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Scarlet Macaws Fly Free Again in Mexico’s Wilds

Scientists and an amusement park work together to reintroduce an iconic bird in the rainforests of Chiapas and Veracruz

Mexico is one of the top ten countries in the world in terms of bird diversity, but poverty, crime, and corruption can make it a difficult place for conservationists to work. In the remnant rainforests of Veracruz and Chiapas, however, the restoration of an iconic tropical bird that had all but vanished from the country provides reason for hope: Nearly extirpated from Mexico’s forests for decades, scarlet macaws are once again filling the canopy with their raucous calls.

Two scarlet macaws Photo by Eric Carlson/FlickrWild scarlet macaw populations in Mexico have plummeted to 2 percent of their historic numbers due to deforestation and rising human encorachment of their forest habitats.

The scarlet macaw’s range extends from southern Mexico through Central America to much of northern South America. While the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List categorizes this brilliantly hued bird as a species of “Least Concern” because it remains fairly common in many parts of its range, in Mexico it has suffered severe population declines.

 Threatened by capture for the pet trade as well as habitat loss due the region’s rising human population and the clearing of rainforest for cattle pastures, the scarlet macaw’s range in Mexico is now only 2 percent of what it was historically. As of 2013, only about 250 wild scarlet macaws were estimated to remain in the country and the Mexican government has classified it as endangered.

Now, a bold reintroduction project spearheaded by a group of scientists and their unlikely partner: an amusement park, is seeking to reverse the decline of wild scarlet macaw populations in Mexico.

Xcaret Ecopark is a Disney-esque theme park located on Mexico’s Caribbean coast that has been breeding a captive population of macaws for over two decades. In 2009, the Guinness Book of World Records recognized it for having the most macaws born in captivity in one year. The park’s record-breaking breeding program is now providing birds that can be released back into Mexico’s remaining rainforests.

Of course, reintroducing macaws back into the wild is not as simple as driving a truckload of birds from the amusement park out into the middle of the woods and letting them go. Before the first macaw can ever be released, a long list of questions must be answered to determine whether the project …more

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White-Nose Syndrome Continues to Kill Bat Populations Across North America

Efforts to get the most threatened bat species listed as endangered fail

Near the border of New Jersey and New York, a small bat tucked in its wings and hung from the eave of a forest cabin. The mammal was taking a well-deserved rest during the daylight hours, awaiting the sun’s dip below the horizon in order to hunt the plentiful insects that nighttime promises. These animals, sometimes instilling fear and reminders of Bram Stoker’s creation, are dying in record numbers across the United States. This little bat, barely the size of a baseball, was hanging upside down and simultaneously hanging on for its species’ survival.

close up of hands holding a bat with it's wing stretched outPhoto courtesy of Florida Fish and WildlifeA Florida Fish and Wildlife biologist inspects a bat for WNS. Recent research shows that the fungal disease has caused extensive local extinctions of bat populations.

The fungal disease known as white-nose syndrome (WNS) has been wreaking havoc in the United States for almost a decade, ever since it was “accidentally transported here by humans” from Eurasia, according to Bat Conservation International’s official website. Currently, WNS can be found in 26 states and five Canadian provinces. Three other states have confirmed evidence of the fungus, known as Pseudogymnoascus destructans. The exact number of dead bats is unknown, but thousands became millions some time ago.

“We’re still learning an awful lot about the fungus and the disease, and how it may manifest itself differently in different species,” said Katie Gillies, director of the U.S./Canada Imperiled Species Program for Bat Conservation International. “So we are seeing very significant declines in some species, particularly the northern long-eared bat, the little brown bat and the tri-colored bat. And we’re seeing more variable declines but differences in how the disease impacts species … like the Indiana bat and the big brown bat.”

Gillies called Pseudogymnoascus destructans a cave-loving fungus that needs cold, moist environments to grow. Caves in the Northeast are perfect locations; however, WNS is so pervasive that it has dipped as far south as Alabama and Mississippi and as far west as Oklahoma.

Bat Conservation International describes the fungus as being able to invade the skin of the bats. Both their hydration and hibernation cycles are disrupted, and eventually they produce the characteristic white marks on the face and wings that give the disease its namesake. …more

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A Thousand Turtles

Notes on a Blanding’s turtle reintroduction project in the Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge

Biologist Jared Green stands at the edge of a swamp on a picture perfect summer day, and scans the forest of drowned trees and duckweed-covered water that stretches out in front of him.

He dials a frequency on the radio receiver he’s holding and wades into the foot deep water. His rubber chest waders keep him dry and protect him from mud, and submerged logs and branches.

photo of a man walking through a swamp holding an antennaDon Lyman photoBiologist Jared Green, holding a radio tracking antenna and receiver, wades through a swamp at
Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge, searching for turtle #3776.

