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Beast of Contention

The polar bear as conservation emblem and political pawn

Today, no animal except perhaps the wolf divides opinions as strongly as does the polar bear, top predator and sentinel species of the Arctic. But while wolf protests are largely a North American and European phenomenon, polar bears unite conservationists — and their detractors — worldwide.

In the new millennium’s politics, polar bears play the part whales played in the 1980s. From a theatrics-as-protest perspective, their shape lends itself better to impersonation than that of a rainforest or whale. Activists take advantage of this. Dressed as polar bears, they show up in the most unlikely places — the Kremlin, or Ottawa’s Parliament Hill — as nonhuman “climate refugees. In an act billed as “part protest, part performance,” Greenpeace paraded a mechanical polar bear the size of a double-decker bus through central London, as part of its Save the Arctic campaign. Fifteen puppeteers operated Aurora the bear, which had an articulated head and neck, a mouth like an ice cave, and the real bear’s “slightly lazy” ambling gait.

Photo of Activist dressed as polar bearPhoto courtesy of Elizabeth Dalziel/Greenpeace A Greenpeace activist dressed as a polar bear visits London’s Mounted Household Cavalry. The bear’s shape and behavior make it particularly suited for impersonations as part of political “theater.”

When climate change became a pressing political issue, zoos that had closed polar bear exhibits or were planning to do so because of their high costs reversed course, making sure polar bears were on hand. In part, this reflected zoo visitors’ growing interest. But zoos also stepped up their breeding programs when the species was listed as threatened — many of their bears were well past the reproductive age. They soon increased their holdings also with abandoned cubs and “problem” bears removed from the Arctic.

Ice Bear book cover

Like captive breeding programs and reintroduction efforts in general, science-assisted interventions in the field raise the question of what constitutes wildness, or the bearness of polar bears. One of several emergency actions proposed to relieve starving bears has helicopters airlift food to the “most accessible” ones — at a cost of thirty-two thousand dollars per day. (Similar programs already exist for intensely managed animal species and populations such as the California condor, black bears in Washington, and brown bears in Eastern Europe.) Other last-ditch efforts biologists suggest include relocating bears farther north, where sea ice will last longer; moving more bears to zoos; and even euthanizing those unlikely …more

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The Vaquita Are Vanishing On Our Watch

International Whaling Commission adopts US-led emergency proposal to save the world’s most endangered cetacean (UPDATED 2:50 p.m.)

The vaquita, the smallest member of the porpoise family, is facing imminent extinction due to the inability of the international community to address critical threats to its survival. There are fewer than 60 of these critically endangered cetaceans left today.

a photo illustration of two vaquita in the oceanPhoto illustration courtesy of Save the Vaquitas There are fewer than 60 of these critically endangered cetaceans left today.

Also known as La Cochina (the Little Cow of the Sea) to people living in the Gulf of California in Mexico, the vaquita (Phocoena sinus) has the most limited geographical range of any marine cetacean species and is endemic to a mere 30-mile radius in the upper Gulf. According to the International Whaling Commission (IWC), its population has declined by more than 92 percent since 1997.  

"The situation of the vaquita is now in its critical phase," Justin Cooke of the International Union for Conservation of Nature told delegates to the IWC's annual meeting in Portoroz, Slovenia, on Tuesday, according to an Agence France Press report. “If the decline is not stopped then by the time we next discuss it... in two years' time, it will be already too late to save the species," he said while making a plea to stop illegal gillnet fishing that’s been killing vaquitas.

On Wednesday, the commission adopted an emergency proposal introduced by the United States to save the world's most threatened cetacean. The proposal, which was backed by the European Union and several other countries including Mexico, recognizes "the urgent need to strengthen enforcement efforts against illegal fishing in Mexico and totoaba smuggling out of Mexico and into transit and destination countries; the urgent need to remove active and ghost gillnets from the range of the vaquita; and the need to maintain the acoustic more effective monitoring of the ban on gillnet fishing." It also calls on IWC members to offer Mexico expert support to enforce the ban as well as financial aid to help compensate the fishermen affected and replace old fishing nets with safer alternatives.

Scientists have warned for decades that the vaquita is facing extinction due to its unique geographical restriction, mortality via accidental entrapment in the gillnets, and genetic vulnerability due to the population’s dwindling size.

 Vaquita Population Decline graph According to the International Whaling Commission (IWC), the vaquita's population has declined by more than 92 percent since 1997.

A 2014 …more

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Oilfield Wastewater Used to Grow Food in California May Contain Toxins

Chemicals present include 16 the state classifies as carcinogens or reproductive toxicants, says EWG report

Did you know that some of the fruits and veggies out on supermarket shelves are grown using wastewater from oil and gas operations? For the past several years, many drought-stricken farms in California’s Central Valley, which produces 40 percent of the nation’s fruits and vegetables, have been increasingly irrigating their crops with wastewater — a practice the US Department of Agriculture does not restrict.

 Field being watered by sprinklers Photo by David Kosling/USDA Crops being watered in southeastern Joaquin Valley, Kern County. While use of oilfield waste water is cause for concern, it doesn’t mean that we should stop eating produce from California, researchers say.

