Edge of Existence: As climate change and habitat loss push wildlife to the brink, the time to protect biodiversity is now — The Nature Conservancy #ActOnClimate

A hunting ocelot is a triple threat—it can snag its prey on the ground, in a tree or from the water. Small rodents and reptiles are common quarry. © Charlie Hamilton James

From The Nature Conservancy (Ben Goldfarb):

In 1999, a strange virus began to afflict pig farmers in Malaysia. Patients suffered headaches, fevers and brain inflammation; ultimately more than 100 Malaysians died. Named the Nipah virus for the village where it was first identified, the pathogen is carried by fruit bats, which had been driven from their natural habitat by deforestation and fire and were foraging in orchards surrounding pig farms. It is believed that the bats were transmitting the virus to pigs, which passed it to humans. Nature’s deterioration, it seems, had spawned a public health crisis.

Click on the image to enlarge. Credit: The Nature Conservancy
Bugle Boys: Few large mammals are as expressive as elk, which grunt, squeal and bark to communicate within their herds. The species’ most famous call is the bugle, an eerie trumpeting that males utter to court females or challenge rivals for breeding privileges. The deeper the bugle, the angrier the elk. Males can even be recognized by their unique bugles. © Charlie Hamilton James

The Nipah virus spillover provided evidence of a profound truth: Our fate is inextricably linked to the biodiversity that surrounds us. Insects pollinate our crops; oceans feed us; forests provide us with shelter. The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the fact that when nature suffers, human well-being follows suit—loss of habitat and more contact with wildlife increases the risk of transmitting zoonotic viruses to humans. “Healthy waters, healthy lands, healthy people—all are part of a cohesive and integrated whole,” says Lynn Scarlett, chief external affairs officer for The Nature Conservancy.

A polar bear swims in the waters around Svalbard, Norway. © Fernando O’Farrill
Gator Chomp
Alligators aren’t just apex predators in the freshwater swamps and marshes of the southeastern United States—they’re also ecosystem engineers. The “gator holes” that they excavate hold water during the dry season, creating vital oases for fish, herons, frogs and otters. AMERICAN ALLIGATOR © Ingo Arndt/Nature Picture Library

To keep that whole intact, delegates from nearly 200 countries will convene for the next meeting of the United Nation’s Convention on Biological Diversity, which will set global priorities for safeguarding habitats, saving species and protecting the ecological services that sustain human communities. Although a date for the convention is uncertain due to global travel restrictions at the time of publication, its mission couldn’t be more urgent. Since the late 19th century, the world has lost approximately half of its coral reefs, and other critical ecosystems, like wetlands and tropical forests, are shrinking fast. Around 1 million species are threatened today with extinction. “The arc of conservation is at a pivot point,” Scarlett says.

Baby Blues
Scorpions like this rock scorpion, photographed while illuminated by ultraviolet light, give birth to live young and the mothers are exceptionally devoted. The female carries her offspring, known as scorplings, on her back for weeks, until their exoskeletons harden and they’re ready for life on their own. ROCK SCORPION © Piotr Naskrecki

To meet that challenge, a suite of innovative conservation strategies has evolved. Consider what happened in 2020 when a hurricane bludgeoned a coral reef in Mexico with wind speeds exceeding 100 knots. The damage from Hurricane Delta triggered a payout of about $850,000 from an insurance policy, taken out by the state of Quintana Roo with TNC’s assistance—perhaps the first such policy ever purchased on a natural feature. Within days the funds put locals to work cementing corals back into place and planting new colonies, rebuilding the living sea wall that will defend their coastline from future storms.

“We have increasingly come to realize that we can’t just create a preserve and put our picket fence around it,” Scarlett says. “And that means we need to be engaging a world of environmental stewards.”

Along Came a Spider: The world’s heaviest spider, the goliath birdeater weighs up to 6 ounces—more than an average-sized avocado. In spite of its name, it rarely eats birds, as it prefers insects, worms and frogs. This tarantula is armed with inch-long fangs and barbed hairs that it can send flying at assailants. GOLIATH BIRDEATER © Piotr Naskrecki

But using out-of-the-box tactics and working with local partners are only half the battle. Tackling the scope of today’s mass-extinction crisis—the most severe since a hunk of space rock is believed to have set the dinosaurs on a crash course toward oblivion—requires a global perspective. Animals from gray whales to monarch butterflies cross national borders during their migrations; invasive species leap between continents; and climate change casts its net over the entire planet. The high seas, the vast expanse of ocean that lies beyond any nation’s territorial waters, have long been virtually lawless. But since 2018 U.N. delegates have been negotiating a treaty that would conserve and protect marine diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction—proof that international consensus is possible.

