endangered species

Super-toxic rat poisons mysteriously seep into our world

Part 1 of 2

VANCOUVER, British Columbia – With the spooky glow of his headlamp illuminating an antenna in his hand, Paul Levesque stalks one of Canada’s last remaining barn owls.

“Are you getting anything?” research team leader Sofi Hindmarch asks over a walkie-talkie.

“I got it!” Levesque responds. Then a few seconds later, dejected, he radios back: “No. I lost the signal.”

Working in darkness, with the quarter-moon obscured by clouds, these two scientists are trying to figure out what an elusive, radio-collared owl is eating along this country road just beyond the suburbs that ring Vancouver. Their mission is to determine whether the decline of Canada’s barn owl is tied, in part, to super-toxic rat poisons.

Scientists know that at least some owls are dying under gruesome circumstances, bleeding to death from stomach hemorrhages in an agonizing and days-long decline. The culprit: An extra-potent class of rat poisons that has flooded the market in recent decades, designed to more effectively kill rats, a food source for the owls.

Scientist Paul Levesque tries to locate a radio-collared barn owl.
Photo by Paul Joseph Brown, www.ecosystemphoto.com

Six of 164 dead barn owls, barred owls and great horned owls in a 2009 western Canada study had rodenticide levels high enough to kill them outright, causing the fatal stomach hemorrhages. Pesticide readings in 15 percent to 30 percent of the others appeared toxic and seem likely to handicap owls in a variety of ways, scientists say.


Are elephants more valuable dead or alive? The African dilemma

A story on the threat the Chinese-induced ivory trade poses to elephants in Africa published in the Seattle Times Sunday partly underscored the big dilemma Africa faces as it tries to preserve the last of the wild populations of these venerable pachyderms.

The story, by The Associated Press, also rekindled memories of an Africa-wide meeting I covered two years ago in Kenya’s coastal city of Mombasa during which representatives of 19 African countries openly voiced discordant views on whether the elephant is more valuable to Africa – and to the world – dead or alive. The meeting was held prior to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

For some reason unknown to me then, most of the speakers had pleaded with the United Nations-funded endangered species convention not to allow China to be a partner in the limited ivory trade that had been allowed by the UN body previously. But when a number of Chinese nationals were arrested in different airports in East Africa with illegally acquired ivory, it dawned on me why African countries had raised the alarm. It also appears that the fear then was that China, unlike Japan, had not come up with an effective way of ensuring that illegally acquired ivory is not traded within its boundaries.

Lone wolf and lone wolverine -- sad stories, but with ultimately encouraging underlying messages

A thin, scraggly-coated wolf struggles for life, the lone lone survivor of the most-watched of the wolf packs that have grown up in Yellowstone National Park since the reintroduction of wolves there 15 years ago. About 750 miles away in California, a young bachelor wolverine wanders around hunting for a female wolverine to  mate with -- but it's a fruitless search, because the nearest ones are hundreds of miles away. And back in the direction from which he came. 

These two stories that cropped up in the last few days can't help but tug at your heartstrings if you're even a little bit human. I mean, come on -- poor, lonely and doomed animals. How much sadder does it get?

And yet, if you look behind the obvious, these are actually encouraging signs. Here's why:


  • As outlined in Brett French's story for the Billings Gazette, there is only one wolf left in the famous Yellowstone wolf pack known as the Druids (near Druid Peak), and she's unlikely to make it through the winter. This is the pack that is probably the most-watched in the world because it frolicked within site of a major road. Mange, attacks by other packs and various other factors combined to kill off all but one of the wolves. But here's the thing -- along the way several other wolf packs spun off this one. And they and other wolves are moving into the Druids' territory. In fact, the demise of this pack shows the success of the reintroduction effort, which I covered in the mid-90s.


Brown pelicans delisted -- now what?

Hey folks, this was supposed to post yesterday, but...here goes.

I grew up playing in the water of the Gulf of Mexico, where I watched brown pelicans dive for mullet -- the same mullet my grampa and I liked to catch.  We had our cast nets fringed with weights.  The pelicans had their mighty beaks and amazing expanding throats.  Game on.

But it wasn't my grampa's mullet-catching prowess that nearly did the brown pelican in.  No, it was DDT, a pesticide that weakened brown pelican eggs so much that they couldn't hatch.

Anyone who's seen a pelican flatten itself into a three-pronged bullet before plunging into the water can attest to the bird's glory, which was nearly decimated by the chemicals draining from the fields of our great nation.

