Disasters linked to climate can increase risk of armed conflict
Research found that 23% of violent clashes in ethnically divided places were connected to climate disasters
Monday 25 July 2016 22.00 BST
Climate-related disasters increase the risk of armed conflicts, according to research that shows a quarter of the violent struggles in ethnically divided countries were preceded by extreme weather.
The role of severe heatwaves, floods and storms in increasing the risk of wars has been controversial, particularly in relation to the long drought in Syria. But the new work reveals a strong link in places where the population is already fractured along ethnic lines.
Previous work has shown a correlation between climate disasters and fighting but the new analysis shows the disasters precede the conflict, suggesting a causal link. Experts have warned that an increase in natural disasters due to global warming is a “threat multiplier” for armed violence. The scientists behind the new research say it could be used to predict where future violence might flare, allowing preventative measures to be taken.
“Armed conflicts are among the biggest threats to people, killing some and forcing others to leave their home and maybe flee to faraway countries,” said Prof John Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany and one of the research team. The combination of climate disasters and ethnic tensions make an “explosive mixture,” he said.
“People have speculated about climate links with conflict: some people say yes, some say no. But we find a really robust link,” Schellnhuber said.
“Economic and social disruption caused by climate disasters are in general not significantly linked to the outbreak of armed conflict, except in one class of countries or regions: where you have pre-fracturing by ethnic difference. The analysis also shows clearly the shock precedes the conflict era and so this is the first step to unravel the causal tangle involved in this environment-conflict relationship.”
The research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that 23% of the armed conflicts in ethnically divided places were linked to climate disasters, compared to just 9% of all armed conflicts. Schellnhuber speculated that ethnic divisions might mean that the impact of a climate disaster would disproportionately impact one group more than another, due to their location or poverty level. “People immediately start scapegoating then,” he said.
The research team concluded: “This has important implications for future security policies as several of the world’s most conflict-prone regions, including north and central Africa as well as central Asia, are both exceptionally vulnerable to [manmade] climate change and characterised by deep ethnic divides.
“Recent analyses of the societal consequences of droughts in Syria and Somalia indicate that such climatological events may have already contributed to armed conflict outbreaks or sustained the conflicts in both countries.”
Schellnhuber said the climate-conflict link will be even more important in the future: “In 50 years from now, under a business-as-usual scenario, 80-90% of disasters will be driven by climate change. Then the whole thing really explodes.”
He said cross-referencing predictions of where extreme weather is likely to increase with places that are ethnically divided could provide a way to see trouble ahead. “You could construct a conflict ‘radar’ system to anticipate hotspots where the probability of armed conflict is high. Then you could try to diffuse certain things, or say, given the current migration debate, see where the potential sources of emigration are.”
Prof Solomon Hsiang, at the University of California Berkeley and not part of the new research, showed in 2011 that changes to the climate were linked to 20% of civil wars since 1950. He said: “The linkage between large-scale climatic changes and violence is a remarkable finding of the last several years and has major implications for societies around the world, both today and in the future.”
“Recent studies have demonstrated that these patterns hold around the world, throughout human history, and at all scales of social organisation: from violence within families all the way up to full scale civil war,” Hsiang said.
“This new study corroborates these earlier results, demonstrating that they can be recovered using an alternative statistical approach. It is important that these types of findings are replicated and demonstrated to be robust by numerous research teams since the consequences for society are so critical.”
Previous work has focused on linking conflicts with meteorological data, such as temperature and rainfall. The new analysis, however, used the economic impact of climate disasters, which takes into account the vulnerability of the nation affected. “Both Syria and California have now experienced the biggest drought on record, but there is no civil war in California,” said Schellnhuber.
He said the new work showed another, very significant, benefit of action to halt global warming: “Our study adds evidence of a very special co-benefit of climate stabilisation: peace.”
on: Jul 26, 2016, 05:42 AM
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on: Jul 26, 2016, 05:40 AM
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China's coal peak hailed as turning point in climate change battle
Study by economists say achievement by world’s biggest polluter may be a significant milestone, rather than a blip
Monday 25 July 2016 16.02 BST
The global battle against climate change has passed a historic turning point with China’s huge coal burning finally having peaked, according to senior economists.
They say the moment may well be a significant milestone in the course of the Anthropocene, the current era in which human activity dominates the world’s environment.
China is the world’s biggest polluter and more than tripled its coal burning from 2000 to 2013, emitting billions of tonnes of climate-warming carbon dioxide. But its coal consumption peaked in 2014, much earlier than expected, and then began falling.
The economists argue in a new paper on Monday that this can now be seen as permanent trend, not a blip, due to major shifts in the Chinese economy and a crackdown on pollution.
“I think it is a real turning point,” said Lord Nicholas Stern, an eminent climate economist at the London School of Economics, who wrote the analysis with colleagues from Tsinghua University in Beijing. “I think historians really will see the coal peak of 2014 as a very important event in the history of the climate and economy of the world.”
The team’s analysis, published in the Nature Geoscience journal, concludes that China’s coal peak “may well be an important milestone in the Anthropocene and a turning point in international efforts to [cut] the emissions of climate-altering greenhouse gases”.
The struggle to tame climate change and avoid the “severe, widespread, and irreversible” damage predicted by scientists is often seen as too difficult. Even the successful global climate deal signed in Paris in December is not yet enough to hold world temperatures below a 2C rise, which is seen as the danger limit, and will need to be ratcheted up.
But Stern said he thought the breakthrough in China would drive further action by other nations: “Given the international political and economic structures we now have to manage climate change, I think it will be very influential on others.”
The UN’s climate chief, who oversees the global climate negotiations, welcomed the analysis. “This assessment of the possible peaking of China’s coal use is a very positive development in international efforts to address climate change,” said Patricia Espinosa, the incoming executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
She added: “It underlines how ambitious and deliberate policies to shift away from highly polluting fuels to cleaner energy sources can deliver global climate benefits and national improvements in health and indeed in people’s lives.”
To enter into force, the Paris climate deal requires the majority of large emitting nations to ratify it. Espinosa said: “I hope these positive developments reported today will encourage more countries to step forward so that Paris enters into force sooner rather than later.”
Stern said that China’s progress indicates its total carbon emissions will start falling before 2025, well ahead of its official target date of 2030. Prof John Schellnhuber, at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and a former adviser to German premier Angela Merkel and Pope Francis, said it could even happen by 2020, which would represent stunning progress.
The peaking of China’s coal use is very significant, Schellnhuber said: “It is a turning point and very good news.” But he argues that another, steeper, downturn in coal burning will be needed in future to stabilise the global climate.
“If we take the 2C target seriously, coal really has to disappear,” he said. “I think coal will have to be phased out completely in all countries of the world by about 2035.” Schellnhuber, one of the world’s most influential climate scientists, said in 2015 that an “induced implosion” of the fossil fuel industry was required to beat climate change.
The latest official government statistics from China support the idea that its coal use peaked in 2014. Coal production fell 9.7% in the first half of 2016 compared to 2015, which itself saw a 5.8% decline on 2014, and coal burning fell 3.7% in 2015. China’s total emissions have been near flat in recent years.
