Guest Commentary


NRDC Petitions to Save Remaining Gulf of Mexico Whales

To help ensure the survival of this desperately endangered species, NRDC and our partners are asking the government to establish rules to prevent deadly vessel strikes.

May 11, 2021, Francine Kershaw

The Gulf of Mexico whale was recently discovered to be a unique species of great whale known only to live in the U.S. waters of the Gulf of Mexico. It is our whale. Harrowingly, the species is deeply imperiled—only about 50 individuals remain and spend most of their time within the waters of a single submarine canyon just south of the Florida panhandle.

That’s why NRDC and our partners have filed a petition with the federal government to protect the critically endangered Gulf of Mexico whale from vessel strikes, which threaten the species with extinction. The petition asks the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries to adopt regulations establishing a year-round mandatory “Vessel Slowdown Zone,” requiring all vessels to travel at 10 knots or less within the whale’s core habitat. The petition also asks for other vessel-related regulations, including a restriction on vessel passage through the whale’s habitat at night and improved monitoring of both whales and vessels.

Gulf of Mexico whales suffered significant losses due to the Deepwater Horizon spill and face a myriad of other threats. Their habitat is severely diminished due to oil and gas development, and they are at continuing risk of oil spills and oil spill response. Underwater noise pollution, plastics and other marine debris, and fisheries entanglements all pose additional threats.

If more than one whale is lost every 15 years, the species may never be able to recover. Deaths from vessel strikes alone are highly likely to exceed this number. Immediate management actions are therefore needed to reduce the risk of vessel strikes and other vessel-related impacts of the species is to survive. As the Gulf of Mexico whale is protected by both the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, these actions are also required by law.

Given that slower ships are far less likely to fatally strike whales, the Vessel Slowdown Zone is the most effective way for NOAA Fisheries to protect the Gulf of Mexico whale and fulfil its legal obligation. Slower ships also make significantly less noise and are less likely to disturb whales while they are engaged in important behaviors like feeding and socializing.

Science also shows that the whales spend most of their time at night resting just below the surface, in the direct path of the draft of oncoming vessels. The petition requests that vessels only traverse the Gulf of Mexico whale’s core habitat during daylight hours, when the whales are spending most of their time feeding at depth and when they can be more easily spotted by vessel crew.

It is critical that NOAA also implement the means to monitor the vessel slowdown zone and ensure that human activities within the zone comply with the associated regulations, identifying violators and holding them accountable.

The agency must expedite its response to this petition—filed by NRDC, Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Earthjustice, Healthy Gulf, and New England Aquarium—and act quickly to propose, evaluate, and finalize a vessel slowdown zone and the supporting vessel-related mitigation measures. It is the only chance for this species to survive and recover.



ARP Provides Strong Start to Enhanced Anti-Trafficking Funds

March 15, 2021, Elly Pepper and Elizabeth Murdock

The American Rescue Plan (ARP), which President Biden signed into law on Friday, includes many provisions essential to getting our country back on its feet and helping prevent future pandemics, including $105 million to fight future threats to human health poised by wildlife trafficking.

Given that COVID-19 is thought to have originated in a wildlife market, the ARP’s provisions seek to halt wildlife trafficking and better understand and prevent wildlife diseases that could lead to future zoonotic pandemics, including substantial funding to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS):

*$20 million for wildlife inspections, interdictions, investigations and related activities and for efforts to address wildlife trafficking.

*$30 million for the care of captive species listed under the Endangered Species Act, for the care of rescued and confiscated wildlife, and for the care of federal trust species in facilities experiencing lost revenues due to COVID-19.

*$45 million for research and extension activities to strengthen early detection, rapid response and science-based management to address wildlife disease outbreaks before they become pandemics.

*$10 million to carry out the Lacey Act, which is the law under which the U.S. prosecutes wildlife traffickers.

The fact that the Biden Administration has recognized that wildlife trafficking presents a threat to human health because of its potential to spread zoonotic viruses is a significant step. This isn’t the first time the wildlife trade has led to disease spread and it certainly won’t be the last. In fact, pathogen spillover from wildlife to humans is increasing as habitat encroachment and destruction and wildlife trade explode. (Habitat loss and wildlife exploitation are the top drivers of biodiversity loss.) Both activities provide increased opportunities for animals and humans to interact and for species to interact in ways they haven’t before.

