Bitterrooters got a chance last week to hear about the impacts of climate change on wildlife worldwide and some attempts by the World Wildlife Fund to mitigate those impacts on wildlife species and help them avoid extinction. The talk was given by Kristy Bly, Senior Conservation Biologist for the WWF Northern Plains Program. She spoke about the importance of nature and how nature can provide solutions to the ever-increasing threat to biodiversity and the loss of species around the world. The free talk was sponsored by the Bitterroot Climate Action Committee and held at the Bitterroot National Forest Supervisor’s office in Hamilton.
There is a lot of evidence that rising global temperatures are already having serious impacts in the Arctic. African and Indian Elephants and Russian antelopes are now threatened by climate driven drought. Glaciers are melting and Arctic ice shelves are caving in. Polar bears are already suffering significantly. So are the walruses.
As the ice melts, the oceans rise and this year, in 2019, the Bramble Cay melomys, a small mammal once inhabiting the Great Barrier Reef off Australia, was recognized as the first mammal species to go extinct due to climate change.
Bly, who has been working for WWF for about 13 years, has some experience with species hovering on the verge of extinction, as she specializes in swift fox and the black-footed ferret in South Dakota. There she has been battling the threats to the swift fox, ferrets and prairie dogs, that have all had to face catastrophic threats to their existence that can in turn be aggravated by climate change.
She said that in her lifetime, 60% of wildlife species populations worldwide are gone.
“Also an unprecedented number,” she said. “That’s not even fifty years and that’s alarming to me. As somebody who spends a lot of time in nature, that’s a pretty depressing number. Not only that the rate of species extinctions is increasing and expected to accelerate.” Right now, she said, around one million plant and animal species are threatened with extinction.
“Nature is declining at a rate unprecedented in human history,” said Bly. But what’s driving it, she said, is human consumption through demand for energy, land and water.
Only one quarter of the land on earth today, she said, is free from the impacts of substantial human activities, and that untouched portion is expected to be diminished by another 10% over the next 30 years.
Although climate change is a growing threat to the earth’s bio-diversity, she does not believe it is the driving factor in species extinction at present. According to Bly, the evidence suggests otherwise.
WWF scientists have identified the major historic threats to biodiversity on the planet as habitat loss and degradation; over-exploitation and over harvest; invasive species and disease; pollution; and climate change. But the top two threats have always been and still remain, she said, habitat loss and over-exploitation.
“So why do we care? Why does biodiversity matter?” asks Bly. For one thing, because this bio-diverse nature provides us with almost everything we need. It is important for our food, our health and our security.
“It is critical to society and to human health,” she said. “From medical treatments to food to agriculture and production, it’s critical.
“All of our economic activity depends upon the services provided by nature, which are estimated to be at $125 trillion a year,” she said. “That’s a lot of money generated from nature. Everything that has built our modern society has been provided by nature.”
Bly also believes that nature can provide many of the solutions that might help us survive this period of global crisis.
“From grasslands to oceans, nature fixes our bad habits,” she said. “Carbon dioxide, greenhouse gas emissions, is the major contributor to climate change today. Reducing carbon emission by moving towards non-carbon-based energy sources like wind and solar, by expanding clean transportation initiatives, and by preserving these carbon sinks like oceans, like grasslands, like forests, is going to be very critical for us moving forward.”
Globally, grasslands absorb 343 gigatons of CO2, about 19% of the energy that we use. Oceans absorb CO2 and regulate climate.
So what do we do? According to Bly, we can look to nature for answers.
Disasters can sometimes be avoided or the damage mitigated significantly by taking a cue from nature. Mangrove forest restoration in Vietnam has proven to be more effective and efficient and least costly than other measures to mitigate typhoon damage, for instance.
Nature based solutions like green roofs and conservation have helped one city save 12 million gallons of water.
Re-generative agricultural practices, like no-till farming, composting, rotational grazing and replenishing ground water through re-forestation, can effectively address certain issues. West Africa tree planting has been shown to benefit the water production for farmers in that region. It also proved to be effective in the 2012 drought in the central U.S. in providing greater crop yields during the crisis.
Well managed protected areas have proven effective worldwide in keeping ecosystems intact and providing habitat for wildlife and eliminating threats that can cause biodiversity loss.
Bly notes that despite the other factors involved in species extinction, climate change is still playing a major role. She distinguishes three aspects of the phenomena examining the physical, biological and social aspects of climate change.
Physically, the earth is experiencing rising temperatures, causing melting of the Arctic ice cap and the loss of habitat for polar bears, penguins and seals.
Biologically, warming temps can mean that pests and other threats don’t die – like sylvatic plague which is decimating the prairie dog population and the black-tailed ferret populations in the U.S.
Socially, it can mean drought, leading to lost crops and food shortages.
The impacts on these factors can lead to “cascading effects” as well, she notes. For instance, food shortage leads to entering protected areas for food and water and that can lead to poaching, and increased human/wildlife conflicts and other problems.
