The fight to save India’s most elusive cat

The fight to save India’s most elusive cat – BBC Future

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The fishing cat stalks its prey in swamps, wetlands and mangrove forests (Credit: Alamy)

By Kamala Thiagarajan18th April 2021The fishing cat is one of India’s most enigmatic predators, hunting the waterways of its remaining wetlands and swamps. The efforts to save it may also help save a vital buffer against climate change.T

The encounter took place on a cool winter morning in 2012, in the coastal Indian city of Visakhapatnam. A gentle breeze nipped at the air as Murthy Kantimahanti stood transfixed, staring at a metal trap set up on a dirt trail leading to dense bushes and towering neem trees. Inside the trap was a cat – but no ordinary cat. It was bigger than a house cat, but not as big as a leopard or a tiger. It had a squarish face, relatively small ears for the size of its head, a short tail and curiously webbed feet, like an aquatic animal.

Kantimahanti had just arrived at the Indira Gandhi Zoological Park in the heart of the Seethakonda Reserve Forest, where he worked as a biologist. He was used to seeing native wildlife like Sambar deer, the Asiatic wild dog, the Indian leopard and gaur (also known as Indian bison) ranging within the park’s natural enclosures, bordered with hedges and trenches. But this cat was something else entirely.

Kantimahanti’s area of research was cataloguing the behaviour of captive wild dogs in the zoo, located as it was in such proximity to the Eastern Ghats, a biodiverse range of mountains along India’s south-eastern coast. It is an area where cashew and mango plantations abound. The zoo often baited traps to catch feral dogs and he would monitor their behaviour. On that winter morning, he had received a frantic call from a colleague at the zoo, summoning him to a particular cage by the dirt trail.

“I was fascinated, ” he says. “The zoo had laid a trap with beef in it to catch a feral dog. Quite astonishingly, a cat had grabbed at the beef instead, and was ensnared. “

The zoo authorities were puzzled by the animal’s webbed feet and strange appearance. This seemed to be no ordinary cat.

If you ask researchers who study the behaviour of fishing cats in the wild, they will tell you that it never backs off – Murthy Kantimahanti

Kantimahanti recognised the animal at once. To the trained eye, a fishing cat ‘s appearance is distinctive, but if ever there was any doubt, there was one trait that helped Kantimahanti identify it instantly –  sheer aggression. Having eaten its piece of beef, this cat, a male, lunged fiercely and repeatedly at the bars of the trap.

“If you ask researchers who study the behaviour of fishing cats in the wild, they will tell you that it never backs off, ” Kantimahanti says. “Even when they see a human being, they stand their ground. “

The cat was tranquilised, treated for bruises, and released back into the wild. It was the first documented sighting of a fishing cat in coastal Visakhapatnam. India's remaining wetlands are rapidly being encroached by more intensive human activity (Credit: Jonas Gratzer/Lightrockets/Getty Images)

India’s remaining wetlands are rapidly being encroached by more intensive human activity (Credit: Jonas Gratzer/Lightrockets/Getty Images)

Until then, fishing cats had only ever been sighted in the state’s Coringa Wildlife sanctuary, known for its extensive mangrove forests, four hours away. Very little was known about the fishing cat ‘s behaviour, despite it being found in 11 countries across Asia. 

The encounter helped state authorities realise that fishing cats were a natural part of Andhra Pradesh’s wetland landscape and far more widespread than they’d previously assumed. It sparked one of India’s first fishing cat surveys, carried out between 2014 and 2018. Kantimahanti, who went on to found the conservation organisation the Eastern Ghats Wildlife Society, has been working to understand the fishing cat’s behaviour ever since.

Inextricable from the story of fishing cats is that of the wetland habitat itself

The first challenge was to find out how widespread the cat was. Researchers from the Wildlife Institute of India began an arduous scanning of the Coringa wildlife sanctuary as part of the United Nations Development Programme project to document the biodiversity in the region. In 2015, the Krishna Wildlife sanctury, 150 kms (93 miles) south of Coringa was surveyed by the Eastern Ghats Wildlife Society and the Andhra Pradesh Forest Department. Camera traps from the survey revealed the presence of 10 individual fishing cats amidst the vast tracts of tidal mangrove forests, though a population estimate for these elusive cats – which relies on clearly identifying an individual cat’s distinctive markings – evaded them.The fishing cat stalks its prey in swamps, wetlands and mangrove forests (Credit: Alamy)

The fishing cat stalks its prey in swamps, wetlands and mangrove forests (Credit: Alamy)

Besides numbers, the census revealed some of the idiosyncrasies of this elusive cat. The survey identified the first known inland fishing cat, found in freshwater habitats along Srikakulam district in northern Andhra Pradesh. Then in December 2020, Kantimahanti was startled to see camera-trap footage of a cat hunting a freshwater non-venomous snake. Fish had been considered the cats’ mainstay, and the cats were only thought to prey on other animals when there was a dearth of fish – though on this occasion there was plenty of fish available. In another incident, villagers had assumed a large cat attacking their livestock was a leopard, but it turned out to be a fishing cat. Another camera feed showed a fishing cat being run over by a train while chasing goats.

“The name fishing cat is a misnomer,” says Kantimahanti. The cat is a markedly versatile predator. “It can hunt animals bigger than itself, survive anywhere, feed on anything.”

Today, growing awareness of the fishing cat in India has sparked a monumental journey towards conservation. Researchers on the trail of this elusive jungle feline are mapping its habits and habitats across the country and studying pollution, human and environmental threats that harm it. They’re documenting its effects on climate change and through litigation, using wildlife laws to protect its terrain.  

All this, because woven into the story of fishing cats, is that of the wetland habitat itself.

Counting cats

India is home to a rich wetland territory, occupying nearly 5% of its terrain. The Sundarbans in the north-eastern state of West Bengal is the country’s most well-known wetland habitat, stretching over 4,230 square kilometres (1,633 sq miles). A total of 42 sites across the country are considered wetlands of international importance due to their biodiversity, according to the Ramsar Convention, an international agreement on wetland conservation.

The fishing cat is usually found in two types of habitat within a wetland: mangroves and marshes. They take refuge in the reed fields – the long-bladed wetland grasses that grow in swamps. “They prefer shallow wetlands and are nest-making cats,” says Tiasa Adhya, a Kolkata-based conservationist and co-founder of The Fishing Cat Project. Their nests, made with marshy reeds and secluded in the tree holes of mangroves, are why the habitat is so inseparable from the species. “It’s here, where you can find a rich haul of snake-head and cat-fish, on which the fishing cat thrives,” says Adhya.

Predators like wolves are known to shape the landscape in which they live through their predation, but the extent to which the fishing cat influences the nature of the wetlands remains unknown. What is clear, is that a healthy population of fishing cats means a healthy environment to sustain them.Though the cats range across 11 countries, very little is known about them (Credit: Ulat Ifanstasi/Getty Images)

Though the cats range across 11 countries, very little is known about them (Credit: Ulat Ifanstasi/Getty Images)

In one these wetlands, at Chilika Lake in the north-eastern state of Odisha, India’s first census for fishing cats outside of its protected reserve forest areas is now underway, in collaboration with the Chilika Development Authority, a government agency. “Fishing cats inhabit the extensive deltas and flood plains of river systems, the shallow wetlands connected to rivers in South and South East Asia,” she says. 

Being a nocturnal animal, they are more likely to be caught on camera traps than by eye during the day. Over a hundred camera traps are to be left in Chilika lake for 30 days. They’re focusing more on the freshwater dominant areas of the lake, says Adhya, setting up the cameras in areas where they’ve spotted pawprints, or pugmarks. Setting up one camera trap can take up to two hours, and Adhya’s team has recruited local people to help and put out word among the 200,000 strong fishing community in the area so that the camera traps remain undisturbed.

This census is up against the same challenges as the first surveys of fishing cat numbers. Estimating the population of fishing cats is tricky as it relies on getting a clear picture of the cat to analyse its subtle but distinctive body marks, made up of spots, stripes and patches.

Growing threats

Adhya has been observing fishing cats since 2010, ever since she chanced upon its pugmark in the wild as a researcher in the Sunderbans. The footprint intrigued her; it was roughly the size of a dog ‘s paw, but smaller than that of a tiger’s. She learnt that fishing cats were integral to wetlands, but there was little awareness about them, even amidst local communities. And in recent years, researchers have noted several threats.

The first comes from humans: wetlands directly and indirectly support hundreds of thousands of people, providing livelihoods to fisherfolk, indigenous communities and farmers. There are inevitably moments of conflict. Retaliatory killings of fishing cats spurred by human conflict were well known in West Bengal. Adhya launched awareness campaigns and enlisted the help of locals to prevent poachers from hunting fishing cats for meat, which was being sold in local markets. Over the years, she says these efforts have helped mitigate conflict. “While there are still road kills, the retaliatory killing of fishing cats has significantly reduced,” she says.The Sundarbans, in the east of India, is one of the largest remaining wetlands in India (Credit: Jonas Gratzer/Getty Images)

The Sundarbans, in the east of India, is one of the largest remaining wetlands in India (Credit: Jonas Gratzer/Getty Images)

Another threat facing the cat is aquaculture. In recent years, in wetlands across the country, this has become a menace, Kantimahanti says. “People dig ponds, add chemical feed so that naturally occurring fish and prawns grow bigger and fetch better rates in the market. This alters the natural salinity of the soil.”

Aquaculture often leads to increased conflict between humans and fishing cats. Lured by the giant fish, the cats that come to hunt often end up in aggressive face-offs with humans. After a few years, the ponds are abandoned when the water table is too polluted, and the aquaculture farmers move on to a different patch, leaving coastal Andhra Pradesh studded with the abandoned farms.

Other threats involve illegal sand mining and cropping along riverbeds. “Villagers growing crops along the riverine buffer [100-500 m alongside the river] affects the inland fishing cat, because this slip of vegetation is an important habitat,” says Kantimahanti. “Protection of this riverine buffer is quite a challenge for us.”

Another escalating issue is urbanisation. “Wetlands are mostly disregarded as wastelands in development policies,” says Adhya. The Asian Waterbird Census, held in January every year is a part of a global initiative that surveys wetlands, has established that India’s wetlands are rapidly shrinking because of urbanisation.

