Cool Green Science http://blog.nature.org/science Cool Green Science: The Science Blog of The Nature Conservancy Fri, 19 Dec 2014 20:33:25 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.3 Rudolph Versus Bambi: A Conservation Dilemma http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/12/18/rudolph-versus-bambi-a-conservation-dilemma-holiday-essay/ http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/12/18/rudolph-versus-bambi-a-conservation-dilemma-holiday-essay/#comments Thu, 18 Dec 2014 10:00:38 +0000 http://blog.nature.org/science/?p=45397 Woodland caribou cling to a precarious existence in the "lower 48" U.S. states. Photo: D. Gordon E. Robertson under a Creative Commons license

Woodland caribou cling to a precarious existence in the “lower 48″ U.S. states. Photo: D. Gordon E. Robertson under a Creative Commons license

Editor’s Note: This popular post originally ran last year. We’re running it here for your holiday reading pleasure, and welcome your opinions on this conservation challenge.

By Matt Miller, senior science writer

Rudolph-the-Red-Nosed Reindeer versus Bambi: yes, it sounds like a really bad holiday special. Maybe the worst ever.

Don’t worry; that’s not the case here. But along the Canada border in northern Idaho and eastern Washington, a struggle is playing out pitting the real-life counterparts of Rudolph (caribou) and Disney’s Bambi (white-tailed deer).

The quick version: woodland caribou, the rarest large mammal in the “lower 48” states have faced dramatic changes in forest habitat. White-tailed deer, drawn by the new habitat, have moved in and thrived.

The large numbers of deer have drawn more predators, notably mountain lions. And those mountain lions prey on the less wary, easier-to-kill caribou. An already beleaguered caribou population faces what may be its final straw.

In this case, Bambi wins. But there is nothing simple about this story, not really. For conservationists, it raises far more questions than answers.

Run, Run Reindeer

Woodland caribou in the United States were decimated by overhunting and logging. Now they face additional challenges. Photo: Joseph N. Hall under a Creative Commons license.

Woodland caribou in the United States were decimated by overhunting and logging. Now they face additional challenges. Photo: Joseph N. Hall under a Creative Commons license.

Most people know caribou (also known as reindeer) as animals of the tundra. And indeed, that is where the large herds of these animals thrive.

But there is a subspecies of caribou that lives in forested terrain. Woodland caribou once ranged across the northern tier of the United States.  They lived in old-growth forest, where they ate primarily lichens. In this open forest habitat, they were able to see and evade predators.

Overhunting and logging devastated woodland caribou populations, but animals continued to survive in the Selkirk Mountains of Idaho, Washington and British Columbia. Theodore Roosevelt hunted them in the Selkirks in 1888, thirteen years before he became president (he tells the excellent story of that adventure in his book The Wilderness Hunter).

By the 1950s, only 100 caribou remained in the Selkirks. Eventually, wildlife managers translocated woodland caribou from farther north in British Columbia. This effort failed.

Today, the herd moves back and forth across the border. By most accounts, no more than 45 animals remain. The number that roam into Idaho and Washington had dwindled into the single digits. In 2012, no caribou were spotted in the “lower 48.”

Also in 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated critical habitat for the woodland caribou in North Idaho, a move that outraged local people concerned it would restrict logging, snowmobiling and other uses.

And the caribou still cling precariously to existence here. For how much longer?

Into the Woods

White-tailed deer. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

White-tailed deer. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

Human disturbance in the forest has allowed white-tailed deer to expand their range. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

One of the most horrifying moments in the movie Bambi is when Bambi’s mom announces “Man has entered the forest.” Mayhem ensues. Bambi’s mom dies.

In reality, though, whitetails have benefited mightily from humans entering the forest.

Unlike caribou, whitetails don’t have specific habitat needs like old-growth forest. They’ll take small woodlots or farms or even suburbia, thank you very much.

They’ll do quite well with clearcuts, or young growth forest. In fact, they often do too well. The kind of forest now found in much of northern Idaho and eastern Washington.

Theodore Roosevelt saw all manner of interesting critters on his 1888 hunting trip to the area. He did not see a white-tailed deer. If they existed there at all, it was only in tiny numbers.

Once hunting laws were passed in the early 1900s, whitetails recolonized (often with human assistance) their former range, and then expanded into new territory like the Selkirks. Driving around the nearby Kootenai Valley now, you’ll see herds of them in the fields and forest edges.

And with them, come the mountain lions.

In the expansive forests of this area, a number of large predators have always thrived – grizzly bears, wolves, lynxes, wolverines. They preyed on caribou, certainly. But caribou could see them coming in the open forest. It was that finely attuned dance between predator and prey, each evolving together.

In a logged forest, there’s brush and thick undergrowth. It makes the perfect hiding spot for mountain lions—which have increased thanks to all those deer. Caribou are ill-equipped to deal with an ambush predator. They never see them coming.

Hello Bambi, goodbye Rudolph. What’s a conservationist to do?

No Fairy Tale Ending?

The forest of North Idaho. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

The forest of North Idaho. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

The fictional deer of film and television overcome long odds (and the occasional Abominable Snow Monster) to save the day and lead their herds.

In our story, a happy ending has so far eluded conservationists.

There are a number of ways to look at caribou in the contiguous United States. Some argue that we should do anything we can do to save thes remaining animals. In the Selkirks, pretty much all the animals that were here at the time of the Lewis and Clark Expedition still roam. That’s worth something.

And, to be sure, there are other conservation successes that have faced similarly long odds. The bison situation looked hopeless. Black-footed ferrets? They were declared extinct but are now being reintroduced throughout their range. Even the ubiquitous white-tailed deer once seemed destined for doom. Maybe the caribou could make a similar turnaround.

But others wonder how much effort should be put into saving a tiny population of animals. After all, even with unlimited conservation resources, one disaster could wipe them out: a disease or poaching incident, among many other possible scenarios.

Should conservationists spend money on the woodland subspecies when huge herds of barren ground caribou still exist on the tundra of Canada and Alaska? Those animals face threats from climate change and energy development, daunting challenges both. Couldn’t the millions likely required to assist woodland caribou be better spent ensuring that abundant caribou populations remain abundant?

Should conservation measures severely restrict economic and recreational use of land in the Selkirks? That seems to appeal to many urban environmentalists but outrages local people.

Or should wildlife managers institute predator control for mountain lions? That appeals to local people but outrages urban environmentalists.

There are no easy answers here.

Maybe it comes down to this: do we want a world that only has room for the species able to adapt to humanity, like white-tailed deer?

If the answer is no – and I hope it is – we owe it to ourselves to find creative solutions so that creatures like the caribou can continue to be a part of our world.

It won’t be easy, but if we succeed, we’ll have a story better than anything Disney could create.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.

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Urban Wild: Flying Squirrels of the Beltway http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/12/17/urban-wild-flying-squirrels-beltway-dc-city-wildlife/ http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/12/17/urban-wild-flying-squirrels-beltway-dc-city-wildlife/#comments Wed, 17 Dec 2014 10:00:56 +0000 http://blog.nature.org/science/?p=45385 Photo: Ken Thomas under a Creative Commons license.

