Bid to grant MSC ‘ecolabel’ to bluefin tuna fishery raises fears for ‘king of fish’

Conservationists warn the species, which was almost extinct 10 years ago, could be under threat if Japanese fishery is MSC certified

Traditional bluefin tuna fishing off the coast of Spain

Traditional bluefin tuna fishing off the coast of Spain. Photograph: Pablo Blázquez Domínguez/Getty

A decade ago, the highly prized “king of fish”, the bluefin tuna, was taken off menus in high-end restaurants and shunned by top chefs, amid warnings by environmentalists that it was being driven to extinction. Recent assessments of eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna, which can grow to the size of a small car and live for up to 40 years, have shown much healthier populations.

But now conservationists and scientists are warning that the largest and most valuable tuna species could once again be under threat if a Japanese bluefin fishery in the eastern Atlantic Ocean is awarded an internationally recognised “ecolabel” they claim is based on flawed science.

On Monday 1 June, an independent judge will hear evidence from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Japanese fishery and assessors for the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), to help determine whether the assessors were right to recommend the fishery receives its label. If approved, the Japanese company Usufuku Honten can sell the first ever MSC-certified bluefin tuna to consumers, marking it as a well-managed sustainable fishery.

WWF and Pew will argue strongly against the award, saying it is too early to declare that the bluefin tuna stock is fully recovered. They have identified a “number of shortfalls” in the assessment process and say there has been a lack of impartiality.

Usufuku Honten is a small company with just one vessel in the Atlantic but with demand increasing for sustainable tuna in Japan, where 80% of bluefin tuna is consumed, it could open the floodgates, WWF says. A French fishery has also applied to be MSC certified.

If the judge finds in the conservationists favour, it could deal a blow to MSC’s reputation as the world’s leading sustainable seafood label. MSC says that 15% of the world’s fisheries are now certified under its scheme.

Marine Stewardship Council MSC tin of tuna certified sustainable seafood. Image shot 01/2013. Exact date unknown.D2KDK1 Marine Stewardship Council MSC tin of tuna certified sustainable seafood. Image shot 01/2013. Exact date unknown.

15% of the world’s fisheries are certified by MSC. Photograph: Steven May/Alamy

Giuseppe Di Carlo, director of the WWF Mediterranean marine initiative, believes it would be “market fraud” if the fishery was certified. “It is the first bluefin tuna fishery, so every fishery afterwards will be benchmarked by the same standards.

“For the Japanese market, which is so hungry for bluefin tuna, MSC certification is the cherry on the cake.”

A single bluefin can fetch hundreds of thousands of pounds at auction in Japan.

WWF’s objections are based around standards used by the label’s assessors, independent of the MSC, to gauge the health of the bluefin population and their assessment of how the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT), the fisheries oversight body, currently manages the catch.

To be certified by MSC, a process that takes 18 months, a fishery is first assessed by independent “conformity assessment bodies” (CABs). They visit the fishery, consult with experts and consider all available data to decide whether it meets MSC criteria. There are currently 11 CABs, one of which is UK-based Control Union Pesca (CUP). Last year, in its preliminary report, CUP decided Usufuku Honten met the criteria for MSC certification.

Di Carlo claimed there was a “lack of impartiality” in this process as well as what he believes is flawed science: “The MSC claims to be very rigorous in its scientific approach but here we have a case where the MSC’s assessors used a number of values far below the scientific average. We know it is not a sustainable fishery but the MSC assessors are coming up with values that ensures it passes. To me, that’s not telling the truth about sustainability.”

An audit of the process, carried out by a third party auditor, Assurance Services International, found CUP had assured Usufuku in 2018 that it would be the first bluefin tuna fishery to be certified, after the company had expressed concern over the French fishery also seeking approval. In its report, the auditor described this as one of six “minor nonconformity” issues, under standards around impartiality. MSC said CUP has since taken action to address the issues flagged by ASI.

WWF, which co-created the now independent MSC scheme two decades ago, has objected to 17 of its certifications in total, mostly unsuccessfully, and has called on the body to reform.

“We think the MSC is an excellent tool,” Di Carlo said “We have already said clearly we haven’t seen enough reform in the MSC system to be satisfied that they are meeting sustainability criteria. I would not trust all of the fisheries to be sustainable.”

Grantly Galland, an officer at the Pew Charitable Trusts, said that after years of overfishing it was premature to “declare victory” for bluefin tuna.

“The most recent stock assessment for the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean was riddled with uncertainties,” Galland said. “The scientists were unable to confirm whether the stock has recovered.

“We are objecting because we think the certifying body got it wrong. They concluded ICCAT’s management was a bit more robust than it was in reality.”

In a letter posted on the MSC website, Sotaro Usui, CEO of Usufuku Honten, described WWF’s objection as “disappointing and unfair” and accused it of taking advantage of the review to criticise MSC and ICCAT.

In 2017, ICCAT scientists who estimate the health of the migratory bluefin tuna population were unable to say with certainty that the stock had recovered, and recommended “caution” in setting quotas.

Shana Miller, a senior officer in international fisheries conservation for the Ocean Foundation, said: “There’s no dispute that the population is better off than it was 10 years ago. But are we at the point where the population has recovered? We don’t know. ICCAT scientists don’t know. And if they don’t know, how can the MSC know they have recovered?”

Steven Adolf, researcher and author of Tuna Wars, said: “The MSC is still the best certification standard we have, but there is room for improvement. And I think the MSC are aware of that. ICCAT does not have a very robust management and Pew, WWF and MSC have a common interest to improve that.”

Dr Rohan Currey, the chief science and standards officer at MSC, said an assessment includes “many layers of scrutiny, and input from a wide range of stakeholders”.

“It ensures the independent assessor takes all available information into account when deciding if a fishery is or is not sustainable.

“This bluefin fishery – Usufuku Honten – asked to be assessed in 2018 and that process is still under way. As part of this, WWF and the Pew Trusts will shortly have the opportunity to present unresolved objections to an independent legal expert, who will then decide a way forward.”

“We cannot prejudge the outcome of this assessment – but fisheries only get certified if they can demonstrate, through evidence, that they meet the MSC’s robust standard. Clearly, this is vital for a stock such as the eastern Atlantic blue which has suffered historic overexploitation.”

A spokesperson for Control Union Pesca, now Control Union, told the Guardian it would not be appropriate to comment, as some of the points raised by WWF and Pew are under consideration by an adjudicator.

  • This article was amended on 1 June 2020 to make clear the stock recovery relates to eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna. Bluefin tuna populations in other areas, including in the western Atlantic, continue to struggle.

