Archive | September, 2011

Conservation Principles for the Next Farm Bill

Conservation Principles for the Next Farm Bill

Cutting the federal deficit doesn’t mean that conservation should be on the chopping block. Fifty-six organizations from the across the country are saying the same thing when it comes to the 2012 Farm Bill. The groups, representing a wide variety of policy and advocacy organizations, released guiding conservation principles that Congress should use when drafting the next farm bill.

The set of principles focus on four key areas: maintaining baseline funding for conservation programs within the farm bill, enforcing and strengthening conservation compliance provisions, targeting conservation dollars and streamlining programs for maximum efficiency and results, and ensuring equitable access to these programs. Using these principles means that conservation funds will be used more wisely, resulting in greater environmental benefits without additional funding.

It is not just the 56 groups that think these principles should guide our agricultural policy. The 2011 Survey on Agriculture and the Environment suggests that a majority of Americans agree that agricultural policy should prioritize conservation, especially protecting soil and water quality. With the long-range vision that many of our current leaders seem to lack, the poll shows that Americans favor funding conservation practices today in order to keep costs down in the future. Instead of cutting conservation, people would rather see cuts come from subsidy programs for commodities and crop insurance. Let’s hope that Congress takes this to heart and uses the conservation principles released on Wednesday to find creative ways to continue to make conservation an important part of our nation’s agricultural policy.

Posted in Agriculture0 Comments

jim estes

Large Predators Are Critical to the Stability of Our Natural Areas

This is a guest post from Dr. James A. Estes, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

In a world containing some 10 million or more species, the current tide of extinction cannot be stemmed one species at a time. More general strategies are needed. Nearly everyone understands this fundamental truth. But what are these strategies? Although the devil is in the details, the answer in the minds of most conservation thinkers and planners hinges on a single key factor—habitat. All species require habitat to survive and reproduce. Preserve enough habitat in the right places and species preservation will follow. The problem is that this strategy isn’t working very well. We continue to loose species, even from the largest conservation areas. So what’s the problem? It might be that the strategy is fine but we have yet to get the details right—enough habitat with sufficient protection in the right places. Or it might be that something more is needed.

Our argument is this. Large apex consumers–creatures like lions, wolves, bears and killer whales–are key elements of nature. Virtually all habitats have had them for millions of years. That is, until recently.

On 13 July, 2011, I coauthored a review in the journal Science with 23 other ecologists from around the world in which we argue that something more is indeed needed. That something is the apex consumers. Our argument is this. Large apex consumers–creatures like lions, wolves, bears and killer whales–are key elements of nature. Virtually all habitats have had them for millions of years. That is, until recently. These large apex consumers have been among the first species to disappear from our increasingly human-dominated world. And along with the loss of these animals has been the loss of something even more fundamental—the essential roles they play in holding their ecosystems together.  We are beginning to see these roles nearly everywhere—from the tropics to the poles, and on land, in rivers and lakes, and in the sea.

Our review details the theoretical basis for this phenomenon and provides many specific examples. My favorite example is the link between sea otters and coastal ecosystems in the North Pacific Ocean. The loss of otters has led to population irruptions of their prey—sea urchins. Hyperabundant urchins overgraze kelp forests, leading in turn to reductions or the loss of species and ecosystem services that depend on kelp forests. Similarly, the loss of wolves, grizzly bears and cougars from much of North America has led to population irruptions of their prey—moose, elk and deer—which in turn have overgrazed their range, thus leading to the loss of both plant species and the animals that depend on these plants. In another well known example, the loss of coyotes from chaparral fragments in southern California has allowed these habitats to be invaded by “mesopredators”–cats, foxes, and other small carnivore–that in turn have caused the extinction of birds and other small vertebrates. The list goes on and on. These are not unique stories but examples of a global phenomenon. And the effects of apex consumers extend widely across ecosystems to influence such diverse phenomena as wildfire, disease, and air and water quality. Trophic downgrading, which begins with the loss of large apex consumers from nature, can be thought of as an ecological chain reaction that is part and parcel to the biodiversity crisis.