Mangrove forests depend on a delicate balance to survive

Wetland terrain can often be deceptive, Adhya explains. The fluctuating water level is seasonal – for six months every year, the marshes are flooded with water, but the rest of time they may appear dry but the water table lurks close beneath the soil. Most of the development happens in the dry season, when it is mistaken for barren land, to the detriment of both the cats and the developers, who end up with flooded land. “Habitat destruction is one of the biggest threats to the fishing cat,” says Adhya.

India does have laws to protect its wetlands. Under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, wetlands are categorised as protected areas, especially within national parks. But researchers say that there’s a significant portion of wetland ecosystem that falls outside of these protected zones.

From 2012, activists have been lodging legal petitions against urban development in these areas, citing the destruction of habitat of the fishing cat as one of the primary reasons for the need for protection. Researchers hope that the fishing cat census across India could prevent the further destruction of these ecosystems. Kantimahanti, meanwhile, would also like to see a comprehensive national law protecting all wetlands.

Healthy mangroves, healthy cats

Mangrove forests depend on a delicate balance to survive, says Giridhar Malla, a PhD researcher from the Wildlife Institute of India, who has been studying the fishing cat along the Godavari River delta in Andhra Pradesh, and its links to climate change since 2013. He has documented 15 different fishing cats in the area, monitoring their behaviour, especially during lunar phases. Everything in a mangrove ecosystem depends on the ebb and flow of water, which is linked to the tides governed by the lunar phases.

“The fishing cat hunts during low tide,” says Malla. The cats wait tirelessly for the conditions to hunt to be exactly right. During high tide, the surge of water brings in the fish, but the water must ebb for the fishing cat to hunt. Malla says he observed a fishing cat that had waited eight hours until low tide to catch its fish. “This is one stubborn, unique cat,” he says.

The health of the mangroves is inextricably linked to the health of the fishing cat, he says. While the mangrove habitat supports the cat, it also acts as a carbon sink, sequestering four times as much carbon as other tree species. He’s currently studying its role in mitigating climate change. “Blindly planting mangroves isn’t the answer,” says Kantimahanti, who often works closely with Malla. The trees won’t survive without freshwater, and have to be planted in the right habitat.Fishing communities have targeted the cats in the past, seeing it as a pest which steals precious fish (Credit: Jonas Gratzer/Getty Images)

Fishing communities have targeted the cats in the past, seeing it as a pest which steals precious fish (Credit: Jonas Gratzer/Getty Images)

The absence of buffer land either side of the river is affecting the growth of mangroves too, because cropping prevents freshwater that they need from reaching the mangrove forests. Indiscriminate building of dams, which has become so much a part of India’s industrial growth, can cause this fragile ecosystem considerable stress as well, says Malla. He’s currently petitioning authorities to allow a small amount of water downstream, to prevent the loss of mangrove cover.

“When mangrove seedlings drop into the mud, they need freshwater to germinate and thrive,” he says. The Godavari River, where Malla does his field work, is the second largest river in India, after the Ganges. In the past decades, the river has been dammed in several places, reducing freshwater flow in the area. The impacts of the dams include coastal erosion, as they reduce the flow of sediment to river deltas . “Less water to the mangroves could mean declining fish stock, because it affects the spawning areas for the fish,” says Malla. “It has a direct impact on livelihoods of fishers.”

Since greater awareness was needed of the intertwined fate of mangroves and fishing cats, in 2016, Malla started an initiative called Children for Fishing Cats. Children tend to be easier to educate than adults, he says, and they have helped mitigate conflict situations by identifying the cat and advising their parents against harming it. Malla has since published a childrens book about a fishing cat’s journey in the wild and designed a board game called The Fishing Cat and the Creek. If a player lands in a mangrove patch after a high tide during a full moon, their fishing cat will have access to the richest haul of fish. The fishing cat that feeds the most wins. Feedback on the board game from the fishing communities in area who have played and enjoyed it has largely been positive, says Malla, and has helped deepen understanding.

The fishing cat has proved that it can co-exist with humans, even in this urban wetland habitat – Anya Ratnayaka

Like Malla, researchers across India working on conserving fishing cat habitat and protecting its species have found it beneficial to embrace local communities. “Every wetland patch supports marginalised communities,” says Adhya.  A preprint paper she has co-authored on local communities’ dependency on the wetland ecosystem reveals that 72% of the respondents in Jhakari, a village in West Bengal, depend on the wetlands for their primary livelihood. 

The fishing cat, on the other hand, may prove to be a hardier species than first thought. Though the IUCN has categorised the fishing cat as vulnerable, researchers studying these cats across Asia now marvel at how adaptable it really is. Anya Ratnayaka is a Sri Lankan researcher who has been studying the fishing cat ‘s behaviour and adaptation in a completely urban environment.

“Twenty square kilometres of Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, is natural wetlands,” she says. “The fishing cat has proved that it can co-exist with humans, even in this urban wetland habitat.”

Her work began in 2015, after escalating conflict incidents involving the fishing cat. “People would pick up abandoned kittens from the city, thinking they were domestic cats, but quickly return them to authorities, startled by how aggressive they were,” she says.

In the same year, a fishing cat was caught on camera, stealing expensive Japanese koi fish from a pond. Ratnayaka set up 10 camera traps in different locations, and for months, attempted to follow this cat across the cityscape after tagging it with a GPS device. “I was stunned. It went everywhere,” she says. “It visited people’s gardens, sunned itself on rooftops, fed from private ponds. It even visited the premises of a movie theatre in the heart of the city, quite fittingly, during the premiere of the Monkey Kingdom.”

If fishing cats are to have a home alongside humans in a rapidly developing world, this ingenuity could prove essential to its survival.

Biden administration mum on gray wolves endangered species listing

Biden administration mum on gray wolves endangered species listing (ktvq.com)

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Photo by: National Park Service via AP, FileFILE – In this March 21, 2019, aerial file photo provided by the National Park Service, is the Junction Butte wolf pack in Yellowstone National Park.By: Jacob Fischler – Daily MontananPosted at 8:51 AM, Apr 05, 2021 and last updated 7:51 AM, Apr 05, 2021

A controversial decision in the last months of the Trump administration to remove gray wolves from the endangered species list led to a massive overhunt in Wisconsin this year that Ojibwe tribal representatives said disrespected their wishes.

But there’s no indication yet that the Biden administration will attempt to roll back that move, despite an order the day President Joe Biden took office that departments across the government review decisions from the previous four years that were “damaging to the environment, unsupported by the best available science, or otherwise not in the national interest.” The order specifically cited the gray wolf delisting as one to reconsider.

It’s also unclear what effect the three-day hunting season in Wisconsin, where hunters killed nearly double the state’s non-tribal quota, will have on other states.

The season was held in late February after a Nov. 3 Fish and Wildlife Service order removed gray wolves from the endangered species list in all of the lower 48 states, mostly affecting the Great Lakes region. Wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains had already been delisted federally.

A Wisconsin judge ruled in February that state law required a wolf hunting season. The state set a limit of 119 wolves that could be harvested by the general public, with an additional 81 reserved for the Ojibwe tribes.

The tribes intended not to harvest wolves, but to use their quota as a means for conservation, said Dylan Jennings, a spokesman for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, a group that represents 11 Ojibwe tribes in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan.https://85a9b590766c8489fb86c7a4c79aed8b.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

Hunters killed 216 in just three days.

“The second it gets beyond a certain threshold, there’s a quick and irrational desire to hunt them again,” Jennings said.

Jennings’ group opposed the hunt because of biological factors and because of the reverence for wolves in Ojibwe culture.

The animal’s fate is seen as tied to the Ojibwe people, and they view policies throughout U.S. history where the government has sought to remove both Native Americans and wolves as strengthening that shared existence, Jennings said.

“What happens to one happens to the other,” he said. “There’s a mirror prophecy…. And that mirrored history is pretty fresh in the minds of a lot of our tribal nations.”

Although the state was forced by the court decision to hold a hunting season, Jennings said tribes were not meaningfully consulted.

“When you’re pushing for a hunt to happen in a week’s time, you’re essentially saying ‘We’re going to bypass the tribal consultation process,’” Jennings said. “And that’s exactly what tribal communities viewed as happening.”

The timing of Wisconsin’s hunt, when females may be pregnant and wolf pelts are not as valuable, added a layer of disrespect, the group said in a statement before the season opened.

Representatives for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources did not return messages seeking comment Friday.

Managing large carnivores

Government management of large carnivores like wolves is often controversial. The animals can pose a danger to people, livestock and the livelihoods of ranchers.

“Wolves are strong, smart and vicious predators,” Luke Hilgemann, the CEO of Hunter Nation, the organization that sued the state to force a wolf season, wrote in a March 19 op-ed for the Wisconsin State Journal. “Wolves are to be respected and revered. But too many of any species — particularly predators — can wreck the entire ecosystem.”

In neighboring Minnesota, wolf populations have remained strong since before the animal was listed on the federal endangered species list, said Dan Stark, a large carnivore specialist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. The population has hovered around 2,700 for the past three years, about double the 1,250-1,400 goal that federal authorities set.

Stark said he didn’t have enough information about the Wisconsin season to speculate about how it might affect Minnesota’s management plan, but that examples from across North America, including Wisconsin’s, helped inform best practices for wolf hunting.https://85a9b590766c8489fb86c7a4c79aed8b.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

“Anything we can learn about what methods were allowed or what steps were taken to manage and provide the controls for that season closure could help inform us as we develop or if we adopt a proposal for a season,” he said.

Minnesota DNR policymaking committees include tribal members and formal tribal consultation is also part of the process, as is consultation with people concerned about wolves preying on livestock, Stark said.

The department’s review of its wolf management policy was slowed by the pandemic, Stark said. A review committee would likely have a plan ready for public review in the summer and a final recommendation in the fall.

Jennings said there was no indication of how the federal government might act. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland is the first Native American person to hold that office, but tribal communities understand her job goes beyond their concerns, Jennings said.

Other than citing the gray wolf in the executive order, the Biden administration has not given any other sign it intends to undo the delisting, which could be a lengthy process.

“The administration cannot simply yank back the rule,” said Kristin Boyles, a staff attorney with Earthjustice, an environmental group suing the federal government over the delisting.https://85a9b590766c8489fb86c7a4c79aed8b.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

If the agency agreed the rule was invalid, it could begin a new rulemaking process to put the gray wolf back on the list, she said.

The government’s answer to the Earthjustice suit is due April 19.

A spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Service declined to comment. A spokesman for the Interior Department did not return a request for comment.

The Fish and Wildlife Service kept the grizzly bear, another well-known large and potentially dangerous mammal, on the endangered species list, the service announced this week.

Wolf hunting in Montana

In Montana, where wolf hunting has been legal since a 2011 law authored by Sen. Jon Tester and Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, the state Legislature has pursued measures to expand hunting.

The Montana Wildlife Federation, which supported the 2011 law, has asked Gov. Greg Gianforte, a Republican, to veto seven bills. The proposals include measures to allow the use of spotlights in hunts, baits near traps, the killing of more than one wolf with a single license, and other measures conservationists consider unethical.https://85a9b590766c8489fb86c7a4c79aed8b.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

“What we’re seeing this session is an all-out war against wolves,” Nick Gevock, the conservation director for MWF, said. “We support ethical wolf hunting, but this is something different. This is a purposeful effort to drive their numbers to a bare minimum.”

Gilles Stockton, the president of the Montana Cattlemen’s Association, said the state’s official tally of around 870 wolves is likely an undercount. The animals are overpopulated throughout the state and are a threat to livestock producers, he said. Hunting is an important tool in managing that threat, he added.

The group didn’t have a position on the specific bills the Legislature has passed, but said “more aggressive methods are necessary and should be allowed.”

Many in western Montana, where wolf populations are more plentiful, have advocated for similar measures for years, Gevock said. But with the state now led by a Republican governor after 16 years of Democratic control, the chances of enactment are greater.

Gevock said the governor’s office has not said if it will veto the bills.

State authorities fined Gianforte earlier this month for killing a wolf without first taking the proper training course.

Pandemic helps boost rhino population in Nepal

Pandemic helps boost rhino population in Nepal (msn.com)

John Bowden  2 hrs ago


Twin snowstorms to paste the Rockies and Northeast tonight into FridayChina Capable of ‘Substantially Subduing’ U.S. at Sea, State Media Boasts

The endangered rhino population in Nepal saw its numbers rebound in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic largely putting a halt to the world’s tourism industry.a rhinoceros standing in a body of water: A rhino in Nepal© Getty Images A rhino in Nepal

Officials with Nepal’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (DNPWC) told CNN that a manual count of the greater one-horned rhinos across Nepal’s four national parks counted 752 of the animals, the first time more than 650 have been seen in one survey since 2000.https://www.dianomi.com/smartads.epl?id=3533

The rise in population was attributed by the officials to a drop in tourism, which allowed the national park habitats to remain largely undisturbed. Other factors including government-run conservation projects were also credited with the rhino boom.

COVID-19 saw airline travel and tourism plunge to historically low levels as many countries instituted bans on nonessential travel.

“Chitwan [National Park] is a major habitat for rhinos in Nepal but we have translocated them to [other parks] to make an alternate population and [as a result] the population has increased in those parks, and in Chitwan as well,” said Haribhadra Acharya, an information officer with DNPWC, in a statement to CNN.

“Because the tourists were almost zero, the habits were not disturbed,” he continued.

While the good news was celebrated by conservationists in the country, Acharaya added that the size of the national parks would likely not increase meaning that officials would have to take steps to support the now higher population of rhinos.

“It is a challenge but we are managing the habitat intensively to support the higher density,” he told CNN.

‘Bad’ Bison Bills In Montana Set Back Conservation of America’s Official National Mammal

https://mountainjournal.org/montana-bills-for-bison-represent-major-blow-to-conservation?fbclid=IwAR2YWcEy36hEA4k3qJK4U3icb4TFN6gpXk-YiU7xyQYnRMaL66_2ifi3kkA

MARCH 29, 2021

WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, AUTHOR AND CONSERVATIONIST JIM BAILEY SIZES UP WHAT HE CALLS “THE FULL CATASTROPHE” REGARDING MONTANA LEGISLATURE’S BACKWARD ATTITUDE TOWARD BISON. WILL THE CONTROVERSIAL GOVERNOR

by Jim BaileySUPPORT USGET NEWSLETTERBailey writes: “Currently, there are no public-trust wild bison, year-round, in Montana. Two bills in the Montana legislature would prevent any restoration of the species, as wildlife, in the state. While touting ‘protect public lands’ as a smokescreen, Montana lawmakers are betraying their public trust responsibilities to manage a resource for all people. They are bulldozing a whole history of bison conservation efforts into the refuse pile of the ‘once best place.'”
Opinion guest essay by Jim Bailey
Bison are the official land mammal of the United States. They are on the flag of the US Interior Department, they appear on the insignia of the National Park Service, they were featured on one side of the buffalo nickel and, in Montana, the skull of a bison, as portrayed by famous Western artist Charles M. Russell, was showcased on the Montana collectible 25-cent piece.
Bison were once the most abundant large land mammal in the world. Their great numbers, their basis for a renowned Native American horse culture on the Great Plains, and their demise are legendary parts of American and Montana histories. But, two bills moving through the Montana legislature and headed for the desk of Governor Greg Gianforte would undo years of attempts to securely recover this iconic species, widely loved by the American people, as a wildlife species.
The vast majority of plains bison are being domesticated in private herds for commercial purposes. Many tribes have bison herds, managed to fulfill important needs of Native Americans. American conservation herds in parks and refuges are mostly small, on small ranges, and most are managed with domesticating interventions, much like livestock. But, there are no public-trust, wild bison year-round in Montana. (Yellowstone bison are only seasonal visitors to Montana from most of the park encompassed by Wyoming.)
As wildlife, bison are a natural resource jointly and cooperatively managed by state and federal legislatures and administrations having trust obligations to benefit all the people, including future generations.
A long history of federal and state legislation, policy and planning, has been established to guide and constrain bison management – to benefit and protect the people. These actions, listed below, have included decisions under federal and state laws developed under agencies representing over a million Montanans and over 300 million American citizens who own Montana wildlife.
House Bill 302 would permit any county commission in Montana to veto any publicly analyzed and examined proposal for local bison restoration, even on federal land. House Bill 318, in narrowly redefining “wild bison” in Montana law, would disqualify all possible plains bison for use in restoring any population of public-trust, wild bison in the state.
Both of those bills 302 and 318 would ignore, duplicate, violate or render meaningless the following Montana history regarding bison restoration:Mandates in Article IX of the state Constitution to care for natural resources and objects of historic, cultural and recreational value; and to preserve the opportunity to harvest wild game.
Legislative guidelines in MCA 87-1-216, developed in response to the constitutional mandate, providing requirements for restoring public, wild bison in Montana.
The Montana Environmental Policy Act, MCA 75-1-103, for making difficult decisions. Abundant public effort under MEPA could simply be vetoed and wasted, with little county analysis or explanation.
Twelve years, (so far) of effort and expense by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks to develop a statewide plan for restoring at least one herd of public, wild bison in the state.
Three polls demonstrating that 70 percent of Montana voters support bison restoration on the Charles M. Russell Refuge.
For restoration of public-trust—getting wild bison established on the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge—house bills 302 and 318 would ignore, preclude or render meaningless the following federal mandates, plans and policies (again, set in bold for emphasis)The mission statement of the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
The mission statement of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s cherished National Wildlife Refuge System.
The Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997.
The U. S. Department of Interior’s recent Bison Conservation Initiative.
The National Environmental Policy Act, for use in decision-making.
The ability of the Russell Refuge to achieve its overall goal of restoring natural ecosystems on the Refuge, as stated in the Refuge Plan.
House Bill 302 would duplicate existing requirements for notifying rural counties and citizens of the details in any plan for restoring wild, public bison in Montana.
Any proposal for bison restoration must be developed under either or both the Montana and National Environmental Polcts and under MCA 87-1-216. These laws provide all citizens with detailed project analyses and abundant opportunities to comment. Rural counties are not being discriminated against in this public outreach.“Domestication is the most serious threat to the future of bison as a wild species,” Bailey writes. “The vast majority of North American plains bison exist in privately-owned commercial herds where they are being domesticated by replacing natural selection with human-determined selection, augmented by genetic effects of small population sizes.”For example, the current MEPA process to develop a state plan for restoring at least one herd of public, wild bison has been ongoing for 12 years, with abundant public outreach and input, including public hearings around the state. A preliminary review  by Adams and Dood, 2011) and the current, interim “programmatic” plan and impact statement include abundant information on diverse issues related to bison restoration. This information, developed by professional biologists and others, has been widely available.
Likewise, under the NEPA process, the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge Conservation Plan was developed with public outreach and input. Public hearings were held in 6 Montana towns and cities.
House Bill 302 would allow a local government, representing perhaps only 1000-5000 Montanans, to preclude the needs and privileges of the majority of citizens of the state and the nation, as these needs and desires are provided for under existing statutes.
In contrast to the small numbers of citizens in many rural counties, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks received over 21,000 public comments in response to the 2015 Draft Environmental Impact Statement for bison conservation and management. Also, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service received over 23,000 public comments during scoping and over 21,000 Public comments on the draft conservation plan for the CMR Refuge.
Again, three polls of citizens have shown that about 70 percent of Montana voters support restoration of public-trust, wild bison on the CMR Refuge.
House Bill 302 would duplicate existing legal requirements for protecting private property, while restricting private and public property rights for many citizens. 
Private landowners cannot be discriminated against with restoration of wild bison.  Existing law (MCA 87-1-216) does not permit Fish, Wildlife & Parks to allow wild bison on any property where the landowner does not accept them. Further, this law requires Fish, Wildlife & Parks to compensate for any damage caused by wandering bison. Among many other requirements, it minimizes possible transfer of disease from wild bison to livestock and requires a pre-restoration public hearing in any affected county.
In contrast, HB 302 could prevent any landowner who would accept wild bison from enjoying that option, limiting private property rights. Moreover, HB 302 could prevent the majority of Americans and of Montanans from restoring a native species, with its important ecological functions, on their public property.
House Bill 302 would be an imprudent precedent in negating the role of the Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission to determine policy for conserving and managing state wildlife.
House Bill 318 would disqualify all possible plains bison for any transplant to restore public, wild bison in Montana. 
Aside from redefining “wild bison”, HB318 amends MCA 15-24-921 to clearly exempt tribal bison from the per capita livestock fee. Redefining wild bison is not necessary for this purpose.
Under HB 318, a wild bison: has not been reduced to captivity; has never been owned by a person; has never been taxed as livestock; nor is the offspring of a bison once taxed as livestock. These proposed redefinitions of “wild bison” have no basis in biology. There is no reason why the past ownership of a bison, or its parents, should disqualify and animal from initiating a new, wild herd.
In particular, HB 318 at least implies that a wild bison is one that has never been in captivity. Since the vast majority of plains bison, including conservation herds in public ownership, are fenced-in, mostly small herds on small ranges, and the very few unfenced herds would have to be captured for months or years of quarantine or inspection and for transportation, HB 318 would disqualify all possible plains bison for use in restoring a public wild herd in Montana. No bison, anywhere, would clearly qualify to be used in restoring bison as wildlife in Montana.
House bills 302 and 318 would expedite gradual disorganization and domestication of the wild bison genome.The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources has concluded that large herds of bison subject to the full range of natural limiting factors must be of pre-eminent importance to the long-term conservation, global security and continued evolution of bison as wildlife. The Alternative is gradual domestication of the species (Gates et al. 2010).
As large, highly mobile grazing mammals, restoration of bison as wildlife has been difficult. In the USA, most conservation herds of bison are small, genetically inadequate, limited to small ranges, and managed much like livestock. Gradual deterioration of the wild bison genome is underway in a domesticating process including loss of genetic diversity.
It is a national goal of the US Department of Interior’s Bison Conservation Initiative to forestall this deterioration of wild bison. This will require restoring at least one large herd on a large, diverse landscape. Realistically, this will require a large area of all or mostly public land where conflicts with private interests, especially livestock production, can be minimized. For plains bison, the best option, anywhere, for such restoration of wild bison exists on the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in Montana. The CMR Refuge is the largest federal refuge within the historic range of plains bison.
Seven rural counties include some of the CMR Refuge. HB 302 would allow one county commission, representing a few thousand citizens, to prevent achievement of global and national goals for conserving bison as a wild species.Observes Bailey, “The Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in east-central Montana is the largest refuge within the historic range of plains bison. But the refuge has no bison and lacks the diverse ecological effects of this keystone species. Despite mandates in federal law and policy, the Refuge Management Plan cedes the right to restore, or not restore, wild bison to the state of Montana.”House bills 302 and 318 would prevent diversification and enhancement of rural economies with opportunities from bison-based hunting and tourism.
Thirty-three contiguous counties in eastern and north-central Montana have been losing population for many decades. Most lack a critical population necessary to support a comprehensive county government, adequate health care, emergency services, quality education, communication facilities and other infrastructure. Poverty levels are the highest in the state. Livestock production has remained the primary economic foundation for these counties, and this industry has opposed any projects that might compete with cattle production.
Under the requirements of MCA 87-1-216, a large herd of public-trust, wild bison could be restored with minimal or no negative impacts on the livestock industry, especially if bison are reestablished on the CMR National Wildlife Refuge.
Bison restoration has potential to augment and diversify local economies by enhancing tourism and with monies spent during months-long hunting seasons for lodging, meals, supplies and outfitting services (Sage, 2017). Either HB 302 or HB 318 would prevent bison restoration in these counties, perpetuating an economic strategy that has failed for decades.
House bills 302 and 318 would justify and encourage independent federal action to restore wild bison on the CMR Refuge.The Fish and Wildlife Service and its refuge system are mandated to collaborate and cooperate with the states in the management of wildlife on federal lands. However, the states’ trust responsibilities for wildlife are subordinate to the federal government’s statutory and trust obligations over federal lands and their integral resources (Nie et al. 2017). Federal agencies have often abdicated this responsibility and authority to the states. HB 302 could be an ultimate expression of Montana’s obstinacy and lack of cooperation for restoring bison, a keystone species, on the CMR Refuge. 
This may lead the Fish and Wildlife Service to fulfill its legal mandates by exercising its ultimate authority and proceeding with bison restoration without state approval.