10 years to save ‘world’s most threatened sea turtle’

Eastern Pacific LeatherbackImage copyrightFUNDAOPRNCIPE_FFI
Image captionNumbers are declining due to accidental fishing and egg collecting

The largest turtle in the ocean, the leatherback gets its name from its tough, rubbery skin.

Migrating long distances a year, the turtle can cross the Pacific Ocean.

But with threats like getting tangled in fishing gear, the future for one distinct population looks “dire,” say conservation groups.

At the current rate of decline, the critically endangered Eastern Pacific leatherback turtle will vanish within 60 years.

We have just 10 years left to put measures in place to save it, says a group of conservation scientists and organisations including Fauna & Flora International (FFI).

“We have it within our power to protect these animals and enable them to thrive, but all those who have a hand in shaping their future need to work together to do so,” said Alison Gunn, programme manager for the Americas and the Caribbean at FFI.

The Pacific populations are critically endangeredImage copyrightJEREMY HOLDEN / FAUNA & FLORA INTERNATIONAL
Image captionEgg collection on nesting beaches is a threat

Leatherback turtles are found across the world. While considered a single species, populations found in different oceans are reproductively distinct. The Pacific leatherbacks are most at risk of extinction, with both Eastern Pacific and Western Pacific leatherbacks continuing to decline.

Key nesting habitats in the Eastern Pacific are in Mexico and Costa Rica, with some isolated nesting in Panama and Nicaragua. Over the last three generations, there has been a greater than 90% decline in the female nesting population.

“If this particular population goes they’re completely irreplaceable, because they’re unique to this particular part of the oceans,” said Alison Gunn. “There’s a lot of conservation action happening right now. We need to increase the collaboration that’s already happening in order to ensure that this population is not lost.”

Key interventions

If conservation efforts are targeted and scaled up at high-priority sites, and projects are quickly implemented and maintained, the Eastern Pacific leatherback population can eventually stabilise and increase, according to a population model.

Two things must be achieved in the next 10 years to save the Eastern Pacific leatherback:

  • Avoiding the deaths of 200-260 leatherbacks a year caused by “bycatch” of turtles in fisheries
  • Producing 7,000-8,000 more hatchlings a year through better nest protection and improved incubation conditions.

Leatherbacks are the largest of all sea turtles, weighing up to 2,000lb (900kg) and reaching over 6ft (2m) in length.

The population of leatherbacks in the Eastern Pacific has declined by more than 90% since the 1980s, which qualifies as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

The study is published in the journal, Scientific Reports.

Unfair press for the pangolin? Brookfield Zoo experts fear possible coronavirus links may further threaten this at-risk animal.

Biggie, a pangolin at the Brookfield Zoo, moves in his enclosure on Feb. 13, 2020. World Pangolin Day is Saturday.
Biggie, a pangolin at the Brookfield Zoo, moves in his enclosure on Feb. 13, 2020. World Pangolin Day is Saturday. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)

Animal enthusiasts across the globe on Saturday will celebrate the ninth annual World Pangolin Day, designated to help protect what is believed to be the most illegally trafficked mammal on Earth.

Yet the festivities come in the wake of some bad press for this already at-risk animal. While research isn’t at all conclusive, some scientists in China have preliminarily named the highly poached pangolin as the possible transmitter of coronavirus to humans, potentially linking the rare and enigmatic creature to a public health epidemic that has killed more than a thousand globally and sickened 15 in the United States as of Thursday.

Now those working to save this intriguing, scale-covered mammal fear that anxiety over the new virus that originated in Wuhan, China, could further threaten the pangolin, whose eight species native to Asia and Africa range from vulnerable to critically endangered, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

“You can get an overreaction, that’s a possibility, that if the right information isn’t provided there would be a growing fear of pangolins out there, no matter where they are,” said Bill Zeigler, senior vice president of animal programs at the Brookfield Zoo.

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The Brookfield Zoo is among the few institutions in the United States that care for pangolins, which first arrived there in 2016. The gentle, reclusive animal seems to resemble an anteater, snake and armadillo all in one. It is the only mammal covered in an armor of keratin scales, known to roll up in a ball as its main protection against predators.

The zoo now houses a dozen white-bellied tree pangolins, a species indigenous to Africa. A male named Biggie is on display in the exhibit “Habitat Africa! The Forest.” The others are kept in private for breeding, zoo officials said.

Along with six other institutions, the zoo launched the Pangolin Consortium several years ago to help study and protect this lesser-known animal.

“This is a group of species that very little is known about,” Zeigler said. “Until recently we knew little about their reproductive physiology, how they communicate with one another. How do they meet? How do males and females find one another to breed? Can they survive in disturbed habitats?”

Brookfield Zoo's pangolin Biggie briefly moves around in his enclosure on Feb. 13, 2020.
Brookfield Zoo’s pangolin Biggie briefly moves around in his enclosure on Feb. 13, 2020. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)

Although internationally protected, the pangolin is illegally hunted for its prized meat as well as its scales, which are purported to cure a litany of ailments in the traditional medicine of various cultures. A report released earlier this week by the Wildlife Justice Commission warned the recent increase in trafficking of pangolins has reached “unprecedented levels.”

Citing preliminary genetic testing, researchers at a Chinese university earlier this month suggested the pangolin could be a “potential intermediate host” of coronavirus, possibly spreading the disease from bats to humans.

Many independent scientists have questioned these findings, saying more data are needed to draw any definitive conclusions.

The theory, though, ignited a spectrum of reactions on social media.

“Kill them all if we wanna stay alive … I love animals but that thing gotta go,” someone commented on the Twitter page of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, a multigovernment treaty designed to protect vulnerable wildlife.

However, some expressed hope that poaching might decrease if the demand for pangolin meat and scales dwindled over potential coronavirus fears.

“Humans need to learn (a) lesson … animals don’t exist just for our consumption or abuse,” read another tweet.

Brookfield Zoo has various activities planned for World Pangolin Day, including several talks about the pangolin hosted by animal care experts. Kids can make pangolins out of pine cones ― the shape and texture mimicking the animal’s scaly frame — at the Hamill Family Play Zoo.

Zoo officials are also asking the public to sign a petition in support of Illinois legislation that would ban the sale, trade and distribution of pangolin products statewide.

The American public has only become aware of threats against the pangolin in the last decade or so, Zeigler said. But the animal’s popularity appears to have soared in that time, with dozens of YouTube videos of the mysterious creature getting hundreds of thousands of page views. A pangolin debuted in a 2016 episode of the PBS cartoon “Wild Kratts,” rescued by the show’s protagonists before nearly becoming an ingredient in a health food smoothie.

The pangolin has emerged as a poster child of sorts for the conservation movement, Zeigler said, in part due to its curious appearance and demeanor that many find adorable.