Wildlife markets create the perfect environment for zoonotic diseases to spread to humans due to the large number of species confined near each other for extended periods of time in unhygienic conditions. And the United States contributes to this problem as one of the world’s largest consumers of wildlife, importing about one billion wildlife products every year, including about 200 million live animals.

Unfortunately, the bill failed to appropriate any funding to NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service to bolster in-port inspections for imports of marine species. NOAA is responsible for ensuring the legality and safety of seafood and marine species imports and is the critical third leg of illegal wildlife enforcement. While seafood products are unlikely to spark a human pandemic (most zoonotic diseases transferred from fish are bacterial infections), marine species do make up a substantial and important part of the illegal wildlife trade. From shark fins to fish swim bladders to seahorses, imperiled marine species are traded around the globe, including through U.S. ports, whether for U.S. consumers or simply en route to global markets.

NOAA’s authority over protected marine species—including ESA-listed species like sea turtles, sharks, and the highly endangered totoaba—is crucial to efforts to end wildlife trafficking. NOAA plays an important role in import and export inspections, leveraging the expertise of its ESA permitting and fisheries management staff, as well as the agency’s few port enforcement officers, to ensure that marine species in trade are legal and do not undermine the United States’ international fisheries management responsibilities (such as combatting the crisis of illegal fishing). In current practice, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will typically refer intercepted marine species shipments to NOAA, because CBP lacks the expertise to screen for legality—but NOAA frequently lacks the capacity to follow up with inspections, rendering the U.S. a weak link in the chain of halting illegal trade in marine species. Moreover, many of criminals who traffic in terrestrial wildlife products, such as ivory and rhino horn, also traffic in illegal marine products. Dismantling this illegal trade requires government agencies—especially FWS, NOAA and CBP—to work closely together to investigate, inspect, and seize illegal shipments. A bill to end wildlife trafficking that excludes NOAA runs the risk of hamstringing one of the three key agencies that are on the frontlines working to halt illegal wildlife trafficking.

Additionally, we must go farther than simply providing additional funding. In addition to expanding the in-port enforcement capacity of both FWS and NOAA Fisheries, we must also improve collaboration and investigatory capacity across all fish and wildlife agencies, including state agencies, in order to identify illegal wildlife trafficking networks and root out high-risk shipments. We must also place strict limits on imports of certain species known to carry zoonotic diseases like birds and mammals—something the Preventing Future Pandemics Act helps achieve.  And we must ensure that CITES – the only convention to deal with trade in wildlife – lives up to its potential by imposing trade restrictions and protect more of our land under the Convention on Biological Diversity to prevent human-species interactions caused by habitat encroachment.

The coronavirus pandemic has underscored for us all how inextricably linked the human and wildlife worlds are—we are, in fact, sharing one global ecosystem. So ending the ruthless exploitation of wildlife is not only about saving individual creatures; it’s about saving the planet as a whole.


Live Science

How long do most species last before going extinct?

It depends on the kind of animal.

By Tara Santora – Live Science Contributor, November 8, 2020

The majestic blue whale has plied the seas for about 4.5 million years, while the Neanderthals winked out of existence in a few hundred thousand years. But are those creatures representative of species overall? How long do species usually last before they go extinct?

It turns out the answer we find now could be very different than it usually is. Because of habitat destruction, climate change, and a range of other factors, plants and animals are disappearing from the planet faster than all but maybe five other points in history. Some experts say we’re in the sixth mass extinction event. But even in calmer periods of Earth’s history, the answer has varied depending on the  type of species you’re looking at. For mammals, the average species exists for 1 million to 2 million years, according to an article in the journal People & the planet.

However, this average doesn’t hold during all geologic periods and for all mammals. The average for the Cenozoic era (65 million years ago to present) mammals is 3.21 million years, with larger mammals lasting longer than smaller mammals, according to a 2013 study in the journal Integrative Zoology. For invertebrate species, the duration is even more impressive; they last between 5 million to 10 million years, on average.

