Symposium I of ESA’s Emerging Issues Conference

This post contributed by Celia Smith, ESA Education Programs Coordinator A high standard was set by the first symposium of the Ecological Society of America’s (ESA) weeklong 2012 Emerging Issues Conference, which kicked off Monday at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Conservation Training Center (NCTC) in Shepherdstown, WV. The first of four sessions, Symposium I:  “Protected Areas: Fostering museums, way stations and endpoints” was held in NCTC’s main auditorium, which brimmed with top representatives from a diversity of fields in ecological research, land management and government. On Monday morning, four invited experts spoke passionately about a variety of approaches to conservation targets under global change, the overarching theme of the conference and the topic that each of the nearly 100 attendees will tackle during intensive working groups on Wednesday and Thursday. Despite the highly varied professional backgrounds and presentation topics of the speakers, it was illuminating to observe the common threads that wove through each talk and evoked connections among different ways of looking at specific conservation problems related to anthropogenic climate change. Concepts that frequently found their way into the dialogue between speaker and audience included uncertainty and connectivity, both in a spatial and temporal sense. The first two speakers dealt with the connectivity of past and present, and how rapid change inevitably forces us to compare historical ecological events and circumstances with current challenges and management options. Richard Hobbs of the University of Western Australia began the conversation with his talk, “Intervention, protection and restoration: Are we guardians or gardeners?”  He suggested that we have entered a new “Anthropocene” era in which humans are largely responsible for decisions affecting the environment. “There are many different futures out there,” Hobbs said. “We don’t have much of a clue as to what the future holds… we have an uncertain past and an increasingly uncertain future.” Hobbs argued that this is not a reason to lose hope; we must simply shift our search for solutions toward a style of management that draws both from standard conservation strategies, such as restoration and invasive species control, and new approaches reflecting the Anthropocene “new world order” that are locally focused, contingent, and anthropocentric. This “gardenification” approach would not altogether abandon the conservation strategies of the past, but adapt them to current and future changes. Hobbs stressed that this will require embracing novel ecosystems and seeing ourselves as part of the natural world rather than separate from it. The theme of historical connectivity to present and future decision-making was also addressed by Stephen Jackson in “Is history ‘just history?’ Uses of the ecological past for global-change risk assessment.” “History suggests some hope,”...

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In Ecology News: Heartland leak, hydrofracking law, and conservation in pictures

By Liza Lester, ESA communications officer A dead pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) on a back road of the Thunder Basin National Grassland in northeastern Wyoming. Coal, oil and gas development in the basin have brought more vehicles, and more conflicts with wildlife. Rob Mutch, 2004. FRESH water scientist (and MacArthur Fellow and member of the National Academy of Sciences) Peter Gleick was all over conservation news last week with the shocking revelation that he impersonated a board member of the libertarian Heartland Institute in a ruse to extract private documents concerning climate change strategy. The documents had been in the news for several days after arriving anonymously in the inboxes of environmental reporters and bloggers, with Heartland stating that the documents were fake and obtained fraudulently, and threatening bloggers with legal action for publicly posting them in connection with Heartland. The documents revealed the identities of anonymous Heartland supporters and included a memo outlining plans to develop materials for teaching climate change skepticism in schools. Gleick confessed in his Huffington Post column on Monday night, writing that he sought to confirm the provenance of documents that he had received anonymously. He asserted that he had not altered any of the documents that he got from Heartland. But Megan McArdle of The Atlantic has echoed bloggers’ suspicions about the credibility of the memo. Gleick has taken a leave of absence from the presidency of the Pacific Institute, which he co-founded in 1987, and resigned from the American Geophysical Union’s task force on science ethics. Institutions are hurrying to dissociate themselves from him, and the damage is widespread. Gleick has been a major figure in science policy. Public trust in scientists and scientific institutions requires unblemished reputations, conservation columnist Andy Revkin pointed out, in grief and in anger, in his New York Times Dot Earth blog last week. Talk show hosts and anonymous hackers can pull shenanigans without damage to their message, but scientists cannot, as was amply demonstrated by the 2009 theft of private emails and files from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. Joyce, Christopher. “Climate Scientist Admits To Lying, Leaking Documents.” All Things Considered from NPR, 22 February 2012. McArdle, Megan. “The Most Surprising Heartland Fact: Not the Leaks, but the Leaker.” The Atlantic. 22 Feb 2012, 11:58 AM ET Revkin, Andrew. “More on Peter Gleick and the Heartland Files”. NYTimes Dot Earth blog, 22 February 2012, 12:42 pm. Gleick, Peter. “The Origin of the Heartland Documents.” The Huffington Post. Posted: 02/20/2012 7:45 pm. Justice Phillip R. Rumsey of the New York State Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that state municipalities may ban oil and gas...