“If you’ve ever seen a pangolin pup on the back of its mother, this is just too cute of an animal to not be concerned about,” he said. “This is an animal that you look at and go, ‘My God, how does this animal survive out there?’ We need to protect it. It’s cuddly. It’s cute.”

Two cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in Illinois, though both patients — a woman who recently traveled to Wuhan and her husband, who contracted it from her — were discharged from the hospital to home isolation earlier this month. Fifteen coronavirus cases had been confirmed across the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Internationally, the virus has infected about 60,000 people, with more than 1,300 deaths.

Most health experts in the United States, however, say the risk of contracting coronavirus here is very low, and the flu is still a far more dangerous and ubiquitous threat.

Zeigler cautioned against alarm at any initial research connecting the pangolin to coronavirus, arguing that more definitive studies are necessary. He added that he hopes for a coronavirus vaccine as well as other methods to counter the person-to-person spread of the disease.

“There is the concern out there for the future of the pangolin,” he said. “My hope is that we’re able to create a vaccine and protect people, and stop the spread of this particular event. And at the same time, maintain and protect pangolins.”

Three billion North American birds have vanished since 1970, surveys show

Shorebirds such as sanderlings may be dwindling because of habitat loss.

TIM GRAHAM/GETTY IMAGES

https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/09/three-billion-north-american-birds-have-vanished-1970-surveys-show?fbclid=IwAR3HIZNOqT07fBPzPa1qjyjuHj9T3CQFpSmsKYXdUOQ0WkdNdZ1qqrUNJgg

North America’s birds are disappearing from the skies at a rate that’s shocking even to ornithologists. Since the 1970s, the continent has lost 3 billion birds, nearly 30% of the total, and even common birds such as sparrows and blackbirds are in decline, U.S. and Canadian researchers report this week online in Science. “It’s staggering,” says first author Ken Rosenberg, a conservation scientist at the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology. The findings raise fears that some familiar species could go the way of the passenger pigeon, a species once so abundant that its extinction in the early 1900s seemed unthinkable.

The results, from the most comprehensive inventory ever done of North American birds, point to ecosystems in disarray because of habitat loss and other factors that have yet to be pinned down, researchers say. Yet ecologist Paul Ehrlich at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who has been warning about shrinking plant and animal populations for decades, sees some hope in this new jolt of bad news: “It might stir needed action in light of the public interest in our feathered friends.”

In past decades, Ehrlich and others have documented the decline of particular bird groups, including migratory songbirds. But 5 years ago, Rosenberg; Peter Marra, a conservation biologist now at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.; and their colleagues decided to take a broader look at what is happening in North America’s skies. They first turned to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, an annual spring census carried out by volunteers across Canada and the United States, which has amassed decades of data about 420 bird species. The team also drew on the Audubon Christmas Bird Count for data on about 55 species found in boreal forests and the Arctic tundra, and on the International Shorebird Survey for trends in shorebirds such as sandpipers and plovers. Aerial surveys of water bodies, swamps, and marshes filled out the picture for waterfowl. All together, they studied 529 bird species, about three-quarters of all species in North America, accounting for more than 90% of the entire bird population.

“I frankly thought it was going to be kind of a wash,” Rosenberg says. He expected rarer species would be disappearing but common species would be on the rise, compensating for the losses, because they tend to be generalists, and more resilient. Indeed, waterfowl and raptors are thriving, thanks to habitat restoration and other conservation efforts. But the declines in many other species, particularly those living along shorelines and in grasslands, far exceeded those gains, Rosenberg and his colleagues report. Grassland birds have declined by 53% since 1970—a loss of 700 million adults in the 31 species studied, including meadowlarks and northern bobwhites. Shorebirds such as sanderlings and plovers are down by about one-third, the team says. Habitat loss may be to blame.

The familiar birds that flock by the thousands in suburbs were not exempt. “There’s an erosion of the numbers of common birds,” Rosenberg says. His team determined that 19 common species have each lost more than 50 million birds since 1970. Twelve groups, including sparrows, warblers, finches, and blackbirds, were particularly hard hit. Even introduced species that have thrived in North America, such as starlings and house sparrows, are losing ground.

Tallying the losses

Annual surveys show that since 1970, North American birds have dwindled in all habitats except wetlands (top). Whereas most groups have declined (bottom), ducks and geese have flourished, as have raptors since the 1972 ban on DDT.

WetlandsAmerican sparrowsWood warblersBlackbirdsOld world sparrowsLarksFinchesSwallows, nightjars, swiftsTyrant flycatchersStarlingsThrushesTurkeys and grouseRaptorsGnatcatchersDucks and geeseVireosCoastsArid landsEastern forestForest generalistHabitat generalistArctic tundraWestern forestBoreal forestGrasslandDecline by type (%)Bird decline by habitat (%)–50–30–10–40–20010–50050200
K. ROSENBERG ET AL.SCIENCE, ADAPTED BY N. DESAI/SCIENCE

“When you lose a common species, the impact will be much more massive on the ecosystem and ecosystem services,” says Gerardo Ceballos, an ecologist and conservation biologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City. “It’s showing the magnitude of the problem.”

Some of the causes may be subtle. Last week, toxicologists described how low doses of neonicotinoids—a common pesticide—made migrating sparrows lose weight and delay their migration, which hurts their chances of surviving and reproducing. Climate change, habitat loss, shifts in food webs, and even cats may all be adding to the problem, and not just for birds. “There’s general ecosystem collapse that could be happening here,” Marra says.

Weather radar data revealed similarly steep declines. Radar detects not just rain, but also insect swarms and flocks of birds, which stand out at night, when birds usually migrate. “We don’t see individual birds, it’s more like a big blob moving through airspace,” explains Cornell migration ecologist Adriaan Dokter. He converted “blobs” from 143 radar stations into biomass. Between 2007 and 2017, that biomass declined 13%, the Science paper reports. The greatest decline was in birds migrating up the eastern United States. “It’s an independent data set that confirms the other work,” says Nicole Michel, a population biologist with the National Audubon Society’s Conservation Science Division in Portland, Oregon.

“We want this to be the real wake-up call,” Rosenberg says. The recovery of eagles and other raptors after the U.S. ban on the insecticide DDT in 1972 shows that when the cause of a decline is removed, “the birds come back like gangbusters.” This time around, reversing habitat loss—from the conversion of grasslands for biofuel crops or coastal development, for example—could help stabilize populations.

Concurrent with the paper, a coalition of conservation groups has come up with policy recommendations and an action plan for citizens. Simple steps, such as keeping cats indoors or planting native plants, can help, Rosenberg says. “I am not saying we can stop the decline of every bird species, but I am weirdly hopeful.”

