February highlights from Ecological Society of America publications

Future of Alaskan forests, proliferation of plastic greenhouses, and the intersection of watershed protection and urban renewal

 

Weighing the costs and benefits of plastic vegetable greenhouses

Teklanika Hills, Denali National Park & Preserve

Broadleaf trees and tamarack burn gold with fall color against the ever-green of conifers in the northeast corner of Denali National Park & Preserve. The low (relative to the core of the Alaska Range, which includes Denali, the highest mountain in North America) Teklanika Hills loom in the background. In the foreground, the Teklanika River flows northeastward into the Tanana River drainage, a major tributary of the mighty Yukon River. Credit, Tim Rains, Denali National Park and Preserve, 2011.

The economic benefits of intensive vegetable cultivation inside plastic greenhouses, particularly for small-holders, have driven a rapid mushrooming of long plastic tents in farmlands worldwide – but particularly in China, where they cover 3.3 million hectares and produce approximately US $60 million in produce (2008 figures). The method conserves water, binds up carbon, shrinks land use, protects against soil erosion and exhaustion, and mitigates problematic dust storms. But this change from conventional vegetable farming has harmful environmental effects as well. Chang et al review the current research and identify gaps in our knowledge in the February issue of ESA’s journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. Learn more on ESA’s blog, EcoTone.


Ten-year study sets baseline for climate change modeling and park and forestry management in Interior Alaska’s Denali National Park

Alaska is already feeling the consequences of a changing climate in melting permafrost, coastal erosion, and retreating sea ice. Recent studies have predicted major landscape-scale change for the future of the Alaskan interior, with a potential shift from spruce-dominated boreal forest to broadleaf forest or grasslands, through a combination of heat, drought, insect outbreaks, and more frequent wildfires. This month in ESA’s journal Ecological Monographs, the National Park Service’s Inventory and Monitoring program reports on the first decade of ongoing ecosystem monitoring in Denali National Park. Carl Roland and colleagues visited 1100 study plots yearly, distributed over 4.5 million-acres of the park, often hiking into remote locations, scrambling rocky slopes and wading mountain ponds to reach randomized plots and acquire data on patterns of tree species distribution across the rather large terrain variation in Denali. They predict that the iconic white spruce may expand higher up mountain slopes and into thawing tundra.

This paper will be featured in an interview with Carl Roland on ESA’s podcast Field Talk, coming in early March. Read more about the science of Denali’s changing landscape on the NPS Alaska Regional Office website.


Integrating urban renewal and watershed restoration

When you bring neighbors outdoors to work on a shared community problem, the project brings people together. It creates, as sociologists like to say, “social cohesion.” People see that they have power over their environment – that, as a group, they can influence access to city services. Like many older cities, Baltimore is coping with an aging sanitary sewer system. Ecologists, city planners, and social organizers saw an opportunity to simultaneously revitalize urban neighborhoods and urban watersheds by expanding green spaces. Investments in private yards and public parks and school yards could, they thought, diminish nitrogen and phosphorous runoff to Chesapeake Bay, improve storm-water management, and bolster quality of life in underserved, and economically disadvantaged city neighborhoods.

Watershed 263 is a partnership of Baltimore’s Parks & People Foundation, the Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies, the USDA Forest Service, Baltimore’s municipal Department of Public Works, and neighborhood volunteers. A paper out this month in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment details the 930 acre test case, spread over 11 densely urban neighborhoods of west and southwest Baltimore. The authors describe both difficulties (litter, resistance to native plants, unexpectedly complicated hydrology) and successes (notable reduction in phosphorus and nitrogen contamination, better school performance, more residents reporting outside activities). Read more about Baltimore’s Watershed 263 experiment in socioecology at ESA’s blog, EcoTone.


Other titles of interest:

Ecological knowledge reduces religious release of invasive species. Xuan Liu, Monica E. McGarrity, Changming Bai, Zunwei Ke, and Yiming Li. Ecosphere February 14, 2013 4:2, art21 (open access).

Water, climate, and social change in a fragile landscapeSpecial Feature on Sustainability on the U.S./Mexico Border. W. L. Hargrove, D. M. Borrok, J. M. Heyman, C. W. Tweedie,C. Ferregut. Ecosphere February 18, 2013 4:2, art22 (open access).