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ESA Policy News: President’s FY 2013 Budget Special Edition

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here. WHITE HOUSE: FY 2013 BUDGET PRIORITIZES INNOVATION AMIDST FISCAL AUSTERITY On Feb. 13, President Obama released his budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2013, which begins Oct. 1, 2012. While the $3.8 trillion budget continues the president’s focus on fiscal discipline with significant cuts to environmental initiatives, it also contains a wish list of proposed boosts for science and research programs intended to foster job creation. In his message to Congress, the president maintained that investment in innovation is needed to help the economy recover.  Revenue provisions of the proposed budget that would pay for increased funding by ending certain tax breaks for oil companies raising taxes on wealthy individuals are expected to be blocked by Congressional Republicans. The budget highlights investments in clean energy as well as research and development (R&D) increases for most agencies. Overall, the president’s budget proposes $140.8 billion for federal R&D, an increase of $2 billion (or 1.2 percent) over the current FY 2012 enacted level. The budget also proposes $3 billion for Science Technology Education and Mathematics programs across federal agencies, a 2.6 percent increase over FY 2012 enacted levels. Additional information on the president’s FY 2013 budget request can be found here. SCIENCE: ADMINISTRATION INCREASES SUPPORT FOR NSF, RELATED PROGRAMS The National Science Foundation (NSF) is the only federal agency that provides funding for basic research across all fields of science and engineering.   Accordingly, the president’s FY 2013 budget request includes $7.4 billion for NSF, a 4.8 percent increase over the current enacted level for FY 2012. This includes a request for $5.98 billion for Research and Related Activities, an increase from $5.69 billion in FY 2012. NSF funding currently supports research at 1,875 colleges, universities and institutions and supports the research of an estimated 276,000 people. The Directorate for Biological Sciences would receive $733.86 million dollars in FY 2013 under the president’s budget, an increase from $712.38 million in FY 2012. This includes $220.52 million for Integrative Organismal Systems (3.9 percent increase), $143.73 million for Environmental Biology (0.8 percent increase) and $129.68 million (2.8 percent increase) for Biological Infrastructure. ENVIRONMENT: KEY CONSERVATION AGENCIES SEE MIX OF INVESTMENTS, CUTS Overall, President Obama’s FY 2013 budget request seeks to balance continued investment in natural resource conservation efforts with a political climate that continues to prioritize fiscal restraint. EPA The president’s proposed FY 2013 budget recommends $8.3 billion for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a decrease of $105 million (1.2 percent) compared with FY 2012. The decrease marks the third consecutive year in which the administration...

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What’s in a name? Proposed reinterpretation of key words in the Endangered Species Act

This post contributed by Sean Hoban, a post-doc in conservation biology at the University of Ferrara, Italy   How important can five words be?  Very! The 1973 Endangered Species Act states that a species may be regarded as endangered if “threatened with extinction […] throughout all or a significant portion of its range” (my underline, hereafter, SPR).  Remarkably, neither the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) nor National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has had an official policy on the meaning of this phrase for the thirty-nine year history of the Act.  Enter proposal FWS–R9–ES–2011–003 (summarized here), which spells out the Services’ soon-to-be official interpretation of the seemingly innocuous phrase, specifically defining the words “significant” and “range.” As a conservation biologist working for effective species survival, I would like to share my impressions of the proposal, and encourage all to participate in the public comment, extended until March 7.  How these five words are interpreted will have lasting consequences for species’ listing and subsequent recovery plans and management actions. After an insightful review of past legislative battles over SPR, the proposal gets down to business on page 5, stating that a definition of “significant” should include (a) the variable to measure and (b) a threshold for that variable.  Further, a) and b) should be based on biological and conservation criteria. We would probably all agree here!  But read on, controversy awaits. As explained on page 8, in the preamble to the proposal, a portion of a species’ range may be “significant” with respect to a species’ resiliency (ability to recover), redundancy (multiple, distributed “backups”), and/or representation (range of variation).  Also important are “abundance, spatial distribution, productivity, and diversity of the species.” However, these key variables are lacking in the actual proposed interpretation (page 16/17); the actual definition of a SPR is very succinct: “without that portion, the species would be in danger of extinction. If so, the portion is significant.” It is therefore arguable whether the new phrasing improves specificity; this wording seems as open to interpretation and debate as ever.  Further, as noted in several ongoing dialogues on Ecolog-l, and summarized in an open letter by the Center for Biological Diversity, this could “result in species that are severely endangered in portions of their range being denied protection because they are secure in some portion of their range even if that portion is just a fraction.”  Specific examples are argued in recent news articles and blogs.  These commentaries question whether (in the proposal’s words) “the draft policy would result in the Services listing and protecting throughout their ranges species that previously we either would not have listed, or would...

