September 27, 2019
A crisis for birds is a crisis for us
By John W. Fitzpatrick and Peter P. Marra/The New York Times
Photo by Tom Lee/flickr
Nearly one-third of the wild birds in the United States and Canada have vanished since 1970, a staggering loss that suggests the very fabric of North America’s ecosystem is unraveling.

The disappearance of 2.9 billion birds over the past nearly 50 years  was reported  in the journal Science, a result of a comprehensive study by a team of scientists from seven research institutions in the United States and Canada.

As ornithologists and the directors of two major research institutes that directed this study, even we were shocked by the results. We knew of well-documented losses among shorebirds and songbirds. But the magnitude of losses among 300 bird species was much larger than we had expected and alarmingly widespread across the continent.

What makes this study particularly compelling is the trustworthiness of the data. Birds are the best-studied group of wildlife; their populations have been carefully monitored over decades by scientists and citizen scientists alike. And in recent years, scientists have been able to track the volume of nighttime bird migrations through a network of 143 high-resolution weather radars. This study pulls all of that data together, and the results signal an unfolding crisis. 

Bristol Bay’s salmon are in hot water
By Nick Rahaim/Hakai
Photo by BLM/flickr
This summer the fishing in Alaska’s Bristol Bay was booming. Estimates say 56.3 million salmon returned to the bay’s rivers. While down from 2018’s record-breaking runs, with 62.3 million fish, Bristol Bay has so far bucked the trend of declining salmon runs seen in other regions. But all is not well. As I was sweating on deck, the water was 18.9 °C—just a few degrees shy of 21 °C, when the temperature starts being lethal to salmon.

Twenty-five kilometers northwest, in the nearby Igushik River, the water was even warmer. One hundred thousand sockeye salmon waited for cooler conditions so they could move upstream to spawn. But, unwilling to pass through the hot, shallow water, the fish used up the available oxygen and suffocated—it was the largest sockeye salmon die-off seen in Bristol Bay, says Timothy Sands, a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Elsewhere in the watershed, temperatures also soared.

“I have never seen a summer as extreme as this year,” says Sands, who has worked in the Bristol Bay area since 2002. By summer’s end, Sands and his colleagues saw dead fish in every river in Bristol Bay.

Freshwater animals’ decline largely unnoticed
By Brandon Keim/Anthropocene
Photo by Shane Kemp/flickr
It’s the largest animals who tend to occupy the most space in our hearts. They might be imperiled—indeed they usually are, as it’s not easy being big in a human-dominated world—but at least people know and care. There’s one group of large animals, however, whose decline has gone mostly unremarked: those who live in lakes and streams and rivers.

“Globally, freshwater megafauna populations declined by 88 percent from 1970 and 2012,” write biologists led by Fengzhi He and Sonja Jähnig, both of Germany’s Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries,  in the journal Global Change Biology . “Compared to megafauna in terrestrial or marine realms, they have received much less research, conservation efforts, and public attention.”

Big or small, the situation for freshwater animals in general is quite grim. According to the Living Planet Index, their populations fell by 80 percent in the last 40 years—roughly double the declines experienced by terrestrial and ocean-dwelling vertebrates. During the 20th century, freshwater fishes went extinct at rates unsurpassed by any other guild.

Compromise may resolve wild horse dilemma
By Karin Brulliard/The Washington Post
Photo by Hassel Painter/flickr
The battle over wild horses and burros, an issue so contentious that Congress, animal advocates, conservationists, ranchers and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) have long been in a stalemate. Everyone agrees the situation is untenable: The government says three times more equines roam public land than the fragile terrain can handle. To address this, the BLM, which is charged with managing most of the animals, periodically rounds up horses and now has nearly 50,000 in holding. The agency says caring for the warehoused animals devours most of its wild horse budget, leaving little for other approaches.

Horse advocates call the roundups cruel, contend that millions of cattle do vastly more damage to public lands than thousands of horses, and insist mustangs must never be killed. Ranchers and some environmentalists view the horses as feral pests that damage ecosystems, compete for resources with cattle and wildlife and should be culled or sold.

But against this conflict, at a time of deep political polarization, something almost unrecognizable is floating around Capitol Hill: a compromise. 

Debt-swap aims to help countries save seas
By Julian Smith/
Photo by Bob Aman/flickr
Blue Bonds for Conservation helps countries protect their marine resources by easing their debt burden. Many small countries want to develop robust systems for protecting their marine resources, but planning and maintenance come with a price tag. And many of those same countries are already struggling to pay down loans for things like infrastructure projects.

In the Blue Bonds program, The Nature Conservancy helps buy back sovereign debt at a discount using loan funds from investment banks to restructure the debt. The next part should be familiar to anyone who has refinanced a home: The lower interest rate and longer repayment term provide savings compared with the original loan. Unlike a home refinancing, however, a Blue Bonds restructuring requires a portion of those savings to be directed to protecting at least 30% of the country’s marine waters.

The debt-swap mechanism has been used for decades, often to protect forests around the globe. Since 2001, TNC has completed 11 debt-conversion projects for tropical forests in Latin America and Southeast Asia. 

 “Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.”

- Albert Camus
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