Written by Tandra Fraser, 2015-2016 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Postdoc at the School of Agriculture, University of Reading, London.
What do the Great Plains of North America, the tropical hillsides of Honduras and the valleys of Antarctica all have in common? The answer is soil, of course!
Soil is the foundation of terrestrial life on earth wherever you may travel. Located at the interface between the atmosphere, biosphere, lithosphere and hydrosphere, it is the naturally occurring surface layer formed by complex processes and interactions. Being raised on a farm in the Great Plains of Canada, I was connected to soil from a very young age as I went from making mud pies to growing food. Nowadays, as a soil scientist, I get to explore soil, its many uses, and its inhabitants.
Soil is the basis for much more than just agriculture. For example, in rural Honduras, the same soil that is used for growing staple crops such like maize, beans and coffee, is also used for building adobe houses, creating functional pottery, and even building stoves to cook the food they grow.
These same soils provide a home to countless soil organisms, including everything from large burrowing creatures such as badgers to microscopic worms, bacteria and fungi. Although we cannot see many of these species with the naked eye, they play an important role in all of our lives.
In many regions of the world, mineral fertilizers are not an option for crop growth and producers must depend on soil organisms for nutrient cycling to provide nutrients for plant growth. Organisms in the soil have evolved mechanisms to obtain nutrients. For example, many bacteria excrete enzymes into the environment when they do not have enough phosphorus to function and/or grow. These phosphatase enzymes can break down an unusable form of phosphorus that occurs naturally in the soil, into orthophosphate that can provide nutrition to the organism and will eventually be released into the environment and can be taken up by plants.
The critters that live in the soil, and their activities, involve many complex interactions between chemical, physical and biological components. These organisms aren’t just interesting to look at, they also provide essential ecosystem services upon which all plants, animals and humans depend. Although soils are extremely heterogeneous, organisms are contributing to decomposition of organic matter and nutrient cycling, regardless of the ecosystem.
Even in Antarctica, one of the windiest, driest and coldest places on earth, the soil is alive. Although the soil food web is less complex than it may be in a tropical forest, soil animals and the microbial communities play an essential role in the functioning of this pristine ecosystem. It is common to find nematodes, tardigrades and rotifers living in these soils. But even this region is not immune to global change as demonstrated by research as part of the McMurdo Dry Valley Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network. This site has been essential in demonstrating how the ecology in the soils of the region has been changing over the past 25 years. It also emphasizes the interconnectedness of the glaciers, lakes, streams, soils and air and the far reaching effects of human activities.
At all corners of the globe, soil and its life are constantly being threatened by human activities and global change. Land is being degraded at astonishing rates and this ultimately has an effect on food production, water quality, and pest and pathogen control, to name a few. The economic cost of land degradation is US$40 billion each year, as estimated by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. As cities continue to expand, soils are paved over and organisms are unable to function, and humans, literally, become disconnected from the land, separated by a layer of concrete.
“The soil is the great connector of our lives, the source and destination of all.” - Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America, 1977
Despite the fundamental importance of soil for all plant, animal and human life, it is often taken for granted. Scientists, policy makers and land managers must all work together to identify and implement solutions for conserving soil and all that live there. The Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative has been working to raise the profile of soil biodiversity and all its wonder around the world.
Written by Ana Bossa-Castro, 2015-2016 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and PhD Candidate in the Department of Bioagricultural Sciences and Pest Management.
Rice is a staple food essential for 3.5 billion people worldwide, providing more than 20% of their daily calories. Asian rice was domesticated 8,200–13,500 years ago in the Pearl River valley region of China. Since then, farmers and breeders, and more recently scientists, have modified and improved practices to optimize the production and obtain better yields. Not only have they identified better techniques, but also controlled pests, diseases and abiotic factors, such as drought, heat, cold, salinity, to finally obtain high yielding varieties currently grown worldwide.
However, not all rice growing regions have gone through modernization in the cultivation of this millennial crop. The Benguet, Ifugao, Kalinga and Mountain Provinces, in the Philippine Cordilleras, harbor ancient rice terraces that are believed to be over 2,000 years old. These terraced rice fields span a land area of 7,700 square miles and range in altitudes of 2,300 to 5,000 feet above sea-level. If they are put end to end, their length would encircle half of the globe. They were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1995.
The farming techniques used on the terraces have been mostly unaltered over its existence and have been transferred orally from generation to generation. These lands have been inherited and have no written titles. The knowledge and traditional practices, involved in the rice cultivation, are linked to ritual ceremonies to invoke their ancestors to “guard” their crops, starting from the sowing of the rice seeds up to the postharvest.
Labor is distributed between men and women. The cycle starts with the seed selection, performed by experienced women who harvest rice and choose the best seeds for the next season. One month before planting, land preparation is conducted by men. When the season starts, rice seeds are germinated in water or mud, and exposed to sun light. Transplanting occurs 45-60 days after germination and is carried out by women. One or two months after transplanting, weed management is done by women, who manually remove all weeds that have grown in the paddies. Rice harvest is shared by men and women, as women collect rice bundles in the terraces, men transport them for storage. Post-harvest activities include sun-drying the rice bundles for several days, then performing manual threshing and milling. Finally rice seeds are ready to be stored and/or distributed. The terraces receive water through an ancient irrigation system from streams and springs tapped and channeled into canals that run downhill ensuring a continuous flooding. Composted weeds and rice straws are used as fertilizer treatment, avoiding the use of any chemicals, therefore this farming system is considered to be organic.
Rice cultivated in these terraces are heirloom varieties, the most common ones are called “Tinawon” and “Linawang”. “Tinawon” is planted once a year, it has big grains and it is aromatic. “Linawang” or “Pinidwa” is planted twice a year, it has smaller grains and it is non-aromatic.
Heirloom varieties are “resilient”, which means they contain resistant traits to biotic stress and tolerance to abiotic stress. These varieties also have greater nutritional value than regular white rice, such as higher quantity of antioxidants, phenolics, flavonoids and vitamins. Besides, they have exceptional cooking quality, flavor, aroma, texture and color. Particularly, heirloom black rice contains anthocyanin antioxidants, which show potential for preventing heart attack, cancer, and other diseases.
Despite the potential of heirloom rice as a lucrative livelihood for small-holders, its maintenance is threatened by recent social changes in the population. Younger generations are losing interest in keeping their ancestral traditions because of the hard and intense work responsibilities. Frequent typhoons that affect the region discourage interest in farming as they begin to look for less labor-intensive jobs. Organic farming and the use of unimproved varieties increases costs and limit yields.
Therefore, the Department of Agriculture from the Philippines and the International Rice Research Institute established the DA-IRRI Heirloom Rice Project as an initiative to enriching the legacy of the heirloom rice by empowering local communities. This project is aimed at enhancing the productivity and livelihoods of farming communities, conserving heirloom rice varieties and encouraging consumers to eat healthier rice.
They have designed several participatory activities to promote heirloom rice production, improve farm productivity through sustained availability of clean, good quality seeds, enhance local capacity for organizing and developing entrepreneurial skills among farming communities and linking farmers with global markets and international chefs interested in including heirloom rice in their dishes.
The project will also seek the geographical indication (GI) registration of these heirloom rice varieties to local communities, preventing its use by a third party whose product does not follow the appropriate standards.
We hope this effort to value heirloom rice varieties and these farmers and will create conditions so this millennial tradition can be maintained for a long time and benefit the world population.
Written by Amber Childress-Runyon, 2015-2016 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and PhD Student in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability.
Recent “mega droughts” in the U.S. and globally, have given rise to a number of articles and studies (like this from the Guardian) warning that freshwater shortages will cause the next major global crisis. The cause of the problem is not a mystery and has been connected to two main drivers. The global population is growing exponentially, but global water use has been growing at twice the rate of population growth. Meanwhile, the future availability and distribution of water is likely to change due to increased temperatures and more extreme weather events.
Severe regional droughts often exacerbate existing water shortage issues. When a water system is already stressed, it takes less to push it beyond what is manageable. The ability of a water system to deal with and recover from a drought is called resilience. Resilience is often used as a buzzword that is synonymous from recovery, but understanding the degree of resilience a system has can help water managers ensure that they are adequately prepared to respond to water shortages.
Colorado serves as a perfect case study to evaluate water shortage issues from a regional water management perspective. Droughts are not uncommon to Colorado, an arid state that typically has at least one region experiencing drought in any given month. Meanwhile, demographers predict that the population will double in the next forty years, resulting in increased water usage – a driver of water shortage.This combination of rapid growth and drought-prone climate means that Colorado has all of the ingredients for a future major water crisis, similar to those discussed above. However, water managers in the state have learned some lessons from recent droughts (2002 and again in 2012) that could make it more resilient to future disasters.
The drought of 2002 built up from the winter of 1999 and did not completely dissipate until 2006. The combination of below average snow combined with low rainfall in the preceding years and through the spring of 2002 led to extremely low surface flow, causing severe water shortages. Reservoir storage and river runoff were at a record low level, with flows less than 5% of normal in June 2002 when drought was declared. A decade later, severe drought struck the region again. The 2012-2013 drought was similar in magnitude to conditions in 20026 and caused heavy economic, social, and environmental impacts throughout the region. It was rated by some as the worst in the U.S. since the 1930s. Reports of the impacts on both droughts concluded that, because the droughts only (officially) lasted a single year, the impacts were manageable, albeit severe. Had the droughts lasted for multiple years, the results would have been catastrophic (like we have seen in California).
Although it has been a couple of years since the state had a significant drought, it is still learning lessons from recent water shortages. In the wake of these severe droughts, the State of Colorado began taking more proactive measures to manage future water supplies. The quick onset of both droughts demonstrated the need to increase flexibility of water management options and allow for solutions to be developed and implemented locally, a core theme in all of the planning since the 2002 drought. The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) developed a Drought & Water Supply Assessment to “developed to plan, develop, and implement an assessment to engage Colorado water users.” Since then, the CWCB, among other state and local agencies, have worked to engage stakeholders through basin roundtables, updated drought response plans, and most recently completed a multi-year, ground-up process to write a statewide Water Plan that outlines the vision for Colorado water.
Will these efforts help prevent Colorado from experiencing some of the catastrophic damages seen in the multi-year droughts in California and elsewhere? Only time will tell. However, prevailing resilience theories about how humans and the environment interact and respond to disturbances suggest that systems go through cycles of change. When a system is hit by a disturbance (like a drought), if it does not collapse, it reorganizes itself (like developing more robust drought monitoring and planning, or shifting drought management to become stakeholder-driven). This results in a changed but more resilient system. According to this theory, each disturbance causes the system to be a little more robust. In this way, resilience can be thought of sort of like getting a flu vaccine. Your body builds up a resistance to the type of virus you’ve been vaccinated for, but also has an increased immunity for similar forms of flu, even if they were not the same strand as the vaccine. So with droughts, going through a number of smaller disturbances results in a higher resilience to bigger disturbances.
If this theory holds true, the droughts of the 2000s may have increased the resilience of the water community. A recent study by the CWCB6 surveyed water utilities to compare the perceived impacts of the 2002 and 2013 droughts. The majority of respondents in the South Platte River Basin indicated that “they feel they were less susceptible to drought impacts in 2013 than in 2002, although conditions in 2002 and 2013 were similar,” suggesting that actions taken as a result of 2002 increased the resilience of many water utilities.
As state and local water managers try and prepare for the next major drought, it will be helpful to know the extent to which water utilities were impacted differently and to investigate what policy changes or other factors led to increased resilience in the 2013 drought.
 IPCC. 2014. Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II, and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, R.K. Pachauri and L.A. Meyers (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, 151 pp. in IPCC AR5 Synthesis Report website.
 Doesken, N. J., & Pielke, R. A. (2008). The Drought of 2002 in Colorado. Retrieved from ftp://ft.dphe.state.co.us/wqc/wqcc/31TriennialReviewRMH_2010/Responsive/...