These numbers, however, are contentious. Experts don’t agree on the average amount of time that species in any category last before going extinct. The fossil record documents when a species shows up and when it disappears, but it leaves a wide margin of error because conditions must be perfect for fossils to form, and those conditions aren’t always present when a species shows up and blinks out. And these longevity stats aren’t that useful anyway. Stuart Pimm, a leading extinction expert and a conservation ecologist at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, said he prefers to think about extinction in terms of how many species die out every day, or month, or year.

“It’s easier to think of in terms of… death rates, largely because there are some species that live a really long time,” Pimm said. “And then there are other species that are short-lived. And the average doesn’t really help you as much as you might think.”

This species death rate, called the background extinction rate, is also contentious. Pimm placed the historic number — a figure that covers all time, excluding mass extinctions — at around one species extinction per 1 million species per year. That means that if there were a million species on the planet, one would have gone extinct each year. (For comparison, there are about 8.7 million species on the planet today, according to a study in the journal PLOS Biology.) However, other experts estimate species typically die off at a rate of 0.1 species per million per year and still others at two species per million per year, according to a research article in the journal Science Advances.

The current extinction rate is much higher than any of these predictions about the past — about 1,000 times more than Pimm’s background extinction rate estimate, he said. However, not everyone agrees on how accelerated species extinction is now, said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity in Oregon. Some experts estimate that the current extinction rate is only 100 times faster or, at the other extreme, 10,000 times faster.

There are several reasons why estimates of the current extinction rate vary. “The extinction rate is based on how many species are on Earth and how rapidly they’re going extinct,” Curry said. “And no one actually knows the answer to either one of those questions.” About 90% of living species — largely insects — are probably unnamed, Pimm added. And if researchers don’t know that a species existed, they won’t know it went extinct. Another complication is that it can be difficult to tell when species are dead. Just because researchers haven’t seen them for several years doesn’t mean they’re gone for good. Calculations can get more difficult when species are extinct in the wild but live on in zoos.

One thing the experts do agree on is that the modern extinction rate is far too high. “Species are adapting as fast as they can,” Pimm said. “But eventually the luck runs out and they don’t adapt fast enough. And they go.”

(Originally published on Live Science.)


Tell your senators vote-by-mail must be funded in time for November

By Leda Huta, Executive Director of Endangered Species Coalition (May 28, 2020)

Voting for elected officials is one of the most important actions that you and I can take to protect imperiled species and to make the world a better place. The control of Congress and the administration can determine whether species receive protections or are left out in the cold.

Tell your senators to fund vote-by-mail to keep the election safe and accessible for everyone. (Go to

Just this month, the Department of Interior finalized an outrageous rule allowing the killing of mother bears and their cubs in their dens, and the brutal trapping of wolves and their pups on federal lands in Alaska. This rule is a reversal of the protections that the previous administration put into place. And, it is also a stark and troubling illustration that elections have enormous consequences.

It must be safe for all of us to vote. Today, it is not. I would not and could not in good conscience encourage anyone in a vulnerable population to go to the polls. Asking Americans to put their lives in jeopardy to exercise a constitutionally-granted right is completely unacceptable. We demand that right. We demand it for everyone. And we demand that it not come at the cost of the lives of our elders.

Several states have already successfully enacted vote-by-mail including Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Utah, California, and Hawaii–and these states are seeing a higher voter turnout as a result. Higher turnout means more Americans having a voice in the political process.

Don’t be swayed by some spreading disinformation on social media. There is no evidence that voter fraud is more likely with vote-by-mail. That baseless assertion is just an attempt to keep turnout low.

Email your senators and tell them that you support funding of vote-by-mail in time for November.

This year’s elections will have far-reaching impacts. The fates of wolves, monarchs, orcas, bees, and even the Endangered Species Act itself could be decided by our ability to safely cast our votes. Please join us in demanding that the Senate protect that right by making vote-by-mail accessible to all.

Thank you for your commitment to wildlife and wild places.