He’s looking for turtle 3776, a juvenile Blanding’s turtle released two years ago at the Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge as part of a Blanding’s turtle introduction project. The 2,230-acre refuge is located about 20 miles west of Boston in the towns of Sudbury, Stow, Maynard and Hudson, Massachusetts.

Green spots a turtle basking on a log, but he says it’s a painted turtle, not a Blanding’s. Adult Blanding’s turtles have dark, high-domed shells about six to nine inches long, and bright yellow throats that help biologists differentiate them from other turtles.

“All these downed logs provide good cover,” Green says. He pauses and slowly sweeps a large radio antenna back and forth in front of him and listens.  The receiver makes a steady beeping noise.“I think she’s over here,“ Green says, pointing to a spot in the water about 100 feet away.

A semi-aquatic species, the Blanding’s turtle  hibernates underwater, burrowing itself in the muddy bottom of water bodies from late fall through early spring when it returns to land to nest or move from one body of water to another. Habitat fragmentation and road mortality (as a nomadic species, the turtle will wander and cross roads to get from one body of water to another) have severely depleted this shy North American turtle’s numbers throughout much of its range. It is listed as an endangered species on the IUCN Red List and in some US states, and as either threatened or endangered throughout Canada. While it has no federal protection in the United States.

A graduate student in wildlife management at the University of Georgia, Green and his fellow biologists from …more

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After the Frack: Hydraulic Fracturing’s Intense Thirst

Water withdrawals and siltation create havoc on aquatic ecosystems

Ever since Josh Fox’s documentary film Gasland startled viewers with its scenes of flammable tap water, concerns about groundwater contamination have fueled the community-level opposition to hydraulic fracturing. While water contamination continues to be a serious concern when it comes to fracking, a slew of scientific and government reports published in recent years points to perhaps a more immediate environmental threat: unsustainable groundwater and surface water withdrawals.

graphic map depicting the USA and sources of fracking waterImage: CeresSee the full map, zoomable map here.

Scientists have long understood that fracking comes with a range of environmental risks. A 2014 study appearing in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry concluded that the closer an ecosystem is to a fracking site, “the higher the risk of that ecosystem being impacted by the operation.” The scientists further confirmed that oil and gas field infrastructure also uses significant amounts of water.  “These operations may result in increased erosion and sedimentation,” the study stated, as well as “increased risk to aquatic ecosystems from chemical spills or runoff, habitat fragmentation, loss of stream riparian zones, altered biogeochemical cycling, and reduction of available surface and hyporheic water volumes because of withdrawal-induced lowering of local groundwater levels.”

In addition to habitat fragmentation and the risk of pollution, diminished flows in rivers and streams are one of the concerns that researchers outline in a study published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. One of the study’s authors, Kimberly Terrell told Earth Island Journal that freshwater withdrawal and stream siltation from fracking activities has lasting effects on aquatic ecosystems. “In the shale areas in the eastern US there is tremendous aquatic diversity,” Terrell says. “However, only 21 percent of streams are healthy. The vast majority are not in good biological condition. On top of that, we have drained over 50 percent of our wetlands in the US.”

As early as 2009, the Bureau of Economic Geology (BEG) at the University of Texas at Austin was already noticing an increase in water use for hydraulic fracturing in the Barnet Shale.  Researchers concluded that hydraulic fracturing used an average of 2,400 gallons of water per foot of drilled hole, which equaled an average of 3 million gallons per …more

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Environmental Activists Continue to Face Interrogations at US-Canada Border

Members of Deep Green Resistance denied entry to Canada on the way to a Chris Hedges’ lecture

Three members of the radical environmental organization Deep Green Resistance and two other individuals were detained for more than seven hours at the Peace Arch border crossing between Washington State and British Columbia on their way to Vancouver to attend a talk by author and activist Chris Hedges last Friday, September 25. They were questioned about the organizations they were involved in, their political affiliations, and their contacts in Canada before being turned away by Canadian border agents. Upon re-entering the United States they were then subjected to another round of questioning by US border agents. The car they were traveling in as well as their personal computers were searched.

Peace Arch and Trafficphoto by Greg Dunlap, on FlickrThe Peace Arch border crossing between British Columbia, Canada and Washington, USA

The interrogation comes on the heels of an FBI inquiry into Deep Green Resistance last fall in which more than a dozen members of the group were contacted and questioned by FBI agents. Several months later the group’s lawyer, Larry Hildes, was stopped at the same border crossing and asked specifically about one of his clients, Deanna Meyer, also a Deep Green Resistance member. During the 2014 visits, FBI and Department of Homeland Security agents showed up at members’ places of work, their homes, and contacted family members to find out more about the group. Meyer, who lives in Colorado, was asked by a DHS agent if she’d be interested in “forming a liaison.” The agent told her he wanted to, “head off any injuries or killing of people that could happen by people you know.” Two of the members detained at the border on Friday were also contacted by the FBI last fall.

