How would a species’ extinction impact the food web, our ecosystems?

Every living thing plays a role in the food chain and Earth’s ecosystems, and the extinction of certain species, whether predators or prey, can leave behind significant impacts.

“Since the origin of life on Earth, it’s fair to say that more species have gone extinct than are currently alive now,” said Dr. Anthony Giordano, president and chief conservation officer of the Society for the Preservation of Endangered Carnivores and their International Ecological Study (SPECIES). “Extinction itself is part of the normal course of evolution.”

The effect a species would have if it were to fade from existence depends largely on its role in the ecosystem. Predators, for example, are often the first to be threatened by hunting or competition with people and resources, said Clemson University conservation biologist Dr. Robert Baldwin.

Rhinos - Pexels image

“Think about large animals like the grizzly bear,” Baldwin said. “When a predator goes extinct, all of its prey are released from that predation pressure, and they may have big impacts on ecosystems.”

The loss of a predator can result in what is called a trophic cascade, which is an ecological phenomenon triggered by a predator’s extinction that can also impact populations of prey, which can cause dramatic ecosystem and food web changes.

“If there are too many deer, for example, they can really change the ecosystem because they can destroy forests, and they also carry disease,” Baldwin said.

Scientists have noted the tropic cascade effect in parts of Africa where lion and leopard populations have dwindled, according to Smithsonian Magazine. It caused olive baboons to alter their behavior patterns and increase contact with nearby humans. The increased contact has led to a rise in intestinal parasites in both people and the baboons.

In the case of the northern white rhino, of which only two female rhinos now survive, the last male of the species was held in semi-captivity at the end of its life, and “the damage was already done in the ecosystem by that point,” Baldwin said.

However, in general, the loss of rhinos, which often face threats from humans, from the ecosystem can have wide-ranging effects, according to Baldwin, who noted that the rhino’s eating pattern helps with seed dispersal.

“They eat grasses and vegetation in one place, and they move and defecate in another place,” he said. “That helps those plants to disperse throughout the ecosystem, and it also helps populate the ecosystem with rhino food.”

The loss of abundant organisms that provide food for a wide variety of species would also interrupt the food web, according to Baldwin.

“For instance, if krill in the ocean goes extinct or becomes depressed in numbers, then that’s the bottom-up effect; predators that rely on krill will suffer,” he said.

While not at the top of the food chain, sea otters are keystone predators in the kelp forests in which they reside.

“The presence of sea otters in marine near-shore communities and coastal communities, particularly on the West Coast, have been shown to be essential and critical to healthy kelp forests underwater,” Giordano said.

North American whales face potential extinction as warming oceans force them into unsafe territory
Unchecked carbon emissions could jeopardize plants, animals in world’s most vital habitats
What animals are close to extinction?

These kelp forests provide habitat for many species. “One of the ways sea otters help to maintain those kelp forests is by preying upon other species that would slowly start to eat or consume the kelp, which, if they were left unchecked, would then rattle the entire kelp bed and turn it into a rocky or barren wasteland,” Giordano said.

Species like parrot fish, which graze on algae, are extremely important to coral reef ecosystems because they prevent algae growth from getting out of control and impacting those coral reefs, according to Giordano.

“As algae expands in those communities, it can lead to the expansion of coral dead zones,” he added.

The loss of certain species can impact the ecosystem in a number of ways, Giordano said, but the issue is that researchers don’t yet know about many of the species out there.

A 2011 study concluded that about 86 percent of the Earth’s species have yet to be discovered, according to National Geographic.

“We know more about some of the larger ones, but for many species, especially the ones that are disappearing, we don’t know the impact of their loss,” he said.


