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Costly new wildfire suppression won’t prevent catastrophic fires

Dan Silver, SONOMA COUNTY GAZETTE

A wildfire suppression plan adopted at the end of 2019 by the California Board of Forestry could cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars but will do very little to actually reduce fire risk for communities in Sonoma County and throughout the state. Fire safety experts and environmental protection advocates filed suit on January 28 to block the new Vegetation Treatment Program (VTP) from going into effect.

Proposed by CalFire, the state’s fire management agency, the VTP will not provide protection against wind-driven fires. Yet it is wind-driven wildfires that caused the devastating loss of life and property seen in the state in recent years. The Kincade Fire of 2019, which was the largest fire in Sonoma County recorded history, burned almost 78,000 acres and destroyed almost 400 structures. Similarly, the Tubbs, Nuns and Pocket Fires of 2017 burned more than 85,000 acres in Sonoma and Napa Counties, destroyed 7,000 structures and killed 25 people.

Across the state, 87 percent of the destruction of homes in 2017 and 2018 was caused by only six fires, all of which were wind-driven. Yet the methods to be used by the VTP would not have prevented those six catastrophic fires.

The VTP calls for removal of native forests, sage scrub and chaparral on a grand scale – on the order of 250,000 acres each year – at enormous financial and ecological cost, including releasing more carbon into the atmosphere. This approach does not stand up to scientific scrutiny and in many locations would actually be counterproductive by promoting the growth of highly flammable weeds. In addition, the VTP does not properly differentiate between what might work for northern forests versus chaparral and sage scrub in Southern California; these habitat types require very different management approaches when it comes to wildfire safety.

Read more at https://www.sonomacountygazette.com/sonoma-county-news/californias-wildfire-suppression-effort-won-t-prevent-catastrophic-fires

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Stanford researchers explain how humanity has ‘engineered a world ripe for pandemics’

Josie Garthwaite, STANFORD NEWS

A pandemic can strike at any time. It takes little more than the right roll of genetic dice in a virus circulating among animals, followed by a chance encounter with a person or some go-between species, like pigs or mosquitoes. But as the new coronavirus whips around the world with a speed matched by few of the infectious diseases that have emerged in modern times, it poses the question: Why now?

According to Stanford biological anthropologist James Holland Jones, we have always had spillover events, in which disease jumps from animals to people. “What’s different now is that a spillover in one part of the world can have major consequences for the rest of the world,” he said. “We have engineered a world ripe for pandemics.”

Central to this vulnerability is the fact that our species moves around the world so much, and so quickly – whether for business, leisure, safety, education, economic necessity or other reasons. Many diseases are able to move right along with us. In fact, one of the most successful indicators of where pathogens will spread is the number of flight connections between cities, said Stanford biology Professor Erin Mordecai, who studies how climate, species interactions and global change influence infectious disease dynamics in both humans and natural ecosystems.

All this interconnectedness is particularly problematic with a disease like COVID-19, which can be transmitted by people who are not experiencing symptoms. “This disease is really nasty from a control standpoint,” said Mordecai, an assistant professor of biology in the School of Humanities and Sciences and a fellow at Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. “If you don’t know you’re sick, you might get on the plane and shed virus everywhere.”

An engineered world

It’s not only our highly mobile lifestyles that are helping give pandemics a runway to spread around the globe. It’s also the way we crowd together in increasingly dense cities, interact with wildlife and alter the natural world.
Continue reading “Stanford researchers explain how humanity has ‘engineered a world ripe for pandemics’”

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Formerly endangered white rhinos flood city streets mere days after humans quarantined indoors

THE ONION

Letting out deep, powerful grunts that echoed throughout the area’s countless deserted storefronts, thousands of formerly endangered white rhinos flooded the streets of New York City Thursday mere days after residents were quarantined indoors.

white rhinos in New York

“After just a week of human isolation, this once-dying species has come back with a vengeance and is now stampeding through Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens,” said NYU Professor of Biology Jasmine Damcot, who added that the 5,000-pound animals appear to be multiplying exponentially and have been spotted sprinting through Times Square, sunning themselves on the Brooklyn Bridge, and ramming their horns into glass windows along Fifth Avenue.

