Reviving extinct genetic diversity #Resurrection Ecology

Is it time to define a new field? By Nadine Lymn, ESA public affairs director This is the first in a series of EcoTone posts on a recent TEDxDeExtinction event. You can watch the presentations, hosted by the National Geographic Society, here.  The talks will be edited and posted to YouTube in a few weeks.  NGS showcases de-extinction in the lead story of its April issue here.  “Maybe it’s time to coin a new term,” said Stanley Temple, a long-time conservation biologist who played key roles in preventing species such as the Peregrine Falcon and Whooping Crane from going extinct.  We were already well into the ‘Why & Why Not’ portion of TEDxDeExtinction on Friday, March 15, and it was clear that Temple, the man who occupied Aldo Leopold’s chair at the University of Wisconsin for 32 years, has deep reservations about reversing extinction through genetic engineering.  But he also clearly believes that conservation biologists need to be part of developments as the quest to revive extinct species inevitably moves forward.  Thus: “Resurrection Ecology.” Update [3/21/13, 4 PM] Temple told me he misspoke and meant to say “Resurrection BIOLOGY” since resurrection ecology has been applied to a different topic–limnologists who dredge up eggs from lake sediment to reconstruct past community structure. After listening to 6 hours of TEDxDeExtinction presentations last Friday, my head was spinning with gripping stories of charismatic and extinct species such as the Thylacine (a meat-eating marsupial—its name means dog-headed, pouched one), the biological, ethical and political dilemmas of “bringing back” species, and descriptions of the genetic techniques underway to make this is a reality. Several themes threaded throughout the event.  Here are two of them that are closely intertwined: 1. A strong concern that revival of extinct species could make current efforts to save endangered species even harder, and 2. The potential for gene technology to help save today’s endangered species. To the first theme: “We’ve got our hands full” trying to save what’s still here now, said Stanley Temple. Temple, a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, is worried that de-extinction efforts could destabilize already difficult conservation efforts. We already have a tendency to rely on technological “fixes”, he said. If extinction isn’t forever, then the attitude could become, ‘let it go extinct, we can always bring it back later.’ But are too many of us already either unconcerned or feeling helpless about the many species slipping into extinction?  Would revival of extinct species give a green light to a more cavalier attitude towards loss of species? Rutgers University biology professor David Ehrenfeld wants people to consider this: While some are talking about...

Read More

ESA Policy News: June 8

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here. APPROPRIATIONS: HOUSE PASSES ENERGY AND WATER SPENDING BILL  On June 6, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 5325, the Energy and Water Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year (FY) 2013. The bill funds the Department of Energy, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Department of Interior water programs for the fiscal year (FY) 2013. It passed by a vote of 255-165 with 48 Democrats joining all but 29 Republicans in supporting the bill. In total, the bill funds the aforementioned federal agencies at $32 billion, an overall increase of $87.5 million in spending over the current fiscal year. The Obama administration, however, has pledged to veto the bill as it is part of an overall Republican budget effort to decrease spending by $19 billion for FY 2013. The administration reasons that the increase in this bill as well as a recently approved veterans’ appropriations bill, will lead to funding cuts for other appropriations bills that have not yet been taken up, which include Interior, Commerce Justice and Science, Transportation Housing and Urban Development and Labor Health Human Services and Education. For information on specific programmatic funding levels in the House and Senate Energy and Water bills, see the May 4 edition of ESA Policy News. For additional details on the House-passed bill, click here. View the Obama administration statement of administration policy on H.R. 5325 here. AIR POLLUTION: SUBCOMMITTEE EXAMINES EPA’S COST BENEFIT ANALYSIS TECHNIQUES On June 6, the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Energy and Environment convened for a hearing entitled “EPA’s Impact on Jobs and Energy Affordability: Understanding the Real Costs and Benefits of Environmental Regulations.” The hearing sought to weigh the costs and benefits of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations. In his opening statement, Energy and Environment Subcommittee Chairman Andy Harris (R-MD) questioned EPA’s methods. “Our witnesses today will describe a pattern of scientific and economic practices at EPA and OIRA that inflates health-based regulatory benefits, overlooks actual economic, energy affordability, and jobs impacts, and fails to reflect uncertainty in communicating risks.  All too often, major EPA regulations have been underpinned by secret science, hidden data, and black box models,” he stated. “More and more of these regulations are almost exclusively justified on the basis of incidental “co-benefits” from particulate matter reductions, raising the specter of double-counting, and private benefits on the assumption that all regulated entities are acting irrationally and against their economic self-interest and that EPA knows what is best for their bottom line.” Democrats criticized the format of the hearing, in which...

