Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Save the bats

In case you needed something else to worry about.

Texas researchers have closely watched the state’s bat population for years, looking for signs of a disease that has killed millions of North American bats: the white, powder-like substance on their nose and wings, the erratic hibernation patterns, the piles of dead bats at cave openings.

And every year, those researchers breathed a sigh of relief. Their bats were safe.

That changed last year. Swabs from three different kinds of bats in the Lone Star State’s panhandle came back positive for white nose syndrome, aptly named for the white fungus that grows on the tiny winged creatures.

The discovery of the disease, which has a nearly 100 percent mortality rate, was “devastating,” said Winifred Frick, senior director of conservation science at the Austin-based Bat Conservation International (BCI), at a news conference Tuesday.

But about $600,000 in grants announced Tuesday by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation could help researchers stop the disease’s spread in Texas. That amount is part of $1.36 million being handed out in the U.S. and Canada for six projects. The money comes from public and private entities: the foundation, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Shell Oil Co., and Southern Co., an Atlanta-based gas and electric utility business.

With these funds “we’re hoping to make a stand,” said Paul Phifer, assistant regional director for ecological services at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Northeast region. “They show that the government working with the private sector can really turn research into action … so I’m really hopeful.”

I’m hopeful, too, because Texas is a very bat-ful state, and we need them around. Go visit Bat Conservation International if you want to learn more or get involved.

Border walls are bad for the environment

Not that anyone pushing for a border wall cares, but just so you know.

There’s been a lot of debate about how effective the Bush-era barrier has been at keeping out illegal crossers and drug smugglers. Some data indicates the barriers have encouraged people to cross in places where there isn’t one. But the handprints show that a determined person can still easily scale it.

What the border fence has kept out instead, according to environmentalists, scientists and local officials, is wildlife. And the people who have spent decades acquiring and restoring border habitat say that if President Donald Trump makes good on his promise to turn the border fence into a continuous, 40-foot concrete wall, the situation for wildlife along the border — one of the most biodiverse areas in North America — will only get worse.

Right now, a mix of vehicle barriers and pedestrian fencing covers only about one-third of the nearly 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border. Even with all those gaps, experts say the barriers have made it harder for animals to find food, water and mates. Many of them, like jaguars, gray wolves and ocelots, are already endangered.

Aaron Flesch, a biologist at the University of Arizona, said most border animals are already squeezed into small, fragmented patches of habitat.

“If you just go and you cut movements off,” he said, “you can potentially destabilize these entire networks of population.”

Still, the impacts of the border fence on wildlife aren’t totally understood. That’s in large part because Congress let the U.S. Department of Homeland Security ignore all the environmental laws that would’ve required the agency to fully study how the barrier would affect wildlife.

Flesch and other scientists say the federal government also has made almost no research money available to support independent studies. Most of the studies that have been done are limited in scope, but their findings are pretty clear: Impeding animal movements puts them on a faster path to extinction.

Environmentalists and conservation groups say the border fence also has compromised the federal government’s own efforts to protect those vulnerable species, pitting the U.S. Department of Homeland Security against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The latter agency bought large tracts of land along the border decades ago and turned them into national wildlife refuges.

It’s a long story, so click over to read it, and see also the border fence slideshow that accompanies it. But just reading those few paragraphs above, we all know there’s literally nothing here that would deter Dear Leader or any of the fervent wall zealots. What do they care about a bunch of stupid animals, or the scientists who say we’re hurting them? There are some fights you can win by being right and having the evidence on your side. This isn’t one of them.

Texas v the feds, Endangered Species edition

One more for the road.

Best mugshot ever

Best mugshot ever

For perhaps the last time before President Barack Obama leaves office, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has filed suit against the federal government for what he considers federal overreach, this time in an endangered species matter.

[…]

One rule revises the definition of “destruction or adverse modification” of habitat.

Under the old definition, habitat destruction involved “a direct or indirect alteration that appreciably diminishes the value of critical habitat for both the survival and recovery of a listed species.”

But courts found that the definition was wanting. Thus, the new definition holds that destruction is anything that diminishes “the conservation of a listed species.”

Another rule clarifies the procedures and standards used for designating critical habitat.