A Bug’s Life
Moths like the Deyrolle’s emperor moth are our planet’s nocturnal support staff: Scientists describe them as “secret pollinators” that sustain hundreds of plants, and their bodies feed birds, bats and even bears. They may be less conspicuous than butterflies, but they’re remarkably diverse: More than 11,000 species flit through the United States alone. DEYROLLE’S EMPEROR MOTH © Piotr Naskrecki
Pest Management
The biological sonar that bats use to navigate and hunt is called echolocation. A bat closing in on an insect may emit and interpret up to 200 sonic pulses each second. A hungry bat is an exterminator without equal: Researchers estimate that bats provide the equivalent of more than $20 billion in insect-control services each year. MOZAMBIQUE LONG-FINGERED BAT © Piotr Naskrecki

Scarlett is counting on the upcoming conference to ratify a similarly bold global vision: a commitment known as “30×30,” under which nations would pledge to protect 30% of their lands and seas by 2030. She also hopes that the conference will create new conservation funding sources; a recent report by TNC and its partners estimates that at least $598 billion more per year is needed to stave off the collapse of nature’s systems.

Sunrise Ceremony
The courtship ritual performed by the sage-grouse, the icon of western North America’s sagebrush plains, is one of nature’s most dramatic. Males woo hens at display sites, called leks, fanning their tails and inflating their breast sacs. For decades, TNC has worked with ranchers and energy and mining companies to protect the grouse’s stage in the sage. GREATER SAGE-GROUSE © Charlie Hamilton James
On the Move
The home ranges of black bears (like this one traveling a game trail in Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton National Forest) can cover a lot of ground: A male’s territory might be more than 300 square miles. In Florida, TNC identified and is safeguarding wildlife corridors so that these intelligent omnivores have room to roam. BLACK BEAR © Charlie Hamilton James

Fulfilling such lofty objectives won’t be easy—the world failed to achieve the previous targets the convention established in 2010. But signs of hope are not hard to find: At least 17% of land and inland water worldwide is already protected, and as much as 80% of the world’s forest biodiversity can be found on the lands of Indigenous peoples, who make up less than 5% of the global population. Conservation efforts have pulled dozens of species back from the brink, including the California condor and the Przewalski’s horse. And even as the window for preserving biodiversity grows narrower every year, we have no choice but to try. “When it comes to ambition,” Scarlett says, “more is better.”

What does the term “stream stage” mean? — USGS

Eugene Clyde LaRue measuring the flow in Nankoweap Creek, 1923. Photo credit: USGS via Environment360

From the USGS:

Stream stage is an important concept when analyzing how much water is moving in a stream at any given moment. “Stage” is the water level above some arbitrary point in the river and is commonly measured in feet. For example, on a normal day when no rain has fallen for a while, a river might have a stage of 2 feet. If a big storm hits, the river stage could rise to 15 or 20 feet, sometimes very quickly. This is important because past records might tell us that when the stage hits 21 feet, the water will start flowing over its banks and into the basements of houses along the river — time to tell those people to move out! With modern technology, the USGS can monitor the stage of many streams almost instantly.

Hydrologists are able to convert stage height into streamflow volume by determining a rating curve for each site.

Learn more:

  • Streamgaging Basics
  • National Water Information System (NWIS) Mapper
  • Boosting #Water Reliability for Birds and People — Audubon #ActOnClimate

    San Rafael River in Utah. Photo credit: Abby Burk via Audubon Rockies

    From Audubon Rockies (Abby Burk):

    Colorado and the West face unprecedented drought conditions, impacts from wildfires, and water scarcity driven by climate change. The Colorado River shortage declaration on August 16th is a sharp warning that the river system is in crisis. If we do not act quickly, the future could be even tougher. But, there are important things we can do now to keep the Colorado we love strong by building climate change resilience in our watersheds.

    A recent report from Audubon and conservation partners suggests that we need to start investing now in solutions for the long-term. These solutions include improving forest health, restoring and protecting our natural water infrastructure (stream floodplains and wetlands), and practicing regenerative agriculture. Work must be done on a scale to match the scale of the water problems we’re facing.