 Grigg, N. S. (2014). The 2011–2012 drought in the United States: new lessons from a record event. International Journal of Water Resources Development, 30(2), 183–199. doi:10.1080/07900627.2013.847710
 Colorado Water Conservation Board. (2004). Colorado Drought and Water Supply Assessment. Retrieved from http://cwcb.state.co.us/technical-resources/colorado-drought-water-suppl...
In a complex and dynamic world, how do we identify those things that are most vulnerable to change? Economists, public health experts, and social scientists often think about these issues of vulnerability as they relate to how climate change affects different segments of the population. Increasingly, so do ecologists.
A major burden facing ecologists is understanding how climate change will affect individual species. It is an important question because it has profound implications for the economy, society, and the health of our ecosystems. To answer that question, ecologists consider four unique but integral components of vulnerability (Figure 1).
Note that although climate change is a global issue affecting a diverse array of species and ecosystems, here we focus on fish that occupy rivers and streams of the Southwestern region of the United States as a case study for understanding vulnerability. The first component, Exposure, describes the types and magnitudes of changes that are taking place. For example, average temperatures in the Southwestern United States are projected to increase by up to 8 degrees Celsius by 2100. That number alone may raise eyebrows, but without additional information it is hard to evaluate which species will be vulnerable and where. Fish species may also be exposed to other types of changes to their environment. For example, changes in seasonal precipitation can alter streamflow patterns that are important for maintaining suitable habitat conditions. In addition, the introduction and spread of non-native fish species may push native trout out of preferred habitats and further expose them to climate change. A second piece of information that ecologists must consider in evaluating the vulnerability of a species is Sensitivity, which looks at how susceptible or responsive a species is to a given level of exposure. Does a species have a narrow or wide range of temperature over which it can exist? Certain species of fish including members of the iconic salmon and trout family cannot survive in warm waters – they are highly sensitive to increases in temperature (Figure 2). In a simple world, knowing exposure and sensitivity would be enough to predict Potential Impact, the third component of vulnerability. Fortunately for fish and other species, their fate also depends on a fourth component of vulnerability termed Adaptive Capacity. Adaptive Capacity, enables species to cope with impacts that might otherwise occur given their exposure and sensitivity. It includes intrinsic factors like genetic diversity that may allow them to cope with changes through time and extrinsic factors like their environment that can provide refugia and opportunities to escape from areas of high exposure.
An important measure of Adaptive Capacity relates to how freely species can move through their environment. If species are able to move without restriction to avoid high temperatures, then chances are they have relatively high Adaptive Capacity. In cases where opportunity for movement is constrained, then local conditions will dictate outcomes. With over 80,000 dams in existence across the country and more likely to be built (Figure 3), many rivers are already highly fragmented ecosystems meaning that they are structurally impaired. In addition, climate change models estimate an increase in the frequency and severity of droughts in the Southwestern United States, which may further sever connections among streams.
Understanding the interplay between exposure, sensitivity, potential impact and adaptive capacity is critical to understanding the vulnerability of species and to informing effective management strategies that will allow species to persist in the face of climate change. By focusing on these key components of vulnerability, ecologists are able to gain insight into a complex and dynamic world.
Written by Adam Dillon, 2015-2016 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and PhD Candidate in the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology.
Arriving in New Zealand for the first time, I was captivated by the beauty and uniqueness of the country. The diversity of landscapes in a country the size of Colorado was stunning, from coastal mangrove forests and secluded white sandy beaches to powerfully active volcanoes and dramatic fiords. Not only were the landscapes spectacular but the plants and animals were incredibly unique, with approximately 70% of its birds, 80% of its plants, and 100% of its reptiles and amphibians being found nowhere else on Earth. Although many people are aware of New Zealand’s iconic kiwi bird, fewer people realize that its home to the heaviest insect in the world (giant weta), the only true alpine parrot (kea), and a reptile that is older than most dinosaurs (tuatara). At one time New Zealand was home to the tallest bird that ever lived, the giant moa, and the largest bird of prey that’s ever existed, the Haast Eagle. But unfortunately they, like many other endemic species, have gone extinct.
As for any new traveler to New Zealand’s wilderness, I started to ask myself two ecological questions. What is it about New Zealand that makes it home to such unique species? And why have so many of these species gone extinct in recent time? The answer to both of these questions can be summarized in a single word: mammals. The absence of terrestrial mammals aided the creation of such unique species but the introduction of such mammals is now responsible for their recent extinction.
Approximately 80 million years ago, prior to the Age of Mammals, the land that became New Zealand broke apart from the supercontinent Gondwana. This means the animals that evolved in New Zealand did so in the absence of terrestrial mammals for at least 15 million years, possibly much longer! Their absence allowed birds, reptiles, and insects to evolve into niches often held by mammals (i.e. giant moa functioned much like grazing mammals). But New Zealand’s greatest blessing is also its greatest curse. Because its flora and fauna didn’t evolve alongside mammals, these unlikely creatures have no defense against predators they’ve never seen before.
The first of all terrestrial mammals to arrive in New Zealand was man, Polynesians to be exact. Upon their arrival in the 13th century, 32 bird species went extinct, and another 9 species followed after the arrival of Europeans in the late 18th century. Many species were driven to extinction from overharvesting, while others were driven there by predation from introduced predators. New Zealand currently harbors 28 species of said mammals including herbivores like deer and elk, omnivores like rats and possums, and predators like stoats and cats. But there’s a silver lining, of sorts: knowing the problem can lead to possible solutions. New Zealand is a country that comprises 2 main islands and well over 100 smaller offshore islands. Over the past couple of decades, the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) has made non-native mammal eradication and native restoration on these offshore islands a main priority. The first step is the removal of all non-native mammals usually through trapping and poison. Once an island is free of pests, rare endemics can be reintroduced. This approach has been extremely successful, with currently more than 100 “pest-free” islands and many populations of rare birds returning, including the takahe, saddleback, and kiwi.
Although offshore island restoration has been successful, the number of available islands is becoming smaller and smaller, plus it does nothing for the mainland populations. For these reasons and others, additional conservation measures are being implemented through “mainland islands”. One type of “mainland island” is a plot of native bush surrounded by a predator-proof fence, within which invasive mammals are eradicated. However, these areas are relatively small and extremely expensive to maintain. The second type of “mainland island” is a large area of native bush that’s intensively trapped in order to control nonnative mammals. Rare species can then be released to recover. Although some mainland island trapping programs are conducted by DOC, hundreds more are maintained by passionate local communities with great success.
For the past 6 years I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to New Zealand once a year, as an instructor with an environmental education program called Wildlands Studies. About a dozen of my students and I volunteer with organizations conducting conservation field work. We have worked on a mainland island project with an organization called Friends of Flora (FoF) in the diverse, low altitude mountains of Kahurangi National Park ever since the class began 6 years ago. Through the years we laid out and maintained trapping lines and also witnessed populations of rare kiwis and blue ducks recovering. This past year we also volunteered in the beautifully lush rainforests of Fiordlands National Park with junior-high and high-school aged kids from the Kids Restore the Kepler program. The Kids Restore the Kepler program is a joint project between the Fiordlands Conservation Trust and DOC that has both conservation and education goals. The project aims to restore native birds to the area and help Fiordland’s next generation of citizens, from pre-school through high-school, develop knowledge, values and skills so they can be confident, connected, and actively involved in caring for their environment.
Despite New Zealand’s native flora and fauna facing a major threat from invasive mammals, and despite the many difficult challenges that lay ahead for New Zealand conservation, it has been inspiring and uplifting to bear witness to passionate community-run conservation organizations tackling the tough challenges of native species decline, and providing solutions and hope for the future of New Zealand’s wildlife.
North Dakota is known for its plains and rolling hills, agriculture, cold winters and sparse population. However, the oil boom has transformed western North Dakota from the rural Badlands into a heavily industrialized region bustling with oil and construction workers. Truck traffic jams are now common in the region’s small towns. The growing infrastructure and housing construction has struggled to keep up with the rapidly growing population of oil workers.
The development and economic feasibility of new extraction techniques such as hydraulic fracturing enabled the explosion of oil drilling in the Bakken formation. Just in the last decade, oil production has increased substantially and North Dakota is producing over 1 million barrels of oil per day. The Bakken formation produces mainly oil so natural gas is burned off in a process called flaring. From space, the light pollution from flaring and lights on the well pads has increased so much that the Bakken region looks similar to a major city at night.
North Dakota is also the land explored by Theodore Roosevelt and Lewis and Clark as well as the residence of Sacagawea whose histories are preserved in the national parks and historic sites throughout the state. The industrialization from the oil and gas development and the impact of the harmful air pollutants generated from these activities on the national and historic parks is not well understood. To answer this question, our research group conducted a field study to measure the air pollution in the Bakken region.
Our group collected air samples in North Dakota and Montana in the winters of 2012-2013 and 2013-2014. We chose the winter because levels of particulate matter (PM), one pollutant that the US Environmental Protection Agency has deemed harmful to humans, can be higher in the winter because it condenses in cold temperatures much like water. Using our vacuum-like sampling equipment, PM is sucked out of the air and collected onto a filter. Back in the laboratory, the PM is dissolved from the filter in water. This liquid PM can then be analyzed to determine the chemical composition which gives us important information to identify where the PM is coming from.
Collecting air measurements in the Bakken region in the winter is a unique challenge. Theodore Roosevelt National Park was our home base for our measurements, but we collected air samples in national parks and other protected federal land across the region of oil drilling. This is an isolated section of the country and we did not have cell phone service at many of our sampling locations. The frigid winter temperatures also presented challenges to operating our equipment outside, with temperatures reaching as cold as -33°F during our study. My eyelids temporarily froze shut one extra cold and windy day while changing out our filter samples! In the national park, we also had to worry about bison creating a road block or getting too curious with our equipment set up outside.
Our measurements show that PM concentrations are higher now in the Bakken region than before the oil boom when the region was predominantly agricultural. We also used the knowledge of the wind patterns to determine that the high levels of PM occurred when the wind was calm and slowly traveled within the Bakken region. This will be described in more detail in a forthcoming publication. We also used knowledge of unique gases, such as specific volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that we measured, to show that oil drilling activities are impacting the air quality in the national parks and other federal lands in the Bakken region.
Theodore Roosevelt said "We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation." His sentiments still ring true today, particularly in the North Dakota Badlands. As our country grows, care must be taken to ensure that our greatest natural resources – our national parks – are protected and preserved for generations to come.
Written by Nathan Grubaugh, 2015-2016 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and PhD Candidate in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, & Pathology.
My first impression of Liberia was of paradise – tropical weather and lush green forests that merge with sandy beaches and a vast blue ocean. Walking the streets of Monrovia, this beautiful façade was lifted to reveal an ugly reality - 85% of the population lives in poverty. One in 100 women die during pregnancy, while 20% of children are malnourished and 7% do not make it to the age of five. I saw countless children in orphanages and buildings still riddled with bullet holes serving as stark reminders of the civil wars that ravished this nation in the 80’s and 90’s.
A year later, in 2013, I returned to Liberia. This time I travelled to Lofa County, near the intersection of Sierra Leone and Guinea. The scene was different there. The forests were dotted with dozens of small villages comprised of mud-brick houses. The villagers worked hard and made proud but meager livings by farming and taking whatever the forests offered. The faces of poverty were masked by the always present flocks of loveable and hopeful children. Unlike in Monrovia, I felt welcomed by the villagers. I felt safe.
But again, this pleasant life had a sad truth. The medical chart on the wall at a local clinic revealed that this area is holoendemic for malaria, meaning that essentially every person is infected. In fact, a local man told me that he often gets malaria five times a year. Poor housing makes it easy for bloodthirsty mosquitoes to enter, and malnutrition weakens their immune systems. In addition, the intimate relationship the villagers share with the forest puts them in close contact with several animal pathogens. What is worse is that the civil wars destroyed 95% of the healthcare facilities and chased away most trained professionals. The only thing that appeared to be in abundance was disease.