A Depressing Thought

Some climate scientists (for example Gaia theorist, James Lovelock and grandfather, James Hansen), have embraced nulclear power as the carbon-neutral answer to our high energy needs in this modern world. They feel we’ve gone too far to turn back now–a depressing thought if there ever was one. Of course, almost no one is willing to point out that maybe there’s just too many people here on the planet today…


The fact that nuclear power plants will inevitably all have meltdowns if no one’s around to keep them going and keep them cool with thousands of gallons of water seems clearly the biggest threat to the future of Earth’s other species if humans were to suddenly check out (from say, nuclear war or pandemic, or starvation due to climate change, etc.).


Also, if jet traffic with its global cooling, cloud-like contrails in the stratosphere were to come to an abrupt end (the oil is going to run out some day, after all), the planet would quickly warm up to temperature levels not seen in hundreds of thousands of years (known as the Venus effect).


Sadly, there’s no easy answer.


We’re addicted to speed, madly shovelling coal into a freight train headed for a brick wall. It’s too late for the wish that humans would just go away and let nature take back over, putting things right again. At this point, the train is going to crash and there’s  no place left for humans to safely jump off.



How do Trump and Clinton differ on conservation?

Presidential campaigns offer a sneak peek into natural resource policies.

While speaking at a media summit last week organized by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership in Fort Collins, Colorado, Trump Jr., an avid hunter and angler, defended keeping federal lands managed by the government and open to the public. He also reiterated his father’s strong support for U.S. energy development, proposed some corporate sponsorships in national parks, questioned humans’ role in climate change, and criticized Hillary Clinton for “pandering” to hunters with “phoniness.” U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, D-California, spoke for Clinton’s campaign at the summit a day later, and provided plenty of contrast between the presidential candidates.

Trump Jr. has served as an adviser to his father on natural-resources issues and has even joked with family that, should his father win, he’d like to be Secretary of the Interior, overseeing national parks and millions of acres of federal public lands. In Fort Collins, he said he’s not “the policy guy,” but repeated his frequent pledge to be a “loud voice” for preserving public lands access for sportsmen. Trump Jr. also mocked some gun-control measures, such as ammunition limits, boasting, “I have a thousand rounds of ammunition in my vehicle almost at all times because it’s called two bricks of .22 … You know, I’ll blow…through that with my kids on a weekend.”

Donald Trump Jr. speaks with Field & Stream editor Mike Toth at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership Western Media Summit, June 23, 2016.
Joshua Zaffos

Trump, the presumptive Republican candidate, partly distinguished himself among other GOP candidates during primary season—not that that was a problem for the New York real-estate developer—by balking at the transfer of federal public lands to states or counties. While Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and others expressed support for public-land transfers, kowtowing to some Western conservatives, Trump rejected the idea. Speaking to Field & Stream in January, Trump said: “I don’t like the idea because I want to keep the lands great, and you don’t know what the state is going to do. I mean, are they going to sell if they get into a little bit of trouble? And I don’t think it’s something that should be sold. We have to be great stewards of this land. This is magnificent land.”

Trump Jr. reaffirmed that stance, but also supported more input for states as long as those efforts don’t jeopardize public access.

Trump, however, did attack the Bureau of Land Management and its “draconian rule,” writing in an op-ed in the Reno Gazette-Journal, also in January: “The BLM controls over 85 percent of the land in Nevada. In the rural areas, those who for decades have had access to public lands for ranching, mining, logging and energy development are forced to deal with arbitrary and capricious rules that are influenced by special interests that profit from the D.C. rule-making and who fill the campaign coffers of Washington politicians.”

Rep. Thompson called Trump’s somewhat muddled stance of federal land management a “dangerous position to take,” saying Clinton unequivocally opposes public-land transfers. As far as Clinton’s sporting cred, Thompson said the Democratic candidate doesn’t pretend to be a hook-and-bullet enthusiast, but “she gets it” when it comes to access issues.

