Friday, January 28, 2011

Let's Do Big Things- Save the Snake

photo credit BLM
By Nicole Cordan
Policy and Legal Director
Save Our Wild Salmon

In State of the Union address, President Obama’s salmon joke invoked the spirit of a cherished creature, and through it a culture, a way-of-life, and a bit of our American history – all of which has resonated throughout the country.  While the President might have been off a bit in his facts, he is right that current salmon policies and salmon agencies are inefficient, have wasted money, have cost jobs, and have failed to recover the Northwest’s signature species.   And he is also right to suggest that it’s time for a change.  But what the President didn’t say, and perhaps part of the answer to why his punchline had such a big impact, is what’s at stake if he doesn’t change course on salmon.

From the peaks of the Grand Tetons where it is born, through Yellowstone National Park, across the Continental Divide and then into the rugged mountains of Idaho, northeastern Oregon and southeastern Washington, the Snake River and its tributaries form one of the most important habitats in America.  The Snake River Basin is the highest, wildest, most intact salmon spawning and rearing habitat left in the lower 48 states and it is home to one-of-a-kind salmon – salmon that climb higher and travel further than any other salmon on earth – as well as more than a dozen other endangered species.

The Endangered Species Coalition report, It’s Getting Hot Out There, listed this area as one of the top 10 places in the country to protect for endangered species in a warming world.  It’s no surprise why: this special place, nestled in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest, is a Noah’s Ark for salmon.  While lower elevation salmon habitats in the Columbia River Basin are expected to warm to temperatures too hot to sustain salmon, the Snake River Basin’s waters will remain cool, allowing salmon to survive, thrive, and reseed the rest of the Columbia River. 

This is what’s at stake: these one-of-a-kind creatures and this unparalleled place will be lost to future generations if this generation – this administration – doesn’t change course.

photo credit BLM
Four federal dams on the lower part of the Snake River wreak havoc on salmon migrating to and from this Noah’s Ark.  Just four dams – in a basin which is known as the most dammed watershed on Earth with about 250 large dams – need to be removed to ensure the survival of these magnificent creatures, the more than 140 other species that they feed, the unique place they call home, and the jobs, families and communities that rely on them.

Four dams -- it doesn’t seem like too much to ask, does it?

I’m not suggesting that this path – the path of removing four dams – will be easy.  But given the consequences – the loss if we choose not to protect and reconnect this special place to the creatures that feed it and feed us – the action becomes essential.  And as the President told us in his State of the Union address, it won’t necessarily be easy to build a better future.  But, build a better future we must.  It is a responsibility we hold for the next generation.

In its Spring 2010 Special Issue, Newsweek chose Columbia-Snake River salmon as one of its top 100 places/things to see before they are gone due to climate change. These fish and their rivers were one of just seven such places in the United States. 

One of the top seven.  One of the top ten. 

We are the last generation that gets to decide whether Snake River salmon will exist for our children, and their children.  It is an awesome responsibility.  I want to tell my daughter that we did everything we could to save these creatures for her.  I don’t want to tell her that we had the choice, but we decided to do nothing, or too little, or to stick with the status quo, because it was simply too hard to do what was needed.

The President also reminded us – inspiring some of us – that we are a nation “where anything is possible.  We do big things.  From the earliest days of our founding, America has been the story of ordinary people who dare to dream.  That’s how we win the future.”

Let’s dare to dream of a future where Snake River salmon continue to swim through our Northwest waters, feeding us, our ancient forests, and the more than 140 other species that depend on them for their survival.  Let’s do big things – let’s remove those four dams and bring wild salmon back to our rivers, and good jobs back to our coastal and rural communities.  And let’s win the future – for ourselves and for the generations who come after us.   

This is a guest post by Save Our Wild Salmon, as part of our occasional series from Endangered Species Coalition member organizations

Friday, January 21, 2011

Operation Migration-Whoopers in Flight

By Mark Chenoweth
photo credit Mark Chenoweth

The whooping crane (Grus americana) is North America's tallest bird, with some approaching 5 feet in height. The whoopers can live for 30 years or more in the wild and are highly endangered.
The total population of wild and captive whoopers is estimated at 535.

The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) is comprised of 9 groups including the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, US Fish, the International Crane Foundation, Operation Migration, the US Geological Survey folks at Patuxent, MD, and more. The group partners and makes decisions to hatch, raise and train these highly endangered whooping crane chicks in a 'captive' environment.  Those who rear, train and fly amongst the whoopers wear white, baggy costumes that hide the human form. This keeps the birds in a wild state, or at least so believe their human handlers!