“Without humans in the picture, it’s been remarkable to watch these rhinos recover and quickly inhabit every abandoned subway platform and empty bodega they can find. Frankly, if it weren’t for the resurgence of Bengal tigers and polar bears on Staten Island, I think we’d be seeing a lot more of them.”

At press time, the white rhino had once again been classified as an endangered species after a single New York City resident left his apartment to go pick up some paper towels at a local 7-Eleven.

Source: https://www.theonion.com/thousands-of-formerly-endangered-white-rhinos-flood-cit-1842410309

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‘Tip of the iceberg’: is our destruction of nature responsible for Covid-19?

John Vidal, THE GUARDIAN

As habitat and biodiversity loss increase globally, the coronavirus outbreak may be just the beginning of mass pandemics

Mayibout 2 is not a healthy place. The 150 or so people who live in the village, which sits on the south bank of the Ivindo River, deep in the great Minkebe Forest in northern Gabon, are used to occasional bouts of diseases such as malaria, dengue, yellow fever and sleeping sickness. Mostly they shrug them off.

But in January 1996, Ebola, a deadly virus then barely known to humans, unexpectedly spilled out of the forest in a wave of small epidemics. The disease killed 21 of 37 villagers who were reported to have been infected, including a number who had carried, skinned, chopped or eaten a chimpanzee from the nearby forest.

I travelled to Mayibout 2 in 2004 to investigate why deadly diseases new to humans were emerging from biodiversity “hotspots” such as tropical rainforests and bushmeat markets in African and Asian cities.

It took a day by canoe and then many hours along degraded forest logging roads, passing Baka villages and a small goldmine, to reach the village. There, I found traumatised people still fearful that the deadly virus, which kills up to 90% of the people it infects, would return.

Villagers told me how children had gone into the forest with dogs that had killed the chimp. They said that everyone who cooked or ate it got a terrible fever within a few hours. Some died immediately, while others were taken down the river to hospital. A few, like Nesto Bematsick, recovered. “We used to love the forest, now we fear it,” he told me. Many of Bematsick’s family members died.

Only a decade or two ago it was widely thought that tropical forests and intact natural environments teeming with exotic wildlife threatened humans by harbouring the viruses and pathogens that lead to new diseases in humans such as Ebola, HIV and dengue.

But a number of researchers today think that it is actually humanity’s destruction of biodiversity that creates the conditions for new viruses and diseases such as Covid-19, the viral disease that emerged in China in December 2019, to arise – with profound health and economic impacts in rich and poor countries alike. In fact, a new discipline, planetary health, is emerging that focuses on the increasingly visible connections between the wellbeing of humans, other living things and entire ecosystems.

Is it possible, then, that it was human activity, such as road building, mining, hunting and logging, that triggered the Ebola epidemics in Mayibout 2 and elsewhere in the 1990s and that is unleashing new terrors today?
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“We invade tropical forests and other wild landscapes, which harbour so many species of animals and plants – and within those creatures, so many unknown viruses,” David Quammen, author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Pandemic, recently wrote in the New York Times. “We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.”

Read more at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/mar/18/tip-of-the-iceberg-is-our-destruction-of-nature-responsible-for-covid-19-aoe

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Trump delivers on pledge for wealthy California farmers

Ellen Knickmeyer & Adam Beam, WSLS.com

Hoisting the spoils of victories in California’s hard-fought water wars, President Donald Trump is directing more of the state’s precious water to wealthy farmers and other agriculture interests when he visits their Republican Central Valley stronghold Wednesday.

Changes by the Trump administration are altering how federal authorities decide who gets water, and how much, in California, the U.S. state with the biggest population and economy and most lucrative farm output. Climate change promises to only worsen the state’s droughts and water shortages, raising the stakes.