Bison conservation and the future of bison as wildlife are not merely a local or state issue. The state of Montana, especially the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, have a unique and important role to play in preserving a future for public-trust, wild bison. Under HBs 302 and 318, Montana will fail to fulfill an irreplaceable opportunity to conserve a wild resource that is a unique component of global biodiversity.

In conclusion, any proposal for a Montana bison restoration project must be developed by professionals and abundantly vetted under MEPA and MCA 87-1-216. HB 302 adds nothing to this comprehensive process. However, a county veto of a professionally developed and vetted bison restoration plan could be based upon a narrow sample of public goals, by commissioners having no staff to evaluate complex biological issues. 
Either house bills 302 or HB 318 would almost certainly prevent any restoration of public-trust wild bison in Montana, preempting economic opportunities in many rural counties, ignoring the desires and statutory privileges of most citizens of the state and nation, and disregarding a host of state and federal legal mandates and policies. 
Bison conservation and the future of bison as wildlife are not merely a local or state issue. The state of Montana, especially the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, have a unique and important role to play in preserving a future for public-trust, wild bison. Under HBs 302 and 318, Montana will fail to fulfill an irreplaceable opportunity to conserve a wild resource that is a unique component of global biodiversity.
In 1910, William Hornaday of the Smithsonian Institution proposed a preserve for wild bison on the south side of the Missouri River in Montana. In Congress, he was thwarted by the Montana Woolgrowers Association. Now, 111 years later, we still have no herd of public, wild bison in the state. Citizens of Montana and the nation must be heard. If Montana’s obstinacy toward bison restoration offends you, contact Governor Greg Gianforte at mt.gov, phone 406-444-3111, or write him at PO Box 200801, Helena, MT 59620-0801. 
Silence is complicity.
EDITOR’S NOTE: For more information, visit the Montana Wild Bison Restoration Coalition and the Buffalo Field Campaign.  Mountain Journal welcomes a rebuttal to Bailey’s essay provided it is based upon science and established fact.

Breaking news: U.S. says grizzly bears should remain protected under Endangered Species Act

By Kitty Block and Sara Amundson

April 1, 2021 0 Comments

Breaking news: U.S. says grizzly bears should remain protected under Endangered Species Act

States that are home to these bears should be doing all they can to protect them but instead they have chosen to sell them out to trophy hunting interests. Photo by Don Getty1.2KSHARES

Grizzly bears in the lower 48 states should retain their current protections under the Endangered Species Act, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the primary federal agency that makes decisions on the conservation of wildlife species. This is encouraging news for these native carnivores who have been under attack from trophy hunting interests in the states they live in, and who need all the help they can get to survive.

In a report published yesterday, the USFWS recommended that grizzly bears retain “threatened” status based on a five-year scientific status review.

Under the previous administration, the USFWS, in 2017, sought to prematurely delist grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem as a handout to trophy hunters. We stopped this effort—and with it the first trophy hunting season on grizzlies in decades—in its tracks with a federal court victory in 2018 followed by an appeals court victory in 2020.

There are fewer than 1,800 grizzly bears now in the lower 48 states—a small number, by any measure. These animals were nearly wiped out of existence in the United States between 1915 and 1975. Today they occupy less than 2% of their original range in the United States.

Grizzly bear populations increase slowly. Female bears do not reproduce until they are between three and eight years of age and they produce small litters, with many years between each litter. Not all of the cubs survive to adulthood. That is why every bear must count, and why it may take a decade for a female bear to replace herself in the population. And the threats to their survival are many, including poachers, ranchers and state wildlife agencies who continually target these animals and kill them over fear and exaggerated claims that they kill cattle—claims we debunked using USDA data.

In its report, the USFWS pointed to tremendous threats grizzlies continue to face, including “limited habitat connectivity, management of access by motorized vehicles, human-caused mortality and uncertainty surrounding future conservation efforts in some ecosystems.”

The USFWS report also correctly recognized that the long-term survival of grizzly bears depends on establishing populations in parts of their historic range where they remain absent, like Washington’s North Cascades and Idaho’s Bitterroot ecosystem. We urge the USFWS to follow through by developing a comprehensive plan to achieve a truly interconnected, recovered population of grizzly bears.

States that are home to these bears should be doing all they can to protect them but instead they have chosen to sell them out to trophy hunting interests. We recently told you about Montana’s state legislature passing a host of bills in anticipation of a federal delisting. Those bills would have, among other atrocities, allowed ranchers to shoot grizzly bears they “perceived” as a threat to their livestock. They included measures such as barring the relocation of grizzly bears to promote their recovery.

These bills also allow hound-hunting of black bears in early spring and expanding wolf snaring and trapping, which could also harm grizzly bears and cubs. Fortunately, continuing federal protection will shield grizzlies from some of the worst impacts of these bills if they become law.

The Montana and Wyoming delegations in Congress are also engaged now in efforts to delist these bears—a shortsighted approach because grizzly bears and other wildlife contribute heavily to these states’ economies, with thousands of tourists flocking there each year to catch a glimpse of these animals in the wild.

We are encouraged by the USFWS recommendation today, but so long as these other threats to grizzly bears continue our work is far from done. You can rest assured we will keep a vigilant eye and continue to work hard to ward off efforts by bad state legislators, wildlife managers and members of Congress to hurt these iconic animals.

Sara Amundson is president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund.

Endangered condors return to northern California skies after nearly a century

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/mar/26/california-condor-reintroduced-yurok-tribe?fbclid=IwAR2QBKXRvjH2utYYL79fjbuJEw6PI7unWc1whiVz6tBIaXW6z9yaLO5y_5A

Yurok Tribe will create a captive breeding facility in Redwood national park for birds that could be released as early as this fall

A California condor is perched atop a pine tree in the Los Padres national forest, east of Big Sur, California.
A California condor is perched atop a pine tree in the Los Padres national forest, east of Big Sur, California. Photograph: Marcio José Sánchez/AP

Sierra CistoneSat 27 Mar 2021 01.00 EDT

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After a century of absence, the endangered California condor is set to return to the skies of the Pacific north-west.

The condor once soared from British Columbia to Mexico, but habitat loss, overhunting and, most significantly, poisoning from hunting ammunition drove the birds to near extinction.

By the early 1980s, these threats had caused such a precipitous decline in the population that only 22 remained in the wild. In an effort to regrow their numbers, biologists captured the remaining birds and began a breeding program.

Since then, the condor has been reintroduced to south and central California. Its population has expanded into parts of Utah, Arizona and Baja California in Mexico, with experts estimating the number of free flying birds at more than 300.

