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Nature in the City

In Chicagoland, a quiet rewilding is underway

A cougar prowls wooded ravines in a wealthy community, searching for a mate. A coyote slinks through a human-built landscape on its way to its den outside one of the country’s largest football stadiums. Out in the chain of lakes, a recreational boating area, a plant biologist finds lotus plants blooming for the first time in generations. Further still from the city, a black bear wanders cornfields, seeking a home.

coyote by rail tracksPhoto by Ryan StavelyA coyote walks by the rail tracks near Jackson Park Terrace in Chicago. There are more than 2,000 coyotes living in metropolitan Chicago

Thirty years ago, this was all improbable — perhaps impossible. Now, wildlife is returning to the shores of the Great Lakes, even into the heart of the great city of Chicago. Although it’s home to nearly 10 million people, greater Chicagoland also houses more wildlife than at any time in recent history. The city and its suburbs are being rewilded. 

Ecological impoverishment has a long and sad history in this country, including the greater Chicago region. When white settlers first arrived in the Great Lakes region, the area had an abundance of deer, coyote, fox, otter, beaver, and a smattering of bobcats, wolves, and elk, too. In the early nineteenth century, there was more than enough wildlife; settlers could trap beaver, muskrat, and otter for fur, go hunting for sport, and have more than enough to feed themselves. In time, though, the city and its hinterland swelled in population, with little to no change in the every man for himself hunting policy. By the turn of the last century, white-tailed deer, by far the most abundant large animal here, was extirpated in the region.

But now the pendulum is swinging back toward ecological health. In the absence of any real predator, deer have overpopulated the area. In 1957, the first modern, regulated hunting season for the animal began. By the 1990’s, the deer had so capitalized on the available habitat and lack of predators that professional culling became necessary, though controversial.

It seemed, for a bit, that Chicago area residents had only to deal with the deer. Then the coyotes started to appear.

In 2000 the Urban Coyote Research program began to study the increasing reports of coyote sightings in suburban Dundee, located northwest of the city center. The …more

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China Imposes One-Year Ban on Ivory Imports Following Mounting Criticism

Wildlife advocates hopeful, but say more needs to be done to save African elephants from being poached to extinction

A bit of positive news to end this week with: Yesterday, China imposed a one-year ban on ivory imports. From the Associated Press:

"The State Administration of Forestry declared the ban in a public notice posted on its official site, in which it said the administration would not handle any import request.

"In an explanatory news report, an unnamed forestry official told the state-run Legal Evening News that authorities hope the ban would be a concrete step to reduce the demand for African tusks and to protect wild elephants. The official said the temporary ban would allow authorities to evaluate its effect on elephant protection before they can take further, more effective steps."

a herd of African elephantsPhoto by Steve GarvieThe elephant population in Africa has fallen 65 percent since 1980, from 1.2 million to 420,000 in 2012.If the killings continue at this rate, scientists predict that African elephants may become extinct in much of their range in as little as 10 years.

The ban, which went into immediate effect, seems to be in response to mounting criticism from the global community that increasing Chinese demand for ivory is fueling rampant poaching and threatening drive African elephants to extinction.

Just last week, British naturalist Sir David Attenborough and several other conservationists and British members of Parliament sent a letter to the Chinese President Xi Jinping urging him to “to act decisively to finally end China’s domestic ivory trade (both legal and illegal).”  The move also comes days ahead of a visit to China by Prince William, who is the royal patron of Tusk, a charity working to conserve wildlife in Africa. The 32-year-old prince, who will land in Beijing on Sunday, is expected to bring up the issue of ivory and wildlife trafficking during his visit.

The elephant population in Africa has fallen 65 percent since 1980, from 1.2 million to 420,000 in 2012, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society. It is estimated that at least 100,000 elephants were killed for their tusks in just three years — between 2010 and 2012. If the killings continue at this rate, scientists predict that African elephants may become extinct in much of their range in as little as 10 years.

photoname Photo by Gavin Shire/ USFWSWhile the poached ivory makes its way to …more

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Heard about the FBI Tracking of Keystone XL Activists? It’s Worse than You Thought.

The energy industry is now firmly hitched to the national security state.

This is a sneak peak from our forthcoming Spring edition. If you value dogged reporting like this, please become a subscriber today.

In August 2010, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Domestic Terrorism Analysis Unit distributed an intelligence bulletin to all field offices warning that environmental extremism would likely become an increasing threat to the energy industry. The eight-page document argued that, even though the industry had encountered only low-level vandalism and trespassing, recent “criminal incidents” suggested that environmental extremism was on the rise. The FBI concluded: “Environmental extremism will become a greater threat to the energy industry owing to our historical understanding that some environmental extremists have progressed from committing low-level crimes against targets to more significant crimes over time in an effort to further the environmental extremism cause.”

collage showing demonstrators, background a redacted report mentioning terrorist actsoriginal photo John Duffy

Not long after the bulletin was distributed, a private security firm providing intelligence reports to the Pennsylvania Department of Homeland Security cited the FBI document in order to justify the surveillance of anti-fracking groups. The same security firm concluded that the “escalating conflict over natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania” could lead to an increase in “environmentalist activity or eco-terrorism.”