    Relatively affordable natural solutions are critical to have in the toolbox alongside traditional strategies. One such natural affordable method for restoring our source watersheds is called “low-tech process-based restoration (PBR).” PBR is a low-cost, high-benefit option designed to restore headwater rivers, floodplains, wet meadows, and wetlands. PBR methods benefit rivers and communities by restoring natural river processes like hydrology, sediment movement, and nutrient cycling by reconnecting deeply cut degraded streams with their floodplains and adjacent wetlands, if historically present.

    PBR methods benefit the entire riverscape—streams, floodplains, wetlands, and the vegetation surrounding them. Riverscapes support habitat critical to birds and other wildlife and ecological services that directly influence water quality and quantity. Many studies in the past decade show that this type of restoration approach results in restoring natural ecological and hydrological stream processes that provide benefits beyond traditional restoration methods. The benefits include improved water quality and aquifer recharge, reduced flood risks, and improved riverscape ecology (see here and here).

    Lower Beaver Creek. Process-based restoration methods can be successfully applied in a variety of ecosystems. Photo credit: Jackie Corday via Audubon Rockies

    Existing natural systems that are particularly important for birds—such as riparian areas, floodplains, and wetlands—slow runoff and promote groundwater recharge by effectively storing water and slowly releasing it back to the surface water system. In this way, these natural systems fill a role similar to traditional reservoirs. The hydrologic characteristics of these natural systems also improve water quality by filtering sediment and pollutants.

    Models show that climate change and historic drought will continue to affect the Colorado River Basin in the coming years and further increase the severity and frequency of wildfires. These fires create devastating impacts for communities, wildlife, and forest ecosystems, including Colorado’s rivers and waterways. In the wake of Colorado’s three historic wildfires in 2020 and future wildfires, PBR techniques can help reduce the impacts of wildfires on water supplies and assist in wildfire recovery by sustaining riverscape plant communities.

    (Two Utah landowners describe their experience using stream restoration to heal their land.)

    The good news is that PBR methods help create resilience for our watersheds and are pretty affordable. PBR techniques can be scaled up to benefit all water uses and the cost is approximately $50,000 – $100,000 per mile on small streams.

    Also, PBR techniques for stream restoration can reduce sedimentation loading in storage reservoirs. In 2010, Denver Water invested nearly $30 million in dredging Strontia Springs Reservoir after the Cheesman Fire, and it’s almost in need of dredging again. Dredging reservoirs temporarily takes care of the problem of loss of storage space and dam safety, but it is not a long-term solution that addresses the actual problem of sedimentation coming from degraded watersheds. Studies are showing healthy floodplains upstream of reservoirs capture and store more sediment while degraded riverscapes deliver more sediment [Disclaimer: Link is to a Coyote Gulch post, thanks!].

    Riverscapes and wetlands are disproportionally important to birds and provide habitat for severely declining and climate-vulnerable species. Audubon Rockies is a partner in the Healthy Headwaters Working Group, a statewide collective of stream restoration experts, scientists, and agency, academic, and nonprofit staff who are working together to amplify headwater restoration in Colorado. Scaling up PBR projects in Colorado’s source watersheds can improve our long-term water security for people and wildlife in the face of increasing climate change impacts.

    All of us depend on natural systems for clean and reliable water. When we invest in the health of Colorado’s watersheds and rivers, we invest in our resilience to climate change.

    41st Annual #Colorado Law Conference on Natural Resources Equity in the #ColoradoRiver Basin: How to Sustainably Manage a Shrinking Resource , September 29-October 1, 2021 #COriver #aridification

    Horseshoe Bend, Arizona. Photo credit: Getches-Wilkinson Center

    Click here for all the inside skinny and to register:

    In any given year of late, demands for water in the Colorado River Basin exceed supply. Chronic drought, record heat, and rampant wildfires are already affecting the Basin’s overall health and resilience, and the historically low levels in Lakes Mead and Powell have caused an unprecedented call on the river. These historic challenges come at a time when several key components of the “Law of the River” are sunsetting in 2026. Key players are already revisiting the 2007 Interim Guidelines, Minute 323, and the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan. Relatedly, endangered fish recovery programs relevant to the region expire in 2023. Meanwhile, 48% of Tribal households in the U.S. do not have access to reliable water sources, clean drinking water, or basic sanitation. These harsh realities hasten the need to advance sustainable water management, improve watershed resilience, and ensure clean water access through collaborative decision-making. We look forward to bringing together diverse expertise and perspectives from across the region to draw the roadmap to an equitable future in the Colorado River Basin.