It’s not surprising that Lofa County was an epicenter of one of the most horrifying disease outbreaks of the modern era: the 2014-2015 Ebola epidemic. An already deadly disease was exacerbated by a deep-rooted mistrust in the government, a widespread belief that the virus was a hoax, and the terribly inadequate infrastructure. The lack of paved roads, electricity, and equipped hospitals made it difficult to treat patients. As the outbreak intensified, so did the panic of nations around the world, as the realization that this was not just an African problem took hold.
Globalization – especially trade and travel – makes it possible for unwanted “hitchhikers” to quickly reach lands far away. Therefore, the fear of the Ebola virus epidemic becoming a pandemic was not unfounded. Pathogens such as HIV, West Nile virus, and chikungunya virus have already made the journey from similar African villages to big cities around the world. As we continue to neglect diseases of Africa, they will continue to show up in our back yard. The next to emerge is almost certainly afflicting some impoverished village right now.
With so much disease in Africa, how do we begin to control it? How do we prevent the next pandemic? The answer is both obvious and complex: break the cycle of poverty and infectious disease. Help lift the villagers out of poverty, and they can combat disease in their own communities; or alleviate the burden of disease, and they can live more prosperous lives. They are capable of solving their own long-term problems if the global community can just give them a boost now.
What are we doing to help? The Arthropod-borne and Infectious Disease Laboratories at Colorado State University are collaborating with the Liberian Institute of Biomedical Research to address disease in Lofa County. For one, the team is enhancing disease surveillance activities in an effort to know thy enemy. They are also using the Nobel Prize winning drug, ivermectin, to kill malaria-transmitting mosquitoes. These efforts, while very important, are not nearly enough. New and effective drugs and vaccines are urgently needed to fight neglected tropical diseases. Investment is needed to build new facilities and train healthcare professionals. Scientists and medical professionals are not the only ones who can help. Non-profit organizations such as Camp for Peace Liberia and FACE Africa are working towards educating, empowering, and providing clean water to Liberians in efforts to create self-sustained communities. More people need to get involved, if not for the villagers, than for oneself. Because what is good for the village is good for the world.
In the plant and animal realms of conservation biology, substantial biodiversity losses generally result in negative consequences for processes within an ecosystem, which can sometimes impact ecosystem services, or the benefits humans receive from an ecosystem (important things like food, fresh water, and air!). Only in the last decade has this concept really been examined for the plethora of microorganisms (microbes) residing in soil. In 1934, Dutch microbiologist Lourens Baas Becking coined the notion on microbial distribution, “everything is everywhere, but the environment selects.” What he meant is that all microbes should be all over the world because they can be transported so easily by wind, water, animals, etc., but that they are not necessarily found everywhere because of geographic and physiological constraints, which is known as environmental selection. Environmental selection is still a valid cornerstone of evolutionary biology, but the first part of the statement, which assumes microbes can be transported anywhere with no restrictions, is controversial. Despite this provocative statement, the Baas Becking hypothesis has endured as a reigning dogma in microbial ecology until about a decade ago. There is now increasing evidence that just like animals and plants, distributions of microbes reflect both historical and contemporary environmental conditions. Thus variation in microbial communities certainly exists, but do these differences necessarily mirror changes in microbial processes in ecosystems?
Understanding how variation in microbial community composition impacts ecosystem processes has potentially significant implications, especially in light of global climate and environmental change. Soil microbes perform scores of vital ecosystem processes such as making nutrients available for plants, for example, by converting organic nitrogen to inorganic nitrogen. Losing microbial diversity with ecosystem processes that influence plant productivity could have serious consequences for human nutrition and wellbeing. An often less considered point is that since there are so many microbes that live in the soil (the common number I hear quoted is that there are more microbes in a teaspoon of soil than there are humans on earth), they respire immense amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2). Small variations in microbial community composition and how they respond to environmental change may have enormous impacts for carbon budgets and subsequently global warming.
As microbial ecologists examine the variability of microbial communities in space and time, a follow-up question remains: how will this variability impact us as humans? Because there are so many different types of microbes residing in soils, coupled with the fact that most microbes can remain in a dormant state for up to thousands of years (yes, this really happens!) and can transfer genes to unrelated microbes (think of artificial genetic engineering except not artificial!), it is speculated that microbial communities exhibit a large degree of functional redundancy. Functional redundancy is an ecological concept whereby many different organisms, in our case microbes, perform the same function or process. As such, differences in microbial community composition may not necessarily result in changes in microbial community function. Under similar environmental conditions microbial function could remain the same. Consequently, the critical problem emerges in teasing out the relative influence that differences in microbial diversity has on changes in ecosystem processes.
Tackling this problem is actually pretty difficult to do, although new studies have recently come out providing evidence for both scenarios. There are two main hurdles: 1) it is difficult to isolate the effect of the microbial community from the soil environment, and 2) while methods are improving, there are still some major gaps that need to be breached in terms of connecting individual microbes to actual ecosystem processes. My own research is trying to get at these problems by isolating microbial communities from different soil types to see if it is the microbial community or the environment in which they live that determines rates of CO2 production and if that changes with increases in temperature. So at the very least, there is evidence finding that different microbial communities produce different amounts of CO2 regardless of soil type as well as many known fungal species that are fundamental to certain types of plant growth. While we are learning more about this dynamic, yet hugely important area of research, in my opinion it pays to be conservative in managing species diversity belowground, mainly preventing degradation of our valuable soils, while we’re still figuring it out.
Written by Shifra Goldenberg, 2015-2016 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and PhD Candidate in the Graduate Degree Program in Ecology and Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology
The rest of the family moved away from the river with the fading afternoon light, but Noor stayed on the bank near her mother’s carcass. Noor’s mother, Victoria, died naturally at the ripe old age of 55 in Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve, while her family drank from the Ewaso Ngiro River and rested under its nest-dressed acacia trees. After some time alone, Noor left Victoria to join her group in their journey north.
Living into old age has become a rare privilege for Africa’s elephants. Ivory poaching has increased over recent years to meet the rising demand of international markets, often targeting old elephants with more impressive tusks. In our study population in northern Kenya, this was compounded by a severe drought that killed many old elephants. The result is younger populations. Despite the deaths, many young adult females in their reproductive peak have survived the extended poaching bout in Samburu, with the reproductive potential to grow the population. So then does it actually matter that the grandmothers and great-grandmothers are gone?
Female elephants—and probably male elephants, too—have strong social bonds. Researchers think social bonding has evolved in many species as a way to increase survival and reproduction. One of the benefits of being social may be the potential to exchange information about the environment, shown in hooded crows, great tits, and whooping cranes, to name a few examples. When you provide good information to your relatives, it may help them survive and successfully reproduce, increasing their chances of passing on shared genes.
Enter elephant grandmothers. Elephants range widely, sometimes traveling vast distances to avoid danger and locate the best available resources. Old females may be especially adept in these efforts; they are thought to act as stores of information related to space use, predation avoidance, and social acuity. A matriarchs’ decisions—where to forage, which water sources to visit and when, which families with whom to associate and for how long—usually benefit her close relatives: sisters, daughters, sons, nieces, nephews. This is because elephants usually live in tight-knit groups with their closest maternal relatives.
When Noor gives birth to her first calf, she will join a generation of elephants learning to parent without their mothers. But unlike many, Noor belongs to a family that survived the poaching relatively unscathed. She is never far from Cleopatra or Anastasia, the now de facto matriarchs of the Royals family who themselves are pushing 50. Noor and her future calves will benefit from their matriarchs’ memory and maternal experience. Such is the advantage of strong family ties.
We’ve seen a range of family disruption in the Samburu population, probably related to some families using riskier areas than others. Most elephants in Noor’s age cohort have experienced some degree of family death in the last few years. So what happens to elephants without a familial network like Noor’s to fall back on?
Social bonds seem to be so important in elephant society that bonds with nonrelatives may suffice if relatives are unavailable. Genetic analyses from before the increase in poaching showed us that in Samburu, family groups are not always comprised of relatives. In fact for some groups that have been integrated for years, there is little behavioral evidence to distinguish related from unrelated groups. This is very different from other elephant populations that have had less human pressure, in which bond strengths closely match relatedness.
As we’ve seen poaching intensify in recent years, we’ve watched fragmented groups navigate their new social realities. The finding that families need not be genetically related has born itself out anew as females in Samburu attempt to compensate for the deaths of relatives with new bonds. Some elephants we’ve watched have disappeared. Others have clung to older siblings. Still others have aligned themselves with entirely different families than those they were born into. In Samburu we are trying to understand how successful these different strategies are. The importance of old females to elephant society may become apparent in their absence over the coming years.
In 1891, when organic chemistry was only a nascent discipline, Russian chemist Alexander Dianin discovered bisphenol A (BPA). Though now a household name, the compound remained commercially anonymous until the 1930s, when British biochemist Edward Charles Dodds tried to use it as a synthetic estrogen to treat menopause, but found it too weak to be effective. BPA resurfaced in the 1950s as the key building block for epoxy resins and polycarbonate plastics. Since then, these materials have become ubiquitous as protective coatings on food cans, adhesives, and plastic components in electronics, automobiles, furniture, food equipment and containers.
BPA’s use in food products necessitated safety testing, but in the 1950s, toxicologists presumed that at the very small doses present in food containers, the chemical was essentially non-toxic and effects would be minimal. However, BPA challenged the “dose makes the poison” dogma when in 1997 researchers observed adverse chronic responses to low doses of the substance in laboratory mammals. Doses in the parts per billion range increased the size of prostrates in adult male mice who were exposed as fetuses.
These results are consistent with the activity of endocrine disruptors, a class of chemicals that, according to the National Institutes of Health “interfere with the body’s endocrine system and produce adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune effects in humans and wildlife.” BPA is one of many compounds in this category, which also includes other plasticizers, dioxins, pesticides, steroid hormones and some pharmaceuticals. While the worst of these compounds have been banned, and some are regulated, new chemicals used in materials are not required to undergo rigorous testing before they go into regular use. If these chemicals leach into the environment, they can have unforeseen, harmful effects. Endocrine disruptors are unique in that they can alter normal cell functioning in the parts per billion to parts per trillion ranges. To trace these chemicals, we must be able to identify and quantify them. But these very low concentrations are difficult to measure, especially in messy environmental samples.
Unlike laboratory samples, environmental samples are a complex mixture of known and unknown components—salts, minerals, microbes, natural organic material, and sometimes toxic pollutants. Oftentimes, scientists don’t even know what the pollutants might be. Known chemicals can react with light, organic material, minerals, or microbes to form new compounds, some of which can be even more harmful than the original contaminants. Advances in analytical technology and methods are finally making the identification and measurement of these compounds possible. Improvements in analytical laboratory equipment, instrument capabilities, and computing and data management have allowed scientists to more accurately detect compounds at lower concentrations and to analyze and compare results more efficiently and effectively than ever before. This enables us to do a better job monitoring our watersheds, agricultural soils, and drinking water to keep people and wildlife healthy.
While advanced analytical techniques have worldwide application for measuring contaminants, there are prime examples of their relevance here in Colorado. In 2006, U.S. Geological Survey scientists found antibiotics and antimicrobial agents downstream from a wastewater treatment plant and even in pristine reaches in the Boulder Creek watershed. Endocrine disrupting compounds were detected in the parts per billion range, and fish populations in waters downstream of a wastewater treatment plant exhibited symptoms of endocrine disruption like low male-to-female sex ratios and hermaphroditic fish. These effects are not isolated to Colorado; researchers have discovered endocrine disruption in fish populations across the globe, and long-term exposure can result in severe consequences such as the collapse of fish populations.
