Friday, 17 July 2020

A new study finds - wolf culls - aimed at protecting endangered caribou in western Canada - simply don't work.

by Larry Powell
Photo by Vicious Bits, Creative Commons.






















New research by a team of Canadian biologists, seems to support critics who've long argued that wolves are being sacrificed unnecessarily in efforts to save iconic mountain caribou in British Columbia and Alberta from possible extinction. Since the 80s, authorities in the two provinces have been conducting "culls" which have probably killed thousands of wolves since. Culls involve either shooting the animals from helicopters, poisoning them or, in at least one case - an eight-year campaign of sterilization.
 Mountain caribou (Rangifer tarandus),
one of Canada's most iconic species.
Yet caribou populations all over Canada, continue to plummet. Thanks to  declines in all sub-species, they're now classified, nationwide as either threatened or endangered. Some of the steepest reductions have occurred in mountainous regions in the two westernmost provinces. A few years ago, they were declared extinct south of the border, in the continental United States.

Now, a team of experts from western Canada, is taking aim at a study published last year. It supports culling and the penning of pregnant caribou as ways to slow or stop their slide toward extinction. Such findings have been used by governments to justify their "predator control" policies.

Yet the latest research states flatly, there's simply no "statistical support" for such a position.

While wolves may account for more than half of caribou predation in other places, "Deep-Snow Mountain caribou" are far less likely to be killed by wolves than by other predators. Yet their numbers have crashed an alarming 45% in recent decades, possibly the steepest decline of any caribou ecotype in the world. (These herds live in southeastern BC, where, as their name implies, winter snows can pile up to three meters deep.)

"Wolves do not comprise the primary source of mortality for Deep-Snow Mountain caribou," the report finds, "constituting only 5–10% of verified cases of mortality - in fourth place after cougars, bears and wolverines." The authors point out, therefore, that it is wrong to apply a "one-size fits all" approach when it comes to wolf culls.

Besides, cullings ignore a long-accepted reality. It is loss of habitat due to human activity such as logging, which is the main driver of population decline. "Despite warnings that industrial resource extraction, primarily forestry, was detrimental to maintaining viable caribou populations, habitat modification, fragmentation and associated road-building increased over subsequent decades."

Since the "Deep-Snow" herds depend on lichen that grows on old growth trees, above the snow-line for food, their world is therefore especially "incompatible with large-scale clearcut forestry."

"Logging," reads the study, also "leads to increased predator densities and greater access to caribou via clearcuts, roads, snow compacted by snowmobiles, and the loss of forested refuges. Snowmobile and heliskiing harassment are pervasive across the range of Deep-Snow Mountain caribou (ECCC 2018) and impose potential harm during winter and spring calving. Snowmobile harassment has been acknowledged as an increasingly important factor in Deep-Snow Mountain caribou winter ecology."

The study’s lead author, biologist Lee Harding, believes the importance of wooded habitat to caribou survival, cannot be overstated.

”Forests provide caribou with refuge from wolves and separation from other prey animals, including elk, moose, and deer. Without them, caribou must constantly be on the move to find food, exposing them on all sides. Predators are just one of the hazards."

The need for conserving caribou populations, warn the authors, "is now urgent and carries large economic, ecological, cultural and social implications."

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Wednesday, 15 July 2020

Assessing the dwindling wilderness of Antarctica

Nature
Antarctica. Aerial photo by Astro_Alex.


Less than 32% of Antarctica is made up of areas that are free from human interference, and these areas are declining as human activity increases, reports a paper published in Nature. The study finds that although 99.6% of the continent can be considered to be wilderness (a relatively undisturbed environment), this area does not include much of its biodiversity.

Despite Antarctica’s isolation, the continent is under increasing pressure from human activity, including scientific research, the development of infrastructure and tourism. However, the total area of wilderness on the continent is unknown, as is the extent to which Antarctica’s biodiversity is contained within this.
Four killer whales cooperatively hunting a crabeater 
seal off the coast of Antarctica. Photo by Callan Carpenter, 
taken from one of many research vessels in the area. 
Steven Chown and colleagues assembled a record of ground-based human activity across Antarctica from publications, tourism data and scientific databases from 1819 to 2018. This resulted in approximately 2.7 million records, which were used to calculate the total area of wilderness across Antarctica, and its representation of biodiversity. The authors found that wilderness encompasses nearly the entire continent, but excludes much of its important biodiversity. Less than 7% of more than 23,000 species records in the Antarctic Terrestrial Biodiversity database were found to occur in areas classified as wilderness. Of Antarctica’s terrestrially important bird areas and specially protected areas, only 16% and 25%, respectively, were within areas of wilderness that had experienced negligible human impact.