Photo: Ken Thomas under a Creative Commons license.

By Matt Miller, senior science writer

One of North America’s most unusual wildlife watching destination is located just a short distance from the U.S. capital, tucked away in a small nature reserve in Arlington, Virginia.

And right now is the best time to experience it.

It’s not wilderness,  but the nearby Longbranch Nature Center and Park has emerged as arguably the best place in the world to see the southern flying squirrel (Glaucomys volans) in the wild.

Southern flying squirrels are almost impossibly cute: with large eyes and the flappy skin that enables them to glide (not fly) from tree to tree.

They’re also surprisingly common. In fact, some wildlife surveys in Virginia and elsewhere have found that southern flying squirrels are actually as common as the well-known gray squirrel.

Unlike gray squirrels, flying squirrels are very difficult to see.

“They’re very small and nocturnal,” says Rachel Tolman, park naturalist at Longbranch. “They live very high up in trees. They’re well camouflaged.”

Walk through the forest on enough evenings, and you might luck into one. Or not. But Longbranch has a program where you can reliably view this secretive critter.

Longbranch occupies 17 acres in Arlington, a city that consists of only two percent natural lands. But the mature oak forest is home to a surprising diversity of wildlife. It’s a great resource, putting on some 500 nature events each year.

The staff at Longbranch maintain roosting boxes for the squirrels – where the squirrels huddle together in winter for warmth. Each evening, from December through March, a naturalist puts peanut butter on trees by the deck of the center to attract the flying squirrels.

Unless there’s an owl nearby, or rainy weather, the flying squirrels will probably show. Six or more flying squirrels will visit the feeder in an evening.

About eight times a year, a naturalist also offers an informative lecture on the flying squirrels during the feeding. These events are geared towards families, and offer an entertaining view of the animal’s habits. At the end of the presentation, as the sun sets, the flying squirrels come gliding in.

“You’ll have an excellent view of the squirrels,” says Colson. “You can often observe them for an extended period from just a few feet away.’

There are three of these events during the holiday season: December 21 and 28, and January 3.

Southern flying squirrels are territorial most of the year, but during the winter they abandon the territories for warmth: they will pile en masse in a roosting area. They also are willing to share food.

I first learned of this program through my friend John Fox, a hard-core birder and mammal enthusiast. A few winters ago, I was in Arlington to interview for my current job.

I could stay warm and comfortable in my hotel room, and prepare for my interview. Or I could stand in the cold night and look for unusual mammals. It didn’t seem like much of a contest.

I never miss a chance to look for unusual critters, and I think a lot of times naturalists overlook world-class experiences located near, or in, cities.

John picked me up and we headed to the nature center. It was a little haven of peace amidst all that concrete and all those roads. We waited around in the gathering dark, and it seemed as if the flying squirrels wouldn’t show.

And then, a slight clicking came from the other side of the tree. A flying squirrel darted around for the peanut butter. Soon another came gliding in and hit the tree with an audible thump. I watched the interactions of the two mammals for a half hour or more.

Then they climbed the tree and glided away into the night, giving me a spectacular view of their spread out, tent-like flaps as they floated silently through the air.

Photo: Michael Hays under a GNU Free Documentation License.

Photo: Michael Hays under a GNU Free Documentation License.

A lot of conservationists and researchers have been urging people to celebrate urban nature – the nature near where most people live. But so often, we then fail to offer meaningful naturalist opportunities.

So many urban nature books feature the usual suspects: crows and gray squirrels and pigeons. These animals can be very interesting to observe. But there comes the impression that cities are still somewhat lacking in the biodiversity department.

But there are biological wonders in the city, too. That’s what’s so cool about Longbranch’s flying squirrel program. Here is an experience you aren’t likely to find elsewhere – not in national parks, not in wilderness, not at national wildlife refuges.

“It seems that at every event we do, someone will say ‘I never knew these creatures were here,’” says Tolman.

The event is one of the most popular at the center, primarily drawing local families. But Longbranch has also become a favorite spot of serious mammal watchers, enthusiasts who keep life lists of mammals much as birders do (and I count myself among their number).

So if you live in the Washington, DC area – or find yourself there for business or pleasure this winter – be sure to make the urban wild a part of your holiday schedule.

“One of the biggest points we want to emphasize with this program is that we have a surprisingly diverse wildlife population here,” says Tolman. “We offer a unique experience at our nature center. I think the fact that it takes place in an urban setting makes it even more special.”

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.

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Citizen Science Tuesday: IceWatch USA http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/12/16/citizen-science-icewatch-lake-water-climate-wildlife-freeze/ http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/12/16/citizen-science-icewatch-lake-water-climate-wildlife-freeze/#comments Tue, 16 Dec 2014 10:00:32 +0000 http://blog.nature.org/science/?p=45374 Fox on ice at Derrickson Creek in Delaware. Photo © Lee Cannon/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

Fox on ice at Derrickson Creek in Delaware. Photo © Lee Cannon/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

Citizen Science Tuesday connects you with opportunities to be a part of conservation science with outdoor projects around the world and online projects to try from the comfort of your own home.

By Lisa Feldkamp, senior coordinator, new science audiences, The Nature Conservancy

What Is IceWatch USA?

Are you dreaming of a white Christmas?

Heavy snow and cold weather like the “polar vortex” get all the press, but what are the realities given a changing climate?

One way citizen scientists can help track these changes is by noting when bodies of water like lakes freeze and how long they stay frozen.

Seasonal changes in ice cover are important for ecosystems and wildlife. Warmer temperatures and the accompanying decrease in ice cover have a variety of impacts on wildlife from birds that change their migration patterns to fish that are faced with living in warmer, shallower waters.

“Looking back to the 1970’s when I grew up in the mountains of western Pennsylvania, our winters were always cold and snowy. We didn’t ever have to worry if there would be enough snow to build a snowman or snow fort or go sledding with dad,” says Melinda Hughes-Wert, President of Nature Abounds. “That all has changed, and even our rivers and other water bodies aren’t freezing over like they used to.”

IceWatch USA shares the data that you collect with scientists, research institutions, and government agencies. They also collaborate with IceWatch Canada and the National Phenology Network.

“With IceWatch USA, we’re helping scientists figure out what is going on and why have our winters changed so much. Our IceWatch volunteers, watch not only winter precipitation events (snow, sleet, hail, and rain) and ice, but also wildlife, whether they’re native or migrating through,” Hughes-Wert explains.

Why Is IceWatch USA Important?

IceWatch is an important step toward increasing our knowledge of changes in ice cover and it’s something that anyone can do.

And by calling on many people from across the country to contribute, scientists can get a much bigger picture of what’s happening than they could on their own.

“We now have about 1,000 IceWatch USA volunteers participating from forty-eight states, everywhere but Hawaii and Alabama,” Hughes-Wert notes.