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Beneath the waves film festival–call for submissions!

This post contributed by Liza Lester, ESA communications officer. Four years ago, graduate student Austin Gallagher took a video camera into the tropical waters around Mo’orea, about 17 km northwest of Tahiti in French Polynesia. With his first post to YouTube, he was hooked. Filmmaking supplied an instant gratification quotient to balance the years of patient, slow research required to turn scientific inspiration into scientific publications. It also reached an audience that doesn’t usually dive into the technical depths of scientific papers. Gallagher wanted to show people the beauty, as well as the science, of his ecological subjects, and share some of the every-day experiences of research. “It’s a way to connect with people,” he said. What I want to do is show other researchers that filmmaking isn’t that hard to do. It should be one of our tools.” Now a PhD student in conservation ecology at the University of Miami, Gallagher is still filming, and urging other divers, scientists, conservationists, and policy wonks—all the aquatic stakeholders—to take up a camera and show off the underwater world at his third annual Beneath the Waves Film Festival, screening at the Benthic Ecology Meeting in Norfolk, Virginia on March 21-24. Previous festivals have drawn audiences of 300-500 locals and conference-goers, and featured the rap stylings of young ecologists alongside professional animation and endearingly untutored footage of divers at work. Gallagher encourages novices to jump in. “Get your hands on some equipment. It doesn’t matter how good the equipment is, because you’re still going to be able to record something. The tool doesn’t make the filmmaker. It’s how you tell your story.” Gallagher recommends that new filmmakers let their own identity spill into the narrative, and use the specialized knowledge behind the lens to woo viewers. “Some of my favorite submissions have been from scientists out in the field, filming on their iPhones, for all I know,” he said. “Try to convey who you are.” Underwater footage is not required, but the film should tell a story or impart a message. Focused brevity is key. “People have really short attention spans. You should be able to get your message across in five minutes. Keep it short, sweet, and potent.” Gallagher studies sharks, and admits to a bit of a shark-bias on the festival website, but the film series welcomes aquatic themes of all persuasions in all narrative forms. He wishes he could include everyone who applies, but since space and time and limited, a panel will select films for the March lineup. Submit your creations by February 24th to be considered for the 2012 Festival. Image credit: Austin...

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AAAS exhibition captures an undersea world worth conserving

This post contributed by Liza Lester, ESA communications officer “A composer, an artist, a physicist and a philosopher walk into a bar,” said artist Rachel Simmons, introducing her work to a crowd at the opening of Beneath the Surface: Rediscovering a World Worth Conserving at the American Association for the Advancement of Science on November 17th. What emerges is a curious combination of sound and graphics interpreting the underwater experience of our noisy marine activities for terrestrial human perception. Noise is a problem for whales that communicate by sound. Simmons teaches at Rollins College near Orlando, and regularly draws on her scientific colleagues for collaboration and inspiration. Describing the construction of her ceramic coral reef Courtney Mattison said that the corals’ chalky exoskeleton and her artistic medium share base materials—and fragility. Her art is also heavy. Though most of her clay corals are hollow, the wall in the AAAS lobby had to be reinforced to support the weight of the installation. Above the artist’s head, bone whites and pale grays replace the vibrant glazes, illustrating the “bleaching” of stressed corals that have evicted their photosynthesizing algal cohabitants. Corals are vastly disadvantaged by the loss, usually triggered by changes in water temperature, of their symbionts. The exhibition features seven artists and ranges from descriptive nature photography to overt criticism of modern culture and its discarded byproducts, with Simmons’ and Mattison’s work somewhere in between. “Fortunately for me, I don’t have to come to conclusions. I just have to ask questions,” said Simmons. “It’s the scientists’ job to make conclusions.” But it’s the public’s job to decide how to use the information, the exhibit’s curators would seem to reply. Beneath the Surface is on display, and open to the public, at AAAS headquarters in Washington DC until March 2nd.   Listen to the art at Simmons’...