Endangered Tigers Face Growing Threats From an Asian Road-Building Boom

By Neil Carter, May 2, 2020 

 Tigers are one of the world’s most iconic wild species, but today they are endangered throughout Asia. They once roamed across much of this region, but widespread habitat loss, prey depletion and poaching have reduced their numbers to only about 4,000 individuals. They live in small pockets of habitat across South and Southeast Asia, as well as the Russian Far East — an area spanning 13 countries and 450,000 square miles (1,160,000 square kilometers).

Today Asia is experiencing a road-building boom. To maintain economic growth, development experts estimate that the region will need to invest about US$8.4 trillion in transportation infrastructure between 2016 and 2030.

Major investment projects, such as China’s Belt and Road Initiative — one of the largest infrastructure projects of all time — are fueling this growth. While roads can reduce poverty, especially in rural areas, many of Asia’s new roads also are likely to traverse regions that are home to diverse plants and animals.

To protect tigers from this surge of road building, conservation scientists like me need to know where the greatest risks are. That information, in turn, can improve road planning in the future.

In a newly published study, I worked with researchers at the University of Michigan, Boise State University and the University of British Columbia to examine how existing and planned Asian roads encroach on tiger habitats. We forecast that nearly 15,000 miles (24,000 kilometers) of new roads will be built in tiger habitats by 2050, and call for bold new planning strategies that prioritize biodiversity conservation and sustainable road development across large landscapes.

Road construction worsens existing threats to tigers, such as poaching and development, by paving the way for human intrusion into the heart of the tiger’s range. For example, in the Russian Far East, roads have led to higher tiger mortality due to increased collisions with vehicles and more encounters with poachers.

To assess this threat across Asia, we focused on areas called Tiger Conservation Landscapes — 76 zones, scattered across the tiger’s range, which conservationists see as crucial for the species’ recovery. For each zone we calculated road density, distance to the nearest road and relative mean species abundance, which estimates the numbers of mammals in areas near roads compared to areas far from roads. Mean species abundance is our best proxy for estimating how roads affect numbers of mammals, like tigers and their prey, across broad scales.

We also used future projections of road building in each country to forecast the length of new roads that might be built in tiger habitats by 2050.

We estimated that more than 83,300 miles (134,000 kilometers) of roads already exist within tiger habitats. This is likely an underestimate, since many logging or local roads are missing from the global data set that we used.

Road densities in tiger habitat are one-third greater outside of protected areas, such as national parks and tiger reserves, than inside of protected areas. Non-protected areas averaged 1,300 feet of road per square mile (154 meters per square kilometer), while protected areas averaged 980 feet per square mile (115 meters per square kilometer). For tiger populations to grow, they will need to use the forests outside protected areas. However, the high density of roads in those forests will jeopardize tiger recovery.

Protected areas and priority conservation sites — areas with large populations of tigers — are not immune either. For example, in India — home to more than 70% of the world’s tigers — we estimate that a protected area of 500 square miles, or 1,300 square kilometers, contains about 200 miles (320 kilometers) of road.

Road networks are expansive. More than 40% of areas where tiger breeding has recently been detected — crucial to tiger population growth — is within just 3 miles (5 kilometers) of a nearby road. This is problematic because mammals often are less abundant this close to roads.

In fact, we estimate that current road networks within tiger habitats may be reducing local populations of tigers and their prey by about 20%. That’s a major decrease for a species on the brink of extinction. And the threats from roads are likely to become more severe.

Our findings underscore the need for planning development in ways that interfere as minimally as possible with tiger habitat. Multilateral development banks and massive ventures like the Belt and Road Initiative can be important partners in this endeavor. For example, they could help establish an international network of protected areas and habitat corridors to safeguard tigers and many other wild species from road impacts.

National laws can also do more to promote tiger-friendly infrastructure planning. This includes keeping road development away from priority tiger populations and other “no go” zones, such as tiger reserves or habitat corridors.

Zoning can be used around infrastructure to prevent settlement growth and forest loss. Environmental impact assessments for road projects can do a better job of assessing how new roads might exacerbate hunting and poaching pressure on tigers and their prey.