Now a new report by the Environmental Working Group says that this wastewater is possibly tainted with toxic chemicals, including chemicals that can cause cancer and reproductive harm. Farmers in Kern County have irrigated some 95,000 acres of food crops with billions of gallons of oil field wastewater, according to the report, which is based on an analysis of state data.

Actually, oil companies have been quietly selling wastewater for irrigation in California for decades, but it’s only in recent years that the matter has become public knowledge. In the past, the state required regular testing for only a handful of pollutants to satisfy permit requirements for use of wastewater on agriculture. This is the first time we are getting a detailed look at the makeup of the toxic cocktail that could be lurking in the water.

According to state data, oil companies operating in California have reported that recycled wastewater sold to Kern County irrigation districts since 2014 contained more than 20 million pounds and 2 million gallons of dozens of toxic chemicals. These chemicals included 16 that the state classifies as carcinogens or reproductive toxicants. Levels of the chemicals were not measured and a full assessment of what exactly is in this water is pretty much impossible because the companies have withheld the identity of almost 40 percent of the chemicals as so-called trade secrets.

Currently, the lightly treated wastewater is blended with fresh water and then applied to almonds, pistachios, and citrus trees, as well as to grapes, carrots, beans, tomatoes, and potatoes grown in the Cawelo, North Kern, Jasmin, and Kern-Tulare Water Districts in Kern and Tulare Counties. According to an earlier EWG report, in some of these places the water can even be used as drinking water for livestock and for farmed fish.


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Looking to Nature in the Search for Global Soil Solutions

Ray of Hope Prize winners mimic Andean nurse plant to help restore depleted soils

Soil is the unsung-hero of our food system. We depend on it to grow the food we put in our bodies, yet we treat it poorly, compacting it with tractors, depleting it of nutrients, and filling it with chemicals. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that globally, 25 percent of soil is degraded. Team BioNurse, a project of the Ceres Regional Center for Fruit and Vegetable Innovation in Chile, has come up with a creative way to help combat this degradation, one that turns to nature for inspiration.

photo of soil and sweet potatoesPhoto by US Department of AgricultureTeam BioNurse's nature inspired design helps address a global problem: soil degradation. 

An interdisciplinary team of seven that includes industrial designers, architects, and agronomists, Team BioNurse has designed a soil restoration mechanism that mimics the Yareta plant, a so-called “nurse” plant found in the harsh environment of the Andes. The resilient Yareta provides shelter for seedlings of other plants, protecting them from the elements and facilitating their establishment in the extreme mountain landscape. In doing so, this hardy plant paves the way for the succession of other, more delicate species. 

Team BioNurse designed a “BioPatch” that works the same way. Made of corn stalks and other biological materials, the BioPatch is planted with seedlings of plants that help restore soil health but which would struggle to grow in degraded soils. It nurtures these seedlings, providing them with the necessary nutrients and microbes to thrive under tough conditions, protecting them from wind and UV radiation, and directing water to their roots. The BioPatch is then placed on degraded agricultural fields, which, as BioNurse Team member Camilia Hernández points out, can also be “very harsh environments.” As the seedlings take root, they help amend the underlying soil.

photoname Photo courtesy of Team BioNurseThe BioPatch mimics the yareta plant, sheltering and nurturing seedlings
so that they can grow in depleted agricultural fields.

After one season, the BioPatch materials biodegrade, and after a year, the underlying soil becomes healthier and more productive. Hernández says the BioPatch also “integrates biodiversity and beauty into the fields.”

For this innovative solution Team BioNurse was awarded the first-ever Ray C. Anderson “Ray of Hope” Prize in the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge, at the Bioneers conference in Marin County, California last weekend. The international competition for nature-inspired solutions to global environmental problems comes with a $100,000 award.

The challenge is hosted by the …more

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Make Room for Youth at the Table

Young folks are thinking outside the box and building a broader, diverse, and thriving environmental movement

There’s a lot wrong in this moment, but what is really right and on time and hope embodied — is that there are a whole lot more people, in a whole lot more spaces, building power. Now, many folks for a long time have been building this power. Sometimes quietly, sometimes not so quietly, but let’s be honest, until recently — we haven’t given it a whole lot of notice or space.

youth at a climate protestPhoto by maisa_nyc/Flickryoung folks are finding more and more ways to reach us — through technology, through their voices, through broader channels to share their perspective.

But lucky for us, people who have been building power aren’t waiting on the rest of us to catch up. Whether it is the thousands of brave frontline Native American activists near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota have been protesting for months against the construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline,  or the bold activists of Black Lives Matter who have put their hearts and bodies on the line fighting for the humanity and safety of black lives, or the young people demanding to be heard in the halls of law-making institutions, willing to risk arrest, to ensure that their voices are included in determining their ecological futures—these folks have been at it all along. Building power, building analysis, strategizing, and dreaming of a brighter and more hopeful planet.

I’m happy to say that young folks are finding more and more ways to reach us — through technology, through their voices, through broader channels to share their perspective. We are now opening spaces so that the light can get in. And even when those spaces are not open, thank goodness, they are breaking in the window and coming in anyhow.