By monitoring wildlife at the same time as checking ice cover, IceWatch volunteers increase their impact by contributing to scientific understanding of how changes in ice cover are impacting animals.

Participants sometimes observe unusual, not always climate change related, wildlife behavior.

“I personally monitor about 9 sites for IceWatch USA. One of those sites is along the West Branch of the Susquehanna River. Year-round you can find mallards and Muscovy ducks here. Several winters ago, there was a new member of the gang, and so I took a photo so I could identify it later when I got home,” Hughes-Wert recalls. “It turned out to be a Greater White-fronted Goose.”

The goose likely got blown off course during migration.

“During their travels, if a goose’s mate dies, they may stay in their current location. This particular goose has never left the area, and now hangs out with the mallards.”

Gulls, geese, and ducks at a watering hole in the ice on the Charles River in Waltham. Photo © Bill Damon/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

Gulls, geese, and ducks at a watering hole in the ice on the Charles River in Waltham. Photo © Bill Damon/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

How Can You Get Involved in IceWatch USA?

If you have questions or concerns about volunteering, try this helpful FAQ. For instance, if you live in an area that doesn’t get much snow or ice, IceWatch still welcomes your observations.

Start by registering to be an IceWatch volunteer.

Then choose a nearby river, lake, or bay to monitor.

Stay safe while monitoring for ice cover! Be sure to read the ice watching tips to help you choose a good location for observation.

Record your observations and submit them through mail or email (online submission is coming soon).

Go walking in a winter wonderland, it may not be the landscape you remember from your childhood, but the data that you collect can help scientists to plan for the future.


Is there a citizen science project that you think deserves more attention? Contact Lisa Feldkamp, lfeldkamp[at]tnc.org or leave a comment below with a link to make a recommendation for Citizen Science Tuesday.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Nature Conservancy.

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Can We Grow Safe Produce and Conserve Nature at the Same Time? http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/12/15/safe-produce-conservation-nature-wildlife-ecoli-habitat-foodborne/ http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/12/15/safe-produce-conservation-nature-wildlife-ecoli-habitat-foodborne/#comments Mon, 15 Dec 2014 10:01:53 +0000 http://blog.nature.org/science/?p=45340 Romaine lettuce growing on a farm on California's Central Coast © Cara Byington/TNC

Romaine lettuce growing on a farm on California’s Central Coast, the region responsible for growing around 70% of U.S. salad greens   © Cara Byington/TNC

In 2006, an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in bagged spinach sickened hundreds and killed at least three people across the United States. For decades, foodborne diseases had been primarily associated with meat. In the 1970s, <1% of the foodborne disease outbreaks could be attributed to produce. The most recent estimates, however, suggest that fresh produce is now the leading cause of foodborne illness in the United States, responsible for 38% of hospitalizations and 23% of deaths.

After the 2006 outbreak, spinach sales plummeted and the salad greens industry lost US$350 million. The public called for reform of food safety regulations. And, in 2011, the federal government passed the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) — the most sweeping overhaul to food safety regulation of the past 70 years. Since then, the FDA has been engaged in rule-making, culminating this week as the “produce rule” closes for public comment and solidifies new standards for fresh produce; standards that will alter the way fruits and vegetables are grown, affecting farms and nature throughout the United States and beyond.

Food Safety and Conservation

Why are we writing about food safety in a conservation blog? The connection is circuitous, but important, and it is, as these connections often are, a story of hasty decisions and unintended consequences. It begins after the 2006 outbreak when epidemiologists traced the disease-causing E. coli O157:H7 strain to a farm in the Central Coast of California, the region responsible for growing ~70% of U.S. salad greens.

The E. coli strain was found in water, soil, cattle, and the feral pigs that frequent natural areas around Central Coast farms.

E. coli was found in water, soil, cattle, and the feral pigs that frequent natural areas around Central Coast farms.

The strain was found in water, soil, cattle, and the feral pigs that frequent natural areas around Central Coast farms. Though wildlife very rarely carries E. coli O57:H7—the disease is much more common in cattle—wildlife have been loosely associated with several foodborne diseases outbreaks in the past. Wildlife, and by extension their habitat, could thus be considered a food safety threat.

Fearing litigation, lost sales, and sick customers, large produce buyers quickly created their own farming standards and enforced them by sending auditors to farm fields. Suddenly, farmers could lose the sale of entire fields of product if they failed to comply with these new buyer-mandated standards. In response to the new requirements, farming practices changed rapidly in the Central Coast and nature became an early and frequent victim.

A Blow to Nature

In one survey of Central Coast farmers, 47% reported being told by their buyers that wildlife was a big threat to food safety. In another survey, 89% of farmers reported trying to exclude wildlife from their farms to improve food safety by erecting fences, lining their fields with rodent traps and poison bait, and clearing adjacent natural vegetation. Some farmers reported pouring copper sulfate into waterways to kill fish and amphibians because they may carry Salmonella. These practices took a heavy toll – and all were being implemented without any scientific evidence to show that they would actually improve food safety.

As one measure of the drastic changes, Conservancy scientists published a paper in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment last year that reported that 13% of the remaining riparian habitat along the highly diverse Salinas River was degraded or destroyed following the 2006 E. coli outbreak. Given that 90% of the riparian and floodplain habitat had been lost already to conversion to farm fields, every acre counts for wildlife. This loss was a huge blow for nature – and for everyone who lives in the Salinas Valley.

Unfortunately, there was no scientific evidence that habitat removal would actually make food any safer. Moreover, nowhere had it been shown that removing habitat reduced wildlife intrusion onto farm fields, let alone intrusion of proven disease vectors.

As FSMA extends food safety regulations across 4.5 million acres of U.S. farmland, we must ask ourselves: is there really a tradeoff between conserving nature and producing safe food? After compiling hundreds of thousands of pathogen tests in leafy green vegetables, water sources, and wild animals across California’s Central Coast, our initial findings suggest not.

No Evidence that Wildlife Causes an Increase in Pathogens

Working with industry and disease ecologists, our data have yet to yield any evidence that nature can cause an increase in pathogen prevalence. Pathogens do not increase in prevalence near riparian or other types of natural habitat. On the contrary, we have found that nature on and near farms may benefit farmers, local communities, and consumers. Though our work is ongoing, early findings from field experiments and modeling suggest that natural habitat can improve water quality and potentially increase farm yields by providing a home for the predators of damaging crop pests.

NatureNet Fellow Daniel Karp checking field experiments on a Central Coast farm.

NatureNet Fellow Daniel Karp checking field experiments on a Central Coast farm. © Cara Byington/TNC

An outpouring of public comments and advocacy by the Conservancy and its partners caused the FDA to re-write parts of its FMSA produce rule, including sections related to wildlife. The rule now explicitly states that it neither requires nor authorizes farmers to “exclude animals from outdoor growing areas,” “clear farm borders,” or “destroy animal habitat.”