Funding agencies need to screen proposed road developments using these tiger-friendly criteria before planners finalize decisions on road design, siting and construction. Otherwise, it might be too late to influence road planning.

There are also opportunities to reduce the negative effects of existing roads on tigers. They include closing roads to vehicular traffic at night, decommissioning existing roads in areas with important tiger populations, adding road signs announcing the presence of tigers and constructing wildlife crossings to allow tigers and other wildlife to move freely through the landscape.

Roads will become more pervasive features in Asian ecosystems as these nations develop. In my view, now is the time to tackle this mounting challenge to Asian biodiversity, including tigers, through research, national and international collaborations and strong political leadership


CBS News/ January 5, 2020

Joel Sartore on saving endangered species – and ourselves

By National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore:

So, why should you care that so many of Earth’s species are going to run out of time, and relatively soon?

Because what happens to them … will eventually happen to us.

My Photo Ark project has made me intimately familiar with the nearly departed. In creating a photographic record of animals before they disappear, I’ve had a front-row seat to nearly 10,000 mammals, birds, amphibians, fish, reptiles and invertebrates, including the world’s most vulnerable.

Most you’ve never heard of. There’s the tarsier and the torpedo barb, the bonneted bat and the bearded pig, the wildcat and the woolly monkey.

Notice how many are looking us in the eye, as if they’re counting on us to save them. Some actually look worried. We should be, too.

Though we forget it sometimes, we humans are animals ourselves. Yep, we’re 100 percent primate, just like them, and we depend on the natural world in which we evolved.

We must have intact rainforests to produce dependable amounts of rain to grow our crops. We need healthy seas to generate much of the food we eat and the oxygen we breathe. And we need pollinating insects as well to bring us fruits and vegetables.

The solution is simple but not easy: We must preserve and restore vast tracts of wild lands and oceans now, to stabilize the planet’s life support systems.

As someone who has looked so many others in the eye, this is very personal. If we fail, which of these would we choose to lose?

The bonobo or the kakapo? The Barbary lion or the lion-tailed macaque? The four-striped lizard or the polka-dot poison frog?

Each are living works of art, honed by the ages, intelligent in their own way. Whether it’s the San Francisco garter snake or the San Joaquin kit fox, each is deserving of a basic right to exist.

The good news is there’s no need to get depressed. Indeed, we live in a Golden Age for conservation. Thanks to the web, we can let the whole world know about the biggest threats to co-existence, in real time. And where there’s a need, humans love to fill it.

You must get off the bench now, though. Step up and find a problem you can solve in your town, then actually do something about it.

Perhaps you can get your friends to grow flowers for butterflies and native bees in yards, public parks and along roadways. Native plants at your office building is a fine idea as well, as is insulating your home, eating less meat, and reducing, reusing and recycling everything you buy.

All of this gives me great hope – for the Pacific hagfish, the noble crayfish and the glass catfish. The Atlantic sturgeon and the Pacific seahorse. The aye-aye and the Iberian lynx. The little spotted kiwi, and the giant armadillo.

By doing the best you can, diligently and for the rest of your life, your very existence will have improved the world.

Imagine that!


A life-and-death balancing act

Human interaction can be an enemy to or a protector of protected species.

Newsday–Opinion Columnist

By Michael Dobie

Updated July 14, 2019

The elephant was killed for its ivory tusks. It’s a sad, and too common, story.

The even more horrifying part came later, after poachers in northern Botswana tried to cover their tracks. Knowing that vultures feeding on carrion can tip off rangers to their presence, the poachers laced the elephant carcass with poison. And killed 537 vultures from five species, all of which are either endangered or critically endangered.

The loss was mind-boggling. And it gets worse: Many of the vultures killed last month were new parents who left behind chicks not likely to survive on their own.

It’s hard to wrap one’s mind around such cruelty. Then you contrast that with what’s happening in Africa some 1,200 miles to the north, where endangered mountain gorillas are making a slow but sure comeback. That’s also due to human intervention — the establishment of national parks in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo; tough enforcement of laws against hunting and logging within those boundaries; health care for the gorillas from trained veterinarians; and a nifty funding mechanism in which money paid by ecotourists to see the gorillas is used to pay park rangers who keep them safe.

