The Endangered Species Act: 1973-2018

By Isabelle Bienen, NWNL Research Intern
(Edited by Alison M. Jones, NWNL Director)

NWNL research intern Isabelle Bienen is a junior at Northwestern University studying Social Policy with minors in Environmental Policy & Culture and Legal Studies. Her  research on the Endangered Species Act focuses on a current topic of interest in the US.  Her 5-blog series on US Clean Water Act, its history and significance, will follow soon.

Defining the Endangered Species Act

The U.S. Endangered Species Act [hereafter, ESA] was passed by the U. S. Congress in 1973 due to growing concern over possible extinctions of native plants and animals within US watersheds.1 The previous year, President Nixon had asked the 93rd Congress to develop legislation to prevent species extinction in the United Status due to inadequate efforts up to that point. The resulting act is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Commerce Department’s National Marine Fisheries Service. The ESA’s defined purpose is to “protect and recover imperiled species and the ecosystems upon which they depend.”1 Thus the ESA plays an important stewardship role in US watersheds.

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Endangered Grey Wolf, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Since ESA protection includes safeguarding habitats of vulnerable species, the ESA governing agencies are assigned responsibility of targeted organisms by their habitat locations. The Fish and Wildlife Service is responsible for terrestrial and freshwater organisms, and thus their watershed habitats. The National Marine Fisheries Service is responsible for marine life and habitat.6

Species of concern are labeled either “endangered” or “threatened” under the ESA. The term “endangered” indicates a species that “is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.”The term “threatened” indicates a species that  “is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future.”1 Congress ruled that all plant and animal species, other than pest insects, are eligible for listing by the ESA. . This includes subspecies, varieties and distinct population segments.1

The ESA, via the Environmental Protection Agency, annually provides approximately $1.4 billion of financial assistance to states with species of focus. These funds allow those states to develop local conservation programs. Their available powers, per the ESA, include relocating or  eliminating  ranching, logging, and oil drilling harmful to the species or their habitat.3 The ESA also allows the United States to meet its obligations to several international agreements and treaties, such as CITES [The Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora] and the Western Hemisphere Convention.2 These global agreements provide compelling support for upholding the ESA and its actions. Without the ESA, the United States would not uphold its international responsibilities.

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Critically-endangered Black Rhino, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, Kenya

Achievements of the Endangered Species Act

The success of the ESA is clear, despite critics. The Center for Biological Diversity credits the ESA for preventing extinction of 99% of species on the ESA endangered and threatened lists.7 Going further it says that due to EPA actions from its founding in 1973 to 2013, the ESA has shown a “90% recovery rate in more than 100 species throughout the U.S.”7 Their 2012 study documenting 110 U.S. Northeast species, supported by the Environmental Protection Agency, revealed that 93% of those species are “stable or improving,” while about 80% are “meeting the recovery targets established in Federal recovery plans.”7 These statistics are all indicative of the ESA’s wide-spread success. The NRDC [National Resources Defence Council]  has hailed the ESA as a literal lifesaver for hundreds of species on the brink of extinction.

Additionally, the ESA has received strong public support. A national poll of Americans, administered by the Center for Biological Diversity in 2013, found that 2 out of 3 “want the Endangered Species Act strengthened or left along, but not weakened.”7 Recent polls in 2017 suggest that these numbers indicating ESA support have further increased.  Their results say that 9 out of 10 people support the ESA. It is clear that dismantling the Endangered Species Act – or even weakening it – would go directly against the will of well over half of Americans.

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Sharp-tailed grouse, similar to the endangered sage grouse, Nebraska

Recent Actions

As of July 2018, the Trump Administration initiated efforts to retract the Environmental Species Act. By mid-summer, more than two dozen pieces of legislation, policy initiatives and amendments designed to weaken the law have been proposed by the Trump Administration, and either introduced or voted on in Congress. These actions include:

  • a bill to strip protections from the gray wolf [Canis lupus] in Wyoming and along the western Great Lakes;
  • a plan to keep the sage grouse [Centrocercus urophasianus], a chicken-size bird that inhabits millions of oil-rich acres in the West, from being listed as endangered for the next decade;
  • a measure to remove the American burying beetle [Nicrophorus americanus] from the “endangered” list.  This orange-flecked insect has long been the bane of oil companies that would like to drill on the land where it lives.3
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Endangered Mountain Gorilla, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, Uganda

The many steps taken against the ESA in only a few weeks this summer indicates the intensity of its drive to strip the ESA of its powers. The reasons stated for these actions is a concern that the impacts from ESA policies might restrict economic development and some American livelihoods. Some feel those economic impacts outweigh the significance of the ESA’s protection of endangered or threatened  species.3  

Foreseen Impacts and Reactions to Recent Actions

A July 19, 2018, proposal by the Interior and Commerce Departments would require that economic consequences of protecting any species must be considered when deciding assignment to the “endangered” or “threatened” species lists.3 If these actions are finalized, it would be extremely difficult for any new species to be added. However, species currently on these lists and their habitats will continue to be protected.3

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Recovered endangered Brown Pelican, Santa Barbara, California

The proposals, backed by the Trump Administration, have been requested by oil companies, gas companies and ranches.   They have objected to the ESA because they believe it “represents a costly incursion of federal regulations on their land and livelihoods.3 [See Addendum below. ] Despite decades of efforts by lobbyists and libertarians, efforts to overturn the ESA have not had any effect. Recent intensified and coordinated efforts may portend a more serious challenge to our watershed species that are integral to the health of our ecosystems.