Read More

The American alligator and its importance to the Florida Everglades

This post contributed by Terence Houston, ESA Science Policy Analyst Critics of the Endangered Species Act have sought to brand it as unsuccessful saying that only one percent of species listed have fully recovered and been delisted since it was first enacted. In response, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) released a report entitled “On Time, On Target: How the Endangered Species Act Is Saving America’s Wildlife,” documenting the successful recovery of federally protected species. The study notes that, on average, it takes species several decades from their initial listing to fully recover. The CBD report concludes that 90 percent of species currently listed under the Endangered Species Act are on track to meet recovery goals set by federal scientists. A noteworthy success story among the “one percent” is the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis). The American alligator was first listed as endangered in 1967, due to poorly regulated hunting and habitat loss. It was among the landmark “Class of ’67,” the first class of 78 species to warrant federal protection under the precursor to the existing endangered species law. Delisting of the alligator species began in 1975 in certain parts of Louisiana and it was delisted throughout the remainder of the South by 1987. Among the last remnants from the age of the dinosaurs, this reptile is the central focus of study for Adam Rosenblatt, one of this year’s three Ecological Society of America (ESA) Graduate Student Policy Award winners. Adam Rosenblatt discusses his research on the American alligator and its importance to the Florida Everglades in a recent edition of The Ecologist Goes to Washington podcast. Rosenblatt, a Ph.D. student at Florida International University, has been researching this animal through the Florida Coastal Everglades Long Term Ecological Research Program, which is part of the Long Term Ecological Research Network, established by the National Science Foundation in 1980. As the top predator of the Everglades, says Rosenblatt, alligators have a large impact on the ecosystem through their interactions with and consumption of other animals. He notes that in addition to its importance to recreation and tourism, the Everglades are the primary drinking source for South Floridians. Perhaps the greatest contribution the alligator makes to the ecosystem and its inhabitants are ‘gator holes’ that adults create and expand year by year. These submerged depressions tend to stay full of water throughout the dry season and even extended droughts, providing critical sustenance for fish, insects, snakes, turtles, birds and other wildlife that inhabits the ecosystem. Thus, sustaining the prevalence of the wild American Alligator population is critical for sustaining the Florida Everglades and all the life, humans included, that depend on...

Read More

Fed seeks to inspire community-driven conservation

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) recently announced that it is seeking public input on a proposal to expand incentives for farmers, ranchers and other private landowners to help conserve wildlife. The proposal is part of the agency’s effort to seek innovative ways to improve implementation of the Endangered Species Act. The FWS request for public comment includes solicitation of ideas on how to make existing conservation collaboration tools more effective, such as Habitat Conservation Plans, Safe Harbor Agreements, and Candidate Conservation Agreements. The agency’s effort is intended to lead towards consensus approaches and towards encouraging conservation practices by landowners that help preserve species that are candidates for federal protection. One potential proposal before FWS includes the establishment of conservation “banks” for at-risk species. The conservation banks would sell credits that allow landowners to offset the impact of their activities on at-risk species as well as buy credits that reward landowners for making habitat improvements. Also under consideration is the development of a new agreement to provide landowners with assurances that conservation actions taken to benefit species prior to listing could be used to offset the adverse effects of activities carried out later, in the event the species is listed. FWS is also working on a similar effort with the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service entitled the Working Lands for Wildlife initiative. The collaboration offers financial and technical assistance to farmers, ranchers and forest landowners to restore and protect the habitats for seven at-risk species across the nation, including the  greater sage-grouse, New England cottontail, bog turtle, golden-winged warbler, gopher tortoise, lesser prairie-chicken and the Southwestern willow flycatcher. Interested producers can enroll in the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program on a continuous basis at their local NRCS field office. Public comments on the Endangered Species Act reform proposal are due May 14, 2012 and can be submitted using the following methods: Federal eRulemaking Portal: http://www.regulations.gov. Follow the instructions for submitting comments to Docket No. [FWS–R9–ES–2011–0099]; or U.S. mail or hand-delivery: Public Comments Processing, Attn: [FWS–R9–ES–2011–0099]; Division of Policy and Directives Management; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; 4401 N. Fairfax Drive, MS 2042–PDM; Arlington, VA 22203. Photo Credit:...