The jaguars fishing in the sea to survive

The big cats’ resourceful new behaviour was recorded by a WWF study on a remote island off the coast of Brazil

by 

A thriving population of jaguars living on a small, unspoilt island off the coast of the Brazilian Amazon has learned to catch fish in the sea to survive, conservationists have found.

The Maracá-Jipioca Ecological Station island reserve, three miles off the northern state of Amapá, acts as a nursery for jaguars, according to WWF researchers who have collared three cats and set up 70 camera traps on the remote jungle island.

Although jaguars have previously been spotted catching fish in Brazil’s Pantanal wetlands, this is believed to be the first evidence the elusive creatures have been jumping in the sea to catch prey.

“This is the first time that behaviour has been spotted in the Amazon,” said Marcelo Oliveira, senior programme officer at WWF Brazil, who is leading the NGO’s first jaguar-collaring research. “On the way [past the camera], the jaguar was dry and on the way back it was wet and had a moving fish in its mouth.” He believes a big proportion of their diet is likely to be fish.

A jaguar caught on camera with a fish in its mouth.

Oliveira said the jaguars have two fishing techniques – one is to wait for the tide to come in and to catch fish in the ponds that form among the mangroves, the other is to jump into the sea. “I’m not aware of any other jaguar population that eats so much fish – it’s very unusual,” he added.

The 600 sq km (230 sq mile) island – which is protected by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) – has no human residents and animals have little contact with people. It has a diverse landscape of tropical forests, flooded grasslands, dense coastal mangroves and mudflats.

An aerial shot of Igarapé Cobra and Hell’s Canal on the island nature reserve of Maracá-Jipioca Ecological Station, Amapa, Brazil.

It is also a stop-off point for a number of migratory birds, including American flamingos, osprey and cuckoos. Fishermen say they have seen jaguars – as well as deer, anteaters and buffalo – swimming between the island and mainland.

There are 27 jaguars on the island and five to six cats per 100 sq km in some parts. Normally only two to five jaguars would share a territory of this size. The island’s jaguars are believed to hunt deer, buffalo, lizards and monkeys, but a plentiful supply of fish could be the secret to their success, researchers say.

Iranildo Coutinho, head of the ecological station on the island, describes it as a “kind of nursery or sanctuary” for jaguars because it may be fuelling populations on the mainland. “The fishermen often say that the island produces jaguars. It is the only coastal island along the coast of the Amazon and this is why it holds very important samples of fauna and coastal vegetation that are very well preserved and act almost like a live laboratory,” he said.

A three-toed sloth, a flock of flamingos, and a toco toucan

The area of mainland adjacent to the island is dangerous for jaguars as there are several buffalo farmers who feel threatened by the presence of the cats. At the end of 2018, a female jaguar was killed with her cub after attacking dogs in the village of Sucuriju, 30 miles (50km) from the island.

Jaguars are near threatened according to the IUCN red list, with sharp declines caused by deforestation and the illegal wildlife trade, which targets them for their skin and body parts.

The Amazon is the single largest remaining stronghold for jaguars, but it is estimated recent wildfires have destroyed the habitats of 500 individuals. These cats are one of the largest predators in South America and are often seen as a litmus test for forest health.

A jaguar in a tree on Maracá-Jipioca reserve.

The satellite technology fitted to the collars of the jaguars on Maracá-Jipioca provides researchers with hourly updates on the animals’ movements. The camera traps have already taken more than 30,000 pictures. Understanding how a predator uses its territory will help researchers learn how to limit inevitable conflicts with humans.

WWF conservationists also collected blood samples from the collared jaguars to work out if they are crossing onto the mainland to breed – if not, then they are likely to have a very small gene pool, which could pose a problem for the long-term health of the population.

Researchers place a GPS collar on a jaguar for research and monitoring.
A jaguar being fitted with a GPS collar
A veterinarian examines jaguar’s teeth after the GPS collar has been fitted.
Researchers measure the jaguar’s paw.
  • Researchers place a GPS collar on a jaguar for research and monitoring.

Dr Chris Carbone, a senior research fellow at the Zoological Society of London who is an expert on predator-prey relationships, said the research (in which he was not involved) shows how versatile these cats are. “It is good to see jaguars showing such adaptability, as wildlife in general are increasingly exposed to reductions in their habitats and this ability to adapt may be critical for the future survival of such populations,” he said.

“That said, we shouldn’t be complacent. We don’t know how long jaguars have been fishing on these islands. If it is a long-standing behavioural adaptation, it may be that many species are experiencing changes in their habitats which are too sudden to allow for them to adapt.”

The research is being carried out in collaboration with the Jaguar Conservation Fund and Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation. Jaguar conservationist Lailson Ferreira, who works with WWF on the island, said: “It’s important to preserve this island because this place is a treasure. There are very special creatures here, like the spotted jaguar and many others.”

A jaguar captured by a camera trap on the island.

Oliveira added: “Months of meticulous planning went into the mission, but we can never guarantee collaring a wild animal. To have collared three jaguars on this first WWF expedition is an amazing result.

“The satellite technology fitted to the collars is providing us with hourly updates on the animals’ movements for up to eight months, resulting in a bank of information on how the jaguars use the forest to live and flourish.”

Next year, researchers are setting up more camera traps and in June 2020 they will collar two more jaguars.

The Bee Is Declared The Most Important Living Being On The Planet

Its sting hurts a lot, but if they were to disappear, it would hurt much more.
The Earthwatch Institute concluded in the last debate of the Royal Geographical Society of London, that bees are the most important living being on the planet, however, scientists have also made an announcement: Bees have already entered into extinction risk.
Bees around the world have disappeared up to 90% according to recent studies, the reasons are different depending on the region, but among the main reasons are massive deforestation, lack of safe places for nests, lack of flowers, use uncontrolled pesticides, changes in soil, among others.
Pixabay

WHY HAS BEES BEEN DECLARED AS THE MOST VALUABLE LIVING BEING ON OUR PLANET?

The Apiculture Entrepreneurship Center of the Universidad Mayor (CeapiMayor) and the Apiculture Corporation of Chile (Cach) with the support of the Foundation for Agrarian Innovation (FIA), conducted a study where it was determined that bees are the only living being that it is not a carrier of any type of pathogen, regardless of whether it is a fungus, a virus or a bacterium.

The agriculture of the world depends on 70% of these insects, to put it more clearly and directly, we could say that 70 of 100 foods are intervened in favor by bees.
Also the pollination that the bees make allows the plants to reproduce, of which millions of animals feed, without them, the fauna would soon begin to disappear.
The honey produced by bees, not only serve as food, but also provide many benefits to our health and our skin.
According to a quote attributed to Albert Einstein, If the bees disappear, humans would have 4 years to live.
Pixabay

WHAT ARE THE REASONS AND HYPOTHESES ATTRIBUTED TO THE EARLY DISAPPEARANCE OF BEES?