Retracting the ESA would be detrimental to the overall web of plant and animal species populations in watersheds across the United States. Their loss would affect their associated habitats, predators and prey  – and ultimately impact human lives. The loss of the ESA would impair the safety and well-being of endangered and threatened species, the health of our watersheds, and the quality of human life.

Today’s reality is that the landmark law that established the ESA could be overturned. The eternal reality is that once a species becomes extinct, that couldn’t be overturned. Extinction is forever.

USA: Massachusetts, Cape Cod, Wianno, piping plover in breeding plumage
Recovered endangered Sand Piper, Cape Cod, Massachusettes

ADDENDUM from NWNL Director Alison M. Jones:  Adding to current concerns being voiced over recent threats to the EPA, today (8/14/2018) on national television, Christie Todd Whitman, former EPA Chair and N.J. Republican, added her voice.  She opined that, while occasional re-examination of regulations can be worthwhile, many current environmental roll-backs “are only being done for individual industries’ bottom line.”

SOURCES

  1. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, accessed 7/25/18, published 2017, IKB, link.
  2. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, accessed 7/25/18, published 2015, IKB, link.
  3. The New York Times, accessed 7/25/18, published 2018, IKB, link.
  4. CNN, accessed 7/25/18, published 2018, IKB, link
  5. National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, accessed 7/25/18, published 2018, IKB, link
  6. The United States Department of Justice, accessed 7/25/18, published 2015, IKB, link
  7. The Center for Biological Diversity, accessed 7/25/18, published 2017, IKB, link. 

 

All photos © Alison M. Jones.

Papyrus and Phragmites: Invasive Species

By Bianca T. Esposito, NWNL Research Intern
(Edited by Alison M.  Jones, NWNL Director)

NWNL research intern Bianca T. Esposito is a senior at Syracuse University studying Biology and Economics. Her research this summer is on the nexus of biodiversity and water resources. Her earlier NWNL blogs were: Wild Salmon v Hatchery Salmon and Buffalo, Bison & Water.

 

My 3rd NWNL blog on biodiversity compares papyrus in Africa and phragmites in North America. I will highlight both flora’s ecological benefits, ecological threats and impacts to water, as well as solutions to prevent their uncontrollable spread.

Papyrus (Cyperus papyrus) is a tall, aquatic perennial shrub, ranging from 8 to 10 feet in height. This invasive species rooted into the ground, bearing simple brown fruit with brown/cream/green colored flowers, forms floating islands in tropical African swamps, rivers and lakes. In non-native habitats, papyrus will spread and invade the space of other native plants unless pruned. Commonly known as the “Paper Reed,” papyrus is native to Egypt and Sudan along the Nile River in North Africa, a NWNL case-study watershed. Papyrus is now also found in two other NWNL case-study watersheds: along Ethiopia’s Omo River (where damming has stabilized water levels allowing roots to take hold) and Tanzania’s Mara River Estuary.

Papyrus in Uganda .jpgPapyrus in Uganda (Creative Commons)

Once a well-known resource for paper making, today papyrus has potential for biofuel production. Papyrus also has many ecological benefits. Its value ranges from assimilating significant amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to providing breeding grounds for fish species, and feeding grounds for grazing herbivores.

In its native habitat, papyrus lines bodies of water, serving as a filtration system for removing sediments, sewage, and heavy metals that pollute the water. However, papyrus poses ecological threats to introduced environments, such as Italy and the United States, after being imported for ornamental use. Since it is invasive, papyrus disrupts ecosystems, threatens the growth of the native species, and impedes the flow of waterways. Papyrus will continue to expand problematically in introduced ecosystems if temperature warming continues to increase.

Jones_091003_TZ_1505.jpgPapyrus blooms in the Mara River Basin, Tanzania (© Alison Jones)

Major impacts papyrus has on non-native water ecosystems include: reducing native biodiversity by altering habitat; threatening the loss of native species; altering trophic levels; modifying hydrology; modifying natural benthic communities; and negatively impacting aquaculture and fisheries.

Solutions to prevent further papyrus spread into other ecosystems are the use of  physical, biological, and chemical controls. Physically, we could cut down and rake up the shrub. Biologically, we could use a novel fungal isolate that releases a phytotoxin to inhibit the growth of papyrus. And chemically, herbicides are a successful method to control papyrus spread.

