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Reception on behalf of endangered species at National Museum of Natural History.
The Trump administration announced on Monday that it will implement several changes to the Endangered Species Act—changes that will, according to conservation advocates, weaken legislation that has played a pivotal role in protecting the nation’s at-risk wildlife.
Signed by President Richard Nixon in 1973, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) currently protects 1,663 animal and plant species, 388 of which are considered threatened and 1,275 are endangered. The law has been credited with helping bring multiple species back from the brink of extinction, among them the bald eagle, the humpback whale, the California Condor and the American alligator. But as Reuters notes, “the law has long been a source of frustration for drillers, miners and other industries because new listings can put vast swathes of land off limits to development.”
Republicans have long pushed for an overhaul of the law. And the new rules, which are expected to go into effect next month, “appear very likely to clear the way for new mining, oil and gas drilling, and development in areas where protected species live,” according to Lisa Friedman of the New York Times.
One of the key changes pertains to threatened species, which are one classification below endangered species but used to automatically receive the same protections. Now, protections for threatened plants and animals will be made on a case-by-case basis, slowing down the process and likely reducing overall protections for species that are ultimately added to the list, as Brett Hartl, government affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity, tells Nature’s Jonathan Lambert.
The new rules also impose limitations on how threats are assessed. Officials used to take into account factors that could harm species in the “foreseeable future,” but now lawmakers have more discretion in deciding what “foreseeable future” should mean. So they may choose to disregard climate factors—like rising sea levels and extreme heat—that will likely impact species several decades from now.
Additionally, the revisions curtail an important function of the ESA: protecting lands that at-risk species need to survive. One new stipulation requires regulators to assess lands that are currently occupied by threatened or endangered species before looking at unoccupied areas. But as Madeleine Gregory of Vice explains, many species are at risk precisely because they have been forced into a small fraction of their original habitat, and protecting more land around them can help species recover.
Yet another change to the ESA saw the removal of language stipulating that only scientific evidence should be considered when deciding whether a species should be protected, essentially allowing reviewers to take economic loss into consideration as well. Gary Frazer, the assistant director for endangered species with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, stressed in a press conference that listing decisions will continue to be based on science. But allowing economic analyses to factor into the process, even just for “informational purposes,” is a “giant concession to industries that have long complained about having to make excessive accommodations because of the law,” the Los Angeles Times writes in an op-ed.
In a statement, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said that the new revisions “fit squarely within the President’s mandate of easing the regulatory burden on the American public, without sacrificing our species’ protection and recovery goals.” But critics maintain that regulations will in fact hamper conservation efforts at a time of biodiversity crisis. In May, the United Nations released an alarming report stating that one million species are at risk of extinction, due to factors like climate change, pollution, deforestation, overfishing and poaching. Advocates say that to ensure the long-term sustainability of the planet’s ecosystems, 30 percent of terrestrial and inland water areas and 30 percent of the world’s oceans will need to be effectively managed by 2030.
"Instead of looking for solutions to the global extinction crisis that threatens up to one million plant and animal species, this administration has decided to place arbitrary and unlawful restrictions on the very federal regulators that Congress has tasked with protecting them," David Hayes, executive director of the State Energy & Environmental Impact Center at NYU School of Law and a former interior deputy secretary under the Obama and Clinton administrations, tells the Ellen Knickmeyer of the Associated Press.
Conservationists and multiple state attorney generals have promised to sue the administration over the revisions, arguing that they are illegal because they are not rooted in scientific evidence, according to NPR’s Nathan Rott.
"This effort to gut protections for endangered and threatened species has the same two features of most Trump administration actions: it's a gift to industry, and it's illegal,” Drew Caputo, a vice president of litigation for the advocacy group Earthjustice tells the AP. “We'll see the Trump administration in court about it.”
Botanic gardens are a perfect place for an afternoon stroll or to the site for a wedding photoshoot, but a new study shows the plant palaces are more than just pretty spaces. As Helen Briggs at the BBC reports, a survey of the world’s botanic gardens show that the institutions hold about one third of the plant species identified by humans so far and breed about 40 percent of endangered species.