Such is the yin and yang of preserving species.

It’s certainly true in our own country. The Endangered Species Act, passed in 1973, has been spectacularly successful in restoring populations of alligators, whooping cranes and bald eagles. But the Trump administration continues to try to weaken the law, even as the UN says that up to 1 million species of plants and animals are at risk of extinction in as soon as a few decades — often because of human behavior.

Concern for species survival is not only a matter of principle, though humans do have a moral obligation to not blithely wipe out other organisms. We also must worry about how our actions vis a vis one species affect entire ecosystems in ways that we, in our ignorance or hubris, do not anticipate.

I’ve written about the havoc wreaked in Yellowstone National Park when wolves were eradicated, and the balance that was restored when they were reintroduced. Here’s another cautionary Yellowstone tale.

In the 1990s, lake trout turned up in Yellowstone Lake, possibly introduced by a misguided fisher. They flourished, and began eating young cutthroat trout, the vaunted native species. As cutthroat disappeared from the lake’s shallower waters (lake trout prefer deeper waters), ospreys and bald eagles lost their main food source, and numbers of each species plummeted. And the grizzly and black bears that gorged on cutthroat making spawning runs up local streams moved elsewhere.

On the other hand — and in species conservation there always seems to an other hand — an effort to protect bison, once reduced to 23 in the park but now numbering more than 4,000, has been so successful that Yellowstone is shipping out bison to bolster smaller herds elsewhere.

And on yet one more hand, the recovery of gray wolves in the West has led to their reappearance in northern California, and to the subsequent disappearance of six members of a pack of seven — killed, some environmentalists contend, by ranchers seeking to protect their livestock. Rancher worry is understandable, but gunning down whatever crosses one’s rifle sights cannot be our best answer.

And poisoning vultures destroys creatures that do a marvelous job of controlling the spread of diseases by quickly eating contaminated carcasses harmful to other species but not to vultures.

In nature, balance is critical and success is possible. But the work is hard and long. Without it, failure is guaranteed.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.


Trump’s plan to take wolves off the endangered species list is deeply flawed

Scientists who study gray wolves think it’s too soon to claim victory in their recovery.

VOX, By Lindsey Botts Jul 13, 2019

With the deadline looming for public comment on the Interior Department’s proposal to remove the gray wolf from the endangered species list, gray wolves across the country could be one step closer to losing federal protections under the Endangered Species Act.

Trump administration officials at Interior are trying to make the case that 50 years of recovery efforts have restored wolf populations to a place where they no longer need to be protected under the act.

But scientists looking at where wolves have made a comeback, and where they haven’t, say recovery is far from complete. Why? Because although there are just over 6,000 wolves in the lower 48 states, mostly throughout the western Great Lakes and northern Rocky Mountains, they occupy less than 15 percent of their historic range.

Which is why more than 100 scientists sent a letter on May 7 rebuking the proposal to remove wolves from the ESA. Additionally, more than 650,000 people have weighed in, mostly opposing, ahead of the July 15 comment period deadline.

“In our view, this proposal is premature because wolf recovery in the lower 48 states is not yet complete,” says Zack Strong, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group. “Wolves have not yet returned to significant areas where they once existed historically and where there is still suitable habitat.”

Some wolf advocates see this as a part of a larger Republican-led initiative to undermine the ESA, but at its core, this is a battle about what recovery should look like.

Urbanites, who value wildlife for its intrinsic nature and want to see wolves return to areas where they were driven out, tend to want as much recovery as possible. And rural communities, which see wolves as a threat to livestock and game hunting, tend to want as little recovery as possible. To put it another way, this is more than managing just wolf numbers. It’s managing people.

Why wolves were listed under the Endangered Species Act

Wolves once roamed vast swaths of North America, but settlers expanding west in the 18th and 19th centuries slaughtered them to ensure the safety of livestock. Exterminating the wolf became a metaphor for taming a wild America.

