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Cara J

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  1. The Threatened Species Recovery Hub study, conducted by University of Queensland scientists and published in the journal Conservation Biology, found that half of all native bird species have each lost almost two-thirds of their natural habitat across Victoria, parts of South Australia and New South Wales. Lead researcher, Dr Jeremy Simmonds, said the team looked at both threatened and non-threatened birds, including common species: “While more attention is usually paid to threatened species, common species, like many of our familiar fairy-wrens, pigeons and honeyeaters, are crucially important. Common species play a vital role in controlling insect pests and pollination and their decline through loss of habitat has implications for the health of ecosystems. Along with feral and invasive species, habitat destruction is among the greatest threats facing biodiversity in Australia, so it is important to understand how big the problem of habitat removal is: our research developed a method to do this, called the Loss Index.” The team looked at how the amount of habitat available for each of Australia’s 447 different land bird species had changed since 1750. In places like Queensland’s south-east and the Wet Tropics, each hectare of forest cleared can affect up to 180 different native bird species. Dr Simmonds continued: “Habitat loss has been particularly devastating for birds from south-east Australia; more than half of the 262 native birds in this region only have a small fraction of their natural habitat remaining in this part of the country. Northern Australia and Australia’s arid zone have had the least habitat loss, as there has been much less vegetation clearing across that region. We also looked at different bird groups and found that Australia’s parrot species are more impacted by habitat loss, compared with birds of prey, like eagles and owls.” One such parrot is the orange-bellied parrot, a migratory species, listed as critically endangered. The 2016 to 2017 breeding season saw just 16 confirmed individuals in the wild. The Norfolk parakeet is listed as endangered and is found only in a small region of Norfolk Island. Numbers had dwindled to less than 50 birds by 1970, primarily due to the loss of large old trees with suitable hollows for them to breed in. Dr Simmonds said the index provided a tool for conservation managers and planners to better understand how habitat loss affects all birds, and not just the endangered ones. He says: “It helps to show that every hectare of native vegetation that is removed chips away at remaining habitat for dozens and sometimes hundreds of species, including common species which typically do not receive conservation attention. The quality of the remaining habitat is often reduced, due to weeds, grazing and changed fire patterns, such as more and hotter fires, and this can further reduce the number and type of birds that an area can support.” The Loss Index can also be applied to other species like mammals or plants to summarise and communicate how human actions affect whole assemblages, not just threatened species. View the full article
  2. Scientists are puzzling out how to address the declining numbers of northern spotted owls (NSO) in their Pacific Northwest forest habitat. A new study in the Ecological Society of America’s journal Ecological Applications explores the reasons why spotted owls are losing a foothold in their habitat, forecasts future habitat conditions and species interactions, and suggests best management practices. The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service first listed the species as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act in the late 20th century because years of over-logging left the owls’ forest home degraded. The U.S Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management began actively managing federal lands using the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan that focuses on preserving and increasing the acreage of the spotted owls’ preferred mature forests habitat. The NSO had been at the centre of controversy in the 1990s, pitting loggers and sawmill owners against environmentalists. The logging industry believed that protection of the owl would lead to a loss of up to 30,000 of 168,000 jobs because of the owl’s protected status, and that it was a case of environmental protection going too far. However, logging jobs had been long in decline due to dwindling old-growth forest harvests and automation of the lumber industry. And environmentalists believed that NSOs are “canaries in the coal mine” and that their protection has protected the entire threatened ecosystem. The debate led to the production of bumper stickers that read “kill a spotted owl…save a logger” and plastic owl effigies were hung in sawmills in Oregon. The 1994 plan resulted in much less logging, and because of the decline due to automation, thousands of logging jobs were lost. Yet many were created for biologists conducting surveys for spotted owls and other species in the area. As for the owls, some restoration of the forest is occurring, but there are other pressures affecting the forests such as the 2002 Biscuit Fire that burned nearly 500,000 acres in southern Oregon and northern California. From the beginning of the implementation of the 1994 plan, managers expected owl populations to continue declining because regrowth and recovery of old forest is a slow process that occurs over