The Federal Institute of Technology of Switzerland, proposes a theory that blames the waves produced thanks to mobile telephony. They explain that these waves emitted during calls are capable of disorienting bees, causing them to lose their sense of direction and therefore their life is put in danger.
The researcher and biologist Daniel Favre, along with other researchers, made 83 experiments that show that bees in the presence of these waves, produce a noise ten times higher than usual, behavior that has been observed to make it known to other bees They are in danger and it is important to leave the hive.

Noam Chomsky: Life Expectancy in the US Is Declining for a Reason

Life in the United States — the richest country in world history — doesn’t need to be like this. This country’s endless wars, deaths of despair, rising mortality rates and out-of-control gun violence did not come out of nowhere. In this second installment from an exclusive transcript of a conversation aired on Alternative Radio, public intellectual Noam Chomsky discusses the roots of gun culture, militarism, economic stagnation and growing inequality in the U.S. Read the first installment of this interview here: “Noam Chomsky: Trump Is Trying to Exploit Tension With Iran for 2020.

David Barsamian: Do you ever make the connection between the external violence of the U.S. state and what is happening internally with all the shootings and mass murders?

Noam Chomsky: The U.S. is a very strange country. From the point of view of its infrastructure, the U.S. often looks like a “Third World” country…. Not for everybody, of course. There are people who can say, “OK, fine, I’ll go in my private jet or helicopter.” Drive around any American city. They’re falling apart. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives the U.S. regularly a D, the lowest ranking, in infrastructure.

This is the richest country in world history. It has enormous resources. It has advantages that are just incomparable in agricultural resources, mineral resources, huge territory, homogeneous. You can fly 3,000 miles and think you’re in the same place where you started. There is nothing like that anywhere in the world. In fact, there are successes, like a good deal of the high-tech economy, substantially government-based but real.

On the other hand, it’s the only country in the developed world in which mortality is actually increasing. That’s just unknown in developed societies. In the last several years, life expectancy has declined in the U.S. There is work by two major economists, Anne Case and Angus Deaton, who have carefully studied the mortality figures. It turns out that in the cohort roughly 25 to 50, the working-age cohort of whites, the white working class, there is an increase in deaths, what they call “deaths of despair”: suicide, opioid overdoses, and so on. This is estimated at about 150,000 deaths a year. It’s not trivial. The reason, it’s generally assumed, is the economic stagnation since Reagan. In fact, this is the group that entered the workforce right around the early 1980s, when the neoliberal programs began to be instituted.

That has led to a small slowdown in growth. Growth is not what it was before. There is growth, but very highly concentrated. Wealth has become extremely highly concentrated. Right now, according to the latest figures, 0.1 percent of the population holds 20 percent of the country’s wealth; the top 1 percent holds roughly 40 percent. Half the population has negative net worth, meaning debts outweigh assets. There has been stagnation pretty much for the workforce over the whole neoliberal period. That’s the group that we’re talking about. Naturally, this leads to anger, resentment, desperation. Similar things are happening in Europe under the austerity programs. That’s the background for what’s misleadingly called “populism.” But in the U.S., it’s quite striking. The “deaths of despair” phenomenon seems to be a specific U.S. characteristic, not matched in other countries.

Remember, there is no country in the world that has anything like the advantages of the U.S. in wealth, power and resources. It’s a shocking commentary. You read constantly that the unemployment rate has reached a wonderful level, barely 3 percent unemployed. But that’s pretty misleading. When you use Labor Department statistics, it turns out that the actual unemployment rate is over 7 percent. When you take into account the large number of people who have just dropped out of the workforce, labor force participation is considerably below what it was about 20-30 years ago. There are good studies of this by economists. You have roughly a 7.5 percent unemployment rate and stagnation of real wages, which have barely moved. Since the year 2000, there has been a steady decline in just median family wealth. As I said, for about half the population, it’s now negative.

In terms of guns, the U.S. is an outlier. We have 4 percent of the world’s population with 40 percent of the globe’s guns.

There is an interesting history to that, very well studied. There’s a recent book by Pamela Haag called The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture. It’s a very interesting analysis. What she shows is that after the Civil War, the gun manufacturers didn’t really have much of a market. The U.S. government market had declined, of course, and foreign governments weren’t much of a market. It was then an agricultural society, the late 19th century. Farmers had guns, but they were like tools, nothing special. You had a nice old-fashioned gun. It was enough to chase away wolves. They didn’t want the fancy guns that the gun manufacturers were producing.

So, what happened was, the first major, huge advertising campaign that was a kind of a model for others later. An enormous campaign was carried out to try to create a gun culture. They invented a Wild West, which never existed, with the bold sheriff drawing the pistol faster than anyone else and all this nonsense that you get in the cowboy movies. It was all concocted. None of it ever happened. Cowboys were sort of the dregs of society, people who couldn’t get a job anywhere else. You hired them to push some cows around. But this image of the Wild West and the great heroes was developed. Along with it came the ads, saying something like, ‘If your son doesn’t have a Winchester rifle, he’s not a real man, If your daughter doesn’t have a little pink pistol, she’ll never be happy.’

It was a tremendous success. I suppose it was a model for later on, when the tobacco companies developed the “Marlboro man” and all this kind of business. This was the late 19th, early 20th century, the period in which the huge public relations industry was beginning to develop. It was brilliantly discussed by Thorstein Veblen, the great political economist, who pointed out that in that stage of the capitalist economy, it was necessary to fabricate wants, otherwise you couldn’t maintain the economy that would generate great profit levels. The gun propaganda was probably the beginning of it.

It goes on, pushing up to the recent period since 2008, the Supreme Court Heller decision. What they called Second Amendment rights have just become holy writ. They’re [considered by some] the most important rights that exist, our sacred right to have guns, established by the Supreme Court, overturning a century of precedent.

Take a look at the Second Amendment. It says, “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.” Up until 2008, that was interpreted pretty much the way it reads, that the point of having guns was to keep a militia. Scalia, in his decision in 2008, reversed that. He was a very good scholar. He’s supposed to be an originalist. He would pay attention to the intentions of the founders. If you read the decision, it’s interesting. There are all kinds of references to obscure 17th century documents. Strikingly, he never mentions once the reasons the founders wanted the people to have guns, which are not obscure.

One reason was that the British were coming. The British were the big enemy then. They were the most powerful state in the world. The U.S. barely had a standing army. If the British were going to come again, which in fact they did, you’ve got to have militias to fight them off, so we have to have well-regulated militias.