In a campaign loud with proclamations yet nearly vacant of substantive policies, the most in-depth view into Trump’s resource agenda came during his May speechat a North Dakota petroleum conference. Trump pledged to “save the coal industry,” approve the Keystone XL gas pipeline, roll back federal controls limiting energy development on some public lands, and withdraw the U.S. from the Paris global climate agreement. A Republican National Committee spokesman recently said more details on Trump’s energy and environmental policies should be coming soon. His son reiterated the campaign’s “very pro-U.S. energy” position, although he did say agencies should have some role in regulating energy development on public lands, referring to the Bureau of Land Management’s proposed fracking rule that was recently rejected by a federal judge.

On climate change, Trump Jr. said U.S. and global policies shouldn’t penalize industries and, while acknowledging the strong scientific consensus on climate change and its causes, he added that humans’ and industries’ roles in global warming have “yet to be shown to me.”

Trump Jr. also offered mild support for the Endangered Species Act, saying it had achieved some successes, but argued the law has served as a “Trojan horse” to entirely prohibit development in some cases. He also suggested national-parks management and budgets could benefit from increased corporate partnerships. Trump’s son declared his own affinity for the backcountry and described national parks as being “a little bit too ‘tourist-ized’ for myself,” but he said, “I think there are ways you can do (corporate sponsorship) in a way that is beneficial” without installing flashing logos on natural features or commercializing the parks.

Clinton has shared several detailed policies on the environment and energy so far, including a white paper on land management and conservation that lays out support for a national park management fund and increased renewable energy development on public lands. Those proposals signal Clinton will “double down” on protecting public lands and preserving access, Thompson said.

Thompson also lauded Clinton for taking “a risky public position” on energy development—referring to her previous statement that she will put lots of coalmines “out of business”—but “she hasn’t backed away from it,” he said. “She understands there are better ways to generate the energy resources that we need.”

Joshua Zaffos is an HCN correspondent in Fort Collins, Colorado. Follow him@jzaffosHomepage image from Flickr user Gage Skidmore

Livingston on Development

From Rogue Primate by John A. Livingston:


Development is a fascinating concept. In the sense in which I learned to understand it, development means the gradual unfolding or realization of an organism, a community—or even an idea—toward a richer, finer, fuller, higher, or more mature state of being. The metamorphosis of a Luna moth, the emergence of a new seral stage in meadow succession, the growth of an embryo, the flowering of a thesis. In the contemporary technoculture, the word “development” is used to describe land speculation, land subdivision, construction, and the work of the wrecker’s ball on cherished old buildings in the city core. “Development” is also used to describe the advancement of the exotic ideology. It represents the crushing and scarification of forests, the mutilation and corruption of waterways, the savaging and toxification of the living soils.

The “development” ideologues do not hear the screaming of the buttress trees or the wailing of the rivers or the weeping of the soils. They do not hear the sentient agony and the anguish of the nonhuman multitudes—torn, shredded, crushed, incinerated, choked, and disposed. These are merely the external, incalculable, and incidental side-effects of the necessary progress of human civilization in its highest form.

“Development,” in the current usage, stands for the advancement of the exotic ideology and the subjugation of those external phenomena we call Nature…



Is hunting really a conservation tool?

A new UW-Madison study upends central notion about predator management


May 10, 2016

6:00 PM

– See more at:

Taking Life Too Seriously?

Two weeks ago Thursday I had what they call a mild stroke that ended me up in the hospital for five days. It came out of the blue, as 55 seems a young age for that sort of thing. But only now did I learn that this is considered a prime age for genetic history and stress to catch up with a person. I wasn’t aware of any cardiovascular trouble; I’m not a smoker or heavy drinker; I’ve always been physically active–skiing, hiking and other outdoor activities; and I’ve been vegan for nearly twenty years. The only thing I can think of is that since I’ve immersed myself in the plight of animals and the Earth and fully taken on the animal rights cause, I’ve had a lot of unresolved stress. Different people respond to stress differently, and for me it came out as a partial cardiovascular meltdown.