Federal officials say the changes are meant to increase transparency.

“The Endangered Species Act is the last safety net between our most at-risk species and extinction, and, as such, we want to do everything we can to make sure it functions efficiently and effectively,” Gary Frazer, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s assistant director for ecological services, said in February, when the rules were finalized.

But the suit says the changes would allow the government “to exercise virtually unlimited power to declare land and water critical habitat for endangered and threatened species, regardless of whether that land or water is occupied or unoccupied by the species, regardless of the presence or absence of the physical or biological features necessary to sustain the species, and regardless of whether the land or water is actually essential to the conservation of the species habitat protections for endangered species.”

Whatever else you can say about this strategy of making Texas federal district court judges our lords and masters, it has had its share of success. As the Trump regime is unlikely to do any policymaking that will make Texas want to sue it (though all bets are off for California), this may be Ken Paxton’s last hurrah, modulo the 2018 and 2020 elections. The Chron has more.

Whither the monarch butterfly

We should try to keep them from going extinct. That would be bad.

The state’s chief financial officer has approved a $300,000 grant to investigate why the number of monarch butterflies is declining in Texas, and what can be done about it.

The bottom line for Comptroller Glenn Hegar, however, is less about butterflies than it is about commerce.

The state’s interest in the study by the University of Texas at San Antonio includes the potential economic impact on Texas should the federal government decide to list the official state insect as a threatened species.

Kevin Lyons, Hegar’s press secretary, said that if the iconic butterfly is listed, “many industries important to our state’s economy could be affected, from agriculture to land development to energy production.” Texas, he said, is trying to take the lead nationally on monarch conservation efforts.

“This crucial research will help us develop voluntary best management practices to conserve the monarch butterfly while minimizing the impact on economic activity,” Hegar said in a statement announcing the grant.

The monarch study is the latest funded by the state in an effort to “gather data on species under review so it can respond appropriately to proposed listings … and find the right balance of protecting our natural resources and our state’s economy,” according to the website for the Interagency Task Force on Economic Growth and Endangered Species, which Hegar chairs.

[…]

In Texas and other states, studies weighing economic development against the cost of saving endangered species have become the latest battleground between environmental groups and big business.

“We’ve seen this with the sage grouse, wolves, freshwater mussels and other species,” said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Mass. “The argument is that if we have to protect anything, the world will end, when actually it won’t. There is a public benefit to protecting butterflies and other species, but it’s hard to monetize. … Studying the economics of a listing is a very clever way of saying the cost will be high – something most people can understand – when that doesn’t measure the cost of losing a species.”

In Texas, officials said the monarch study will evaluate the abundance and distribution of the otherwise unremarkable nuisance plant known as milkweed, the butterfly’s primary food source.

If the butterfly is listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as threatened, officials fear much of the state could be affected because Texas is a major flyway for the annual migration of the monarch between Mexico and Canada each year.

Environmental groups seeking to have the monarch listed note that the butterfly’s population fell from about 1 billion in the mid-1990s to just 35 million last winter, the lowest number ever logged.

“There’s been an 80 percent decline in the population, a precipitous decline,” said Lori Ann Burd, the environmental health director for the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, one of three groups that filed to have the monarch listed. “They can’t survive in smaller numbers. We’re really at the precipice with the monarch.”

That’s actually a 96.5% decline, which sounds pretty bad to me. Butterflies have an important role to play in pollinization, so to say the least there would be a significant cost if they were to become endangered or worse. Let’s for once please not be penny-wise and pound-foolish here.

Reintroducing the jaguarundi

Cool.

Jaguarundi (source: Wikipedia)

The federal government has established a recovery plan for the jaguarundi, almost four decades since the small wildcat was listed as an endangered species and almost three decades since one was confirmed in the U.S.

But don’t expect to see the reddish brown or grey feline returning to what remains of the thick brush in South Texas anytime soon. The plan recently approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is heavy on additional research and habitat restoration but is not especially optimistic about its prospects for success.

The jaguarundi, a bit bigger than the average house cat, had much of its preferred thorn scrub habitat cleared long ago in Texas for agriculture and more recently for development in the rapidly growing border region. The cats still prowl in northeast Mexico, where much of the research would take place.