New technologies can also introduce harmful chemicals into the environment. Hydraulic fracturing, a nationally burgeoning industry, employs and extracts numerous chemicals that can have endocrine disrupting effects. Surface and belowground spills, as well as wastewater that has been inadequately treated at local plants (due to a lack of regulations on many compounds produced in oil and gas operations), can contaminate local rivers, drinking water sources, and agricultural soils. With over one million gallons of water spilled, and nearly 8 billion gallons of water produced in hydraulic fracturing operations in Colorado this year, it is imperative that we are capable of detecting hazardous compounds like endocrine disruptors and using that information to implement appropriate regulatory standards and remediation technologies.
Our health and the health of our environment depend on our ability to detect hazardous compounds at biologically relevant concentrations. Environmental analytical chemists and toxicologists at the USGS, the EPA, and other agencies and universities continue to use and develop sensitive techniques to identify and measure these chemicals and their byproducts, whether they come from plastics, wastewater, or hydraulic fracturing fluids. Modern products and processes can taint life-sustaining water with drugs and other potentially harmful chemicals. It is important that the public continues to support efforts to investigate environmental contamination so we can create effective policies that promote clean, safe drinking water, rivers, and soils.
Drought impacts all of us, even those who have not even stepped foot on a farm or a ranch. All over the media, there have been stories about the four-year crippling drought in California. There have been widespread wildfires, decreased food production and severe water restrictions in the state of California. Severe droughts such as this California drought, as well as the drought that occurred in the U.S. Great Plains from 2010-2012, are predicted to occur more frequently due to global climate change.
Droughts that occur in the U.S. Great Plains are of great interest to me due to my family history. My mother’s family homesteaded in Oklahoma and farms winter wheat, while my father’s family grows seed corn and soybeans in southeastern South Dakota. I am the 6th generation of my father’s family to work on the farm that my ancestors homesteaded near the Missouri River in 1861. Given my family background, my dissertation research focuses on the evaluating the impacts of drought on numerous grassland and crop sites in the U.S. Great Plains. It is my hope that my research will further our understanding of drought to help farmers and ranchers with the tough decisions when it comes to drought mitigation and drought response. The life of a farmer is already unpredictable due to the weather. It does make you wonder how much farmers will be impacted when certain extreme weather events such as droughts will be more commonplace with the changing climate.
What is Drought?
According to the leading institution of drought research, the U.S. National Drought Mitigation Center, drought originates from the lack of precipitation over an extended period of time (usually a season or longer), which results in water shortages for a variety of users such as humans, wildlife and crops. There are a variety of significant economic, social and environmental stresses that can worsen or improve drought. This flow chart focuses on the drought impacts to agricultural and non-agricultural sectors and the negative impacts on end-users, such as farmers, ranchers, tourists and municipal water utilities .
Impacts of 2012 Drought
The 2012 severe drought in the Great Plains and Midwest cost the nation approximately $35 billion dollars. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, 80 percent of agricultural land experienced drought in 2012, which made this drought more extensive than any other drought since the 1950s. The 2012 drought rapidly increased in severity from June to July and continued into August. The timing of the increased drought severity in early July coincided with the most important time for crop development, especially for corn. Severe or greater drought in 2012 impacted 67 percent of cattle production and about 70-75 percent of corn and soybean production. The 2012 drought resulted in decreased amounts of corn and soybean, higher prices for corn and soybeans, and higher prices and reduced amount of hay and pasture for cattle in 2013.
I recently had a conversation with my father about the 2012 drought and its impact on our family farm in southeastern South Dakota. He mentioned that it was the first time in the last 35 years that ZERO seed corn grew on the non-irrigated land and that they had to pump a significant amount of water from the Missouri River (which costs money) to irrigate the remaining corn and soybean fields. However, in other areas where the climate is much drier (less rainfall) such as the western regions of the Great Plains, there is no such water source available. As a result, irrigation is NOT a viable option.
Drought Mitigation Techniques
The United States Natural Resource Conservation Service details specific techniques that farmers and ranchers can utilize to mitigate drought impacts. This report suggests that farmers can mitigate drought impacts by minimizing tillage, altering planting dates, keeping soil covered, killing off the cover crops before planting the primary production crop, and injecting fertilizer so that it does come into contact with more soil moisture. Ranchers can mitigate drought impacts by having a drought plan in place before it occurs, not overgrazing, having alternative feeds and forages, improving water resources and culling herds.
I recently had a conversation with a family friend who is a farmer and rancher in central South Dakota. I asked, “What are you already doing to prepare for drought?” He responded that given that they do live in a fairly dry climate and do not have access to irrigation water, drought is just a way of life for them. In a non-drought year, he feeds wheat to the cattle but if a drought does occur (for example, the 2012 drought) the cattle feed on natural growing grass instead of wheat. He went on to further explain that they always have a three-year supply of grass for the cattle to eat if a drought does occur. While I found this rather fascinating, I then wondered what will happen if the droughts become so extreme that there isn’t enough grass to feed their cattle?
After this conversation, I then attended the American’s Grassland Conference. This conference brought together scientists, farmers, ranchers and policy experts to discuss issues related to the North American grasslands. I had an opportunity to tour the Pawnee Grasslands in Northeast Colorado with the local US Department of Agriculture – Agricultural Systems Research Unit (USDA – ARS) and was able to interact with local ranchers. This particular region receives so little precipitation that grazing cattle is more economically feasible than growing crops. As we learned on this tour, utilizing the correct cattle grazing techniques is essential when attempting to mitigate future drought risk. These particular ranchers that work with the USDA-ARS herd their cattle into different pastures over time to ensure that the grass can grow back at a healthy rate. It has been proven that grass that only has light or moderate grazing often show less mortality due to drought than grass that has been heavily grazed prior to drought .
Learning about cattle grazing techniques with scientists from the US Department of Agriculture – Agricultural Systems Research Unit (USDA – ARS) and local ranchers in the Pawnee Grassland in Northeast Colorado.
Drought is just the way of life for many farmers and ranchers in the U.S. Great Plains. Increasing our understanding of how different plants respond to drought is necessary in order to better inform farmers (when and what to plant) and ranchers (when and how much to graze). Certain questions still exist given that we are expecting more frequent, severe droughts to occur with the changing climate. Are the current techniques utilized by farmers and ranchers enough to mitigate future, more severe droughts? In the example of the farmer/rancher in central South Dakota, what will they feed their cattle if drought causes both the wheat and grass production to fail? Drought is an important topic for me given that both sides of my family farm. We have to remain optimistic that our way of life on the farm will be sustainable in the future to carry on the dreams of our ancestors. As my grandfather was quoted in a South Dakota magazine, “South Dakota is a land of infinite opportunities.”
 Kellner O and Niyogi D. 2014. Assessing drought vulnerability ofagricultural production systems in context of the 2012 drought. J Anim Sci 92:2811–22. Link: https://www.animalsciencepublications.org/publications/jas/pdfs/92/7/2811
 D.D. Briske, J.D. Derner, D.G. Milchunas, K.W. Tate, 2011. An evidence-based assessment of prescribed grazing practices. Conservation Benefits of Rangeland Practices: Assessment, Recommendations, and Knowledge Gaps, United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Washington, DC, pp. 21–74. Link: http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb1045796.pdf.
After two decades of failed efforts to reign in greenhouse gas emissions, avoiding the worst of climate change may now depend on carbon-negative biofuels and other uncertain technological fixes.
It has been more than a century since a Swedish scientist named Svante Arrhenious predicted that increases in the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would warm the surface of the Earth through the greenhouse effect. Such an increase in atmospheric CO2 due to the cumulative effects of humans burning fossil fuels and clearing land was first observed in 1960, and over the next several decades climate science emerged as an important research discipline. By the 1980s consensus was building within the scientific community that climate change was a threat, and the issue came to broader public awareness thanks to the efforts of civic-minded scientists like James Hansen and Stephen Schneider. Recognizing the global nature of the issue and the need for international cooperation, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was formed by the United Nations in 1988 to advise the world’s governments on the state of scientific knowledge around climate change.
Since then the IPCC has periodically released reports compiling the best science on quantifying the greenhouse effect, understanding its implications for human societies and natural ecosystems, and exploring how we might respond to the issue. These reports typically contain stern warnings about the dangers of climate change coupled with upbeat assessments of our ability to reduce our emissions and mitigate the problem. Assessment Report 2 (AR2), published in 1995, warned that “entire unique cultures might be obliterated” due to “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”, but noted that “a carefully selected portfolio of national and international responses of actions aimed at mitigation, adaptation and improvement of knowledge can reduce the risks.” That optimistic tone continued in subsequent reports: AR4 in 2007 reported that the cost of reducing emissions “corresponds to slowing average annual global GDP growth by less than 0.12 percentage points” and most recently, a follow-up conference to AR5 noted that “the additional investment required to transition to clean energy can be a small fraction” of our overall investments in the energy sector.
However, anyone familiar with the data knows that we have largely failed to heed these warnings, and total emissions of CO2 and other greenhouses gases have been consistent with worst-case scenarios. So how then does the IPCC continue to deliver optimistic projections after decades of accelerating—rather than falling—emissions? In part, it now assumes that the world economy can shift to renewable energy sources much more quickly than was previously though possible. The optimistic projections also rely heavily on this machine, and others like it:
That photo is from a corn ethanol facility in Illinois where the CO2 gas by-product of ethanol fermentation is being compressed to extremely high pressures and injected into geological formations deep underground for permanent storage. Compressing and storing CO2 underground is known as Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), a technology widely pursued by the coal industry as a way to stay alive in an age of GHG regulations and carbon taxes. When applied to CO2 derived from the production of biofuels or power from plant matter, you get Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage, or BECCS. The idea is that plants sucked up CO2 from the atmosphere during their growth, and that storing the CO2 resulting from fermenting or burning those plants is a form of “negative emissions”, a net transfer of carbon out of the atmosphere into underground storage (with a whole bunch of caveats around how those plants were grown and how much energy was used in the process).
The graphic below highlights just how pervasive BECCS is becoming in IPCC’s future greenhouse gas emissions scenarios. Those scenarios (left) that avoid the worst effects of climate change and limit surface temperature increase to <2°C (i.e., those in blue and green) are usually associated with scaling up BECCS over the next century to the point that it provides 10-30% of all human energy demands (right), in the same ballpark as natural gas currently does. In effect, the latest IPCC projections continue to get to an optimistic result through assumptions that we will be able to transition to a carbon-free energy system much more quickly than previously assumed, and that BECCS and other negative emissions technologies will be widely deployed and correct for any overshoot. That’s a tall order for technologies that have never before been deployed at large scale!
Now if reading this makes you a bit uncomfortable, you’re not the only one. Two scientists have recently cried foul on the IPCC process through editorial letters in the world’s most prominent scientific journals. In May of this year Oliver Geden, a German climate scientist and civil servant, took the group to task for giving in to political ‘pressures that undermine the integrity of climate science’ and peddling ‘false optimism’ based on ‘dubious concepts’ such as negative emissions technologies. He writes in the journal Nature:
Climate researchers who advise policy-makers feel that they have two options: be pragmatic or be ignored… The climate policy mantra — that time is running out for 2 °C but we can still make it if we act now — is a scientific nonsense. Advisers who shy away from saying so squander their scientific reputations and public trust in climate research.
Similarly, just last month English climate scientist Kevin Anderson wrote in Nature Geoscience (nice summary here) to point out that the IPCC projections are full of errors and overly optimistic assumptions resulting in ‘incremental escapism’ and ‘deus ex machina’ solutions, declaring:
As scientists, we must… combat the almost global-scale cognitive dissonance in acknowledging [our work’s] quantitative implications. Yet, so far, we simply have not been prepared to accept the revolutionary implications of our own findings, and even when we do we are reluctant to voice such thoughts openly… It is not our job to be politically expedient with our analysis…
Those are powerful critiques, with language much more forceful and direct than we often hear from the scientific community.
Now is a conflicted time for many of the scientists doing work on these topics. My own research focuses on the caveats around how to sustainably produce plant material at large scale from various sources that would be required for a scale-up of BECCS. It’s exciting to think that someday this work might have relevance in the fight against climate change, and I hope that continued funding allows us to develop practical, sustainable solutions in this area. But at the same time, I hope that if these technological fixes ever become a reality it’s because we collectively make a conscious choice to do so, not because false optimism backed us into a corner.
