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Wolves Are Losing Ground to Industrial Logging in Southeast Alaska

Clear-cuts reduce security and prey for a struggling wolf population on Prince of Wales Island

For 12,000 years, wolves have roamed Southeast Alaska’s rugged Alexander Archipelago — a 300-mile stretch of more than 1,000 islands mostly within the Tongass National Forest. Now, their old-growth forest habitat is rapidly disappearing, putting the wolves at risk. As the region’s logging policies garner controversy, a new study examines what the wolves need in order to survive.   

photo of wolf on Prince of Wales IslandPhoto courtesy of ADF&GThe Alexander Archipelago wolf is widely considered to be a subspecies of gray wolf genetically distinct from other North American populations. The wolf faces threats from logging and trapping on Prince of Wales Island in southeast Alaska.

Largely isolated from mainland wolves by water barriers and the Coast Mountains, the Alexander Archipelago wolf (Canis lupus ligoni) is widely considered to be a subspecies of gray wolf genetically distinct from other North American populations. In the 1990s and again in 2011, conservationists sought to protect the island wolves under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), but the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) denied these petitions — most recently, in January 2016.

Despite their decision not to list the subspecies, in their analysis, the FWS highlighted Prince of Wales Island as the area of greatest concern for the archipelago wolves, due primarily to impacts of logging and trapping. Bigger than the state of Delaware, Prince of Wales is the largest island in Southeast Alaska and the fourth-largest island in the US, after Hawaii, Kodiak Island, and Puerto Rico. The island's lowland hills are blanketed with temperate rainforests of spruce and hemlock and strewn with winding rivers and fjords.

Much of Prince of Wales' scant human population of fewer than 5,500 residents makes its living from the island’s natural resources — uranium mining, commercial fishing, hunting, and harvesting timber. The Tongass, which covers most of the island, is the last national forest where the logging industry can legally clear-cut old-growth timber. “The trees are huge… it’s been the epicenter for the logging industry in Alaska,” says Gretchen Roffler, a wildlife research biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G).

When commercial logging reached Prince of Wales in the 1950s, it hit full force. Between 1954 and 2004, 94 percent of the "contiguous, high-volume old-growth —  the big trees, the really high-quality timber — was harvested,” according to John Schoen, retired senior conservation biologist with ADF&G. “That’s a huge impact.”

“Prince of Wales Island is basically a patchwork of the …more

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An Environmental Leader Is One Who Strives to Inspire, not Impress

Anyone can become a leader by creating awareness and taking action to reduce harm to our planet

When bumblebees pollinate flowers, they don't realize what they do. Without bees we wouldn't have beautiful flowers with bright colors to smell and look at everyday.

A bumblebee does not strive to impress others with his skills, but to complete his job on Earth. To me, every human on this planet holds this same task in their life.

bumblebeePhoto by Elena Ilyinskaya Like bumblebees, we all must contribute to doing good and working hard so that Mother Nature can thrive

Like bumblebees, we all must contribute to doing good and working hard so that Mother Nature can thrive. If we do not, like flowers, our Earth will perish. And there is nothing more sad than for something so beautiful to wilt away.

To me, a leader is not a boss or even a decision maker. A leader is someone who takes the first step as an example and model to others. Environmental leadership is something that anyone can do by taking the first step in creating awareness, consciousness, and action on reducing harm to our planet.

In my personal experience, environmental leadership helped me find my passion to further my knowledge on sustainability and become an activist myself. Once I learned and became aware of the damages mankind performs on Earth, I felt it was my task to do something about it. I joined the environmental club at my school and became passionate on topics such as reducing waste and composting. This started my journey on environmental leadership, as the following year I became president of the club. I never wanted to force facts on to anyone, but continue pursuing sustainable projects to improve my school’s environmental footprint. That year I led a pilot project for a three-bin system to be installed in my school, which was later formally enforced. Taking the first step had led me to my passion.

With my environmental club, I have seen my friends become leaders. I have seen how each of us teaches our classmates and families about saving water, using reusable containers, or going vegetarian. I have seen the different approaches, some more persuasive than others, but all inspiring.

Being able to witness and experience this at my age has given me confidence that I am not only an environmental leader, but that I am surrounded by passionate leaders who are all striving for the same goal. This goal, just like a bumblebee’s, is to contribute what we can. And if we happen to …more

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Humans Have Paved the Way for a Global Lyme Disease Epidemic

Carved-up forests, biodiversity loss, and climate change may not have caused the tick-borne scourge, but they have enabled it

On the day after Christmas in 2015, I took a walk with my 30-year-old son in an old cornfield that long ago morphed, with changing patterns of agriculture, into a gently tended meadow we know well. This nine-acre patch of earth, across the dead-end lane from our home in upstate New York, has a rare and wonderful feature that we have worked, with the cooperation of neighbors, to sustain: a mowed trail around its perimeter that allows access even when summer mustard, milkweed, and goldenrod are four feet high and the blackberry brambles profuse.

photo of ticksPhoto by Jeb Bjerke Ticks have changed daily life in communities across the US and much of the world, and the diseases they infect humans with have altered the course of many lives.