Stern said there are a series of deep and long-term transformations taking place in China, which means the nation’s falling coal use is now a permanent trend. One is the falling rate of economic growth from 9-10% to about 6% and the transformation of the Chinese economy away from heavy industry and towards more hi-tech and service sectors, which are much less dependent on energy.
There is also a serious focus on improving energy efficiency, he said, to avoid dependency on imported fuels.
Another critical factor is a major policy shift from the Chinese government to tackle the pollution of air and water that blights many citizens. Stern said China’s emergence as a global power in recent decades was important too, as well as its self-interest in avoiding global warming.
“It is partly the sense of responsibility that China really does feel” as a global power, he said. “But it is also climate change itself. Water has dominated Chinese thinking for millennia and its major rivers come off the Himalayas. What happens to the Himalayas and its ice caps is absolutely crucial to China, and of course climate change is mostly a water phenomenon.”
As coal declines, clean electricity in China is increasing rapidly with solar power up 28% in the first half of 2016, nuclear up 25% and wind and hydropower both up 13%. But challenges remain, including connecting new windfarms to the grid. China’s Renewable Energy Industries Association says that 15% of the wind power produced in the country in 2015 was wasted.
on: Jul 26, 2016, 05:36 AM
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The strange reason why the Pinocchio lizard has a long nose
In the cloud forests of Ecuador, there lives a small lizard with a truly stupendous hooter
By Jason G. Goldman
26 July 2016
Lucas Bustamante carefully aims his laser pointer at a small branch some 50ft (15m) above the ground. The green spot of light is clearly visible, but I just cannot see the lizard he has spotted: just branches, leaves and moss.
If there is indeed a lizard there, it is incredibly well camouflaged against the forest canopy it calls home. Without a second thought, Bustamante begins scaling the trunk of the tree to take a better look.
Within minutes, Bustamante returns to ground level, holding in his hands the lizard we had traveled all this way to find: a sleepy Ecuadorian horned anole, also known as the "Pinocchio lizard".
The Pinocchio lizard is a zoological mystery. It is not the only horned anole (Brazil also has one) but it is the most famous, perhaps owing to its memorable moniker. Yet despite its fame, nobody knows very much about this unique species. Until a decade ago, nobody even knew it was still alive.
Scientists first formally described the Ecuadorian horned anole in 1956.
Over the next few years, herpetologists rounded up another six specimens, all males. By the end of the decade, everything known about this charismatic reptile came from just those seven lizards.
"And then for almost forty years, no one ever saw one," says zoologist Jonathan Losos of Harvard University. "People were beginning to think that maybe they'd gone extinct."
The species was only found in Ecuador's Pichincha Province, home to the Mindo cloud forest, an area just over 250 square kilometers.
Having faced serious deforestation, it was reasonable to suspect that the species had gone extinct before scientists had even gotten to know it.
But then in 2005, a group of birdwatchers happened to pass through the Mindo area.
The Mindo cloud forest is famous for its bird life, such as this crimson-rumped toucanet (Aulacorhynchus haematopygus) (Credit: Pete Oxford/naturepl.com)
Despite its incredible herpetological biodiversity, the region is perhaps best known as prime birdwatching habitat, especially for hummingbirds. Someone in the group noticed a lizard crossing the road, which is odd for a tree-dwelling species. Their guide was savvy enough to know that they had seen something significant.
They are nearly impossible to find during the day when they are active
Once people realized that the Ecuadorian horned anole was not extinct after all, two groups of researchers quickly mounted expeditions to Mindo to properly document them, one from the US and one from Ecuador. If they were lucky, they could find some females too; nobody knew if they had the same elongated snouts as the males.
The US expedition, led by University of New Mexico biologist Steven Poe, published a short paper in 2012 describing the species' anatomy based upon another 20 individuals. This confirmed that the horns could be found only on the males.
But they did not uncover much about the anoles' behaviour. That is mostly because the species is so cryptic.
They are nearly impossible to find during the day when they are active, and only slightly easier to spot at night. Poe's team could figure out something about their sleeping habitats, but nothing about their daily activities, nor what those horns were used for.
Even the locals don't see these lizards
So when Losos set out on his expedition, he decided to find a way around the first problem.
He and his team set out in search of the lizards at night. After finding them and marking their locations, they returned to the same trees just before dawn. The lizards would reliably be sleeping in the same spots.
"We basically waited for the Sun to rise and for the lizards to get active," says Losos. "From observations like that, we quickly realized why nobody had ever seen them."
Not only are they extremely well camouflaged, the lizards move without drawing any unwanted attention to themselves.
I saw one bump into a plastic bag, and its horn just folded right over
Losos showed some of the lizards to local construction workers, none of whom said they had ever seen one before. "Even the locals don't see these lizards," says Losos.
So while the lizards are rare, they are even hard to find in places where they are fairly abundant.
"They are endangered, and [they have] a restricted range of distribution, and they occur high up in the canopy," says herpetologist Alejandro Arteaga, who co-founded ecotourism company Tropical Herping with Bustamante. "But in the areas where they occur, we think they are more common than previously thought."
Armed with a more reliable method for finding the elusive, long-snouted anoles, researchers have finally begun to solve the horn's riddle.
One early hypothesis was that the males might use the horns to do battle, using their faces as if they had swords attached. But Losos soon realized that was impossible.
Females might use the horns to assess the quality of males as potential mates
"I saw one bump into a plastic bag, and its horn just folded right over," he says. "There's no stiffness at all, so they couldn't possibly fight with them, they would just bend."
More recently, Ecuadorian biologist Diego Quirola of the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador filmed 11 male-female mating attempts among the Pinocchio lizards, as well as three male-male interactions, as part of his 2015 thesis. He and his colleagues are now preparing the results for submission to a scientific journal.
Quirola discovered, as Losos suspected, that the appendage is not used as a weapon. Nor is it terribly important in male-male interactions.
However, Quirola suspects that females might use the horns to assess the quality of males as potential mates. As in many species, the females prefer males that appear larger. Growing a long horn may be a way for males to make themselves look bigger.
That may be true, but there are other facts about the horn that do not seem to fit.
It turns out that the anoles can wiggle their horns up and down
For example, Quirola's group was the first to document the hatching of a male Pinocchio lizard. They found that the hatchling already had a small horn.
That is unusual: other horned lizards only develop their horns as they grow up. Nobody knows why the Ecuadorian anoles grow theirs so early, but it cannot be for attracting females.
In addition, it turns out that the anoles can wiggle their horns up and down. But it is not clear how.
Lizards do not have muscles at the tips of their snouts. Conceivably the anoles do, but that would mean they are even weirder than we thought.
Alternatively, an anole might move its horn by using hydrostatic pressure to push fluids through the tissue. That would mean the horn worked in a similar way to a much more familiar appendage: the penis.
From a scientific point of view, the lizards' elusive nature is thoroughly inconvenient. But their cryptic behaviour probably keeps them safe. If they were easy to find, they would no doubt wind up in the illegal pet trade.