The authors argue that the expansion of specially protected areas could reverse the decline in pristine areas and secure the continent’s biodiversity.
 
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Monday, 6 July 2020

Beyond Covid 19. Are we risking yet another pandemic if we continue to embrace "assembly-line" livestock production into the future?

by Larry Powell

No one would argue that Covid 19 demands our undivided attention. Surely, 
defeating this "beast" has to be "Priority One." But, once it ends, and it will, here’s another key question that needs answering. Are we flirting with more such tragedies down the road if we do not soon end our love affair with an industrial, factory-style model of meat production? 
Six years ago, the Director-General of the World Health Organization, a Canadian, Dr. Margaret Chan (above), delivered this positively prophetic message to an Asian investment conference. 

“The industrialization of food production is an especially worrisome trend. Confined animal feeding operations are not farms any more. They are protein factories with multiple hazards for health and the environment."
                                      Photo credit - Mercy for Animals, Manitoba

"These hazards come from the crowding of large numbers of animals in very small spaces, the stressful conditions that promote disease, the large quantities of dangerous waste, the need for frequent human contact with the animals.” 

The "farms" Dr. Chan was describing have been operating in North America  and Europe for decades and, more recently, in Asia, too. In much of the world, they're called "CAFOs," or Confined Animal Feeding Operations. In Canada, they're known as "ILOs," or Intensive Livestock Operations. 

China now produces more pork in this way than the rest of the world, combined!

Most scientists view wet food markets - where both wild and tame animals are sold, alive or dead - as hotspots for the emergence of new viruses that could spark the next influenza pandemic. (It is widely believed that the current Covid-19 pandemic originated at such a market in Wuhan, China.) Health authorities also say, as many as three out of every four new diseases emerging in the world today, result from close contact between humans and animals, either wild or domesticated.

The pandemic we are now struggling with, surely focuses (or should focus) renewed attention on this traditional livestock model, now being rapidly expanded right here in my home province, Manitoba. 

First, Covid 19 is a coronavirus, a family of infectious diseases. So, too is PEDv (or Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea virus).  PEDv killed countless piglets in the big hog barns of Manitoba in recent years. (I say countless because the industry won’t say how many and the Government - which sees its role as an enabler of the industry's business success - not as a regulator - claims it doesn’t know.) 

The epidemic cost provincial taxpayers at least $800 thousand dollars to combat. But this figure did not come freely. I had to launch an "access to information" request in order to pry it from the secretive fist of this Conservative government.

It’s believed Covid 19 originated with bats in China. So, it is thought, did PEDv. The difference is that Covid 19 “spilled over” into the human population, while PEDv has not. 

At least, not yet!

According to the Centers for Disease Control in the US, “Sometimes coronaviruses that infect animals can evolve and make people sick and become a new human coronavirus. Three recent examples of this are Covid 19, SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome).”

No one knows for sure whether PEDv will “morph” into something that will attack people. And that is precisely why we need credible, comprehensive and, above-all, independent research to at least identify and quantify the risk, once and for all. 

And I don’t mean the kind that’s now taking place at the University of Manitoba, which appears to be anything but. There, researchers, with hefty financial input from the pork industry in no less than seven provinces, are studying “pig foot printing.” 

So, just what does that mean? Far from looking into the industry’s profound and often negative impacts on the environment, or on human and animal health and welfare, the project shamelessly flaunts itself as a way to “advance the profitability of the Canadian swine sector” and “promote competitiveness.”

Does this sound like an initiative that will get to the bottom of any future health risks which it may pose to you and me?

Attempts by the citizen’s group, HogWatch Manitoba (HWM), to get more details about the research (i.e. whether it will find out how much industry pollution is leaking into waterways, for example), have fallen on deaf ears. So too, has the group's offer to provide input into the research. 

That a place of higher learning like the UofM should sign off on such a questionable project is surely nothing less than a grotesque conflict-of-interest.

For Manitoba, sadly, this looks like just another bit of "the old normal."


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"In Hogs We Trust." Part 111

Friday, 3 July 2020

Does your place of residence make you immune from climate calamity? I think not! (Opinion)

by Larry Powell

UPDATE...The Rivers dam mentioned in this story has now been declared by government engineers to be safe.

I wish I had a nickel for every time I heard one of my fellow "prairie dogs" remark, how "lucky" or how "blessed" we are to be spared the kind of brutal weather that may be pummelling another part of the country or the world at the time.

Occasionally, I'll try to remind them, we've already experienced disastrous conditions in our own "neck of the woods" (the eastern prairies) in recent years. They seem either unaware of what I say, or believe they're nothing worse than we've ever had. 

So are they or aren't they? 