Since the 2010 FBI assessment was written, the specter of environmental extremism has been trotted out by both law enforcement and energy-industry security teams to describe a wide variety of grassroots groups opposed to the continued extraction of fossil fuels. In 2011, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP ) published a report titled, “Environmental Criminal Extremism and Canada’s Energy Sector.” The RCMP warned that environmental extremism posed a “clear and present criminal threat” to the energy industry. While both the FBI and RCMP reports make an effort to distinguish between lawful protest and criminal activity, they often conflate the two – in the RCMP report the terms “violence” and “direct action” are used interchangeably – and suggest opposition to the energy industry will lead to extremism. (The FBI’s Counterterrorism Division declined to answer questions about the 2010 bulletin.)

Yet even as the resistance to “extreme energy projects” has grown in size and scope, there is little evidence to support the breathless warnings about “eco-terrorism.” There has been no upward spiral in criminality among environmental activists. To the contrary, arson, …more

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Engineering Students Devise System to Track Ghost Fishing Nets

Invention could help save hundreds of marine animals that get entangled and killed by abandoned fishing nets every year

When fishermen lose control of a fishing net or abandon a torn net at sea, the nets float around on the water surface or deep within the sea, ensnaring and killing millions of fish and marine mammals every year. Poetically called “ghost nets,” these are hardly-ethereal nets are usually made of heavy-duty nylon and hang on in the waters for years and decades causing repeated injuries and deaths of aquatic animals. Even after these nets fall to pieces, they continue to be a part of the ocean plastic pollution problem since they are ingested by birds, fish and other marine life.

Last fall, Alejandro Plasencia, Roberto Pla, and Joan Farré, a trio of student engineers in Spain invented the Rémora System to make management and recapture of ghost nets feasible. Their invention, which could help save hundreds of marine animals that get entangled and killed by abandoned fishing nets every year, was so appealing that it promptly won the James Dyson Award (an international student design award).

How does the Rémora System work? The two-part system consists of a biodegradable net attached with tags embedded with radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips, an RFID reader, and a smartphone app. The tags monitor the net's integrity and location, allowing fishermen to either find and repair the nets or declare them lost, upon which they could be collected by nonprofits or government agency involved in marine debris retrieval work.

“Those RFID tags are a game changer.” Plascencia says. The tags use low energy Bluetooth technology and have coin-sized batteries that can last up to a year. “What they do is emit a device ID over and over again, so they are perfectly reusable and recyclable,” he says. 

The nets are made of a polyethylene mixed with an additive that would cause the product to start biodegrading after four years. The engineers’ hope is that with the sped up ability to biodegrade, these new nets could reduce the amount of plastic floating around the ocean.

To help put the new products in the context of everyday practices, Plascencia explains how fishermen usually use nets these days: “Each time the net is deployed the net is pulled out thanks to a power block and then carefully folded in the ship’s deck. Many sailors have to check every inch of the 36 hectares of the net to ensure …more

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Obama Vetoes Bill Approving Keystone XL Pipeline

GOP to schedule an override vote by March 3

As promised, without much fanfare, President Barak Obama vetoed a bill that would have approved the controversial Keystone XL pipeline shortly after it landed on his desk today.

Obama in the Oval OfficeOfficial White House Photo by Pete Souza"Through this bill the United States Congress attempts to circumvent longstanding and proven processes for determining whether or not building and operating a cross-border pipeline serves the national interest, the president wrote in his veto message.

"The presidential power to veto legislation is one I take seriously. But I also take seriously my responsibility to the American people. And because this act of Congress conflicts with established executive branch procedures and cuts short thorough consideration of issues that could bear on our national interest — including our security, safety, and environment — it has earned my veto," Obama wrote in his veto message to the Senate.

"Through this bill, the United States Congress attempts to circumvent longstanding and proven processes for determining whether or not building and operating a cross-border pipeline serves the national interest," he added.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest had indicated earlier today that the president would veto the bill because the State Department is still reviewing whether it would serve the United States’ national interests to approve the 1,179-mile pipeline — which would transport 830,000 barrels of heavy crude from the tar sands mines of Alberta, Canada to refineries in Texas.

Environmentalists and other Keystone opponents, of course, are delighted by the president's swift move, even though it came as no surprise.

