A couple of HCCS members were lucky to spend Friday the 13th learning from and networking with the executive team of the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service at their regional office in western Massachusetts. USFWS is the main agency within the US government tasked with conservation efforts. They help preserve ecosystems and species through both maintaining numerous wildlife refuges throughout the country, and working with landowners to manage invasive species and protect endangered ones. After learning about what each department of FWS does - from acquiring land to expand refuges, to managing media presence, to ensuring protected flyways for migratory birds - we had the chance to chat with several members of the executive team and several graduate students from UMass-Amherst over lunch. We then toured Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge, on the Fort River Trail, the first trail at a wildlife refuge that is completely handicap-accessible. We learned about the design and construction of the trail and how FWS ensures that people of all abilities can engage with nature. To wrap up the day, we visited the Richard Cronin Aquatic Resource Center, where FWS's research team is working to establish captive breeding programs for threatened and endangered freshwater mussels and tiger beetles. A big thank you to Northeast Regional Director Wendi Weber and all of her team for making this amazing event possible!
Most people know that air pollution is bad. The very words conjure up images of a sea of smog drowning both the greenery of cityscapes and the people that inhabit them. Despite this, air pollution remains a distant concern in the public eye with only its long-term effects considered, whether they be health-related or environmental. It remains an important issue but is rarely seen as an urgent one.
While it is true that the environmental impacts take time to unfold, the adverse health effects of air pollution can be short-term and surprisingly largescale.
A 2010 report published by the American Heart Association found, for example, that a slight increase in small particulate matter concentrations causes “the premature death of approximately 1 susceptible person per day in a region of 5 million people”. While the risk to the individual is small, the cumulative impact is enormous. Indeed, the report notes that “short-term increases in PM2.5 [small particulate matter] levels lead to the early mortality of tens of thousands of individuals per year in the United States alone.”
These short-term consequences challenge the notion that air pollution works only by passively poisoning its victims and instead, makes it clear that air pollution actively ends lives every day that it remains unaddressed.
By reframing the problem from a long-term to a short-term issue, the environmental challenge takes on a new urgency. The dangers of air pollution should not be seen as a distant spectre and changing public perception will be crucial to mobilizing action.
This past summer, I returned to Samaná, Dominican Republic for the second time to teach various subjects. One weekend, I decided to relax at a local beach. As I was gathering my things to leave, I saw a young child finish a soda bottle, place the cap on the bottle, and throw it into the sea.
It's unlikely that this child knew that his plastic would take 500-1,000 years to degrade or that it would likely float and drift for years before concentrating in an ocean gyre comprised of billions of pounds of plastic. It's unlikely that he knew that one million sea birds die each year from plastic in the oceans like the water bottle he had just discarded. What, then, can be done to spread education on the importance of protecting our oceans?
The key, in my view, to augmenting access to environmental education, is to mandate it in the elementary school curriculum of developing countries. Approximately 80% of Dominican children attend public schools. Therefore, requiring education on climate change that focuses specifically on reducing ocean pollution would be a great step toward conserving the marine ecosystem in the region.
Many locals with whom I spoke during my time in Samaná informed me that the coral reefs are dying in Samaná's bay due to overfishing and pollution. They face a formidable challenge in restoring the pristine Samaná Bay, but hope remains. A few days before I left Samaná, I witnessed dozens of locals participate in a beach cleanup in which they removed piles upon piles of trash from the polluted coast. It is through efforts like these and education on ocean conservation that Samaná can reduce the pollution caused by a lack of awareness on the potential hazards of a seemingly innocent act like throwing a water bottle into the ocean.
Google “conservation organization”, and many familiar names appear--The Nature Conservancy, The World Wildlife Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, to name some of the most prominent. All of these organizations, of course, have worked hard to achieve such recognition, and have made meaningful and lasting impacts on global conservation. Yet, while these groups enjoy considerable support from the mainstream conservation community (and, not surprisingly, the HCCS), a whole slew of other large, active, impactful conservation NGOs receive little attention: hunting and fishing based organizations.
Consider just a few of these underappreciated organizations: Ducks Unlimited, which supports efforts to improve waterfall habitat for hunters, has conserved over 12.5 million acres of wetlands in the US and boasts an annual budget of $235 million. Trout Unlimited, which primarily serves the interests of fly fisherman, has worked on dam removal and stream restoration on hundreds of waterbodies across the country. And the National Wild Turkey Federation, with 250,000 turkey-hunting members, has helped protect over 17 million acres.
Of course, there are drawbacks to outdoor recreation, such as overharvesting of species, littering, and tourism-related development. Yet, most anglers and hunters are strongly opposed to such developments, as highlighted by the rising popularity of catch and release angling, increasingly rigorous hunting restrictions, growing emphasis on leave no trace, and passionate defense of public lands and open spaces by groups such as Ducks Unlimited and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.