What does this mean to wildlife conservation? It means that while habitat is essential, by itself habitat conservation is not enough to conserve biodiversity.

What does this mean to wildlife conservation? It means that while habitat is essential, by itself habitat conservation is not enough to conserve biodiversity. This in turn has several obvious implications for conservation planning. Small conservation areas are doomed to fail, or at least doomed to be much less than they might otherwise be because small areas are incapable of maintaining viable populations of large, apex consumers. Even large conservation areas are doomed to under-perform unless they also contain the apex consumers.

The bottom line for conservation is simply this. Habitat is necessary but insufficient for biodiversity conservation. Apex consumers are also required to run nature’s engine.

Read Defenders of Wildlife’s original blog piece on the paper and learn more about our work with apex predators.

Read The Nature Conservancy’s blog that talks about the paper and what impacts it can have on conservation.

The following six videos are interviews with Jim Estes, in which he talks about how the paper came to be, the implications on policy makers, and  other insights from the research paper.  The videos are in a playlist and after you watch the first you may scroll through the rest from the same location.

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife, In the Field1 Comment

Bighorn Basin, Wyoming plan could go from bad to worse

Bighorn Basin, Wyoming plan could go from bad to worse

Bighorn sheep are among the many species that depend on the Bighorn Basin (photo: Lilian Carswell)

Defenders of Wildlife recently submitted comments on the Bureau of Land Management’s draft Resource Management Plan for the Bighorn Basin area of northwestern Wyoming.  The area supports populations of sage grouse, bald eagle, goshawk, bobcat, marten, red fox, grizzly bear, gray wolves, snowshoe hare, pronghorn, mule deer, elk, moose, bighorn sheep and much more.

In our letter we call for stronger standards to protect the valuable wildlife resources in the Bighorn Basin.  Most importantly we ask the BLM to move away from their incredibly risky “case-by-case” approach to wildlife conservation that would delay critical decisions about whether and how wildlife will be protected until after projects have already been designed and proposed, setting a perilous course for wildlife.  Seeing the danger that this approach poses for wildlife, Defenders instead recommends that the BLM adopt strong wildlife protection measures upfront in land management planning.  Establishing bright conservation lines in land development plans creates certainty for developers as well as for the public, who demand the conservation of their publicly owned resources.

Unfortunately for Wyoming wildlife, the story gets worse.  Wyoming Governor Matt Mead and his allies in the oil and gas industry have asked the BLM to stray even further from common sense and adopt a plan that would open more than 28,000 acres to oil and gas development with little protection for local wildlife and almost no analysis of what the ultimate impacts of this development will be.  If industry gets its way, BLM would open up so-called “oil and gas management areas,” where wildlife and every other resource except oil and gas could be ignored.  The approach would create what amount to wildlife “sacrifice” areas, where oil and gas development is the dominant use, regardless of impacts to wildlife and other values.

As we state in our letter:

“Instead of focusing on providing sufficient analysis and mitigation for biological resources in areas with heavy oil and gas development, the [BLM proposal] would completely ignore biological resources in these newly established management areas. This opposite approach would go from full analysis and consideration of wildlife, as required by BLM reforms, to none.”

Fortunately, the Obama administration has sought to put in place common sense reforms to the oil and gas development process on public lands to ensure that wildlife and other valuable resources get fair consideration.  The controversial and irresponsible plans proposed by BLM and the Governor of Wyoming are not balanced and should be promptly tabled.  Instead, the BLM should adopt a true multiple-use land management plan that balances the twin goals of wildlife conservation and energy development.