Text and Photo Copyright Jim Robertson

I’m recovering rapidly, but I still feel the effects of this on my left side and sometimes can hear it in my speech. Since it has been recommended that I read aloud, I’m going to read to my typist from John A. Livingston’s 1994 book, Rogue Primate:

“…Nature is complex and multispecific; the human environment is essentially simple and monospecific. True, there may be trees and shrubs and gardens where people live, a scattering of squirrels and starlings and pets, and sun and rain and snow, but the overwhelming presence is that of ourselves and our fabrications.

“This is most easily demonstrated in terms of sensory nourishment we receive in urban concentrations. Virtually everything we see, hear, smell, touch, and taste is of our own making. Worse, most of it is not even delivered to us by people; the bulk of nutrition for our senses is mediated by machines. A teenager sits on a concrete slab, feet resting on asphalt, eyes closed, hands clutching a plastic case, breathing swirling exhaust fumes, a headset piercing and battering both eardrums with screaming, shattering dissonance at a frightening decibel level.

“Everything this youngster sees, hears, smells, touches, and tastes is a human artifact. His unidimensional experiential universe is one of homogenous, monospecific mass, with not the slightest differentiation. His sense organs, blunted as they are, need not be able to discriminate in any case; there is nothing to discriminate between. There is searing colour to be sure, and cacophony, and heat and cold, and there are strange metallic flavours, and surfaces smooth and rough, and there is terrible, unending qualitative sameness.

“Across the street there is a ‘park’ (a rectangle of mown lawn). On a bench lies a derelict, inert, unconscious and oblivious, his empty grail of solace is in its brown wrapper on the grass beneath him. As a child he may have encountered Nature. He may have once been wild. Perhaps he still is. Overlooking him there is a gigantic edifice of glass and steel, with guards and security monitors and air-conditioned seven-dollar-figure condominiums with chrome strips and tinted windows and mirrored walls, and with live beings actually inhabiting them. Behind, in a brick-walled protective enclosure, there is a children’s playground, with brightly painted climbing and crawling structures of metal pipe, padded with something made from synthetic polymers. There are sensate beings here, too. Little ones.

“I have described elsewhere what I call a kind of urban ‘sensory deprivation,’ and the perceptual (and thus conceptual) aberrations that follow from it. When perceptual and conceptual aberrations are shared across a society, they may be seen as institutionalized delusions. There are many of these in contemporary society, but none is more important, or more ironical, than the belief that high-tech urban ‘progress’ (i.e., emancipation from non-human environmental influences) is a major human achievement. R. D. Laing has said, ‘Human beings seem to have an almost unlimited capacity to deceive themselves, and to deceive themselves into taking their own lies for truth.’ It would appear that we have travelled so far in our cultural self-deceit that we actually believe we have no need of sensory stimulation or nutrition beyond that provided by ourselves. No need for experience of any influence that is not of human design and fabrication.

“Our willing (and indeed prideful) confinement within the many-mirrored echo-chamber of technological servitude is a towering irony, perhaps the ultimate in self-deceit. Like the feedlot steer in the dreary monotony of his experiential desert, we have lost all connection with being, all memory of sensibility of life context.”

Unlike the steer, humans have chosen this “life.”


‘Carnivore cleansing’ is damaging ecosystems, scientists warn

Extermination of large predators such as wolves and bears has a cascading effect on delicate ecological balance

Carnivore extermination damaging ecosystems : hunters drag wolves they killed, Belarus
Belarus hunters drag wolves they killed overnight near village Pruzhanka, some 110 km south-east of Minsk February 8, 2005. Hunting for wolfs in Belarus is legal throughout the whole year with a hunter getting 168,000 Belarus roubles ($77 US dollars) for every wolf killed. Photograph: Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters

There Will Be Blood

If you want to make a conservation biologist squirm, try this question: “How do you think the animal feels?” Scientists usually think in terms of populations and species.”

The pressure to reach for a gun to help save one animal from another is stronger than ever. And it has triggered a conservation problem from hell.

By Warren Cornwall

We usually think conservation means saving animals. But its history is tinged with blood. John Audubon, a patron saint of the American conservation movement, killed hundreds of birds, partly for sport and partly for specimens to pose for his paintings. Aldo Leopold, a father of ecological science, endorsed killing wolves to increase deer populations.

