Wildlife preservation depends on saving animals, their habitats, and their cultures

Ed Yong writes:

In the 1800s, there were so many bighorn sheep in Wyoming that when one trapper passed through Jackson Hole, he described “over a thousand sheep in the cliffs above our campsite.” No such sights exist today. The bighorns slowly fell to hunters’ rifles, and to diseases spread from domestic sheep. Most herds were wiped out, and by 1900, a species that once numbered in the millions stood instead in the low thousands.

In the 1940s, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department began trying to move bighorns back into their historic habitats. Those relocations continue today, and they’ve been increasingly successful at restoring the extirpated herds. But the lost animals aren’t just lost bodies. Their knowledge also died with them—and that is not easily replaced.

Bighorn sheep, for example, migrate. They’ll climb for dozens of miles over mountainous terrain in the spring, “surfing” the green waves of newly emerged plants. They learn the best routes from one another, over decades and generations. And for that reason, a bighorn sheep that’s released into unfamiliar terrain is an ecological noob. It’s not the same as an individual that lived in that place its whole life and was led through it by a knowledgeable mother.

“The translocated animals were literally let out of a livestock trailer and started looking around at their new environment,” says Matthew Kauffman from the University of Wyoming. “And they almost entirely failed to migrate.”

Kauffman knows this because the translocated sheep were often fitted with radio collars, allowing him and his colleagues to compare their movements to those of bighorns that lived in the same place for centuries. Within those longstanding herds, between 65 and 100 percent of the sheep migrated. But in the translocated herds, fewer than 9 percent migrated—only the sheep that had been moved into established populations that already knew the land. [Continue reading…]

Death toll from Hurricane Maria higher than 9/11

CBS News reports:

Hurricane Maria killed far more people in Puerto Rico than initially thought, accounting for an estimated 2,975 deaths on the island from September 2017 through February 2018, according to a new analysis. The study found that those in low-income areas, and elderly men, were at greatest risk of dying.

The independent analysis was commissioned by the governor of Puerto Rico and conducted by researchers at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health. CBS News obtained a report on the findings from Carlos Mercader, executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration.

“The reality is that we take this very seriously,” Mercader said on CBSN. [Continue reading…]

The 9/11 attacks killed 2,996 people, while the toll from Maria is estimated as 3,057: 2,975 in Puerto Rico, 65 in Dominica, 5 in the Dominican Republic, 4 in the contiguous United States, 3 in Haiti, 2 in Guadeloupe, and 3 in the United States Virgin Islands.

Air pollution causes ‘huge’ reduction in intelligence, study reveals

The Guardian reports:

Air pollution causes a “huge” reduction in intelligence, according to new research, indicating that the damage to society of toxic air is far deeper than the well-known impacts on physical health.

The research was conducted in China but is relevant across the world, with 95% of the global population breathing unsafe air. It found that high pollution levels led to significant drops in test scores in language and arithmetic, with the average impact equivalent to having lost a year of the person’s education.

“Polluted air can cause everyone to reduce their level of education by one year, which is huge,” said Xi Chen at Yale School of Public Health in the US, a member of the research team. “But we know the effect is worse for the elderly, especially those over 64, and for men, and for those with low education. If we calculate [the loss] for those, it may be a few years of education.”

Previous research has found that air pollution harms cognitive performance in students, but this is the first to examine people of all ages and the difference between men and women. [Continue reading…]

The human domination of the face of the Earth

By Rhett A. Butler

Despite ongoing deforestation, fires, drought-induced die-offs, and insect outbreaks, the world’s tree cover actually increased by 2.24 million square kilometers — an area the size of Texas and Alaska combined — over the past 35 years, finds a paper published in the journal Nature. But the research also confirms large-scale loss of the planet’s most biodiverse ecosystems, especially tropical forests.

The study, led by Xiao-Peng Song and Matthew Hansen of the University of Maryland, is based on analysis of satellite data from 1982 to 2016. The researchers broke land cover into three categories: tall vegetation consisting of trees of at least five meters (16 feet) in height; short vegetation under five meters in height including shrubs, grass, and agricultural crops; and “bare ground”, including urban areas, sand, tundra, and rock. While the classification may seem simplistic, powerful conclusions can be drawn from the data, including assessing agricultural expansion, climate-driven expansion and contraction of ecosystems, and forest clearing and recovery.

“The results of this study reflect a human-dominated Earth system,” the researchers write. “Direct human action on landscapes is found over large areas on every continent, from intensification and extensification of agriculture to increases in forestry and urban land uses, with implications for the maintenance of ecosystem services.”

[Read more…]

EPA unveils new coal pollution rules. In the fine print: more deaths

The New York Times reports:

The Trump administration has hailed its overhaul of federal pollution restrictions on coal-burning power plants as creating new jobs, eliminating burdensome government regulations and ending what President Trump has long described as a “war on coal.”

