A look at agencies responsible for suppressing a real world ‘contagion’

Recent blockbuster films, including “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and “Contagion” have featured zoonotic diseases that spread into (spoiler alert) deadly pandemics. If the respective films didn’t give you a case of hypochondria, statistics collected by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) will: Approximately 75 percent of recently emerging infectious diseases affecting humans are diseases of animal origin and approximately 60 percent of all human pathogens are zoonotic, communicable from animals to people. But what current procedures are in place to prevent fiction from becoming fact? A recent article from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) details the work being done to monitor wildlife in efforts contain outbreaks and prevent spread to humans. Established in 1975 and headquartered in Madison, Wisconsin, the USGS National Wildlife Health Center (NWHC) collaborates with wildlife biologists from the Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as well as state partners to provide immediate technical assistance to field personnel who find sick and dead wildlife. NWHC personnel provide instructions on collection, preservation, and shipment of specimens for laboratory examination and travel to problem areas to conduct field investigations and assist local personnel with disease control operations. While the NWHC is on the front lines in monitoring wildlife, the CDC’s  National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases focuses specifically on human impacts, with a complex network across six divisions to detect, prevent, and control infectious diseases from spreading in the United States and around the world, including the Division of Foodborne, Waterborne, and Environmental Diseases, the Division of Global Migration and Quarantine, the Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion, the Division of High-Consequence Pathogens and Pathology, the Division of Preparedness and Emerging Infections, the Division of Scientific Resources and Division of Vector-Borne Diseases. Established in early 2010, the center consists of a diverse workforce of “microbiologists, epidemiologists, educators, chemists, ecologists, demographers, statisticians, health economists, veterinarians, health communicators and information technology experts.” Read more at Preventing Pandemic: the Wildlife Forensics of New and Emerging Diseases and learn more about the CDC National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases here. Photo Credit: Rich Magahiz...

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Bats: an important resource

This post contributed by Terence Houston, ESA Science Policy Analyst This week, the Ecological Society of America is holding its 96th Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas.  As over 3,000 ecologists participate in the meeting’s numerous scientific sessions, a highlight in Austin that most meeting attendees will make every effort to see are the city’s famous bats. As seen in the video below, between March and November, every evening around dusk, onlookers near the Ann W. Richards Congress Ave. bridge in Austin are treated to the mass emergence of the Mexican free-tailed bat. According to Bat Conservation International, “it is estimated that more than 100,000 people visit the bridge to witness the bat flight, generating ten million dollars in tourism revenue annually.”  People gather on the bridge and on boats to witness the emergence of the bats each evening. Austin’s Congress Ave. bridge contains the largest urban population of bats in the world, around 1.5 million bats. However, in the wild, there are even larger ‘bat communities.’ The densest populations of the Mexican free-tailed bats are found in the Braken Cave of San Antonio, Texas where the bat population can number upwards of 20 million. It’s estimated that colonies that contain multiple millions of bats can consume 250 tons of insects per day. The Mexican free-tailed bat (as known as the Brazilian free-tailed bat) has a wide range from the western United States, through Mexico, Central America and extending through the northern part of South America. They prefer warm climates and migrate to Central America in the winter. The bats have an average lifespan of approximately 18 years. The bats feed primarily on insects, including those which can become crop pests for farmers. The ability of insect-eating bats to consume such mass quantities of pests has made them an invaluable component for both ecosystem and economic health in the areas they inhabit.  For example, researchers in an Ecological Society of America journal article estimated that Brazilian free-tailed bats saved roughly $740,000 in pesticide costs. During a June congressional hearing of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Fisheries, Subcommittee Chairman John Fleming (R-LA) quoted a Science magazine article placing the value of insect-eating bats to U.S. agriculture being between “$3.7 to 53 billion each year.” Chairman Fleming also noted that “as a doctor, I was interested in learning that some 80 different medicines come from plants that need bats to survive.” The focus of the Congressional hearing was on the impact white-nose syndrome on bat populations as well as the pivotal role insect-eating bats play for the agricultural industry through pollination and pest control. The fungus that causes the disease, Geomyces...