The study, published in the journal Nature Plants, analyzed data from Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), which has inventories of 1,116 gardens, which the researchers estimate accounts for about one third of the botanic gardens on the planet. The researchers found that the gardens grow 105,634 species of plants, or roughly 30 percent of the 350,699 plant species known to science.
“This is the first time that we have carried out a global assessment to look at the wide range of plants grown, managed and conserved in botanic gardens," BCGI secretary general Dr Paul Smith tells Briggs. “So, for the first time we know what we have and, perhaps more importantly, what is missing from botanic gardens.”
As Reuters reports, while the collection is impressive the study shows that the holdings are uneven. For instance, though tropical plants make up the majority the world’s plant species, they only represent 25 percent of the holdings at botanic gardens. One reason is that the majority of the gardens are located in Europe and North America, temperate regions where tropical species need to be grown in specialized greenhouses.
Briggs also reports that endangered species make up about 10 percent of botanic garden holdings, a number that the authors believe should be increased. “Currently, an estimated one-fifth of plant diversity is under threat, yet there is no technical reason why any plant species should become extinct,” Dr Samuel Brockington of the University of Cambridge, a researcher on the study tells Briggs. “If we do not conserve our plant diversity, humanity will struggle to solve the global challenges of food and fuel security, environmental degradation, and climate change.”
The researchers point in the press release that some of the world’s most interesting plant species are not well-represented at all in botanic gardens. Only about five percent nonvascular plants like liverworts and mosses are represented in the gardens. Unusual plants like the aquatic Hydrostachys polymorpha which only grows in waterfalls and fast flowing streams in Africa and Pilostyles thurberi which lives in the stems of desert shrubs are also largely absent.
This is not the first survey of plant life BGCI has conducted. In April, the organization released the best estimate of tree species on earth, finding 60,065 types of trees, an assessment that will also help conservationists manage and protect endangered species.
Every year in late summer, monarch butterflies embark on an incredible migration. As the temperatures in the United States and southern Canada begin to drop, the bugs take off for the warmer weather in central Mexico and central and southern California—surviving trips spanning between 1,200 and 2,800 miles. But, as the numbers of butterflies taking that big journey drastically decrease, scientists are increasingly worried about the continuation of the species.
In 1996, an estimated 1 billion monarchs made the trip down to Mexico, as opposed to the mere 35 million that did so in 2013—that’s an almost 90 percent decrease over the last two decades. The primary culprit for the drop is the rapid loss of the monarch caterpillar’s sole food source, milkweed. Normally, milkweed grows easily in fields and gardens and around roadways, but it has become a casualty of human expansion and agricultural practices. (While genetically modified crops can resist poisonous herbicides, typically unwanted plants like milkweed are killed off.)
Without milkweed, there are no monarchs. Adding to the butterfly’s woes is increased deforestation of the mountains where they spend the winters.
Upon the urging of the several conservation groups, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced last week that it would consider listing the butterfly under the Endangered Species Act. The move would offer habitat protection and outlaw killing, collecting or trading monarchs across state lines.
As the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducts a review of population numbers and existing conservation efforts over the next year, advocates hope the protective measure will indeed be implemented to help rescue the future of the iconic black and orange bug. In the meantime, some monarch conservation groups are offering free milkweed seeds to anyone who is willing to pitch in to help save the species.
Yesterday, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced that the Yellowstone grizzly bear will be taken off the endangered species next month, reports Jim Robbins at the New York Times. The bear was first placed on the endangered species list in 1975, when there were an estimated 136 creatures left in greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Now, that population has climbed to about 700 bears—with about 150 living in Yellowstone National Park itself.
Though the Yellowstone grizzly is not a distinct species or subspecies of grizzly bear, the Interior Department manages the creatures as a distinct population living in northwestern Wyoming, southwestern Montana and eastern Idaho. Other grizzly bear populations in the Lower 48 will continue to be protected by the Endangered Species Act, including a population of about 1,000 that live in and around Montana’s Glacier National Park.