Written by Mike Angstadt, 2015-2016 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and PhD candidate, Department of Political Science, CSU.
While federal courts often seem insulated from the outside world and cloaked in strict rules, some tiny outsiders are beginning to enter the rarefied buildings. In recent years, honeybees have found their way into federal courts and captured the attention of federal judges. Rather than appearing as actual swarms of bees, they have arrived through a flurry of papers and arguments. However, these honeybee-related lawsuits are fascinating; in particular, a 2015 case illustrates the important role that courts can play in setting environmental policy.
Currently, species are being lost at a rate estimated to exceed the historical extinction rate by 1,000-10,000 times. Many threatened and endangered species perform functions that are valuable to our modern society, and among them, pollinators are paramount. Wild pollinators, as well as their domesticated counterparts (including honeybees), support agricultural production by pollinating crops that farmers and industries depend upon. In particular, honeybees facilitate pollination and crop production for many valuable crops; some, including almonds, depend entirely upon honeybees. Accordingly, economists estimate that honeybees contribute as much as $14 billion dollars per year of value to US crop production.
So, what's all the buzz about? Well, habitat loss and other factors have caused populations of native pollinators to decline, and have heightened the importance of honeybees in crop pollination. However, honeybees are also struggling. In recent winters, as many as one-third of honeybee colonies have collapsed. A combination of multiple factors, including stress, parasites, and pesticides is likely responsible for these collapses, and so a complex approach will be needed to maintain honeybee populations. As one step in this effort, conservation groups and environmental lawyers have begun swarming the courts.
Of the many tools available to conservation groups, courts may be among the least familiar to most of us. However, even though court cases are often highly technical and filled with legalese (who says "heretofore," anyway?), their power as conservation tools can't be overstated. For decades, environmental lawyers have used courts to advance their interests and address pressing conservation issues. To provide just a few examples, environmental lawsuits have: blocked construction of a power plant in a scenic stretch of New York's Hudson River, temporarily halted construction of an entire dam to protect an endangered fish species, and required the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases as pollutants. All those "heretofores" have some heft! Recognizing the power of the courts and the plight of the bees, groups representing the honeybee industry filed a lawsuit in 2013 that sought to protect honeybees from another pesticide that they viewed as harmful.
In Pollinator Stewardship Council v. EPA, the groups drew upon a law known as FIFRA (the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act), which requires new pesticides to be approved and registered by the EPA before they can be sold, as a way to evaluate their safety. The groups argued that the EPA had registered a new pesticide, known as sulfoxaflor, even though they felt that insufficient data had demonstrated its safety for bees. After some very technical analysis (here's the full opinion), the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco sided with the pollinator groups. Last month, the court ordered the EPA to rescind its registration of sulfoxaflor until additional information can be gathered regarding its safety.
In one sense, the case illustrates just how specific the legal questions are that federal courts often consider. At the same time, it shows how these very specific considerations can have huge impacts for environmental issues and environmental health. By considering whether specific registration procedures were followed for a single pesticide, the court blocked that pesticide from entering the market, and also brought considerable media attention to the issue of honeybee decline. Finally, it seems that the judges hearing the case were aware of these broader implications. For instance, when justifying its decision, the court emphasized "the precariousness of bee populations." It also emphasized the need to consider how pesticides affect the health of the overall hive, not just individual bees.
Currently, we are facing numerous, complicated environmental challenges in addition to pollinator decline. To address these, we will need informed, thoughtful participation from all corners of government, science, and industry. In demonstrating its ability to digest the broad issue of honeybee decline and apply it to their specific legal question, the 9th Circuit highlights the potential for courts to make important contributions to 21st-century conservation. For those of us who research courts and environmental law, this prospect helps to take some of the sting out of reading all that legalese!
“I kept staring down, impatiently waiting for the clouds to clear and the wondrous Auyan to appear. Well, it did. And there we were, flying right on top of billions-year-old erosive ruins, staring down on this gigantic King of the Great Savannah. Now, under the full moon, it stares down on me to remind me who is the ruler of these lands.”*
Towering over the vast lowlands, flattop mountains such as Auyan rise taller than the highest skyscrapers in the world. Dozens of these mountains dot the expansive shrublands and tropical forests of northeastern South America, yet the looming threats forecast a bleak and uncertain future for their conservation. These mountains known as tepuis, or "houses of the gods" in the local Pemon language, are hard to describe in words or portray in pictures, but their magnificent presence leaves no doubt as to why they are sacred lands to the indigenous. This majestic world full of cliff-dwelling gods and truly unique ecosystems – and one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites – runs the risk of being lost for good if we don’t change the way these lands are being managed.
Though you may not be aware, you have probably been exposed to the grandeur of this region before; perhaps by learning about the tallest waterfall on earth, Angel Falls, or by watching Disney’s movie Up, or from reading or watching remakes of Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. The Lost World is a perfect description of the tepui ecosystem; not because of the existence of dinosaurs lost in time as the novel portrays, but because these islands are lost in our collective knowledge, frozen in time in the advancement of research and science, forgotten and ignored by policy and conservation management, and highly threatened because of illegal mining and global climate change. But before I touch on these issues, let me describe to you what makes this Lost World so fascinating.
Unlike a mountain chain uplift – such as the Rockies and the Alps – caused by the collision of tectonic plates, tepuis were formed by hundreds of millions of years of erosive cycles that slowly yet persistently broke apart a once enormous high-altitude plateau known as the Guiana Shield. Located in Northern South America, the summits are one of the most ancient exposed surfaces on earth and harbor hundreds of unique species found nowhere else. Most unique species are often found on a single summit…. and in some cases, these summits can be as small as 2 square miles!
Many interesting ecological and evolutionary phenomena are directly related to distinctive summit climate and ecology. For example, although rains are very frequent, water never accumulates because it quickly escapes to the lowlands through billion-year-old erosive canals. Thus, permanent bodies of water like rivers and ponds are scarce if not absent. This affects animals such as amphibians, which are in constant need of water to avoid desiccation through their permeable skins. As a consequence, most summit frog species have adapted to seek shelter in pitcher plants, which keep standing water for much longer than the rockface.
Another unique evolutionary phenomenon on these flattop summits is the occurrence of carnivory in many different plant groups. Because soils are constantly eroding, and no new soil depositions occur – other than the slow decomposition of organic material – nitrogen, an essential compound for life, is in short supply. Normally, plants obtain nitrogen from the soil through their root systems. However, on the soil-scarce tepuis, many plants have independently evolved the ability to digest insects and other small animals in order to obtain enough nitrogen to survive. This adaptation appears to be a common evolutionary solution to nutrient-poor soils on the summits, and has resulted in an accumulation of unique species in these ecosystems.
Animals and plants unique to the tepuis are highly threatened by rising global temperatures and climate change. One overall trend that scientists have observed so far is that temperatures are increasing faster than most organisms can adapt, thus resulting in either shifts of distributions or extinction of species rather than adaptation to new climates. As an example, butterflies in the Alps have been shown to move upwards in altitude, maintaining their preferred climatic tolerances as temperatures rise. Moreover, as temperate regions become warmer, tropical species expand their ranges, which for example has resulted in an increase in tropical diseases in North America.
The species that are adapted to the summits of the flattop mountains are faced with a very bleak future. They, unlike lowland species, cannot move to higher elevations, so changing climate will force them to adapt to warmer and drier conditions at an implausibly fast rate. Futhermore, they will also face competition from historically lowland-dwellers that will now seek cooler temperatures as the lowlands also become too warm and too dry for their taste. In short, all these unique summit species have one of two choices: adapt or die, though most likely the latter.
The uniqueness of this ecosystem is not restricted to the summits. The lowlands and foothills also have plant and animal species, as well as human cultures found nowhere else on earth. The Pemon people, who inhabit these lands, currently represent some of the most isolated and pristine indigenous cultures left on earth. Most tribes still retain ancient traditions, languages, and religious beliefs. They believe the mountains are the houses of gods, and the keepers of the souls of the dead, the mawari. They believe people that mistreat dogs cannot enter heaven, and that jaguars are the dogs of the mawari, making them sacred and never a hunting target, unless you wish the spirits of the dead to be against you.
The respectful practices and beliefs of the Pemon people towards their natural environment have allowed this populated yet isolated area to remain largely pristine and untouched. In fact, the Pemon people never ascended to the mountain summits until tourism breached the area. They never hunted except as a means of survival, and they never killed any top predators such as large cats. However, in recent years, excessive and uncontrolled tourism to summits of the most accessible mountains, and more importantly an exponential increase in illegal gold mining in their territories, have generated an imbalance and a delicate situation for the tribes and the ecosystem alike. The Pemon are now being exploited by the miners, and the ecosystem is rapidly and permanently being destroyed by highly destructive mining practices, destroying both the Pemon’s possibilities for subsisting in this now contaminated and depleted environment, as well as threatening all the unique species found there.
Even though these areas are all “protected” by national park or reserve status, negligence of local authorities as well as almost complete lack of funding for parks have resulted in extreme mismanagement and exploitation of both the environment and the communities. The lost world has rarely been a prominent component of collective or scientific knowledge, or a priority for conservation. But unless we make this effort now, it will be too late to save the ecosystem from rising temperatures, hunting, and uncontrolled tourism, or to protect the people and their culture from the abuse associated with illegal mining. The cultural and environmental uniqueness of this region is rapidly disappearing before we actually know what’s there, and before we can rightly appreciate it. Unless efficient conservation policies, climate change research, and indigenous tribe protection is immediately and effectively implemented for the preservation of biodiversity and culture, Conan Doyle’s Lost World will be truly lost for future generations.
*Excerpt from one of my journal entries from my first expedition to this region, 2009.
1. Angel Falls, Venezuela.
2. Example of a barren summit landscape, Auyan, Venezuela.
3. Summit frog, Tepuihyla edelcae, inside a pitcher plant, Brocchinia.
4. Alexander, local guide and native Pemon, Venezuela.
5. "Great Savannah" mountains and lowlands, Venezuela.
Governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) seeking to improve the well-being of herders in the arid and semi-arid rangelands of East Africa and the Greater Horn of Africa often receive contradictory recommendations on how to address land degradation through changing grazing management.
Herders in the region face difficult challenges from frequent droughts, population pressure, conflict over land, livestock disease, and restricted pasture access. In some areas, overgrazing results in land degradation, which when severe compromises pasture productivity and can cause massive soil erosion (Figure 1). Not only are these problems of deathly seriousness to herders in the region, but poverty, conflict, and food insecurity in these drylands cripple development and threaten the stability of regional governments, triggering millions in international support, each and every year. Considering this long list of problems, how highly should changing grazing management to prevent or reverse rangeland degradation be prioritized in general, and where should degradation be a top priority?
Over the previous century, most observers considered overgrazing to be nearly universal, along with its consequences in terms of degradation (soil erosion, shrub invasions, reduced pasture quality).1 Progress in rangeland ecology in the 1980s and 1990s led to a new paradigm which held that the role of grazing in degradation is strongly affected by climatic conditions;2 this work continues to be confirmed by recent research.3
First, degradation is usually much more severe in more productive rangelands, such as the Borana Plateau in southern Ethiopia (Figure 1). In savannas receiving moderate rainfall (e.g., ~600 mm yr-1 in Borana) herders can maintain a high density of cattle, over-taxing grasses and compacting soils, especially if the land is not periodically rested from grazing. When the growth of grasses is reduced, woody shrubs can gain a foothold and eventually dominate the area. Since cattle generally need grass, invasion of shrubs inedible to cows threatens the production of milk, the main food for most pastoralists and a critical source of income and protein-rich nutrition. On soils prone to erosion, bare soil beneath shrubs is vulnerable to sometimes shocking losses of topsoil (Figure 1) and sedimentation of waterways. The switch from a more grassy to a more woody savanna is difficult (but not impossible) to reverse, through bush clearing, prescribed burning, and herding livestock that prefer to browse woody plants, namely goats and camels.