Today, as climate change pushes animals into each other’s overlapping territories and humans drive ever more species to the brink of extinction, the pressure to reach for a gun to help save one animal from another is stronger than ever. In recent years, the federal government has shot Arctic foxes to guard the nests of rare Steller’s eider ducks. In Texas and Oklahoma, hunters blast cowbirds that take over the nests of endangered black-capped vireos. Sea lions have been put to death for the sake of salmon on the Northwest’s Columbia River. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to kill 16,000 double-crested cormorants in 2015 to help those same salmon. But the most controversial case may prove to be the northern spotted owl.

The spotted owl, an icon of the environmental movement, is a shy bird that favors ancient forests. Its declining numbers led to its listing under the Endangered Species Act, bringing a halt to most old-growth logging in Northwest federal forests in the early 1990s. Today, the migration of the barred owl from its original East Coast home poses a potentially fatal threat. Bigger and more aggressive than its smaller cousin, the barred owl has gradually pushed south in a seemingly inexorable wave since arriving in western Canada in the mid-twentieth century. Wherever it turns up in large numbers, spotted owls start to disappear. Biologists suspect spotted owls abandon their nests when they are driven off by the barred owl. In at least one case, a barred owl appeared to have killed and eaten a spotted owl.

Alarmed by the rapid decline of the remaining spotted owls, desperate biologists, federal bureaucrats, and environmentalists have hit upon a last-ditch, bloody scheme: shoot enough barred owls to create breathing room for spotted owls. Last winter, after years of studying the pros and cons of various approaches, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service embarked on a six-year experiment in four small parts of the Northwest (the initial four-year plan stretched to six, due to budget problems). Trained marksmen killed 71 barred owls in the first season, a number that could grow to as many as 3,600 owls over the span of the entire experiment. The tests are designed to show what it would take to really make a difference for the spotted owls. If the experiment is deemed a success, it could pave the way for death warrants for thousands of owls every year for decades, if not forever. It would be the largest known mass killing of raptors.

For bird lovers or for anyone with a soft spot for wild animals, this is a problem from hell. Nobody is happy with the options. Bob Sallinger, conservation director of the Audubon Society of Portland, summed it up neatly: “On the one hand, killing thousands of owls is completely unacceptable. On the other hand, the extinction of the spotted owl is completely unacceptable.”

The shootings have prompted an unusual amount of soul-searching. For the first time ever, the Fish and Wildlife Service—an agency with plenty of blood on its hands—convened people to grapple with the ethics of killing one animal for the sake of another. How should humans get involved in a fight between species? Step into the boots of people on the front lines of the owl wars. Would you open fire?


Finger on the Trigger

The first time Lowell Diller shot a barred owl, he almost couldn’t pull the trigger. He was standing in a grove of Douglas firs and redwoods outside the tiny northern California mill town of Korbel on a damp February afternoon in 2009.

body count graph sm There Will Be Blood

He had lured the bird with a speaker perched on a stump, programmed to send out the barred owl’s haunting eight-note call: who-who, who-whooo . . . who-who, who-whooo. Now the female was perched just 30 meters away, an easy shot with his 20-gauge shotgun. Even in the fading light, he could see the distinctive white and brown stripes down its breast.

Diller had partly hoped no owl would answer his call. He raised the shotgun to his shoulder and tried to take aim. But he was shaking so badly, he feared he would miss. He lowered the gun, taking deep breaths and whispering to himself to calm down, to relax. He braced himself against a tree to steady the gun, told himself it was for the sake of science, and fired.

“It just fundamentally seemed so wrong to be shooting one of these birds,” said Diller, who recently retired from his job as a wildlife biologist with the Seattle-based Green Diamond Resource company. “You just don’t shoot raptors.”