Jones_091002_TZ_1209.jpgWoman collecting water in the Masurua Swamp with Papyrus in the background, Tanzania (© Alison Jones)

Phragmites (Phragmites australis) is a tall perennial grass that can grow up to 15 feet or more in height, with dense clusters of purple fluffy flower heads. Referred to as the “Common Reed,” this species is native to Eurasia and Africa. Our focus is on its impact in North America. Outside of its native habitat, phragmites is “cryptic invasive,” meaning that as this non-native species spreads within another native species’ range, it will typically go unnoticed due to its misidentification for the native species. Phragmites ideal habitat is marsh communities bordering lakes, ponds and rivers. Phragmites are present in the Columbia River Basin, Mississippi River Basin, and Raritan River Basin, the three North American NWNL case-study watersheds.

Jones_160414_NJ_3373.jpgPhragmites on the Raritan Bay, NJ (© Alison Jones)

The ecological benefits phragmites provide include improving habitat and water quality by filtration and nutrient removal, serving as shelter for birds and insects, as well as providing food for sparrows. Phragmites also help to stabilize soil against erosion. In light of climate change, this species is beneficial because its accretion rate keeps up with rising sea levels for protection.

Phragmites benefit marsh lands because of their ability to take up 3x more carbon than other native plants. When there is excessive carbon in the atmosphere sea level rises and allows for more frequent and intense storms, so keeping phragmites could help better protect marshes from rising sea levels and erosion. Phragmites also help build up more soil below the ground compared to native plants.

CT-NWK-514.jpgPhragmites at sunrise in Norwalk, CT (© Alison Jones)

Some ecological threats phragmites pose are as follows. Since phragmites grow in thickets by shallow water, they can displace native wetland plants, alter hydrology, and block sunlight from reaching aquatic communities. Phragmites decrease plant biodiversity, causing declines in habitat quality for fish and wildlife. This tall grass can also pose a driving hazard, as it blocks road signs and views around curves. Phragmites can also be a fire hazard when dry biomass is high during its dormant season.

The Neshanic River, a tributary of the Raritan River Basin, provides an example of the threats of non-native invasive phragmites. Here, it grows without regard to competition by suppressing regeneration of native vegetation and limiting biodiversity in the area.

Jones_120430_NY_1751.jpgPhragmites with redwings blackbirds on Long Island, NY (© Alison Jones)

Some solutions to combat the threats phragmites pose are similar to the methods used to control papyrus. Methods used include cutting or mowing the tall grass, applying herbicides (such as Glyphosate or Imazapyr), and controlling the spread of this invasive plant with molecular tools and fungal pathogens. Additional solutions would be to burn the plant, excavate the area, cover the area with plastic causing suffocation, increase plant competition in the area, increase grazing by herbivores, or use of biocontrol organisms (such as insect herbivores) to combat the spread of phragmites.

Whether in Africa or North America, we can see how detrimental non-native invasive plant species can be to the health of an ecosystem. Although papyrus and phragmites both have some positive benefits, they overwhelmingly impact aquatic habitats negatively with their spread. Thus many have concluded that the best thing to do is limit spread with the solutions suggested above, rather than attempt complete eradication. In some cases, they can become “guest invasives,” welcomed for the services they do supply, especially for wetlands and riverbank stabilization which minimizes storm damage.

 

Bibliography:
Morais, P. PubMed, accessed on June 13, 2018, via link.
Saltonstall, Kristin. PNAS, accessed on June 13, 2018, via link.
Swearingen, J. Invasive Plant Atlas of the United States, accessed on June 13, 2018, via link
National Parks Flora & Fauna Web, accessed on June 14, 2018, via link
Plants & Flowers, accessed on June 14, 2018, via link.
Popay, Ian. CABI, accessed on June 14, 2018, via link.
Hazelton, Eric. Annals of Botany Company, accessed on June 14, 2018, via link.
Sturtevant, R. Aquatic Nonindigenous Species Information System, accessed June 14, 2018, via link.
New Jersey Institute of Technology, The Neshanic River Watershed Restoration Plan, accessed on July 2, 2018, via link.
Oregon Department of Agriculture. Plant Pest Risk Assessment, accessed on July 17, 2018, via link.
Hauber, Donald P. Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation, accessed on July 17, 2018, via link.
Gaudet, John. Papyrus, accessed on July 23, 2018, via link.
Jackson, Harrison. Phragmites invasion: Detrimental or beneficial? Accessed on July 25, 2018, via link.

Glossaries: A Tool for Understanding

Written by NWNL Intern Lucy Briody
Edited by Alison M Jones, NWNL Director

No Water No Life Summer 2018 Intern Lucy Briody is a sophomore at Colgate University where she is majoring in Environmental Geography and minoring in English and Women’s Studies. Part of her work this summer has been dedicated to creating an updated and relevant glossary for the new NWNL website, launching later this summer.