Now, the bird will be reintroduced in northern California. The reintroduction efforts there have largely been led by the Yurok Tribe, whose ancestral land encompasses large swaths of forest and coastline in northern California and parts of Redwood national park that were once home to the condor.

The tribe has planned for the bird’s return for over a decade, and its proposal was accepted on 24 March by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Through close collaboration with Redwood national park, the tribe will begin the creation of a captive breeding facility within the boundaries of the park. The facility will house captive-bred condors that could be released into the park as early as this fall.

The California condor’s reintroduction has been led by the Yurok Tribe.
The California condor’s reintroduction has been led by the Yurok Tribe. Photograph: Marcio José Sánchez/AP

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Although the condor population is on the uphill, its survival in the Golden state still faces challenges. California has banned lead shot and ammunition, but the laws are unlikely to completely eradicate the lead poisoning problem. Poaching of wildlife and illegal use of lead ammunition could still pose a risk to wildlife and any reintroduced condors, said Chris West, the Yurok Tribe’s condor program manager.

Yet West is hopeful about the bird’s future. Starting this new population of California condors in the far northern portion of the state could offer the bird a better chance at continued survival overall, he argued.

“There’s a big success in the number of birds out there, but you don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket,” West said.

Increasing the population could also help buffer the species against the increasing effects of wildfires, climate change and loss of genetic diversity. Condors are an important part of a healthy and functioning ecosystem. As scavengers, the birds are an essential part of nature’s clean-up crew.

Strong, big beaks allow them to open fresh carcasses, a task too difficult for their close relatives, the turkey vulture. Their efforts allow other wildlife to access the carcasses, and accelerates the recycling of nutrients on the landscape.

Condors are scavengers; an essential part of nature’s clean-up crew.
Condors are scavengers; an essential part of nature’s clean-up crew. Photograph: Shadow_Hawk/Getty Images/iStockphoto

For the Yurok people, the return of the condor presents a milestone. The condor plays a critical role in the people’s tradition and culture, and the return of the bird to ancestral territory brings with it a sense of renewal for both people and the land, said Tiana Williams-Claussen, the director of Yurok Tribe’s wildlife department.

In 2003, the Yurok elder community identified the bird as the single-most important land animal to bring back to ancestral land. The reintroduction program was born only a few years after that decision, according to Williams-Claussen.

“When I actually see a condor in the sky again,” Williams-Claussen said, “it’s just mending that wound that was carried by my elders, is carried by me and that, at least in part, is not going to be carried by my children.”

Timeline: THE FIGHT FOR NORTHERN ROCKY GRAY WOLVES

Timeline: Wolves in Danger | Earthjustice

The gray wolf is one of North America’s most iconic native predators. The wolf’s incredible comeback in the Northern Rockies is one of our country’s greatest wildlife success stories.

Explore the history of the Northern Rockies gray wolves, beginning in the 1930s when their numbers were decimated after years of persecution, through their successful reintroduction in the 1990s, to current day’s first legal wolf hunts in the Northern Rockies in nearly a century:What’s Happening Now

On Oct. 29, 2020, the Trump administration finalized a rule removing Endangered Species Act protections for all gray wolves in the lower-48 states except for a small population of Mexican gray wolves in Arizona and New Mexico. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made its decision despite the fact that wolves are still functionally extinct in the vast majority of their former range across the continental U.S. (More details.)20TH CENTURY1933January catch of Forest Service hunter T.B. Bledsaw, Kaibab National Forest, circa 1914.ARIZONA HISTORICAL SOCIETYJanuary catch of Forest Service hunter T.B. Bledsaw, Kaibab National Forest, circa 1914.

WOLF POPULATION DECIMATED

Bounty hunters finish killing most wolves in the continental United States.

Tiny remnant populations cling to existence in several spots along the Canadian border in Michigan, Montana, and Idaho.

Reports of ghost wolf sightings trickle in from parts of Wyoming, Washington, and Idaho. 1973President Richard Nixon.WHITE HOUSE PHOTO

ENDANGERED SPECIES ACT BECOMES LAW

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is signed into law by President Nixon.

It prohibits the “taking,” without explicit permission, of species deemed to be in danger of going extinct.

“Taking,” in this instance, means killing, harassing, or damaging habitat necessary for the survival and recovery of the species. 1974A 'wolf-like' animal sighted in Hayden Valley, August 7/8, 1992.RAY PAUNOVICH / BUSCH FILMS VIA NPSA “wolf-like” animal sighted in Hayden Valley, August 7/8, 1992.

WOLVES LISTED AS “ENDANGERED” UNDER ENDANGERED SPECIES ACT

As part of the first list of species to receive federal protections, gray wolves are listed as “endangered” under the ESA.

The designation applies to all remaining wolf populations in the lower-48 states. 1982

10(J) RULE ADDED TO ENDANGERED SPECIES ACT

The ESA is amended to include the 10(j) rule, allowing the Interior Department to classify reintroduced species as experimental and nonessential.

The change is a result of local concerns about reintroduction of species to their historical ranges. 1995Schoolchildren at Yellowstone's Roosevelt Arch welcome a truck transporting wolves, January 1995.DIANE PAPINEAU / NATIONAL PARK SERVICESchoolchildren at Yellowstone’s Roosevelt Arch welcome a truck transporting wolves, January 1995.

WOLF REINTRODUCTION BEGINS

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) begins reintroducing gray wolves to central Idaho and Yellowstone.

Wolves are brought in from Canada.21ST CENTURYJuly 2000

STATUS CHANGE TO “THREATENED” PROPOSED

FWS proposes dropping “endangered” status for most wolves in the United States and reclassifying them as “threatened,” a designation under the ESA that carries milder protections than “endangered” status. 2003Wolves howling at Little America Flats in February 2003.JIM PEACO / NATIONAL PARK SERVICEWolves howling at Little America Flats in Yellowstone, February 2003.

RECLASSIFIED AS “THREATENED”

FWS reclassifies most gray wolves in the lower-48 as “threatened.”

Work also begins to delist most gray wolves entirely. As a requirement for delisting, states with wolf populations must have laws and management plans to ensure continued survival of the species. 2004Wolf lying on glacial erratic at Yellowstone's Little America Flats, February 2, 2004.JIM PEACO / NATIONAL PARK SERVICEWolf on glacial erratic at Yellowstone’s Little America Flats, February 2, 2004.

STATE MANAGEMENT PLANS: IDAHO, MONTANA, WYOMING

FWS accepts Montana’s and Idaho’s proposed management plans for wolves but rejects Wyoming’s.

The State of Wyoming, livestock and hunting interests supported plans to manage wolves as “predators,” which would permit indiscriminate killing in nearly 90% of Wyoming. 2004

WYOMING FILES SUIT

The State of Wyoming and 28 Wyoming-based livestock and hunting groups file suit, challenging FWS’s rejection of the Wyoming management plan. November 2004

WYOMING SUIT INTERVENTION

Earthjustice and other conservation groups intervene in the lawsuit to defend FWS’s decision to reject Wyoming’s management plan for wolves. January 2005

DECISION RECLASSIFYING WOLVES AS “THREATENED” IS REJECTED

An Oregon district court judge rejects the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s decision to reclassify most wolves in the lower-48 to “threatened” from “endangered.” January 2005

10(J) RULE AMENDED

An elk in winter.ISTOCKPHOTOAn elk in winter.

The Bush administration gives livestock owners in Montana and Idaho more power to kill wolves.

Under the new “10(j) rule,” livestock owners can kill wolves without a permit if wolves are chasing livestock.

The rule also says states can take action against wolves if it can be demonstrated they are the primary reason for decline among deer or elk populations.21ST CENTURYMarch 2005Wolf watchers at Yellowstone's Slough Creek, March 2005.JIM PEACO / NATIONAL PARK SERVICEWolf watchers at Yellowstone’s Slough Creek, March 2005.

WYOMING LOSES IN DISTRICT COURT; APPEALS

Federal District Court Judge Alan B. Johnson tosses out the lawsuit filed by the State of Wyoming and livestock and hunting interests challenging FWS’s rejection of Wyoming’s management plan.

The case is ultimately appealed to the 10th Circuit. February 2006Wolf near Blacktail Pond in Yellowstone on February 16, 2006.JIM PEACO / NATIONAL PARK SERVICEWolf near Blacktail Pond in Yellowstone, February 16, 2006.

NORTHERN ROCKIES DELISTING PLAN ANNOUNCED

FWS announces plans to remove gray wolves in the Northern Rockies (Idaho, Wyoming, Montana) from the Endangered Species List, but only if Wyoming adopts a state management plan that FWS deems appropriate.

Wyoming’s original plan, rejected by FWS, remains under review by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. April 2006Wolf 470F of Leopold Pack near Blacktail Pond.JIM PEACO / NATIONAL PARK SERVICEWolf 470F of the Leopold Pack, near Blacktail Pond in Yellowstone.

WYOMING LOSES APPEAL

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals rules the lawsuit filed by the State of Wyoming and livestock and hunting interests to compel approval of the state management plan is without merit.

The ruling affirms a decision made one year prior by District Court Judge Alan B. Johnson, as well as FWS’s initial decision to reject the plan. August 2006

WYOMING DELISTING PETITION REJECTED

After 12 months of study, FWS rejects a petition filed by the Governor of Wyoming and the State Game & Fish Commission asking that gray wolves in the Northern Rockies be removed from the Endangered Species List.

The rejection is based on the lack of an adequate state management plan in Wyoming. February 2007

NORTHERN ROCKIES DELISTING PROPOSED

Wolves from the Druid Pack bed down in the snow.NATIONAL PARK SERVICEWolves from the Druid Pack bed down in the snow.

FWS issues a proposed rule to delist Northern Rockies gray wolves from the endangered species list.

Wyoming has yet to propose a management plan since their initial one was rejected by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. Without a Wyoming plan, FWS intends to keep a significant portion of wolves in Wyoming on the endangered species list. December 2007

WYOMING PLAN APPROVED

In an about-face, FWS approves Wyoming’s state management plan.

The plan allows anyone to kill any wolf that wanders outside the northwest part of the state, including wolves that live most of the year in Yellowstone National Park and leave the park for periods in the winter in search of food. December 2007

APPROVAL OF WYOMING PLAN CHALLENGED

Earthjustice files comments challenging the approval of Wyoming’s new plan to allow unlimited wolf killing in nearly 90% of the state. January 2008

10(J) RULE UPDATE CHALLENGED

An elk in winter.U.S. FISH & WILDLIFE SERVICEMule deer.