Diller’s queasiness embodies the profound unease people are feeling in the Northwest. In the end, Diller weighed the options and chose what he felt was the lesser of two evils. Doing nothing, he feared, meant accepting the demise of the spotted owl. And that, for him, meant that the killing experiment was worthwhile. If someone needed to do the dirty work, Diller felt he shouldn’t ask someone else to take that job. Since that first day, he has shot 96 barred owls. It hasn’t gotten much easier.

This past spring, he and a handful of marksmen finished the first season of the experiment. They called it quits around the time eggs hatched, because they didn’t want to orphan chicks. The Fish and Wildlife Service draws the line at leaving young birds to slowly starve. This underscores the odd ways ethics can pop up in wildlife management. The shooters will be back in the fall, trying to kill those same owls.


The Fate of a Species Trumps that of the Individual

How many barred owls would you kill to save a spotted owl? One? A hundred? A thousand? The calculus is straightforward for Dave Werntz: as many as it takes. Werntz is the science and conservation director for the environmental group Conservation Northwest, based in Bellingham, Washington. He sees the spotted owl as a rare, native species threatened by a new arrival that will likely survive quite well even if thousands are killed every year. So he supports an even more ambitious killing program than the one that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering. He likens owl removal to pulling a weed. “I don’t see the barred owl as much different [from] addressing Himalayan blackberry or other domineering species that are impacting our landscape,” he said.

killing for conservation There Will Be BloodHis life has been intertwined with northern spotted owls for more than a quarter-century. In the late 1980s, he wandered the forests of southwest Washington, hooting like an owl. He was working for the U.S. Forest Service, counting spotted owls and tracking where they nested. It was the peak of the Northwest’s legendary timber wars, a time when protesters chained themselves to logging equipment to save vestiges of old-growth forest, loggers burned spotted owls in effigy, and federal courts took control of much of the region’s public timberlands—in part to protect the owl.

Repelled by clearcuts, and fascinated with the owls and old-growth forests, Werntz went back to school. He studied under University of Washington ecologist Jerry Franklin, a pioneer of a new understanding of the richness of old-growth forests. Werntz has been on the front lines of the fight over the owls ever since. In the 1990s, Werntz worked with environmental groups to push for stronger owl protections. Later he toiled to stop the timber industry from rolling back logging restrictions.

The politically charged history of owls and old growth makes the case of the barred owl even more fraught with controversy. Since humans destroyed spotted owl habitat and brought the species to this dire moment, Werntz believes people have an obligation to save the last remaining ones.

Nevertheless, Werntz frames the killing of barred owls as primarily a scientific matter, not a political or ethical one. This is a view commonly espoused by conservation scientists trained to think in terms of the fate of entire species rather than individual animals. While he doesn’t relish killing barred owls, Werntz sees it as necessary to protect a native species integral to the forests he loves. Biodiversity trumps squeamishness about bloodletting.


The Individual Matters

If you want to make a conservation biologist squirm, try this question: “How do you think the animal feels?” Scientists usually think in terms of populations and species. Individuals form the raw materials for the grand Darwinian drama of survival and evolution. Feelings are, by and large, beside the point.

But for some, the barred owl is a majestic creature endowed with animal intelligence—not a pest. Fish and Wildlife Service officials learned that at public meetings about the owl removal plan. They came to talk science. Many in the crowd spoke of how they felt about the owls as individuals.

bad year for birds and mammals2 There Will Be Blood

Now a growing number of researchers are trying to bridge those two perspectives. They argue that the conventional approach to conservation risks ignoring the lives and experiences of wildlife—making for poor science and shaky ethics. Their new field, “compassionate conservation,” draws on a body of research documenting the cognitive and emotional lives of animals. Injured chickens self-medicate. Crustaceans learn to avoid pain, and they respond to stress in a way similar to that of vertebrates. And rats and dogs—even bees—are capable of pessimism. The more we learn about how animals think and feel, the more we empathize with them and the less we can ignore the suffering we inflict.