Note from NWNL Director Alison M Jones: The NWNL Glossary of Watershed Terms, which Lucy helped edit this summer, will appear on our new NWNL website this fall.  Stay tuned. Meanwhile, this week the esteemed Lapham’s Quarterly serendipitously posted a more literary “Glossary: Water / From acre-foot to water birth, the language of water by their Senior Editor Leopold Froehlich.  Here’s to the myriad of glossaries we can peruse and use!

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If you’ve ever been lost in a foreign country, signed a contract or tried to explain to parent or grandparent how to use an iPhone, then you understand how important a common language is in promoting comprehension, getting work done or efficiently making a birthday post on Facebook. In the scientific world, a common language is perhaps even more crucial. Scientists use very exact terms to specify and categorize; however such terms can confuse the average layman. For example, while the Latin name of species can seem obtuse to the layman, for those versed in scientists’ use of binomial nomenclature, the Latin name provides insight into the family, genus and species to which they belong.

The glossary is part of the path to understanding. It is not necessarily a complete guide, but rather serves as a tool. In order to use this tool most effectively when confronted with a complex subject, a reader should begin to get a feel for the concept through lay articles intended for the average reader rather than a scientific audience. Once a basic understanding has been reached, the glossary can help the individual more easily comprehend scientific articles that would have been far too complex without an explanation of unfamiliar terminology. Glossaries simplify important terms, critical to comprehension of many materials, by providing easily understandable definitions.

During my summer internship with No Water No Life, it was clear that watersheds have tremendous impacts on the lives and livelihoods of those who live and work in them. It is important to clearly communicate with watershed “stakeholders” the impacts and consequences of both natural and man-made processes happening around them. My job at NWNL was to complete and augment the project’s draft of a Watershed Glossary. I quickly understood that clarity and comprehension are critical to raising awareness actions needed to keep our ecosystems healthy in today’s rapidly changing world.

If environmental  jargon and terms describing the quality and availability of our freshwater supplies are not able to be clarified with tools such as a glossary, it limits the likelihood of watershed residents participation. To underline that, below is the definition of “citizen science” that I contributed to the NWNL glossary.

Citizen Science provides valuable support to many fields of data-driven exploration and research. The participation and contributions of non-scientists and amateur scientists from the public helps in collecting data and performing experiments, which may be simple but demand  a rigorous and objective commitment. Citizen scientists often contribute a tacit understanding and valuable local knowledge. As well, their involvement and gained knowledge helps bridge the gap between hard-core science and local people and cultures. Thus, citizen science – whether that of individuals, teams or networks – often raises levels of interest, knowledge and commitment of others. An example of citizen science documented by NWNL is the Louisiana Bucket Brigade in New Orleans, which encourages citizens to collect their own data regarding air quality.

Jones_100522_NJ_1027Citizen scientists, including Lauren Theis from the Upper Raritan Watershed Association, during stream water monitoring training. 

Interestingly, both citizen science and glossaries are tools that help counterbalance the possibility of science or other erudite subjects appearing exclusionary and limited to those with limited experience. Citizen science and glossaries are each key to bridging such gaps and promoting greater public involvement in issues that affect us all.

As the modern world changes at a rapid pace, many new technical and conversational terms are added to our vocabulary.  Many formerly common words are used less frequently, and are thus less understood. For over 2,000 years, glossaries have been a critical tool to helping civilizations face increasing pressure to be informed and knowledgeable about all that is going on around us – no matter how complex. Glossaries help each of us achieve a broader perspective.  Glossaries are critical to ensuring that scientific knowledge gained in the past can continue to be used to make the world around us a better place for all.

Jones_100522_NJ_0884.jpgCitizen scientists during the Upper Raritan Watershed Association stream water monitoring training. 

 

Photos © Alison M. Jones.

Wild and Scenic River: Deschutes River

In 1988, sections of the Deschutes River in Oregon were added to the Wild and Scenic River System. From Wikiup Dam to the Bend Urban Growth boundary; from Odin Falls to the upper end of Lake Billy Chinook; and from the Pelton Reregulating Dam to the confluence with the Columbia River: all are designated segments. A total of 174.4 miles of the Deschutes River are designated: 31 miles are designated as Scenic and 143.4 miles are Recreational. No Water No Life visited the Deschutes River during a Columbia River Basin expedition to Oregon in October of 2017. For more information about the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act read the first part of this blog series.

More about the Deschutes River

Historically, the Deschutes provided an important resource for Native Americans as well as the pioneers traveling on the Oregon Trail in the 19th century.  Today, the river is heavily used for recreational purposes like camping, hiking, kayaking, rafting, wildlife observation and especially fishing. The Lower Deschutes provides spawning habitat for fish such as rainbow trout and chinook salmon. The river also provides riparian habitat for other wildlife like bald eagle, osprey, heron, falcon, mule deer, as well as many amphibians and reptiles. The riparian vegetation is dominated by alder trees.

