Category Archives: North America

Grizzly Bear Populations may soon combine

The grizzly bear population in Yellowstone National park number over 750 individuals. Male bears are moving north to expand their range and could meet up with members of their species around Glacier National Park within ten years or less. The distance between the two parks is 410 miles and their are a number of National Forests connecting the two parks as a wildlife corridor.

Read more: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/03/science/grizzly-bears-yellowstone-genes.html?rref=collection%2Fsectioncollection%2Fscience&action=click&contentCollection=science&region=rank&module=package&version=highlights&contentPlacement=8&pgtype=sectionfront

Christopher J. Gervais, F.R.G.S.
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October 18-28, 2018
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A Year in Review: Seven Stories that Highlight Hope for Conservation in 2016

Channel Islands fox rebound

The Channel Islands, eight islands off the coast of Southern California, house more of their adorable cat-size foxes (found nowhere else on earth) than ever in recent history. Thanks to conservation efforts including captive breeding of the foxes and relocation of predatory eagles, the population was recently removed from the endangered species list.

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Photo source: Don DeBold

Chernobyl wildlife boom

Though Ukraine’s Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded over 30 years ago, it has left behind a wasteland that most scientists thought would remain barren for years to come. However, in 2014 University of Georgia researchers left dozens of cameras in a heavily forested area of Chernobyl’s 1600-square-mile Exclusion Zone and saw that boars, wolves, foxes, raccoon dogs and many more species had reclaimed the land as their own. “It’s basically an incredibly large sanctuary” for animals, said one researcher of the follow-up study and accompanying photos which were published this year.

Robotic animals used to trick poachers

US authorities have come up with an unexpected but highly successful method to catch poachers: placing remote-controlled robotic animals like deer, bear, and moose in illegal hunting hubs and apprehending those foolhardy enough to shoot at them.

Peanut butter and drones provide a creative way to help adorable ferrets

Native to the US, beautiful black-footed ferrets currently hold the spot of North America’s most endangered species, due in large part to a plague killing prairie dogs, their main source of food. This year the federal government began testing a unique and tasty solution that could drive the ferrets’ population to healthy numbers: using drones to drop peanut butter-flavored pellets laced with plague vaccine on unsuspecting prairie dogs (about 60-90% of prairie dogs fell for the trick in recent tests), helping their populations recover enough to restore a balanced ecosystem to the American grasslands where the dogs and ferrets reside.

Full-time Hedgehog Officer for British Town

Officials in Ipswich, a village on the eastern coast of the UK, have recently noted declines in typically high hedgehog populations, so a local wildlife organization created the post of “Hedgehog Officer”, tasking the British woman who beat around 150 applicants with conserving this adorable local creature.

Jaguars settling in Arizona

Jaguars claimed much of the western US as their own before being completely hunted to death, but 2016 gave two positive signs that some of the creatures may have migrated from northern Mexico into the Arizona desert. A few months following the appearance of a gorgeous male, caught on camera and nicknamed El Jefe, a second male cat was photographed prowling around an Arizona army installation. Though Arizona wildlife officials dampened some excitement with the revelation that the closest breeding population is 130 miles south, the presence of these cats brings hope that more may eventually find their way to their old stomping grounds in the US.

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Strong protections for some of world’s most endangered animals

The 2016 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) concluded by creating tough new regulations against killing and trading endangered animals currently vulnerable to poachers, including African gray parrots, pangolins, and manta rays.

Post by Shannon Cuthbert

Source: Brulliard, Karin. “Nine great news stories about animals in 2016.” The Washington Post. 30 December 2016.

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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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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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Wildlife Conservation Film Festival
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Christopher J. Gervais, F.R.G.S.
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Can Big Data Help Save the Red-Legged Frogs?

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For years, Gary Kittleston has searched swamps for endangered red-legged frogs, waiting just after sunset. The environmental consultant now searches Watsonville Slough, a swamp east of Santa Cruz, California, with a headlamp and waders. Known by his nephews as “the frog whisperer,” Kittleston says that some years he’d be thrilled to find just one or two.

This marsh is a key habitat for red-legged frogs, who are an Endangered Species Act threatened creature due to overdevelopment of their habitats and over-hunting for their legs. A local land trust hired Kittleson to count the frogs to see if their population is growing or shrinking over the years.

This work is far from simple, however. Kittleson seeks out frogs within thick brush and listens for their low bellows amongst high-pitched cries of chorus frogs. Though the average listener would find the task nearly impossible, Kittleston has trained himself to hear red-legged frogs even while he’s speaking, searching for the telltale pattern of their call. “Chuck, chuck, chuck. It was three pulses,” he notes, determining one sound to be that of a red-legged frog.

