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.

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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.

Viceroy Magic

Photos, paintings and a story by John Ruskey

Note from NWNL Director Alison M. Jones:  John Ruskey is a NWNL Partner and friend, and owner of Quapaw Canoe Company which runs expeditions on the Lower Mississippi River, its backwaters, oxbows and bayous. As NWNL highlights the value of the Endangered Species Act, we applaud John for supporting biodiversity on our on willow-ed creek banks. As Thoreau wrote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” Let’s protect their habitat, the loss of which poses the greatest danger to all species. The poised wings of the little Viceroy mimics that pause between heartbeats that Terry Tempest Williams says provides the grace of life, writing: “To protect what is wild, is to protect what is gentle.”

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On Montezuma Island in early July I happened upon a Viceroy butterfly that could not fly — due to an injured wing. So I kept her for observation. 2 weeks later she was still alive, due to a daily regime of water and care, but by the third week she was noticeably weaker.

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On the Mississippi River the Viceroy butterfly (Basilarchia archippus) prefers black willows (Salix nigra) as host plants for laying its small pale green eggs, and if you look carefully you might see examples of its entire life cycle on the leaves, branches, twigs and trunk of one willow tree. The chrysalis disguise themselves as bird poop — they look like slimy green blobs with white and yellow. The caterpillars rear up like a snake when disturbed.

(*note: this is just another remarkable feature of the lovely black willows which grace our Lower Mississippi River! For many, the willow is their source of food and shelter: in addition to Viceroy there is the Beaver and us, the Mighty Quapaws… We use willow for cooking, especially for smoking fish and meat. Willow makes the best shish-k-bob sticks. Stands of young Willow make the best shelter when setting up camp in windy or stormy weather. Mature Willow forests provide cool shady spots for hammocks, afternoon naps, and summer camp sites.)

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The Viceroy looks a lot like the Monarch butterfly, but she is slightly smaller (by an inch or so), her oranges are darker (almost cinnamon red sometimes). She has some tell-tale markings that differentiate her: 1) a couple of white spots on a diagonal splash across the fore wing, and 2) a black vein line swooping along outer edge of hind wing.

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Viceroys range across North America from Hudson Bay southwards down the middle of the country, down the Mississippi Valley, westwards to Great Range. My Audubon Guide says “In each life stage the Viceroy seeks protection through a different ruse. The egg blends with the numerous galls that afflict the willow leaves upon which it is laid.  Hibernating caterpillars hide themselves in bits of leaves they have attached to a twig.  The mature caterpillar looks mildly fearsome with its hunched and horny forecparts.  Even most birds bypass the chrysalis, thinking it is a bird dropping. The adult, famed as a paramount mimic, resembles the distasteful Monarch. Since birds learn to eschew Monarchs, they also avoid the look-alike Viceroy. Southern populations of Viceroys mimic the much deeper chestnut-colored Queen instead. In flight the Viceroy flaps frenetically in between brief glides.” (National Audubon Field Guide to North American Butterfiles).

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Concentrating water droplets in her tongue: I watched in amazement the first day Viceroy took a drink of water from a wet rag I had set her on.

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First she explored the rag with her antennae. Seemingly satisfied, she then extended her tongue (proboscis), uncoiling it to its full 1″ or so length. She delicately tapped the saturated rag repeatedly. Then she drew her tongue back in, coiling it into ever-tightening loops. As the coils tightened a tiny drop of water magically appeared where there once had been nothing, like an early morning dew drop.

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I took her on every trip we had in early July. One morning she drank dewdrops from our roll-a-table. According to my Audubon Guide the proboscis is composed of 2 parallel, linked tubes, which work like a pair of drinking straws. It can be coiled tightly up against the face (the Viceroy seems to have a slot between its eyes for doing this, hiding the tongue when pulled all the way in).

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In week 3 she was weakening. I decided to share an apricot-strawberry smoothie I was drinking. She eagerly lapped that up, using her proboscis in the same manner as she had done with water. This seemed to improve her condition. But the next morning she was lifeless. Maybe the smoothie was too much sugar all at once? Or maybe she was ready to die anyway?

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Farewell friend! Thank you for the many hours of beauty you shared in the last days of your life!

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.

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White, PJ. Yellowstone Association, accessed on July 9, 2018, via link.