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Policy News: May 20

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston. Read the full Policy News here. SENATE: GOP MEASURE TO EXPAND OFFSHORE DRILLING IS REJECTED On May 18, the U.S. Senate rejected S. 953 by a vote of 42-57.  The Offshore Production and Safety Act of 2011 sought to expedite and expand offshore oil and gas drilling nationwide..  Sponsored by Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the bill–similar to legislation the House passed in recent weeks—would would require new lease sales in the Arctic, Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico and set deadlines for several upcoming Gulf of Mexico lease sales. The bill was opposed by every Senate Democrat. Five Republicans, including Sens. Jim DeMint (SC), Mike Lee (UT), Richard Shelby (AL), Olympia Snowe (ME) and David Vitter (LA), also voted against the bill. Democratic senators from Louisiana and Alaska expressed concerns that the bill does not contain provisions to share oil and gas revenues with coastal states. Sen. Snowe maintained that the measure fails to give states a role in determining what activities are allowed off their coastlines. HOUSE: APPROPRIATIONS COMMITTEE RELEASES AGENDA FOR FY 2012 BILLS House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY), announced May 11 the schedule for completion of work on the twelve fiscal year (FY) 2012 appropriations bills. The plan also includes the total planned funding for each of the twelve bills, which fund federal agencies. In total the appropriations bills would reduce spending by over $30 billion compared to FY 2011 and $121.5 billion less than Ppresident Obama’s FY 2012 budget request. The Commerce, Justice and Science spending bill would be funded at $50.2 billion, $3 billion less than the FY 2011 enacted level and $7.4 billion less than the president’s request. The Energy and Water Appropriations bill would be funded at $30.6 billion, $1 billion less than the FY 2011 enacted level and nearly $6 billion less than the president’s request. The Interior and Environment Appropriations bill would be funded at nearly $27.5 billion, $2 billion less than FY 2011 and $3.8 billion less than the president’s request. NATURAL GAS: SCIENCE COMMITTEE DISCUSSES EPA HYDRAULIC FRACTURING STUDY The House Space, Science and Technology Committee met May 11 for a hearing examining a draft Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study on hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking.” Hydraulic fracturing involves using high-pressure injections of water, chemicals and sand to open cracks that release gas trapped in rock deep underground. It’s become a key ingredient of a dramatic surge in gas extraction across the nation, resulting in soaring domestic reserves and low prices. The expansion of the practice has also...

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Policy News: May 6

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston. Read the full Policy News here. MINING: COMMITTEE HEARING HIGHLIGHTS INDUSTRY CONCERNS OVER EPA REGS The House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment met May 5 for the first in a series of hearings entitled “EPA Mining Policies: Assault on Appalachian Jobs.” The hearings are in reaction to the Obama administration’s review of coal mining projects and the recent interim Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidance for issuing mountaintop removal permits in Appalachia. The guidance is currently under review of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Of the hearing’s four witnesses, none was opposed to mountaintop removal mining. Coal industry supporters on Capitol Hill believe the guidance, which sets the first-ever numeric standard for water conductivity—which  EPA says measures degradation from mining debris—is a significant departure from previous federal oversight of mountaintop removal mining. The mining technique being targeted by the guidance involves dynamiting mountaintops to expose coal seams and disposing of debris in adjacent valleys. Critics of the guidance assert it amounts to new regulations without having gone through the rulemaking process.  Proponents of the guidance maintain that Appalachian mountaintop removal mining is particularly harmful to both ecosystems and people, while producing only a fraction of America’s overall coal output. ENDANGERED SPECIES: NORTHERN ROCKIES GRAY WOLVES DELISTED, PUBLIC COMMENT OPPORTUNITY FOR GREAT LAKES POPULATIONS On May 4, the US Department of Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) published a final rule to remove gray wolves in Idaho and Montana as well as parts of Oregon, Utah and Washington, from the threatened or endangered list under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The move comes per the direction of language in the recently enacted  appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2011. The wolf delisting provision was championed by of House Interior and Environment Appropriations Chairman Mike Simpson (R-ID) and Sen. John Tester (D-MT). Conservation and scientific groups are concerned that the delisting could pave the way for removal of additional species through legislative means that circumvent—as this one did—the usual delisting process. Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar touted the delisting as “a success story,” comparing the gray wolf to the recovery of the whooping crane, brown pelican and bald eagle. Interior Deputy Secretary David Hayes noted that the agency will continue to apply the ESA’s “post-delisting monitoring requirements” to help ensure the wolf populations continue to flourish under state management. Some, such as Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), claim the delisting language did not go far enough. Hatch is the lead sponsor of S. 249, the American Big Game and...

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Scientists detect aquatic ecosystem warning signal

Scientists have found what appears to be the stress signals of a lake ecosystem that is on its way to collapse. Stephen Carpenter of the University of Wisconsin, Madison and colleagues carefully monitored the food web in a Wisconsin lake as they gradually introduced largemouth bass into the ecosystem. The researchers noticed a shift in the algae populations that were directly related to the altered feeding behavior of smaller lake fish after the addition of the larger predators. “Because the smaller fish shifted to shallow waters where bass threaten them less, [Carpenter] explains, the algae that inhabit the more open waters of the lake were free of their predators and their populations fluctuate more,” wrote Jennifer Carpenter in a Science Now article. “Carpenter and his colleagues report online today in Science that these fluctuations were a warning that the lake’s food web is changing.” As explained in a National Science Foundation press release, the researchers “detected what they say is an unmistakable warning—a death knell—of the impending collapse of the lake’s aquatic ecosystem.” “We start adding these big ferocious fish and almost immediately this instills fear in the other fish,” Carpenter said in the release. “The small fish begin to sense there is trouble and they stop going into the open water and instead hang around the shore and structures, things like sunken logs. They become risk-averse.” A big indicator, according to Carpenter, was a boom in water flea populations. Carpenter and colleagues explained in the release that these signals are universal and could be incorporated into work on “rangelands, forests and marine ecosystems.” Photo Credit: Eric Engbretson,...