The administration’s own analysis, however, revealed on Tuesday that the new rules could also lead to as many as 1,400 premature deaths annually by 2030 from an increase in the extremely fine particulate matter that is linked to heart and lung disease, up to 15,000 new cases of upper respiratory problems, a rise in bronchitis, and tens of thousands of missed school days.

Officials at the Environmental Protection Agency, which crafted the regulation, said that other rules governing pollution could be used to reduce those numbers.

“We love clean, beautiful West Virginia coal,” Mr. Trump said a political rally Tuesday evening in West Virginia, the heart of American coal country. “And you know, that’s indestructible stuff. In times of war, in times of conflict, you can blow up those windmills, they fall down real quick. You can blow up pipelines, they go like this,” he said, making a hand gesture. “You can do a lot of things to those solar panels, but you know what you can’t hurt? Coal.”

Nevertheless, Tuesday’s release of the rule along with hundreds of pages of technical analysis for the first time acknowledged that the rollback of the pollution controls would also reverse the expected health gains from the tougher regulations. [Continue reading…]

Did dairying climates pave the way for the evolution of modern democracy?

PsyPost reports:

An analysis of 108 Old World countries found that cold/wet climates suitable for dairy farming were associated with lactose tolerance in the year 1500, which was in turn associated with higher child survival rates, greater per capita income, and fewer children per family in the year 1800. This enhanced production power was in turn associated with political freedom and civil liberties in the year 2000.

The researchers believe that lactose tolerance led to longer life expectancy and postponed parenthood, which shifted life strategies toward long-term goals and provided people with more time to undertake activities of their choice.

“Who we are and what we think and do has deeper historical roots and routes than we are ready to admit. However, this does not mean that we are unfree. On the contrary, our ancestors have continuously, intelligently, and ingeniously adapted their habits to their habitats, a process that is still going on today,” Van de Vliert told PsyPost. [Continue reading…]

As Trump dismantles clean air rules, an industry lawyer delivers for ex-clients

The New York Times reports:

As a corporate lawyer, William L. Wehrum worked for the better part of a decade to weaken air pollution rules by fighting the Environmental Protection Agency in court on behalf of chemical manufacturers, refineries, oil drillers and coal-burning power plants.

Now, Mr. Wehrum is about to deliver one of the biggest victories yet for his industry clients — this time from inside the Trump administration as the government’s top air pollution official.

On Tuesday, President Trump is expected to propose a vast rollback of regulations on emissions from coal plants, including many owned by members of a coal-burning trade association that had retained Mr. Wehrum and his firm as recently as last year to push for the changes.

The proposal strikes at the heart of climate-change regulations adopted by the Obama administration to force change among polluting industries, and follows the relaxation of separate rules governing when power plants must upgrade air pollution equipment. Mr. Wehrum, who has led the E.P.A.’s clean air office since November, also helped deliver the changes in several of those rules. [Continue reading…]

More than 2 billion people lack safe drinking water. That number will only grow

Science News reports:

Freshwater is crucial for drinking, washing, growing food, producing energy and just about every other aspect of modern life. Yet more than 2 billion of Earth’s 7.6 billion inhabitants lack clean drinking water at home, available on demand.

A major United Nations report, released in June, shows that the world is not on track to meet a U.N. goal: to bring safe water and sanitation to everyone by 2030. And by 2050, half the world’s population may no longer have safe water.

Will people have enough water to live?

Two main factors are pushing the planet toward a thirstier future: population growth and climate change. For the first, the question is how to balance more people against the finite amount of water available.

India has improved water access in rural areas, but remains at the top of the list for sheer number of people (163 million) lacking water services. Ethiopia, second on the list with 61 million people lacking clean water, has improved substantially since the last measurement in 2000, but still has a high percentage of total residents without access.

Short of any major but unlikely breakthroughs, such as new techniques to desalinate immense amounts of seawater (SN: 8/20/16, p. 22), humankind will have to make do with whatever freshwater already exists.

Most of the world’s freshwater goes to agriculture, mainly to irrigating crops but also to raising livestock and farming aquatic organisms, such as fish and plants. As the global population rises, agricultural production rises to meet demand for more varied diets. In recent decades, the increase in water withdrawal from the ground or lakes and rivers has slowed, whether for agriculture, industries or municipalities, but it still outpaced the rate of population growth since 1940.