While an encouraging step, the rule is no guarantee. Following the 2006 outbreak in California, state government officials, producers, and food retailers joined together to create the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA); in essence, a set of industry-determined best practices for growing safe food. LGMA is voluntary, but once farmers sign on, it is legally enforceable. Now, 99% of California leafy greens are LGMA-certified. Like FSMA, LGMA states that any leafy greens that come in contact with wildlife feces must be destroyed, but it does not encourage habitat removal.

Instead, the origins of the habitat removal, wildlife fencing, and poison traps are much more likely to be found in the private documents created by produce buyers and enforced by auditors. Farmers have borne the cost. One farmer was forced to destroy 10 acres of produce when deer wandered into his farm field. Another farmer paid US$100,000 to fence off his produce farm from wildlife.

Mitigating the growing threat of foodborne disease outbreaks in fresh produce is a moral imperative. Many are getting sick. Some have died. However, with no evidence of its efficacy in reducing pathogens and strong evidence of its social and environmental costs, we suggest that the view of nature as an enemy to food safety is misguided and destructive. We can grow safe food and conserve nature. And our work is showing that the public interest would be far better served by targeting the real enemy with a science-based “war against foodborne disease,” rather than nature.

Daniel Karp, “NatureNet” Postdoctoral Science Fellow, The Nature Conservancy and University of California Berkeley

Sasha Gennet, Senior Scientist, The Nature Conservancy of California

Rodd Kelsey, Lead Scientist, Working Landscapes, The Nature Conservancy of California

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.

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Of “Pizzlies” and Goose Dinners: The Latest Research on Polar Bears http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/12/11/of-pizzlies-and-goose-dinners-the-latest-research-on-polar-bears/ http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/12/11/of-pizzlies-and-goose-dinners-the-latest-research-on-polar-bears/#comments Thu, 11 Dec 2014 10:00:28 +0000 http://blog.nature.org/science/?p=45318 Have polar bears become a "climate change cliche"? Photo: ©Robert M. Griffith

Have polar bears become a “climate change cliche”? Photo: ©Robert M. Griffith

By Matt Miller, senior science writer

It’s difficult to see the polar bear clearly. This is not because the polar bear blends in so well with its white landscape – although it does.

No, it’s difficult to see a polar bear because it has become a symbol, the poster animal of climate change. It may even be, as a recent Conservation Magazine story suggested, “a climate change cliché.”

Dave Levitan goes on to write in that piece: “Polar bears are the easy target, the global warming victim too cute and obvious to really mean what we want them to mean, right?”

Be that as it may, polar bears continue to draw the attention of reporters, non-profits and researchers. A lot of attention. It might be de rigueur to proclaim that everyone, even environmentalists, is tired of polar bears.

The headlines suggest otherwise.

And all that scrutiny means that scientists are gaining fascinating insights on polar bears – and climate change.

Last year, Lisa Feldkamp wrote a popular Cool Green Science blog that looked at what the science really says about polar bears. That piece remains an excellent primer on the issues surrounding polar bears, and I won’t duplicate that here.

But in the past year, there’s been even more media attention, debate and intrigue around polar bear research.

Here’s a digest of the latest findings and issues, all in one spot.

Night of the Pizzly

Perhaps the most sensational story in polar bear conservation is the emergence of polar bear/grizzly hybrids – popularly known as pizzlies or grolar bears.

Milder climates and less ice have allowed grizzlies to move northward, where they encounter polar bears. Sometimes, they compete. But there have also been documented cases of the two bears breeding, including four “pizzlies” killed by hunters in recent years.

The recent New York Times feature “Should We Fear the Pizzly?” is perhaps the definitive story on the subject. It raises interesting questions about hybrids and adaptation.

The story highlights the extreme difficulty in determining what is “natural” and what is just evolutionary process.

And some do see the pizzly as an example of ongoing evolution and nature’s resilence, whereas others see a tragic story in which the polar bear’s exquisite adaptations unravel. Where you fall probably says a lot about how you view conservation in the Anthropocene.

Bear Meets Goose

Could polar bears help control over-abundant snow goose populations. Photo: © Robert Angell

Could polar bears help control over-abundant snow goose populations. Photo: © Robert Angell

Another story of adaptation, also from The New York Times.(Again, has any other creature garnered such prominent media attention recently?).

In the Hudson Bay area, polar bears are forced to move off the melting ice, away from their normal prey, seals. However, they encounter another protein-rich food source: the eggs of snow geese, so over-abundant they’ve been decimating their Arctic nesting grounds.

This has the makings of a tidy story: polar bears adapt to a changing climate, and in the process, control an over-populated species.

The reality is a bit messier. Studies have shown that, overall, polar bears continue to exhibit deteriorating health.

And they don’t appear to be making a significant dent in goose populations.

As one researcher says in the Times story: “The system is a lot more complicated than anyone thought.”

All the more so with climate change.

Meanwhile, the Debate Continues…

An inescapable fact: polar bears need sea ice. Photo: ©Robert M. Griffith

An inescapable fact: polar bears need sea ice. Photo: ©Robert M. Griffith

Polar bear conservation continues to be a prominent stage for climate change debates.

Some look at polar bear population estimates and see a bright future for the bears. They point out that most polar bear populations are actually increasing. They are fond of calling polar bears “political weapons.”

This viewpoint’s most prominent advocate is biologist Mitchell Taylor, often quoted extensively in stories like this recent piece in the Daily Mail.

Taylor and others in his camp spend a lot of time dissecting the findings of the Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG), which releases polar bear population estimates.

This year, those denying a polar bear decline jumped on statement by PBSG that their estimates were “simply a qualified guess given to satisfy public demand.”

Too often, arguments about polar bear populations overlook an important fact, that being that the baseline data come from a time (the 1960s and 1970s) when polar bear populations were depressed from severe overhunting.

The latest peer-reviewed research casts a far less rosy picture for the polar bear’s future. Most notable among these is a recent article appearing in PLoS One (and summarized well in Conservation Magazine).

The paper’s authors argue that polar bears will increasingly face an ice-free Arctic. As Dave Levitan writes in Conservation Magazine, “This means polar bears will either run out of ice and drown or starve, or will head south, running into humans and other species alike.”

Have We Been Here Before?

Author Edward Struzik, who has covered Arctic conservation issues for 30 years, argues that we’ve been here before with polar bears.

In his forthcoming book Future Arctic (to be released by Island Press in January 2015), he notes that polar bears seemed destined for extinction in the 1960s, when unregulated hunting ruled the Arctic. Dozens of float planes lined up to shuttle rich clients out to the Arctic ice to shoot their bear.

He notes that saving the bear during this time meant regulating their trade on an international basis. That meant that the United States and the U.S.S.R. had to negotiate, at a time when neither was much inclined to do so.

But visionary politicians and conservationists like U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Stewart Udall and Alaska Senator E.L. Bartlett brokered an agreement that led to effective polar bear management and protection.

If two Cold War powers could agree on this, why can’t we today?

