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Brief Eulogies for the Animals We Have Lost

Tributes to the curlews, moths, and toads that are no more

An excerpt from Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals: An Extinction Reader.

Urania Sloanus at Sunrise

When the pear tree blossoms, one after another begins to appear just as the sun rises whence they come is a mystery — and their velvet black wings, banded in metallic blue-green and flecked with red and gold, now radiate ever more brilliantly as the sunbeams glint off them, and, fluttering, by dozens, by hundreds, dizzy with the fragrance of the bloom, the glancing light sparkling from myriad refractions so bright one must almost shield the eyes, they engage in playful combats, dancing in their joyousness, crazy with delight, wheeling and soaring higher and higher above the tree, flying up and up till they are lost to sight.

image of Urania sloanus Image by Pieter Cramer and Caspar Stoll, via Wikimedia Commons The last sighting of Urania sloanus, a moth endemic to Jamaica, was reported in 1884 or 1895.

Recalling the Golden Toad, Now Extinct

Like a dream conjured by the pools of the cloud forest, longing for a splash of color amid the monotony of rot and decay far below the canopy. The pools themselves fleeting, brought by the mists that creep over the mountains of Monteverde, the spring rains. Neon Day-glo orange males, eyes like round black jewels, thought to be deaf and dumb, sensing by vibration, summoned from underground by the life-giving pools. And for a few weeks the pools would thrive in the mating frenzy when the olive-colored females arrived. This went on once a year for a long time. The pools still awaken but can no longer summon the toads. Some dreams only come true once. On a night hike,  flashlight beams shine into the clouds like searchlights in the cosmic dark.

The Freshwater Mussels of North America

Lolling about in the riffles and shallows of the Tennessee and Cumberland river systems were once so many mussels, their names evocative and flamboyant: Sugarspoons and Acornshells, Winged Spikes and Narrow Catspaws. The free-flowing waters were filtered by Angled Riffleshells, Forkshells, and Leafshells, both Cumberland and plain, and in the gravels with rapid currents hid the Yellow-blossoms, Green-blossoms and Tubercled-blossom Pearly Mussels.

book cover

Pollywogging in the Wabash tributaries would turn up abundant Round Combshells, Tennessee Riffleshells and Sampson’s Naiads.

In the Apalachicola River system, both the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers that ran through the loblolly pine forests, you could find the …more

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British Appetite for Avocados is Draining Region Dry, Say Chilean Villagers

Growers accused of illegally diverting rivers and leaving locals without water

British supermarkets are selling thousands of tons of avocados produced in a Chilean region where villagers claim vast amounts of water are being diverted, resulting in a drought.

Major UK supermarkets including Tesco, Morrisons, Waitrose, Aldi and Lidl source avocados from Chile’s largest avocado-producing province, Petorca, where water rights have been violated.

avocadoPhoto by Procsilas Moscas Demand for avocados in the UK has soared in recent years, and 67 percent of those avocados come from the Valparaiso region in Chile.

In Petorca, many avocado plantations install illegal pipes and wells in order to divert water from rivers to irrigate their crops. As a result, villagers say rivers have dried up and groundwater levels have fallen, causing a regional drought. Residents are now obliged to use often contaminated water delivered by truck.

Veronica Vilches, an activist who is responsible for one of the Rural Potable Water systems, says: “People get sick because of the drought – we find ourselves having to choose between cooking and washing, going to the bathroom in holes in the ground or in plastic bags, while big agri-businesses earn more and more.”

In 2011, Chile’s water authority, the Dirección General de Aguas, published an investigation conducted by satellite that showed at least 65 illegal underground channels bringing water from the rivers to the private plantations. Some of the big agribusinesses have been convicted for unauthorized water use and water misappropriation.

The British Retail Consortium, which represents the major supermarkets, said the stores had been made aware of the allegations. A spokesperson said: “Our members have been made aware of the allegations made regarding production practices of avocados in the Petorca region of Chile. Retailers will work with their suppliers to investigate this.

“Safeguarding the welfare of people and communities in supply chains is fundamental to our sourcing practices as a responsible industry.”

Lidl said most of its avocados came from a supplier whose practices they trusted. But the store said it would investigate to see if any of its fruits came from Petorca.

A spokesman said: “While not all of our avocados are sourced from the Chilean province of Petorca, those that do come from this region are sourced from Rainforest Alliance-certified producers. Nevertheless, we were concerned to learn of these allegations and will therefore be investigating the matter with both our supplier and the Rainforest Alliance.”

Two thousand liters …more

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City Hall vs. Big Oil

Podcast takes listeners to Richmond, CA, where organizers are mobilizing for a sustainable future

Smackdown: City Hall vs. Big Oil is the 4th episode in Stepping Up podcast, which tells the stories of people who are responding in unique and unexpected ways to the daunting crisis of climate change. Perhaps the most compelling form of climate activism today is local electoral politics. With climate deniers holding the highest offices in the land, many Americans are getting involved in city and county elections, working from the ground up for a clean and carbon-free environment.