That means every drop is increasingly precious — and tough choices must be made. Plant your fields with sugarcane to make ethanol for fuel, and you can’t raise crops to feed your family. Dam a river to produce electricity, and people downstream can no longer fish. Pump groundwater out for yourself, and your neighbor might just want to fight over it. Researchers call this the food-water-energy nexus and say it is one of the biggest challenges facing our increasingly industrialized, globalized and thirsty world. [Continue reading…]

California burning

William Finnegan writes:

On the northwestern edge of Los Angeles, where I grew up, the wildfires came in late summer. We lived in a new subdivision, and behind our house were the hills, golden and parched. We would hose down the wood-shingled roof as fire crews bivouacked in our street. Our neighborhood never burned, but others did. In the Bel Air fire of 1961, nearly five hundred homes burned, including those of Burt Lancaster and Zsa Zsa Gabor. We were all living in the “wildland-urban interface,” as it is now called. More subdivisions were built, farther out, and for my family the wildfire threat receded.

Tens of millions of Americans live in that fire-prone interface today—the number keeps growing—and the wildfire threat has become, for a number of political and environmental reasons, immensely more serious. In LA, fire season now stretches into December, as grimly demonstrated by the wildfires that burned across Southern California in late 2017, including the Thomas Fire, in Santa Barbara County, the largest in the state’s modern history. Nationally, fire seasons are on average seventy-eight days longer than they were in 1970, according to the US Forest Service. Wildfires burn twice as many acres as they did thirty years ago. “Of the ten years with the largest amount of acreage burned in the United States,” Edward Struzik notes in Firestorm: How Wildfire Will Shape Our Future, nine have occurred since 2000. Individual fires, meanwhile, are bigger, hotter, faster, more expensive and difficult to fight, and more destructive than ever before. We have entered the era of the megafire—defined as a wildfire that burns more than 100,000 acres.

In early July 2018, there were twenty-nine large uncontained fires burning across the United States. “We shouldn’t be seeing this type of fire behavior this early in the year,” Chris Anthony, a division chief at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, told The New York Times. It has been an unusually dry winter and spring in much of the West, however, and by the end of June three times as much land had already burned in California as burned in the first half of 2017, which was the state’s worst fire year ever. On July 7, my childhood suburb, Woodland Hills, was 117 degrees. On the UCLA campus, it was 111 degrees. Wildfires broke out in San Diego and up near the Oregon border, where a major blaze closed Interstate 5 and killed one civilian. The governor, Jerry Brown, has declared yet another state of emergency in Santa Barbara County.

How did this happen? One part of the story begins with a 1910 wildfire, known as the Big Burn, that blackened three million acres in Idaho, Montana, and Washington and killed eighty-seven people, most of them firefighters. Horror stories from the Big Burn seized the national imagination, and Theodore Roosevelt, wearing his conservationist’s hat, used the catastrophe to promote the Forest Service, which was then new and already besieged by business interests opposed to public management of valuable woodlands. The Forest Service was suddenly, it seemed, a band of heroic firefighters. Its budget and mission required expansion to prevent another inferno.

The Forest Service, no longer just a land steward, became the federal fire department for the nation’s wildlands. Its policy was total suppression of fires—what became known as the 10 AM rule. Any reported fire would be put out by 10 AM the next day, if possible. Some experienced foresters saw problems with this policy. It spoke soothingly to public fears, but periodic lightning-strike fires are an important feature of many ecosystems, particularly in the American West. Some “light burning,” they suggested, would at least be needed to prevent major fires. William Greeley, the chief of the Forest Service in the 1920s, dismissed this idea as “Paiute forestry.”

But Native Americans had used seasonal burning for many purposes, including hunting, clearing trails, managing crops, stimulating new plant growth, and fireproofing areas around their settlements. [Continue reading…]

Bayer stock plunges after jury awards man $289 million in Roundup cancer trial

The Washington Post reports:

Bayer’s stock slumped more than 10 percent in trading Monday, three days after a California jury awarded $289 million to a former groundskeeper who said the popular weedkiller Roundup gave him terminal cancer.

The stock drop sent a cautionary signal to the company that acquired Monsanto, the maker of the weedkiller, in June for $63 billion. The merger created the world’s largest seed and agrochemical company, marrying Monsanto’s dominance in genetically modified crops with Bayer’s pesticide business. Bayer’s portfolio also includes pharmaceuticals with such household brands as Aleve to Alka-Seltzer.

The verdict poses a new challenge for Bayer in its quest to combat contempt swirling around Monsanto by consumer, health and environmental advocates. For years, the company has drawn sharp criticism and allegations about the health hazards caused by Roundup, and Monsanto faces thousands of lawsuits that assert its product is linked to cancer diagnoses.

Monsanto’s reputational problems are now Bayer’s problems, said Anthony Johndrow, a corporate reputation adviser. Lawsuits against Monsanto are nothing new, Johndrow said, adding that Bayer risks souring sales of its other products because of the public perceptions of Monsanto. [Continue reading…]