“Now we have people like Al Gore and organizations like the World Wildlife Fund and Polar Bears International calling for action, but with some notable exceptions, they have not been as politically successful in getting something done as E.L. Bartlett or Stewart Udall were,” Strudik writes.

Extreme Measures

Should we move this bear to Antarctica? Photo: © M Sanjayan/TNC

Should we move this bear to Antarctica? Photo: © M Sanjayan/TNC

Conservationists continue to explore some more unusual (or extreme) measures, like relocating polar bears to Antarctica, or providing supplemental feed to the animals.

For thoughtful responses to these and similar ideas, I suggest this BBC interview with Steven Amstrup, chief scientist for Polar Bears International.

He addresses all these potential measures, and also offers a clear-headed analysis of the role that subsistence and sport hunting plays in polar bear conservation.

His bottom line, I think, is this: there is a real risk that all these proposals and side issues detract from the real issue, which is climate change.

Polar bears face a bleak future if we don’t address it. Period.

Researching the Future

Polar bears will continue to be the intense focus of research. New methods, such as extracting DNA from polar bear tracks, will offer a more complete view of bears and how we can best conserve them.

Undoubtedly, there will be more surprises in store, too.

But I also hold this hope: that increased research helps us see polar bears as real animals.

Not as climate change symbols, or “political weapons,” or cuddly cartoons. As real and complicated beings, worthy of our best and clearest thinking.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy. 

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Birders: Report Forest Pests During the Christmas Bird Count http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/12/10/birding-forest-pests-christmas-bird-count-cbc-invasives/ http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/12/10/birding-forest-pests-christmas-bird-count-cbc-invasives/#comments Wed, 10 Dec 2014 10:00:32 +0000 http://blog.nature.org/science/?p=45302 Emerald ash borer (EAB), an invasive forest pest. Photo by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

Emerald ash borer (EAB), an invasive forest pest. Photo by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

Leigh Greenwood is the manager of the Don’t Move Firewood campaign.

Want to expand your citizen-science impact during the Christmas Bird Count? The Christmas Bird Count, run by the National Audubon Society, is the longest running wildlife census in the world- and one of the most successful citizen science projects in existence.

The 2014 count starts December 14, 2014 and runs until January 10, 2015. To participate, birders must join local groups, called Circles, allowing them to become part of the official count process.

Conservancy scientists are now asking for assistance from birders in looking for signs of damage from invasive tree pests like emerald ash borer, Asian longhorned beetle and others.

Because invasive forest insects are often preyed upon by native woodpeckers, the damage that birdwatchers can learn about and look for comes in three types; natural woodpecker foraging on native forest insects, heavy damage from woodpeckers foraging on high densities of invasive insects in trees, and signs of damage from the life cycle of the invasive insects themselves.

Many state agricultural and forestry agencies around the country are joining in the effort to encourage birdwatchers to learn the difference between typical signs of woodpecker and sapsucker foraging, and the subtly different signs of damage connected to forest insects.

“The Christmas Bird Count is an ideal opportunity for bird watchers to check the trees for signs of invasive pests like Asian longhorned beetle and emerald ash borer,” said Jennifer Forman Orth, State Plant Pest Survey Coordinator at the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources.

She continues:  “The damage from these insects can easily be seen in winter, when there are no leaves on the trees, and birdwatchers are typically armed with a pair of binoculars that will help them check high-up branches for the perfectly round holes left by Asian longhorned beetles in maples and other hardwoods, or the increased woodpecker activity and removal of bark (“blonding”) caused by excessive woodpecker activity associated with emerald ash borer infestations in ash trees.”

Emerald ash borer (EAB) exit hole on left, and woodpecker foraging hole on right. The woodpecker is likely seeking adjacent EAB larvae. Photo: Jennifer Forman Orth, MDAR

Emerald ash borer (EAB) exit hole on left, and woodpecker foraging hole on right. The woodpecker is likely seeking adjacent EAB larvae. Photo: Jennifer Forman Orth, MDAR.

Birdwatchers can download the newly updated Birdwatcher’s Field Guide to Holes in Trees, a handout produced by the Conservancy.

This short photo guide explains the differences between holes made by typical woodpecker and sapsucker foraging, holes made by woodpeckers seeking invasive insect larvae, and holes caused by the invasive insects themselves.

Participants in the Christmas Bird Count should report any suspicious damage or signs of forest pests as soon as they have finished providing their bird count compiler with their bird data.

Birders are encouraged to take digital photos of any potentially forest insect related damage observed, identify the species of tree with the damage if possible, and then report findings using websites (see below for a listing), state hotlines, or phone apps.

“Trees and forests are an essential part of our lives, and they provide clean air and water, jobs and products, and vital wildlife habitat.  From tree-lined neighborhood streets to national parks, we count on trees to provide benefits today and for generations to come,” says Bill Toomey, Director of Forest Health Protection for The Nature Conservancy. “That’s why it’s critical for everyone to be aware of the trees around them and take simple actions to help protect them- such as looking for and reporting signs of insects or diseases.”

Stripping of ash bark by woodpeckers while seeking emerald ash borer larvae; this foraging damage is called “blonding." Photo: Jennifer Forman Orth,MDAR

Stripping of ash bark by woodpeckers while seeking emerald ash borer larvae; this foraging damage is called “blonding.” Photo: Jennifer Forman Orth, MDAR.

For more information on regionally and nationally important invasive forest pests, and how to report potential signs of infestation, please refer to the websites below.

*   Asian longhorned beetle
*   Emerald ash borer
*   Thousand Cankers Disease of Walnut
*   Gypsy Moth
*   Goldspotted Oak Borer
*   Sudden Oak Death
*   Laurel Wilt
*   For other pests of high interest to the United States Department of Agriculture, please look up the appropriate state on the map at http://www.hungrypests.com/

Download your handout today, and learn more about Holes in Trees!

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy. 

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Citizen Science Tuesday: Celebrate Urban Birds http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/12/09/citizen-science-celebrate-urban-birds-cornell-ornithology-diversity/ http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/12/09/citizen-science-celebrate-urban-birds-cornell-ornithology-diversity/#comments Tue, 09 Dec 2014 10:00:04 +0000 http://blog.nature.org/science/?p=45292 A pigeon looks out over New York from the Empire State Building. Photo by ZeroOne/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

A pigeon looks out over New York from the Empire State Building. Photo by ZeroOne/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

Citizen Science Tuesday connects you with opportunities to be a part of conservation science with outdoor projects around the world and online projects to try from the comfort of your own home.

By Lisa Feldkamp, senior coordinator, new science audiences, The Nature Conservancy

What is Celebrate Urban Birds?

You don’t need to book a trip to Costa Rica or the Amazon to enjoy great birding.

As many serious birders know, there is a surprising abundance and diversity of birds living right in the city. In even the most densely packed urban areas, birds have found a way to survive.

And this week’s citizen science project will help you find and identify them.

Celebrate Urban Birds (CUBs), a project run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, studies the birds that manage to eke out a living in cities and surrounding areas and connects people who live in those areas to science and nature.

