Thursday, June 22, 2017

Should States Call the Shots for Endangered Species?

Photo of Yellowstone wolf via NPS
The Endangered Species Act faces a concerted attack. Attackers claim it’s time to “modernize” the ESA. They shout they’re tired of having wildlife perpetually protected by the federal government. They demand that their states have more power to manage endangered or threatened species.

One attack occurred in June of 2015 when Wyoming Governor Matt Mead, as chairman of the Western Governors' Association, launched an initiative to examine the ESA and recommend changes to Congress. The western governors hope that ESA reforms will be easier to swallow if coming from a state-led movement rather than from Congress.

This movement to allow states to call the shots ignores two important facts. First, animals now protected by the ESA became endangered or threatened while under state management. Second, animals can’t see the political boundaries that mark the border between protection and death.

The treatment of wolves in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho (all members of the Western Governors Association) exemplifies this.

Since wolves were returned to state management in 2011, Idaho has enacted extermination programs as vicious as those that originally landed their wolves under ESA protection. This includes allocating up to $2 million from Idaho taxpayers over a span of five years to eradicate wolves. It includes hiring federal gunners to shoot wolves from helicopters. This killing spree comes after the US Fish and Wildlife Service spent millions of federal tax dollars to increase Idaho’s wolf population. And since these wolves are no longer protected under the ESA, the federal government can’t stop the slaughter.

In Wyoming once wolves were placed under state management in 2012, so many were shot that conservation organizations realized Wyoming’s plan was not to conserve wolves; it was to eradicate them. They could be killed almost anytime, anywhere, and for any—or no—reason. Some of the wolves shot had unknowingly crossed the invisible line between protected Yellowstone National Park and Wyoming’s free-fire zone. After a fierce court battle, wolves were returned to ESA protection in 2014.

But Wyoming wolves are targets again. A U.S. Appeals court has ruled that the state’s wolf management plan is acceptable. Now, animals once worth protecting can be shot as vermin in 85% of the state. In the rest of Wyoming—mostly just outside Yellowstone—wolves are not vermin; they are trophies to take.

Yellowstone wolves face a similar fate when they leave the park’s protection and follow elk north into Montana. Right on the border of Yellowstone, Montana has two wolf hunting units in which a total of at least four wolves will die next hunting season.

Instead of “modernizing” and letting states call the shots, the ESA should remain federally controlled. Based on what happened to wolves, allowing states more control is a death sentence for the same animals the ESA once protected. The ESA should also be fully funded. Though shortchanged since inception, the ESA has still prevented the extinction of 99 percent of species under its protection and put hundreds more on the road to recovery. Just think what the ESA could do if politicians funded it.

Rick Lamplugh writes to protect wildlife and preserve wildlands. He lives near Yellowstone’s north gate and is just finishing his new book, Deep into Yellowstone: A Year’s Immersion in Grandeur and Controversy. He is the author of the Amazon bestseller In the Temple of Wolves. Available as eBook or paperback. Or as a signed copy from Rick.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Amazing Dance of Pollinators and Wildflowers

When I lived for three winters in Yellowstone’s snowy Lamar Valley, I focused on learning about the big influencers: wolves and coyotes, bison and elk. I began to understand, for example, the intricate dance of wolves and elk and cottonwoods. Now that I live near Yellowstone year around, I have the time and luxury to learn about this ecosystem's tiny things. In June that means the dance of wildflowers and their pollinators. 

While pollinators may be small, they're essential. So essential that the U.S. Senate unanimously approved designating a week in June as “National Pollinator Week.” This year that week is June 19 to 25.
Bee in prickly pear blossom (Rick Lamplugh)
Whether I’m hiking down into Hellroaring Valley or up Bunsen Peak, driving the Grand Loop toward Dunraven Pass or bicycling dirt roads north of the park, wildflowers abound, enticing pollinators. And in the soft warmth of my third Yellowstone spring, I have spent a lot of time on hands and knees enjoying the intricate dance between host and helper. The flowers that I crawl among depend on insects—rather than wind—for pollination. So they must attract their helpers. Color, scent, and shape are a flower's calling card. It turns out that some wildflowers attract only certain pollinators and some pollinators play favorites, too. 

