Using the state-of-science and the collective expertise of the NOAA Drought Task Force, this report addresses three questions about the period of below normal rain, snow, runoff, and soil moisture, known as the 2020–21 U.S. Southwest drought: (1) How bad is it? (2) What caused it? And (3) When will it end?
For the six states of the U.S. Southwest (Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah)i, January 2020 through August 2021 have been exceptional in the instrumental climate record since 1895, with the lowest total precipitation and the third-highest daily average temperatures recorded, which together imposed an unyielding, unprecedented, and costly drought. This exceptional drought punctuates a two-decade period of persistently warm and dry conditions throughout the region. The low precipitation across U.S. states and seasons appears to have been largely due to natural, but unfavorable, variations in the atmosphere and ocean. As such, predicting when total precipitation will return to pre-drought levels is a challenge. While summer 2021 brought welcome monsoon rains to parts of the Southwest, several seasons, or years, of above-average rain and high elevation snow are needed to replenish rivers, soils, and reservoirs across the region. This suggests that for much of the U.S. Southwest, the present drought will last at least into 2022, potentially longer. At the same time, exceptionally warm temperatures from human-caused warming have melted snowpack and drawn water from the land surface more rapidly than in previous years. The warm temperatures that helped to make this drought so intense and widespread will continue (and increase) until stringent climate mitigation is pursued and regional warming trends are reversed. As such, continued warming of the U.S. Southwest due to greenhouse gas emissions will make even randomly occurring seasons of average- to below-average precipitation a potential drought trigger, and intensify droughts beyond what would be expected from rainfall or snowpack deficits alone. Human-caused increases in drought risk will continue to impose enormous costs upon the livelihoods and well-being of the ~60+ million people living in the six states of the U.S. Southwest, as well as the broader communities dependent on the goods and services they produce.
i The2021 drought covers much of Western North America, including parts of Canada and Mexico. This report centers on the U.S. Southwest as the 2020–21 drought has been most persistent and severe there.
What is rewilding? Basically, it’s the attempt to recreate the natural ecological systems that once covered our landscapes — woods, rivers, wetlands — and trusting nature to look after itself, perhaps with some help at the start to fix the most broken pieces.
Many rewilding projects are large in scale, to allow nature to really do its stuff without interference and pollution from us. It is about vast estates and landscapes, large herbivores or carnivores and huge decisions made by distant landowners or institutions. These are invaluable. But is not always about completely removing people — after all, humans are part of the natural world.
Instead, we need to find new ways to live while reconnecting with the ecosystems we live in, creating a richer world in which people and nature can thrive together. We can live alongside more bees, worms and flies, and I believe there is a benefit to taking the debate on rewilding down to the tiny scale of some of the smallest creatures on the planet.
Invertebrates are core to any rewilding project: ideal foot soldiers for the cause at every level as they travel, adapt and multiply so brilliantly. And, aside from farmed honeybees, silk moths and biological control agents, almost all the invertebrates we encounter, wherever we encounter them, are wild. They may be there because we created the environment for them, but they are not domesticated or tame — or even that interested in us.
How Does Rewilding Help Bugs?
Rebugging is looking at the ways, small and large, to nurture complex communities of these tiny, vital players in almost all the natural and not-so-natural places on earth. It means conserving them where they are managing to hang on, and restoring them where they are needed as part of a rewilding movement. And it means putting bugs back into our everyday lives, our homes and where we play and work.
But what does “good” look like for the bugs? We need to better know what the “perfect” habitats and conditions would be for bugs to thrive: the baselines against which recent losses occurred. We can’t tell what the true losses are as we don’t know what was there before people arrived, or even a hundred years ago. But how exciting to discover more new insect habitats through rebugging, as we let nature make its way.
Even rewilding a relatively small area can create something akin to the original habitats of the invertebrates, and we will discover so many intriguing aspects in the process. Rewilding projects are already throwing up some challenges to our previous knowledge about their favored habitats as species take to a habitat in a rewilded area that we had no idea they liked.
Bringing Back Lost Species
Which animals belong where is a fascinating issue in rewilding. It can involve reintroducing a species to re-establish it or to boost numbers of a native animal or plant at risk of going extinct. Or it can be about recreating an ecosystem that has got out of balance, such as a flood plain that needs the plants and animals back to slow water flow.
Would we want to bring invertebrate species back into countries and regions that have lost them? The removal of keystone species — a species that is fundamental to the existence of a particular ecosystem — can be catastrophic for a wild ecosystem, but reintroduction can work in unforeseen ways.
The reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in the western U.S. created unexpected and positive results for the park ecology. When wolves were removed from the park 70 years ago, elk overgrazing became a problem and only resolved when the wolves were reintroduced, and so elks were naturally managed better. But there was a further impact: beaver populations grew now that their willow trees were not overgrazed by the elk. This created new fish and water invertebrate habitats, which then influenced other species feeding on the bugs and fish. Everything is connected, and while many focus on the furry vertebrate species, we need to recognize and nurture the bugs, too, as vital parts of the arrangement.