“The project seeks to understand how both resident and migratory bird species are using green spaces. We are presently analyzing the data and looking for patterns to better understand what size and quality of green spaces are needed to better support birds in urban locations,” says Karen Ann Purcell of CUBs. 

Why is CUBs Important?

By 2050, scientists project that two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in cities.

That will likely mean that more birds will be living in cities as well, especially as cities expand and convert other bird habitats.

That doesn’t mean life is easy for an urban bird. Many die each year because of threats like cats and window collisions. Even birds that survive may be in poor health.

The needs of urban birds are poorly understood. It is likely that green spaces play a role in urban bird diversity, but more data is needed to understand what qualities a green space needs to maximize benefits to birds.

A great benefit of the Celebrate Urban Birds program is that it opens up the avian world to a greater diversity of people  – diversity that is often underrepresented in STEM fields like conservation science.

“When we ask questions as scientists we are asking questions based on our own beliefs. If we ultimately don’t have diversity in conservation science then all the questions that we are asking will continue to come from one understanding of the world — and that is not good science,” says Purcell. “If people of all backgrounds and from all neighborhoods don’t get the opportunities to have positive experiences with birds we will have a lot of people who will not be tuned in to the natural world around them. These folks will not have a voice in conservation decisions that directly affect their communities and their lives.”

CUBs provides diverse communities an opportunity to participate in conservation science by studying birds that live nearby.

Hummingbirds nesting in a patio chandelier. Photo by Lydia D'moch for the CUBs Funky Nests in Funky Places 2014 competition.

Hummingbirds nesting in a patio chandelier. Photo by Lydia D’moch for the CUBs Funky Nests in Funky Places 2014 competition.

They engage communities through events (that can be funded with mini-grants), fun bird observation challenges, and greening efforts. Their website houses a treasure trove of information to learn and to explore and it’s available in Spanish.

CUBs connects children with STEM education and nature.

Kids and adults can make meaningful contributions to science while learning about the unexpected behaviors of birds in their own neighborhood. No previous experience or knowledge of birds needed!

Purcell notes some of the natural phenomenon that urban bird enthusiasts can expect:

“A pigeon feeding crop milk to its young, a Killdeer doing a broken wing display to protect its nest on a gravel rooftop, an American Crow distracting a dog so it can steal its food, an American Robin that builds a nest on the tire of a car while the person is at work (for 9 days in a row), a Black-crowned Night Heron in plain view blending into the background so it is completely invisible.”

How Can You Get Involved in CUBs?

All you need is a citizen science account and a kit. You can download the kit or order a printed copy($5).

Then learn about the 16 focal species that CUBs is investigating.

If you live in or near a city in the US, Canada, or Mexico, pick an area about the size of half a basketball court and watch it for just 10 minutes.

Record which of the 16 focal species you see or don’t see. Submit your observations online or by mailing in your data sheet.

As Purcell says, “Once you put a name on a bird – it sticks with you.”

Spend some time with a project that can change your city and your outlook forever.


Is there a citizen science project that you think deserves more attention? Contact Lisa Feldkamp, lfeldkamp[at]tnc.org or leave a comment below with a link to make a recommendation for Citizen Science Tuesday.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Nature Conservancy.

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Craig Groves Named SNAP Executive Director http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/12/08/craig-groves-snap-conservation-human-development-science/ http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/12/08/craig-groves-snap-conservation-human-development-science/#comments Mon, 08 Dec 2014 10:00:29 +0000 http://blog.nature.org/science/?p=45264 Craig Groves, executive director of Science for Nature and People (SNAP)

Craig Groves, executive director of Science for Nature and People (SNAP)

Science for Nature and People (SNAP) — the new science initiative producing solutions on issues from hydraulic fracturing and water quality to sustainable agriculture intensification to protecting coastlines in the face of sea-level rise — has named the globally recognized conservation leader Craig Groves as its first full-time executive director.

Groves, whose nearly 30-year scientific career includes authoring the book regarded as the bible of conservation planning, assumes the directorship of SNAP just as the initiative is poised in 2015 to deliver the first of its findings.

SNAP (http://snap.is) — launched in 2013 by The Nature Conservancy, Wildlife Conservation Society and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) — already has 250 scientists from more than 100 universities tackling some of the thorniest dilemmas in the tangle of environmental degradation and human resource needs.

“SNAP is about to produce new ways forward for seemingly intractable problems that impact both millions of people and the nature they depend on,” says Groves, who is assuming his new role immediately after 7 years as senior scientist at The Nature Conservancy and previous science positions at the Conservancy and WCS.

“From how to more effectively communicate the urgency of action on climate change to how to get reliable data on the state of the world’s fish stocks — there are so many issues that need the rapid, usable approach that SNAP brings to science,” Groves adds. “I’m thrilled to lead SNAP as it begins to have a major influence on policy, investment and planning.”

For Land-Use Planning, Food & Water for a Growing Planet, & Climate Change: ‘A Director to Match SNAP’s Ambitions’

The inquiries of SNAP’s 12 Working Groups roughly fall into three major focal areas at the intersection of human well-being and nature conservation:

+ Land-Use Trade-offs, with inquiries into such topics as hydraulic fracturing and water quality, whether and how to log the world’s tropical forests to maximize benefit economies and biodiversity, and how to develop large-scale infrastructure in the Western Amazon basin.

+ Food and Water for a Growing Planet, on such issues as how to sustainably intensify agricultural production, how to provide sufficient water supplies for the world’s growing cities, and how to sustainably manage the world’s small-scale and large-scale fisheries.

+ Climate Change, looking into whether we might engineer video games to communicate effectively about climate change and how natural habitats such as oyster reefs and mangroves might provide coastal protection in the face of sea-level rise and storm surges.

“It’s hard to imagine a set of bigger issues — but we need to tackle them in order to secure a prosperous future, much less a sustainable one,” says Groves. “We need science to inform decision-making on these problems, and that’s why SNAP’s findings will be at the center of a lot of discussions moving forward.”

What differentiates SNAP is its emphasis on immediate implementation of its research findings. SNAP’s 12 Working Groups include top-caliber scientists, policymakers, bankers, engineers, corporate leaders, and others who will take up SNAP’s findings and move them immediately into real-world applications.

“SNAP is an ambitious venture — and Craig is a director to match those ambitions,” says Peter Kareiva, chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy, former interim SNAP executive director and current SNAP board member.

“He’s one of the world’s most experienced and most respected scientists in conservation, and someone with unparalleled wisdom along with technical acumen.”

“Craig has the vision and leadership skills to make sure that SNAP delivers,” adds Frank Davis, NCEAS director. “He knows all three founding organizations well, and as an NCEAS Resident Fellow and Working Group participant since 1998, he appreciates the power of collaborative working groups and open science for tackling complex environmental challenges.”

“Craig Groves will guide SNAP as we bring collective resources and capacities of our three organizations to bear on addressing some large-scale and intractable problems in conservation,” said John Robinson, WCS executive vice president of conservation and science.