Yet in other rangelands, even heavy grazing can have little effect. For example, in the drier savannas of Turkana County in northern Kenya (~400 mm yr-1), not far from Borana, livestock do not appreciably affect the growth or condition of rangeland vegetation.2 In addition, rainfall is more variable in drier areas, so much so that dry rangelands can change in random and chaotic ways, depending on how much rain falls, where, on which day. Herders must move their livestock frequently, the animals spend little time in any given place, and the land is rested until the next flush of green growth sometime in the future. For all of these reasons, grazing often has little impact over and above rainfall in dry rangelands, meaning that grazing is unlikely to cause of degradation.
Rangeland ecologists describe the difference between the wetter (Borana) and drier savannas (Turkana) in terms of their system dynamics.2 In wetter rangelands, termed ‘equilibrium’ systems, grazing (and other management) can strongly affect the condition of the vegetation, and therefore also the soil. In contrast, since rainfall is the primary control over the condition of drier rangelands, these are termed ‘disequilibrium’ systems. The significance of the difference is that wetter, more productive, equilibrium systems are generally more sensitive to grazing-induced degradation, while grazing does not often cause degradation in drier, less productive, disequilibrium systems.3
Certainly, though, dry rangelands can become degraded by overgrazing. Whether or not degradation occurs depends on many factors, one of the most critical being the local systems and rules for organizing who grazes which animals where, at what time of year, and for how long. Site-specific conditions (soils, plant species, location) can also be significant. Most ecologists agree that the truth lies somewhere in between the two extremes of herders always causing degradation, and herders never causing degradation.4 Both under- and over-estimating the role of grazing in degradation will likely confound effective rangeland management.
Should governments and NGOs therefore prioritize degradation more highly in rangelands with higher rainfall? Absolutely, at least in general. These productive lands are not only more ecologically vulnerable to degradation, they are often more densely populated, further exacerbating the risk of degradation. Meanwhile, attempts to change grazing practices in drier rangelands to improve the condition of vegetation and soils can generally be expected to accomplish little. Moreover, the financial resources used could be devoted to addressing more relevant and pressing issues.
However, all wetter savannas and all drier savannas do not respond identically to grazing and other management,3 and many of the problems in rangelands can be traced to other factors.5 Shrub encroachment, in particular, does not purely result from grazing, but is also accelerated by fire suppression, global increases in temperature and the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, and decreasing populations of shrub-browsing wildlife, all of which shift the competitive balance in favor of shrubs over grasses. The relative strength of each of these factors in driving rangeland degradation remains a matter of controversial debate.
In response, rangeland ecologists and their collaborators in the social sciences and conservation are building networks to monitor how rangelands are changing, where they are improving versus degrading, and assessing the mechanisms driving these changes. Some of the key efforts globally include GEOGLAM RAPP, the Global Agenda for Sustainable Livestock, and those of our Livestock Systems and Environment team at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and colleagues other centers of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). These efforts benefit from integrating a variety of methodologies including field-based measures, herder and community interviews, mathematical modelling, airborne sensors, and satellite-based remote sensing to drive rangeland science toward reliable, actionable information on the extent and severity of degradation in rangelands, and where degradation can and should be actively combated through supporting herders to reduce the impact of grazing on vulnerable rangelands.
Figure 1. Wetter, ‘equilibrium’, savanna in Borana Zone, southern Ethiopia. Left: in good condition due to protection from wet-season grazing as a dry-season forage reserve, and Right: in poor condition due to open access grazing, shrub encroachment, and major soil erosion (note large gullies). In both photos, most shrubs had been selectively cut in recent years. Photos taken less than 300 m from one another. Photo credit: Jason Sircely.
1Lamprey, R. 1983. Pastoralism yesterday and today: The over-grazing problem. Pages 643–666 in Bouliere, F., ed. Tropical Savannas, Vol 13, Ecosystems of the World. Amsterdam: Elsevier.
2Ellis, J. and D. Swift. 1988. Stability of African pastoral ecosystems: alternative paradigms and implications for development. Journal of Range Management 41:450–59.
3von Wehrden, H., J. Hanspach, P. Kaczensky, J. Fischer, and K. Wesche. 2012. Global assessment of the nonequilibrium concept in rangelands. Ecological Applications 22:393–99
4Reid, R. 2012. Savannas of Our Birth: People, Wildlife, and Change in East Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press.
5D’Odorico, P., A. Bhattachan, K. Davis, S. Ravi, C. Runyan. 2013. Global desertification: drivers and feedbacks. Advances in Water Resources 51:326–44
Pope Francis may be the most popular leader on the world stage today. Given that popularity, conservation biologists should especially welcome his recent encyclical letter, Laudato Si’, On Care for Our Common Home (2015). While the world’s media have focused on the Pope’s statements regarding climate change, Laudato Si’ provides a powerful analysis and call to action on a wide range of environmental issues. In fact chapter one, detailing current ecological problems, devotes about twice as much space to biodiversity loss as it does to climate change.
Throughout his encyclical, Francis insists that humanity’s relationship to the rest of nature can and should involve love and appreciation, gratitude and care. A techno-managerial approach to the world is insufficient, in part because by itself it is "unable to set limits" to humanity's demands on nature. As he says in the introduction:
11. ... If we approach nature and the environment without [an] openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.
According to Pope Francis, the biodiversity crisis is a moral crisis. His analysis is worth quoting at length, not least for the clarity with which he links an underdeveloped environmental ethics with an overdeveloped Economy:
32. The earth’s resources are … being plundered because of short-sighted approaches to the economy, commerce and production. The loss of forests and woodlands entails the loss of species which may constitute extremely important resources in the future, not only for food but also for curing disease and other uses. Different species contain genes which could be key resources in years ahead for meeting human needs …
33. It is not enough, however, to think of different species merely as potential “resources” to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves. Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost for ever. The great majority becomes extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.
Conservation biologists of a secular bent may ground our sense of other species’ intrinsic value in their own nature and evolutionary history, immanently, rather than in a transcendent deity (Wilson 2007, Rolston 2011). Nevertheless, most of us share the Pope’s sense that extinction is a great moral wrong committed against other species and future human generations. His emphasis on the moral aspects of conservation should encourage conservation scientists to discuss them as well.
As the section on biodiversity loss continues, Francis connects these moral judgments to specific policy proposals. He explains the need for more protected areas where the primary focus is on biodiversity preservation rather than economic exploitation (paragraph 37). He discusses the conservation value of biological corridors linking such protected areas (35) and clearly explains the difference between tree plantations and primary forests (39). Further on, he reminds readers that like individual species, natural communities hold both instrumental and intrinsic values that we should appreciate and preserve (140). In lines that read as if they could have been written by E.O. Wilson, the Pope insists on the importance of the little things that run the world and on the human costs of overdevelopment and loss of connection to wild nature:
34. It may well disturb us to learn of the extinction of mammals or birds, since they are more visible. But the good functioning of ecosystems also requires fungi, algae, worms, insects, reptiles and an innumerable variety of microorganisms. Some less numerous species, although generally unseen, nonetheless play a critical role in maintaining the equilibrium of a particular place. … nowadays, [the] intervention in nature has become more and more frequent. As a consequence, serious problems arise, leading to further interventions; human activity becomes ubiquitous, with all the risks which this entails. Often a vicious circle results, as human intervention to resolve a problem further aggravates the situation. For example, many birds and insects which disappear due to synthetic agrotoxins are helpful for agriculture: their disappearance will have to be compensated for by yet other techniques which may well prove harmful. We must be grateful for the praiseworthy efforts being made by scientists and engineers dedicated to finding solutions to man-made problems. But a sober look at our world shows that the degree of human intervention, often in the service of business interests and consumerism, is actually making our earth less rich and beautiful, ever more limited and grey, even as technological advances and consumer goods continue to abound limitlessly. We seem to think that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves.
Note the Pope's awareness of how human impacts can lead to a vicious circle that makes it harder to leave nature alone, pulling us further into an Anthropocene epoch of increased ugliness and diminished diversity. In Francis’ view, excessive human intervention in the natural world doesn’t just lead to negative consequences—it is itself a negative aspect of current human societies. We don’t just need better interventions in wild nature, we also need fewer interventions, and more respect for the complex, beautiful world that God has created and nature has evolved over the aeons.
Laudato Si’ goes on to clearly identify the driving cause of biodiversity loss and our other global environmental problems: an economic system out of control, not focused on providing sufficient goods for people to live good lives, but devoted to the relentless and ever more intensive commodification of all aspects of nature, in service to ever more consumption. Here the Pope, for all his idealism, demonstrates a more realistic understanding of the powers blocking the creation of ecologically sustainable societies than many environmentalists. Minor reforms to this system, even major efficiency improvements within it, will never allow us to solve our environmental problems, Francis avers. Partly, this is because:
191. … environmental protection cannot be assured solely on the basis of financial calculations of costs and benefits. The environment is one of those goods that cannot be adequately safeguarded or promoted by market forces. Once more, we need to reject a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals. Is it realistic to hope that those who are obsessed with maximizing profits will stop to reflect on the environmental damage which they will leave behind for future generations? Where profits alone count, there can be no thinking about the rhythms of nature, its phases of decay and regeneration, or the complexity of ecosystems which may be gravely upset by human intervention. Moreover, biodiversity is considered at most a deposit of economic resources available for exploitation, with no serious thought for the real value of things, their significance for persons and cultures, or the concerns and needs of the poor.
What is needed is no less than the taming of modern industrial capitalism: harnessing the Economy in service to higher goals, rather than letting it pursue its own logic of growth at any cost and in the process run roughshod over wild nature and human beings alike (Daly 2015). This is not to forego human development, Francis insists; it is instead its prerequisite, in a crowded world with limited resources. In this context, the Pope invites his readers to rethink what we mean by development and to consider whether sometimes “less is more,” particularly regarding resource use among the wealthy:
192. … a path of productive development, which is more creative and better directed, could correct the present disparity between excessive technological investment in consumption and insufficient investment in resolving urgent problems facing the human family. It could generate sensible and profitable ways of reusing, revamping and recycling, and it could also improve the energy efficiency of cities. … Such creativity would be a worthy expression of our most noble human qualities, for we would be striving intelligently, boldly and responsibly to promote a sustainable and equitable development within the context of a broader concept of quality of life. On the other hand, to find ever new ways of despoiling nature, purely for the sake of new consumer items and quick profit, would be, in human terms, less worthy and creative, and more superficial.
193. In any event, if in some cases sustainable development were to involve new forms of growth, in other cases, given the insatiable and irresponsible growth produced over many decades, we need also to think of containing growth by setting some reasonable limits and even retracing our steps before it is too late. We know how unsustainable is the behaviour of those who constantly consume and destroy, while others are not yet able to live in a way worthy of their human dignity. That is why the time has come to accept decreased growth in some parts of the world, in order to provide resources for other places to experience healthy growth. …
Precisely here, in its willingness to consider setting limits to economic growth, the Pope’s encyclical has provoked criticism from pro-business commentators around the world (Brooks 2015). The guardians of the global capitalist status quo expect world leaders to occasionally pay lip service to combatting climate change or preserving endangered species. But to question the goodness of growth is to question the real god that humanity bows down to in our times. Nevertheless, Francis asks his readers to rethink their most fundamental priorities in search of a truer understanding of the purpose of the Economy:
194. For new models of progress to arise, there is a need to change models of global development; this will entail a responsible reflection on the meaning of the economy and its goals with an eye to correcting its malfunctions and misapplications. It is not enough to balance, in the medium term, the protection of nature with financial gain, or the preservation of the environment with progress. Halfway measures simply delay the inevitable disaster. Put simply, it is a matter of redefining our notion of progress. A technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be considered progress. ...