The appendage is not used as a weapon
"Fortunately most of the lizards are still protected by private reserves," says Arteaga. "The owners of these private lands know that the lizards are sought after, and endangered, so they take care of them."
But while the species is listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, Ecuador has taken no specific actions to protect it.
Luckily, the local community has rallied around it. Locals have begun to recognize that the Pinocchio lizard, and the region's other remarkable biodiversity, is good for them. It drives the ecotourism industry and helps support them financially.
That means there is still hope for the Ecuadorian horned anole.
on: Jul 26, 2016, 05:33 AM
|Started by Rad - Last post by theRiversolace|
First of all- thank you! I've read through the posting procedures and guidelines.
Second of all, the prior life that I have been doing much research on had the South Node of Venus in the twelfth house of Capricorn— the mid-point, on her natal chart, between houses 2 and 12 is approximately 10 degrees Aquarius in the first house. “The South Node of Venus would correlate to the meaning that the Soul is creating for its life, how it inwardly relates to that sense of meaning and how that sense of meaning is then related to others.” Could this sensitive area of both of our charts be where we have both located some sort of meaning in life? JWG has written quite extensively on these topics- I have much reading to do!
on: Jul 26, 2016, 05:28 AM
|Started by Rad - Last post by Rad|
How to catch a poacher: Breaking Bad and fake eggs
Conservationists and law enforcement have struggled to catch the Walter Whites behind wildlife trafficking. But could some plastic eggs and GPS trackers change the game?
Tuesday 26 July 2016 08.54 BST
Sometimes life really does imitate art. In the fourth season of the hit TV show, Breaking Bad, police put GPS devices on barrels of methylamine to try and track the show’s protagonists to their meth lab. Inspired by the episode, Kim Williams-Guillen, a conservationist with Paso Pacifico, decided to take the concept one step further: what if you could catch wildlife poachers by slipping GPS devices into convincingly faked wildlife parts? In this case: Hollywood-inspired, high-tech sea turtle eggs; fake eggs so convincingly crafted that poachers would have a hard time distinguishing them from the real thing.
“Every year millions of sea turtle eggs are taken by poachers for sale on the black market. Paso Pacifico’s solution has the potential to reveal the trade routes and destination markets for trafficked sea turtle eggs,” the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) said.
The USAID recently awarded Paso Pacifico $10,000 for its idea through their Wildlife Tech Challenge, a contest to tackle wildlife trafficking through technological innovation. The Wildlife Tech Challenge is also supported by the National Geographic Society, the Smithsonian Institution, and TRAFFIC.
Out of control poaching
Paso Pacifico, which works in Central America’s Pacific region, plans to test their fake eggs first on the beaches of Nicaragua, where Williams-Guillen described the poaching of sea turtle nests as “uncontrolled, unregulated, extensive and contested.”
We’re trying to find Stringer Bell, not Wallace.
The situation is so bad that even the best-protected beaches are plundered to some extent and it’s not uncommon to see poachers digging up nests just meters from tourists watching sea turtles laying their clutch at night, according to Williams-Guillen. This poaching becomes particularly frenzied when olive ridley sea turtles show up for the arribadas (a Spanish word meaning “arrival”). These are mass laying events where thousands of olive ridleys nest on the same beach for a single night in a biological strategy to overwhelm natural predators.
“Even with armed guards, the numbers of poachers overwhelm military personnel by ten or twenty to one,” Williams-Guillen said. “Although many poachers are locals with limited resources, during these arribadas there are influxes of gangs of poachers from larger cities outside local communities.”
She added, “these are not necessarily just local poor people without other options.”
Humans have been eating sea turtle eggs (and killing adults for meat) for millennia. However, as human population exploded and as sea turtles began to face additional threats such as bycatch in fisheries, beach development, light pollution and climate change, sea turtle populations declined precipitously. Today, all but one of the world’s seven sea turtles are considered threatened by the IUCN Red List. And the one that’s not – the flatback turtle – is listed as data deficient, which means scientists simply don’t know how it’s doing. Worse still, the species hasn’t been assessed for two decades.
For its part, Nicaragua is home to four sea turtle species: the olive ridley, the leatherback, the green and the critically endangered Hawksbill sea turtle.
But to protect the country’s sea turtles, Williams-Guillen said conservationists shouldn’t just depend on law enforcement on beaches catching low-level operators who do the risky grunt work.
“If one poacher decides to stop, another one will just step into his place….we need to know more about the middlemen and people higher up in the distribution chain,” she said and then referenced another hit TV show, The Wire, “We’re trying to find Stringer Bell, not Wallace.”
That’s where the fake turtle eggs come in.
Crafting convincing sea turtle eggs is more difficult than one might expect and Paso Pacifico is still working on perfecting a prototype. The appearance is the easy part, according to Williams-Guillen, since sea turtle eggs “look like ping pong balls.” But getting the texture right is proving quite problematic.
Sea turtle eggs are not covered in a hard shell like bird’s eggs, but are “slightly squishy with a thin, rigid, but not brittle, shell,” said Williams-Guillen. To get that somewhat flexible – almost rubbery – feel, Paso Pacifico brought in Lauren Wilde, a special effects and make-up artist in Los Angeles.
“We are still in the stage of all working together to make it come together, and my role is the outer shell,” said Wilde, who has considerable experience with faking nature through sculpting animal heads for her company, Wilde Animals.
First, Wilde had to get her hands on the real thing.
“I really needed to feel an egg, feel the weight, feel how flexible the shell,” she said. Since it’s illegal to send sea turtle eggs over the border, Wilde is depending on freshwater turtle eggs from California.
“Even though the turtle was a land turtle, the eggs are very similar to the sea turtles eggs. So it was really eye opening and important for me to feel these eggs and how the shell bends a little,” she said. Wilde is now working on sculpting a mould for the outer shell “that will hopefully look and feel realistic after being painted.”
To get the GPS device inside, Paso Pacifico is employing 3D printers to make a plastic ball with space for a GPS transmitter. This ball will then take the place of the embryo inside the plastic shell. Lastly the fake shells will be sealed with liquid silicone, waterproofing them.
Sea turtles on lay average around 100 eggs in a nest, so once the fake eggs are finished they will slipped in with the real ones. Williams-Guillen said it might even be possible to deliver fake eggs into nests while poachers are at work. Wary of tourists, poachers will often back off if strangers come near and then return when they have gone.
“It would be pretty easy to drop an egg in the dark into a nest they have been digging up,” she said.
Once the poacher picks up the cuckoo’s egg along with the hundred or so real ones, conservationists and law enforcement will be able to track where they go.
Experts believe most of the stolen eggs eventually make their way out of Nicaragua, possibly to El Salvador or Guatemala. However, there is also growing concern that sea turtle eggs from Central America are actually heading to China.
“There is increased commerce and movement between China and Nicaragua over the last few years, as China increases its presence in Central America,” Williams-Guillen said. “Recently a couple was caught smuggling turtle eggs from Mexico to the United States, and it is believed that some of those may have been destined for Asia.”