The examples I list below (starting last fall up to the present) are extreme weather events which have broken records or are unprecedented in the human record.  They come, not from this writer's brain, but from Environment Canada, the body of record on such matters. (Emphases mine.)
Disastrous conditions meant an estimated million tonnes of crop
on the prairies, like this field of canola, had to sit out over winter.
A PinP photo.
"Last Thanksgiving Day weekend (2019), Manitobans were still drying out from record September rains, nearly three times the norm. Farmers were especially concerned but, after a relatively dry first week of October, they once again started up their combines and resumed round-the-clock harvesting. They were keeping an eye on a pending well-announced weather system. The storm sat over the region for days. Heavy, sticky snows draped Manitoba from Brandon to Winnipeg from October 10 to 12 and through the Thanksgiving weekend. 

"Historic snowfall totals included 34 cm at Winnipeg over two days, making it the biggest October snowstorm in the city since records began in 1872. States of emergency were declared across the province and in eleven communities, including Winnipeg. More than 6,000 people had to evacuate from a dozen or more First Nations communities. Lengthy and widespread power outages created hardship. Powerful winds exceeding 80 km/h drove the wet snow, creating blinding blizzards and two-metre drifts. In some cases, transmission towers toppled, downing total electrical grids. 

"According to Manitoba Hydro, at the peak of the storm, a quarter of a million people were without power, making it the largest outage in the utility’s history. Ten days later, about 5,000 were still without power. By the end of November, there were still some citizens who could not yet return to their homes." (Hydro has estimated damage at some $100 million.)

"The storm’s early arrival in October meant tree branches, still loaded with leaves, were bending. Many of Winnipeg’s trees saw damage and loss under the weight of the snow. Over 30,000 trees on public land were affected, with estimates of thousands more on private land. The Manitoba escarpment in Morden, Winkler, and Carberry also saw between 50 and 75 cm of snow."

Fast forward to this week. 
   
The spillway at the Rivers dam in SW MB. A Govt. of MB photo.

Severe thunderstorms, torrential rain, winds of over 100kmh and at least one tornado, tore through wide areas of the province, including the City of Brandon. Torrents of water cascaded over the dam on the Little Saskatchewan River near the southwestern Town of Rivers. Fearing a structural failure, the provincial government called for the evacuation of livestock and several residents below it. "The Manitoba government does not have confidence in the Rivers Dam," it declared in its official news release.

Here are more direct quotes from the government news release, issued just two days ago.

"The recommended evacuation comes as a weather system has brought significant precipitation in the past 72 hours in southwest and western Manitoba. Some areas have received record-high precipitation of more than 200 millimetres during this period. It has caused water levels to rise in rivers and creeks in these areas."

I can only long for the day when I hear my friends and neighbours - while talking about the weather - begin saying things like this:"You know, it looks like those climate scientists were right! If we don't do something about the greenhouse gas emissions we are producing in our everyday lives - and find different ways of doing things - things will only get worse. Matter of fact - it looks like they already are!"

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Climate change: Likelihood of UK temperatures exceeding 40°C increasing

Nature Communications
A public domain photo.
Temperatures exceeding 40°C may be reached somewhere in the UK every 3.5 to 15 years by 2100 under continued greenhouse gas emissions, suggests a modelling study in Nature Communications. The paper reports that anthropogenic emissions are increasing the likelihood of extremely warm days in the UK (particularly in the southeast), with temperatures becoming more likely to exceed 30, 35 and 40°C by the end of the century in different parts of the country.

Rapidly warming oceans have left many northern marine mammals swimming in troubled waters. But perhaps none more so than that strange and mysterious "unicorn of the sea," the narwhal.

by Larry Powell


Narwhals are cetaceans, a family of marine mammals which includes whales and dolphins. Most are found in Canada's Baffin Bay and Davis Strait, in the high Arctic and Atlantic Arctic. Others live off Greenland, Norway and Russia. Many spend several months over winter, beneath the ice-pack, feeding on fish, squid and shrimp and their summers in more open water. It's believed they're capable of diving as deep as 15 hundred meters and holding their breath for an astonishing 25 minutes! 
Narwhals breach through an opening in the ice-pack.                     Photo credit - US Fish & Wildlife.
A pod "breaches" through an opening in the sea-ice. 
A US Fish & Wildlife Service photo. 
They can weigh up to two thousand kilograms and reach a length of about five meters. They're much larger than some dolphin species, but tiny compared to the mighty blue whale. Many migrate along the ice's edge some 17 hundred kilometres from Canada to Russia.

The males grow long, spiral tusks - actually overgrown teeth - that can protrude up to three metres from their head. While they’re predators, narwhals are also preyed upon. Killer whales (orcas) are believed to be taking them increasingly as warming waters lure the orcas further north.