decades. And yet, even with those projections, mangers and ecologists are surprised NSO populations are decreasing at a greater rate than anticipated. The reason? The northern spotted owls are not alone in their forests. Barred owls began to invade the northern portion of spotted owl’s range about 50 years ago. They are native to eastern North America but are considered to be invasive on the west coast of Canada and the United States, where they have been spreading to since the 1960s. Although they existed in low numbers in 1994 when the Northwest Forest Plan went into effect, unfortunately barred owls quickly increase in numbers. “We have known for some time that NSO are reliant on older forest as habitat, that recovering NSO would require recovering this habitat, and that this process of recovery would take many decades,” says lead author Charles Yackulic of the U.S. Geological Survey. “Twenty-five years ago, however, we did not anticipate the increases in barred owl abundances would lead to a second major threat to NSO recovery.” The invading barred owl competes with the spotted owl for prime nesting spots and hunting areas. The barred owl is winning the fight and may push the spotted owl to localised extinction in the region in the next few decades without managers intervening. The barred owl is changing the entire ecosystem, so other animals in the forest are losing along with the spotted owl. Yackulic continues: “NSO are only found in the Pacific Northwest and play a unique role in the food webs of intact forest in this region. While barred owls serve some similar ecological functions, they eat a broader range of prey and there is evidence their invasion is leading to trophic cascades – unexpected declines in other members of the ecological communities because of differences in how NSO versus barred owls interact with food webs.” In the paper, the researchers analyse the relative importance of habitat conditions and barred owl competition in past and future NSO territorial population dynamics in eleven study areas. They also forecast the future interactions between the two owl species under current management conditions and under scenarios with various levels of barred owl removal or changes in habitat. They find that recent wide-range declines in NSO occupancy are driven primarily by competition with increasing barred owl populations and removal of barred owls is an effective management option to prevent declines in the near future. Although there are worries that this would shift the blame completely to barred owls and less attention will be paid to habitat protection…and potentially the resumption of logging. Plus, barred owl removal is not enough on its own. While barred owl removal could stabilise NSO populations in the short-term, forest regeneration can take 50 or more years. Maintaining or improving habitat conditions is an important factor in promoting spotted owl survival over longer periods and allows managers to be less reliant on barred owl removals in the future. In short, spotted owl populations survival may depend on managers’ using a two-fold approach of removing barred owls in the short term and preserving the forests in the long term. The researchers project this combination results in a 95% probability that spotted owls will persist in these areas for 50 or more years, a best-case scenario. However, without either practice, should habitat conditions worsen and barred owls are not removed at all, spotted owls will be extinct from many of the study areas within decades. In the future, the researchers hope to understand how to effectively use barred owl removal methods, and where to prioritise them. They also want to identify if any habitat conditions can support both owl species. Who knows – there may be situations under which NSO can coexist with barred owls, and the two can manage to get along. View the full article
  3. A team led by a conservation biologist from the University of Kent has successfully relocated threatened Seychelles paradise flycatchers to a different island to help prevent their extinction. Four females and two males were caught on Denis Island and taken to Curieuse Island, where they joined 11 males and nine females who were moved there from La Digue Island at the end of last year. Four weeks after that release, the first birds had nested, with the first chick recently fledged. The project was led by Jim Groombridge, Professor of Biodiversity Conservation and Head of Kent’s School of Anthropology and Conservation (SAC). Dr Rachel Bristol, who completed her PhD at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE) in SAC managed the project in partnership with the Seychelles National Parks Authority. The project was financed by the UK Government’s Darwin Initiative. The move was a complex process. First of all, they had to catch the birds using mist nets and delicately mark their tails so that each bird was identifiable (at least until their next moult). Blood samples were taken before they were transported in well-ventilated recycled cardboard boxes, complete with perch, on a plane to Praslin and then by boat to Curieuse. On arrival they were given rehydration and energy fluid before being released by hand. The Seychelles paradise flycatcher is currently ‘Critically Endangered’ on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of endangered species and conservationists hope that successfully establishing this additional population on Curieuse Island could mean they are down-listed to a less endangered category. The bird has very specific habitat