Kittleston uses the traditional way of counting endangered animals, but this  takes up significant time and manpower, providing only a small slice of data for the time periods Kittleston or consultants like him can stand in each swamp. This is why the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County recently partnered with Conservation Metrics, a data company seeking to streamline the process of measuring endangered frog counts. Kittleson helped the company put up song meters around Watsonville Slough; each little green box has a microphone to capture the frogs’ chorus all night long. Conservation Metrics employees then load each night’s recordings into a computer and create algorithms that sift through hours of audio to pick out red-legged frog calls. This process allows one person and a computer to do what would normally require an entire team of field biologists, notes CEO Matthew McKown. “Our whole point is to make conservation better, so we are trying to make it as cheap as possible,” he says.

McKown created Conservation Metrics three years ago, hoping to help environmentalists keep more accurate records of threatened populations. He says that big data is now a hot tool in conservation that can help biologists study endangered animals and threatened habitats.”What you’re going to start having is cameras, acoustic sensors, satellites trained on these important parts of the world,” he says.

Meanwhile at the Watsonville Slough, Kittleson stands waist deep in swamp water. Night has fallen and he shines his headlamp around the marsh, searching for the piercing glare of frog eyes. One frog meets his gaze. “Beautiful. Adult red-legged frog,” Kittleson says. The frog perches atop a log that floats by the water’s edge. Though Kittleson isn’t hopeful about the future of this species, he says good data is the only way to tell if conservation efforts are making progress.

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Source: Harnett, Sam. “Using Algorithms To Catch The Sounds Of Endangered Frogs.” KUNC. 31 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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Vultures: Vilified but Vital For Healthy Ecosystems

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Picture a vulture and you’ll most likely have a hard time separating these gawky creatures with the social stigmas they hold, long being reviled as portents of death. Still, these ungainly birds play a crucial role in maintaining our ecosystems and well-being, so citizens should be as concerned as scientists are to know that vultures in some parts of the world are quickly disappearing, according to a recent University of Utah study.

Many vulture species are now declining or even close to extinction due to concentrated toxins in the carrion they eat. Such toxins often have widespread impacts on a vulture population, as dozens if not hundreds of vultures tend to swarm and feast on a single carcass. Once vultures grow scarce, they leave the field open for other scavengers to flourish, species that bring with them the potential to carry dangerous bacteria and viruses from carcasses into heavily populated cities.

88% of threatened vulture species are impacted by the presence of poisons within carrion. In North America, only 22 California condors remained by 1982, due to their consumption of toxic lead bullet fragments left in the bodies of hunted animals  However, intense conservation efforts have since helped the species grow to over 400 who inhabit California, Arizona, Utah and Baja California, Mexico.Similarly, more than 95% of India’s vultures had disappeared by the early 2000s, which was  traced to diclofenac, a drug that relieved pain in cattle, but proved deadly to vultures who flocked to cattle carcasses; fortunately, this drug was banned through international coordination efforts, and the birds have slowly increased.

Now, the vulture crisis is centered in sub-Saharan Africa, where pest-control poisons are so potent that they have been affecting birds, mammals and insects alike on a massive scale. For instance, in 2007 an elephant carcass poisoned in Namibia killed around 600 vultures. These vultures in Africa are also the direct victims of poachers who poison carcasses specifically to silence the birds who might give away the location of illegally killed animals.

Declining vulture populations will have negative consequences for human health as they make way for foragers like dogs, rats, and crows, all of whom have more frequent contact with humans than relatively-solitary vultures. Vultures are highly efficient carrion consumers, often finding and eating carcasses within an hour after death, before decay really sets in; plus, vultures’ stomachs are highly acidic, thus killing most bacteria or viruses present in carrion. In these ways, vultures help prevent diseases from dead animals spreading to human populations. However, other scavengers without these features could easily pass along those diseases to humans, as many are entrenched in cities. Following the decline of vultures, India feral dog count increased by around seven million and was linked to a rabies outbreak that killed 48,000 people from 1992-2006.

Vulture populations can be restored through careful and collaborative efforts by the international community, as evidenced by the story of California condor. However, it is important that these efforts start now if we want to retain a creature which, though vilified for its appearance and its eating habits, plays a vital role in regulating the spread of bacteria and viruses and in maintaining healthy ecosystems and human populations, whether or not we are aware of how beneficial these scavengers are.

Source: Buechley, Evan et al. “Why vultures matter – and what we lose if they’re gone.” Phys.org. 5 May 2016.

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Christopher J. Gervais, F.R.G.S.
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