Efforts to mitigate white-nose syndrome continue amid new reports

This post contributed by Terence Houston, Science Policy Analyst  In recent weeks, federal scientists have reported that the fungal disease Geomyces destructans, commonly known as white-nose syndrome, has extended its reach across the eastern region of the United States. On March 29, the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control announced that the disease was reported in Fort Delaware State Park, and reports have also confirmed the disease in Maine’s Acadia National Park, and Alabama’s Russell Cave in Jackson County, the first observations of the disease in these states. The National Park Service also reported that the disease has spread to the Great Smoky Mountain region in Tennessee, home to eleven bat species including the largest hibernating population of the endangered Indiana bat in the state. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), white-nose syndrome has killed 5.7-6.7 million bats in North America since it was first discovered in 2006. The disease is identified by a white fungus visible on the noses, wings, tails and ears of bats. While it is communicable among bats, it has not been found to infect humans. The fungus thrives in cold temperatures and is found mainly in areas with caves and mines where bats hibernate. The disease has drawn bipartisan concern from Capitol Hill, as insect-eating bats play a vital economic role in cutting pesticide costs to the nation’s farming industry. During a June 2011 House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular Affairs hearing on the disease, Subcommittee Chairman John Fleming (R-LA) pointed out that the bats are worth billions the agricultural industry and that 80 different medicines come from plants that are dependent on bats. The consensus support from Congress has led to increased investment in understanding and managing the disease. For Fiscal Year 2012, the Consolidated Appropriations Act (P.L. 112-74) provides $4 million to the Department of Interior’s Endangered Species Recovery Fund towards research and management of white-nose syndrome. The Act also contains specific language directing the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service and FWS to prioritize research and response activities related to curtailing spread of the disease. Non-governmental organizations such as the Organization for Bat Conservation and Bat Conservation International are also working to conserve bat populations and halt the spread of the disease. Additional information on federal efforts to manage white-nose syndrome as well as updates on new reports of the disease can be found here. Photo Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife...

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ESA Policy News: March 23

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here. HOUSE: FY 2013 BUDGET PROPOSAL CUTS INNOVATION, FEDERAL WORKFORCE On March 20, House Republicans unveiled their proposed budget resolution for Fiscal Year (FY) 2013. Sponsored by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), the budget bill sets an overall discretionary spending limit of $1.028 trillion in FY 2013, $19 billion below the spending caps established in the Budget Control Act. Among its provisions, the House budget resolution includes significant cuts to Department of Energy programs while expanding oil and gas drilling. It also supports the sale of 3.3 million acres of federal lands identified in a 1997 Department of Interior report that were deemed suitable for sale or exchange to benefit the Everglades restoration effort in Florida. The White House released a statement asserting that the Ryan plan would cut clean energy programs by 19 percent and slash $100 billion from science, space and technology programs over the next decade. The budget also proposes to cut the federal government workforce by 10 percent, providing $368 billion in savings. Under the proposal, federal employee retirement contributions would also rise from 0.8 percent to 6.3 percent. The bill would also extend the current federal pay freeze to 2015. View the full FY 2013 House budget proposal here. The White House response to the House budget proposal can be viewed here. SENATE: COMMITTEE REVIEWS EPA MERCURY STANDARDS FOR POWER PLANTS On March 20, the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety met for a hearing on the Environmental Protection Agency’s new mercury rules for power plants. EPA finalized the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), the first national standards to protect American families from power plant emissions of mercury and other toxic air pollution like arsenic, acid gas, nickel, selenium, and cyanide on Dec. 16, 2011. “I believe it’s possible to have a clean environment and a strong economy. I think it’s a false choice to say that we have to have one or the other; we can have both. That is especially true for cleaning up our air pollution,” declared Clean Air and Nuclear Safety Subcommittee Chairman Tom Carper (D-DE) in his opening statement. “In fact, as the EPA has implemented the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, our nation’s air has gotten cleaner, while electricity rates have stayed constant and our economy has grown by 60 percent. For every dollar we spend cleaning the air, we’ve seen $30 returned in reduced health care costs, better workplace productivity, and lives saved.” Subcommittee Ranking Member James...

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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:...