Campaigning in the Central Valley farm hub of Fresno in 2016, Trump pledged then he’d be “opening up the water” for farmers. Candidate Trump denounced “insane” environmental rules meant to ensure that enough fresh water stayed in rivers and the San Francisco Bay to sustain more than a dozen endangered fish and other native species, which are struggling as agriculture and development diverts more water and land from wildlife.

Visiting Bakersfield in the Central Valley on Wednesday, Trump is expected to ceremoniously sign his administration’s reworking of those environmental rules. Environmental advocates and the state say the changes will allow federal authorities to pump more water from California’s wetter north southward to its biggest cities and farms.

The Trump administration, Republican lawmakers, and farm and water agencies say the changes will allow for more flexibility in water deliveries. In California’s heavily engineered water system, giant state and federal water projects made up of hundreds of miles of pipes, canals, pumps and dams, carry runoff from rain and Sierra Nevada snow melt from north to south — and serve as field of battle for lawsuits and regional political fights over competing demands for water.

Environmental groups say the changes will speed the disappearance of endangered winter-run salmon and other native fish, and make life tougher for whales and other creatures in the San Francisco Bay and Pacific Ocean.

After an initial study by federal scientists found the rule changes would harm salmon and whales, the Trump administration ordered a new round of review, California news organizations reported last year.

Read more at https://www.wsls.com/news/politics/2020/02/18/trump-delivers-on-pledge-for-wealthy-california-farmers/

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Bureau of Land Management to fund 11,000 miles of fuel breaks in 6 states

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Bureau of Land Management has announced plans to fund 11,000 miles (17,703 kilometers) of strategic fuel breaks in Idaho, Oregon, Washington, California, Nevada and Utah in an effort to help control wildfires.

The fuel breaks are intended to prop up fire mitigation efforts and help protect firefighters, communities and natural resources, The Oregonian reported Saturday.

According to the BLM, wildfires are becoming bigger and more frequent across the Great Basin states. Between 2009 and 2018, more than 13.5 million acres of BLM land burned in the project area.

“Recovering from the devastating effects of wildfires can take decades in the rugged, high-desert climate of the Great Basin. These tools will help firefighters contain fires when they break out,” said acting Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Land and Minerals Management Casey Hammond in a news release. “That’s why creating fuel breaks is incredibly important to the entire basin, the people who live in these communities, and our wildland firefighters.”

Fuel breaks are intended to break up fire fuels by creating breaks in vegetation that slow a blaze’s progress. By implementing them strategically, they help firefighters control the spread of fire, and can protect homes and resources.

Some scientists debate the effectiveness of fuel breaks, raising questions about whether these efforts are worth funding.

Read more at https://www.usnews.com/news/politics/articles/2020-02-15/blm-to-fund-11-000-miles-of-fuel-breaks-in-basin-states

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Petaluma approves controversial Sid Commons apartments

Kathryn Palmer, PETALUMA ARGUS-COURIER

For the second time in two weeks, Petaluma’s City Council on Monday opted to move ahead with a controversial housing development, approving the 180-unit Sid Commons apartment project alongside the Petaluma River.

The development, first proposed more than 10 years ago, was downsized after running into a raft of opposition and questions in a Nov. 19 hearing before the Planning Commission.

Those changes failed to mollify a vocal group of citizens and some planning commissioners who remained concerned about environmental impacts.

But the project, approved by the council on a 5-2 vote, has now undergone all required environmental study and will be subject to state regulations and permits. Questions about the adequacy of that review and those safeguards lingered this week, fueling public scrutiny that colored much of the project’s presentation at City Hall.

Petaluma’s senior planner and its environmental planner went through staff findings and recommendations nearly line by line. Council members split over their confidence in the environmental report and thus their support for the project.

“I have to base my decision on objective evidence, and that’s what is laid out here,” said Councilman Mike Healy, who joined in the majority that approved the project and its environmental impact report. “This project is not within the 100-year floodplain, and the (river) terracing will be a benefit for the city.”

Mayor Teresa Barrett and Vice Mayor D’Lynda Fischer formed the opposition on the council, voicing doubts over the environmental study.