According to Robbins, while the bears living in Yellowstone National Park will continue to be federally protected, the de-listing means bears living or wandering outside Yellowstone will likely be managed by the states of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Local governments will be responsible for determining how to handle problem bears and will have the option of opening up a hunting season for grizzlies. But the federal government would continue to monitor the state management for five years, and if the number of bears drops below 600, special rules would activate to reduce hunting.
Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, touted the de-listing as a success. “As a kid who grew up in Montana, I can tell you that this is a long time coming and very good news for many communities and advocates in the Yellowstone region,” he says in a statement. “This achievement stands as one of America’s great conservation successes; the culmination of decades of hard work and dedication on the part of the state, tribal, federal and private partners.”
Environmental groups, however, have vowed to sue to stop the de-listing and local Native American Tribes also object to the move. “Grizzly bears are the slowest reproducing mammal on the planet, and a population decline can take decades to reverse,” Endangered Species Coalition field representative Derek Goldman tells Colin Dwyer at NPR. “Therefore we have been calling on Fish and Wildlife Service and the states to develop adequate management plans for grizzly bears before any de-listing is finalized.”
This is not the first time the move has been attempted. Under the Obama administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed de-listing the Yellowstone grizzly. But a massive batch of 650,000 public comments led to a delay in the decision, reports Karen Brulliard at The Washington Post. The FWS also proposed the bear for de-listing in 2007 reports Robbins, but that plan was halted by a court over concerns that insects were destroying white bark pine in the region, a major food source for the bears.
Chris Servheen, FWS’s former grizzly bear recovery coordinator who managed the program for 35 years, tells Brulliard the bears are resilient enough to survive de-listing and that they could still thrive under a well-managed hunting program. But he believes the population should stay about the size it is now to remain ecologically viable. But he adds, “a managed population decline post-delisting is not biologically defensible. We didn’t recover them to drive the population down.”
The number of Yellowstone bears has hit a plateau since the early 2000s, something many land managers and researchers see as a sign that the ecosystem has reached its carrying capacity for bears. But others think the opposite, that the bears are in trouble.
As Luke Whelan at Wired reports, droughts and habitat destruction have impacted four major food sources for the bears—whitebark pine seed, army cutworm moths, elk and cutthroat trout—potentially reducing the ecosystem's carrying capacity for bears. Without ESA protections, many worry that more logging, mining and road construction would further reduce or fragment grizzly habitat in Yellowstone's ecosystem.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the body that administers the world’s official endangered species list, announced yesterday that it was moving the giraffe from a species of Least Concern to Vulnerable status in its Red List of Threatened Species report. That means the animal faces extinction in the wild in the medium-term future if nothing is done to minimize the threats to its life or habitat. The next steps are endangered, critically endangered, extinct in the wild and extinct.
Poaching of elephants and rhinoceros and the illegal trade in pangolins has overshadowed the problems with giraffes in the last decade. But Damian Carrington at The Guardian reports that giraffe numbers have dropped precipitously in the last 31 years, from 157,000 individuals in 1985 to 97,500 at last count.
“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,” Julian Fennessy, the co-chair of the IUCN's Species Survival Commission's Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group says in a press release. “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 face two main threats, encroachment from cities and towns into their habitat and poaching. Poaching has become increasingly problematic. Some food insecure villagers kill the animals for their meat, but Jani Actman at National Geographic reports many giraffes are slaughtered just for their tails, which are considered a status symbol and have been used as a dowry when asking a bride’s father for his daughters hand in marriage in some cultures.
Patrick Healy at The New York Times reports that red list divides the giraffe into nine subspecies. Five of those subspecies are decreasing in numbers while two populations are increasing and one is stable. West African giraffes, the smallest subspecies, have grown from 50 individuals in the 1990s to about 400 today. But that success took a massive amount of effort from the government of Niger and conservation groups.
It will take similar efforts throughout the giraffe's wide range to arrest its plummeting numbers. Derek Lee, founder of the Wild Nature Institute who contributed to the IUCN update tells Healy that both poaching and habitat encroachment need to be stopped to save the giraffe. “These are problems everywhere for giraffes,” he says. “You need to stop both threats.”
