ESA Policy News: July 27

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here. SENATE: COMMITTEE REVIEWS CLIMATE CHANGE IMPACTS ON NATIVE AMERICANS On July 19, the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs held an oversight hearing on the impact climate change is having on Native Americans and tribal lands as well as what resources are available to adapt to changes in the environment. Indian Affairs Committee Chairman Daniel Akaka (D-HI) spoke of the importance of “Malama Aina,” which is Hawaiian for “caring for the land.” Chairman Akaka said that Native Americans hold the oldest record for being environmental stewards of the nation as it has been a foundation of their culture and world view “over thousands of years” and “hundreds of generations.”In his opening statement, he noted that “while environmental changes are widespread, studies indicate that native communities are disproportionately impacted because they depend on nature for traditional foods, sacred sites and to practice ceremonies that pass on cultural values to future generations.” Most of the witness testimony focused on the impacts climate change is having on their specific communities. Chief Mike Williams of the Yupiit Nation noted that 86 percent of indigenous Alaskan villages are threatened by flooding and erosion due to warming temperatures. Malia Akutagawa, Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Hawaii – Manoa said that climate change has reduced the number of good fishing days for Native Hawaiians, led to a 15 percent decline in rainfall, drying of forests, crop loss, beach erosion from sea level rise, increased destruction from wildfires, and increased surface air temperature. She also noted that climate change has affected plant flowering and animal migration cycles. Akutagawa called for federal assistance for increasing Hawaiian food security, family farms and coastal zone management programs. There was a general consensus from the witnesses representing indigenous communities that the federal government needs to increase or improve consultation with tribal leaders. View the full hearing here. HOUSE: COMMITTEE REVIEWS FEDERAL DROUGHT MONITORING EFFORTS On July 25, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee held a hearing to review the status of federal drought forecasting efforts. The hearing comes as the existing authorization for the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) is due to expire this year. In his opening statement, Chairman Hall (R-TX) sought to keep the focus on drought mitigation efforts and steer clear of climate change discussions. “Debating the causes of drought is not in front of us today,” he said. “The real question is:  What can be done to provide better and timelier information to help enable federal, state...

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Easter Island’s quiet message

Ahu Tongariki, the largest platform on the island, features fifteen restored Moais. The Moai in the foreground was likely damaged in transit and never erected. Credit: Brian Wee. This post contributed by Brian Wee, chief of external affairs for NEON, Inc. The July 2012 edition of National Geographic features Easter Island – known also as Isla de Pascua in Spanish and Rapa Nui by the local population.  Rapa Nui is famous for the silent stone statues called Moais that are scattered around the island.  In late May of 2012, my partner and I spent four days exploring Rapa Nui.  A remote speck of land no larger than Washington, DC in the Pacific and accessible by a five-hour flight from Santiago, Chile, Rapa Nui is often referred to as one of the most isolated, inhabited areas.  One skillful (and probably lucky) Polynesian expedition discovered it sometime in the 8th century.  Given the Pacific’s expanse, you have to wonder about the probability of finding such a small island in the vast ocean, and accordingly, how many other expeditions did not quite make it. Most of the Moais are located along the island’s coast, although some are also found inland.  Moais are stood on ceremonial stone platforms called Ahus, and visitors are reminded not to clamber on top of the Ahus at the risk of heavy fines.  A guidebook advocated gently shooing horses off these platforms if you come across an animal browsing on an Ahu.  Yes, horses.  They roam freely on the island.  Like the two that were wandering around the parking lot of the Rapa Nui airport after our flight landed on Monday evening.  Our Bed &Breakfast host had picked us up at the airport, but I resisted the temptation to tap his shoulder and ask “Say…. did you see those HORSES walking around in the airport PARKING LOT?”  Given that he deftly maneuvered the vehicle around the animals and didn’t say anything about them, I figured that he must have seen them.  Oh well. One of Rapa Nui’s many horses and her foal at the Ahu Tepeu site. Credit: Brian Wee By some reports, the number of horses on the island is greater than that of the roughly 5000 full-time residents.  It wasn’t long before I thought of the effects of unchecked herbivory on the structure and function of the island’s plant community.  Trees are sparse on the island, and there is some evidence that Rapa Nui once supported more trees before the human population expanded to what is thought to be unsustainable levels.  The island’s last indigenous tree – the Sophora toromiro – died in the 1950s, but...

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Speaking of species and their origins

An essay published in the June 8 issue of Nature is causing something of a stir. Eighteen ecologists who signed the essay, titled “Don’t judge species on their origins,” “argue that conservationists should assess organisms based on their impact on the local environment, rather than simply whether they’re native,” as described in a recent Scientific American podcast. In the essay, Mark Davis from Macalester College, St. Paul, Minnesota and colleagues argue that adherence to the idea of non-natives as “the enemy” is more a reflection of “prejudice rather than solid science,” wrote Brandon Keim in a Wired Science article. As the authors wrote, the “preoccupation with the native–alien dichotomy” among scientists, land managers and policy-makers is prohibitive to dynamic and pragmatic conservation and species management in a 21st century planet that is forever altered by climate change, land-use changes and other anthropogenic influences. As a result of this misguided preoccupation, claim the authors, time and resources are unnecessarily spent attempting to eradicate introduced species that actually turn out to be a boon to the environment; the authors cite the non-native tamarisk tree in the western U.S. as an example of this. But some other ecological scientists believe that the authors of the essay are barking up the wrong tamarisk tree, so to speak. Not only is there a disagreement with the paper’s premise that there is an unjust bias against all non-natives, but other scientists assert that the harm non-natives are capable of causing should not be overlooked. Jessica Gurevitch, an ecologist at the State University of New York Stony Brook, stated that the authors “downplay some of the problems and uncertainties,” and she insists that the “just get used to [non-natives being the norm]” attitude is misguided. David Pimentel, an entomologist at Cornell University, has estimated invasive species damage in the U.S. at between $100 billion and $200 billion. Nevertheless, the essay authors argue that “being indigenous doesn’t grant a species special rights to inhabit an ecosystem,” according to the Scientific American podcast, and Razib Khan from Discover’s blog Gene Expression reminds readers that “we [humans] are after all an invasive species oursel[ves]!” Furthermore, not all natives are economically and ecologically beneficial. For example, British Columbia has recently had one of the largest infestations of the mountain pine beetle, a species indigenous to pine forests of western North America, on record—an issue that has caused significant ecological impacts. And according to Mark Davis, many non-natives can actually boost biodiversity. But is biodiversity always the ultimate goal? David Lodge, an ecologist at the University of Notre Dame, argues otherwise. While local biodiversity may at times increase with the introduction...

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