requirements and is suffering from habitat loss and fragmentation caused by development and the increase in tourism. The first ever conservation introduction of the Seychelles paradise flycatcher, from La Digue to Denis Island, was undertaken by the team in 2008. It was so successful that the population there has grown considerably from the 23 translocated individuals to the current estimate of over 85 birds. It is from this population that the conservation team were then able to source some of the birds for this second transfer to Curieuse Island, the rest coming from the relict population on La Digue Island. Professor Groombridge said: “This is such a positive start for this new population. The translocation is a crucial milestone in the successful recovery of this critically endangered bird, and represents a highly successful long-term international collaboration between the Government of Seychelles, local conservation partners and DICE at the University of Kent, and will hopefully lead to a more secure future for this beautiful bird. Successes like this are part of what I teach to our Wildlife Conservation BSc students as these cases require a real understanding of how to bring species back from the brink of extinction.” View the full article
  4. Parents may want to think twice before allowing their children to let balloons fly off into the atmosphere. When seemingly harmless latex balloons end up in the ocean, according to a new study, they become unusually deadly for seabirds. “They are attractive and they are disproportionately deadly if those balloons are eaten,” said Lauren Roman, the lead author of the study published recently in Nature Scientific Reports. Roman is a postdoctoral researcher at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, an Australian government agency. It’s nothing new that ingesting too much plastic and other human marine debris can kill seabirds. By blocking up their gastrointestinal systems, it can cause infections and even starvation. But Roman and her co-authors wanted to see whether they could narrow down the causes of death. They examined the insides of more than 1,700 dead birds from 51 different species that they and other organizations collected. They divided the carcasses into those that clearly died due to ingesting debris, those that died from non-debris causes such as fisheries bycatch and those whose death was undetermined. A grey-headed albatross (Thalassarche chrysostoma) is found dead with balloon fragments inside its body. ©Lauren Roman They found that while birds were [...] View the full article
  5. Climate change has pushed migratory birds to take their spring trips a week earlier than they did six decades ago. According to a large-scale analysis of data gathered by 21 bird observatories from northern Europe and Canada on nearly 200 species, birds have advanced the timing of their migration by an average of just over a week since the late 1950s and early 1960s. Short-distance migratory birds have sped up the start of their migrations by 1.5 to two days per decade on average. Long-distance migrants start 0.6 to 1.2 days earlier. “There are clearly some species which have advanced very fast and other species which have changed hardly at all,” says Aleksi Lehikoinen, an academic research fellow at the University of Helsinki’s Finnish Museum of Natural History and the lead author of a study published in Ecological Indicators. While the birds have timed their migrations a week earlier on average to cope with warmer weather due to climate change, Lehikoinen said, this varies within migration season of species. Early migrants, for example, are more likely to have sped up their spring migrations compared to later migrants of the same species, which haven’t changed their habits as much on average. While [...] View the full article
  6. Implementation of the 2018 Farm Bill, passed in December, is now underway. The $867 billion package funds many programs, from producer subsidies to food stamps, including $5 billion for conservation incentives on private lands. Key Farm Bill conservation programs include the Conservation Reserve Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. The new bill increased the enrollment cap for CRP, and EQIP will now dedicate 10 percent of funds distributed though the program to wildlife conservation, providing about $200 million a year. Last week, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue testified in front of both the House and Senate agriculture committees. During the Senate hearing, staffing vacancies currently faced by the USDA that may slow Farm Bill implementation were brought up by lawmakers. Perdue agreed with lawmaker concerns, noting that federal government hiring is not done quickly. Despite these challenges, Perdue said, the USDA is moving forward with implementing the conservation programs. “The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) utilized mandatory program funding to keep staff working throughout the recent shutdown,” he said in written testimony, “providing significant time to begin building the framework for the new and revised conservation programs they are responsible for implementing.” During the House hearing, Perdue also discussed the challenges surrounding [...] View the full article