As we often do, we took with us that day a coterie of mismatched family dogs — a Shih tzu, Chihuahua, springer spaniel, and a beige rescue that we call a boxer.

The day was unusually balmy in the last week of a year that had gone down as the warmest in 135 years of weather history, followed only —  but considerably — by the year before. The temperature had topped out at 55 degrees Fahrenheit that December 26th; it had reached into the mid-60s on Christmas and hit 72 in nearby Poughkeepsie the day before. For that time of year, daytime temperatures at or near freezing would have been far more typical here in the Hudson Valley, a hundred miles north of New York City. Instead, it had been so warm that forsythia buds had sprouted in one neighbor’s garden; crocuses peaked through in another’s.

When we came back from our short walk, we did what has become in New York State a routine practice from spring through fall, but not for winter. We checked the dogs for ticks. When we were done, we had picked twenty-one blacklegged ticks from the scruffs of our pups, each about the size of a small freckle, and all with one goal in mind: to latch onto a warm body and suck its blood.

When I moved to this rural county in upstate New York 30 years ago, such things did not happen. Ticks certainly did not show up in December, were indeed rare, and, if seen, were usually of the easier-to-spot dog tick variety, which infrequently carried Rocky Mountain spotted fever. They did not pack the potential arsenal of infection of the …more

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Amur Leopard Population Triples — to 103

Thanks to protective efforts in Russia, there's hope these critically endangered big cats will avoid extinction

Just a few years ago, the Amur leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis) appeared to be on the fast track to extinction. Surveys conducted in 2000 revealed that only about 30 of these critically endangered big cats remained in the forests of southwestern Russia, with just two more across the border in China. With poaching and habitat loss still so rampant at the time, saving the species appeared to be a “mission impossible,” says ecologist Yury Darman, senior advisor to WWF-Russia’s Amur branch.

photo of amur leopardPhoto courtesy of US The Far Eastern Leopard ProgrammeIn 2000, surveys indicated that there were only 30 Amur leopards left in southwestern Russia. Now there are just over 100.

In fact the situation was so bad that many conservationists felt drastic steps needed to be taken. The only question was which drastic measure to take. “In 2001, during the International Workshop on Conservation of the Far Eastern Leopard in Vladivostok, many scientists and state authorities seriously proposed to catch the last wild 30 Amur leopards to ensure their survival in captivity,” Darman says. That would have protected the cats from poaching and other threats while laying the groundwork for breeding and future reintroduction efforts.

Instead, another dramatic option emerged. WWF started a campaign called “Save each of the survivors” in the hopes of halting leopard poaching and gaining support for the cats amongst local people. Meanwhile the Russian government, encouraged by the conservation organization and spearheaded by former vice-minister of the Russian Federation Sergey Ivanov, laid the groundwork to create a massive protected area for the big cats. That effort proved to be contentious, but it eventually led to the 2012 establishment of Land of the Leopard National Park — about 647,000 acres of prime leopard habitat where the animals could live and breed in safety.

All of those efforts have now paid off. Land of the Leopard National Park announced this month that the population of Amur leopards within its borders has increased to 84 adults and 19 cubs or adolescents. This is a dramatic increase over the 57 leopards counted in the national park in 2015 and the first time in decades that the Amur leopard population has exceeded 100 animals.

Darman credited hard work by “enthusiastic NGOs, scientists and really responsible state authorities” for achieving the tripling of the wild Amur leopard population in under 20 years.

Most of that increase is natural growth …more

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A Nonnative Tree, an Invasive Beetle, and the Endangered Bird Caught in the Middle

Court says federal government must clean up the mess it helped make of riparian ecosystems in the US Southwest

The intentions were noble. The results another thing entirely.

Back in the early oughts, the federal government introduced one invasive species to fight another in the US Southwest. The idea was to rid the region of a hard-to-root-out plant wreaking havoc on fragile river habitats, but one unfortunate result of the effort was the elimination of habitat for an already endangered avian species.

photo of southwestern willow flycatcherPhoto courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife ServiceThe endangered southwestern willow flycatcher migrates to the US southwest each spring to breed. It has adpated to nesting in nonnative tamarisk as the trees have spread across the region.

Salt cedar, or tamarisk (Empidonax trailii extimus), is native to Eurasia, where it is employed primarily as ornamental landscape. It was introduced to the US southwest in 1887 in an effort to stem erosion, and quickly became the bane of southwestern rivers due to its intensive water use and prolific seed dispersal.

Congress passed a law empowering the federal government to find a remedy. In 1997, under the auspices of the Plant Protection Act, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) decided to import another invasive, the Diorhabda elongate, or tamarask leaf beetle, a Japanese beetle with an appetite for salt cedar.

But there was a flycatcher in the ointment. In 1995, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) had designated the southwestern willow flycatcher, a tiny bird that migrates to the southwest each spring to breed, as endangered. As tamarisk had taken over in the region, the songbird had adapted, making the flowering tree work as a nesting place in lieu of the disappeared cottonwoods, buttonbush, and willow it preferred.