This was the 10th year this work was accomplished, and there are almost 100 birds in the Eastern Introduced Flock now, migrating from Wisconsin to Florida. The only other flock, which dwindled to only 15 birds in 1941, is near 300 birds. Those Whoopers migrate from northern Canada's remote Wood Buffalo region to Aransas, Texas.

photo credit Mark Chenoweth
Last year saw the most birds ever following ultralight aircraft, a total of 20. Changes in the program left fewer birds to work with; this year that number was the fewest ever... just half of last year's flock. 10 young Whooper chicks were led by ultralight planes from Wisconsin to Florida. The 1285 mile migration began October 10th, ending on January 15th. The birds are split into 2 flocks, this year 5 wintering at St. Mark's NWR near Tallahassee, and the other 5 at Chassahowitzka NWR on Florida's West Coast near Crystal River. The flyover at the Marion County Regional Airport in Dunnellon allows public viewing of the birds as they are led by the ultralights to the nearby Halpata Tastanaki Reserve to hold the birds prior to making their final leg to Chassahowitzka NWR. The Operation Migration team, along with refuge personnel and others with US Fish, answer questions and the pilots talk with the crowd once their charges are safely delivered to the reserve. This year, the flyover was on January 14th, with the final leg, a 26 mile flight to Chassahowitzka where the birds will winter, taking place the next day.

The work and dedication of those who hatch, raise, train and fly with these special and rare birds is something we all can learn from. Each year is different, and not every year is as successful. While the birds brought to Florida in 2006 made the journey and did well, only 3 weeks after their arrival a deadly storm killed all but one of the birds in their pen. That storm was also responsible for the deaths of 20 residents of Lake County.

It's often heartbreaking work, and predation, power lines, genetic issues and even interaction with their own kind have caused the birds to suffer many losses.

Listen as the 3 pilots who have worked on this program virtually since it began talk about their feelings and how they see the future for this icon of conservation.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

At Risk! Coral reefs face uncertain future from rising CO2

By Ellycia Harrould-Kolieb
Marine Scientist
image credit NOAA

Shallow water coral reefs are some of the most biologically diverse habitats the world over. They harbor a myriad of life, from tiny microbes to large sharks, turtles and seals. Almost a quarter of all marine species depend on coral reefs at some point in their lives and approximately 4000 different types of fish call coral reefs home. A number of species reliant upon coral reefs are classified as endangered. Not only are coral reef biologically diverse and vital to ocean health, they are also relied upon economically by more than 100 million people, and are vital to even more people for protection from storm surges, tsunamis and coastal erosion. Coral reefs provide $30 to $172 billion annually to the global economy in resources such as food and recreation.

Over 800 species of reef-building corals are known to exist. Unfortunately, many of these species are threatened by many human caused threats including pollution, coastal development and destructive fishing practices. Some species of coral, such as the elkhorn and staghorn corals, are even classified as endangered due to these threats. However, these aren’t the only threats corals and their dependents face. Rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere due to the continued burning of fossil fuels and land use changes are putting coral reefs in danger of extinction.

The build up of heat in the atmosphere due to excess greenhouse gases is causing ocean temperatures to increase, which can push corals past their temperature thresholds and cause them to expel their symbiotic algae, which provide food and nourishment to the coral animal. These symbiotic algae also provide corals with their vibrant colors so when they are expelled all that is left is the stark white skeleton, hence this phenomenon is known as coral bleaching. Without their algae corals can starve to death, causing massive die offs of entire reef areas. As climate change worsens in the future, bleaching events are likely to become more common. With more frequent bleaching events, corals will have less time between each event to recover and we could see severe permanent die offs due to increasing ocean temperatures.

If that weren’t bad enough, corals are also being threatened by ocean acidification, or the rising of ocean acidity. Carbon dioxide absorbed by the oceans from the atmosphere combines with water to form an acid making the oceans more acidic. A consequence of this acid being created is the decrease in carbonate ions – one of the building blocks of calcium carbonate (limestone) that corals and other marine calcifiers secrete to make their skeletons and shells. As this important building block decreases, these calcifiers may find it more difficult to create their hard structures. Corals use their skeletons for support and protection and may not be able to survive without them.

Coral reefs are predicted to become functionally extinct if CO2 levels continue to rise: at CO2 levels of 450 ppm in the atmosphere calcareous corals will decline; above 500 ppm coral reefs are likely to be crumbling habitats; at 560 ppm (expected to be reached by the middle of the century) reefs will likely be eroding globally. Part of the reason that coral reefs are such biologically diverse habitats is because of the structural complexity that they provide, but as reefs begin to erode in the future this important complexity could begin to disappear, jeopardizing the many species that we know and love to be associated with reefs. 