Overall, I believe it is important to appreciate and support outdoor recreation-based conservation for several reasons. First, in their efforts to enhance hunting and fishing opportunities, groups such as Ducks Unlimited improve habitat conditions for countless other species and preserve millions of acres of habitat nationwide. Moreover, recreational hunting and fishing directly contributes an estimated $76 billion to the economy and $25 billion in local, state, and federal taxes every year while helping to support nearly 500,000 jobs, thus providing tangible incentives for conservation. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, outdoor recreation represents a way to foster broad, bipartisan support for conservation across the country; while mainstream conservation organizations such as the Nature Conservancy tend to have an old, wealthy, and liberal membership base, hunting and fishing are popular all over the country among a variety of socioeconomic and political demographics.
Since the 1980s, scientists have used tracking devices to aid in the understanding of animal migratory patterns and territories. Originally, scientists depended on equipment such as radio telemetry, but more recently, technological advancement has led to GPS tracking devices that can be tailored to specific animal’s physiques. These devices are usually attached as radio collars (around the neck) for most tetrapods or are attached in a back-pack like fashion for birds. While the benefits of tracking devices are clear, I cannot help wondering: how can the heavy equipment attached to animals that depend on speed and agility for survival not have a seriously negative impact on the animal’s behavior and, thus, survival chances?
Recently, I wrote a proposal for testing the impact of GPS tracking devices on the common ovenbird. In my research, I learned that few studies have been done to test the effects of tracking devices on animals. However, the few experiments that have been conducted have all confirmed that animals with implemented tracking instruments are negatively impacted in various ways. First, the procedure for attaching a tracking device can be quite invasive, especially for a larger animal that must be put down for a significant period of time. Second, the size and positioning of the device can create drag and throw off and animal’s balance. Third, social animals, such as wolves, that have been handled by humans and removed from their social groups for a period of time, might face shunning and behavioral differences from their pack. And lastly, a device may catch on something in the animal’s environment or might expose an animal that depends on camouflage.
These impacts paired with animal ethics call into question the use of tracking devices. While the benefit to the scientist and potentially the animal species as a whole in the future is important, the detrimental effects of tracking mechanisms may throw off scientific data and put an animal in harms way. My hope is that in the future, scientists think more carefully about the consequences of implementing bulky tracking devices or find solutions to the various problems these tracking devices pose for animals.
Images sourced from wildlife.org and nps.gov
This post is a response to April Johnson’s 10/12 post on the drawbacks of nuclear energy.
Ever since I started to study environmental science, I’ve been conflicted about the role of nuclear energy in a low-carbon future. April’s post argues that nuclear energy is not a “clean” fuel because of its lifetime carbon emissions, toxic radiation, and risk of accident. Yet despite the mentioned drawbacks, I don’t think the points she brings up are enough to discount nuclear energy as a clean energy option, especially in comparison to the other fuels currently in use.
April draws attention to the fact that nuclear reactors cannot be considered low-carbon, as the carbon emissions from the plants’ construction and the mining and enrichment of uranium contribute a large deal to the energy source’s lifetime emissions. While this can lead in some cases to higher carbon emissions than renewable sources like hydropower, solar, and wind, the reality is that all forms of energy currently have at least some carbon emissions. In comparison to coal and gas, nuclear energy is still a far lower emitter than coal or gas sources, by a significantly large margin. Even by the International Panel on Climate Change’s maximum estimates for nuclear carbon emissions, it is still roughly 75% less than gas, 85% less than coal. By median estimates, nuclear energy beats gas by 94% and coal by 97% (2014 Working Group III page 1335). April is right in arguing that nuclear power’s carbon emissions should be taken into account when analyzing it. However, it is still by far a lower emitter than the fuels that currently generate most of our world’s electricity.
In the same vein, there are serious concerns surrounding radiation from nuclear wastes. The wastes from nuclear energy can last for thousands of years and can pose acute health risks to people in the areas in which they are stored, if stored improperly. However, fossil fuels pose a challenge to future generations as well via their impacts on climate and cause thousands of deaths worldwide due to acute and diffuse air pollution.
When it comes to toxicity of mining sites, nuclear energy poses a problem, as April points out. However, this is also a problem shared by different energy sources. Coal mining, drilling and fracking for gas, and mining of materials for solar cells each pose significant health risks to the area around them.