Beavers are also being reintroduced into U.K. river systems, leading to new habitats, more diversity, and even floodwater management and boosting green tourism. Sometimes iconic species can be hugely important for building public support for conservation, but also can help fund projects through carefully managed tourism.
But what about invertebrates? Rebugging could allow species lost to an area to be introduced successfully and this is indeed happening.
Given their size and ability to produce numerous offspring quickly, invertebrates have the wonderful ability to recolonize far more quickly when they spot the opportunity than larger species. Just take the aphid, which can produce five to 10 offspring every day. The African driver queen ant can produce an estimated three to four million eggs a month. And they do not need so much careful handling as, say, a wolf.
However, it makes sense also to focus on protecting the native bug species that are still in their habitats, but are just hanging on in pockets of scrub, hedgerows or small woodlands, and even urban parks, where once their habitats would have been far more widespread. And they can help rewild the small spaces as well as the big ones.
The School of Rebugging
Critical to keeping places wild and protected will be helping people to have a stronger relationship with nature. Making public access safe and easy in rewilded space will help create a movement for rebugging. Great wilderness parks such as the 63 federally designated U.S. national parks present a whole other level of invertebrate opportunity. As these areas are managed by government bodies largely for wildlife, rather than farming or other purposes, they can be described as wild — and over 80% of the areas involved are managed as wilderness.
They maintain some of the best habitats, perfect for invertebrates to thrive. This is an extraordinary asset, but one which compares dramatically with other land management in the U.S.: the empty prairies and often car-filled cities, where insects and other invertebrates are subject to massive pressures from industrial farming, pollution and development.
Take the sub-arctic Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska where there is an abundance of invertebrates such as bees and flower flies. People visit this park to see the grizzly bears but the other fur-covered animals should also gain attention. Alongside the flies, the bumblebees are critical for pollination and they have recently found a new species of bumblebee in this park — always an exciting moment.
These are keystone species and the Denali park’s grizzly bears, caribou and wolves would not survive without the bugs because they all need the wildflowers and shrubs for their food or the food of their prey. The grizzlies in particular need the bees to pollinate the blueberries, one of the bear’s main foods. As we know, honeybees are under threat globally, so it is vital that we protect the other pollinators like bumblebees so they can pollinate both wild plants and farmed crops.
Wildlife parks do have threats such as the pressure of visitors, especially at peak holiday periods. Other dangers respect no boundaries — for instance, climate change, illegal hunting and invasive species. But these places provide a fantastic way to conserve bugs in their natural world and to show what they can do.
The joy of rebugging is that you can do it almost anywhere. Give people the chance to act and to encourage some bees, or even hummingbird hawkmoths, in a green patch of land, and you can start to change hearts and minds. From a Costa Rican municipality giving bees citizenship to an amazing three thousand food-growing spaces making space for nature in London, it is possible — and it is happening.
The “rebugging” title of this book was inspired by another, recent book Rebirding: Rewilding Britain and its Birds by Benedict Macdonald, who argues that to have more birds around, larger mammals must be allowed to do their work and re-engineer the landscapes. Letting nature heal itself and letting it get messy is key to a revival in birds and other species. If we can use the lens of birds and beavers to understand rewilding, we should also use bugs.
An algaecide that was toxic to fish entered Mill Creek this week, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has learned based on discussions with Vail Resorts.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife recorded 120 dead fish Tuesday in Mill Creek and Gore Creek in Vail, where a spill was reported to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment by Vail Resorts…
The department said it is inspecting Mill and Gore creeks to determine if there were possible violations of the Colorado Water Quality Control Act, Nason said.
The department coordinated with Colorado Parks and Wildlife to provide the initial investigation Tuesday. Friday’s inspection was a follow-up to that effort, Nason said…
On Monday, Vail Resorts was contacted by the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, which had noticed an abnormally high water demand in the core Vail area over the weekend.
The water and sanitation district had narrowed down the high use to a storage tank at Golden Peak. The major customer user from that tank is Vail Resorts for its snowmaking system, which, according to a memo from the town of Vail’s Environmental Sustainability Department, is not usually online until Oct. 1.
Vail Resorts, according to the memo, discovered that a few isolation valves on their snowmaking setup had been left open since March. Maintenance had been performed on the snowmaking system on Sept. 17, which required the drain line to be opened for repair work.
On Monday, the valves for the snowmaking setup were shut, which stopped the discharge of water to Mill Creek…
The discharged water was blue-gray, and bugs, fish and algae had been killed in 1,500 feet of affected creek. Common algaecides contain copper sulfate, which is blue and can be toxic to fish.
“Based on discussions with Vail Resorts, we learned that the spilled water to the river is a combination of potable water and pond water with algaecide, which in this case was toxic to fish given the dead fish,” Nason said. “While events that lead to fish kills are an immediate concern, dead fish doesn’t always mean there is an urgent public health threat.”
The fish were surrounded by high levels of the spilled and contaminated water, Nason said.
But for people or dogs playing near or in this area, Nason said the risk of health impacts are expected to be low “because much of that spilled water has been washed away and diluted as it moves downstream — otherwise we would be seeing many more dead fish downstream.”