Where do Seeds go when they go Far? Distance and Directionality of Avian Seed Dispersal in Heterogeneous Landscapes. Tomas A. Carlo, Daniel García, Daniel Martínez, Jason M. Gleditsch, and Juan Manuel Morales. Ecology 2013 92:2, 301-307.


Journalists and public information officers can gain access to full texts of all ESA publications by contacting the public affairs office. Email Liza Lester, llester@esa.org.

 

The Ecological Society of America is the world’s largest community of professional ecologists and a trusted source of ecological knowledge. ESA is committed to advancing the understanding of life on Earth. The 10,000 member Society publishes five journals, convenes an annual scientific conference, and broadly shares ecological information through policy and media outreach and education initiatives. Visit the ESA website at http://www.esa.org.

To subscribe to ESA press releases, contact Liza Lester at llester@esa.org.

Conservation scientists look beyond greenbelts to connect wildlife sanctuaries

Landscape corridors and connectivity in conservation and restoration planning

 

A wildlife overpass on the Trans-Canada Highway, Banff National Park. Credit: Adam Ford

A wildlife overpass on the Trans-Canada Highway helps wildlife and vehicles avoid lethal connections in Banff National Park, British Columbia. The Park is a leader in highway mitigation, part of a 30-year-old initiative that has installed 44 crossing structures. Credit: Adam Ford, Highwaywilding.org.

We live in a human-dominated world. For many of our fellow creatures, this means a fragmented world, as human conduits to friends, family, and resources sever corridors that link the natural world. Our expanding web of highways, cities, and intensive agriculture traps many animals and plants in islands and cul-de-sacs of habitat, held back by barriers of geography or architecture from reaching mates, food, and wider resources.

A team of researchers, managers, and ecological risk assessors review the current state-of-the-art in landscape connectivity planning, offering models, case studies, and advice for coping with the uncertainty inherent in dynamic, real-world conditions in the Ecological Society of America’s 16th volume of Issues in Ecology.

Connectivity doesn’t always mean corridors

“The shortest path is not always the best path,” said author Sadie Ryan, an ecologist at the State University of New York in Syracuse. “Connectivity is not always just a straight line of greenway that you can identify from an airplane.”

Connections can be conduits, or more complex extensions of habitat, looking more like a web than a greenbelt. Coastal inhabitants need the depth of the reach of tides as well as the horizontal reach of coastline habitat. Birds may be able to hop from preserve to pea-patch to backyard oasis, depending on their range and flexibility.

The need to move is most obvious for migratory animals and the large animals that need big tracts of territory. Most of us are aware of large and charismatic animals like deer, bear, or coyotes. But plants, and smaller, less itinerant animals, also benefit from connections to wider spaces.

 “Landscape connectivity is as diverse as the animals that live in it,” said lead author Deborah Rudnick, an environmental scientist with Integral Consulting Inc, in Seattle, WA.

On the ground, managers need to address the biology of their focal species, understanding behavior, genetics, adaptation, and habitat. They have to scale up observational and experimental data to predict interactions with other wildlife and physical features of the landscape, layering on the possibility of climate changing, waterways shifting, and human life encroaching.

“It’s a massive amount of info to keep in your head simultaneously. I want people to step away from this review with a sense of that complexity,” said Rudnick.

Connectivity models can be combined with least-cost or circuit theory economic models to help conservators make decisions about investment in land acquisition. From figure 5 of the report. Credit: Ecological Society of America.

Connectivity models can be combined with least-cost or circuit theory economic models to help conservators make decisions about investment in land acquisition. From figure 5 of the report. Credit: Ecological Society of America.

No perfect solutions

Opening corridors can sometimes aid the flow of invasive species and disease, as well as the species at the heart of conservation planning. All management plans involve trade-offs—whether that means obtaining the best versus the most available land, or favoring a single endangered species at the possible expense of others in its ecological community.

Some planners prefer to focus on preserving ecosystem services, rather than specific species, in an effort to preserve an ecological community more holistically. But there is no perfect solution. Unpredictable future conditions are unavoidable complications to conservation efforts, and climate change in particular could throw a ringer into the best laid plans.

“We are no longer living in a world where we can preserve perfect habitat,” said Ryan.

Climate change means wildlife will move—unpredictably

Climate change, and wildlife’s response to climate change, is not a linear process. We can’t expect all species simply to move to colder climes, nor expect ecological communities to move as complete units, said Ryan and Rudnick. Species have independent capacities to adapt and move, decoupled from the ecological relationships of predator to prey, pollinator to flower, or grazer to ground cover.

