of species themselves.”

Regarding the 15 delistings under Obama, Hartl said “it is a victory and credit goes to the heroic efforts over the last 30 years. It is not the achievement of the Obama administration alone because these successes took years to build up to.”

Source: Phillips, Ari. “The convoluted life of an endangered species—and why more are being saved now than ever.” Fusion. 19 May 2016.

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First Chicks Born in Captivity for Highly-Threatened Florida Grasshopper Sparrow

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This May, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) announced that Florida grasshopper sparrow chicks were successfully hatched for the first time in captivity. The chicks, born at the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation in Loxahatchee, Fla, go one step forward in helping protect this highly endangered subspecies, one of North America’s most threatened birds.

With only an estimated 150 Florida grasshopper sparrows left in the wild, conservationists began a captive-breeding program in 2015, collecting five chicks from two different clutches in the wild, as well as two juveniles who would “tutor” the nestlings as they matured. In April 2016, the birds began to couple off, and a female hatched four nestlings on May 9. However, things are still less than rosy for these non-migratory, ground-dwelling birds, whose nest success rates are low (10-33%) to begin with.

Audubon Florida reported that 85 percent of the dry prairie land the sparrow depends on has been destroyed, mainly through conversion into pasture land. The exciting births come at a vital time, as experts are not optimistic about 2016 population counts for Florida grasshopper sparrows. “This breakthrough is great news because the Florida grasshopper sparrow couldn’t be more vulnerable,” said Sandra Sneckenberger, an FWS biologist helping lead the bird’s recovery effort.

Frequent Florida storms have taken a toll on the birds as well. As Sneckenberger noted in her May 11 statement: “Unfortunately, last week’s storms flooded most of the wild birds’ first nest attempts of the season. That brought the need for this captive-breeding program into even sharper focus. The four hatchlings are hopeful signs that bode well for producing options for recovery.” Let’s hope the joyful news of the recent hatchlings portends a newly positive direction for this threatened population of tiny creatures whose songs sound much like the grasshoppers they are named for.

Source: Discovery News. “Endangered Florida Sparrow Chicks Hatch in Captivity.” 19 May 2016.

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Saving the Invisible Balkan Lynx

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The Balkan Lynx (a subspecies of the Eurasian Lynx) retains a mythic quality to locals, an unsurprising fact given that their current population is estimated at 19-36. Last year, the Balkan Lynx showed up on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species as Critically Endangered, reflecting the subspecies’ fragility and potential for extinction: none of the animals are currently in captivity, and their only known breeding grounds are Mavrovo National Park in Macedonia and the Munela Mountains in Albania.

Sadly, the Balkan Lynx has faced significant threats for years, from illegal poaching and hunting to shrinking habitats and prey populations. In 2006, Germany’s EuroNatur and Switzerland’s KORA founded the Balkan Lynx Recovery Program (BLRP), to track and collect conservation data on the population. After four years of tracking, camera trapping, and interviewing locals, BLRP field biologists spotted their first Balkan Lynx: “One of the most exciting days in my entire life has to be the day we saw the first photo of a lynx from the camera traps. Can you imagine how it felt… to finally have confirmation that the lynx does live in Macedonia?” said BLRP team member  Aleksandar Stojanov.

Recently, regional scientists and volunteers have joined the efforts to research and preserve this lovely yet relatively unknown creature, with support from regional and international conservation organizations (MES in Macedonia, PPNEA in Albania, ERA and Finch in Kosovo and CZIPin Montenegro, as well as EuroNatur, KORA and NINA from Norway). “Our cooperation with many stakeholders – especially hunters – opened the doors to more detailed research and conservation attempts for this cat and its prey. Our next step will be to downlist the Balkan Lynx to the category of Endangered; this means raising the population from the current 19-37 individuals to more than 50,” said Dime Melovski, another member of the MES BLRP team.

This collaborative effort has produced significant data, but scientists say there is much more to be done: “While this is an amazing scientific achievement for us, we have no time to celebrate, the Balkan Lynx needs even more visibility and dedicated support. However, we are encouraged because the IUCN Red List provides ‘political’ recognition and global publicity,” Melovski added. In fact, Albania and Kosovo have gone so far as to create new national parks to protect the Balkan Lynx’s breeding grounds. However, Macedonia has not taken the same steps, increasing MES’s efforts to raise national awareness and support and to lobby for the establishment of protected areas in Macedonia. In the end, it will take support on both local and large-scale levels to save the rare beauty of the Balkan Lynx.

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Source: Putilin, Kenija. “How do you save a species that is almost impossible to track?” BirdLife, 12 April, 2016.

 

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