But it doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom, the reefs are not lost yet, and they are not past the point of no return. We can turn this ship around by moving away from fossil fuels to clean energy alternatives. By reducing our carbon intake we can save the reefs and all that depend on them from the evil twins of ocean acidification and climate change.

For more information on what you can do and other habitats that are threatened by climate change read the report It’s Getting Hot Out There.

This is a guest post by Oceana, as part of our occasional series from Endangered Species Coalition member organizations

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Disappearing Sea-ice Habitat of the Arctic

image credit USFWS
By Rebecca Noblin 
Alaska Director
Center for Biological Diversity

Those searching for unmistakable evidence of the global climate crisis should pay a visit to the Arctic. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. The average annual temperature in Barrow, at the northern-most tip of Alaska, has increased 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 50 years. Almost every week Alaskans see a news story about the impacts this rapid warming is having right here at home: coastal villages being forced to relocate because of accelerated erosion caused by climate change; Arctic ice cellars in the permafrost melting and causing the loss of stored food; violent fall storms threatening people and animals; walrus and polar bears coming ashore in greater and greater numbers because their sea-ice habitat is melting beneath them.

Arctic sea ice is one of the most endangered ecosystems on earth. 2007 was the lowest summer sea-ice year on record, and 2008, 2009 and 2010 followed close behind. Arctic species such as polar bears and walrus cannot survive without Arctic sea ice. There are documented accounts of polar bears drowning as they try to swim between land and distant sea ice, and of starving polar bears resorting to cannibalism. In the fall of 2010, as many as 20,000 walrus—an unprecedented number—congregated on the shores of Arctic Alaska because there was no suitable sea ice. Walrus that are forced onto land in such large numbers are vulnerable to disease, predation and stampedes that lead to trampling deaths.

The drastic loss of sea ice has led the U.S. government to list polar bears as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act and to designate 187,000 square miles of polar bear “critical habitat” in Arctic sea ice and coastal areas. The U.S. has also proposed listing two ice-dependent seal species under the Endangered Species Act because of the loss of their sea-ice habitat, and we are expecting a decision this month about federal protections for the Pacific walrus.

The climate crisis is upon us, and it will only get worse. Scientists tell us that to avoid catastrophic tipping points, we must bring atmospheric carbon levels down to 350 parts per million. The only way we can do that is by breaking our addiction to fossil fuels and converting to clean, renewable sources of energy. In the meantime, in order to preserve Arctic sea-ice-dependent species, we must not allow oil drilling in the Arctic, and we must carefully limit and monitor shipping through this fragile Arctic habitat.  If we take concrete steps now to protect polar bears, walrus, and other Arctic creatures, and to save their disappearing sea-ice habitat, the benefits will accrue not just to the polar bears and walrus, but to all living things in the Arctic, and to all living things on Earth.

This is a guest post by Center for Biological Diversity, as part of our occasional series from Endangered Species Coalition member organizations

Monday, January 10, 2011

A Marshall Plan for Nature: How to Protect Endangered Species from Climate Change

By Leda Huta
Executive Director
Endangered Species Coalition

If your house were on fire, what would you save? Where would you even start? What if not just your house, but your whole planet was on fire?

That is the scenario we face today. Climate change has arrived. No longer clouds gathering in the distance, the firestorm is here now--melting titanic glaciers, drying mighty rivers and setting deserts ablaze.

With our new report, It's Getting Hot Out There: The Top 10 Places to Save for Endangered Species in a Warming World, the Endangered Species Coalition and our member groups attempt to answer the question: To save endangered species from climate change, where do we begin?

Threatened and endangered species, already in a precarious position, are the most vulnerable to additional pressures.  For that reason, the vast and far-reaching impacts of global warming are a game changer for these plants and animals. In one stroke, climate change has introduced a new threat to edge a tremendous number of imperiled species ever closer to extinction.

So, if we are serious about our commitment to save our natural heritage for future generations, our response also must be a game-changer.  We need a Marshall Plan for nature.  The good news is that it is not too late to save endangered species from climate change, but we need to get to work now.

As the co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 (for her contribution to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), Dr. Jean Brennan, states, "What has been lost in the news over climate change and what this report highlights is that, at this very moment, we have a crucial window of opportunity to save species and ecosystems.  Conservation measures, if taken now, can greatly increase a habitat's and species' ability to withstand climate change.  But, we don't have a minute to spare."

While many of us are aware that polar bears and Arctic seas are in crisis mode, few of us have heard about the other species and ecosystems arriving at the emergency room door because of climate change. 

Across our tropical waters, coral reefs are headed toward functional extinction--no longer providing food for fish, sea turtles or marine mammals--due to hotter temperatures and more acidic oceans.