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Emerging Issues Symposium II: Amid Search for Answers, a Search for Hope

This post contributed by Celia Smith, ESA Education Programs Coordinator Attendees of the Ecological Society of America (ESA)’s 2012 Emerging Issues Conference are spending the week of February 27 immersed in symposia and intensive working groups to turn cutting-edge ecology research into concrete environmental management and policy products. In addressing the conference theme of Conservation Targets under Global Change, each presentation and discussion session involves wrestling with tough questions for which simple answers do not exist. Despite these challenges, another informal conference theme is hope. Global change can evoke fear, panic and even despair over the unsustainable use of natural resources. While it can’t be denied that problems including  overpopulation, pollution, habitat fragmentation and climate change threaten many species, including our own,  Ronald Swaisgood of the San Diego Zoo argues that hope is not only possible—it is essential to our success in overcoming these challenges. “As conservation biologists we feel like we are tinkering around the edges and fiddling while Rome burns,” Swaisgood said during his Monday afternoon talk entitled, “Finding hope for conservation and endangered species because we must.”  Swaisgood argued that confident expectations for conservation outcomes lead to increased effort, while low expectations “robustly predict giving up.” Moreover, Swaisgood emphasized that hope is an essential tool for garnering public support for conservation efforts, and challenged scientists to assume responsibility for engaging citizens—particularly the next generation—in science and nature in a hopeful and productive way. “Time spent in nature predicts environmental attitudes… [but] Americans are becoming increasingly indifferent to the environment” Swaisgood said. He encouraged scientists to get involved in community leadership, outreach, K-12 education reform, and citizen science to help communicate conservation messages that are framed positively, constructively and optimistically. As Swaisgood and his co-author James Sheppard have put it, “Our point is not that hope is the logical alternative but that it is the necessary alternative” (BioScience 2011). Whether or not hope is a logical alternative is likely to be a personal decision; however Bernd Blossey of Cornell University also offered positive evidence, supported by science, that our idea of ‘nature’ as a pristine entity separate from humans is a fallacy. In his introduction to the conference, he stressed that historically, nature has repeatedly demonstrated extraordinary resilience by returning from disaster and disruption to support life in one form or another. Blossey left the audience with a quote from Aldo Leopold—“I have no hope for conservation born of fear”—that helped to set the tone of optimism for the discussions to come. Photo: National Conservation Training Center, Shepherdstown, WV, Ryan Hagerty/USFWS...

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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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Spaceship Earth?

This post contributed by Liza Lester, ESA communications officer Astronaut Bruce McCandless II drifts free, 350 kilometers above Earth’s surface and 100 meters from the safe haven of the Space Shuttle Challenger, during one of NASA’s first un-tethered spacewalks (credit, STS-41B, NASA 1984, via the Astronomy Picture of the Day). Invisible bonds of absolute necessity hold the free-flying astronaut to his shuttle, and to Earth below. He can take a short walk in space, but he is sightseeing on borrowed time. Earth has a monopoly on all the necessities of life. When the space programs of the ‘60s began sending back images of a small, blue jewel suspended in the vast darkness of space, the metaphor of the Earth itself as a spaceship came easily into public discourse. Modern economics also leant power to the notion of the Earth as a single, global system. Humans had begun to appreciate the scale of change that our technology had wrought. Abruptly, we found ourselves fellow passengers on a lonely vessel, our fortunes tied together. Barring radical reformation of our conception of physics, colonization of other planets is not practical or practicable even as a small-scale curiosity, much less an escape plan. The good ship Earth is our only ship, so we had best not sink it. In Tuesday’s Washington Post, Joel Achenbach reports on a movement toward a new paradigm of management and intervention in environmentalism, a Spaceship Earth on which we are not just passengers, but engineers. Just what sinking Earth would entail is a matter of debate. The idea that it would even be possible to sink it is rather new. For a substantial US voting bloc, the world is still a garden for us to harvest, and its upkeep and management is not our business. At passionate odds with the champions of this resource Manifest Destiny, environmentalists object morally to the loss of wilderness, the present wave of extinctions, and the invasion of the successful, surviving species into exotic new locations with the help of human transport. To the less ideologically committed folks in the middle, keeping Earth afloat is synonymous with keeping their own lives and lifestyles afloat, leavened with some empathy for distant communities and future generations. So conservation traditionally operates under a paradigm of custodianship, protection, and restoration. To what perfect historical time do wish to restore our pockets of wildlands? ask the proponents of the new school. Though our current numbers and technological reach are tremendous, humans have been manipulating our environs for thousands of years. There is no pristine Before which can be restored, say the interventionists. The great grasslands of North America...