    Part 1: Universal Access to Clean Water on Tribal Lands (Thursday morning)
    Part 2: Ecosystem Health of the Colorado River Basin (Thursday afternoon)
    Part 3: CRB Hydrology & Management Guideline Renegotiations (*Friday)

    Opening Reception
    Wednesday, September 29
    5:30-7:30 p.m.
    Wolf Law Building, Schaden Commons

    We look forward to reconnecting with friends and colleagues, as well as
    celebrating the 25-year career of Dr. Doug Kenney who retired at the end of 2020.

    41st Annual Colorado Law Conference on Natural Resources
    Thursday, September 30 and Friday, October 1
    9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m.
    Wolf Law Building, Wittemyer Courtroom

    Conference Program

    Conference Registration

    #Drought – More Than Temperature – Governs Diversity of Life on #Earth — University of #Arizona

    Dying trees. Photo credit: University of Arizona

    Here’s the release from the University of Arizona (Mikayla Mace Kelley):

    Scientists have long believed that temperature – especially freezing cold – limits diversity of plant species as they proliferate out from the tropics and adapt to colder regions nearer the poles. The idea that temperature alone is behind the pattern of decreasing diversity is dubbed the tropical conservatism hypothesis.

    A new University of Arizona-led study, to be published this week in Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, uses big data to reveal further nuance in the pattern of plant diversity and explain why some regions are more species rich than others.

    The research team – led by Brian Enquist, a professor in the UArizona Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology – found that drought and seasonal fluctuations in rainfall are larger drivers of evolutionary diversity than warm temperatures.

    To understand evolutionary diversity, it helps to imagine a family reunion where each person represents a different species. You can have the same number of people in a room, but you would have more evolutionary diversity if those people were cousins many times removed rather than siblings and first cousins.

    The researchers created maps of evolutionary diversity across North, Central and South America, as well as maps of the different biomes that are home to specific temperature and precipitation patterns.

    Their findings provide evidence supporting a more nuanced view of the tropical conservatism hypothesis.

    If the hypothesis were taken at face value, then deserts of the American Southwest would be more evolutionarily diverse than the forests of the American Northeast, simply because the desert is warmer. But this is not the case. The desert is warm like the tropics, but dry. The Northeast is wet like the tropics, but cold. Yet, the Northeast has more evolutionary diversity, therefore indicating that drought has a stronger influence on plant diversity than temperature.

    “If the tropical conservatism hypothesis were right, then natively, with climate change, you would think if cold regions warm up to tropical levels, maybe that’s going to be a good thing for biodiversity there,” Enquist said. “But that’s not the case. In fact, our droughts are going to become much more prevalent, and that will drive local extinctions not just in the wet tropics but in many rainy regions outside of the tropics as well.”

    “The morphological and physiological attributes that allow species to thrive in arid environments have evolved in very few groups of plants. This indicates that, over evolutionary timescales, the adaptive challenge of extreme conditions is more challenging in arid environments than in freezing temperatures,” said lead study author Danilo Neves, a former UArizona postdoctoral fellow who worked under Enquist on the paper and is now an assistant professor in the Institute of Biological Sciences at the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Brazil.

    The deserts of the American Southwest perfectly illustrate the surprising principles highlighted in their paper, the researchers said.

    “Deserts of the American Southwest have more plant species compared to the wet forests of the American Northeast, but those desert species are from very few groups of plants. They are clustered on the tree of life, with little evolutionary diversity,” said Neves.

    Although the researchers focused on plants, their findings can be applied to animals as well, as plants are the foundation of the ecosystem, Neves said.

    The researchers were surprised by their results. The tropical conservatism hypothesis has been around for a long time, and the team was simply hoping to assess it with a much larger dataset than ever before. Instead, the team found that drought, which was neglected in previous studies, is perhaps more important than temperature in shaping biodiversity patterns at continental, and likely global, scales.

    “We only found this pattern because we leveraged this massive dataset compiled by professor Enquist and colleagues,” Neves said.

    “We were dealing with hundreds of millions of observations,” Enquist said. “It’s the largest botanical biodiversity dataset ever collected. We thought, this is great to assess the strength of the hypothesis and map it out across the Americas. However, to our surprise, we weren’t finding the expected strength of the tropical conservatism hypothesis, which emerged only after we incorporated seasonality of rainfall and drought and mapped it out.”

    Next, the team wants to assess how current and future increases in temperature and drought will influence global patterns of biodiversity.