Posted in Public Lands0 Comments

Bureau of Land Management stands up for environmental review

Recently a judge in Wyoming, citing procedural flaws, blocked the BLM’s attempts to reform the way categorical exclusions (CXs) have been abused to rush oil and gas drilling on BLM administered lands.  Rep. Rush Holt (D, NJ) and other members of Congress maintain that the procedure was, in fact, not flawed and have urged the Department of Justice to appeal the ruling.  In the meantime, the BLM has responded to that ruling by initiating a public rulemaking process to remedy the procedural flaws.  While it is unclear at this early stage what exactly the proposed rule will include, BLM deserves applause for continued efforts to respond to major abuses in the use of CXs, as pointed out in a 2009 GAO report (stating that 85% of CXs were applied illegally).

The rulemaking is great news for wildlife and the many other natural resources put at risk by poorly planned oil and gas drilling throughout the west.  Historically, CXs have been used for smaller non-controversial projects where environmental review at a larger scale was already completed and was sufficient to make an informed decision regarding the impacts of the project.  CX policy put in place under the Bush Administration, however, abused the tool, allowing full field oil and gas development to proceed unfettered without consideration of impacts or development of mitigation measures for wildlife habitat, connectivity, endangered species, and other resources.

Rep. Doug Lamborn (R, CO), chair of the subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources in the House of Representatives, held a hearing last week covering the CX issue.  Unsurprisingly, the oil and gas industry continues to claim that environmental review is a superfluous burden rather than a process to ensure that energy development doesn’t run counter to the nation’s longstanding policy of multiple-use of public lands.

The fact is that industry attacks on environmental review don’t hold up: under the Obama CX policy, oil and gas drilling is back to pre-recession levels and nearing a 20 year high in the U.S., all while oil and gas companies hold more than 6,500 unused permits to drill and millions of acres in leased areas they have yet to pursue development on.  Rep. Raul Grijalva (D, NM) has said that big oil companies “shouldn’t get to call the shots when it comes to public lands,” has applauded the BLM for moving forward with reforms to CX policy, and has called for additional GAO research.  Rep. Diana DeGette (D, CO) was quick to point out that the BP oil spill disaster occurred at a well approved using a CX to bypass environmental review.

BLM’s new rulemaking should find a balance by providing for complete site level review to protect public resources when heavy duty development is proposed, while allowing truly duplicative reviews to be bypassed and encouraging efficiency through processes like Master Leasing Plans.

Posted in Energy, Fossil Fuels, Public Lands0 Comments

The Lacey Act – Protecting Forests, Wildlife & American Jobs

Recently, federal agents confiscated wood and guitars from the factories of the Gibson Guitar Corporation based on intelligence gathered that indicated the famous guitar maker had illegally imported Indian Hardwood into the United States. The result of these actions has caused a firestorm of anger and  misinformation to pop up about the law that made Gibson’s import of the Indian Hardwood illegal; the Lacey Act. The CEO of the Gibson Guitar Corporation, Henry Juszkiewicz, has launched an all-out attack on the Lacey Act, making the argument that the act is unfairly targeting his corporation and stating that the act is costing the U.S. much needed jobs. Unfortunately, he’s playing a song of misinformation.

The Lacey Act is one of the United States’ oldest pieces of environmental legislation, signed into law back in 1900, and was originally passed to ensure the protection of wildlife and plant species that were being illegally taken from the wild. While the Lacey Act has been amended numerous times since its initial passage over a century ago, the latest revisions to the Act are the ones that involve the recent Gibson Guitar incident. In 2008, as part of the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 (aka the Farm Bill), the Lacey Act was amended to make the import of illegally sourced plant products a violation of the law. The amendments were designed to help curb illegal logging that is occurring worldwide. As a result of the amendments, other countries have responded with similar legislation and companies who deal with plant materials in their supply chains are now putting a greater emphasis on knowing where their products are coming from and that they’re being harvested according to the rule of law in the countries of harvest.

Defenders of Wildlife has been working with companies impacted by the Lacey Act, as well as other environmental organizations, as part of the Lacey Coalition. The coalition has worked together to ensure that the requirements in the new Lacey Act amendments are properly implemented while ensuring that the businesses impacted have enough time to prepare for what will now be required of them under the law. The partnership formed in this coalition has allowed each side to develop solutions together that have benefitted both sides.