Continue reading “Petaluma approves controversial Sid Commons apartments”

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Monarch butterfly population critically low on California coast – again

Associated Press, THE GUARDIAN

Study finds 29,000 butterflies, compared with 4.5 million during the 1980s, as experts point to habitat destruction

The western monarch butterfly population wintering along California’s coast remains critically low for the second year in a row, a count by an environmental group released Thursday showed.

The count of the orange-and-black insects by the Xerces Society, a not-for-profit environmental organization that focuses on the conservation of invertebrates, recorded about 29,000 butterflies in its annual survey. That’s not much different than last year’s tally, when an all-time low 27,000 monarchs were counted.

“We had hoped that the western monarch population would have rebounded at least modestly, but unfortunately it has not,” said Emma Pelton, a monarch conservation expert with the Xerces Society.

By comparison, about 4.5 million monarch butterflies wintered in forested groves along the California coast in the 1980s. Scientists say the butterflies are at critically low levels in the Western US due to the destruction of their milkweed habitat along their migratory route as housing expands into their territory and use of pesticides and herbicides increases.

Researchers also have noted the effect of climate change. Along with farming, climate change is one of the main drivers of the monarch’s threatened extinction, disrupting an annual 3,000-mile migration synced to springtime and the blossoming of wildflowers.

Read more at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jan/22/monarch-butterfly-population-decline-california-coast

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As bears move into Sonoma County, wildlife advocates seek to keep them safe, wild

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Aaron Bennett’s thinking goes something like this: Black bears had long since claimed territory in the Anderson Valley lands where his parents established Navarro Vineyards decades ago, so when the family planted pinot noir at high elevation in the mid-1990s, it was the humans who would have to learn to share.

That’s why he, his parents and sister so willingly tolerate the nighttime visitors to their vineyard, even supplying a playful Winnie the Pooh soundtrack to a compilation video they’ve posted online documenting hungry bears roaming through the grapevines in recent months.

“I grew up on the ranch. I see the bears just as cohabitants of the land,” said Bennett, 41.

The bears eat a ton or two of grapes each season — perhaps as much as $10,000 worth. It’s a sizable hit, but “it’s not the bear’s fault that we put pinot noir on the hills,” Bennett aid.

But even he acknowledged his view of the situation is not one that’s universally shared.

Data from California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife reflects a sometimes adverse human-bear relationship in Mendocino County and other rural North Coast counties, where the bear population is particularly dense.

But that could change. And with the increased presence of bears around the wild edges of Sonoma County in recent years has come a budding movement to prepare for their expansion south, in a bid to keep them wild and safe.

The newly formed North Bay Bear Collaborative is the product of conversations going back several years, when early signs began to indicate that what had been mostly transient visitors were beginning to settle in year-round.

The aim is to help humans adjust to their new neighbors and head off any conflicts.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/10188029-181/as-bears-move-into-sonoma

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California sues Trump administration over rollback of Endangered Species Act

Anna M. Phillips, THE LOS ANGELES TIMES

California and 16 other states on Wednesday filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration’s weakening of the Endangered Species Act, a landmark law that has ensured the survival of the California condor, the grizzly bear and other animals close to extinction.

The lawsuit is California’s latest in a blitz of legal challenges to the president’s policies.

Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra has sued the Trump administration more than 60 times over its agenda of dismantling Obama-era environmental and public health regulations. Though most of those cases haven’t been decided, judges have so far sided with California and environmental groups in cases concerning air pollution, pesticides and the royalties that the government receives from companies that extract oil, gas and coal from public land.

In a statement, Becerra said the administration’s rollback of the Endangered Species Act could have major repercussions for California, which has more than 300 species listed as endangered or threatened — more than any other mainland state.

“As we face the unprecedented threat of a climate emergency, now is the time to strengthen our planet’s biodiversity, not to destroy it,” Becerra said. “The only thing we want to see extinct are the beastly policies of the Trump administration putting our ecosystems in critical danger.”

Read more at https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2019-09-25/california-sues-trump-over-endangered-species-act