Earthjustice challenges the Bush administration 10(j) rule that would allow wolves in Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana to be indiscriminately killed, including through aerial hunting.

To start killing, states only need to demonstrate that wolves are one of the reasons for elk and deer populations that fail to meet state objectives. February 2008

NORTHERN ROCKIES DELISTING RULE PUBLISHED

The final rule for delisting of the Northern Rockies population of gray wolves from the Endangered Species List is published.

Delisting is scheduled to take place in late March 2008. March 2008

NORTHERN ROCKIES WOLVES DELISTED

The Northern Rockies gray wolves are officially removed from the endangered species list. Wyoming’s contentious state management plan takes effect. March 28, 2008His distinctive gait, walking on three legs, made him one of the more easily recognized wolves in Yellowstone.STEVE JUSTADWolf 253. His distinctive gait, walking on three legs, made him one of the more easily recognized wolves in Yellowstone.

LIMPY KILLED

Wolf 253 (aka, “Hoppy” or “Limpy”) is one of the first wolves killed after ESA protections are removed.

A member of Yellowstone’s famed Druid Pack, this particular wolf was unique. “He was a hell of a wolf,” recalled one veteran wolf watcher. April 2008

NORTHERN ROCKIES DELISTING CHALLENGED

Earthjustice filed suit on behalf of 12 conservation groups, challenging the decision to delist Northern Rockies gray wolves from Endangered Species Act protections. July 2008

PROTECTIONS REINSTATED FOR NORTHERN ROCKIES WOLVES

In response to the Earthjustice lawsuit, a federal court reinstated ESA protections for gray wolves in the Northern Rockies, just in time to keep wolves safe from fall hunts that would have been implemented in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.

Since delisting, more than 100 wolves were killed. Fall hunts would have killed hundreds more. January 2009The White House, shrouded in fog.PETE SOUZA / WHITE HOUSE

BUSH MIDNIGHT REGULATION TO DELIST NORTHERN ROCKIES WOLVES

Days before leaving office, the Bush administration makes a final attempt to remove endangered species protections for wolves in the Northern Rockies (excluding Wyoming).

Earthjustice and other groups announce they will challenge delisting … again. An order by the Obama administration halts the proposed delisting for the time being. March 2009

INTERIOR DEPARTMENT AFFIRMS DELISTING

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.DEPARTMENT OF INTERIORSecretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.

After nearly two months of waiting, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar affirms the FWS decision to remove endangered species protections for wolves in Idaho and Montana (as well as parts of Washington, Oregon, Utah and western Great Lakes).

Earthjustice and others announce they will challenge the decision. April 2009

NORTHERN ROCKIES WOLVES DELISTED AGAIN

Wolf pups emerge from a den, December 2009.HILARY COOLEY / U.S. FISH & WILDLIFE SERVICEWolf pups emerge from a den, December 2009.

Wolves in the Northern Rockies are again removed from the endangered species list. The delisting rule goes into effect on May 4, 2009.

With the exception of Wyoming, where wolves remain federally protected, states will take over management of their wolf populations. June 2009

NORTHERN ROCKIES WOLVES DELISTING CHALLENGED

Earthjustice files suit challenging the decision to remove Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves in the Northern Rockies. July 2009

IDAHO AND MONTANA WOLF HUNT INJUNCTION SOUGHT

Earthjustice asks the federal district court reviewing the delisting challenge for an emergency injunction to halt pending fall wolf hunts in Idaho and Montana. Earthjustice sought—and won—a similar injunction the last time wolf hunts began. September 2009

WOLF HUNT TO CONTINUE

A federal district court issues an order finding that the delisting of wolves in the Northern Rockies was likely illegal, but declined to stop wolf hunts in Idaho and Montana.

The order comes a week after Idaho’s wolf hunting season opened on September 1. Montana is set to begin wolf hunting on September 15. March 31, 2010

WOLF HUNT SEASONS END

Idaho’s wolf hunt season ends, with the loss of more than 500 wolves due to human killing.

The hunt, along with Montana’s similar season, followed the April 2009 delisting of populations in those states under the federal ESA. August 5, 2010Gray wolf, August 2010.TRACY BROOKS / U.S. FISH & WILDLIFE SERVICEGray wolf, August 2010.

PROTECTIONS REINSTATED FOR IDAHO AND MONTANA WOLVES

Federal District Judge Donald Molloy restores ESA protections for wolves in Idaho and Montana, stating that the decision by FWS to remove protections in only two states is “a political solution that does not comply with the ESA.”

In his ruling, the judge affirmed that protections for the same population cannot differ by state. March 2011Wolf faces a snowstorm in Seney National Wildlife Refuge, January 2011.LARRY MCGAHEYWolf faces a snowstorm in Seney National Wildlife Refuge, January 2011.

U.S. FISH & WILDLIFE SERVICE SETTLEMENT

Of the 14 conservation groups that joined in the June 2009 lawsuit to protect wolves, not all agree to a settlement with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. This requires Earthjustice to withdraw as the clients’ counsel. April 15, 2011

“2009 RULE” REISSUED

President Obama signs into law the “Department of Defense and Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act” for fiscal year 2011.

The bill requires the Interior Secretary to reissue the “2009 Rule” which removed ESA protections for all Northern Rocky Mountain wolves, except those in Wyoming. August 3, 2011Storm clouds pass over the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C.ARCHITECT OF THE CAPITOLStorm clouds pass over the U.S. Capitol building.

DISTRICT COURT UPHOLDS DELISTING

Federal District Court Judge Donald Molloy upholds the 2011 legislation removing ESA protections for wolves in the Northern Rockies.

The legislation marks the first time Congress has legislatively delisted an endangered species. Fall 2011

WOLF HUNTS IN IDAHO AND MONTANA

The 2011–2012 Montana wolf hunting and Idaho wolf hunting and trapping seasons begin, during which 166 wolves are killed in Montana, and 379 wolves are killed in Idaho. October 5, 2011

WYOMING DELISTING PROPOSED

FWS proposed a rule to remove the gray wolf in Wyoming from the endangered species list, claiming Wyoming’s wolf population is stable, threats will be addressed, and Wyoming’s wolf management laws are adequate.

This is notwithstanding FWS’s own peer review of the Wyoming delisting proposal, which concluded that “there is substantial risk to the population” because “the Plan, as written, does not do an adequate job of explaining how wolf populations will be maintained, and how recovery will be maintained.” March 14, 2012Wolf in Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, January 12, 2012.U.S. FISH & WILDLIFE SERVICEWolf in Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, January 12, 2012.

APPEALS COURT UPHOLDS MONTANA, IDAHO DELISTING

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Congress had the right to strip protections from wolves in Montana and Idaho in April 2011. August 31, 2012

WOLVES DELISTED IN WYOMING

FWS announced it is eliminating federal protections for Wyoming’s wolves, handing wolf management over to Wyoming, which will open almost all of the state to immediate, unconditional wolf killing.

Wyoming’s wolf population is estimated to be only 328 wolves, far fewer than either Idaho or Montana. November 14, 2012

WYOMING’S KILL-AT-WILL WOLF POLICY CHALLENGED

Following the required 60-day notice of intent to sue, Earthjustice filed suit on behalf of conservation groups, challenging the federal government’s elimination of ESA protections for wolves in Wyoming.

The state policies will result in wolf deaths that undermine the recovery of the species. May 9, 2013

INTERIOR DEPARTMENT URGED NOT TO DELIST WOLVES IN LOWER-48

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell.KEITH SHANNON / U.S. FISH & WILDLIFE SERVICESecretary of the Interior Sally Jewell.

Six of the nation’s most prominent conservation groups called on Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to cancel plans by FWS to remove federal ESA protections for wolves across nearly the entire lower-48 states.

The letter is signed by the chief executives of the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Earthjustice, Endangered Species Coalition, Natural Resources Defense Council and Sierra Club. June 7, 2013

LOWER-48 WOLF DELISTING PROPOSED

FWS proposed removing federal Endangered Species Act protections for wolves across nearly the entire lower-48 states, except for a small population of Mexican wolves in Arizona and New Mexico, where only about 75 wild wolves remain.

The plan would be disastrous for gray wolf recovery in the United States. December 17, 2013

PUBLIC VOICES SUPPORT FOR PROTECTIONS FOR WOLVES

Wolf in Yellowstone.BARRY O’NEILL / NATIONAL PARK SERVICEA wolf in Yellowstone.

In a public comment period, approximately one million Americans stood in opposition to the proposal to strip endangered species protections from gray wolves across most of the lower-48.

It is one of the largest numbers of comments ever submitted on a federal decision involving endangered species. February 2014

SCIENTIFIC PEER REVIEW QUESTIONS NATIONAL WOLF DELISTING PROPOSAL

An independent scientific peer review unanimously concluded that the FWS’s national wolf delisting rule did not currently represent the “best available science.”

The study was commissioned by FWS and conducted by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis. January 7, 2014A member of the Golden pack in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.COURTESY OF HOBBIT HILL FILMS LLCA member of the Golden pack in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.

IDAHO WILDERNESS WOLF EXTERMINATION INJUNCTION SOUGHT

Earthjustice requested a court injunction to halt an unprecedented program by the U.S. Forest Service and Idaho Department of Fish & Game to exterminate the Golden Creek and Monumental Creek Packs deep within the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.

The area is the largest forested wilderness area in the lower-48 states. IDFG commenced the program in December 2013 without public notice. January 18, 2014

IDAHO DECISION APPEALED

Members of the Monumental pack in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.COURTESY OF HOBBIT HILL FILMS LLCMembers of the Monumental pack cross a ridge in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.

Earthjustice filed an emergency motion asking the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to preserve the wolves in the Frank Church Wilderness, after a federal district court judge rejected the injunction request.

The hunter-trapper hired by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game has killed nine wolves from the Golden Creek and Monumental Creek Packs. July 29, 2014Members of the Golden pack in the  Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.COURTESY OF HOBBIT HILL FILMS LLCMembers of the Golden pack.