“There’s just not a whole lot of information on the jaguarundi,” said Taylor Jones of the nonprofit WildEarth Guardians, which sued and reached a settlement with the government that called for the recovery plan. She hopes the plan will spark new research, and in the near term contribute to additional efforts to conserve and restore the cat’s habitat. “You certainly couldn’t bring them back if they didn’t have any place to live.”

[…]

It’s not clear how many jaguarundis existed when the species was first listed as endangered in 1976, but it was determined they were in decline because of habitat destruction. The last confirmed sighting of a jaguarundi in the U.S. was a dead one on a road outside Brownsville in 1986. Before that, the last was seen in 1969.

Lesli Gray, a spokeswoman for the federal wildlife agency, said there is no guarantee funding will exist to meet the agency’s goals, but at least a plan has been developed that outlines what is needed to delist the species or at least improve its population.

The plan calls for spending more than $7 million in each of the first two years. Under a fully funded plan, the jaguarundi could be downlisted by 2040 if three or more established populations are found with a total of at least 250 cats. The species could be delisted 10 years later.

I have no idea how well this will work, but I wish them the best of luck. Loss of habitat is a tough thing for a lot of species to overcome. The Center for Biological Diversity has more.

Rescuing fish

Wow.

Wildlife biologists [last week evacuated] two species of minnows from the shrinking waters of a West Texas river in the first of what could be several rescue operations involving fish affected by the state’s worst drought in decades.

Smalleye shiners and sharpnose shiners, the species being collected from the Brazos River about 175 miles northwest of Fort Worth, will be taken to the state’s fish hatchery near Possum Kingdom Lake. When drought conditions abate, the minnows will be returned to the river.

Scorching conditions have left the water hot, muddy and salty in the river’s Clear, Double Mountain and Salt forks. Because of the drought, the water levels were so low this year that the minnows — candidates to be listed as threatened or endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act — didn’t have the 100 miles of river needed to reproduce.

Their life span is just two years, so scientists are scrambling to save the two species, which wildlife officials say are the most abundant fish in the upper Brazos and are found nowhere else in the world.

“If this drought continues for another year and they haven’t reproduced . . . we may lose the entire population,” said Gene Wilde, a fish ecology professor at Texas Tech who has spent much of his life studying fish in West Texas rivers.

There are a couple of other examples of this kind of rescue, but it’s pretty rare. I suppose one can make the case – a couple of the story’s commenters try – that this is natural selection in action, and we have no business messing with it. I don’t accept that reasoning, partly because the presence of modern humans has an outsized and unnatural effect on the ecosystem anyway, and partly because there may be direct negative effects on the human population in the area if these species were to vanish; who knows what might happen to plants and other animals if these fish were to go extinct? I’m no bio-ethicist, but I approve of this action.

Feral hogs: Still a problem

I’ve always been glad to live in the city because of stuff like this, but maybe it’s not enough any more.

Arlington and Dallas are among cities along the Trinity River that also have reported problems with wild hogs that weigh several hundred pounds, [Ag Commissioner Todd] Staples said.

Wildlife officials say the hogs are now starting to plague urban areas because of changing habitats and prolific reproduction. Texas has up to 2 million of the hairy beasts, about half the nation’s population, and state officials say they cause about $400 million in damage each year.

Although not all feral hogs have tusks, for years the animals have been a menace in rural areas by shredding cornfields, eating calves and damaging fruit trees – even breaking through barbed-wire fences, said Texas Farm Bureau spokesman Gene Hall. They also wreck ecosystems by wallowing in riverbeds and streams.

“They can do more damage than a bulldozer,” Hall said.

Methods to stop the problem have failed, including a pig birth-control pill studied by a veterinarian and researcher. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering allowing hunters in helicopters to shoot wild hogs at a wildlife refuge in Central Texas, saying they keep destroying the habitat.

Just curious – how effective is shooting them from helicopters, anyway? Is it really possible to bag more of them than you would traditionally? Seems to me the noise from the copters would scare off any animals in the vicinity, but what do I know? Anybody have experience with this? Of course, if that’s not effective then it’s hard to say what would be. I’m glad it’s not my job to have to figure it out.