The second reason was, it was a slave society. This was a period where there were slave rebellions taking place all through the Caribbean. Slavery was growing massively after the revolution. There was deep concern. Black slaves often outnumbered whites. You had to have well-armed militias to keep them under control.

There was yet another reason. The U.S. is maybe one of the rare countries in history which has been at war virtually every year since its founding. You can hardly find a single year when the U.S. wasn’t at war.

When you look back at the American Revolution, the textbook story is “taxation without representation,” which is not false, but far from the whole story. Two major factors in the revolution were that the British were imposing a restriction on expansion of settlement beyond the Appalachian Mountains into what was called “Indian country.” The British were blocking that. The settlers wanted to expand to the West. Not just people who wanted land, but also great land speculators, like George Washington, wanted to move into the Western areas. “Western” meant right over the mountains. The British were blocking that. At the end of the war, the settlers could expand.

The other factor was slavery. In 1772, there was a very important and famous ruling by a leading British jurist, Lord Mansfield, that slavery is so “odious,” his word, that it cannot be tolerated within Britain. It could be tolerated in the colonies, like Jamaica, but not within Britain. The U.S. colonies were essentially part of Britain. It was a slave society. They could see the handwriting on the wall. If the U.S. stays within the British system, it’s going to be a real threat to slavery. That was ended by the revolution.

But that meant, going back to the guns, you needed them to keep off the British, you needed them to control the slaves, you needed them to kill Indians. If you’re going to attack the Indian nations — they were nations, of course — you’re going to attack the many nations to the West of the country, you’re going to have to have guns and militias. Ultimately, it was replaced later by a standing army.

But take a look at the reasons you had to have guns for the founders. Not a single one of them applies in the 21st century. This is completely missing not only from Scalia’s decision, but even from the legal debate over this. There is a legal literature debating the Heller decision, but almost all of it is about the technical question of whether the Second Amendment is a militia right or an individual right. The wording of the amendment is a little bit ambiguous, so you can argue about it, but it’s completely beside the point. The Second Amendment is totally irrelevant to the modern world; it has nothing to do with it. But it’s become holy writ.

So, you have this huge propaganda campaign. As a kid, I was affected by it. Wyatt Earp, guns, “kill Indians,” all that. It’s spread all over the world. In France, they love cowboy movies. A totally fabricated picture of the West, but it was very successful in creating a gun culture. It’s now become sanctified by the reactionary Supreme Court. So, yes, everybody has got to have a gun….

Talk about the First Amendment and press freedom and journalism, a trade which has come under attack from the self-styled “extremely stable genius” in the White House as “the enemy of the people.” Talk about that and also about the Assange case.

The First Amendment is a major contribution of American democracy. The First Amendment actually doesn’t guarantee the right of free speech. What it says is that the state cannot take preemptive action to prevent speech. It doesn’t say it can’t punish it. So under the First Amendment, literally, you can be punished for things you say. It doesn’t block that. It was nevertheless a step forward in the environment of the time that the U.S. in many ways did break through. With all of its flaws, the American Revolution was progressive in many respects by the standards of the time, even the phrase “We the people.” Putting aside the flaws in implementation, the very idea was a breakthrough. The First Amendment was a step forward.

However, it wasn’t really until the 20th century that First Amendment issues really came on the agenda, at first with the dissenting opinions of Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Louis Brandeis in cases around the First World War, a little bit later. It’s worth looking at how narrow these dissents were. The first major one, in the Schenck case in 1917, was a case of somebody who published a pamphlet describing the war as an imperialist war and saying you don’t have to serve in it. Support for free speech under the First Amendment was very narrow, as Holmes’s dissent and then support for punishment showed. The case was a complete scandal, but even Holmes went along.

In fact, the real steps toward establishing a strong protection of freedom of speech were actually in the 1960s. A major case was Times v. Sullivan. The State of Alabama had claimed what’s called sovereign immunity, that you can’t attack the state with words. That’s a principle that holds in most countries — Britain, Canada, others. There was an ad published by the civil rights movement, which denounced the police in Montgomery, Alabama, for racist activities, and they had sued to block it. It went to the Supreme Court. The ad was in [The New York Times]. That’s why it’s called Times v. Sullivan. The Supreme Court for the first time, basically, struck down the doctrine of sovereign immunity. It said you can attack the state with words. Of course, it had been done, but now it became legal.

There was a stronger decision a couple years later, Brandenburg v. Ohio, in 1969, where the Court ruled that speech should be free up to participation in an imminent criminal action. So, for example, if you and I go into a store with the intent to rob it, and you have a gun and I say, “Shoot,” that’s not privileged. But that’s basically the doctrine. That’s a very strong protection of freedom of speech. There’s nothing like it anywhere, as far as I know.

In practice, the U.S. has not a stellar record, but one of the better (maybe even the best record) in protection of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. That is indeed under attack when the press is denounced as the “enemy of the people” and you organize your rabid support base to attack the press. That’s a serious threat.

And Julian Assange?

The real threat to Assange from the very beginning, the reason he took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy, was the threat of extradition to the U.S., now implemented. He has already been charged with violations of the Espionage Act; theoretically he can even get a death sentence from it. Assange’s crime has been to expose secret documents that are very embarrassing for state power. One of the main ones was the exposure of the video of American helicopter pilots about how much fun they were having killing people.

In Baghdad.

Yes. But then there were a lot of others, some of them quite interesting. The press has reported them. So, he’s performing the journalistic responsibility of informing the public about things that state power would rather keep secret.

It seems to be the essence of what a good journalist should be doing.

And what good journalists do. Like when [Seymour] Hersh exposed the story of the My Lai massacre, and when Woodward and Bernstein exposed Nixon’s crimes, that was considered very praiseworthy. The Timespublished excerpts from the Pentagon Papers. So, he is essentially doing that. You can question his judgment — should he have done this at this time, should he have done something else; lots of criticisms you can make — but the basic story is that WikiLeaks was producing materials that state power wanted suppressed but that the public should know.

This is a lightly edited transcript of an interview that was aired on Alternative Radio.

Masai giraffes declared endangered

Scientists have declared a subspecies of giraffe endangered.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the global authority on the conservation status of wild animals and plants, announced Thursday that Masai giraffes, a subspecies spread throughout Kenya and Tanzania, are now endangered, primarily because of poaching and changes in land use.

There are an estimated 35,000 Masai giraffes remaining, but their population has fallen by nearly 50 percent in the last three decades. Africa’s overall giraffe population has decreased by up to 40 percent in that same timeframe.

a group of giraffe standing on top of a field: There are 35,000 Masai giraffes left in the wild today. Their population has fallen by nearly 50 percent in the last 30 years.
© Photograph by Sergio Pitamitz, Nat Geo Image Collection

There are 35,000 Masai giraffes left in the wild today. Their population has fallen by nearly 50 percent in the last 30 years.