So why is Henry Juszkiewicz leading a movement against the Lacey Act? Is he simply mad about how his company has been portrayed as a result of this incident? Did he see this as an opportunity to have the recent Lacey Act amendment repealed? No one is really sure. Even companies impacted by the Lacey Act are going against Juszkiewicz’s claims and trying to show why we need the act. Such support was shown in a recent blog post by “The Hill”:

“Jameson French, the CEO of Northland Forest Products and the former chairman of the Hardwood Federation, said illegal loggers evade environmental and trade laws and sell their products cheaper than law-abiding companies can. French said he is “flabbergasted by the misinformation that’s been put out there” by Gibson. In particular, he said that rather than costing jobs, the Lacey Act has “saved a lot of American jobs” by protecting American wood companies from illegal competition.”

This point was elaborated on further in a recent Dear Colleague letter written by Congressman Earl Blumenauer:

“The Lacey Act is helping to address illegal logging taking place on the Russian-Chinese border, and elsewhere, and as a result, supporting U.S. companies and the workers they employ.  That is why thousands of companies came together to support the 2008 Lacey Act amendments, including the American Forest & Paper Association, whose members employ nearly 900,000 people and are top 10 manufacturing employers in 47 States, and the Hardwood Federation, whose members represent 14,000 businesses and over one million families.”

Even fellow guitar makers are standing up against what Gibson is saying. In a recent blog post for the Forest Legality Alliance, the President of Taylor Guitars stated:

“…here’s how Lacey has affected the way we do business at Taylor Guitars. It’s very simple. We now investigate the sources of our wood, and we ensure to the best of our ability that the wood was taken legally. We fill out the paperwork required and we present our business, as an open book. The cost isn’t so much for us. It’s not an unbearable added burden, and we’re happy to do the extra administrative work.”

That seems to differ vastly from Juszkiewicz’s statement that “The federal bureaucracy is just out of hand.”

Juszkiewicz’s statements and actions have rallied supporters of the iconic Gibson Guitars fed by  a cascade  of misinformation. The misinformation born as a result of this movement continues to produce false, fear mongering information, with one of the most recent being that the federal government would confiscate and or arrest anyone possessing a guitar made of illegally sourced wood. The rumors have gotten so out of hand that the Justice Department was asked by congress to respond to the Gibson event and clarify some of the misinformation being spread.

The Lacey Act is doing precisely what it was intended to do; ensuring that illegally sourced plant products don’t enter the United States. Companies dealing with international supply chains support it because it ensures business are playing on a level playing field. Environmental organizations support it because it ensures the protection of threatened and endangered plant and animal species. So why is Gibson continuing to play a song of misinformation?

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife0 Comments

chain for newsletter

Workshop Participants Build Their Land Trust’s Vision of Climate Change Adaptation

Workshop participants at Maryland's land trust conference build their situtation analysis for their target habitats.

In discussions about the role of land trusts in implementing climate change adaptation strategies, many have suggested that most of what land trusts do is already adaptation, while others have expressed the contrary opinion that adaptation is not “business as usual” for land trusts. Others worry that adaptation planning will take a lot of time and resources away from the day-to-day work of saving land. And others feel there is not yet enough information to start planning for how they will adapt their work to this new reality. These differing ideas can be confusing and discouraging.

To help get past this confusion, Defenders’ Living Lands facilitated workshops at the most recent Southeast Regional, Virginia, and Maryland land trust conferences to help the land trust community and their partners define their own vision for helping their communities adapt in the face of climate change.

The goal of this facilitated workshop was to demonstrate a quick and inexpensive process by which land trusts can begin to envision how climate change adaptation fits into their land conservation mission.

In this participatory workshop, the Defenders’ facilitated an exercise to build a common understanding of the biological, social, economic, political, and institutional systems that affect their conservation priorities. This process, called a “situation analysis”, is described in Step 1 of the Open Standards for the Practice of Conservation. The Open Standards were developed by the Conservation Measures Partnership (CMP) to bring together common concepts, approaches, and terminology to help practitioners improve the practice of conservation.