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Imagining a smarter water future in World’s Water 7

This post contributed by Liza Lester, ESA Communications Officer Unequal wealth. Worldmapper.org contorts the shapes of world territories to reflect the relative proportions of the world’s freshwater resources found within their bounds. © Copyright SASI Group (University of Sheffield) and Mark Newman (University of Michigan).   How much water do humans use? And how much water do ecosystems need? At the heart of water management research are simple questions that we can’t answer, said Peter Gleick, McArthur fellow and president and founder of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, California, in Washington to talk about his latest biennial report on water, world-wide, at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “Congress is very concerned with the budget. I actually think Congress and everybody in the world should be concerned with the five letter word spelled w-a-t-e-r,” said Wilson Center president Jane Harman, introducing Gleick on October 18th. Harmon left her own congressional seat to take up leadership of the Wilson Center  in February 2011. Released this October by Island Press, The World’s Water Volume 7 dips into fossil fuels and water quality, the boom in Chinese dam development, Australia’s efforts to cope with severe drought, corporate social responsibility, and US water policy reform. It tackles the basic questions of use, supply, and demand, bringing to bear new tools, like satellite observations of groundwater depletion measured through slight changes in gravity. It projects future trans-border water conflicts as the world’s climate changes. Water has a long history as prize, weapon, and victim of war. Gleick and colleagues chronicle water’s violent history with an emphasis on the interdependencies of our essential resources. They also discuss success stories, “case studies that might help us to move from where we are to where we want to be,” said Gleick, pointing to a 2008 Canada-U.S. compact on Great Lakes water use as an imperfect but encouraging example. When we don’t take connected resources into account in policy decisions, he said, we get bad regulations and bad consequences. Water does not conform to territorial boundaries. It can’t be separated from our demands for food and fuel. The dynamic between energy systems and water systems is a particular interest of the Pacific Institute. Heating, moving and purifying water demands energy, and producing energy demands water. Hydraulic fracking, an increasingly popular method of natural gas extraction, uses large volumes of water to crack rock and release gas. Extraction of oil from tar sands is also exceptionally water-intensive compared to more traditional fossil fuel exploitation. Alternative fuels use water too. Encouraging corn ethanol production to cut oil imports, exacerbated high food prices worldwide and put new demands on limited...

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Green Forests?

This post contributed by Heather Kirk, a post-doctoral researcher at the Institute of Agricultural Sciences in Zurich, Switzerland When a 9.0 magnitude earthquake caused a series of nuclear accidents in Japan back in March of this year, there was nervousness in North America that nuclear fallout could blow across the Pacific Ocean to reach coastal cities in Canada and the US.  While those fears were largely unfounded according to health officials, West Coast residents have certainly received air-borne “gifts” from Asian countries in the past. Every year, China and a number of other Asian countries are the source of massive dust storms that spread over large portions of the Asian continent, and sometimes even cross the Pacific.  These storms have intensified over the past century as a result of deforestation, overgrazing, and poor water management.  In 2010, East Asia experienced particularly bad droughts that led to food shortages and massive dust storms that lasted for days and traveled thousands of kilometers. In order to address these storms and their causes, China has implemented a tree-planting policy that aims to reduce erosion and evaporation of precious water resources, while providing new sources of economic growth (via timber and tree-fruit production).  The most internationally publicized of these initiatives is the “green wall of China” project, which was initiated in 1978 as part of a larger plan to stop the expansion of the Gobi desert.  The project aims to develop a green belt more than 4000 km in length along the edge of the desert. In the September 22, 2011 issue of Nature, Jianchu Xu, a senior scientist at the World Agroforestry Centre and a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, comments on the detrimental effects of the widespread planting of non-native trees in China, which comprise a large portion of reforestation projects.  Most reforested areas are planted with crop species that include fruit trees, eucalyptus, and rubber, and not with native mixed forests that promote biodiversity and are better suited for providing ecosystem services such as erosion control. Additionally, new forests are being planted in areas that were not historically forested such as grasslands. In his paper, Xu states: “I would like to see China establish parallel forest-management programmes for recovery and restoration of natural forests, and for incorporating working trees into farmlands. Each should include best practices from ecosystem science; a clear definition of tree crop plantations for timber or non-timber products would clarify the separate systems”. Afforestation is an important strategy for carbon sequestration, and can play a valuable role in both ecosystem remediation and economic development.  However all forest are not created equal: some are greener than...

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