IDAHO SUSPENDS WILDERNESS WOLF-KILLING PLAN

Faced with the legal challenge and imminent hearing before the federal appeals court, the Idaho Department of Fish & Game abandoned its plan to resume the professional wolf-killing program in the Frank Church during the coming winter. September 23, 2014

PROTECTIONS REINSTATED FOR WYOMING WOLVES

Wolf in Yellowstone.JIM PEACO / NATIONAL PARK SERVICE

A ruling from Federal District Court Judge Amy Jackson invalidated the statewide delisting of wolves in Wyoming, reinstating protections for the species.

Earthjustice represented Defenders of Wildlife, Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity in challenging the FWS’s decision to strip Endangered Species Act protections from gray wolves in Wyoming.

219 wolves were killed under Wyoming’s management since the 2012 delisting. December 15, 2015

WOLVES RETAIN PROTECTIONS IN WYOMING & GREAT LAKES STATES

Wolves in Wyoming, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin will retain their federal protections after a contentious policy “rider” that would have stripped them of Endangered Species Act protections was excluded from the final omnibus government spending bill.

The rider would have overridden two federal court decisions (including the September 2014 victory for wolves in Wyoming) that found those states’ management plans do not sufficiently protect wolves, while also barring further judicial review of the court decision overrides. January 7, 2016

CONSERVATIONISTS CHALLENGE HELICOPTER INTRUSIONS IN PREMIERE WILDERNESS AREA

A coalition of conservationists, represented by Earthjustice, today filed a legal challenge to the decision by the U.S. Forest Service to allow the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to conduct approximately 120 helicopter landings in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness as part of a program to manipulate wildlife populations in the wilderness. January 13, 2016

IDAHO BREAKS AGREEMENT USING HELICOPTER DROPS TO COLLAR WOLVES IN FRANK CHURCH WILDERNESS

The Idaho Fish & Game Department admitted that it broke an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service and used helicopter landings to collar wolves in the Frank Church River Of No Return Wilderness. This followed less than a week after Earthjustice filed its legal challenge. January 19, 2017

COURT RULES FOREST SERVICE ILLEGALLY AUTHORIZED HELICOPTER INTRUSIONS IN PREMIERE WILDERNESS AREA

The ruling by U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill concluded that the Forest Service violated the Wilderness Act and conducted insufficient environmental review in allowing IDFG to land helicopters in the River of No Return in January 2016 to capture and place radio telemetry collars on wild elk. IDFG also captured and radio-collared four wolves during these operations—an unauthorized action that was not permitted by the Forest Service, but that threatened to advance IDFG’s plans to undertake widespread wolf-killing in the wilderness by providing locational information on the collared wolves. March 7, 2017

D.C. CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS RULING STRIPS ENDANGERED SPECIES ACT PROTECTIONS FROM WYOMING WOLVES

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit issued a ruling in Defenders of Wildlife, et al. v. Zinke, et al., reversing a district court decision that had restored Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves in Wyoming. April 25, 2017

WOLVES DELISTED IN WYOMING

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hands wolf management authority over to the State of Wyoming, despite state policies that promote unlimited wolf-killing across more than 80% of Wyoming and provide inadequate protections for wolves in the remainder. March 6, 2019

WOLVES DELISTING IN LOWER-48 PROPOSED

The Dept. of Interior announced a proposed rule would remove federal Endangered Species Act protections for all gray wolves in the lower-48 states except for a small population of Mexican wolves in Arizona and New Mexico, where only about 114 wild wolves remain. The Service made its decision despite the fact that wolves are still functionally extinct in the vast majority of their former range across the continental United States. (More details.) October 29, 2020

WOLVES DELISTED IN LOWER-48

The Trump administration finalized a rule removing Endangered Species Act protections for all gray wolves in the lower-48 states except for a small population of Mexican gray wolves in Arizona and New Mexico. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made its decision despite the fact that wolves are still functionally extinct in the vast majority of their former range across the continental U.S. (More details.)

“This delisting decision is what happens when bad science drives bad policy — and it’s illegal, so we will see them in court,” said Earthjustice attorney Kristen Boyles.

Pack to the future: Will more wolves come to King County?

Gray wolves historically roamed across the state but were eradicated in Washington by 1930s. In recent decades wolves have been migrating back to the state from Canada, Idaho and Oregon. John and Karen Hollingsworth/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Gray wolves historically roamed across the state but were eradicated in Washington by 1930s. In recent decades wolves have been migrating back to the state from Canada, Idaho and Oregon. John and Karen Hollingsworth/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Some experts believe we’re on the cusp of discovering packs in King County.

Wolves still have yet to reestablish themselves in the forests of King County, but experts believe it’s likely only a matter of time.

Across Washington, there’s more than 20 known wolf packs, but only one has made the trek across the Cascades, east of Bellingham. Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife Wolf Specialist Ben Maletzke said as wolf populations recover, they often spread out from places where there’s existing packs.

“We just haven’t seen that happen yet in King County,” he said.

Wolves were eradicated from Washington state in the 1930s, but in 2008, the first pack reemerged populated by wolves who had naturally journeyed down from Canada. So far, they’ve favored remote areas of north central and eastern Washington. Maletzke said it’s unknown why they haven’t moved in to King County yet, with two packs across the mountains in Kittitas County, but there have been wolf sightings. It could be a lack of prey, the sheer number of people recreating in the mountains or the ruggedness of the terrain, or other reasons.ADVERTISEMENThttps://imasdk.googleapis.com/js/core/bridge3.446.1_en.html#goog_851084424Volume 0% 

“We don’t know all the factors obviously of how they pick where they’re going to establish on the landscape, but we just try and find them when they get there,” he said.

Over the winter, when the wolf population is the most stable, the state works to find and count wolves within its borders. That work is ongoing right now, and they’re developing a new model to understand how and where wolves are recovering.

Paula Swedeen, policy director for Conservation NW, said she expects to see more wolves in King County in the coming years.

“It certainly seems like we should have more packs in Western Washington at this point, and it’s a bit of a mystery that we don’t, but I can’t help but think that we’re on the cusp of discovering quite a bit more,” she said.

The ruggedness of the Cascades also provides wolves with more places to hide away from humans. But once a pack establishes itself, it becomes easier to notice and track. And once populations in other parts of the state hit a certain threshold, they’ll likely start migrating out. However, Swedeen said that threshold will likely be different from other states that have seen wolf recovery. She’s said the state model should shed more light on packs in Washington.

“That’s going to be our best, scientifically-based, consolidated projections about when we should see that more rapid increase in growth,” Swedeen said.

As wolves do return to the area, it raises the potential for conflict between humans, livestock and pets. Swedeen said the federal government could provide more funding for proactive deterrents. These could include electric fencing or money for range riders, which travel with and keep an eye on livestock.

Wolves are protected under state law in all parts of Washington, but were federally delisted by the Trump administration nationwide. President Joe Biden ordered the federal U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to review this delisting.

However, Swedeen said Washington state’s wolf management plan is solid, and much more nuanced than at the federal level. She still wants to see the federal government to downlist wolves nationwide to threatened, which afford some protections while allowing for management in other states with higher populations.

Government considers reducing area set aside for endangered porpoise

NewsA vaquita marina trapped in a gillnet. A vaquita marina trapped in a gillnet. ©OMAR VIDAL

Reduced numbers of remaining vaquitas is justification for the change, says environment ministry

Published on Monday, March 1, 2021

The federal government said Saturday it is considering reducing the area in the upper Gulf of California where the critically endangered vaquita marina porpoise is protected.

The measure would reduce the area where there is a ban on the use of gillnets, in which the world’s smallest porpoises are prone to becoming entangled and dying.

But there are fears that allowing the nets to be used across a larger area of the gulf would increase the risk of the species going extinct. There are currently as few as 10 vaquitas in the Gulf of California, the only place in the world they live.https://googleads.g.doubleclick.net/pagead/ads?client=ca-pub-9776329014935752&output=html&h=150&slotname=2635735627&adk=4256702672&adf=745998373&pi=t.ma~as.2635735627&w=600&fwrn=4&lmt=1614709831&rafmt=11&psa=1&format=600×150&url=https%3A%2F%2Fmexiconewsdaily.com%2Fnews%2Fgovernment-considers-reducing-area-set-aside-for-endangered-porpoise%2F%3Ffbclid%3DIwAR2hNfTF1oqmc6s3sOAnc86DH6B9aNysYP_tZIDVUXVWcZvuQp_7xQWHvew&flash=0&wgl=1&adsid=ChEIgOH3gQYQvv6X8cjzubaoARI9AI0MZDZzp6Gz7wLS0dbL2i5vImV4eTF-XKPp49l1FbyylDx0XaQlgcv684UAfHDIPKCOT0zhECxP5E9mKA&tt_state=W3siaXNzdWVyT3JpZ2luIjoiaHR0cHM6Ly9hZHNlcnZpY2UuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbSIsInN0YXRlIjozfSx7Imlzc3Vlck9yaWdpbiI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXR0ZXN0YXRpb24uYW5kcm9pZC5jb20iLCJzdGF0ZSI6N31d&dt=1614709827634&bpp=38&bdt=3406&idt=3634&shv=r20210224&cbv=r20190131&ptt=9&saldr=aa&abxe=1&cookie=ID%3D84ffd8791529e848%3AT%3D1614706067%3AS%3DALNI_MbrmAdz5JXk5Ad4vIHPNHr2wkH0zA&prev_fmts=0x0&nras=1&correlator=5431338163539&frm=20&pv=1&ga_vid=524049064.1614706038&ga_sid=1614709826&ga_hid=1590796389&ga_fc=0&rplot=4&u_tz=-480&u_his=1&u_java=0&u_h=640&u_w=1139&u_ah=607&u_aw=1139&u_cd=24&u_nplug=3&u_nmime=4&adx=74&ady=1596&biw=1123&bih=538&scr_x=0&scr_y=0&eid=42530671%2C44731609%2C21068083%2C21067496&oid=3&pvsid=2095714224951092&pem=122&rx=0&eae=0&fc=1920&brdim=0%2C0%2C0%2C0%2C1139%2C0%2C1139%2C607%2C1139%2C537&vis=1&rsz=%7C%7CoeEbr%7C&abl=CS&pfx=0&fu=8320&bc=31&jar=2021-03-02-16&ifi=3&uci=a!3&btvi=1&fsb=1&xpc=fjinHiZwlu&p=https%3A//mexiconewsdaily.com&dtd=3807

The Environment Ministry (Semarnat) said that a decrease in the number of vaquitas and the area where they have been seen in recent years provides justification for reducing the size of the protected area.