“We’re seeing species moving to new territory independently, remixing existing communities and shaking conservation definitions,” said Rudnick. “What do we mean by quote-un-quote conserving a community? What does it mean in the face of climate change? You cannot expect a community to stay in the place that it was in the face of major changes in their environmental conditions.”

Our models, and management, must adapt to conditions changing in real time. Flexibility is not generally a virtue of government regulations. The timescale of legal decision-making is generally much shorter than we would want in order to provide communities, both ecological and anthropological, time to adjust.

Achieving connections for wildlife requires forging connections with people

Mule deer approach an overpass at 10 Mile Summit on U.S. Highway 93 in Nevada. Fences line the highway to discourage deer from attempting to cross through traffic. Credit: Nova Simpson, the University of Nevada, Reno.

Mule deer approach an overpass at 10 Mile Summit on U.S. Highway 93 in Nevada. Fences line the highway to discourage deer from attempting to cross through traffic. Credit: Nova Simpson, the University of Nevada, Reno.

Corridors and connections are often in the spaces between preserves, the mixed use spaces occupied by human communities. Bridging barriers for wildlife means bridging the needs of the people living in that landscape. It means working with communities to find solutions that are practical, and possible, said the authors, not just from the perspective of science, but also residents, farmers, and industry.

A first step is finding a common language. Ryan saids she doesn’t talk about ‘ecosystem services’ in rural Uganda. Those aren’t Rutooro words. “We ask, “Is the park beneficial to you?”” and locals might say, “It keeps the rain.” They perceive benefit from the park, but don’t describe it like a scientist. The same is true of English-speaking communities.

You build your models, said Rudnick. “Then you try to put them in the real world. Community needs—that is, human community needs—add a whole layer of complexity to real life implementation.”

Title

 “The role of landscape connectivity in planning and implementing conservation and restoration priorities.” Issues in Ecology 16, Fall 2012.

Deborah A Rudnick, Sadie J Ryan, Paul Beier, Samuel A Cushman, Fred Dieffenbach, Clinton W Epps, Leah R Gerber, Joel Hartter, Jeff S Jenness, Julia Kintsch, Adina M Merenlender, Ryan M Perkl, Damian V Preziosi, and Stephen C. Trombulak.

 

This supplement is available as a free download from the Ecological Society of America’s website.

 

Image captions and credits

  • A wildlife overpass on the Trans-Canada Highway helps wildlife and vehicles avoid lethal connections in Banff National Park, British Columbia. The Park is a leader in highway mitigation, part of a 30-year-old initiative that has installed 44 crossing structures. Credit: Adam Ford, Highwaywilding.org.
  • Connectivity models can be combined with least-cost or circuit theory economic models to help conservators make decisions about investment in land acquisition. From figure 5 of the report. Credit: Ecological Society of America.
  • Mule deer approach an overpass at 10 Mile Summit on U.S. Highway 93 in Nevada. Fences line the highway to discourage deer from attempting to cross through traffic. Credit: Nova Simpson, the University of Nevada, Reno.

Author contacts

Deborah Rudnick

  • Integral Consulting Inc., Seattle, WA.
  • drudnick@integral-corp.com
  • (206) 957-0345

Sadie Ryan

  • State University of New York Environmental and Forestry Biology, Syracuse, NY.
  • sjryan@esf.edu
  • (315) 470-6757

Outside contact on landscape connectivity

Nick Haddad

  • North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC.
  • (919) 515-4588
  • Nick_haddad@ncsu.edu

 

Supplementary links– selected connectivity projects


Journalists and public information officers can gain access to full texts of all ESA publications by contacting the public affairs office. Email Liza Lester, llester@esa.org.

The Ecological Society of America is the world’s largest professional organization of ecologists, representing 10,000 scientists in the United States and around the globe. Since its founding in 1915, ESA has promoted the responsible application of ecological principles to the solution of environmental problems through ESA reports, journals, research, and expert testimony to Congress. ESA publishes five journals and convenes an annual scientific conference. Visit the ESA website at http://www.esa.org or find experts in ecological science at http://www.esa.org/pao/rrt/.

To subscribe to ESA press releases, contact Liza Lester at llester@esa.org.