The following are photographs taken during the 2017 expedition to the Deschutes River.

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Sources:

https://www.rivers.gov/rivers/deschutes.php

 

All photos © Alison M. Jones.

 

Cape Buffalo, Bison and Water

By Bianca T. Esposito, NWNL Research Intern
(Edited by Alison M.  Jones, NWNL Director)

NWNL research intern Bianca T. Esposito is a senior at Syracuse University studying Biology and minoring in Economics. Her research this summer is on the intertwined relationships of biodiversity and our water resources. This is Bianca’s second blog on Biodiversity for NWNL. Read her first blog on wild Salmon here.

This blog compares how water impacts the health of sub-Sahara’s Cape buffalo populations to how North America’s bison impact the health of our water resources.  This investigation covers three of our NWNL case study watersheds: Africa’s Mara and Nile River Basins, and North America’s Mississippi River Basin.

The Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer caffer) is found in Kenya’s Mara River Basin savanna and Uganda’s Nile River Basin plains. The bison (Bison bison) used to dominate the Mississippi River Basin’s Great Plains and are still there in scattered small populations. Both species are large, herbivorous mammals that primarily graze on tall-grass ecosystems. However, their habitats and connections to water differ significantly.

Africa’s Cape buffalo migrate seasonally in large herds on cyclical routes dependent on fluctuations in water availability. They move out of areas with limited resources and into areas where moisture and nutrients are available. Cape buffalo also migrate away from their habitat when water levels increase, since flooding restricts their foraging abilities. In these cases, Cape buffalo move to a drier habitat where, in turn, they may experience drought. Either way, when resources become low, their vulnerability becomes high.

Jones_090927_K_9062.jpgA lone Cape Buffalo bull in Kenya’s Mara Conservancy (© Alison M. Jones)

Africa’s famed Serengeti-Mara Ecosystem is located throughout northern Tanzania and extends into Kenya. Much of this region is situated within the Mara River Basin. In the Serengeti National Park, the migration pattern of the Cape buffalo, similar to that of the wildebeest-zebra migration, is dependent on the fluctuation of rainfall each year. Generally, this journey begins in April when Cape buffalo depart their southern plains habitat to head north. This movement is triggered by the onset of heavy rain that floods the plains, reducing the Cape buffalo’s ability to graze. By May the herd is in the northwest Serengeti, where the dry season lasts through July and proximity to the equator allows rainfall to be more evenly distributed, allowing greater opportunities for foraging. Then, in August, the late dry season hits, causing the herd to move further north. On their venture north, they cross the Mara River into Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve. The Cape buffalo remain here enjoying green pastures until November, albeit subject to drought if there’s no rainfall. In December, usually the first rainfall comes which they sense as the onset of the rainy season. They then trek back into Tanzania’s southern plains for the wet season. From January to April, they graze there on plentiful, nutritious grasses.  

Syncerus-caffer-Masaai-Mara-Kenya.JPGHerd of Cape buffalo in Kenya’s Mara Conservancy (Creative Commons)

When Cape buffalo inhabit dry lands their reproductive success (also referred to as “recruitment ability”) decreases; but their body condition improves due to what seems to be a fat-storing mechanism that anticipates limited future resources. One benefit of Cape buffalo having to cope with drought is that when food supplies are reduced, they forage through peat layers in dried-up underground channels, releasing nutrients otherwise trapped below ground.

A current major concern for this species is that anthropogenic factors (human activity) causing climate change are expected to increase both water levels and drought, which could push the Cape buffalo outside of their protected areas. In 2017, the Serengeti experienced a drought that lasted over a year causing declines in populations of many species, including Cape buffalo. Drought also causes herds of cattle, goats and sheep outside to enter protected lands to graze, creating a competition for resources between wildlife, livestock and humans in both the Maasai Mara National Reserve and Serengeti National Park. If the Mara River – the only major river in the area – dries up, there would be few resources for ungulates. As well, when droughts end, there is always potential for flash-floods which deter herds from crossing rivers to find greener pastures.

Jones_120107_K_0640.jpgA lone Cape Buffalo bull in Kenya (© Alison M. Jones)

When water is scarce in the Serengeti, a decline of Cape buffalo leads to increased lion mortality. When Cape buffalo lack sufficient food due to drought, they become weak and must travel increased distances to quench their thirst. This leaves the herd fatigued, causing some members to fall behind and thus become more vulnerable to predation. Also, after a drought and the rains begin, Babesia-carrying ticks infect Cape buffalo. Infected buffalo become weak or die, allowing easy predation by lions. Unfortunately, their carcasses transfer babesiosis disease to lions. Alone, this disease is not fatal to the lion. However, babesiosis coupled with canine distemper virus (CDV) is lethal.