If sea turtle eggs are indeed heading from Central America to Asia that could mean a huge new market for illegal poachers – making the trade that much more difficult to combat.
To date, Paso Pacifico has yet to put a single fake egg in a nest. But, Williams-Guillen said she isn’t too concerned that media on their project will result in poachers looking for the eggs.
“The vast majority of the poaching is happening at night, so already it is hard to tell [the eggs] apart, and at this point, poachers and middlemen are not closely inspecting eggs, but rather shoving them into a sack as quickly as possible. Once these things are covered with sand, it’s damn hard to tell them apart.”
Of course, poachers will eventually become aware of the prospect of fake eggs among the real ones – especially when customers try to bite into an egg and break their teeth on the GPS transmitter instead. So, Paso Pacifico plans to do a massive deployment of as many fakes as possible to gather a lot of data before poachers get wise.
Knowing where the poached eggs go will allow conservationists and law enforcement to put limited resources – whether it be awareness-building campaigns or crackdowns on illegal seller – in the right place. Depending on the country’s laws, the fake eggs could even lead to arrests or stings, though the primary motive at this point is simply to discover where the eggs are being sold.
Paso Pacifico was one of sixteen winners in USAID’s Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge, and, in addition to the $10,000 reward, received expert advice and collaborations. And, once ready, Paso Pacifico hopes not only to deploy the technology in Nicaragua, but also to share it with interested parties around the world.
“The Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge prize winners need an active community of supporters who can work with them to stamp out the illegal wildlife trade,” the USAID said. “The Challenge is looking for individuals or groups to work with the prize winners to accelerate product development.”
To that end, the USAID said winners will require further funding to implement their work.
on: Jul 26, 2016, 05:23 AM
|Started by Rad - Last post by Rad|
Animal welfare groups push US to classify all leopards as endangered
Conservationists are calling on the US to raise the protection level for leopards, severely curbing hunters’ ability to import body parts as trophies
Oliver Milman in New York
Monday 25 July 2016 18.04 BST
Conservationists have demanded a crackdown on the import to the US of leopards killed by American hunters, in an attempt to replicate the protections introduced in the wake of the furore caused by the death of famed lion Cecil.
A coalition of animal welfare groups have petitioned the US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) to classify all leopards as endangered, the Guardian can reveal. This would severely curtail the ability of American hunters to bring home “trophies”, such as leopard skulls, paws or skins, from hunting trips to Africa.
America is a leading collector of leopard parts. According to a Humane Society analysis of data from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, US trophy hunters imported parts of 5,575 leopards between 2005 and 2014.
It is unclear how many leopards remain across Africa and Asia but the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has warned the species has “declined substantially” due to habitat loss, paucity of prey and targeted poaching for sham medicinal products in south-east Asia and China that can generate $3,000 for a leopard carcass.
The IUCN states that “poorly managed trophy hunting adds to pressure on local leopard populations”. In 2016, South Africa stopped the hunting of leopards, over concerns that untold damage was being wrought.
Currently, the FWS classifies leopards in northern Africa as endangered and sub-Saharan animals south of Gabon and Kenya as threatened. This distinction, drawn up in 1982 following lobbying by hunters, means that much less scrutiny is placed upon leopard imports from the southern half of Africa.
Buoyed by the success in getting lions classed as endangered last year following the controversial demise of Cecil, a famous Zimbabwean lion who was shot by a dentist from Minnesota, conservation groups want the FWS to extend endangered species protection to all leopards.
The petition states that leopards’ range “is in alarming and precipitous decline, including in southern Africa where leopards are currently listed as threatened”. It adds that the survival of the species is being risked by “Americans engaging in unsustainable trophy hunting and international trade of African leopards.”
Trophy hunters target males in their prime, those likely to result in the perpetuation of strength and magnificence
The official request, lodged with the FWS on Monday, includes testimony from leading primatologist Jane Goodall, who said that her lengthy study of wildlife in Africa showed that leopards play an “essential role” in the ecosystem.
“Trophy hunters target large males in their prime – those who carry the genes likely to result in the perpetuation of strength and magnificence, splendid individuals whose decapitated heads disfigure the walls of countless wealthy homes,” Goodall wrote.
“Trophy hunters routinely boast about the animals they have killed, posting photographs of their smiling faces hovering over the lifeless bodies of their conquests, even though the prey (which may be drugged or baited) is often shot with a high powered rifle from a safe distance.”
Hunting trips taken by Americans result in around 126,000 animal trophies being imported each year, with targeted species including black bears, wildebeest, geese and impala. The “big five” beasts – lions, elephants, rhinos, buffalo and leopards – are highly prized by hunters, with about 32,500 trophy imports of these animals between 2005 and 2014, according to a Humane Society calculation of FWS data. About seven in 10 of all hunting trophies are sent to the US.
Hunting groups such as Safari Club International, which auctions overseas hunting permits, argue that hunting brings vital income to communities in Africa, as well as encouraging landowners to conserve species for the enjoyment of rifle-wielding tourists.
It’s clear that the American public doesn’t support killing in order to hang a trinket on your wall
Anna Frostic, Humane Society
But environmentalists and many scientists disagree with the idea that hunting aids conservation, pointing out that the social order and future viability of species is disrupted when the largest animals are targeted.
“The entire concept of trophy hunting, putting aside ethical issues, is that the off-take of animals is sustainable,” said Anna Frostic, a lawyer at the Humane Society who lodged the petition along with the Center for Biological Diversity and International Fund for Animal Welfare.
“To do that you need to know what the population is and the reality is no one knows what the leopard population is. Polling shows that regardless of species, it’s clear that the American public doesn’t support killing in order to hang a trinket on your wall. Leopards are one of the big five animals, the concept of killing them is abhorrent to the public.”
Under the Obama administration, regulations have been tightened on lion and elephant hunting. In a show of force, six tons of confiscated ivory were crushed in Denver in November 2013. This was followed by a near total ban on the export, import or interstate trade of ivory products.
Last year, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump defended the hunting practiced by his sons, Donald Jr and Eric. The brothers went on a hunting safari in 2012 and had their photo taken with a dead leopard. Donald Jr posed in a separate picture holding a severed elephant’s tail.
The FWS did not immediately return a request for comment.
This article was amended on 25 July 2016 to clarify that not all lions are on the endangered list. Panthera leo, found in central Africa and Asia, is listed as endangered while Panthera leo ssp melanochaita, found in eastern and southern Africa, is listed as threatened
on: Jul 26, 2016, 05:21 AM
|Started by Rad - Last post by Rad|
RSPB calls for grouse shooting estates to be licensed
Group says move would allow shoots to be banned if birds of prey are illegally killed, amid withdrawal from hen harrier scheme
Monday 25 July 2016 15.51 BST
Grouse shooting estates should be licensed so that authorities have the power to ban them if birds of prey are illegally killed, the RSPB has urged, as it quit a government initiative to save the hen harrier in England.
The hen harrier action plan is a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs-led scheme in which landowners, shooting groups and conservation organisations agreed to work together to increase numbers of hen harriers in England.