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Policy News: March 25

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston. Read the full Policy News here. NUCLEAR CRISIS: LAWMAKERS URGE NRC TO RAMP UP, REVIEW PLANT SAFETY STANDARDS The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee convened March 16 for a briefing on the nuclear plant crisis in Japan and its implications for the United States. Congressional Democrats have expressed concerns about the safety of the nation’s nuclear power plants, especially reactors that lie on fault lines and are calling for new reviews.  Lawmakers with nuclear power plants in their states raised concerns that NRC has not yet taken proactive measures to ensure the safety of the U.S. plants that use similar technology as the Fukushima plant. Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) cited examples in Switzerland and Germany where older nuclear plants have temporarily been shut down in the wake of the Japanese disaster to ensure their safety. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko told lawmakers that 23 of the nation’s 104 nuclear reactors use the same General Electric Mark I boiling water containment design as those at the Japanese plant. They stressed that precautions have been taken at each plant to avoid disasters such as the one brought about in Japan from the recent earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Jaczko maintained that NRC plans to conduct a “systematic and methodical review” of the Japanese situation and would apply that to its review of the safety of U.S. reactors. Chairwoman Boxer and Clean Air and Nuclear Safety Subcommittee Chairman Tom Carper (D-DE) issued a letter March 17 to Chairman Jaczko seeking a comprehensive investigation of the NRC’s preparedness for natural disasters. This was coupled with a separate letter from Chairwoman Boxer and Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Diane Feinstein (D-CA) requesting that the NRC conduct a thorough inspection of the San Onfore and Diablo Canyon nuclear plants in California. In the House of Representatives, House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) declared his intention to hold a series of hearings on the nuclear disaster in coming weeks. He also reaffirmed his support for legislative efforts aimed at speeding up the federal approval process for building new nuclear reactors. House Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Edward Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA) sent a letter to the NRC requesting more information on the seismic safety features that are included in nuclear reactors currently in operation in the United States. The letter states “there are eight nuclear reactors located near the New Madrid fault line in the Midwest. There are additionally thirty-one nuclear reactors in the United States that are of the...

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Wildlife damage from Japan’s tsunami

Most people have heard about the damage caused by last week’s massive magnitude 9 earthquake that sent a tsunami—at times reaching 33 feet—onto the island nation of Japan. The situation in Japan is dire. According to CBS News, “An estimated 452,000 people are living in shelters following the earthquake and tsunami. Japan’s police agency currently puts the death toll at 6,900 with 10,700 more people still missing.” Meanwhile, the threat of a nuclear meltdown is looming. The effects of the tsunami are devastating and far-reaching. From around the world, search teams, medics and volunteers work tirelessly to locate and help victims of the quake and floods. While the world’s attention is rightly focused on aiding the people of Japan, other nearby island countries are trying to recover from severe damage to their infrastructure as well. One example is the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) and Research Station on the Galapagos island of Santa Cruz. As described in a recent Southern Fried Science post, “The tsunami hit the island at high tide on March 11, and the resulting 1.7 meter flood destroyed essential equipment and shut the research station down for the foreseeable future.” Despite extensive flooding in the Marine Laboratory, the animals at the Research Station were relocated in time to be saved. “Lonesome George, the iconic last Giant Tortoise from Pinta island, had been moved to high ground prior to the tsunami as a precautionary measure,” reported the World Heritage Convention. According to the Galapagos Conservancy, the island’s animal and plant life  may have suffered significant damage: “With regard to the flora and fauna, the impacts are being assessed. According to Galapagos National Park reports, some marine turtle nests at Garrapatero Beach on Santa Cruz were destroyed. We had significant damage to the vegetation along the shore of the Research Station. The marine iguana nests that we have been monitoring within the area…seem fine.” In Japan, the wildlife casualties are more severe than in the Galapagos. As described in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife website, “A tsunami generated by a powerful earthquake off the coast of Japan struck Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge at 11:36 PM on Thursday, March 10th and continued for the next few hours…Fortunately, no one was injured and no major damage occurred to the island’s infrastructure…” “The short-tailed albatross nest was washed over again, but the [first short-tailed albatross] chick [to hatch on Midway in decades] was found unharmed about 35 [meters] away and returned unharmed to its nest area. A minimum of 1,000 adult/subadult, and tens of thousands of Laysan Albatross chicks, were lost. Thousands of Bonin petrels were buried alive. Spit Island [was]...

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ESA Policy News: September 30

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by ESA’s Science Policy Analyst, Terence Houston.

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