Andres Soto is one of them.

photo of Richmond refineryPhoto by Michael Moore The Chevron refiery has been in Richmond for more than a centruy, but a 2012 explosion and subsequent fire drew renewed attention to the health and safety issues associated with the operation .

Smackdown takes us to Richmond California, a mid-sized American city with a large Latino and Black working class population. At 62, Soto has spent his whole life in the Mexican American neighborhoods of Richmond and surrounding towns. His powerful build belies a sweet personality. Music is his passion and he leads his hot Latin jazz band, the Bay Breeze, on his saxophone.

But organizing for a sustainable Richmond is Soto’s mission. Working to protect the town from toxic pollution as head of the Richmond chapter of Communities for a Better Environment, he joins with residents of all races and classes. The local Chevron oil refinery looms large over this pursuit.

Established in 1905, the Chevron refinery has been in Richmond for more than 100 years. And the city has been run as a company town for most of its history, with Chevron doling out jobs and holding sway over local politics. Pollution stemming from this refinery is legendary — the facility spews particulate matter into the air and dumps waste into toxic pools. Processing 240,000 barrels of crude oil daily, it is also contributing heavily to global warming. And it is one of five big refineries hugging this piece of the East Bay shoreline.

In 2004, Andres helped establish the Richmond Progressive Alliance, or RPA. The goal was to turn city politics on its head, creating a local government that would work on issues such a police relations, housing, and education. It would also challenge Chevron’s hegemony over the town. The RPA won big that year and continued to build a strong, left-leaning government over the next ten years. They called for higher taxes on Chevron, stricter control of flaring, and …more

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Facing Climate and Water Pressures, Farmers Return to Age-Old Practice

Just 5 percent of California farmers use cover cropping, but that's likely to change as researchers start to track many benefits

This spring in California several orchards around Solano and nearby counties sported a new look: lush carpets of mixed grasses growing as tall as 3 feet beneath the trees’ bare branches. By summer the scene will change as farmers grow and harvest their nut crops, but the work of the grasses will continue unseen.

photo of cover cropPhoto by USDA NRCS South Dakota Cover crop seedlings push through the soil wheat stubble on a South Dakota farm. Despite the many ecological benefits, only 3 percent of farmers currently use cover crops nationwide.

Today just 5 percent of California growers are using cover crops — and 3 percent nationwide — but that’s likely to change.

Cover cropping, an agricultural technique as old as dirt, is taking root in California. Used to enhance soil nutrition and improve the growth of plants, it fell out of favor after World War II when the practice was replaced by the use of chemical fertilizers.

Farmers have used off-season plantings for millennia to build soil and keep it from blowing or washing away. Like their predecessors, walnut and almond growers are using these seasonal noncash crops to hold in moisture and provide habitat.

Farmers are also returning to the practice to curb the effects of a changing climate. As hotter and drier conditions hit most of the state, Central Valley growers are planting grasses and legumes under their trees to increase the carbon and nitrogen in their soils. And as implementation of the state’s new drought-driven groundwater regulation approaches, they are testing the ability of cover crops to increase the amount of water stored in the ground that grows their nuts and vegetables.

“Folks are really thinking hard about where their water comes from, and they’re thinking about carbon, too — things that are new in terms of farming systems in relationship to the world,” said Wendy Rash, a district conservationist with the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

She is part of a loose coalition of growers, scientists, and conservationists working to expand the use of cover crops and identify the places where they can provide the greatest ecological benefit at the lowest cost to the farmer. Some are weighing the economic advantages and risks, some the potential for effecting agricultural policies.

Among these efforts is an ambitious project aimed at a seemingly incongruous goal: river restoration. The Freshwater Trust, a Portland-based conservation group, …more

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Could Worms and Bacteria Offer a Solution to Plastic Pollution?

Research suggest that plastic-eating caterpillars and mutant enzymes could help break down trash

Each year, the world produces 300 million tons of plastic — an incredibly resilient synthetic product that pollutes every corner of the globe. Plastics are regularly ingested by wildlife on land and at sea, and eventually end up in the food on our plates.

photo of plastic on beachPhoto by Bo Eide Hard-to-break-down plastic waste poses threats to wildlife and humans alike. Scientists, however, think wax worms may hold some clues as to how to degrade this troubling type of trash.

In 2012, Federica Bertocchini, a developmental biologist at Spain's Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria, accidentally uncovered some wax worms while managing her beehives. Wax worms are the larvae of Galleria Mellonella, or the greater wax moth. They are commonly found in beehives, where the moth lays her eggs and the larvae feed on the wax produced by the bees — hence, the caterpillar's common name.

Bertocchini cleaned out her hives and placed the wax worms in a plastic bag, setting them aside for disposal. But when she returned to the bag later, the caterpillars had eaten their way out, creating multiple holes.

In order to make sure the wax worms were not just chewing holes in the bag but were actually digesting the plastic, Bertocchini designed a simple experiment: She mashed up the larvae and applied the resulting paste to polyethylene plastic bags. This would test whether or not the enzymes produced in the caterpillars' stomachs, or possibly the bacteria living within and on their bodies, could truly break down the plastic. After half a day, approximately 13 percent of the plastic had disappeared.