Despite the plan, which was launched earlier this year, just three pairs of hen harriers are attempting to nest on English uplands, which ecologists calculate can support more than 300 pairs.
Jeff Knott, the head of nature policy for the RSPB, said: “The conclusion of a wealth of scientific evidence is that the single biggest reason why hen harriers are on the brink of extinction as a breeding bird in England is illegal persecution – illegal killing – associated with land intensively managed for grouse shooting.”
He said the RSPB had withdrawn from co-operating with the plan because of a lack of progress in bringing back hen harriers. In 2014, no hen harriers nested in England but numbers recovered slightly last year, with six successful nests from 12 breeding attempts. This year, however, there are no nests on grouse moors or privately owned shooting estates in England.
In recent months, two satellite-tagged hen harriers vanished in mysterious circumstances, eight red kites have been found shot or poisoned across Yorkshire and a gamekeeper lost his job after illegal pole traps were discovered in North Yorkshire.
The action plan was the result of four years of negotiation between shooting and conservation groups. It controversially allows for “brood management”, whereby hen harrier chicks are removed from nests on grouse moorland and released into lowland areas where they won’t imperil lucrative game birds such as red grouse.
In return for shooting estates benefitting from these relocations, the RSPB wanted better protection for hen harriers that remained in upland areas and an end to illegal persecution and the disappearance of satellite-tagged birds.
“The action plan has failed to deliver. Some people will say we should give it more time but the hen harrier doesn’t have a lot of time,” said Knott. “It’s a dire situation and we need to see progress much more rapidly.”
There are around 600 pairs of hen harriers in Scotland and 50 in Wales. The RSPB says the birds have done “OK” in poor weather this year away from intensively managed grouse moorland.
The RSPB is calling for the licensing of shooting estates, giving authorities the power to remove licences for shoots where illegal practices are detected.
“We believe that this is the only way to deliver a significant shift in attitudes and potentially secure a future for their sport,” said Martin Harper, the RSPB’s conservation director, in a statement. “Licensing systems appear to work well in most other European countries, so why not here as well?”
More than 64,000 people have signed wildlife campaigner Mark Avery’s petition calling for driven grouse shooting to be banned.
Avery, a former RSPB conservation director who has been critical of its co-operation with the shooting lobby, welcomed the group’s decision to abandon the action plan.
“Well done to the RSPB but what is Defra going to do now?” he said. “In her first speech as prime minister, Theresa May said her government was going to act for everybody and not just for powerful interest groups. This is a good test. Defra have been cuddling up to grouse shooters instead of finding a good way to conserve the hen harrier in England.”
Defra said it remained committed to the action plan, even without the participation of the country’s biggest wildlife conservation group.
A spokesperson said: “We are committed to protecting the hen harrier for future generations – that is why we took the lead on the hen harrier action plan and will continue to work with partners to secure the bird’s future. The long-term plan is still at a very early stage having been launched earlier this year, but it remains the best way to safeguard the hen harrier in England.”
Amanda Anderson, the director of the Moorland Association, said it was disappointed by the RSPB’s decision to pull out of Defra’s hen harrier action plan, and it was too early to judge the success of brood management because it had yet to be implemented.
“We remain committed to seeing more harrier breeding on more grouse moors and will continue to work with partners,” said Anderson. “We wish to reiterate our total abhorrence of any act of wildlife crime and support of prosecutions.”
Charlie Moores of Birders Against Wildlife Crime said the action plan had no credibility without the RSPB’s participation.
“Driven grouse shooting, with its dependency on having artificially high numbers of red grouse presented to the guns, seemingly cannot exist without high levels of wildlife crime,” said Moores. “If they can’t run the industry without crime at the heart of it, they shouldn’t be allowed to continue.”
The British Association for Shooting and Conservation (Basc) said the RSPB had abandoned the recovery plan before its success could be accurately assessed. It also rejected claims that licensing grouse moors will benefit hen harriers.
Basc chairman Peter Glenser said: “It is easy to blame grouse moors and gamekeepers, rather than considering other impact factors, such as disturbance and climate.
“Nothing is achieved by targeting one particular group and attempting to place all the blame on their shoulders. There are already effective procedures in place to deal with estates which breach regulations. There is no need for more licensing.”
on: Jul 26, 2016, 05:19 AM
|Started by Rad - Last post by Rad|
Can the honeyguide show us a new way to connect with nature?
Humans have few wild friends, but the honeyguide birds who lead Mozambican hunters to honey give us hope for relationships with mutual benefit
Monday 25 July 2016 11.29 BST
Nature works rather like the EU. There are deals between species. Uneasy relationships. Mistrust. Boundaries. Borders. Territory. Investments. Yet every now and then, new and surprising relationships emerge between animals. Among the rarest is mutualism.
In humans, as in other animals, mutualism is rare. But this week, scientists announced that the mutualistic relationship between the wild honeyguide – a rather nondescript brown bird – and local humans is even closer and weirder than many had suspected. Not only do these strange birds lead human hunters to bees’ nests in exchange for some of the spoils, scientists have now discovered that the birds can be attracted out of the trees by a distinctive trilling sound that local hunter-gatherers use while looking for honey. According to the researchers, hunters are taught this special trilling noise by their fathers. They call the honeyguides in, essentially.
The deal itself is simple. Humans want the honey. The birds want the bee grubs. The bird leads the humans to the honey and both species come out of the deal happier than when they went in. In biological terms, this is mutualism. Though humans get something out of it, we are undoubtedly being exploited in the process. And that’s OK.
Mutualism like this is quite rare in nature, mostly because natural selection (lacking any kind of foresight or sense of fair play) is so readily drawn to those that cheat. Partnerships inevitably break down, relationships shatter.
Apart from with our gut bacteria, we humans don’t really have any mutualistic relationships with other creatures. There is no special tune that we can sing to magically attract nearby hedgehogs into our gardens to feast on slugs. There will never be a special wink that fishermen can offer otters, encouraging them to catch fish that we might then de-bone for them, in return for some of the catch. The world is poorer for this.
So why don’t we have more mutualistic friends in the animal kingdom? Perhaps it is because, for all our intelligence, we still lack the foresight to trust. Perhaps, like so many other creatures, we are too readily drawn to cheating. It is hard to be sure.
There are many relationships between humans and animals that come close to mutualism, however. Think of the traditional fishermen of Japan and China, with their cormorants that they send to the depths of rivers to collect fish that they then share with their masters. Think of the rats that locate landmines in exchange for treats. Rescue dogs. That hawk they get out at Wimbledon every year. Farm animals. In each of these examples, though things appear mutualistic at first, they aren’t. There is only one hand on the tiller, steering it toward human profit – a human one. Look closely at the cormorants, for instance, and you’ll see a snare near the base of the bird’s throat to prevent it from swallowing larger fish, which the fishermen want for themselves. We own the deal, nearly always, when we work with other animals. And they become, bit-by-bit, spoilt as a result. Not that the honeyguide is a saint, of course. It does its fair share of cheating: it is – like the cuckoo – a brood parasite.