Some insects are more sensitive to colors than we humans are. Those insects use that sensitivity, says Ronald Taylor in Rocky Mountain Wildflowers, to decide where to dine. The most common wildflower colors are white, like Rocky Mountain phlox, and yellow, like arrow-leaf balsomroot, both plants that abound in Yellowstone. Since those two colors can be seen by most pollinators, white and yellow flowers employ what Taylor calls a generalist strategy: they invite a wide variety of pollinators, especially flies and beetles. And they aren’t just open for business during the day; their light colors attract moths at night. 

Some flowers are more particular about who climbs inside; they take a niche approach to pollination. Pink to red flowers—like Yellowstone’s wild geraniums and paintbrush—attract fewer pollinators. While butterflies and hummingbirds come calling, bees are blind to the beauty of red. They do not visit red flowers unless attracted by something other than color, maybe an aroma. Instead, bees buzz to blue penstemon or forget-me-nots. Green and brown flowers, says Taylor, usually attract insects such as wasps and beetles with scent, since most pollinators do not associate green or brown with flowers.

Bee photo public domain
A wildflower’s shape also determines who visits. Some pollinators learn to connect specific shapes with the nectar and pollen they seek. Bees, for example, have an unusual ability to distinguish among shapes. They know what they like and stick to it: flowers with enlarged lower petals that act as a landing pad. Color that flower blue, and bees make a beeline for it.

Flowers with petals arranged in a dish shape, such as wild strawberry, make pollination easy for lots of insects, says Taylor. But bumblebees and hummingbirds shun these popular plants because they won’t get enough bang for their buck. Too many other pollinators have beat them to the good stuff.

Bell shaped flowers, such as plumed avens (also called “Old Man’s Whiskers” or “Prairie Smoke”), are usually pollinated by bees or flies that can contort their bodies. Bees can hang upside down inside the flower and vibrate their wings, shaking the pollen onto themselves. 

Other plants—such as sunflowers—have nectar at the base of the petals. This treat, says Taylor, can only be reached by some bees, flies, and butterflies that have a moderately long tongue. Pollinators with an even longer tongue—moths, butterflies, and hummingbirds—can drink from flowers shaped like long tubes.

One day, I watched two types of bees fly into and out of the lovely yellow and peach flowers of prickly pear cacti that grow among the sagebrush along the flank of Sheep Mountain just outside Yellowstone. When I looked into a nearby blossom that I thought was empty, I discovered an ant crawling around inside. When I found ants in several other flowers, I wondered if they are pollinators.

Ant in prickly pear blossom (Rick Lamplugh)
Taylor didn’t have much to say about these thin-waisted, six-legged wonders, but the U.S. Forest Service did. Ants love nectar because it's filled with much-needed energy.  But crawling to and into each flower uses energy. To balance energy input and output, ants favor low growing, small flowers that are close to the stem, like the flowers of the prickly pear in which I spotted them. 

While ants get the food they need, the USFS said that they may not help much with pollination. That surprised me: here were ants crawling into and out of pollen-filled blooms. Why wouldn’t they be pollinators? I decided to take a closer look, and on my computer screen, zoomed in on a photo I had taken of an ant inside a prickly pear blossom. The ant had fewer pollen grains sticking to its legs and body than did the bees that I photographed that day in other nearby blossoms. Even with fewer grains, the ant could still be part of pollination, couldn’t it? I dug some more and found that scientists have discovered that pollen grains on the bodies of some ants have been killed by an antibiotic the ants produce to protect themselves from bacterial and fungal infections.

However the dance of pollination is performed, it results in a plant’s seed and fruit production. But a pollinator doesn't know or care that the plant benefits. As states, "In the economy of nature, the pollinators provide an important service to flowering plants, while the plants pay with food for the pollinators and their offspring.” Pollination is just another of nature’s wonderful and practical symbiotic relationships. 

We humans clearly benefit from that relationship. About 1,000 plants grown for food, beverages, fibers, spices, and medicines must be pollinated in order to produce the goods on which we depend, according to the organization Pollinator Partnership.

Assassin bug killing bee in cactus blossom (Rick Lamplugh)
But, as you may know, trouble is brewing. Worldwide, pollinators suffer from loss of habitat, chemical misuse, invasive plant and animal species, diseases, and parasites. Scientists estimate that the U.S. has lost more than half of its managed honeybee colonies over the past decade. 