While increasing funding for anti-poaching efforts can do some good, Lee thinks stopping habitat encroachment is a much more difficult prospect, since it would mean interfering with land development, mining and other economic activities and livelihoods.
The biggest problem for giraffes, though, may be the lack of attention over the years. “I am absolutely amazed that no one has a clue,” Julian Fennessy, executive director of Giraffe Conservation Foundation tells 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, tells the Associated Press. In fact, giraffes have silently been going extinct across Africa over the last century. The animal is already gone from seven countries, Burkina Faso, Eritrea, Guinea, Malawi, Mauritania, Nigeria and Senegal.
The IUCN Red List—the most comprehensive inventory of disappearing species around the world—warns that snow leopards are endangered and Mekong giant catfish are on the brink of extinction. But what about the habitats these species live in? In the journal PLoS One, an international team of 34 scientists propose that ecosystems, too, should be evaluated for red-list status.
In their paper, they write:
The scientific challenges in building a unified risk assessment framework for ecosystems are likely greater than those faced during development of Red List criteria for species.
Many of the mechanisms and symptoms of species vulnerability are relevant to ecosystems, because species are integral parts of ecosystems. Yet ecosystems embody processes and higher-order components of biodiversity that are difficult or impossible to account for in species-by-species assessment.
Those obstacles include designing criteria both specific enough to capture the special features of any given ecosystem and general enough to apply all over the globe. To solve this problem, the team assessed 20 diverse ecosystems from around the world—seagrass meadows, coastal sandstone upland swamps, red gum forests and semi-evergreen vine thickets. Science World Report continues:
The scientists then used five criteria to determine whether these environments were critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable. These criteria included how fast the ecosystem was declining, the size of the area involved, the characteristics of the physical environment, biological processes and how they interact and how all of these factors come together.
From their initial analyses, the researchers gave each ecosystem a listing, such as “least concern,” “vulnerable” or “endangered.” Their results indicate that the Coorong lagoons in southern Australia, karst rising springs and coastal sandstone upland swamps are all critically endangered—on the verge of extinction, if business continues as usual.
More from Smithsonian.com:
Between 1985 and 2016, the world's giraffe population plummeted by nearly 40 percent. Just over 97,000 of the long-necked mammals remain the wild, including 68,000 mature adults, which is equivalent to less than a quarter of the world’s estimated African elephant population, reports Michael Biesecker for the Associated Press. While elephants were listed as a threatened species under the United States’ Endangered Species Act in 1978, giraffes have yet to receive any such legal protections.
However, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced last week that they would agree to review the animal's current status. As the Washington Post’s Kayla Epstein reports, Fish and Wildlife Service officials now have up to 12 months to conduct an in-depth review of giraffes’ suitability for the list. Following a period of public comment, the agency will make its final decision.
A petition filed by environmental and conservation groups in April 2017 may pave the way for giraffes’ addition to the legislative act. According to the statement, the petition presents “substantial information that listing may be warranted,” as threats, including land development, civil unrest, commercial trade and poaching, pose major obstacles to the species’ long-term survival.
Crucially, Mihir Zaveri of The New York Times writes, some conservationists say the review process could last longer than anticipated, perhaps even taking years. After all, the wildlife service’s response to the 2017 petition arrived two years after filing rather than within the 90-day window mandated by federal law. The coalition behind the appeal sued in December to compel a response, but it remains unclear whether this lawsuit is what prompted last week’s announcement. As Adam Peyman, manager of wildlife programs and operations for the Humane Society International, tells Zaveri, the government agency “routinely misse[s] deadlines.”
If the petition proves successful, conservation campaigns aimed at supporting giraffes will become eligible for federal funding, and the largely unregulated practice of importing giraffe body parts will be curbed. According to the Post’s Epstein, 39,516 giraffe specimens, including 21,402 bone carvings, 3,008 pieces of skin and 3,744 hunting trophies, were imported into the U.S. between 2006 and 2015. Some of these body parts were subsequently used to make expensive pillows, boots, knife handles, Bible covers and various trinkets.