As such, the beetle represented a threat to the flycatcher's habitat. Birders and scientists alike told USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) entities just that.

The complication triggered “consultations,” as required under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), with the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Fish and Wildlife expressed reservations that echoed concerns of the bird's advocates, noting that without replacing the salt cedar with native vegetation, the flycatcher would have nowhere to nest. But the service eventually signed off on the beetle plan, on the USDA's claim the program would have “no significant impact” on the songbird's ability to survive.

photoname Photo by Dan Bean/Colorado Department of AgricultureTamarisk beetles dine on a salt cedar tree.

Concessions were made. No beetles would be …more

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The Case of the Stolen Succulents

Native hipster plants are at center of California poaching crisis

In China, they are prized for their chubby limbs and cute shapes. In Korea, they are a treasured hobby for housewives. But on the coastal cliffs of California, the dudleya succulent plants are vanishing, snatched up by international smugglers and shipped to an Asian middle-class market hungry for California native flora.

photo of succulentsPhoto by Stan ShebsDemand for succulents like Dudleya farinosa in Asia is fueling destructive poaching of native plants along the California coast.

California Department of Fish and Wildlife wardens have made five busts this year, involving more than 3,500 stolen plants, evidence that the succulent, a symbol of American hipster style, has gone global to grievous effect.

“Right now these plants are a boom in Korea, China, and Japan. It’s huge among domestic housewives. It’s a status thing,” said the department warden Pat Freeling, who spearheaded the investigation. “It’s become an exotic lotus flower succulent. Someone likened it to the next Pokémon.”

The succulents, dubbed “Live Forevers” by early California explorers for their ability to survive long ocean crossings, require little care and are often mistakenly thought to be ideal for apartment living. Each five-inch plant, with waxy, white-green leaves that grow in bud-like circles, is said to fetch $40 to $50 on the Asian market. While they are not rare in California and can be grown in nurseries, the process takes years. And nursery owners said they were not available in the huge quantities that Asian shippers seem to want.

Freeling began investigating the thefts after getting a tip in January from an anonymous woman, who got stuck in a line at a post office in Mendocino County, 150 miles north of San Francisco, behind a man who was mailing dozens of boxes to Asia.

Freeling said the man was holding up the whole line and and the boxes were dripping dirt. When the women asked him what he was shipping, the man said: “Shhhhh, something very valuable.” When she asked where he got it from, he pointed to the ocean.

Thinking he had been tipped off to an abalone poaching ring, Freeling got customs officials to X-ray the 60 boxes. He was puzzled when what they found inside was not rare sea life but hundreds of plants of the species Dudleya farinosa being mailed to Korea and China.

So began the search for dudleya smugglers. Soon Freeling found a man pulling the plants off a cliffside and shoving them into a big …more

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Bioremediation Efforts Mushroom in the Aftermath of California’s North Bay Fires

Ecologists deploy fungi in Sonoma to try to address toxic run-off from ash

Fifty miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, California's Sonoma County is famous for its wine-country image — a patchwork of picturesque rolling hills and vineyards graced with moderate temperatures all year round. Beyond the grapes and quaint roadside tasting rooms, oak woodlands rich with black oak, Douglas fir, madrone, and California laurel provide habitat for abundant wildlife and ecological services like erosion control and water filtration to the surrounding area. Typically hot and dry from midsummer through late fall, these woodlands also comprise an ideal environment for wildfires. It was here that flames ignited on the evening of October 8, 2017, fueled by winds of 50 miles per hour.

photo of California firesPhoto by Martin EspinozaThe Tubbs, Nuns, and Pocket Fires burned some 250 square miles in Sonoma County, and claimed more than 20 lives. They also left behind a toxic trail, raising concerns about chemiclas seeping into the region's farmlands and streams.

The fires, which also erupted in neighboring Napa and Mendocino Counties, spread quickly, reaching residential areas in the city of Santa Rosa late at night. Flames devoured nearly 250 square miles of open space and urban development, including 6,000 homes and business structures. The Tubbs, Nuns, and Pocket Fires also claimed more than 20 lives in Sonoma County, and sent a cloud of toxic ash over a wide stretch of the San Francisco Bay Area for weeks. Local ecologists promptly took action, driven by concerns about chemicals seeping into the region's farmlands and streams, the Russian River, and eventually the Pacific Ocean.

"The concern about the toxic ash and fire runoff was becoming a priority," says Erik Ohlsen, a Sonoma County ecologist and founder of the Permaculture Skills Center in Sebastopol. But, "the time frame was so small, the window was so small to do anything — how do you deploy on a scale that matches the scale of the fire, and process and strategize to catch and filter all that toxic ash?”

Ohlsen is part of the grassroots Fire Mediation Action Coalition that formed in response to widespread fire damage. In the aftermath of the fire, this group of ecologists, organic farmers, wildlife biologists, and residents discussed the probability of heavy metals, PCBs, dioxines, and a multitude of other chemicals contained in the ash contaminating local creeks, drinking water, and soil. Given the nearly 600,000 acres of agricultural land in Sonoma County, preventing chemicals from contaminating farms and vineyards was considered critical and urgent.

Within a …more

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