Masai giraffes are iconic, says Tanya Sanerib, international legal director for the Center for Biological Diversity. Given that they’re one of the largest subspecies of giraffes, they’re the “quintessential” animal you likely think of when you think giraffes. For this subspecies to be declared endangered is a wake-up call, Sanerib says.

“This was devastating news…It really sounds the alarm bell,” she says. “It really indicates that we need to be doing more for giraffes internationally and with whatever tools are available.”

Increased threats

This is the first time the Masai subspecies (Giraffa camelopardalis ssp. tippelskirchi) was assessed on its own—previously, it was included as part of the IUCN Red List’s general giraffe listing (Giraffa camelopardalis), which considers giraffes “vulnerable,” a step further away from extinction than “endangered.” Of the nine subspecies of giraffes, Masai and reticulated giraffes are endangered, and Nubian and Kordofan giraffes are critically endangered.

Related Slideshow: Close to extinction – Critically endangered animals (Provided by Photo Services)

Hunting giraffes is illegal in both Kenya and Tanzania, but they are poached for their hide, meat, bones, and tails. An estimated 2 to 10 percent of the population is hunted illegally every year in Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, according to the IUCN. Poaching has increased because of civil unrest and emerging markets for giraffe parts, including tail-hair jewelry and bone carvings. There’s even a belief among some that giraffe bone marrow and brains can cure HIV and AIDS, Tanzanian media have reported. (Learn more about how giraffes in central Africa are being poached for their tails.)

Giraffe deaths have also increased because human populations have grown and expanded into what used to be wildlands, leading to increased incidents of crop damage and vehicle strikes. Hunting for bushmeat is also a threat.

“The forgotten megafauna”

Giraffes historically have been understudied compared to other threatened species. While thousands of scientific papers have been written on white rhinos, only about 400 cover giraffes, according to giraffe researcher Axel Janke. There are fewer giraffes than elephants left in Africa.

“They’re the forgotten megafauna, so to speak,” says Julian Fennessy, co-director and co-founder of the nonprofit Giraffe Conservation Foundation. “They’ve sort of slipped away, sadly, while more attention has been given to elephant, rhino, lion, and other species.” (See more photos of how scientists are working to save giraffes.)

We have so much to learn about giraffes, Sanerib says, it would be a shame to lose them. For example, they have complex circulatory systems that could have implications for understanding human’s high blood pressure. Researchers have also found that they hum at night, and they have no idea why.

“We have this species that’s going extinct, and we have these phenomenal, really fascinating things about them that we don’t know the answers to,” she says enthusiastically.

Although for years there’s been a consensus that there’s one species of giraffe with nine subspecies, evidence of genetic differences has emerged in recent years, suggesting that there are actually four species of giraffe and that the Masai is its own species. Though Masai giraffes aren’t widely recognized as a unique species, Fennessy says categorizing them as their own could reap more conservation benefits. For example, the United States’ Endangered Species Act grants protections to animals at the species level, which means giraffes are not considered endangered by U.S. standards, even though several subspecies clearly are.

But overall, Fennessy says this new assessment shines a light on the plight of these animals.

“By identifying that they are endangered, hopefully now collaboratively with governments and partners, we can turn the tide before it’s too late,” Fennessy says.

Only 18 red wolves left

From Defends.org

She never had a chance.

The man who shot and killed a mother red wolf knew he could slay her and no one could stop him. In fact, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) gave him the permit to shoot her!

At the time she was one of only 10 breeding female red wolves in the wild. It’s likely she was nursing pups the day she was shot. Pups who likely starved to death after their mother was gunned down.

Help save red wolves and other imperiled animals with your gift, and now through June 30th, your gift will be matched 2-for-1 up to a total of $100,000!

That killing was only one of the many outrages that have occurred on FWS’s watch. Red wolf recovery was once widely celebrated as a success story – but now the FWS is neglecting these wolves to the point that they’re about to go extinct.

Each time Defenders has taken the FWS to court to protect red wolves, the court has ruled in the wolves’ favor. And now the FWS is continuing to let red wolves die by not implementing a desperately needed recovery plan.

Don’t let the FWS get away with abandoning red wolves to extinction.

Enough is enough. Just last week, Defenders filed a formal notice of intent to sue the FWS and force them to protect red wolves. Your gift will help this fight by giving us the resources to go to court as many times as it takes, until red wolves are finally safe.

Once, red wolves roamed all over the southeastern U.S. Then they were all but exterminated as vermin. Today, there are as few as 18 red wolves clinging to survival in a remote area in eastern North Carolina.

After nearly going extinct, Washington’s pygmy rabbits need room to grow

Recovering the endangered rabbits will test society’s willingness to let nature reclaim a landscape.

In the rolling hills of the Columbia Basin in central Washington, a tractor kicked dust from a wheat field as an early May breeze filtered down from the Cascade Mountains rising in the west. In a patchwork of sagebrush and bunchgrass, Jon Gallie searched for the newest generation of North America’s smallest rabbit, the state and federally endangered Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit.

When not moving by memory through this reclaimed farmland, Gallie, an endangered species project leader for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, traced his footsteps to dots on his phone marking den sites. In a city, he could easily pass for a Pokémon Go player, chasing fictional creatures in an imaginary digital realm. But the grapefruit-sized animals he was seeking are real, though elusive; after more than two hours of searching, all we found were empty burrows and an abundance of scat.

Wildlife biologist Jon Gallie searches for traces of pygmy rabbits at their den sites.
Rajah Bose for High Country News

Still, the salmon egg-sized droppings were an encouraging sign. That’s because a century of farming, development and increasingly frequent and intense wildfires has fractured the habitat of the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit; by the late 1990s, just a handful were left. In 2001, biologists captured 16 of the last few dozen rabbits. Nearly two decades of direct human intervention followed, a multi-pronged effort that saved the animals from being banished to stories, screens and natural history textbooks. Pygmy rabbits now number in the hundreds in the Columbia Basin — but they remain far from a resilient and healthy population.

The rabbits have shown that they can rebound, however, as long as they have enough habitat to call home. The efforts to save these diminutive mammals illustrate a hard lesson: Even when scientists can breed an endangered species back to healthy numbers, protecting land and building bridges between dispersed populations remains a continuing challenge for recovery. For central Washington’s pygmy rabbits, humans have been the agents of both destruction and salvation. Now, the challenge is to also play the role of nurturer, giving the rabbits — and other endangered species — the space they need to reclaim a place on the landscape.