Amboseli Wetlands

by Pongpol Adireksarn for No Water No Life
Edited by Alison Jones, NWNL Director

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Kilimanjaro is Africa’s highest and most well-known mountain. The Maasai call it “Ol Dolnyo Oibor” (The White Mountain) because of its snow-capped top, a symbolic landmark for centuries. Besides being picturesque, Kilimanjaro has lived up to its reputation as “The Life-giving Mountain.” It has provided water for millions of wildlife, people and their livestock in a semi-desert area with less than 340 mm [13.3 in] of rainfall annually. Amboseli National Park, a popular Kenyan safari destination, lies below the lower northern shoulders of this “Rooftop of Africa.”

In 1991 an effort began to conserve the biodiversity of Amboseli; support development of local human populations; and improve the park’s infrastructure. UNESCO and the Government of Kenya designated Amboseli National Park and its surrounding area as a “Man and the Biosphere Reserve.”

[Editor’s Note: The Man and the Biosphere Programme is an intergovernmental, scientific program launched in 1971 by UNESCO. Using science, education and economics, this program establishes benefits to human communities while safeguarding surrounding ecosystems and wildlife. Its World Network of Biosphere Reserves currently counts 669 sites in 120 countries]

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On a 2005 visit to Amboseli, I saw the toll climate change is taking on Kilimanjaro: the alarming sight of less snow on the mountaintop. My most recent visit in October 2017 was disheartening. From a distance I saw only a small area of snow remaining on top of Kilimanjaro. I recalled the assessment that Kilimanjaro has lost 80 % of its snow cover since 1912; and that by 2033 the snows of Kilimanjaro would no longer exist.

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I drove deeper into the park, remembering that 12 years ago I saw a mirage of water everywhere I looked. However the mirage I saw on this drive started to disappear. Instead, what I saw before me were wide wetlands filled with water on both sides of the road. As I continued on, there were bulldozers and heavy equipment dredging these wetlands and laying large concrete pipes on both sides of the road. My local guide explained that the park is expanding the wetlands by filling existing swamps with more of the water that flows down from Kilimanjaro via underground channels.

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This development fulfills the objectives set for Amboseli National Park by the Man and the Biosphere Programme. In a land of world-famous elephant matriarchs, this program is creating biodiversity havens to benefit wildlife in the immediate area of the park, while also supporting Maasai and their livestock living near the park.

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The next morning, passing through an arid area with Kilimanjaro in the background, I saw a large herd of elephants walking towards the wetlands to drink and bathe. An hour later as I went closer to a wetlands, I saw several elephants and ungulates enjoying their time in the swamp. More wildlife arrived at the wetlands as the day continued. A family of hippopotamus occasionally left the swamp to graze, Hundreds of great white pelicans, winter migrants from Eastern Europe, were enjoying pleasant weather on an island in the swamp under sunny skies.

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My local guide took me to Observation Hill, overlooking the vast Amboseli wetlands. As we walked up the hill, I noticed two large signs put up by International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). One sign coined two apt phrases, “Kilimanjaro, The Life-Giving Mountain,” and “Without Kilimanjaro, Many Lives would Cease!” The other sign read, “Where Life Springs Up In A Desert.” Addressing national – and indeed global – issues, it noted, “While many wetlands in Kenya dwindle and lose biodiversity because of destructive and unchecked human activities, this protected oasis will remain a source of life. Only if man does not adversely affect it.”

 

Pongpol Adireksarn was born in Bangkok, Thailand, and received a Bachelor Degree in International Relations from Lehigh University, USA, and a Master Degree in the same field from American University, USA. Elected four times as a Member of Parliament from Saraburi Province, he was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Tourism and Sports, Minister of Agriculture and Cooperatives, Minister of Education, and Deputy Prime Minister. Pongpol wrote several novels in Thai and English using his real name and the pen name “Paul Adirex”.  In the past nine years, Pongpol has been producer and host of a television documentary program on world heritage sites which has led him to many national parks and wildlife reserves all over the world, prompting him to become seriously interested in wildlife threatened species.
All photos © Pongpol Adireksarn.

What is a Bio Blitz? A Strategy for Stewardship

By Kevin FitzPatrick,
Conservation Photographer, iLCP Senior Fellow

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Bio Blitz: a short, intense team effort to discover as many different life forms as possible in one location; shorter-duration, smaller-scaled versions of All-Taxa Biodiversity Inventories (ATBIs) [See Glossary below article.]