I happen to think, that the late David Brower may be both incredibly challenged by, and also incredibly inspired by, the current state of the social change movement today. Particularly, the role of youth in this great broad realm we call the environmental movement.

Challenged, because there’s a lot of discomfort in this present moment. People talk a lot about seemingly disparate issues coming together — silos breaking down. These issues have always been connected, but  many, who had blinkers on for ages, are only now beginning to see the links. Those folks have no choice but to start thinking outside the box.

Anisha Desai hiking with youthPhoto courtesy Bay …more

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Two Years After the Colorado Pulse Flow — An Abundance of Life

Birds, plants, and groundwater continue to benefit from pilot effort to revive the Colorado River delta, says report

Back 2014, an unprecedented transnational experiment attempted to restore, temporarily, the flow of the Colorado River to the Gulf of California. As part of a landmark agreement between the United States and Mexico, the International Boundary Water Commission unleashed an eight-week “pulse flow” of some 105,000 acre feet of water from a small dam on the US-Mexico border to help restore the Colorado River delta.

a women stading amid willowsPhoto by Karl W. Flessa/University of ArizonaMartha Gómez Sapiens, a monitoring team member, stands on a riverbank next to willows and cottonwoods that germinated as result of the pulse flow.

Conservationists hoped the water would revitalize the delta — which has been bone dry for nearly 60 years as a result of upstream dams and diversions on the Colorado — and bring back trees, animals, and aquatic life that were once abundant in the region when it was flush with water. (The transnational agreement authorized environmental flows of water into the Colorado River Delta from 2013 to 2017.)

Two growing seasons after that engineered release, it appears that birds, plants and groundwater in the delta, which lies south of the US-Mexico border, have indeed been benefitting from it.

Native willows and cottonwoods have sprung up wherever the pulse flow inundated bare soil and in response to this post-flood vegetation, birds have begun flocking to the area, according to the latest monitoring report prepared for the International Boundary and Water Commission by a bi-national University of Arizona-led team.

The interim report, released on Wednesday, documents the effects of the environmental flows in the delta from the initial pulse in March 2014 plus subsequent supplemental deliveries of water through December 2015.

"Some of the cottonwoods that germinated during the initial pulse flow are now more than 10 feet tall," Karl W. Flessa, UA professor of geosciences and co-chief scientist of the team that’s monitoring the impact of the pulse, said in a statement.

Migratory waterbirds, nesting waterbirds, and nesting riparian birds have all increased in abundance, the report says. The monitoring team found that the abundance of 19 bird species of conservation concern, including vermillion flycatchers, hooded orioles, and yellow-breasted chats, was 43 percent higher at the restoration sites than at other sites in the floodplain.

a vermillion flycatcherPhoto by Sarah MurrayThe abundance of 19 bird species of conservation concern, including vermillion flycatchers (pictured here), hooded orioles, and yellow-breasted chats, was 43 percent higher at …more

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Riding on the Back of a Whale

A Maori tribe has turned to whales to lead their struggling New Zealand town to a new life of employment and prosperity

In the late 1980s, the New Zealand seaside settlement of Kaikōura was in trouble. The economy was in decline, and many jobs had been lost in industries such as fishing, communications, and the railways. In desperation, Māori leaders decided to stake their future on their ancient protectors of the past — whales.

photo of Whale Watch KaikouraPhoto by Gabe LernerMāori leaders in Kaikōura, New Zealand took a risk when they started a whale watching business almost 30 years ago. Today, their town is a thriving sustainable tourism destination.

The local Ngāti Kurī sub-tribe claims descent from an ancestor called Paikea, who is said to have been saved from the sea and brought to safety on the back of a great whale. Whales had continued to be an important part of the lives of people in Kaikōura, which is one of the few places in the world where sperm whales can be seen close to shore year-round.

Could whales again be Ngāti Kurī’s salvation? “In the wee small hours of the morning, the idea of setting up a whale-watching business started going around the meeting rooms,” says Lisa Bond, of Whale Watch Kaikōura, the business that emerged from the community effort.

Bill Solomon and other Ngāti Kurī elders knew whale-watching was popular overseas and decided to take a gamble on the venture succeeding in New Zealand.

Four Māori families mortgaged their homes to buy an inflatable boat capable of taking up to eight passengers at a time out into the Pacific Ocean to spot whales.

A future for generations to come

“It was a risk, but a risk that our leaders took out of sheer determination to create a future for their families for the generations to come,” says Bond.

That first year, Ngāti Kurī’s small boat took a total of 3000 people whale-watching. Now, almost 30 years later, Whale Watch Kaikōura is a multi-million dollar business carrying just under 100,000 passengers annually on its fleet of specially-designed catamarans.

The business is 100 percent Māori-owned, is the largest employer in town, and has led the transformation of Kaikōura into a thriving visitor destination with an international reputation for sustainable tourism.

A haven for marine life

“Spotting a whale is always a magical and beautiful thing. I never take them for granted, no matter how often I see them,” says Bond, who joined Whale Watch Kaikōura in 1995, at the age of 19. She hadn’t spent much time on the …more

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