“The guiding principle of compassionate conservation is ‘First, do no harm,’ which means the life of each and every individual animal is valued,” writes Marc Bekoff in his “Animal Emotions” column at Psychology Today. Bekoff, a University of Colorado professor emeritus and animal behavior researcher, is a leading voice in the compassionate conservation field. “Trading off individuals of one species for the good of individuals of another species isn’t acceptable,” he says. That means no killing of barred owls.

Yet for many people, the owl dilemma falls into a gray area in which there is tension between the fate of the individual and the survival of a species.

Bill Lynn started out suspicious of the idea of shooting owls. An ethicist at Loyola Marymount University and Clark University in Massachusetts, he was hired by the Fish and Wildlife Service to run stakeholder meetings about the ethics of the lethal experiment. At first, he suspected the government’s killing program was a knee-jerk response that showed little regard for the animals. But the spotted owl’s dire situation changed his mind. He concluded that the experiments, if done as humanely as possible, would be a “sad good”—something unfortunate yet worth doing to help save a species. But he won’t endorse a region-wide war on barred owls until he sees how high the death toll would be.


What’s the Exit Strategy?

Even if we manage to negotiate the moral thicket of killing one owl to save another—and emerge at the other end with gun at the ready—we run headlong into a practical question: What’s the exit strategy? Can we kill 10,000 barred owls every year forever?

That’s the figure some experts in the field use when they talk about what it will take to truly help spotted owls recover in the Northwest. On the optimistic side, some (such as Diller and Werntz) believe that as Pacific Northwest forests continue to recover from logging and more owl habitat opens up, the killing could slow down or stop after a few decades. Others worry that new habitat will just fill up with even more barred owls, creating a never-ending killing operation.

“I think in the long run we simply can’t control barred owl populations on a large scale,” said Eric Forsman, a U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist and pre-eminent spotted owl researcher. “It would be incredibly expensive and essentially you’d have to do it forever.”

To date, studies on the effectiveness of lethal barred owl removal have been limited in scope and scale. In small tests on private forestland in northern California, spotted owls returned to nearly all their former nest sites after people shot barred owls that had taken over, according to Diller, who took part in the experiment. Where barred owls were left alone, he said, spotted owl numbers continued to fall. Those results have yet to be published.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for its part, hasn’t offered a long-term plan of attack. They’re awaiting the results of their six-year experiment. That experiment is expected to cost $4 million—more than $1,000 per dead bird. And it will cover only two percent of spotted owl habitat in Washington, Oregon, and northern California. The other 98 percent is the worrisome part.

The logistics alone are daunting. First, there’s the problem of finding enough qualified shooters. It’s tricky to tell the difference between a barred owl and a spotted owl. For the experiment, the government is relying on trained gunmen. But declaring open season on barred owls could be a recipe for unacceptable collateral damage.

Then there’s the politics. Even if it is technically feasible, will the public get behind an open-ended mass owl killing with no clear exit strategy? Kent Livezey, a retired Fish and Wildlife biologist, has his doubts. “Even if you got the public to agree the first year, you just need some photographer to go out with them and show a bunch of dead owls,” he said.

Livezey worked for years to save spotted owls, helping to craft the plan for their recovery. But he’s personally repelled by the shooting plan, and he bowed out of the owl work when it came time to devise the experiment. For him, there were just too many dead raptors, and the plan set a bad precedent for other clashes between wildlife. He would rather see people pick a fight that can be won. He imagines using guns to halt the advance of barred owls south into the territory of the California spotted owl, a species that’s not rare yet. But it also means leaving the northern spotted owl without armed bodyguards. “Personally, I would just let nature run its course,” he said.


Warren Cornwall is an environmental and science journalist living in Bellingham, Washington

Do wolves, cougars help curb diseases?

copyrighted Hayden wolf walking

April 2, 2014 4:30 am

The New West / By Todd Wilkinson

“Predators are bad for wildlife.” How often have Americans heard this refrain in public forums?