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ESA Policy News: November 4

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston. Read the full Policy News here. APPROPRIATIONS: SENATE PASSES ‘MINI-BUS’ FUNDING NSF, NOAA On Nov. 1, the Senate passed a mini omnibus (“minibus”) measure that incorporated three individual appropriations bills: Commerce Justice and Science, Transportation Housing and Urban Development as well as the Agriculture Rural Development Food and Drug Administration appropriations for Fiscal Year (FY) 2012. The minibus bill (H.R. 2112) passed with bipartisan support by a vote of 69-30. Sixteen Republicans joined all Democrats and Independents in supporting the measure. Funding levels are largely unchanged from the measures approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee two months ago. The bill includes $6.7 million for the National Science Foundation, a reduction of $162 million from FY 2011. For the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, the bill includes $5 billion, a $434 million increase from FY 2011. The Senate measure increases investment in NOAA research initiatives, including $161.5 million for the agency’s climate service. The House bill prohibits funding for the climate service. For the Agricultural Research Service, the FY 2012 bill provides $1.09 billion, down from $1.133 billion in FY 2011.  The bill provides $709.8 million for research and education activities within the National Institute on Food and Agriculture, up from $698.7 million in FY 2011. The Natural Resources Conservation Service would receive $828 million for FY 2012, down from $871 million in FY 2011. For more information on the science-related components of the appropriations measure, see the Sept. 23 edition of ESA Policy News or see the  Sept. 9 edition of ESA Policy News for more information on the agricultural research components of the measure. OCEANS: ADMINISTRATION OFFICIALS DEFEND NATIONAL OCEANS POLICY On Oct. 26, the House Natural Resources Committee convened a hearing on the Obama administration’s National Ocean Policy. While this was the second hearing by the committee to examine the policy, it was the first to feature testimony from key senior officials from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Council of Environmental Quality (CEQ). House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-WA) said the plan  places restrictions on ocean and coastal inland activities. “I have asked the administration for the specific statutory authority that allows the president, by executive order, to create regional planning bodies and require them to create regional zoning plans. So far, I have been given only a hodge-podge list of all the statutes that apply to ocean and/or coastal activities,” he said. Hastings cited the policy as a “huge new bureaucracy” that could “cost jobs and have devastating long-term economic impacts throughout the country.” Chairman Hastings asserted that...

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‘Threatened’ no more: the Lake Erie watersnake’s road to recovery

This month, the Lake Erie watersnake (Nerodia sipedon insularum) was finally removed from the list of organisms protected under the Endangered Species Act. The achievement is a win for both the species and the ecosystem in which it plays a vital role. With one of the smallest geographic ranges of any vertebrate in the world, this subspecies of snake is only found on the islands of Lake Erie, located in east-central North America. Primarily active between early May and October, depending on temperatures and weather conditions, these non-venomous reptiles spend the warmer months dwelling around the cliffs and rocky shorelines of the lake’s limestone islands. During winters, the snakes hibernate underground. Unlike other Nerodia subspecies, whose coloration varies, the Lake Erie watersnakes have a uniform gray coloring and grow from 1.5- to 3.5-feet long. At the time of its initial listing, the species was threatened by intentional killing and loss of its natural habitat to shoreline development. However, roughly 300 acres of surrounding habitat and 11 miles of shoreline have been protected for the snake since it was first listed as “threatened” on August 30, 1999. Shortly after its listing, the federal government began intensive monitoring efforts of the species, including public outreach programs to promote awareness of the snake and provide information on its important role in the local ecosystem. In September 2003, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) finalized a recovery plan that called for protecting its remaining habitat and providing further outreach to reduce threats to the species. In cooperation with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) and other partners, biologists also worked to minimize threats to the snake through implementing conservation efforts. Recovery criteria include a combined population of at least 5,555 snakes, sustained for six years, and protection of key habitat. Through this successful collaboration between government and the local community, the Lake Erie watersnake population grew to about 11,980 in 2009, and has exceeded the minimum recovery level since 2002. FWS first declared its intention to delist the snake in June 2010. The perpetuation of the species has been critical to the Lake Erie region. During the 1990s, the round goby – an aggressive invasive fish that out-competes native fishes for food, shelter, and nesting sites – established itself in the Great Lakes and caused substantial declines of many native fish populations. These gobies have also been found to carry 25 species of parasites. The predatory Lake Erie watersnakes have helped maintain balance in the ecosystem by keeping the population of invasive gobies in check. Today, 90 percent of the watersnake’s diet is round goby, with the remainder composed of mudpuppies...

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