The demise of pollinators makes Yellowstone’s bees even more important, and the National Park Service has responded accordingly. Yellowstone’s bees, says Ann Rodman, a park scientist, are just as susceptible to pesticides as bees elsewhere. But park bees are lucky to live far from large agricultural areas where pesticides kill. Plus, the Park Service has stopped using nationwide the neonicotinoid pesticides that harm bees. As bees decline elsewhere, Yellowstone becomes a biological reserve that helps preserve bees in much the same way that the park helps preserve bison and wolves. 

As I write this, bees—my favorite pollinator—are no longer buzzing around the large lilac and honeysuckle bushes that bring blessed shade to our high-desert backyard. But the next time that I encounter bees, I’ll get down on my hands and knees to watch them and thank them—even if they don’t care that I benefit from their labor and love watching them work.

To watch a short slideshow with music that captures the beauty of Yellowstone’s cactus bloom, click here.

To learn how you can help pollinators click here.

Rick Lamplugh writes to protect wildlife and preserve wildlands. He lives near Yellowstone’s north gate and is just finishing his new book, Deep into Yellowstone: A Year’s Immersion in Grandeur and Controversy. He is the author of the Amazon bestseller In the Temple of Wolves. Available as eBook or paperback. Or as a signed copy from Rick.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Don't "Modernize" the Endangered Species Act; Just Fund It!

Photo of grizzly and wolf (both beneficiaries of ESA) via public domain 
The Endangered Species Coalition is bringing me and a number of other advocates to Washington, D.C., for a couple days to lobby for the Endangered Species Act. I respect the work of this national coalition of hundreds of conservation-minded organizations, and I’m glad to go. To prepare, I’m researching and writing. Here’s some of what I’ve found.

The ESA faces a coordinated attack. One of the attackers is U.S. Representative Rob Bishop (R-UT)—the same politician who wants to sell off our public lands. Another is U.S. Senator John Barrasso (R-WY). He wants to “modernize the ESA.” (Conservationists know that what he really means is “gut the ESA.”) He says that less than 3 percent of protected species have recovered enough to no longer need protection. Then he proclaims, “As a doctor, if I admit 100 patients to the hospital and only 3 recover enough under my treatment to be discharged, I would deserve to lose my medical license.”

That’s a good sound bite. But let’s take his medical argument further. 

Consider a species being placed under ESA protection as similar to an ailing person’s ambulance ride to the emergency room. Once the patient arrives, the hospital must spend money to diagnose and fix the problem. More must be spent on follow-up to make sure the treatment worked. If a hospital failed to spend this money, the patient would not get better. But that wouldn’t be the fault of the ambulance that delivered the patient. 

In truth, listing a species under the ESA—giving it the ambulance ride—is the relatively easy step. Once listed, time, resources, and money must be spent to implement a plan that will fix the problems that create the threat. That money is not being spent. The ESA is not the problem. The problem is shortsighted politicians refusing to fund it adequately.  

The Center for Biological Diversity (a member of the Endangered Species Coalition) studied ESA funding and found it has been “chronically and severely underfunded.” Yet even while shortchanged, the ESA has been—contrary to Senator Barrasso’s claim—incredibly effective. It has prevented the extinction of 99 percent of species under its protection and put hundreds of species on the road to recovery.

The Center determined that the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s current annual budget for recovery of the more than 1,500 protected species is $82 million per year. That covers little more than basic administrative functions.

In their estimation, “…fully implementing recovery plans for all listed species managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service would require approximately $2.3 billion per year, about the same amount that’s given to oil and gas companies to subsidize extraction of fossil fuels on public lands and a tiny fraction of the roughly $3.7 trillion federal budget in 2015.”

The Center’s solution is simple: increase annual appropriation for endangered species recovery over the next 10 years. 

In other words, Dr. Barrasso, if you really want to modernize, spend the money to treat the patient that the ambulance delivered to you for help.

Rick Lamplugh writes to protect wildlife and preserve wildlands. He lives near Yellowstone’s north gate and is just finishing his new book, Deep into Yellowstone: A Year’s Immersion in Grandeur and Controversy. He is the author of the Amazon bestseller In the Temple of Wolves. Available as eBook or paperback . Or as a signed copy from Rick.

To learn about the Endangered Species Coalition