Pervasive as a belief in rural Western culture, it drives political discourse. It also is part of a nonstop feedback loop of social reinforcement, rife in barber shops, ammo stores, saloons, coffee klatches and outfitter camps.

But does it withstand scientific scrutiny? Do predators such as wolves and cougars “devastate” wildlife or do they help keep public game herds healthier?

Predator experts and others specializing in wildlife conservation medicine say it’s an important consideration when thinking about protocols for managing zoonotic diseases in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

I contacted biologist L. David Mech, one of the world’s foremost wolf authorities. He has written or contributed to hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific papers on wolves and prey.

“In the main, the preponderance of scientific evidence supports the view that wolves generally kill the old, the young, the sick and the weak,” Mech began. “There’s so much documented field data behind it.”

All the things humans treasure about every wild prey species — their physiology, agility and resilience — are reflections of the predators that made them adapt and evolve over eons.

Keeping domestic livestock healthy and fat often involves huge doses of antibiotics and, in some cases, growth hormones. Not so for free-ranging wildlife, especially wildlife not subjected to unnatural animal husbandry practices, such as artificially nourishing wild elk at crowded feedgrounds.

Wildlife professionals know such conditions elevate animal susceptibility to deadly pathogens like brucellosis, tuberculosis and chronic wasting disease, threatening ecological well-being.

Mech made a fascinating point: Wolves appear to target sick animals that, to the human eye, exhibit no overt symptoms of disease.

“There’s a lot more going on than we can detect,” Mech said. “They are killing animals that most people would say, ‘That animal looks pretty healthy to me,’ but in fact it isn’t.”

In 2003, Denver Post reporter Theo Stein interviewed scientists about CWD spreading though deer and elk in Colorado. Dr. Valerius Geist, who paradoxically has become a darling of anti-wolfers, made this assertion about the significance of wolves in containing CWD spread via proteins called prions.

“Wolves will certainly bring the disease to a halt,” he said. “They will remove infected individuals and clean up carcasses that could transmit the disease.”

Stein added that “Geist and Princeton University biologist Andrew Dobson theorize that killing off the wolf allowed CWD to take hold in the first place.”

Wolves aren’t alone. In a 2009 study titled “Mountain lions prey selectively on prion-infected mule deer,” researchers in Colorado discovered that “adult mule deer killed by mountain lions were more likely to be prion-infected than were deer killed more randomly … suggesting that mountain lions were selecting for infected individuals when they targeted adult deer.”

Researchers said, “Other studies indicate that predators like wolves and coyotes select prey disproportionately if they appear impaired by malnutrition, age or disease.”

In another study researcher N. Thompson Hobbs examined the potential impact of wolves on CWD-infected elk in Rocky Mountain National Park, where lobos are now absent.

Wolves, he found, could reduce average life spans of infected elk and therefore limit the amount of time infectious animals could spread disease to others.

“We suggest that as CWD distribution and wolf range overlap in the future, wolf predation may suppress disease emergence or limit prevalence,” Hobbs said.
Wyoming doesn’t accept this scientific reality. In Jackson Hole, where unnatural feeding of wapiti on the National Elk Refuge is contributing to persistent brucellosis infection and putting migrating elk at high CWD risk, wolves are killed under the ironic guise of “keeping elk herds healthy.”

In Wyoming’s “predator zone” which encompasses many of the state’s 22 elk feedgrounds, wolves can be killed at any time of day year round.

Are Wyoming, Idaho and Montana spending millions in tax dollars to eliminate the natural allies that help keep wildlife diseases such as brucellosis and CWD in check? Mech stays out of the political fray, though he says the value of predators is clear.

“Based upon everything I’ve seen over the course of my career, I generally stand behind the assertion that wolves make prey populations healthier,” he said. “The evidence to support it is overwhelming.”

Todd Wilkinson’s column appears every week in the News&Guide. He is author of “Last Stand: Ted Turner’s Quest to Save a Troubled Planet.”