Banning DDT in 1972 helped take the brown pelican off the endangered species list from Texas to Florida in the mid 1980s, but it took another two decades for Southern California's brown pelican population to recover enough to get off that list -- yesterday.  Protecting the pelican's nesting sites and habitat also helped its recuperation.

Government officials and environmentalists alike hailed the endangered species act's success in bringing brown pelicans back from the brink of extinction.

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Yellowstone Park's celebrity wolves are dying in Montana's wolf hunt; state reconsiders tactics

rita_hibbardweb13The wolf hunt in Montana hasn't gone as planned, with wolves in the state's wilderness area along the northern border of Yellowstone National Park taking the brunt of the hunt.

Nine wolves have been killed there, in a small area of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. Four of those wolves were from the park's Cottonwood Pack, including the pack's breeding female. Hunting was suspended last week after state wildlife commissioners became concerned about the heavy killing in the area, Associated Press reporter Matthew Brown reports.

 Wildlife advocate and blogger Matt Scoglund says the wolf hunt was wrongly designed from the start. If the state didn't want to kill wilderness wolves, it shouldn't have opened up the backcountry to hunting more than a month before the other areas of the state, he writes. The result has been the deaths of some of the state's celebrity wolves, including some radio-collared wolves that were part of Yellowstone's important wolf studies, and some that have been featured on PBS and Discovery Channel programs.

 Yes, I'm talking about the Yellowstone wolves that bring people from all over the world to Yellowstone, where wolf-watching tourists annually spend about $35 million in the region.

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Happy eco-warriors in Colorado gird for the species and wildnerness battles

rita_hibbardweb1Advocates of wilderness and endangered species in Colorado are drawing a deep breath and preparing to do battle once again. And they're happy they have the opportunity to do so.

The Denver Post reports that dozens of Colorado species, from the wolverine to the mountain plover to the white-tailed prairie dog are being re-evaluated for possible threatened or endangered status. In some cases, these are species that the Bush administration rejected for special protected status, and the courts have ordered a second look. But cost could be the limiting factor for the state. Bringing back the endangered lynx cost $3 million.

New species under consideration for protection have "aesthetic, ecological, education, historical, recreational and scientific value," and those facing extinction "could be indicators of bigger ecosystem problems that could hurt us," said Bridget Fahey, regional director of endangered species for the Interior Department's Fish and Wildlife Service. "Science shows that when you start removing species from our ecosystem, things can start to break down."

 For eight species nationwide, "inappropriate political meddling" by a Bush administration appointee resulted in court rulings.

Obama team reveals plan to save the Columbia Basin's salmon

One of the Northwest's most hotly contested salmon rescue plans was unveiled today by the Obama administration, and to the dismay of many environmentalists -- it doesn't stray far from Bush's 2008 proposal, reports Matthew Preusch of the Oregonian.

Obama and his team had until today to make changes to a Bush-era formula for protecting endangered runs of salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River Basin, tackling a long-running dispute on how to balance energy needs with salmon conservation. The new plan, called a biological opinion and required by the Endangered Species Act, in many ways, defends the old one, finding it to be "fundamentally sound." Said Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, who dealt with salmon issues and was criticized by environmentalists when he was Washington governor for trying to appease agricultural interests:

This biological opinion, backed by sound science and tremendous state and tribal support, will help preserve the vibrancy and vitality of the Columbia and Snake River basins for generations to come.

The Columbia River has blessed the region's residents with cheap hydroelectric power and broad navigation routes, but the area's federally protected salmon have seen far better days. Environmentalists say that four dams on the Snake River in particular are derailing salmon recovery efforts, which have not improved since the mid 1980s, and U.S. District Court Judge James Redden, who has thrown out previous  Bush administration plans, has agreed -- more or less. In 2005, he ordered the feds to temporarily increase the amount of water spilling from the dams.

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Idaho guv plans to bag a wolf

There's a wolf out there, roaming through the wild ranges of Idaho, with Gov. Butch Otter's name on it. The guv, it seems, plans to buy a wolf tag, now that the state has legalized wolf hunting and set a a quota of 220 wolves this season.

But will he still respect them in the morning?

"You can still hate them and respect their cunning and their place in nature," he told Rocky Barker of the Idaho Statesman. "I'm not real fond of rattlesnakes, but I understand their place in the system."

Environmentalists have said they may sue to stop the wolf hunts. Montana also has set a wolf quota, and will have a hunt this fall.