Speaking with The New York Times' Zaveri, Peyman explains that legal hunting, as opposed to habitat loss and poaching, has a relatively slim impact on global giraffe populations. The AP’s Biesecker adds that locals in the 21 African countries where the giant mammals roam regularly hunt the animals for meat, while trophy hunters are increasingly tracking down giraffes as other big-game targets grow scarce.
Paul Babaz, president of the pro-hunting Safari Club International, tells Biesecker that giraffes’ numbers are dropping even in countries where hunting them is banned, arguing, “It is obvious to me that a lack of hunting is a cause for the decline in giraffe numbers.”
Trophy hunters’ permit fees occasionally fund anti-poaching initiatives in African countries. In a statement decrying giraffes’ listing as an endangered species, the group said: “These measures would reduce U.S. hunters’ willingness to pay top-dollar for giraffe hunts. Without offering anything in return, an ESA listing could reduce the revenues and incentives currently being generated by hunting. That means reduced habitat protection, less funding for anti-poaching and fewer benefits for the rural people who live side-by-side with giraffes and other wildlife.”
Others, including members of the conservation groups that presented the petition, emphasize the benefits of listing giraffes under the ESA. The animals were listed as vulnerable on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species in 2016, and two subspecies are further classified as endangered or critically endangered.
“The United States has long been complicit in the trade of giraffe parts, so it’s time for the federal government to stick its neck out for this species,” Elly Pepper of the National Resources Defense Council notes in a statement. “... Now it is time to take action to ensure giraffes remain on the planet. They need Endangered Species Act protections and they need them now.”
African lions in central and West Africa will received the protection of the U.S.'s Endangered Species Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service announced this week. The move will make it harder to import live lions and lion parts such as heads and skins, reports Erica Goode for The New York Times.
It's hard not to link the decision, at least in part, to the killing of an African lion named Cecil this past July by an American dentist. However, the agency said that the change in status was needed thanks to "newly available scientific information on the genetics and taxonomy of lions," writes Goode.
A statement from the FWS explains that research in recent years has revealed that lions living in central and West Africa are more related to Asiatic lions than the subspecies that lives in eastern and southern Africa, which will be classified as threatened.
The move doesn’t prevent Americans from hunting African lions, but it does make it harder to bring trophies back after a hunt. Hunters will first need to apply to the U.S. for a permit. A special rule states that lions in countries where they are threatened, such as Tanzania, Zimbabwe and South Africa, can be imported as trophies as long as the animals were killed legally. Most trophy hunting happens in those regions, where lions are more numerous.
Another recent study found that unless major steps are taken, African lion populations could shrink by half in the next two decades. The president of the Humane Society of the United States, which was one of the groups that petitioned for the listing, called Cecil’s killing a "defining moment." Cecil, a well-studied lion, had been lured out of a protected national park for the hunt and his death ignited a fierce international debate about the ethics and merits of trophy hunting.
The new ruling puts stronger protections in place than a 2014 proposal that would have classified all African lions as threatened, Goode reports.
In October, a FWS assessment of the threats facing lions named habitat loss, competition for prey with bushmeat hunters and conflicts between lions and people, reports John R. Platt for Scientific American, in a story written following the 2014 proposal.
This last category would include the encounters that arise when lions prey on livestock—a problem that likely drove someone to poison lions on a national reserve in Kenya recently. That kind of “retaliatory or preemptive” attack against lions is the worst threat the species faces according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Platt reports. The IUCN lists all African lions as vulnerable on their Red List.
"If we want to ensure that healthy lion populations continue to roam the African savannas and forests of India, it’s up to all of us—not just the people of Africa and India—to take action,” says the FWS director, Dan Ashe, in a statement.
Africa isn’t the kind of place you might expect to find penguins. But one species lives along Africa’s southern coast today, and newly found fossils […]
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Today’s cutting-edge laboratories rely on ultra-cold refrigeration to keep delicate cells like sperm viable for use in the future. But a new technique using microwaves […]
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It was an exciting and busy 24 hours at the National Zoo’s Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, Va., last week as three births took place just hours apart. On the evening of July 9, a clouded leopard cub was born, followed by a Przewalski’s horse foal and a red panda cub.
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