The honeyguide has negotiated what is possibly the first ever trade deal between a wild animal and a human
There is one other animal with whom we might have developed a mutualistic relationship: the dolphin. Not all dolphins, just a tiny sub-population of bottlenose dolphins in Laguna, Brazil. These cooperative dolphins signal to fishermen through “stereotyped head slaps” that pinpoint where the fish are. The scientists assume they benefit from the overflow of fish from the nets, but no one can be quite sure.
Even still, the honeyguide is more impressive. It is a mutualist that retains a certain aloofness. It remains slightly mysterious and slightly wild. It is interesting to me that so few animals have such relationships with us like this one. It speaks volumes, I think, of the human species.
And so I salute the honeyguide. This extraordinary bird has somehow negotiated what is possibly the first ever trade deal between a wild animal and a human. It is a beacon of trusting union in a world of suspicion. Perhaps the only wild friends we have. I hope one day we might have more. Who knows, perhaps the honeyguide can guide us in more ways than just one.
on: Jul 26, 2016, 05:17 AM
|Started by Rad - Last post by Rad|
Will falling gas prices cause US to miss fuel-efficiency targets?
A US government report warns that the US will likely fall short of its 2025 fuel-economy targets because low gas prices have prompted Americans to buy less-efficient cars and trucks.
By Ben Rosen, Staff July 25, 2016
Falling gas prices might be a boon for your pocketbook. But it could also hurt the average fuel-efficiency of American vehicles, a report by the US Environmental Protection Agency, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and the California Air Resources Board revealed Monday.
The report said automakers have the technology to meet the goals of a national program to improve the average fleet fuel economy from 25 miles per gallon to 54.5 by 2025. But the report said automakers’ fleet-wide improvements will not be as extensive as the Obama administration had originally hoped for, because buyers, encouraged by historically low gas prices, are purchasing more trucks and sport utility vehicles.
The report indicates the difficulty federal regulators could have enforcing the aggressive mandates of the program, which aim to revolutionize the auto industry and its relationship to gas. But it is unclear if the agencies' projections about consumer habits will come true. Nevertheless, their findings will give automakers firepower to resist what regulators are asking of them.
"Given changes in the market landscape, it will be a daunting challenge to meet the very aggressive requirements of the 2022-2025 federal fuel economy and greenhouse gas rule," Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, told Reuters.
Under the national program for greenhouse-gas emissions and fuel economy standards for cars and tracks, automakers are not required to achieve target averages. Instead, the government allows them to hit different targets for different vehicle sizes. Trucks and SUVs have lower targets than small cars.
When the Obama administration first outlined the program in 2012, its goal was to boost the average fleet fuel economy to 54.5 miles per gallon. At that time, regulators projected 67 percent of vehicles sold in 2025 would be cars, compared to trucks and SUVs. But that was before gas prices plummeted.
A combination of low crude-oil prices and a high supply of refined oil have slashed gas prices to their lowest levels for July since 2004. The national average is $2.18 – 57 cents lower than a year ago. And the report said these prices will increase buyers’ appetites for gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs.
The report Monday forecasts cars will be 48 to 62 percent of the vehicles sold in 2025 – not the 67 percent first projected. And regulators now estimate the fleet will average 50 to 52.6 m.p.g. in 2025.
A 2015 Fuels Institute report casts doubt on the agencies’ correlation between fuel prices and consumer habits. In a study that analyzed the previous five years of data,, the industry-backed fuel and travel think tank found “a mass exodus from alternative fuel vehicles to less fuel efficient vehicles in response to lower fuel prices is an overstated assertion.” Other considerations that affect consumers include the cost of a vehicle, discounts offered by the dealer, and the appeal of the car.
“The price of fuel is a driving force,” writes the Fuels Institute. “However, it is not the only consideration for consumers.”
There could also be a growing trend among Americans to drive less. Americans have driven more each month for 27 consecutive months. But a US Department of Transportation report showed that growth has slowed in recent months, even as fuel prices have remained low.
And the auto market, in general, is in flux. While fuel prices could affect it one way, other technology could affect the other. Another finding of the report is that battery costs are falling faster than originally anticipated, with today's prices already beating projections for 10 years from now. Hybrid or electric vehicles, then, could become more affordable.
This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.
on: Jul 26, 2016, 05:14 AM
|Started by Rad - Last post by Rad|
Yellowstone and beyond: Are the national parks being loved to death?
On the 100th anniversary of the national park system, Yellowstone offers the ultimate test of whether America's outdoor crown jewels are being used too much.
By Todd Wilkinson, Correspondent July 26, 2016
Yellowstone National Park, Wyo. — Over the course of its venerable history, Yellowstone – America’s “wild wonderland” – has become the most iconic nature preserve on Earth, a place of pilgrimage for generations of travelers. Yet never before has the world’s first national park felt the squeeze of so much human adoration as this year.
On many days, traffic stretches for miles outside the busiest park entrance at West Yellowstone, Mont. Once motorists pass through the gate, they confront more congestion traveling to Old Faithful, often in the form of “wildlife jams” whenever there is a bull elk, grizzly bear, or buffalo roaming the roadside. These moments are usually accompanied by camera-clutching tourists lunging out of their cars and racing toward the animals as if they were cuddly denizens of a circus menagerie. Finally, upon reaching the famous geyser, the visitors find, in the middle of the remote West, a Yankee Stadium-sized parking lot that is often full.
But then something remarkable happens. As the throng waits for Old Faithful’s steamy plume to rumble out of the earth, a mood of reverence sweeps over the crowd. When the geyser at last gushes skyward on its magical and mysterious 90-minute clock, the visitors gasp and erupt into applause, solidifying a pluperfect moment likely to be remembered the rest of their lives.
This, says park superintendent Dan Wenk, is one of Yellowstone’s many strange and inspiring paradoxes in the 21st century. In an age of iEverything, when people incessantly tap electronic devices and dwell in various forms of virtual reality, national parks offer a singular and natural counterpoint.
Last year, Yellowstone hit more than 4 million visits for the first time in history. It is poised to significantly surpass those numbers in 2016, the centennial year of the National Park Service. But behind all those cars and tour buses in the land of lodgepole pine looms a fundamental question: Is such soaring popularity good or bad for Yellowstone – and, more broadly, for the national park system as a whole? Can America’s outdoor crown jewels survive unmarred for another 100 years?
“The question many are asking,” says Mr. Wenk, “is can Yellowstone escape from being loved to death? My answer is yes, I believe it can. But Yellowstone won’t be saved if we stay on the same course.”
Ranger Julie Stetson leads a hike on Taggart Lake Trail as part of an educational program available to visitors at Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. ANN HERMES/STAFF
The National Park Service officially turns 100 years old Aug. 25. The much-hyped centennial is not only a birthday celebrating what the late writer Wallace Stegner called the best idea this country ever had. It is also a time of profound introspection, even worry, for an agency entrusted with overseeing one of the world’s most spectacular collections of outdoor sanctuaries.