  7. The House voted overwhelmingly in favor of a bipartisan public lands package last week, a week after the Senate did the same. It now goes to the president’s desk to be signed. The Natural Resources Management Act (S. 47) contains more than 100 different bills affecting public lands and conservation, including permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. During the last Congress, LWCF expired Sept. 30, after several attempts to pass reauthorization during the last Congress failed. The LWCF allows proceeds from oil and gas drilling on federal lands and waters to be used to acquire parks, forests, recreation areas, wildlife habitat and cultural sites around the country for conservation and public access. The legislation also reauthorizes the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act, which provides grants for to conserve populations and habitats of neotropical migratory birds. The Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, which works with private landowners who want to voluntarily undertake habitat restoration projects on their lands, was also reauthorized through the public lands package. Laura Bies is a government relations contractor and freelance writer for The Wildlife Society. She has a B.S. in Environmental Science and a law degree from George Washington University. Laura has worked with [...] View the full article
  8. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced its decisions to list the northern subspecies of scarlet macaw (Ara macao cyanoptera) as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Scarlet macaws are large neotropical parrots native to Mexico, Central America and South America, with the greatest concentration of their population in the Amazon. Destruction of the birds’ habitat and collection for the pet trade have reduced the scarlet macaw’s range in Mexico and Central America. It is no longer found in most of its former range in those areas. While the scarlet macaw is currently classified as “least concern” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, several countries throughout Central and South American have listed the species under their endangered species protections. The northern subspecies is considered in danger of extinction in Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica and Panama; threatened in Guatemala; a species of concern in Honduras; and protected from take in Nicaragua. In South America, the southern subspecies (A. m. macao) is designated vulnerable in Peru and near threatened in both Ecuador and Venezuela. Its populations will also receive ESA protections under the USFWS decision. The northern distinct population segment will be listed as threatened. The southern distinct population segment will [...] View the full article
  9. The purple martin (Progne subis) is in the midst of a long-term decline, and researchers worry that without humans continuing to put out birdhouses for them, their numbers will fall faster. In a study published in the Wildlife Society Bulletin, researchers found that eastern purple martins (P.s. subis) have very high nest survival in artificial housing, making it an important component in the bird’s conservation. “If people are interested in helping out a species, this is a really easy solution,” said Texas Tech assistant professor Blake Grisham and an author on the study. In the centuries since European settlement in North America, eastern purple martins have become almost completely dependent on artificial housing, from gourds suspended from tree branches to deluxe high-rises with pitched roofs and balcony perches. The shift began even before colonization, Grisham said, with martins nesting in gourds placed by Native Americans. Since then, with the exception of a Florida population that still nests in the wild, the birds rely exclusively on birdhouses, Grisham said, and that could present a problem. “Most of the individuals who have purple martin cavities are greater than 56 years old,” he said. “What happens if they stop providing those cavities?” Researchers found [...] View the full article
  10. On the mountaintops of the Sierra Nevadas, mountain chickadees (Poecile gambeli) create food caches to survive the winter, and they rely on their memories to find them. Researchers had already known that in places of higher elevation or with harsher winters, chickadees often rely more on these caches. In previous research, they found that chickadees in these areas had a larger hippocampus, a part of the brain that helps with memory, and they had more neurons in their hippocampus than other chickadees. Recently, biologists found these traits relating to good memory are gained through natural selection. In the study published in Current Biology, they used passive integrative transponder tags and feeders equipped with radio frequency identification devices. The tagged birds were assigned to one of eight feeders. When they attempted to get food from a feeder that they weren’t assigned to, the machine recorded it but no food came out. “Any time a bird lands, it records the time and ID of every bird,” said Vladimir Pravosudov,biology professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, and the study’s corresponding author. The team recorded how long it took for the birds to learn which feeder gave them food and how well they remembered [...] View the full article