Babesiosis from Cape buffalo has caused two major declines in Serengeti lion populations. In 1994, a third of the lion population was lost due to this combination, killing over 1,000 lions.

Lions_taking_down_cape_buffalo.jpgLions taking down a Cape buffalo (Creative Commons)

On a smaller scale, in 2001 the Ngorongoro Crater lion population also lost about 100 lions due to this synchronization of disease. Craig Packer, a University of Minnesota biologist, stated, “Should drought occur in the future at the same time as lions are exposed to masses of Babesia-carrying ticks—and there is a synchronous CDV epidemic–lions will once again suffer very high mortality.” He also warns that extreme weather due to climate change puts species at greater risk to diseases not considered a major threat before.  Fortunately, mud-wallowing that Cape buffalo use to cool down their bodies is also an effective shield against infiltrating bugs and ticks once the mud dries.

Overall, Cape buffalo rely heavily on rainfall patterns; but climate change is disrupting traditional migratory patterns by raising water levels or causing drought. Both extremes present negative impacts to the Mara River Basin and the biodiversity that inhabits it.  

North America’s bison – a bovine counterpart to African Cape buffalo – historically occupied The Great Plains west of the Mississippi River. Early settlers recorded 10 to 60 million bison openly roaming the fields. Like Cape buffalo, bison also migrate in search of food. Their migration paths used to cover vast territory, thus paving the way for many current roads and railroads. A major threat to  bison – as with most species – has been habitat loss due to human infringement, as well as well-documented, extensive hunting by new settlers heading west. By 1889, only approximately 1,000 bison remained in North America.

Jones_121024_TX_6814.jpgFarmed bison in Texas (© Alison M. Jones)

Due to recent conservation efforts, bison populations are rising; however, not to past numbers. Currently, they are found only in National Parks, refuges and farms. As of 2017, approximately 31,000 pure wild bison remain in 68 conservation herds. “Pure wild bison” are those not bred with cattle for domestication. However, only approximately 18,000 of the remaining population “function” as wild bison. This count excludes very small bison herds used for research, education and public viewing – or bison held in captivity waiting to be culled by protected areas such as Yellowstone National Park due to required limits.

Bison inhabiting the Mississippi River Basin, which drains throughout the Great Plains, have many positive impacts on its waterways and tributaries. Yellowstone Park, where the Yellowstone River drains into the Missouri-Mississippi River system, is the only place in North America where bison continue to freely roam as they used to. In Yellowstone, bison occupy the central and northern area of the park where they migrate by elevation, seasonally choosing food according to abundance, rather than quality. In the winter, they select lower elevations near thermal hot springs or rivers where there is less snow accumulation.

Bison positively affect water supplies when they wallow and paw at the ground. This results in intense soil compaction that creates soil depressions in grasslands. After many years, this soil depression tends to erode since bison don’t like to wallow on previously-created depressions. However, during the rainy season, wetland plants and vegetation grow in these wallows created by bison dust-bathing and trampling. For a short time many species enjoy these ephemeral pool habitats before they disappear in droughts or floods. Meanwhile bison wallows increase species diversity that would otherwise not be present in grasslands.

A_bison_wallow_is_a_shallow_depression_in_the_soil.jpgBison rolling around in a dry wallow (Creative Commons)

Bison have other positive impacts on water. As they trample through streams, they widen available habitat and alter water quality. Even after a bison dies, it can still contribute to the health of its ecosystem. Their carcasses are a nutritious food source for wolves, coyotes and crows. Studies suggest that bison carcasses take roughly seven years to fully decompose, during which time their remains release nutrients such as phosphorus and carbon into rivers. These nutrients sustain microbes, insects, fish and large scavengers of the area. A bison carcass can also provide sustenance for local fish since maggots, green algae and bacteria grow over their bones during decomposition. Bison carcasses also deposit nutrients into the soil which fertilizes plant regrowth.

Bison can negatively affect water resources, by decreasing native plant diversity due to overgrazing. However, they graze on only grass, which allows forbs (non-woody flowering plants) to flourish, adding biodiversity in grasslands. As well, when bison urinate, they deposit nitrogen into the soil, a key nutrient for grass growth and survival. Their urine also becomes a selectable marker allowing them to return to formerly-grazed pastures during the season. This constant reselection of grassland, allows combustion in ignored, non-grazed pastures, since fire tends to occur in tall grass with nitrogen loss. After fires, the bison are attracted to newly-burned watersheds because of C4-dominated grass which grows in dry environments. Bison select C4-dominated grassy areas because they have low plant diversity, unlike less-frequently burned sites where forbs are abundant. Thus, bison’s pasture preferences allow for more biodiversity, creating healthier watersheds.  