Critics say the Park Service – beleaguered by deteriorating roads and buildings, threats to natural resources, overwhelming public use, and the potential effects of climate change – is ill-equipped to steward its 411 parks, cultural sites, and historical monuments forward another 100 years. They believe the sacred national park experience that so many people journey to see has already vanished at some of the most popular destinations and will only get worse without a serious infusion of money and a rededication to preservation.
“I think the National Park Service is facing a crisis of conscience and confidence,” says Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a vocal watchdog of public land-management agencies.
Yet all is hardly dire. The spirit of the parks and their ability to be a balm for an increasingly hyperkinetic world in many ways endures. Terry Tempest Williams, counted among the greatest living writers of the American West, set out on an exploratory mission a few years back to identify the essence of national parks. Ms. Williams visited a dozen big wildland preserves, historical sites, battlefields, and birthplaces of prominent citizens that are all part of the park system. What she discovered is spelled out in her new critically acclaimed book, “The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks.”
“Our national parks are breathing spaces in a country that is increasingly holding its breath,” she says in an interview with the Monitor. “We see the violence in the latest mass shooting in Orlando. We know the kind of madness a world at war with itself breeds. It is easy to fall into despair. But then, we stand before El Capitan in Yosemite Valley or look out across the vast erosional beauty of the Grand Canyon where we can see the curvature of the Earth, we are returned to a sense of wholeness in the world – an enduring beauty that will not only survive us but inspire us to be our highest and deepest selves.”
Reflecting on her own childhood spent amid the saw-toothed majesty of Grand Teton National Park, Williams doesn’t see America’s premier wilderness areas as doomed. What they need, she notes, is more citizen defenders lending their voice as advocates. “Our national parks allow us to remember what we have forgotten – that we are a part of nature, an extension of nature, products of nature, not separate from it,” she says. “And how we take care of parks says a lot about ourselves.”
Many people will be witnessing for themselves what the parks say about America this summer. Visitation in 2016 is expected to approach 315 million people, the equivalent of the entire population of the United States. More than 307 million people traveled to the parks in 2015 – up 25 million from just three years ago.
They come for a multitude of reasons – to introduce the next generation to the splendors of the wild, to revisit a memory of their youth, to hike in alpine meadows, to lift themselves out of lives circumscribed by a cubicle.
Emma and Pete Brawn from Ohio brought their three young sons to explore the grandeur of Grand Teton and Yellowstone. Ms. Brawn first visited the two parks with her parents several decades ago. Now she wants her children to experience the transcendence of moose and mudpots for themselves. The family is spending 10 days in the area and has unplugged from the internet and hiked deep into the backcountry, away from the clamorous crowds.
“I think, with having kids, it’s important to share the natural wonders of our country and the world,” says Brawn, a veterinarian. “Parks are an important way to protect our common heritage so generations to come can enjoy these remaining pieces of the Earth that seem lost in time.”
While the parks remain a popular vacation spot for families, the national origin of many of them is changing. More foreigners are among the legions taking in America’s outdoor haunts. On any given day, the conversations around Old Faithful sound like the United Nations General Assembly, as tourists exult about the primordial spectacle in German, Spanish, French, Japanese, Mandarin, and myriad other languages.
Asian tourism in particular is booming as states such as Wyoming actively promote the parks to people in the Far East. Recent data show that a few years ago 300,000 visas were granted to visitors from mainland China. This year US officials gave out more than 500,000 visas, and the travelers identified Yellowstone and Grand Teton as top destinations. In July, for the first time in history, Yellowstone hired three Mandarin-speaking rangers.
Many conservationists blame the aggressive marketing as one reason for the current crush of visitation. Others see a different kind of problem in the legions of people touring the parks today – a dearth of American minorities. The volume of Asian visitors to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park is now believed to be greater than the total number of nonwhite Americans who visit them.
The lack of diversity among American park travelers is something that particularly distresses David Vela. The superintendent of Grand Teton National Park, who is of Hispanic descent, says he seldom sees “people like me” reflected in the multitude of tourist faces. Even though Jackson Hole, Wyo., the gateway community to Teton, is more than 25 percent Latino, just 2 percent of local Hispanics actively use the park.
Parks Under Pressure.. click to watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GgQ1tCjIWZw
A 26-year veteran of the Park Service, Mr. Vela is the son of working-class parents who grew up in a small southeast Texas farming community. “The concept of national parks was foreign to us. And if we encountered Park Service rangers in uniform we didn’t know what entity they represented,” he says.
Although his parents had never been to a national park, they felt compelled to embark on a trip to Yellowstone and Grand Teton because many other local families were making the pilgrimage. “When we arrived in Grand Teton, I didn’t understand why it was protected and when I discovered the reason, that it was done on behalf of all people, for current and future generations, it was a powerful message,” he says. “Just one visit to a national park was life changing.”
Unfortunately, the idea behind the parks is something that isn’t always communicated effectively. “We have to change the dynamic – how people relate to parks – and to do that we need to start reaching young people early,” says Vela, who often makes visits to elementary schools to tout America’s wilderness areas. He’s cementing the tradition in his own family by teaching his five grandchildren that they have a place in parks.
“I have seen the transformative power of parks through my career,” he says. “After 9/11, Americans returned to their roots. They sought out national parks. Parks provide opportunities in times of great sorrow and despair to reenergize the American spirit and bring people together.”
The parks are also reenergizing regional economies. Visitors to the various units of the park system generate about $32 billion in economic activity each year and are responsible for at least 295,000 jobs, according to the Park Service. For every dollar the federal government spends on national parks, it generates $10 in economic activity.
Yellowstone and Grand Teton alone produce more than $1 billion in regional tourism annually. The recovered populations of grizzly bears and wolves, which help make both parks arguably wilder than they were a century ago, are among the marquee attractions.
Yellowstone’s profile has never been higher. Chris Johns, chief content officer of the National Geographic Society, and Susan Goldberg, editor in chief of the magazine, believe it provides a lens on the meaning of the parks in the 21st century and America’s relationship with nature. The magazine devoted the entire May 2016 issue to the 144-year-old park, and it’s been one of the most widely read issues in the publication’s history.
Yellowstone is a concept that continues to evolve and be shaped by changing human values, says writer David Quammen, who penned the entire issue. The park was once revered for holding a collection of natural curiosities. Now it’s a landscape set apart for its full complement of wildlife, geothermal, and other phenomena that have vanished from most of the rest of the world.
“Yellowstone Park, and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, represent the fullest and richest embodiment of nature within the contiguous 48 states, and therefore the central test case of America’s concern for other creatures and for the ecological processes that sustain them,” Mr. Quam-men says. “This is about more than national parks. It’s about how we as a nation of free citizens, with responsibilities as well as privileges, choose to live on a planet that doesn’t exist just for our convenience.”
It doesn’t matter that Yellowstone, in a way, originated as a means for railroads to drive more passenger traffic to the West. To conservationists, it has morphed into a symbolic statement that total human conquest of nature should not happen.
Michael Finley is the only Park Service veteran to have served as superintendent of three major national parks – Everglades, Yosemite, and Yellowstone. He says parks are about doing what’s right even when politicians say no, as with wolves, which were restored to Yellowstone over opposition from members of the congressional delegations of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho.