Read More

Great Lakes gray wolves delisted, federal monitoring efforts continue

The United State Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) recent decision to remove the gray wolf from protection under the Endangered Species Act in the Great Lakes states of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan has been met with a wide array of praise from policymakers and conservationists alike, including Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Aside from some concerns about species classification of the population, the move has been met with substantially less criticism than the unconventional legislative action that mandated the delisting of gray wolves in areas of the Northern Rockies. The gray wolf was first granted federal protection after enactment of the Endangered Species Act of 1973. In 1978, the Minnesota population of gray wolves was re-classified as “threatened” under the Act while gray wolves throughout the remainder of the continental United States were listed as “endangered.” The law afforded the wolves protection from unregulated killing and resulted in increased scientific research on wolves as well as education efforts that increased public understanding of the animals. At the time of the Act’s enactment, there were only a few hundred wolves in Minnesota and a small number on Isle Royal, Michigan. Since that time, the Minnesota populations have expanded into new packs that migrated into Wisconsin and the upper peninsula of Michigan. Combined, there are now over 4,000 wolves in the three states. Each of these states has designated federally approved population minimums for its wolves. According to the FWS, Minnesota’s management plan would allow the state’s population to drop from nearly 3,000 to as low as 1,600 wolves. In Wisconsin, where there are an estimated 782 wolves, the minimum population management goal is 350 in areas outside of American Indian reservations. Michigan has set a minimum of 200 wolves from its current population of 687. This new designation does not have any effect on the current federal status of wolf populations outside the Great Lakes’ “distinct population segment.” But what’s to prevent these wolves from being hunted and killed to the point where they have to be reinstated as threatened under the Endangered Species Act? The FWS has published a monitoring plan to track wolf populations in the Great Lakes area. In collaboration with a number of other U.S. federal agencies, including the Forest Service, Geological Survey, and Park Service, the FWS will continue to monitor wolf populations in the Great Lake states for a minimum of five years to ensure that populations remain robust. These federal agencies will work closely with tribal natural resource agencies and the respective state wildlife agencies to monitor wolf populations for threats, including diseases and human-caused mortality. If the status...

Read More

Habitat corridors help preserve wildlife in the midst of human society

As demonstrated by a recent vote in Congress, it appears that support remains among policymakers to preserve endangered species. H.R. 2584, the Department of Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2012, as introduced, included language to prevent the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from adding any additional plant or animal species for protection under the Endangered Species Act. House Appropriations Committee Ranking Member Norman Dicks (D-WA) sponsored an amendment to remove the provision from the bill. The amendment passed by a vote of 224-202, with 37 Republicans voting for the amendment and all but two Democrats supporting it. Several key senior Republicans supported the amendment, including Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (MI), House Science, Space and Technology Energy and Environment Subcommittee Chairman Andy Harris (MD) and Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Committee Chairman Frank Wolf (VA). In light of this relatively bipartisan consensus to preserve endangered species, policymakers should also work to advance initiatives that help sustain protected wildlife. One key tool in ensuring the preservation of endangered species is the establishment of habitat corridors, which help mitigate the effects of habitat fragmentation, brought on largely by urban development. In the latest edition of the Ecologist Goes to Washington podcast, ESA Graduate Student Policy Award winner Daniel Evans discusses his National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded research into habitat corridors and their importance to ecological communities. Habitat fragmentation can lead to an overall reduction in species population and potentially local extinction of a plant or animal species. As Evans notes, species affected by habitat fragmentation become increasingly vulnerable to natural disasters and predation and are also more susceptible to inbreeding, increasing the prevalence of genetic defects. In light of this, habitat corridors provide numerous benefits for plants and animals and can play a critical role for endangered species. Habitat corridors allow movement between isolated populations, promoting increased genetic diversity. They provide food and shelter for a variety of wildlife and help with juvenile dispersal and seasonal migrations. The establishment of additional habitat corridors can also benefit people, with underpasses or overpasses for wildlife helping to reduce vehicle collisions with large animals.  For example according to State Farm Insurance, the biggest U.S. auto insurer, there have been 2.3 million U.S. deer collisions in the past two years, up 21 percent from five years ago. State Farm estimates that deer-vehicle accidents resulted in more than $3.8 billion of insurance claims and driver costs alone over the past year. Habitat corridors can also minimize interaction between humans and wildlife by allowing predators, such as wolves and bears, to hunt for food in other locations, minimizing their threat to...