We’ve heard a lot about climate change for quite a while, but what we are witnessing is “pretty harsh, very real, whether it’s climate change or change in temperature, or cycles that we haven’t seen in our lifetime, it is happening,” said Bly.
Parts of Namibia are facing the worst drought seen there in 90 years.
In 2010-2011, unprecedented snow fell on the northern Great Plains and 270 pronghorns were lost to trains and far more from roads as the animals used the tracks and roadways to navigate the deep snow. Swift fox populations plummeted as well.
So what are we doing about it all?
WWF is conducting vulnerability assessments, determining how they might best assist these species in adapting by looking at sensitivity, adaptive capacity, exposure and other threats.
They have initiated projects to help African and Asian elephants which are pretty resilient to climate change in a lot of ways, according to Bly. They can use diverse habitats and have a diverse diet. But they consume 300 liters of water a day plus bathing requirements.
“We are worried,” said Bly. Elephants prefer high precipitation areas and during dry years some water sources evaporate. One solution they are trying is to build rainwater catchments in the wild.
Mountain gorillas in Uganda are more vulnerable than elephants, she said. They occupy a smaller, narrower niche and they have a small population size and little room to move due to human development. Villagers living near the Volcano National Park where the primates live are entering the park looking for water, which leads to human/wildlife conflict. Some are setting snares for antelope that sometimes catch baby gorillas.
“There are only 880 mountain gorillas existing in the world, so snaring any babies is problematic,” said Bly.
Once again building a water catchment is the answer. Not for the gorillas, but for the community, so they don’t have to go into the gorilla’s sanctuary area for water or food.
Although many people think of the WWF as dealing with far-off and exotic animals, like gorillas, rhinoceros, and elephants, and polar bears, that is not always the case. They are not always that far off.
Bly has the distinction of having worked for a long time in one of the world’s most threatened environments with one of the rarest mammals on earth. And it wasn’t in Africa or Asia. One of the most threatened ecosystems in the world is the North American Prairie and Bly has been intimately involved in the struggle to save the black-footed ferret, or the “masked bandit of the prairie” from extinction. There are currently fewer than 300 living in the wild today.
Ferrets are an obligate predator upon prairie dogs and only live in prairie dog towns.
The prairie dog population is declining due to plowing and poisoning (the top two factors in species extinction) and now by a disease. According to Bly, it’s the same bubonic plague, the “Black Death” that ravaged Europe in the Middle Ages. It is a non-native disease transmitted by fleas, a bacterium, brought into America on ships landing in San Francisco.
Bly said the bacterium moved gradually eastward until basically stopping on 103rd meridian, which runs north and south along South Dakota’s western border.
Bly was living in South Dakota when the plague jumped the line.
“So we were growing prairie dogs and ferrets like no tomorrow,” said Bly. “We had ferrets coming out our ears and then in 2007 we went from a pretty severe drought into a pretty wet period and suddenly the plague line shifted eastward to the center of South Dakota.”
She called it “a game changer for ferret recovery.” They suddenly went from transporting out their ferrets for introduction elsewhere, to trying to save what they had.
She was working on what she called “one of the premiere ferret recovery sites in north America” covering the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands and Badlands National Park. It covered 30,000 acres of prairie dog towns and supported over 300 ferrets and was thriving
“We were live trapping and transplanting to other areas. Going like gangbusters until 2007,” said Bly. “Then plague comes ripping through, killing prairie dogs, killing ferrets. We were scrambling to stop the plague and thankfully saved 10,000 acres – today there’s about13,000 acres – but it went from 300 adult ferrets down to 30. That really slows progress for recovery.”
They lost every single ferret on the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in north central Montana. It was a 1,800-acre area supporting about 1,000 prairie dogs and 20 to 30 ferrets. The last ferret died there a year ago.
Bly said they are doing everything they can to boost the resiliency of the ferret/prairie dog population and they are putting more ferrets in more places so that if one population fails they don’t lose it all. She said 13 sites remain in the wild and six captive breeding sites to help prevent extinction. They are also trying to preserve the genetic integrity to keep the species alive.
They are also working to protect the grasslands that support these creatures. Grasslands cover 40% of land on earth and 80% of that is put to agricultural uses.
The WWF has also established a Climate Crowd website which serves to support a network of data on how climate change is impacting wildlife and weather in particular areas, and also supports on the ground projects such as small farming projects in Mexico, irrigation projects in Uganda, conservation agriculture projects in Tanzania, irrigation systems in Uganda, everywhere helping communities adjacent to wildlife.
Through its Wildlife Innovation Adaptation Fund, WWF is trying out new ideas and sponsoring pilot projects for species survival around the world. The endangered Red Panda in India, the walrus carcass crisis in Russia, the shy albatross in Tasmania, the one-horned rhinoceros in Nepal, the antelope in Russia and the Green Sea turtles in Australia, to name a few.
“We are at a really critical time,” said Bly. “But we can take action in our own backyard and change the trend of loss.”