Jones_121024_TX_7314.jpgMural near of Native Americans on bison near Masterson, Texas (© Alison M. Jones)

Each of these two similar bovine species have significant, but different, relationships to water availability and quality within their river basins.  The African Cape buffalo migration is guided by water fluctuations. This could impact their future since anthropogenically-caused climate change could incur longer and more frequent droughts and increased flood-water levels to an extent that would drive Cape buffalo out of their protected habitats. In contrast, North American bison herds improve the health of waterways in the Mississippi River Basin in several ways. Nutrients from their decomposing carcasses add to the health of tributary streams and rivers; and their mud wallows support greater diversity of wetland and grassland flora.

Whether we look at watersheds in Africa or North America, it is clear that it is as important to study how biodiversity is affected by water availability, as how watershed water quality and quantity affects its biodiversity. Any changes to these ecosystems due to climate change could drastically affect the biodiversity and health of these watersheds.

Bibliography:

Briske, David. Springer Series on Environmental Management, accessed June 19, 2018, via link.
van Wyk, Pieter. MalaMala Game Reserve Blog, accessed on June 19, 2018, via link.
Bennitt, Emily. Journal of Mammalogy, accessed on June 19, 2018, via link.
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Wild and Scenic River: Merced River

Sections of California’s Merced River were added to the Wild and Scenic River System at two separate times, November 2, 1987 and October 23, 1992. The designated sections include  the Red Peak Fork, Merced Peak Fork, Triple Peak Fork, and Lyle Fork, from their sources in Yosemite National Park to Lake McClure; and the South Fork from its source in Yosemite National Park to the confluence with the main stem. A total of 122.5 miles of the Merced River are designated under the Wild and Scenic River System. 71 miles are designated as Wild, 16 miles are Scenic, and 35.5 miles are Recreational. No Water No Life visited the Merced River in Yosemite National Park during the fifth California Drought Spotlight Expedition in 2016. For more information about NWNL’s California Drought Spotlight please visit our Spotlights page.  For more information about the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act read the first part of this blog series. Here are a few pictures of the Merced River from the 2016 expedition taken by NWNL Director Alison Jones.

Jones_160927_CA_5991Sign marking the Jan 2, 1997 flood level of Merced River in Yosemite National Park
Jones_160927_CA_5996View of the Merced River in Yosemite Valley from Sentinel Bridge
Jones_160927_CA_6088Sign explaining Merced River’s early name “River of Mercy” in Yosemite Valley
Jones_160927_CA_6002View of Merced River in Yosemite National Park with Half-Dome in the background

 

Source:

https://www.rivers.gov/rivers/merced.php

All photos © Alison M. Jones.

SOIL AND WATER: BIOCHAR

By Alice LeBlanc for NWNL
(Edited by Alison Jones, NWNL Director)

This is the second blog in a NWNL series on how soil impacts water quality and availability.  Alice LeBlanc is an economist and independent consultant who lives in NYC.   For more than 25 years, she has worked in both corporate and NGO settings to promote market-based and land-use sector solutions to the problem of climate change.

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PAYING ATTENTION TO SOIL

Soil has an indisputably important role in producing much of the food we eat and supporting trees and vegetation that provide wood, fiber, habitat, natural beauty and other ecological services.  However, the direct relationship between healthy soil and clean, plentiful water is perhaps less known. Often overlooked is the role healthy soils play in ameliorating environmental problems that include water pollution, water scarcity and climate change.

Conventional agriculture uses inorganic fertilizers and pesticides, aggressive tillage, heavy machinery and wasteful irrigation. These practices often degrade soils by their reduction of soil carbon and compaction. Resulting erosion and chemical run-off pollutes waterways and groundwater. Further, their greenhouse gas emissions become significant contributors to climate change.  Although increasing and stabilizing food production, modern agricultural practices hurt our soil and water – two of the most basic elements essential to life on earth,

“Climate Smart Agriculture” (CSA) is a current buzzword of hope among environmentally-conscious agricultural experts, especially in developing countries. CSA combines cost-effective practices to increase soil health and crop productivity, use water more efficiently, decrease the use of inorganic fertilizers, and reduce or even sequester COand other greenhouse gases. CSA practices include low-tillage or no-tillage of soils; contour tillage; drip irrigation; terracing of sloping fields; and organic or custom-made (precision) fertilizer. Last in this list is biochar – a substance used successfully centuries ago by Amazon farmers.

P1020866.jpgKilns used for making biochar

BIOCHAR TODAY

Biochar is created by applying high heat to biomass (e.g. crop residues, otherwise burned or left to decay in the atmosphere) in enclosed, oxygen-free spaces.  This process, called pryolysis, differs from burning as it doesn’t use oxygen; produce combustion; or emit CO2.  Biochar can be produced anywhere inexpensively on a small scale by subsistence farmers with cook stoves or kilns, using on-hand materials.  It can also be produced on medium and larger commercial scales.