But man likely remains their prime enemy.

Indigenous hunters of Greenland and Canadian high Arctic - the Inuit - have, for centuries, depended on them as an important food source. Canada officially recognizes the right of the Inuit to hunt them. But they must adhere to a quota system. It's based on findings from periodic, scientific aerial surveys mandated by both Canada and Greenland, designed to protect narwhal populations from over-harvesting.

Recent numbers are hard to find. But one official survey in 2010 concluded that Inuit hunters took almost a thousand narwhals off Canada and Greenland that year.

So, just how intimately are narwhals tied to their world of ice and snow? 

"Narwhals are uniquely adapted to the extreme conditions of an Arctic existence," the study states, "and their evolution and ecology intrinsically tied to the past and present sea ice dynamics of the region." Narwhals are known to have lived through extreme climatic changes for thousands of years. Yet they're also thought to be among the most vulnerable to those changes of any of the northern marine mammals.

The researchers hoped, by studying their past, they could gain an insight into their future. What they found was concerning. Before and after the onset of the last ice age (LGM), more than 26 thousand years ago, both the number of narwhals and their genetic diversity were perilously low. But they "responded positively" to both the warming and expansion of habitat which occurred after it ended some 19 thousand years ago. Their numbers increased, and so did other marine predators like belugas and bowhead whales.

However, the benefits such animals enjoyed in that post-glacial period, may be coming to an end. "Many polar marine predators are being negatively affected by global warming, which is decreasing the availability of habitat and prey," the study finds. "Although the range and effective population size of narwhals increased post-LGM, their future in a rapidly changing Arctic is uncertain. Narwhal distribution will be further affected in the near future, as the species also faces increased human encroachment, changes in prey availability, new competitors and increased predation rate by killer whales."

Areas which were once inaccessible to people, due to ice and snow cover, are now receding. This is allowing more activities such as fishing, oil exploration and drilling. And narwhals are known to be easily disturbed, and to flee from areas they like to frequent in summer, like fiords, bays and inlets.

So, are their numbers crashing? 

The researchers admit, there's a good deal of uncertainty when it comes to population trends. World population estimates have ranged from 50 thousand to 170 thousand. As those estimates have wavered, so has their status on the endangered species list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature - from "nearly threatened" to "of least concern."

A veteran biologist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Dr. Steven Ferguson, has extensive experience observing marine mammals in the north. While he doesn't give hard numbers, he tells PinP, "Both the Baffin Bay and Northern Hudson Bay populations appear to be relatively constant and do not appear to be depleted."

However, the good news seems to end there.

"Populations off the eastern shores of Greenland," he goes on, "seem to be experiencing a decline. And two stocks off West Greenland, appear to be lower in abundance relative to the past."

So, will these wondrous "unicorns of the sea" continue to ply their ways through the world's northern oceans just as they have for so long in the past? Or are their numbers destined to dwindle to a dangerous few, like so many other of Earth's wild things?

Monday, 29 June 2020

The South Pole feels the heat

Nature Climate Change

Mt. Herschel, Antarctica. Photo by Andrew Mandemaker.
The South Pole has warmed at over three times the global rate since 1989, according to a paper just published in Nature Climate Change. This warming period was mainly driven by natural tropical climate variability and was likely intensified by increases in greenhouse gas, the study suggests.

The Antarctic climate exhibits some of the largest regional temperature trends on the planet. Most of West Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula experienced warming and ice-sheet thinning during the late twentieth century, and this has continued to the present day. By contrast, the South Pole — located in the remote and high-altitude continental interior — cooled until the 1980s and has since warmed substantially. These trends are affected by natural and anthropogenic climate change, but the individual contribution of each factor is not well understood.

Kyle Clem and colleagues analysed weather station data, gridded observations and climate models to examine warming trend at the South Pole, and found that it was chiefly driven by the tropics. Warm temperatures in the western tropical Pacific Ocean — associated with the negative phase of the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation —  increased the delivery of warm air to the South Pole. Stronger winds around Antarctica — caused by a shift to a positive phase of the Southern Annular Mode — further boosted this warming. The authors suggest these atmospheric changes along Antarctica’s coast are an important mechanism driving climate anomalies in its interior.   

The authors argue that these warming trends were unlikely the result of natural climate change alone, emphasizing the effects of anthropogenic warming and large tropical climate variability on Antarctic climate.

Measuring ecosystem disruption caused by marine heatwaves

 Nature Above, healthy bull kelp. Below, bull kelp degraded by a marine heatwave. DeWikiMan Marine heatwaves can displace therma...