WE LIVE IN AN AGE OF EXTINCTION, driven by human contributions to climate change and habitat destruction. Facing these crises has meant making compromises that save some species, but also change them. Hundreds of vertebrates have blinked out in just the last century. When biologists captured the last known wild Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits in 2001 to start a captive breeding program, they hoped to keep the species from joining their ranks. And in a sense, they’ve succeeded, as the burrows and scat in the sagebrush show.

But early on, inbreeding produced sickly offspring and low reproductive rates. In 2004, the scientists — part of a collaborative effort between universities, zoos and state and federal agencies — had to breed them with a closely related population, the Great Basin pygmy rabbit. This was a matter of “genetic rescue,” explained Stacey Nerkowski, a University of Idaho doctoral student who leads a team studying pygmy rabbit genetics.

The new genes staved off the complete loss of the population. While the last pure Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit died in 2008, unique genes that arose over millennia live on in the rabbits now munching sagebrush in central Washington. On average, about 25% of each rabbit’s genome comes from the wild rabbits collected in 2001. Nerkowski said the resilience of those genes — they continue to show up, generation after generation, because they help the rabbits survive there — shows the value of recovering local rabbits, rather than simply transplanting other pygmy rabbits into the Columbia Basin. “This isn’t just a rabbit we picked up in Wyoming; it has the unique genetics of this area,” Nerkowski said.

A pygmy rabbit seeks shelter under sagebrush within a protective enclosure.The few hundred wild Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits are the descendents of 16 that were captured and bred by biologists.
Rajah Bose for High Country News

AFTER TROMPING THROUGH UNFENCED stands of sagebrush for most of the morning, Gallie and I hopped in his truck and headed south to another rabbit recovery area, in the Beezley Hills west of Ephrata, Washington. Here, sagebrush and bunchgrass, flourishes of wildflowers, wheat fields and the dreaded invasive cheatgrass all intermix. In the Beezley Hills, land protected by The Nature Conservancy and a private landowner who has dedicated his property to pygmy rabbit conservation provide habitat for reintroductions.

Biologists have been trying to re-establish the rabbits on the landscape since 2007, when wild reintroductions failed. After that unsuccessful attempt, the recovery team turned to semi-wild enclosures in 2011, to ease the transition from captivity to the starker realities of the rabbits’ natural habitat. Solid fences, irrigation systems, artificial burrows and supplemental food provided the animals the amenities project leaders thought they needed to survive. The rabbits proliferated, but then, in the confined and artificial space, disease did as well, and in 2016, reproduction in the enclosures dropped by about 75%.

For the last two years, the recovery team has been using different enclosures, more mobile and spartan in nature, both to avoid disease transmission and better prepare the rabbits for life outside the fences. No supplemental feeding is offered, and other than some water laced with medicine to fight off an intestinal disease, the sagebrush-blanketed hillside is left in its natural state. As we walked through the main enclosure at Beezley Hills, both adults and baby rabbits scattered in blurs of fur, zig-zagging through the chest-high sagebrush. When caught against a fence line, the rabbits froze, blending into the gray bushes and light brown soil.

The changes have produced kits that survive better in the wild, allowing the recovery team to distribute them across the landscape. That’s vital to bringing back the rabbit, with the risk of population-decimating fires haunting its future — and its recent past. In the summer of 2017, the 30,000-acre Sutherland Canyon Fire wiped out the majority of rabbits in the area. As strong winds pushed the blaze over ridges and through draws, Gallie and his team quickly reconfigured the irrigation system in the Beezley Hills enclosure. They were able to save about one-third of the hundred-plus rabbits living there. But the threat to each of the three recovery areas remains in the fire-prone sagebrush, showing how important maintaining a wider swath of habitat is for the animals.

Gallie points out known den locations on a map in his office.
Rajah Bose for High Country News

FIRE DOESN’T JUST SCORCH pygmy rabbit colonies; it also imperils the ecosystem they depend on. Repeated fires that both propel and are fueled by the spread of invasive species like cheatgrass deliver a one-two punch of destruction to native species in sagebrush habitat.

Corinna Hanson manages more than 30,000 acres in central Washington for The Nature Conservancy with an eye toward preserving native habitat. That’s a constant challenge now, as summers get hotter and fires occur twice a decade instead of less than twice a century, the historical norm. “When I think about restoration, it’s almost like we can’t keep up,” she said. “But we’re not going to give up.” In talking about endangered species recovery, the focus is usually on the species itself. But, she said, “when you work to conserve a species, it always comes down to habitat management.”

Expanding open space to connect the reintroduction areas, which are spread over about 40 miles and divided by roads, fields, sheer cliffs and houses, would be the ultimate sign of success for the project, Gallie said. Tools to stitch together the fractured landscape include land preserved for habitat protection by The Nature Conservancy, and U.S. Department of Agriculture grant programs that pay farmers to take land out of production so wildlife can use it instead.

Gallie said communicating the goals of the recovery effort and building trust between people in town, farmers in the country, nonprofits and government partners is key to the program’s success. “You can have the best scientists and the best habitats and the best approach in the world, but if everyone out here is skeptical and oppositional, it’s going to make things very difficult.” When he appears at community events and at farmers’ doors, Gallie said, the familiarity and trust he’s built show locals that the pygmy rabbit program isn’t some big government overreach happening in a faraway office. “It’s just me, the same guy you wave to everyday, with the same dirt on my boots.”

COLUMBIA BASIN PYGMY RABBITS are far better off today than they were two decades ago, but their future remains tenuous. One fire could wipe out most of the population. And until they inhabit continuous corridors, where they can meet new mates and be less vulnerable to catastrophic fires, they’ll remain on the precipice of extinction.

Still, the species is gaining ground in a time when conservation is pervaded by stories of loss. The world is losing species. It’s losing habitat. And humanity is losing time to try to save the current biome from the worst impacts of climate change. But perhaps our biggest deficit, and greatest challenge, is our apathy toward that loss.

“When I get asked — ‘Why do we need pygmy rabbits?’ — I don’t always have the best answer,” Gallie said, as fine dust kicked up with each step we took through the sagebrush. “You either value biodiversity or you don’t, and if you don’t, there’s pretty much nothing I can say that’s going to make you go, ‘Oh, now I agree.’ ”

As a society, it’s often hard to agree on which species to save, which organisms are necessary to make an ecosystem whole, or if it even makes sense to try to prevent extinctions. In all of those debates, Gallie pointed out that we often forget the current moment is a blip in evolutionary history, and, regardless of human interventions, nature will continue to shape this landscape. In the end, he said, “Life always wins. It’s more our loss.”

https://www.hcn.org/issues/51.10/endangered-species-after-nearly-going-extinct-washingtons-pygmy-rabbits-need-room-to-grow?utm_source=wcn1&utm_medium=email