When used as a soil amendment, biochar alters the soil’s property, allowing it to retain more water and nutrients and enable some plants to more efficiently “fix” atmospheric nitrogen, thus attracting more microbes.  This improves plant growth and resilience.  Biochar’s effect is described as creating “microbe hotels” which draw microorganisms and bring additional carbon into the soil. To be most effective in increasing plant productivity, biochar can be mixed with organic fertilizer such as manure and ground animal bones.

P1020867.jpgBiochar production area

For the past year or so, I have been helping lay the foundation for the African Holistic Ecosystem Regeneration Initiative–HERI (a Swahili word for happiness).  HERI aims to scale up regenerative and climate smart agriculture, as well as better grazing practices across Africa. Our emphasis is specifically on smart use of biomass and nutrients, including using biochar as a soil amendment and planting of soil-enhancing trees with high-value crops, such as palm oil, coffee, cacao, shea butter, cashews and moringa.  This undertaking is being led by the International Biochar Initiative (IBI), the leading non-profit dedicated to the promotion of biochar research and commercialization.

BIOCHAR BENEFITS

The agricultural benefits of biochar as a soil amendment include increased food security and crop productivity, greenhouse gas reductions, increased resilience to climate change impacts, and poverty alleviation.

Many African soils are losing soil’s organic matter at dramatic rates, which has degraded soil fertility to an extent that threatens livelihoods of subsistence farmers in entire regions.  Biochar combined with organic fertilizer has been demonstrated in many small pilot projects in Africa and around the world to significantly increase soil productivity; retain more water; and sequester carbon, especially in highly weathered tropical soil.

P1020868.jpgMilkiyas Ahmed, Lecturer, Jimma University, College of Agriculture, holding crop residue to be turned into biochar

While results vary depending on materials used to make the biochar, soil and crop type, fertilizer materials and climatic conditions, biochar increases productivity on average by 25% in tropical regions – and up to 80% if nutrient-rich feedstocks are used to make the biochar. If the soil is of extremely poor quality to begin with, productivity increase due to biochar can be significantly greater, yielding 100% to 500% increases.

Another benefit is improved soil fertility when biochar use, combined with planting perennial tree crops, pulls more CO2 out of the air.  That carbon is then stored in increased amounts in above-ground biomass and root systems.  Those trees’ root systems then further contribute to soil health.  Additionally, the ability to sell perennial crops with higher yields, gained when using biochar and natural fertilizer, will generate higher revenues.

P1020873.jpgBins used to compost biochar with different fertilizer materials

Biochar systems, when properly designed, aregreenhouse-gas neutral.  They even become greenhouse-gas negative when they sequester carbon in woody biomass, roots and soils, and more microbes increase soil carbon.  As well, heat or combustible gases can be recovered from the biochar production process to generate usable renewable energy or electricity. In Africa, biochar produced with individual “cook stoves” has been used to generate heat as a clean, renewable energy for cooking.  When biochar is produced on a larger scale in big machines, a combustible, renewable gas can be fed into an electric generator to serve a micro-grid. Energy production from biochar production in some cases in Africa could generate revenues.

As well as direct benefits to agricultural production, biochar combined with agroforestry can improve water use efficiency; protect watersheds, water quality and water quantity; and decrease deforestation pressures.Without these measures, the outlook for subsistence farmers and food security in Africa is grim, especially in the face of increasing duration and frequency of droughts due to climate change and explosive African population growth.

P1020884.jpgPlots for testing the impact of different biochar plus fertilizer combinations

IN THE FIELD

On a recent trip to Ethiopia, I visited a biochar pilot project conducted at the University of Jimma in collaboration with Cornell University.  The project is evaluating the effectiveness of different formulas for co-composting biochar with natural fertilizers.  This work is being done in tandem with several dozen farmers incorporating biochar in their fields.

Jimma is on the Awetu River about 150 miles southwest of Addis Ababa, not far from the lakes of the Great Rift Valley.  It was my first visit to sub-Saharan Africa and my first visit to fields of small farmers there. Milkiyas Ahmed, a faculty member at the Agricultural College, gave me a tour of the biochar production machines.  I saw vats where the biochar co-composting is done, and plots where different crops are grown, with and without the biochar amendment.  In the trees around the experimental plots, black-and-white monkeys eyed the tender young plants.  A guard stood ready to scare them off if necessary.

P1020922.jpgA farmer in the village who has seen gains from biochar

We walked through the village of farmers with whom Milkiyas worked.  We visited fields of the farmer who set the highest bar for producing and using the biochar.  His method for making biochar in a hole in the ground was a very low-cost method indeed. The multi-cropped fields, containing a variety of perennial trees, enhanced a beautiful landscape.  There were two young boys swimming in a stream that ran through the fields on that warm Sunday afternoon.  One could only hope and expect that the water quality was safe and swimmable — which it could be with the right set of agricultural practices.

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All photos © Alice LeBlanc.