  11. TWS member Jason Luscier focuses on urban wildlife conservation, so when he needed more data on house cats (Felis catus) roaming the streets, he turned local residents into citizen scientists. Luscier developed Cat Tracker, a smartphone app that lets residents report sightings of house cats on the loose. “One of the greatest threats to our native urban wildlife is predation by free-roaming house cats,” said Luscier, an assistant professor at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York. “I have a number of ongoing research projects regarding urban mammals, urban amphibians and urban birds — all of which are likely affected by cats.” The app lets residents report when they spot both feral cats and pets on the prowl, using the phone’s GPS data to pinpoint exact locations. The app collects some basic survey information of the spotters. Were you walking? Sitting on a park bench? Out running errands? And it allows users to make simple comments about what they saw. “The hope is that the process is as quick and easy as possible,” Luscier said. Uploading the sightings to a map, he can see how the sightings might intersect with wildlife data. Luscier first targeted the city of Syracuse, but [...] View the full article
  12. When researchers looked at the effects of recent extreme drought in the Sierra Nevada, they expected to find the large-scale death of trees would cause bird numbers to decline. Instead, they found many of the species increased— apparently in response to favorable conditions that emerged from the warming climate. An extensive drought struck the region from 2013 to 2016, resulting in the widespread death of pine trees by bark beetles. Researchers from Point Blue Conservation Science wanted to see what effect the death of these trees would have on the birds that depend on them. For many of the species, they found, whatever negative impacts the dead trees had were offset by positive effects from climate conditions. They published their findings in the journal Ecological Applications. “Birds respond rapidly to changes in both habitat and climate conditions and thus are good indicators of the ecological effects of a changing climate, which may include warmer temperatures, changing habitat conditions, and increased frequency and magnitude of extreme events like drought,” they wrote. Looking at the influence of temperature, water deficit and tree mortality on 45 bird species, researchers used climate models to predict the effect of climate change on the bird community [...] View the full article
  13. On former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s last day in office, he signed a secretarial order calling for the department to do more to prevent wildfire on its lands. Coming in response to an executive order by the president on active forest management, the secretarial order, Reducing Wildfire Risks on Department of the Interior Land Through Active Management, calls for best management practices for wildfire to be included in all of the department’s land and resource management plans. It also requires that the plans use land and vegetation management techniques supported by the best available science. The order was just made publicly available last week. “The serious health risks, safety concerns, tragic loss of life, and economic losses resulting from catastrophic wildfire demonstrate the need for increased attention to active forestland, rangeland, watershed and wildfire management policies and techniques that reduce irreparable harm to landscapes and the citizens who live and work in neighboring communities,” the order says. It calls for increased logging in national parks, specifically salvage logging where forests have been affected by wildfires, insect infestation and disease in recent years. It also encourages the use of categorical exclusions under the National Environmental Policy Act to allow quicker action, [...] View the full article
  14. Averting another government shutdown, Congress passed a $333 billion appropriations and border security package containing language to fund federal agencies through the end of the fiscal year. The bill provides funding for agencies, such as the Interior Department, included in seven appropriations bills. Other agencies had been previously funded. The funding levels agreed upon by Congress are generally an increase over what the president requested for fiscal year 2019, which outlined major cuts for most agencies and programs. It also provides a 1.9 percent pay increase for all federal employees. In the spending package, Interior will receive $13 billion for FY 2019, an overall $95 million decrease from last year, although some agencies within the department will see an increase. It was appropriated $14 million to proceed with a reorganization effort started by former Secretary Ryan Zinke. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will receive $1.58 billion, a decrease of $17 million from FY 2018. The State and Tribal Wildlife Grants program is funded at $64.5 million, up slightly from $63.6 million last year. The bill also appropriates $42 million for the North American Wetlands Conservation Act and $3.9 million for the Neotropical Migratory Bird Act. Funding for the Bureau of Land Management increased [...] View the full article
  15. Spreading salt on the roads to make winter driving safer may be causing problems for wildlife. In a recent article, scientists reported a large increase of chloride in streams, lakes and rivers over previous decades. A main reason for this increase in chloride is likely from salt applied before and during snowstorms, the authors said, which can impact freshwater organisms and change the ecosystem. For some species, salt can case dehydration. About 4,500 metric tons of salt was used in the 1940s, they found, but today, about 22 million metric tons are used. Some scientists suggest these threats may call for road salt regulation. Read more in Chemical & Engineering News. View the full article
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