Our Southwest deserts are home to endangered Sonoran pronghorn antelopes, desert tortoises, kangaroo rats, pupfish, springsnails, and other desert species that are adapted to very specialized niches and therefore particularly vulnerable to changes in climate and habitat.

America's Greater Everglades shelters threatened and endangered species, such as the Florida panther, manatee, American crocodile, Everglades snail kite, and fragrant prickly apple that are at risk of being submerged as sea levels rise to flood low-lying areas.

Other endangered species havens that must be saved are Hawaii--with the greatest number of threatened and endangered species of all the states, the Gulf Coast--home to more than 40 imperiled species on the front lines of sea level rise, the Snake River Basin--a unique habitat for salmon, bull trout, snails and clams, Greater Yellowstone--our nation's first national park, the California Bay Delta--important for salmon, sturgeon, steelhead, Swainson's hawk, and Smith's blue butterfly among other species and the Sierra Nevada ecosystem--the only habitat for the Sierra Nevada mountain yellow-legged frog, the Yosemite toad, and the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep.

With so much of our natural heritage at stake, how can we sit back and let it go up in flames?

Obviously, we can't.  We must act.  And, this report outlines how.

Without question, we must aggressively reduce greenhouse gas pollution.  Many of the ecosystems listed here--such as arctic sea ice and coral reefs--will not be saved without that step. 

Additionally, we must exponentially increase existing conservation measures, such as eradicating invasive species, setting aside open space, creating wildlife corridors, and restoring wild lands. We must also head in new directions, such as preventing offshore oil and gas drilling in the Arctic and transforming how we manage California's water supply.

Whether drawing upon new or standard practices in our conservation toolkit, the urgency is higher than ever. Fortunately, one of the world's most effective wildlife laws, the U.S. Endangered Species Act, has powerful tools to protect species and their habitat from climate change. We must now invest significantly more in funding, political solutions and hands-on conservation in a massive effort to help ecosystems and species adapt.

By protecting these imperiled species, we will protect ourselves, ensure that our grandchildren have clean water, safeguard our coastal communities from the ravages of increasingly severe storms, and pass down America's unique natural heritage for future generations.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

It's Getting Hot Out There

The Endangered Species Coalition, in partnership with our member groups, released a report today highlighting the urgent need to protect critical endangered species habitat including Arctic sea ice, Gulf wetlands and flatlands, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and several other imperiled habitats.

It’s Getting Hot Out There: Top 10 Places to Save for Endangered Species in a Warming World,  focuses on 10 habitats that support endangered species and are impacted by climate change.

The ecosystems featured in It's Getting Hot Out There are:

1. Arctic Sea Ice, home to the polar bear, Pacific walrus and at least 6 species of seal.
2. Shallow Water Coral Reefs, home to the critically endangered elkhorn and staghorn coral.

3. The Hawaiian Islands, home to more than a dozen imperiled birds and 319 threatened and endangered plants.

4. Southwest Deserts, home to numerous imperiled plants, fish, and mammals.

5. The San Francisco Bay-Delta, home to the imperiled Pacific salmon, Swainson’s hawk, tiger salamander and Delta smelt.

6. California Sierra Mountains, home to 30 native species of amphibian, including the Yellow-legged frog.

7. The Snake River Basin, home to four imperiled runs of salmon and steelhead.

8. Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, home to the imperiled Whitebark pine, an important food source for animals, including the threatened Grizzly bear.

9. The Gulf Coast’s flatlands and wetlands, home to the Piping and Snowy plovers, Mississippi sandhill crane, and several species of sea turtles.

10. The Greater Everglades, home to 67 threatened and endangered species, including the manatee and the red cockcaded woodpecker. 

Leda Huta, ESC's Executive Director said of the report, “Climate change is no longer a distant threat on the horizon, it has arrived and is threatening ecosystems that we all depend upon, and our endangered species are particularly vulnerable. If we are serious about saving endangered species from global warming, then these are the places to start.”

The 10 habitats were chosen by nominations from Coalition members, with the submitted areas then reviewed and judged by a panel of scientists. For each ecosystem, the report identifies some of the endangered species that live there, in addition to climate change threats and needed conservation measures.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), up to 30 percent of the world's species will face a greater risk of extinction if global temperature increases exceed 3 to 5° F above pre-industrial levels. .

“To help protect and restore endangered species, our nation must address the impacts global warming is already having and clean up the sources of global warming pollution—both nationally and internationally,” said Huta. “We owe it to our children and grandchildren to be good stewards and protect endangered species and the places they call home.”

The full report, in addition to steps you can take to help wildlife survive climate change, is available online at