Of all the lessons conservation biologists might take away from Laudato Si’, this willingness to engage in fundamental socio-economic critique might be the most important. For the Pope is right: the Economy and its most powerful actors, multinational corporations, must be tamed in order for conservation to succeed—difficult and daunting as such a goal might seem. Otherwise, they will surely tame and displace the wild world that conservation biologists seek to preserve.
Again and again, the Pope returns to the notion of limits: limits to how much people should consume (paragraphs 27, 161); limits to how much we should modify natural and cultural landscapes (106, 143); limits to how much wealth and how many possessions we need to truly be happy (220ff.). As one representative passage puts it: “The time has come to pay renewed attention to reality and the limits it imposes; this in turn is the condition for a more sound and fruitful development of individuals and society …” (116). And further on: “We need to take up an ancient lesson, found in different religious traditions and also in the Bible. It is the conviction that ‘less is more.’ A constant flood of new consumer goods can baffle the heart and prevent us from cherishing each thing and each moment. … Happiness means knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us, and being open to the many different possibilities which life can offer” (222-223).
These words get to the heart of Pope Francis’ message. An appreciation of limits is not a hindrance to human development, but its prerequisite. Conversely the endless growth economy, grounded in greed, intemperance and ingratitude among individuals and on a relentless commodification and transformation of the natural world on the part of businesses, will inevitably undermine both human and non-human flourishing (Dilworth 2009). No amount of efficiency improvements or techno-fixes can save nature, or us, in the absence of love and appreciation and a willingness to forego the pursuit of “more.”
If we can develop ideals of human development that include an appreciation for what we have and a sense that “enough is enough,” human beings can pursue our own flourishing while also acknowledging limits: even embracing them, as proof of our love for our fellow men and women and for the natural world (Alexander 2015). If we can do this, we can leave forests standing and coral reefs thriving, and avoid adding the evil of mass extinction as an indelible stain on the story of our career on Earth. But not otherwise. Laudato Si’ offers hope that humanity can indeed take the nobler path. Conservation biologists would do well to study and, where justified, advocate for Pope Francis’ bold suggestions regarding the way forward.
Alexander S. 2015. Prosperous Descent: Crisis as Opportunity in an Age of Limits. Simplicity Institute.
Brooks D. 2015. Fracking and the Franciscans. The New York Times, 23 June 2015.
Daly H. 2015. From Uneconomic Growth to a Steady-State Economy. Edward Elgar.
Dilworth C. 2009. Too Smart for Our Own Good: The Ecological Predicament of Humankind. Cambridge University Press.
Francis. 2015. Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis: On Care for Our Common Home [English language version]. The Vatican.
Rolston H. 2011. A New Environmental Ethics: The Next Millennium for Life on Earth. Routledge.
Wilson E. O. 2007. The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth. W.W. Norton.
Written by Travis Gallo, 2014-2015 Sustainaiblity Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. Student in the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology.
Altering natural areas to benefit economically important wildlife, such as deer and elk, has been underway for centuries. Game management is widespread across the globe – from tree reductions in the United States to increase grasses and plants that deer and elk prefer to eat, to burning moorlands in Scotland to increase open areas for game birds – yet their effects on non-targeted animals and natural communities are poorly understood. For decades, this game management model has assumed that measures benefiting hunted species also positively affect all wildlife in the area. However, there is little evidence to support this notion. We found remarkably few studies that directly evaluated the effect of game management on non-targeted wildlife. Decisions based primarily on a single-species generally target a small subset of the animal community. With species going extinct at alarming rates, it is critical that we re-evaluate that assumption and investigate how land management decisions are impacting all wildlife – not just economically important species.
Here in Colorado, pinyon-juniper woodlands have been the objects of efforts to covert woodlands into grazing lands for livestock and big game species for the last half century. Pinyon-juniper woodlands are the third largest vegetative community in the United States – covering over 40 million hectares. These woodlands offer valuable resources – supplying food and shelter for woodland-dependent wildlife, food and fuel for humans, and forage for livestock. However, both pinyon and juniper trees have been expanding into grasslands and shrublands for the past 150 years, and the removal of these woodlands has been a major focus of wildlife managers and ranchers throughout the Western United States. The mechanisms driving the increase of pinyon-juniper woodlands are not well known, but may include long-term recovery from past natural disturbances, Holocene range expansion, livestock grazing, fire exclusion, and/or the effects of climatic change and rising atmospheric CO2 Tree-reduction efforts have been applied to a large amount of public lands for the last 50 years, and future tree-reduction efforts are expected to increase as managers are tasked with multiple objectives – including fire prevention and enhancing wildlife habitat in areas of increasing urbanization and energy development. With the increase in human-induced pressures on wildlife and the increase demand for more land management activities, it is imperative that we understand the effects of habitat manipulation efforts on the entire animal community that resides in the area.
We have been investigating the long-term and short-term effects of pinyon-juniper removal designed to benefit mule deer, an economically important game species in the western United States, on non-target animal communities in the Piceance Basin in Northwest Colorado. We want to know, is the best practice to remove these woodlands? If we do, what happens to the other animals living in the forest? How does displacing some of those other animals affect the rest of the ecosystem?
Our preliminary results suggest that the reduction of pinyon and juniper trees catalyzes a long-term change from dense pinyon-juniper forest to sagebrush scrub, consequently changing the wildlife that uses these areas. For example, woodland preferring birds like the black-throated gray warblers are rarely found in cleared sites, whereas shrubland birds like the green-tailed towhee have become common. We also found that particular wildlife groups were influenced by specific vegetative characteristics, and these characteristics could easily be maintained or created by land managers. For example, bark-gleaning birds (birds who hunt for insects up and down the trunks of trees) were more likely to use undisturbed woodlands, and tree diameter had the greatest positive influence on the probability of these birds occurring at a site. Therefore, using forest-clearing techniques that retain some large standing trees may reduce the negative impacts on bark gleaning birds.
This is just one example of how single-species management can have unintended consequences for other animals that reside in the same area. But, by understanding both the short and long-term consequences of these practices and making small changes to how we manage land, we can enhance our ability to protect and restore the biodiversity of natural communities. Given the broad and increasing impact of human activities on biodiversity, advancing our understanding of the costs and benefits of single-species management for other species of concern should be a priority for land managers and society. A large percentage of the earth’s surface has been altered through land management, and whether ecosystems can recover their natural arrangement after substantial human-disturbance remains one of the critical questions facing ecologists.
You can follow Travis Gallo and the Liba Pejchar lab on Twitter - @mellamorooster (Travis) and @thelibalab (Liba Pejchar Lab). You can also read more about Travis’ research and interests at his website.
Figure 1. The Cathedral Bluffs, Garfield County, Colorado.
Figure 2. Mule deer doe and fawns using a cleared area of pinyon-juniper forest.
Figure 3. Black-throated gray warbler (Setophaga nigrescens), a common woodland bird found in the Piceance Basin, Colorado.
Figure 4. Green-tailed towhee (Pipilo chlorurus), a common shrubland bird found in the Piceance Basin, Colorado.
Written by Ashley Gramza, 2014-2015 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and PhD Candidate for the Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology.
If there are two things that most Americans have in common, it is a love of wildlife and the environment. Although many Americans are aware of the negative effects of development and habitat destruction on wildlife, few people realize the negative effects that outdoor pet cats have on wildlife and that wildlife have on outdoor cats.
Domestic cats are originally native to North Africa and the Near East but now have a global distribution due to their close association with human pets. They are also the most popular pet in the world. In the United States, outdoor cats represent an introduced predator that was released by humans. Furthermore, cats can have detrimental effects on the local ecosystem. Cats can eat local wildlife above and beyond what similar-sized local predators such as foxes and raccoons eat. This can then lead to lower numbers of wildlife such as small mammals and birds. Cats may also take food away from local predators. For example, cats eating small mammals and birds equates to less food for hawks, coyotes, foxes, and raccoons.
Cats may also introduce new diseases to an area. About 10 years ago, three endangered Florida panthers died from feline leukemia virus that they likely contracted from eating an infected domestic cat. Since Florida panthers are a regional subspecies of mountain lions, this disease could potentially spread to mountain lions in other places if the disease is present in the outdoor cat population. Luckily cats can be vaccinated against feline leukemia.
Conversely, outdoor cats also face a variety of risks when they go outdoors. Cats can become food for local predators such as red foxes, mountain lions, coyotes, and hawks. Outdoor cats can also be hit by cars or injured by dogs and other cats. Cats can also get diseases such as rabies from local wildlife or other outdoor cats. Rabies can then be transmitted to owners, and this disease is very costly to treat. Both cat scratch disease and plague can also be transmitted to humans and can be deadly to both humans and cats.
Although the risks are many and outdoor cats are almost everywhere, it is uncertain what risks cats actually face or inflict in many areas. Because of this, myself and other researchers at Colorado State University are cataloging the various risks that are associated with outdoor pet cats and their interactions with wildlife near Boulder, CO. To do this, we tracked outdoor pet cat movement with GPS backpacks and used cameras to determine how far cats roamed into natural areas. We also tested cats for a number of diseases and collected wildlife prey that cats brought home. The goal of our research was to inform residents about the local risks that cats face and the effects cats may have on the local ecosystem so that owners can make informed decisions about allowing their cats outdoors. Another goal of this research was to understand public opinions about outdoor pet cats and use this information to create communication programs aimed at reducing the risks related to cats spending time outdoors.
The negative effects of cats are completely reversible and you can help! Here are some of the ways you can keep both cats and wildlife safe and healthy:
2) Restrict your cats' outdoor activity. Having cats that stay indoors eliminates all outdoor risks, but you can also use outdoor cat enclosures or restrict your cats' outdoor activities in other easy ways such as making sure your cat is always supervised when outdoors. For more information on how to buy or build your own cat enclosures visit HERE.
2) Spay and neuter your cats to reduce unwanted cats in the area. Many local humane societies offer low cost services for those who qualify.
3) Regularly vaccinate your cat to reduce the risk of disease transmission.
4) Adopt a cat from your local animal shelter to give an unwanted cat a home.
Written by Emily Fischer, Sheryl Magzamen, Jeff Pierce, Monique Rocca, and John Volckens; Principal Investigators of Wildfires, Air Quality, Climate and Health a 2014-2015 SoGES Global Challenges Research Team.
Those of us living in the western US are familiar with wildfire smoke. Several months ago, a member of our SoGES Global Challenge Research Team (GCRT) was telling his mother that our team was researching the health effects of exposure to wildfire smoke. Her response was, “let me guess, it’s bad for you!” Of course, she is right (mom is always right), but it turns out this issue is complicated. There are are many open questions related to wildfire smoke, health and climate: Are the health effects of wildfire smoke different from automobile pollution or coal combustion? How well can we forecast where smoke plumes will go in order to warn those at risk of smoke exposure? How might wildfires change in the future? Can we manage our wildlands strategically to minimize wildfires and smoke exposure? In this post, we discuss why we need to answer these questions.
Are the health effects of wildfire smoke different from automobile pollution or coal combustion?
The World Health Organization has determined that air pollution is currently the world’s largest single environmental health risk, estimated to result in 7 million deaths annually. Specifically, fine particulate air pollution (particulate matter, PM) has been identified as contributing to lung disease, heart attacks and strokes. Wildfires are a very large source of summertime fine PM to the western US. On an annual basis, wildfire emissions account for about 10 - 40% of total fine PM emissions to the atmosphere. But are the health effects of wildfire smoke different from pollution from cars or power plants?
Wildfire smoke contains a complex mixture of gases (e.g. carbon monoxide and thousands of organic species) and PM. Particulate matter is a major concern because it tends to be more strongly correlated with health effects than other species. The peer-reviewed literature on public health impacts of wildfire smoke exposure (citations: ~80) is much smaller compared to research on general health effects of PM (citations: ~17,000) and human-generated (also called anthropogenic) PM such as diesel exhaust (citations: ~3,100). Consistent with health effects of human-generated pollution exposure, wildfire smoke exposure is associated with respiratory symptoms in vulnerable populations, such as children with asthma and patients with chronic respiratory and cardiovascular disease. Though studies on health effects of wildfire PM are methodologically comparable to those conducted on anthropogenic PM, several key findings indicate important key differences between the two types of exposure.