A Bio Blitz compasses all that I want to communicate to my audience about conservation and biodiversity, and it’s a wonderful way to communicate with students and adults about science. It offers young people a chance to try their hand at identifying species, photography, sketching wildlife, writing about nature or discovering the natural history of their own area. No two Bio Blitzes are the same, as each one is a reflection of the local environment. It is an opportunity for youth to enhance their appreciation of the environment through photography, art and exploration, and to engage in true “citizen science.”

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With the iNaturalist Mobile Application, the Encyclopedia of Life’s Species Collections allows participants to document species and upload observations to a collective map available freely online. Bio Blitzes connect photographers with scientists who help them find species. This experience gives photographers the ability to expand the range of species in their files.

So many of us only focus on mega-fauna and common species, forgetting the big picture (or maybe the little picture). I am talking about butterflies, beetles, insects of all sorts, frogs, salamanders, snakes and, yes, slime molds! As the BioBlitz Concept begins to takeoff around the country, there’ll be a greater need for these kinds of images. Over 100 parks and refuges around the country now promoting Bio Blitzes, so you can likely take advantage of this great opportunity in your area.

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I have shot over 115 Bio Blitzes from Maine to California with the approach of a conservation photographer. My purpose is to shoot a way that people can see the species present with all their beautiful, close-up detail and color. When this happens, perceptions change and these species take on a new life in the minds of the viewer. They are seen as an asset and part of their world! Thus, Bio Blitz is much more than just a concerted effort to identify the species that live in chosen location. It is a celebration of nature and the many wonderful forms that exist in any given place. When people of all ages and professions come together to take a closer look at their local wildlife, a tangible excitement builds.

Bio Blitzes are powerful tools for environmental education, conservation and community engagement, representing experiential learning at its best. Bio Blitzes images highlight species diversity and offer positive experiences within local ecosystems. When conservation integrates art and science, it merges different but valid ways of perceiving and experiencing the world.  Merging means of direct participation in Bio Blitzes may challenge or blur the artificial boundaries marked by our training.  But what biologist isn’t stirred by theprofound, and what artist doesn’t sense geometry in mystery?

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At our core we are humans. The head and the heart are inseparable.  And so, a compelling story about conservation interprets the intersection of human history, emergence of an ecological conscience, and biological integrity.  A Bio Blitz is an opportunity to experience that intersection directly.

I have worked with a larger-scale, longer-duration ATBI [All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory] in the Smokies since it started almost 20 years ago. We have found over 1,000 new species. While in-depth, scientific ATBI’s are now starting up all across the country, the benefit of Bio Blitzes is that they are all-inclusive. Any one gets to go and play a part. Kids, parents, and grandparents – you name it!

I have worked with scientists for years and know how most people see them. To counter those preconceptions, Bio Blitzes allows people to work hand and hand with scientists in the field while in your element! Participants see how engaging, passionate and fun they are to be with. Also many younger scientists are excited to see the general public get in involved in science. I have worked with National Geographic on Bio Blitzes at Saguaro National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, Jean Lafitte National Historical & Preserve, Golden Gate National Park, and The Mall in Washington, DC. At each one, the public was totally engaged and had over1000 kids attending!

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GLOSSARY [“From ATBI to Bio Blitz”]

ATBI: an intense inventory of all taxa to the species level to the degree possible in a single site, followed by on-going further inventory as needed by specific taxa and in-depth basic and applied biodiversity research and development (Janzen and Hallwachs 1994).

Bio Blitz: part rapid biological survey and part public outreach event bringing together scientists and volunteers to compile a snapshot of biodiversity in a relatively short amount of time (Karns et al. 2006; Lundmark 2003). It is not intended to be an exhaustive inventory, but can contribute to a more comprehensive ATBI effort in the future.

Biodiversity. The variety of living organisms considered at all levels of organization, including the genetic, species, and higher taxonomic levels, and the variety of habitats and ecosystems,as well as the processes occurring therein (Meffe and Carroll 1997).

Citizen science. Citizen science refers to participation of the general public as field assistants in scientific studies (Cohn 2008; Irwin 1995). Volunteers may have no specific scientific training,and typically perform, or manage, tasks such as observation, measurement, or computation.

Inventory. Natural resource inventories are extensive point-in-time surveys to determine the location or condition of a resource, including the presence, class, distribution, and status of biological resources such as plants and animals. Inventories are designed to contribute to our knowledge of the condition of park resources and establish baseline information for subsequent monitoring activities (NPS 2008).

All photos provided by Kevin FitzPatrick.