“The miracle of Yellowstone is the reintroduction of the wolf and the biological cascade that has occurred by restoring a keystone species, which has benefited a range of other animals,” says Mr. Finley. “The risk to Yellowstone is the same as what I saw in the Everglades. There seems to be an ideological belief that little impacts on the environment don’t adversely affect the park. But as we saw in the Everglades, the ecosystem didn’t become partially disabled by a single swift blow. Similarly, in Yellowstone, it will be the cumulative effects of 1,000 seemingly little assaults upon the ecosystem that will render the real damage to Yellowstone and its surrounding wildlands in the future.”
He acknowledges there are big challenges, too. One is the chronic underfunding of the Park Service. It faces a $12 billion backlog of deferred maintenance – broken fences, bad roads, rickety buildings, damaged trails, deteriorated campsites. In Yellowstone alone, the amount of road reconstruction and building repair needed is estimated to be more than $600 million: Engineers say, at current funding rates, it will take 50 years to get it all done.
Encroaching development remains a constant threat as well. Author Williams says much of the public doesn’t realize that oil and gas firms are currently drilling in a dozen parks and seeking to drill in another 42.
In Big Cypress Natural Preserve in Florida and Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina, controversies swirl over the use of all-terrain vehicles. On the outskirts of Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska, many people want to kill wolves to control their populations, and mining interests have long wanted to gain access to Yellowstone. Nearly every park faces some kind of land-use or wildlife-management issue.
Climate change represents a more subtle and uncertain danger. It is already blamed for melting Glacier National Park’s namesake ancient ice fields. It could eventually affect water flowing through the Grand Canyon and is likely to leave coastal parks, including the Everglades, under rising seas. Ecologists say it will lessen parks’ abilities to sustain healthy wildlife populations, and, in the West, may trigger larger forest fires that transform landscapes.
Yet the crush of visitors remains one of the most pressing issues facing the nation’s premier wilderness areas. Everyone wants people to experience the majesty of the parks, but the question becomes: When does the adoration become too much?
Already, managers at Arches National Park in Utah have closed the park from time to time to control the number of visitors. At nearby Zion National Park, officials have implemented a bus service to alleviate traffic congestion, which has resulted in long lines to catch the shuttles.
“If we’re not past the point of no return in some of our parks, then we’re close to it,” says Jack Turner, a former university philosophy instructor who has worked in the parks for 40 years, mainly as a mountain climbing guide instructor. “Yosemite Village is as crowded as New York City or Calcutta. People who rent bicycles wanting to get out of their cars and not pollute can’t ride them because it’s turned into such a human anthill. It’s appalling what we’re doing to these places that we claim to hold as sacred.”
Few places feel the press of humanity as much as Yellowstone. The summer season here now stretches from May 1 to Oct. 1 – two months longer than it did just 20 years ago. Rangers are often overwhelmed as they deal with the growing catalog of tourist misdeeds. In 2015, Yellowstone staff issued a record 52,036 resource warnings to visitors, for infractions ranging from walking on delicate geothermal features (which can also be dangerous) to getting too close to wildlife. Last winter, superintendent Wenk sent letters to 85 bus tour companies, warning them that their clients are expected to abide by park rules. The missives were inspired in part by reports of some bus drivers pulling over alongside the road, handing passengers rolls of toilet paper, and instructing them to use the woods.
One Canadian tourist recently picked up a bison calf and loaded it into his SUV, bringing it to park rangers because he thought the youngster was cold. It later had to be euthanized after biologists were unable to reunite the buffalo with its herd.
“For a lot of visitors, this is an alien environment because so much of the rest of the country, so much of the rest of the world where they come from, is manicured, manipulated, tamed, and artificial,” says Lee Whittlesey, author of the book “Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park,” which chronicles more than 300 fatalities in the park’s 144-year history. “Their idea of a park is Disneyland.”
All this is one reason Yellowstone recently hired its first social scientist, Ryan Atwell, to start gathering information on the motivations and behavior of people coming to the park. Wenk’s hope is that it will eventually lay the foundation for possible changes in how tourists navigate Yellowstone. Among the options: instituting a reservation system during peak season, deploying more public transportation such as shuttles, and creating zones in the park that have different visitation thresholds.
“We don’t have a wildlife-management problem,” says Wenk, sporting a Smokey Bear hat and whisk-broom mustache. “We have problems and challenges managing people. And the least studied species in Yellowstone is Homo sapiens.”
Indeed, during the summer, Wenk acts as a big-city mayor as much as he does a park superintendent. He has to contend with crime, suicides, drug dealing, poaching, car accidents, and lost visitors. In a one-year span between 2014 and 2015, vehicle accidents with injuries were up 167 percent and emergency transports out of the park jumped 37 percent. In 2014, national parks in general recorded 15 murders, 162 sex offenses, 358 assaults, and 3,000 thefts.
The rising crime has come as park staffing has declined. Internal Park Service figures secured by PEER show that from 2005 through 2014 the number of permanent law enforcement rangers dropped 14 percent. During the same period, seasonal rangers – the workhorses of the agency – fell 27 percent.
This has contributed to a decline in morale at an agency once considered the gold standard among government employees. In one of its recent annual surveys, the Partnership for Public Service ranked the Park Service 259th out of 320 federal agencies as a good place to work. It hasn’t helped that the agency is struggling with a scandal. Environmental activists and members of Congress have criticized the Park Service director, Jon Jarvis, for not doing more to address evidence of sexual harassment at Grand Canyon, Florida’s Canaveral National Seashore, and other parks.
• • •
Still, for all the problems besetting the parks in general and the agency in particular, America’s outdoor cathedrals have proved remarkably resilient – and, across all generations, retain their sacred appeal.
Consider the Brawn family, sitting on the rim of Old Faithful, waiting for another hissing performance from Earth’s most famous blowhole. The two boys tick off what they’ve seen the past few days. They’ve memorized the eruption times of different geysers. They’ve seen grizzlies, black bears, elk, bison, and moose. “I had the best day of my life because I saw my favorite animal – a bald eagle – fishing for trout along the Firehole River,” says young Owen.
Nathan Varley is familiar with that kind of epiphany. The son of Yellowstone’s former science chief, he grew up in the park and has witnessed the reintroduction of wolves and rebound of the grizzly population. He now runs Yellowstone Wolf Tracker, a safari company based in Gardiner, Mont., that takes clients on wildlife tours. He sees how the magic of the park affects people every day. He urges them to let go of the “superficial culture of selfies” and look humbly through a high-powered spotting scope at a pack of wolves and pups at a distance, interacting without regard to people.
“If I can get them to do that, they slow down and it deepens their experience by getting them to live in a moment,” he says. “To me, this is what I want them to take home from Yellowstone.”
It’s the kind of redemptive value of the parks that deepens human experience and, as Williams puts it, says something about America’s national identity.
“Our world expands with the vistas before us,” she says. “Our national parks are places of pause – an ongoing prayer of hope for our better future.”