The bottom line is that nuclear is not a great energy solution — but every energy source has its drawbacks. Nuclear energy can take massive health tolls and does contribute to carbon emissions. Many renewable options now are cleaner and more available than nuclear energy and should be probably be built instead of new nuclear plants. However, as energy systems around the globe continue to improve and adapt to changing energy needs and technology improves, we should discuss the risks of nuclear energy not as unique dangers, but in comparison to other energy forms.
As kids, my sister and I were given the summer job of picking apples up in our backyard so my dad wouldn’t run over them with the lawnmower. We were terrified of the bees that hovered around them, and would give the half-rotten apples a few firm kicks before safely plucking them up and throwing them into the field. This left me with more than a few bee stings, as well as a fear for the buzzing creatures.
But the truth is, the bees probably had more to fear than we did; for the last few decades, their populations have been on the decline. According to a literature review conducted by the United Nations, this can be attributed in part to pesticide use, competition, loss of habitats, and climate change. This concern was further amplified in 2006-2007 with the collapse of commercial colonies and loss of one-third of these honeybees.
Given these reasons, it might be tempting to chalk up bee decline, and perhaps insect pollinator decline generally, to certain professions and climate conditions. But the truth is, whether one is directly involved in the agriculture industry, or even a city-dweller, pollinators need us. After all, we rely on them to pollinate 35% of our food crops globally.
One easy way to help the bees, whether you live in a rural or urban area, is to plant native flowers for them. In fact, as researchers are beginning to realize, cities have a special advantage to providing safe spaces for pollinators: they often contain a diversity of flowering plants within small areas with their gardens, meadows, and nature reserves. Furthermore, selecting a variety of plants that flower over different time spans can provide a more constant source of forage for the bees. Finally, buying organic foods can also help to reduce the use of pesticides that may have adverse effects on bees and other pollinators.
Bees have more to fear than we do—but no matter where you come from, we can all agree that we would not be better off if these bees simply buzzed off.
For more information:
When people think about the conservation of animals, one of the animals people don't typically think about are lemurs. 90 of the known 101 known species are at risk of extinction. One thing contributing to their endangerment is the destruction of territories. Lemurs reside only in Madagascar and human settlement on Madagascar has greatly impacted the species. The rising rate of poverty over the past twenty years has lead to the increase in illegal logging. Much of the natural habitat has been destroyed and left very fragmented. Political unrest means that previous environmental laws placed for conservation have been ignored, these laws are left unenforced. Surprisingly, lemurs are also hunted for their meat.
One of the problems in efforts to conserve lemurs is that they can regulate their breeding. When their environment is being destroyed and food supplies are dwindling, they will not have children. The promotion of education, reforestation, and environmental research and laws. Though it is illegal, lemurs on the island are still kept captive as a means of tourism and domestication. If we can teach people the effects this on lemur populations, hopefully they will start to be released. Another issue is land, as only 10% of madagascar's original forests remain, it would be hard to just release more lemurs into a system that cannot fit them. Some wildlife conservation have begun creating Madagascar like forest conditions for captive lemurs to be released in. There is still more to understand and of to help the lemurs, but hopefully we can become more conscious of the issues and start to do our part (no matter how small).
Many people, not just conservation-focused individuals, want to protect endangered species. For example, the giant panda has become an international symbol of wildlife conservation, representing the need for humanity to protect wildlife from our encroaching tendencies. Fewer people, however, know why preserving these species is important beyond simply our love for nature.
One primary way that biodiversity (or a lack thereof) affects us is through ecosystem productivity. It has been shown through a number of studies that biodiversity affects the productivity of ecosystems just as much as more “popular” metrics like herbivore population and soil composition. In a study looking at the ability of different savannah grasses to produce biomass, researchers have shown that increasing the species count from 4 to 16 was as influential as “removing a dominant herbivore, a major natural drought, and fire suppression.” So, biodiversity affects the ability of ecosystems to produce the resources that we need.
Secondly, there are many cases where we simply cannot know the implications of losing a particular niche of the ecosystem. For example, National Geographic Wild reported a few decades ago on a fishing community that advocated for less whaling restrictions, through the argument that killer whales of the area reduced fish populations, making it harder to catch fish. However, this backfired dramatically. As whale populations decreased, fully grown killer whales (which usually prey on younger whales of different species) turned towards seals, and then eventually towards otters, drastically reducing otter populations. The loss of otters allowed organisms such as sea urchins to flourish, which then were able to wreak havoc on the kelp forests of the sea floor. With the sea floor exposed, fish larvae and eggs were suddenly easy prey for any sea life that happened to be around, reducing fish populations much more dramatically than the whales could ever do.
In short, biodiversity isn’t just important to us because lions are majestic and elephants are impressive, but because of all of the different ways it affects us, both as a factor in what ecosystems can produce and through many other unforeseen consequences.