    “Our results indicate that climate change will not only drive changes in global patterns of species distributions due to increasing temperature, but more importantly due to the increasing impacts of more extreme drought,” Enquist said. “If droughts and extreme temperatures become more prevalent under the worst-case climate change scenarios, our findings indicate that biodiversity may be more impacted than we thought, as only a limited subset of species on Earth have the ability to cope with the adaptive challenge of these extreme temperature and drought conditions.”

    Wildfires in the #West are inevitable, but this strategy can help control them — National Geographic #ActOnClimate

    Here’s a long-read from Alejandra Borunda that’s running in National Geographic. Click through for the photographs and to read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:

    Overgrown forests and climate change are making record-breaking wildfires commonplace, but land managers can “treat” forests to change their behavior during burns.

    California’s Caldor Fire ripped its way across the Tahoe Basin this week, forcing thousands to evacuate, burning homes and communities in its path, and staining Lake Tahoe’s iconic blue waters with falling ash.

    The fire, like many others burning across the U.S. West this year, spread rapidly in part because it’s burning intensely, propelled by hot, dry, windy weather conditions and forests overpacked with trees—food for hungry fire.

    But it has also run up against some areas that have been “treated” to reduce their fire risk, patches of forest—some big, some not so big—that have been trimmed in the past, either by hand with chainsaws and masticators or with carefully managed prescribed fire. These treatments are intended to make forests healthier and more resilient to all kinds of pressures, including fire.

    In the fires burning across California this year, and in other major recent fires, experts say these treatments may have done their job—which is not to stop the fires but to lower their intensity enough that they can be controlled.

    The treatments serve many purposes, but one crucial role is that “they’re meant to give firefighters an opportunity to defend life and property,” says Kelly Martin, the former chief of fire for Yosemite National Park. “Now what we’re seeing is, we have several hundred-thousand-acre fires bearing down on these communities—for what it’s worth, they’ve done their job.”

    The megafire era

    Fires in the West are getting bigger and more intense. 2020 saw the country’s first “gigafire,” a burn that spanned more than a million acres, much of which burned at high severity—the kind of fire that generally causes great harm to homes and ecosystems alike.

    The reasons for these changes are many. Crucially, the weather conditions that spur fast-spreading and intensely burning wildfires are becoming more common as climate change heats up and dries out many parts of the West. The fire season overall is lengthening, starting earlier in summer and stretching later into fall, so long that it’s essentially fire season year-round, a captain in California’s firefighting service has said. Dry air is becoming even drier; summer rainfall is sparser; nights are staying warmer, keeping fires active through times that used to provide a window in which to fight them; and the winds that fan the flames are as strong as ever during summer and fall, the riskiest times in much of the region.

    At the same time, the West is facing a “fuels” overload. The region’s landscapes used to burn frequently; estimates suggest at least four million acres of California used to burn annually from a combination of fires set intentionally by Native Americans and natural lightning ignitions. Native American fire practitioners say that many areas burned every few years or sometimes even more often. In the northern Sierra Nevada, where the Caldor and Dixie Fires burn now, lower elevation forests probably burned every five to 30 years or so. But from the early 1900s until the late 1970s, federal policy dictated that any and all fires should be suppressed thoroughly and quickly; the “10 a.m. rule”—that any new fire needed to be out by 10 the following day—guided the U.S. Forest Service until 1978…

    “The average fuel load right now is probably something like 50 tons per acre. Under the old fire regime,” when Native people managed the land, “it was probably more like 7 tons per acre—an order of magnitude less than what it is now across large areas,” says Rob York, a forestry expert with the University of California, Berkeley.

    Such fuel loads change the way fire behaves. Super-charged burns that get up into tree crowns can not only damage the trees but also help kick off embers that can fly miles ahead of the fire front, starting new blazes and driving quick expansion…

    Fuels treatments aren’t a panacea. Super hot fires or wind-driven spread can overwhelm even a treated area. But treatments—either mechanical thinning or prescribed fire, or ideally a combination—can help drop flame lengths and the “fireline intensity,” measures of how intensely a fire burns. In turn, that can help slow the pace of fire spread.

    While we can’t change the weather patterns or climate pressures, York says, at least not in the short term, we can control the fuels. It’s possible to thin out the region’s overloaded landscapes, using chainsaws, masticators, and other tools to thin trees and lower-level brush, and setting carefully managed, low-intensity “good fire.” Research suggests that in overgrown areas, using both strategies may improve outcomes.