“The wolf is the arch type of ravin, the beast of waste and desolation,” remarked Theodore Roosevelt in his 1902 book Hunting the Grisly and Other Sketches. “It is still found scattered thinly throughout all the wilder portions of the United States, but has everywhere retreated from the advance of civilization.”

By the time the Rocky Mountain wolf subspecies was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1973, hunting and trapping had pushed gray wolf numbers in the lower 48 states down from several hundred thousand before colonists arrived to 1,000. Recognizing the threat to gray wolves across the country, the department listed all subspecies under the act in 1978.

Bans on hunting gave wolves the chance to recover in some regions. This mostly included sparsely populated areas along the Canadian border where existing populations were supplemented by wolves from the north.

In 1994, a reintroduction program in Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho helped accelerate recovery in the west. But reintroduction efforts aren’t welcomed by all.

“The wolves have caused massive problems for ranchers, who have lost sheep, cattle and working dogs to the predators while wildlife managers were forced to stand by,” according to an editorial from Capital Press, an agricultural publication based out of Oregon.

Despite wolves accounting for less than 1 percent of livestock death, this presumption nearly led to their extinction in the lower 48 states. The blanket protections of the act, however, offered gray wolves a lifeline.

Why Interior is ready to delist them

Interior’s decision to remove federal protections is based on the success of two wolf populations — in the already delisted northern Rocky Mountains and near the Great Lakes. In the government’s view, these two populations are big enough to render the entire species no longer threatened or endangered.

According to the proposed rule, delisting is warranted because gray wolves “do not meet the definition of a threatened species or endangered species under the Act due to recovery.” It goes on to explain that wolves outside of the Great Lakes are not necessary for full recovery, nor are they distinct from listed populations.

However, Interior’s own policy on distinct populations under the ESA doesn’t support this catchall strategy. According to the policy, a distinct population need only be different by “physical, physiological, ecological, or behavioral factors,” “is delimited by international governmental boundaries,” and does not require “absolute reproductive isolation.”

Why delisting now might be bad for wolves

While some wolf populations in the US are doing well, others have barely started recovering. Populations in Pacific states like California, where there are barely a dozen, are tenuous. The same is true for wolves in the southern Rockies. Delisting wolves now would stymie recovery at best or reverse it all together in these areas.

Once wolves are delisted, their management reverts to state agencies. They often set aggressive hunting and trapping quotas to satisfy demand from local ranchers and farmers, who bring in revenue from the sale of hunting licenses and tags, and fees for predator control services.

At the state level, hunting and ranching interests wield power to fund lobbying efforts to delist wolves from the ESA, legitimize wolf bounties, and expand hunting and trapping. In other words, state management can create fatal barriers to recovery.

More than just adhering to commitments of the act, conservation biologists like Dr. Carlos Carroll believe that recovery across extensive portions of wolves range helps preserve genetic diversity and improves adaptability by keeping multiple populations connected. This in turn makes wolves more resilient in a world of changing climates and ecosystems.

What true recovery would look like

While recovery looks different for each species, the signs of success are the same. The species has returned to significant portions of their range and no longer faces the threat of extinction.

Proponents of federal protections would like to see multiple recovery zones established in a national wolf recovery plan before delisting occurs. Last December, as the delisting proposal was being drafted, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Humane Society submitted a petition to Interior requesting just that. The petition described a variety of regions that are ripe for recovery, including the Pacific Coast, the Midwest, the southern Rockies, and the Northeast.

By focusing on multiple large areas like this, Interior could tailor protections based on conservation need while still committing to the intention of the ESA, recovery throughout wolves range, they said. For instance, fragile populations in the southern Rockies could be protected more than robust populations living near the Great Lakes.

“[T]he Act defines an endangered or threatened species in terms of significant portions of its range,” says Collette Adkins, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, an endangered species nonprofit. “If you just ignore all those areas where [wolves] once lived and look at the few places where they’re doing well and say ‘Oh, well, they’re doing well here. We can remove the protections,’ then you never will really get to true conservation and recovery.”


What is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species?

The international agreement known as CITES seeks to protect wildlife threatened by trade.