Since Hildes was last held up at the Peace Arch border crossing in June he filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security’s Traveler Redress Inquiry Program. In August he received a letter from the DHS saying the agency “can neither confirm nor deny any information about you which may be within federal watchlists or reveal any law enforcement sensitive information.”

It’s not only Deep Green Resistance members who have had trouble getting across the border. Environmental activists who were part of a campaign in Texas opposing  the Keystone XL pipeline …more

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Illegal Sport Hunting in Russia: When It’s Misha the Bear, not Cecil the Lion

The rise of macho VIP poachers stymie wildlife protection laws in the country

The cases of illegal lion hunting in Zimbabwe and a recent United Nations resolution about wildlife poaching have captured the public’s attention in recent months. Yes, poaching of all forms of wildlife – from trophy species to marine life and butterflies – has reached epidemic proportions and the London Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade last year identified a strong link between poaching and organized crime. But sometimes, it’s more about personal expressions of power than profit. Nowhere is this fact more clearly demonstrated than in Russia. Unfortunately, what makes the Russian case particularly dismaying is that the guardians of the law are often also the poachers.

photo of a man outdoorsphoto courtesy Kathleen BradenA local wildlife inspector, Vladimir Yantiev, tried to bring to book, a group of VIPs who he
alleged were hunting illegally from a Mi-8 helicopter in the Kosh-Agach region of the Altay
Republic in central Siberia.

In 2012, Sergey Donskoy, head of the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources, estimated the value of poached wildlife to the Russian economy at about half a billion US dollars. So-called “environmental crime” in the country contributes to the destruction of what was once one of the most extensive stretches of pristine nature on the globe. Species that were better protected during Soviet times are now on the brink of extinction, threatened due to loss of funding for nature reserves, the opening of borders and Asian demand for wildlife parts, illegal fish catch, uncontrolled harvest of timber, and an increasingly impoverished rural population.

Thanks in part to Vladimir Putin’s love of photo-ops that show him as an avid outdoorsman and wildlife conservationist, so-called glamour species like Siberian tigers get publicity, but abuse of ordinary game animals gets little notice outside of Russia.

To stop this destruction of biodiversity, the Russian government adopted tougher hunting laws in 2012, with the blessing of environmental groups such as the Worldwide Fund for Nature. Fines in some cases have risen tenfold, jail time increased, and the right of inspectors to check vehicles and documents, revoke licenses, and confiscate guns has been strengthened, at least on paper.

But the battle against illegal hunting in Russia has a serious handicap due to the country’s infamous “VIP Poachers.” Wealthy and influential members …more

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Shell Abandons Alaska Arctic Drilling

Oil giant’s US president says hugely controversial drilling operations off Alaska will stop for ‘foreseeable future’ as drilling finds little oil and gas

Shell has abandoned its controversial drilling operations in the Alaskan Arctic in the face of mounting opposition in what jubilant environmentalists described as “an unmitigated defeat” for big oil.

The Anglo-Dutch company had repeatedly stressed the enormous hydrocarbon potential of the far north region in public, but in private began to admit it had been surprised by the popular opposition it faced.

a semi-submersible drilling unitPhoto by Charles Conatzer & the sHellNo! Action CouncilKayaktivists from the sHellNo! Action Council greeted the Transocean Polar Pioneer, a semi-submersible drilling unit leased by Shell to explore Arctic deposits, as it entered Port Angeles, Washington in April.

Shell said today it had made a marginal discovery of oil and gas with its summer exploration in the Chukchi Sea but not enough to continue to the search for the “foreseeable” future.

Shell has spent over $7bn (£4.6bn) on its failed hunt for oil which critics said could only endanger one of the world’s last pristine environments and produce expensive hydrocarbons that were no longer needed.

Shell said it would have to take a hit of around $4.1bn on future earnings as a result of the decision but it is unclear what the final bill will be.

The company has already come under increasing pressure from shareholders worried about plunging oil prices, a planned merger with rival BG as well as the costs of what has so far been a futile search in the Chukchi Sea.

It appears that van Beurden was also worried that the row over the Arctic was undermining his attempts to influence the debate around how to tackle climate change.

His attempts to argue that a Shell strategy of building up gas as a “transitional” fuel to pave the way to a lower carbon future has met with skepticism, partly because of the Chukchi operations.

In a statement today, Marvin Odum, director of Shell Upstream Americas, said: “Shell continues to see important exploration potential in the basin, and the area is likely to ultimately be of strategic importance to Alaska and the US. However, this is a clearly disappointing exploration outcome for this part of the basin.”

“Shell will now cease further exploration activity in offshore Alaska for the foreseeable future. This decision reflects both the Burger J well result, the high …more

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