“Craig is a remarkable conservation leader who has developed great respect through the years from his peers for his innovative science and collaborative spirit.”

A Global Career of Impact on Conservation

Indeed, Groves’ career has been punctuated by signature contributions to improve the practice and return on conservation efforts:

+ His 2003 book Drafting a Conservation Blueprint: a Practitioner’s Guide to Planning for Biodiversity (Island Press) has served as a model for conservation planning across the conservation community and natural resource agencies.

+ His second book, co-authored with fellow Conservancy scientist Edward Game Conservation Planning: Informed Decisions for a Healthier Planet (Roberts & Co.)is due out in 2015.

+ Groves has published over 40 peer review articles and book chapters on subjects ranging from climate adaptation to conservation planning, monitoring, and the ecology of at-risk species.

+ He currently serves as the Series Editor for IUCN’s (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA) Best Practice Guidelines, a set of publications intended to assist scientists, planners, managers, and practitioners in the design, establishment and management of nature conservation areas.

+ In 2015, Groves will be serving on a National Academy of Sciences team evaluating the purpose, goals, and scientific merits of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Landscape Conservation Cooperatives (LCC) – applied conservation science partnerships designed to provide technical support for conservation planning and create conservation collaborations across public and private boundaries at landscape scales.

“Craig has a deep commitment to producing conservation science that helps meet the needs of nature and the world,” says Kareiva, “and he has the energy to make it happen.”

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.

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The Hooting Season: Enjoying Great Horned Owls http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/12/08/the-hooting-season-enjoying-great-horned-owls/ http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/12/08/the-hooting-season-enjoying-great-horned-owls/#comments Mon, 08 Dec 2014 09:55:52 +0000 http://blog.nature.org/science/?p=45274 Now is the time to enjoy great horned owls setting up their nesting territories. Photo: © Nick Hall for The Nature Conservancy

Now is the time to enjoy great horned owls setting up their nesting territories. Photo: © Nick Hall for The Nature Conservancy

By Matt Miller, senior science writer

In this season of cold, snow and holiday music, the North American bird breeding and nesting season seems months away.

It’s not until the trees begin to bud and flowers bloom that the birdsong fills the air.

And that’s true. But not for great horned owls.

Now is the time to enjoy the great horned owl breeding season – a time when these charismatic birds are much easier to see and hear.

It’s the hooting season.

Don a winter cap and head out to your local park or walking trail to enjoy one of the season’s coolest spectacles. Here’s what you need for your next owl outing.

Into Owl Territory

The great horned owl is an abundant and adaptable bird species throughout the Americas. Photo: © Sergio Pucci

The great horned owl is an abundant and adaptable bird species throughout the Americas. Photo: © Sergio Pucci

The great horned owl, of course, is one of the most recognizable birds in the Americas, with its pointy feather tufts (the “horns”) and large fluffy appearance.

This is the prototypical “wise old owl,” and the owl of cartoons and children’s books.

It’s also incredibly adaptable, found from Canada to Patagonia, and most places in between. It is at home in desert and wetland, forest and prairie. And it also has no trouble thriving around people: you can find them in parks, farms, small woodlots, suburbs and cities.

Despite this, they’re not always easy to spot due to their nocturnal habits. But at this time of year, in the right location, a chorus of hoots provides the soundtrack to dawn and dusk.

That’s because, around October, male great horned owls begin setting up territories. Most great horned owls mate for life, but in the fall the pair begin a courtship display, loudly calling to each other.

The great horned owl’s hoot is pretty much unmistakable, although ornithology web sites often describe it in different ways. A common hooting pattern is a longer hoooooot, followed by two or three shorter hoots.

And these owls have a range of other vocalizations, too, some of which sound like barks or a screeching cat. (Cornell’s All About Birds site features some great audio of these different calls).

The owls continue setting up their territory this month, and begin setting up a nest.

They’ll use an abandoned nest previously used by a red-tailed hawk, squirrel or other critter. Come January, they’ll begin setting in the nest – far earlier than most other birds.

Why Do Owls Nest So Early?

A great horned owl nest. Photo: © Scott Copeland

A great horned owl nest. Photo: © Scott Copeland

Nesting early naturally entails some risk. Eggs must be kept warm and incubated, which can be a challenge when the temperature is in the single digits and snow is falling.

Female owls stay on the nest for prolonged periods (and when they leave to hunt, the male will take over).

If the eggs become too cold, they won’t hatch. This is why most birds wait until temperatures are warm and mild.

So: why nest early?

Owls are large birds. It takes them longer to grow and mature than, say, a songbird.

Young great horned owls must also master complex hunting maneuvers. They are equipped with superb senses – researchers have found that a great horned owl can hear a mouse rustling at 900 feet – but hunting still involves learning, trial and error.

Early hatching means they’re ready to practice their flying and hunting skills when the weather is mild and prey is abundant.

Enjoying the Owl Show

Look for the distinctive owl outlines in tree branches. Photo: © Chris Pague/TNC

Look for the distinctive owl outlines in tree branches. Photo: © Chris Pague/TNC

There’s likely a great horned owl territory near you. Now you just need to find it.

While owls can live in a variety of habitats, you won’t find them just anywhere. Focus on the edges. Owls prefer to have a good vantage point – a place where they can see out over the terrain.

Trees that overlook an open area are ideal. In particular, try to find a big-limbed tree that has shed its leaves (or a dead one). You can often find owls roosting there.

You can do a bit of scouting, too. Owls regurgitate the indigestible hair and bones of their prey: called owl pellets. You can often find a number of these pellets below preferred trees. (You can often reassemble the bones of mice by dissecting an owl pellet, another fun wintertime activity).

Of course, the easiest way to spot owls is not by looking, but listening. Those haunting hoots carry a long way. Sometimes you almost feel those hoots before you see them.

Once you hear the hooting, look carefully in likely trees, and you may be able to see the distinctive profile of the owl. Look through a binocular, and don’t be surprised if the owl is staring back at you.

It pays to quietly observe the owls for a while. I’ve been able to watch some interesting behavior, including owls mating.

My Owl Connection

Photo: © Marty Cordano

Photo: © Marty Cordano

Family lore holds that, long before I could utter words, I would lie in my crib and hoot like an owl. Perhaps my naturalist path was set, even then.

That story has been in my thoughts this year, as I prepare for the birth of my own son. The great horned owls, it seems, are everywhere. I see them perched on trees around our home and along the greenbelt jogging path; hear their calls in the canyons and river bottoms.

I’m always alert to the local wildlife, but this year, I can’t help but pay extra attention to all that owl activity.

I wake up in the middle of the night, thinking of my son and the world he’ll inhabit. And then, there it is: that deep hoot, hoot, hooting.

It seems to fill the room.

I snuggle under the covers and smile, filled with the hope that my son will find such comfort and joy in the wild things and their always-interesting ways.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.