By Rachel Fobar, National Geographic Magazine

PUBLISHED July 3, 2019

What is CITES?

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, often referred to as CITES (SIGH-teez), is an agreement between governments that regulates the international trade of wildlife and wildlife products—everything from live animals and plants to food, leather goods, and trinkets. It came into force in 1975 with the goal of ensuring that international trade does not threaten the survival of wild plants and animals.

There are about 5,800 species of animals and 30,000 species of plants protected by CITES currently. They’re categorized into one of three appendices, depending on how at risk from trade they are.

As of June 2019, CITES had 183 party governments, which must abide by CITES regulations by implementing legislation within their own borders to enforce those regulations.

CITES was first conceived of at a 1963 meeting of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the global authority on the conservation status of wild animals and plants.

What are CITES appendices?

There are three appendices: Appendix I, II, and III. Each denotes a different level of protection from trade.

Appendix I includes species that are in danger of extinction because of international trade. Permits are required for import and export, and trade for commercial purposes is prohibited. Trade may be allowed for research or law enforcement purposes, among a few other limited reasons, but first the source country must confirm that taking that plant or animal won’t hurt the species’ chance of survival. (This is known as a “non-detriment finding.”) The Asiatic lion and tigers are two species listed as Appendix I.

Appendix II includes species that aren’t facing imminent extinction but need monitoring to ensure that trade doesn’t become a threat. Export is allowed if the plant, animal, or related product was obtained legally and if harvesting it won’t hurt the species’ chance of survival. American alligators are listed on Appendix II, for example. They were overhunted through the 1960s for their skin, but their numbers are now on the rise. CITES Appendix II listing helps ensure the alligator skin trade doesn’t become a threat again.

Appendix III includes species that are protected in at least one country, when that country asks others for help in regulating the trade. Regulations for these species vary, but typically the country that requested the listing can issue export permits, and export from other countries requires a certificate of origin. While honey badgers are listed as of least concern by the IUCN, their Botswana population is on CITES Appendix III because of concerns that they would be exploited in other African countries for use in traditional medicine and as bushmeat.

What happens at CITES meetings?

Every two to three years, CITES parties meet at what’s called the Conference of the Parties (or “CoP”) to evaluate how the convention is being enforced. The purpose of this two-week meeting is to consider new proposals for listing or removing species from appendices, to debate other decisions and resolutions about implementation of regulations, and to review conservation progress.

Appendix changes, the main event at the CoP, are proposed if a species is thought to need more—or less—protection from trade. For example, in 2016, the proposal to increase protections for pangolins, scaly, armadillo-lookalikes that are among the world’s most trafficked mammals, by moving them from Appendix II to Appendix I passed almost unanimously.

How effective is CITES?

CITES has plenty of critics. Some say conservationists flock to the two-week meeting every few years, fiercely debate the fate of endangered animals, and then go home, patting themselves on the back for a job well done. Meanwhile, the actual enforcement of the CITES regulations is left to the countries themselves—some of which don’t have the resources or political will to enforce regulations.

A 2019 analysis in the journal Science found that in nearly two-thirds of cases, CITES protections lag after a species is determined to be threatened by international trade. For example, while pangolins were finally added to Appendix I in 2017, an estimated million were trafficked between 2000 and 2013. Of the eight species of pangolins, half are endangered or critically endangered. The vast majority of animals that are in the wildlife trade are not protected by CITES.

If a party violates the convention, CITES can respond with sanctions, which prevent a country from trading in CITES-listed species. But countries are rarely sanctioned and the process can become highly politicized. What’s more, because CITES membership is voluntary, a country could simply leave CITES rather than accept sanctions.

Still, some say regulations are an important first step. Before CITES existed, international wildlife trade was largely a free-for-all—while individual countries tried to restrict the trade of threatened species, illegally exported products could be legally imported into many countries.

One success story CITES touts is the vicuña. In the mid-20th century, populations of the once-abundant llama relative had dwindled to about 10,000 animals because commercial demand for its fur led to widespread poaching. But after enacting conservation measures, including a CITES listing in 1975, populations rebounded. Today, the vicuña’s conservation status is least concern.

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