Like plastic, wax is a polymer consisting of a complex string of carbon atoms. "Since they eat wax," Bertochhini told National Geographic, "they may have evolved a molecule to break it down, and that molecule might also work on plastic.”

To explore her findings further, Bertocchini teamed up with biochemists Paolo Bombelli and Christopher Howe at the University of Cambridge to analyze the chemical composition of plastic as it reacted to wax worm paste. More specifically, the researchers used spectroscopy to look at how the polyethylene absorbed or reflected infrared radiation during the reaction. This analysis showed that some of the plastic was converted into ethylene glycol — a sign that it was being genuinely degraded.

"It’s extremely, extremely exciting, because breaking down plastic has proved so challenging," Bombelli told The Telegraph. When his team …more

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Elite Rock Climbers Push for Public Lands Protection on Capitol Hill

In 62 separate meetings, athletes and advocates asked politicians to protect the great outdoors

Alex Honnold was stuck in traffic.

The world’s most renowned rock climber was due on Capitol Hill for a US Senate reception with other top climbers from around the country, who had descended en masse on Washington to lobby for greater protections for public lands.

photo of climberPhoto by tony puyol / Flickr Galvanized by the rollback of public lands by the Trump administration, organizers invited rock climbers to Washington for a day of meetings with members of Congress and agency heads.

Honnold, the subject of an upcoming film documenting his ropeless climb last year of the 3,000 ft El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, had run out for a quick meeting with the National Park Service. But then he hit Washington’s notorious rush hour.

“It’s taking Alex longer to get here from the Department of the Interior than it takes him to climb El Cap,” quipped Phil Powers, CEO of the American Alpine Club, which organized the climbers’ lobbying event with the not-for-profit Access Fund.

Galvanized by the rollback of public lands by the Trump administration, and empowered by the roaring growth of the outdoor recreation industry, organizers had invited the athletes to Washington for a day of meetings with members of Congress and agency heads.

In 62 separate meetings, 13 teams of athletes and advocates made their ask of politicians and regulators: protect public lands by supporting funding for things like land and water conservation, firefighting, research, and staffing. Resist future attempts to remove federal protections from public lands. And support the sensible acquisition of new public lands to preserve irreplaceable ecosystems.

While the outdoor industry has lobbied legislators along similar lines for years, the Trump administration’s decision last year to radically shrink Bears Ears national monument and halve the Grand Staircase-Escalante monument has sharpened focus on what is at stake.

“The political climate around outdoor recreation and public lands has changed dramatically in just the last year,” Brady Robinson, executive director of the Access Fund, told The Guardian.

So the call went out to California, Colorado, Washington state, Utah, New Hampshire and other outdoor playgrounds. And on Thursday, some of the biggest names in rock climbing turned up in a hearing room in the Russell Senate office building, which was suddenly filled with backpacks by Patagonia, North Face, Osprey, Burton, and Jansport, rather than briefcases.

photo of el capitanPhoto by more

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Catch and Release Is No Fun for the Fish

A once-impassioned angler rethinks his relationship with sport fishing

There was a time in my life when fly-fishing was my life. I was a true fish bum. My entire existence revolved around the “sport.” I fished more than 150 days a year and had an unhealthy obsession with wild and native trout. There was something enchanting about those beautifully speckled, mysterious creatures. Their habits, their history, their habitats — all this intrigued me. I didn't neglect the warm water species, either: the bass, pike, muskies, walleye, carp, catfish, and so on. I owned a respectable collection of fly-rods. I tied my own flies and was damn good at it. My bookshelf was filled with fly-fishing books. I had hundreds of pictures of myself holding my “trophies,” and was proud of the 2-foot wild brown trout, the 20-inch smallmouth, the gorgeous little native brookies, the 30-inch walleye. But as time went on, something changed within me. It was a gradual change — a slow raising consciousness, if you will. I fought it at first, and even tried to block it out, but eventually I had to face it. I knew what I was doing was wrong.

photo of ticksPhoto by smuzz / Flickr Most fishermen and fisherwomen truly care about fish and the habitats in which they live. But sports fishing inflicts pain on the fish who are caught.

What was I doing? I was having fun, which is a poor excuse for torturing a living creature. This is the part where most people roll their eyes and sigh at the crazy “animal rights extremist” and say something like, “it's just a fish.” What exactly does that even mean? So, because it's a fish, it deserves no respect or empathy?

Let’s go back to that word, “torture.” Torture: The action or practice of inflicting severe pain on someone as a punishment or to force them to do or say something, or for the pleasure of the person inflicting pain. For the pleasure of the person inflicting pain. That right there is a good description of sport fishing. Now to be clear, I am not saying that all fisherman are sick people who knowingly and deliberately go out to torture or injure fish. On the contrary, I would say the exact opposite is true. Most fisherman are good people who truly do care about  fish and the habitats in which they live. But the fact of the matter is that sport fishing has become such a cultural norm …more

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