Read More

ESA Policy News: July 10

Here are some highlights from the latest Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston. APPROPRIATIONS: SUBCOMMITTEES APPROVE SCIENCE, ENVIRONMENTAL SPENDING BILLS The week of July 6, two House appropriations subcommittees that fund federal agencies with jurisdiction over ecological issues released and marked-up their draft funding bills for Fiscal Year (FY) 2012. The House Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations bill includes a total of $50.2 billion in funding, a reduction of $3.1 billion below FY 2011 spending levels. The House Interior and Environment Appropriations bill includes a total of $27.5 billion in spending, a reduction of $2.1 billion below FY2011 spending levels. FY2012 CJS Bill Highlights: National Science Foundation (NSF) – The bill funds NSF at $6.9 billion, level with FY2011 and $907 million below the president’s request for FY2012. White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) – The bill funds OSTP at $3 million, less than half of the $6.6 million it received in FY2011 and $3.65 million below the president’s request. Department of Commerce – The bill contains $7.1 billion for the Commerce Department, $464 million (six percent) below last year’s level and $1.7 billion (19 percent) below the president’s request. Department of the Interior (DOI) – DOI is funded at $9.9 billion, $720 million or seven percent below FY2011 and $1.2 billion below the President’s request. U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) – The bill includes $1.1 billion for the USGS, a $30 million cut below last year’s level. The majority of the reductions are in climate change and satellite imaging programs, while energy and minerals, natural hazards, and water programs are prioritized. The bill also does not provide funding for the administration’s proposal to transfer the “LandSat” satellite imaging program from NASA to the USGS. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) – The bill includes $1 billion for BLM – a decrease of $63 million below last year’s level and a decrease of $60 million below the budget request. This does not include a proposal by the President to increase oil and gas fees by $38 million. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) – The FWS is funded at $1.2 billion in the bill, a cut of $315 million (21 percent) below last year’s level. National Park Service (NPS) – NPS is funded at $2.5 billion, $129 million below FY2011. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (BOEMRE) – The bill contains $154 million for BOEMRE, which is $72 million below FY2011. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) –  EPA is funded at $7.1 billion, $1.5 billion (18 percent)  below FY2011 and $1.8 billion (20 percent) below the president’s request. The bill also cuts a number of...

Read More

Pollination from the plant’s perspective

If plants had a perspective, they would probably think of pollinators as more than just extra-friendly house guests. That is, plants would be more likely to view pollinators as the mutual friend who likes to set up blind dates. Bees might limit pollen to its use as a protein source for the hive, and birds might devour the flesh of a fruit and eliminate the seed as waste. However, many flowering plants, as Bug Girl pointed out in a post in honor of National Pollinator Week, have evolved alongside these pollinators for only one purpose: reproduction. “Sure, you can toss your pollen out on the wind and hope it lands in the right place. And for a lot of plants, evergreens in particular, this works just fine,” she wrote. “That methodology results in a lot of wasted gametes (plant sperm) though, so for nearly all flowering plants, insects or other pollinators are needed for plant nookie.” Sometimes the pollinator-plant relationship is mutualistic, and in many cases, one species or another is dependent upon the other for its survival. Take the agave plant. Probably the most well-known species is the blue agave plant (Agave tequilana), the nectar of which is used as a granular sugar substitute and to make tequila (one of the “finer” products of pollination, along with chocolate and coffee, mentioned by Bug Girl ). Leptonycteris nivalis, known as the greater long-nosed bat or Mexican long-nosed bat, and the lesser long-nosed bat (Leptonycteris curasoae), are the primary pollinators of this economically and ecologically valuable plant. This agave-bat relationship is mutually beneficial. The bats, hovering in place like a hummingbird, use their long muzzles to feed on the high-fructose nectar of the agave. At the same time, the plants’ pollen collects on the bats’ fur. The bats then travel from plant to plant, spreading pollen as they drink from the nectar-filled stalks that bloom each night across the southwestern U.S. and Mexico. The bats also migrate based on the blooming time of these plants. They arrive in Texas—particularly in Big Bend National Park, where a single colony resides in the Chisos Mountains—shortly after agave plants, such as the century plant (Agave havardiana), begin to bloom. Unfortunately, the lesser long-nosed bat and the Mexican long-nosed bat are endangered—and as their numbers decline, agave plant reproduction becomes more limited. A little farther north, however, some species of agave plants—those that are not harvested for tequila— have evolved to attract both bats and moths to serve as pollinators. Agave plants have several ways of advertising their nectar: the scent, the color of the flower and the shape, or morphology, of the structure...

Read More