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Rising to the Challenge of Biodiversity Conservation in a Human-dominated World http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/12/05/challenge-biodiversity-conservation-human-dominated-world-nature-people-ecosystem-services/ http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/12/05/challenge-biodiversity-conservation-human-dominated-world-nature-people-ecosystem-services/#comments Fri, 05 Dec 2014 10:00:32 +0000 http://blog.nature.org/science/?p=45228 LEAF interns Sharon Tam and Keira Adams have fun battling invasive invasive sweet clover (Melilotus sp.) on Santa Cruz Island, California. Photo credit: © Erika Nortemann/TNC.

LEAF interns Sharon Tam and Keira Adams have fun battling invasive invasive sweet clover (Melilotus sp.) on Santa Cruz Island, California. Photo credit: © Erika Nortemann/TNC.

By Scott A. Morrison, Director of Science, The Nature Conservancy, California

Every day, we are barraged by headlines reminding us of the urgency for conservation organizations to enhance their effectiveness in protecting – and re-creating – places for nature in an increasingly crowded, constrained and changing world.

To be that advocate, conservationists need a clear focus on their most pressing role and objective: being a persuasive voice for nature among countless other voices advocating other and often competing values.

That clarity of purpose is especially essential given the complexity of the social, economic, and political systems in which conservationists must negotiate change.

In a recent peer-reviewed article in the scientific journal Conservation Biology, I propose a framework that conservation organizations can use in today’s complex world to set objectives and plan strategies to achieve them. (Click here to see a PDF of the article.)

Figure 1. A framework for planning durable conservation outcomes. The center box represents the “whole system” of lands and waters, from wild to intensively developed places, where nature needs to be protected or enhanced. Conservation interventions, represented by a lightning bolt, would be planned to contribute to the protection of diversity and enhancement of resiliency of this “socio-ecological system,” and also to demonstrate the relevance of that conservation to people so they are motivated to change policy and practices and thereby institutionalize – or mainstream – the needed conservation outcome. The result is a virtuous cycle that sustains the benefits to nature and to people through time.

Figure 1. A framework for planning durable conservation outcomes. The center box represents the “whole system” of lands and waters, from wild to intensively developed places, where nature needs to be protected or enhanced. Conservation interventions, represented by a lightning bolt, would be planned to contribute to the protection of diversity and enhancement of resiliency of this “socio-ecological system,” and also to demonstrate the relevance of that conservation to people so they are motivated to change policy and practices and thereby institutionalize – or mainstream – the needed conservation outcome. The result is a virtuous cycle that sustains the benefits to nature and to people through time.

The framework (Fig. 1) depicts key elements of a conservation theory of change, and prompts the conservation planner to be precise about three things:

*   How a proposed conservation intervention is going to benefit biodiversity;
*   What relevance conservation may have for people; and
*   What actions are needed by those people to sustain that conservation outcome through time.

The framework also highlights a pathway from local outcomes to broader systemic change (Fig. 2).

Designing a Virtuous Cycle between People and Nature

A key advance of the framework is that it illustrates how “people and nature” are linked – in the context of planning and advancing a conservation strategy.

While people and nature are always inextricably linked, conservationists need to articulate and strengthen specific connections between the two if their efforts will be effective over the long term.

This framework highlights how foundational it is for people to experience benefits of conservation and become engaged in supporting conservation outcomes (for example, by changing policy or practices).

The resulting virtuous cycle – of people experiencing specific benefits from nature that they in turn become participants in protecting – becomes the engine that sustains biodiversity through time.

Figure 2. Scaling from place-based action to systemic change. A conservation intervention would be designed to demonstrate a conservation solution to a major environmental challenge in a place, so that the virtuous cycle established in that place can serve as a model that can be replicated elsewhere – thereby increasing the impact.

Figure 2. Scaling from place-based action to systemic change. A conservation intervention would be designed to demonstrate a conservation solution to a major environmental challenge in a place, so that the virtuous cycle established in that place can serve as a model that can be replicated elsewhere – thereby increasing the impact.

Importantly, the framework is inclusive of different values and motivations for conservation.

It includes an explicit place for nature “for nature’s sake” (i.e., “N”) as well as a place for nature “for people’s sake,” represented by the link from “places” (from which nature’s services would flow) to “P.”

The focus of conservation planning and action would be to make each of the links in Figure 1 as strong as possible.

How the Framework Works in Practice

Conservation planners need not apply the framework in any particular sequence. Rather, they might iterate through a planning process, concurrently considering all the various linkages on Figure 1 and the pathways for amplifying the impact on Figure 2.

The only “requirement” for a proposed engagement is that “N”, “P”, and each of the three linkages on Figure 1 be defined.

For example, one motivation to engage in a project might be to deliver ecosystem services, such as risk reduction benefits to people, by protecting or enhancing the “nature” in certain places or types of places. (In Fig. 1, these benefits would be depicted in the link from “places” to “P”.) Indeed, because conservation at scale requires broad constituencies, conservationists might well find it prudent to focus on that link early in their planning as a means to accelerate conservation.

A complete theory of change, however, requires all three links, including how those focal people will become invested in sustaining the conservation outcome, and how that intervention “for people” will also advance important biodiversity conservation goals.

Figure 3. A virtuous cycle framework for conservation, in which conservation strategies are designed to catalyze actions that inspire people (e.g., by demonstrating the relevance of conservation to their well-being) to transform the way we interact with nature (e.g., through policy and practices) in order to protect the diversity of life on Earth.

Figure 3. A virtuous cycle framework for conservation, in which conservation strategies are designed to catalyze actions that inspire people (e.g., by demonstrating the relevance of conservation to their well-being) to transform the way we interact with nature (e.g., through policy and practices) in order to protect the diversity of life on Earth.

The framework’s explicit focus on biodiversity is critical, because “natural” areas can provide important ecosystem service benefits without necessarily providing benefits for biodiversity.

For example, protecting a green space might provide watershed protection, carbon sequestration, and recreation benefits, but that place may mostly comprise non-native globally ubiquitous species.

In this framework, that outcome by itself would be very insufficient. However, if that outcome were a component of a credible theory of change leading to meaningful biodiversity conservation (perhaps elsewhere), then it may well align with the framework.

In a world of seemingly limitless opportunities for engagement, this framework challenges conservation organizations to hold themselves to the higher bar of choosing engagements that — individually and collectively — explicitly and substantively contribute to ensuring that the extraordinary diversity of life in this world rides with us into the future.

Among the critical roles they play in society, conservation organizations are needed to create a vision of a biodiverse and resilient future for nature – and illuminate a pathway to get there.

The vision in this framework is that the whole of our human-dominated world contributes to the protection of life on Earth, and that is achieved and sustained by people recognizing and investing in the myriad ways that nature improves their well-being.

And creating and fortifying these specific linkages between people and nature (Fig. 3) is the unique and essential role in which conservation organizations must excel.


Scott Morrison directs the science program for the California program of The Nature Conservancy. He has worked with the Conservancy since 2001. For more see http://www.scienceforconservation.org

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.

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