The area extends from the Colorado River delta in the north of the Gulf past the fishing town of San Felipe on the west coast and near Puerto Peñasco on the east coast.

“The possibility of modifying the area of gillnet bans is being studied,” Semarnat said in a statement.

“There have been enough technical studies to indicate a possible reduction in the zone, according to the recent distribution of the vaquita marina in the area.”

The ministry said the possibility would be discussed by a group that includes fishermen, academics, members of the general public and government officials. A first report on the outcome of the discussions will be presented on March 26, Semarnat said.https://3b42f534fba175c67eb853d733e1aa50.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

Many fishermen have vehemently opposed the gillnet ban because they use the nets to catch totoaba, another endangered species whose swim bladders are considered a delicacy in China and yield thousands of dollars per kilogram. Mexican drug cartels are said to be involved in the illegal fishing and trafficking of totoaba, a large member of the sciaenidae, or drum, family of fish.

Fishermen have staged protests against the gillnet ban and attacked vessels operated by Sea Shepherd, a marine conservation group that removes nets in the protected area. Fishermen have also clashed with the navy, which carries out patrols against illegal fishing in the Gulf of California.

Alex Olivera, Mexico representative for the Center for Biological Diversity, said that reducing the size of the protected area would inevitably increase the likelihood of the small remaining population of vaquitas encountering a gillnet.

“Reducing the zone … means cutting the area available to the vaquita marina, and of course this species doesn’t live in a pen, it lives in the marine environment, so as soon as it leaves the zone, it could face gillnets, which are a threat,” he said.

The new humpback? Calf sighting sparks hope for imperilled right whale

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/feb/18/the-new-humpback-calf-sighting-sparks-hope-for-imperilled-right-whale

Shy giant’s journey back from the brink of extinction has received less attention than its charismatic cetacean cousin
https://www.youtube.com/embed/swRans1O4Ds?embed_config={%22adsConfig%22:{%22adTagParameters%22:{%22iu%22:%22/59666047/theguardian.com/environment/article/ng%22,%22cust_params%22:%22sens%3Df%26si%3Df%26vl%3D0%26cc%3DUS%26s%3Denvironment%26inskin%3Df%26se%3Dseascape-the-state-of-our-oceans%26ct%3Darticle%26co%3Dashifa-kassam%26url%3D%252Fenvironment%252F2021%252Ffeb%252F18%252Fthe-new-humpback-calf-sighting-sparks-hope-for-imperilled-right-whale%26br%3Df%26su%3D0%26edition%3Dus%26tn%3Dfeatures%26p%3Dng%26k%3Dwildlife%2Cworld%2Ccetaceans%2Cfishing%2Ceurope-news%2Cwhales%2Canimals%2Cspain%2Cenvironment%2Cmarine-life%2Cfishing-industry%2Cconservation%26sh%3Dhttps%253A%252F%252Fgu.com%252Fp%252Fgb88t%26pa%3Df%22}}}&enablejsapi=1&origin=https://www.theguardian.com&widgetid=1&modestbranding=100:39World’s most endangered right whale spotted off Spanish island – videoSeascape: the state of our oceans is supported by

The David and Lucile Packard Foundation

About this contentAshifa Kassam@ashifa_kThu 18 Feb 2021 01.00 EST

112

It was a memorable finale to a day out on the Atlantic: a four-metre whale calf gliding past the boat as the divers returned to the Spanish island of El Hierro in the Canaries. Their incredible luck, however, would be made clear hours later, as researchers around the world clamoured for more details after seeing the 47-second video of the encounter online.

The divers had unwittingly stumbled across a North Atlantic right whale – one of the world’s most endangered whales. What made the December encounter extraordinary was that the recently born calf, which appeared to be alone, was spotted thousands of miles away from the species’ usual haunts along the eastern seaboard of Canada and the US.

“When I realised what it was, my hair stood up on end,” says Natacha Aguilar, a marine biologist at the University of La Laguna in Tenerife. “This is a species that has been considered extinct on this side of the Atlantic for about 100 years. And all of a sudden this newborn calf appears in El Hierro.”

This is a species that has been considered extinct on this side of the Atlantic for about 100 years

Natacha Aguilar, marine biologist

More than a dozen volunteers sprang into action, combing the area for any sign of the calf or clues as to how it had ended up in the archipelago long after centuries of whaling wiped out all traces of the species from European waters.

A handful of sightings in European waters over the years had been linked to whales with a penchant for transatlantic journeys. But Aguilar was tantalised by another – albeit more unlikely – possibility. “It could suggest that the species could be starting to recolonise the north Atlantic on the European and African side.”

The sighting was a bright moment for scientists tracking a species that has long been in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Since 2017, records show that 47 North Atlantic right whales have been found dead or seriously injured – a devastating blow to a species that has dwindled to fewer than 400 members.

Most of these incidents have been linked to interactions with humans. As North Atlantic right whales turned up snarled in fishing lines, nursing deep wounds from ship strikes or reeling from ocean noise, fear began to set in that the species would be the first great whale to become extinct in modern times.

A North Atlantic right whale swims with a fishing net tangled around her head off the coast off Daytona Beach, Florida.
A North Atlantic right whale swims with a fishing net tangled around her head off Daytona Beach, Florida. Photograph: NOAA/Alamy

It was an unnerving turn for a species that just over a decade ago had been a symbol of resilience. Having been nearly hunted to extinction by whalers – right whales were easy targets as they move slowly, linger in coastal areas and float when killed – the species was the first whale to be protected by law, in 1935.Advertisementhttps://041e63b42a80c08ee9d3e2dca6ecb6b2.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

Safeguarded from commercial whaling, their numbers began to slowly increase, galvanising hope that the risk of extinction had been staved off.

Further optimism came from another species that had forged a remarkable comeback after as much as 90% of their population was wiped out by whaling: humpback whales, whose numbers have now climbed into the tens of thousands.

“Humpback whales are one of the greatest conservation success stories of the 20th century,” says Chris Johnson of the WWF’s Protecting Whales and Dolphins initiative. “It’s not perfect but they’ve bounced back.”

Even at its lowest point, however, the global population of humpback whales was believed to number in the thousands – far exceeding the estimated population of 356 North Atlantic right whales in 2019.

“Are North Atlantic right whales the new humpback? I would say yes,” says Johnson. “In that we can succeed at this, too. But it’s going to take all of us. There are important decisions that we need to make in the next few years if we’re going to have species like the North Atlantic right whale around.”

A North Atlantic right whale in the Bay of Fundy, Canada
A North Atlantic right whale in the Bay of Fundy, Canada. The whale can be easily identified by the white calluses on its head. Photograph: Brian J Skerry/NG/Getty

Central to saving these whales are the ships that ply the routes off the east coast of North America, as well as the fishers who harvest its waters, rich in lobster and snow crab. Data from US officials suggests that more than 85% of right whales, which can reach the length of a city bus and weigh as much as 70 tonnes, have been entangled in fishing gear at least once.Advertisement

Mitigation measures – put forward after right whales were found ensnared in hundreds of metres of heavy ropes or dragging traps that weigh as much as 60kg – have at times sparked protests from fishing communities who see such moves as an attack on their livelihoods.Calls from the deep: do we need to Save the Whales all over again?Read more

As a result, debate over how best to protect the whales has often been drawn out, wasting precious time for a species on the brink of extinction. “We can’t lose a single whale a year right now,” says Heather Pettis, a scientist at the New England Aquarium, Boston, US. “They really need some immediate action.”

The push for protections has been further complicated by a warming ocean. “This is climate change in action,” says Moira Brown of the Canadian Whale Institute. “You have the most endangered large whale in the north Atlantic having to go further afield to find food because the Gulf of Maine is warming up.”

This search for food has been blamed for the whale’s increased presence in Canada’s Gulf of St Lawrence, an area teeming with ship traffic. It’s a bitter twist on an earlier conservation victory: in 2003, shipping lanes were rerouted in the nearby Bay of Fundy to avoid an important area for the whales.

“When we think of climate change, we think of things happening like the glaciers melting over 100 years,” says Brown. “This has happened in a decade. The pace is phenomenal.”

A 9-year-old male North Atlantic right whale lies dead on a beach in New Brunswick off Canada after being towed onto the shore the night before. The whale was known to researchers who said that in its short life it had endured at least one vessel strike and three entanglements in fishing gear.
A 9-year-old North Atlantic right whale lies dead on a beach in New Brunswick, Canada after being towed onto the shore. The whale was known to researchers who said it had endured at least one vessel strike and three entanglements in fishing gear. Photograph: Nathan Klima/Boston Globe/Getty

The overlapping threats facing the whales hint at the complexity of the conservation issues involved, four decades after a groundswell of support pushed the International Whaling Commission to impose a moratorium on commercial whaling, says Greenpeace’s Willie Mackenzie.Advertisement

“Directly shooting them in the head with a harpoon is obviously a bad thing,” says Mackenzie. “But if we’re talking about ship strikes or fishing interactions, what’s the answer? You don’t get as many fish? You shouldn’t buy as much stuff? It’s not a direct cause and effect thing that people can understand very simply.”

He ascribes some of the success of the earlier campaign to imagery, whether it was the blood-soaked horror of commercial whaling captured by Greenpeace, or the awe-inspiring acrobatics of whales. The same strategy is now complicated by the fact that many of the species most at risk today are shyer and less well-known.

There’s a PR job here – humpbacks are really good at it and right whales not so much

Willie Mackenzie, Greenpeace

“There’s a PR job here and humpbacks are really good at it and right whales not so much,” he says, citing images of humpbacks spectacularly leaping out of the water or slapping their tails on the surface. “If you want to show people the majesty of a whale, that’s the picture you have to show them because they’re not going to be very excited about a black lump in the ocean or a really distant picture of something deep diving.”

Around the Canary Islands, more than six weeks after the North Atlantic right whale was spotted, researchers continue to search for clues. “Right now, there’s not much hope that it will appear again,” says Aguilar. “A newborn of that age is dependent on the mother. Maybe they’ve reunited and are still in the area. But if it is still not with its mother and has not been adopted by another whale, then it has died.”

Still, she is quick to characterise the sighting as a “historical moment” for the region. “It was a moment that gave me shivers and made me want to cry,” she says. “To have a whale considered extinct appear in the Canary Islands, it’s proof that nature, if we take care of it, has an enormous capacity to recover.”