“President Obama said he’d veto this attack on his executive authority, and he kept his word. That’s what he said he’d do from the start, but Republicans in Congress continued to waste everyone’s time with a bill destined to go nowhere, just to satisfy the agenda of their big oil allies, Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune said in a statement.

“President Obama just stood up with farmers, ranchers and Tribal Nations to protect our land and water, said Jane Kleeb executive director of Bold Nebraska, a trans-partisan coalition of conservatives and progressives, farmers and environmentalists opposed to the pipeline. The President's veto comes at a time when Republicans will do anything Big Oil asks, even if it means putting our families at-risk of water pollution. We call upon the President to use that same courage and leadership …more

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North Carolina Wants Feds to End Red Wolf Rewilding Program

Only 100 of this reclusive, endangered canid remain in the wild

The red wolf, an endangered species with fewer than 100 individuals left in the wild and approximately 200 in captive breeding facilities around the country, is a striking, smart-looking canid with pointy ears tinged an autumn crimson. Larger than coyotes and smaller than gray wolves, red wolves have impossibly slender legs and eyes that can be deep and sorrowful. Seeing one up close — a rarity that probably requires a visit to a breeding facility in the winter months — is a humbling experience. The animals stay to themselves, a connected pack with no desire to add any human siblings, and only occasionally perk up their ears — perhaps a sign that they hear the trespasser, sense the presence, and prefer life without instigation.

Red WolfPhoto by by Jim LiestmanWild populations of red wolves can be found only in North Carolina's Washington, Beaufort, Tyrrell, Hyde and, Dare counties.

By the 1960s, the red wolf population had been decimated by intensive predator control programs and habitat loss. Today’s only wild population can be found in Washington, Beaufort, Tyrrell, Hyde and Dare counties in North Carolina, not too far from the world-famous beaches of the Outer Banks. The first rewilding of red wolves began in 1987 in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in eastern North Carolina, thanks to the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). These releases have helped a population that numbered as few as 17 back then grow to healthier, though still small, numbers.

However, because of several issues in North Carolina, including hybridization with coyotes and concern from local landowners, the future of the red wolf in the Southeast remains uncertain. Recently, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission adopted resolutions calling for the end of the red wolf reintroduction project in the state and for the USFWS to capture and remove individual animals and subsequent offspring that were released on private land.

If the resolutions are fully realized, red wolves could become biologically extinct in the wild again.

The USFWS is expected to issue its decision on the matter in March, and all possibilities remain on the table. “We still haven’t made our decision at this point on what to do with the nonessential, experimental population there in North Carolina,” said Tom MacKenzie, spokesperson for the Southeast Region of the USFWS.

MacKenzie said there are two main options: …more

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Plastic Debris is Contributing to the Potential Extinction of Endangered Marine Species

Threatened or near threatened species make up 17% of all marine animals impacted by manmade debris, says report

A few days ago, I wrote about a study quantifying the ginormous amount of plastic debris that’s making its way into our oceans every year. (In case you haven’t heard it yet, 9 million tons of plastic is expected to end at sea this year, and researchers say the trash will likely increase tenfold over the next decade.) Now yet another study, which attempts to quantify how much of sea life is impacted by stuff we throw away, says this flotsam is contributing to the potential extinction of some already endangered marine species.

seal entangled in fishing netPhoto courtesy of NOAA Marine Debris ProgramDivers release a seal entangled in derelict fishing gear. The study notes that plastic waste accounted for nearly 92 percent of all cases of entangelments and debris ingestion by marine animals.

Researchers at Plymouth University in Britain compiled reports from across the globe and found that at least 44,000 animals and organisms have become entangled in, or swallowed marine debris in the past five decades and plastic waste accounted for nearly 92 percent of these cases. They found that 17 percent of all species impacted were listed as threatened or near threatened on the IUCN Red List, including the Hawaiian monk seal, the loggerhead turtle, and sooty shearwater. The findings were published earlier this month in Marine Pollution Bulletin.

“Encounters with marine debris are of particular concern for species that are recognized to be threatened, and with 17 per cent of all species reported in the paper as near threatened, vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered on the IUCN Red List, it is evident that marine debris may be contributing to the potential for species extinction," the report’s co-author Professor Richard Thompson, one of the world's leading experts on microplastics in the marine environment, said in a statement.

Thompson and his research partner, Sarah Gall, collated evidence from a wide variety of sources on instances of entanglement, ingestion, physical damage to ecosystems, and rafting — where species are transported by debris. “Reports in the literature began in the 1960s with fatalities being well documented for birds, turtles, fish, and marine mammals," Gall said.

In total, they found that 693 species had been documented as having encountered debris, with nearly 400 involving entanglement and ingestion. These incidents had occurred around the world, but were most commonly reported off …more

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