First, recent research on health effects of ambient PM has demonstrated that PM toxicity is a result of a complex interaction of particle size range, geography, source, and season. As health effects of human-generated PM (e.g. fossil-fuel combustion) have been studied primarily, it is unclear whether wildfire PM would have the same levels of toxicity. Second, it is unclear if anthropogenic PM and wildfire PM affect the same systems of the human body. Currently, PM-health research tends to focus on the cardiovascular effects of PM. However, several epidemiological studies have suggested that PM exposure from wildfire smoke is associated with respiratory, but not cardiovascular, morbidity. Animal models have demonstrated that wildfire PM is more toxic compared to equal doses of non-wildfire PM, and specifically target the lungs. In contrast, post-plume periods are associated with increased cardiovascular hospital admissions. Finally, a fundamental question in environmental epidemiology is understanding health effects of acute, high-doses of exposure (from a wildfire, for instance) compared to chronic, lower levels of exposure (from domestic wood burning).
How well can we forecast where smoke plumes will go in order to warn those at risk of exposure?
State and local agencies in charge of advising residents of poor air quality require accurate predictions of wildfire smoke concentrations (as far in advance as possible). Smoke forecasts are challenging for several reasons. (1) At best, smoke forecasts can only be as good as the underlying wind forecasts predicted by weather models. As weather predictions deteriorate forward in time, smoke forecasts will as well. (2) Fires in the western US often occur in mountainous regions where wind predictions are challenging due to channeling through valleys. (3) The spread and intensity of the fire must be predicted, especially for longer smoke forecasts. Spread and intensity forecasts require accurate information on the weather, the vegetation, and firefighting, and each includes uncertainties. (4) Smoke plume rise due to the heat of the fire must be accurately predicted. Hot fires may loft plumes away from the surface, and details of the atmosphere affect this rise as well. Thus, any uncertainties in the weather and fire spread/intensity will manifest itself as uncertainties in plume rise.
In light of these uncertainties, many agencies are developing and using smoke forecast tools. A popular tool among many decision-making agencies is the BlueSky smoke prediction tool developed by the US Forest Service. You can look at the current smoke forecasts from BlueSky for various regions of the US here. One of the goals of our SoGES GCRT is to evaluate and improve BlueSky and other wildfire prediction tools.
How might wildfires change in the future?
The area burned by wildfires in the western US has increased in recent decades, and modeling efforts consistently suggest that fire activity will continue to increase dramatically over the next century. However, these predictions have uncertainties. Many factors determine how wildfire occurrence has and will change, including the onset of snow melt, precipitation throughout the year, temperature, winds, humidity, vegetation, and human intervention (more details on this in the next question). All but this last factor depend on climate models for future predictions, and different models and different greenhouse-gas scenarios lead to different forecasts of these variables. Thus, the variability in future wildfire predictions is substantial. One of the objectives of our SoGES GCRT is to use a suite of climate models to determine what trends in wildfires seem to be robust across the various climate predictions.
Photo caption: From NRC 2011: Projected change in area burned for 1°C increase in global average temperature.
Can we manage our wildlands strategically to minimize wildfires and smoke exposure?
Beyond influencing climate change, there are two major ways in which humans can directly affect wildfires and smoke exposure . The first is involves how we develop our built environment along the urban-wildland interface. By building homes in and near forests at risk for wildfires, the folks who will live in these homes are not only at risk for wildfire smoke exposure, but may risk property loss!
The second way humans directly influence wildfires and smoke is through land management practices such as prescribed burning, forest thinning, and underbrush clearing. Such activities have the potential to reduce the spread rate, severity and, sometimes the occurrence of wildfires. As a consequence, these treatments may help to reduce smoke emissions and human health impacts during wildfires. On the other hand, the ecological appropriateness of such treatments varies greatly by ecosystem type. Further, while mechanical forest treatments have negligible air quality impacts, prescribed fire substitutes limited and somewhat controllable air quality impacts over many burn periods for potentially severe and unplanned air quality events. The health tradeoffs of wildfires versus prescribed fires have not been extensively evaluated. Our GCRT is investigating how these various wildfire-mitigation approaches may impact wildfires and air quality.
Photo caption from first image: Wildfire smoke from the High Park Fire (June, 2012) obscuring the sun over Fort Collins, CO.
As a poster child of the Arctic, polar bears have been receiving an increasing amount of attention in the media due to documented loss of the sea ice habitat. What does this mean for polar bears? Loss of sea ice limits the ability of the bears to access marine mammal prey and range over long distances. Other implications for sea ice loss include increased frequency of long-distance swims (Durner et al. 2012), reduced body condition, lower survival rates, and declines in abundance (Regehr et al. 2007; Rode et al. 2010; Bromaghin et al. 2015) which may lead to immunosuppression. Another potential threat that is less easily examined but being more frequently studied as of late is the effect of environmental contaminants on the polar bears’ immune systems. These factors have led to projections by some scientists that 2/3 of the world’s polar bears may be gone by the year 2100 (Amstrup et al. 2008).
Over the course of the past year, I have had the opportunity to collaborate with a multidisciplinary and trans-institutional team whose main goal is examining the health of polar bear subpopulations and factors influencing it. My primary role in this process has been conducting a systematic literature review examining all available studies on the presence of infectious disease in polar bear subpopulations worldwide. This information was synthesized to determine whether or not infectious diseases are a true threat to polar bear subpopulations given their changing physical environment, increased interactions with novel species, and factors potentially contributing to immunosuppression.
In a nutshell, our literature review determined that most reports of infectious agents causing pathologic changes or mortality in polar bears occur in captivity, largely in geographic regions where polar bears do not historically thrive (e.g. equatorial zoos). The majority of information on infectious agents in free-ranging polar bears documents evidence of exposure to numerous viruses, parasites, and bacteria but very few studies correlate signs of illness or health impacts with these findings. Despite the paucity of information on infectious agents adversely affecting the health of polar bears, an even greater lack of knowledge exists surrounding the synergistic effects of infectious agents and environmental contaminants. Lie et al. (2004) have determined the presence of organochlorines in this species, and as such, the possibility of comorbidity effects is a very real one.
There are many challenges associated with collecting information on polar bears in the wild. First and foremost, they often travel alone and may range across areas of sea ice as large as 125,100 km2 (Ferguson et al. 1999). Procuring fresh and systematic samples requires intensive manpower and financial resources, as it is nearly uniformly performed aerially. Otherwise, samples are often collected opportunistically from hunter-harvested carcasses rather than live animals and may be unrepresentative of the population as a whole. Infectious agents discovered associated with these carcasses are primarily incidental findings.
Approximately 57% of articles that fit our inclusion criteria were on parasitic findings in polar bears, many of these being enteric and nonpathologic. A more well-known event among researchers focusing on Arctic megafauna was that of a rabid polar bear shot by hunters when it was seen dragging its hindlegs (Taylor et al. 1991). However, this is relatively isolated information, in that not many other reports describe infectious agents causing pathology in free-ranging bears. Worth noting is that many of the infectious agents reviewed are zoonotic, meaning they possess the capability to be passed between man and animal. The significance of these agents to polar bear health was unclear, but it may put those at risk that ingest polar bear meat, such as indigenous natives. Already familiar to many of you ecologists and conservationists, funding in these fields is increasingly more difficult to obtain, though often more readily available when diseases of interest have impacts on human health or may pose an economic burden. The work of this team is solely focused on polar bear conservation, rather than taking into account zoonotic infections contracted from the consumption of polar bears.
In a broader scope, the individuals that I have been collaborating with on this project have taught me a lot and I feel incredibly lucky to have learned from them. I have gotten to work with wildlife biologists, epidemiologists, pathologists, and veterinarians from federal agencies and universities both here in Colorado and in Alaska. In Alaska, they have been routinely sampling the polar bear population since 1985, looking at specific health parameters in bloodwork and for evidence of exposure to infectious diseases.
Another study published by this team at the same time our literature review was submitted was on the concept of defining wildlife health (Patyk et al. 2015). Utilizing the Delphi approach, multiple expert opinions were taken into consideration in determining the most important threats to the species and also in defining specific metrics for determining the health of polar bear subpopulations. In turn, changes in these parameters may be more easily monitored. Not surprisingly, the largest threat to polar bears as determined by this Delphi model is climate change.
Efforts to quantify health metrics and specific threats on which to focus on as we move forward will hopefully allow for more streamlined collaboration and study design. Many different groups study polar bears, as nineteen subpopulations exist in five countries: US (Alaska), Canada, Russia, Greenland, and Norway. Recent research identified a pattern of recent directional gene flow north towards the Canadian archipelago, which is likely to be one of the last regions in the Arctic to be affected by global warming and thus function as a long-term refugium for polar bears (Peacock et al., 2015). Clearly, the future of this species heavily relies on interdisciplinary and international collaboration as well as increased funding for their research efforts.
While the circumpolar population projection for these animals may appear grim, the climate-induced loss of sea ice habitat can be stopped, and possibly reversed, by mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. Knowledge and awareness surrounding climate change and species losses gives us the power to educate others on its very real and devastating effects. More information on polar bear conservation may be found below:
Amstrup, S. C., Marcot, B.G., and Douglas, D.C. 2008. A Bayesian network modeling approach to forecasting the 21st century worldwide status of polar bears. Pages 213-268 in E. T. DeWeaver, C. M. Bitz, and L.-B. Tremblay, editors. Arctic sea ice decline: Observations, projections, mechanisms, and Implications. Geophysical Monograph Series 180. American Geophysical Union, Washington, D. C.
Bromaghin, J., McDonald, T., Stirling, I., Derocher, A., Richardson, E., Regehr, E., Douglas, D., Durner, G., Atwood, T., and Amstrup, S. 2015. Polar bears in the Beaufort Sea: population decline and stabilization in the 2000’s. Ecological Applications 25:634-651.
Durner, G., J. Whiteman, H. Harlow, Amstrup, S.P., Regehr, E., and Ben-David, M. 2011. Consequences of long-distance swimming and travel over deep-water pack ice for a female polar bear during a year of extreme sea ice retreat. Polar Biology 34:975-984.
Ferguson, S.H., Taylor, M.K., Born, E.W., Rosing-Asvid, A., and Messier, F. 1999. Determinants of home range size for polar bears (Ursus maritimus). Ecology Letters 2:311-318.
Lie, E., Larsen, H.J., Larsen, S., Johansen, G.M., Derocher, A.E., Lunn, N.J., et al. 2004. Does high organochlorine (OC) exposure impair the resistance to infection in polar bears (Ursus maritimus)? Part I: Effect of OCs on the humoral immunity. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health 67:555-582.
Patyk, K.A., Duncan, C., Nol, P., Sonne, C., Laidre, K., Obbard, M., et al. 2015. Establishing a definition of polar bear (Ursus maritimus) health: a guide to research and management activities. Science of the Total Environment 514:371-378.
Peacock, E., Sonsthagen, S.A., Obbard, M.E., Boltunov, A., Regehr, E.V., Ovsyanikov, N., et al. 2015. Implications of the circumpolar genetic structure of polar bears for their conservation in a rapidly warming climate. PloS one 10:e112021.
Regehr, E. V., Lunn, N. J., Amstrup, S.C., and Stirling, I. 2007. Effects of earlier sea ice breakup on survival and population size of polar bears in western Hudson Bay. Journal of Wildlife Management 71:2673-2683.
Rode, K. D., Amstrup, S.C., and Regehr, E.V. 2010. Reduced body size and cub recruitment in polar bears associated with sea ice decline. Ecological Applications 20:768-782.
Taylor, M., Elkin, B., Maier, N., and Bradley, M. 1991. Observation of a polar bear with rabies. Journal of Wildlife Diseases 27: 337-339.
Photo credit: United State Geological Survey