Planning for climate change adaptation will require that land trusts assess the drivers (e.g. air and water temperature increases, precipitation changes, sea level rise, species shifts in ranges) and the indirect and direct threats (e.g. floods, human responses, drought, invasive species outbreaks) to their conservation values under climate change. A “situation analysis” is a useful tool for documenting the drivers and threats affecting a biodiversity target as well as for identifying conservation actions that can be applied to contributing factors, direct threats, or even biodiversity targets.

We began the exercise by identifying the biodiversity targets as the habitat types used in the State Wildlife Action Plans of the southeastern US. For each habitat type we identified direct threats (which we cross-walked with the Standardized Threats Taxonomy developed by the CMP).

Using the US Global Change Research Program, Regional Climate Impacts: Southeast report and the Classification of Climate-Change-Induced Stresses on Biological Diversity, we identified the contributing factors related to climate change (i.e. climate change drivers) that lead to the direct threats and stresses on the target habitats. Contributing factors are often the entry points for conservation action (although actions may work through direct threats or even the target in some cases).

Then we identified how altered climate conditions link to direct threats using intermediate contributing factors. The facilitators helped the participants think through the causal relationships linking the altered climate conditions to the direct threats. The following thought process was helpful: Altered climate conditions result in this contributing factor which results in this direct threat which affects [via a stress] this target.

We were sure to discuss interactions between the altered climate conditions and non-climate-related threats (e.g. urban development). We identified potential relationships between climate factors and impacts on biological systems such as species range shifts, seasonal shifts, and disrupted biotic interactions. Ultimately the process of building the conceptual model assisted the group in identifying intervention points, or adaptation strategies.

The conceptual model shows the state of the world before taking action; the next step is for participants to think about adaptation strategies and the anticipated outcomes that will ultimately impact the habitat target. Participants identified broad categories of climate change adaptation strategies (e.g., outreach, policy, land protection, stewardship) and then described specific strategies that would reduce the effects of a contributing factor or direct threat on the habitat target.

In the example causal-relationships chain, yellow hexigons show adaptation strategies that intervene on contributing factors (orange) or direct threats (pink) to reduce stress on target habitats (green).

We talked about which strategies participants felt were most likely to achieve the desired outcome and which they felt were the most relevant to their land conservation work. We found it useful to consider several factors when evaluating strategies including: the likelihood the strategy will be successful, the feasibility of the strategy, the cost of the strategy, and the gap the strategy would address. Participants also identified the sources of uncertainty associated with the strategies (e.g., uncertainty associated with the direction/magnitude of altered climate conditions, the biophysical impact, or the outcome of the strategy).

As a wrap-up exercise, the group discussed what they felt were the opportunities and barriers to implementing some of the adaptation strategies they had identified. Many felt that the public’s skepticism about climate change and lack of funding were the largest barriers. But they also felt that the issue of climate change was potentially an opportunity to reinforce community support for their land conservation activities. Many participants felt the exercise was helpful to their thinking about climate change adaptation and thought they would use this process to initiate discussions with their organizations and stakeholders about climate change adaptation.

 

References and Resources 

Foundations of Success (FOS). 2007. Using Results Chains to Improve Strategy Effectiveness. An FOS How-To Guide. Foundations of Success, Bethesda, MD.

Foundations of Success (FOS). 2009. Using Conceptual Models to Document a Situation Analysis: An FOS How-To Guide. Foundations of Success Bethesda, MD.

Geyer, J. et al . 2011. Classification of Climate-Change-Induced Stresses on Biological Diversity.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2007. Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – Synthesis Report

Salasfsky, N., D. Salzer, A. J. Stattersfield, C. Hilton-Taylor, R. Neugarten, S. H. M. Butchart, B. Collen, N. Cox, L. L. Master, S. O’Connor, and D. Wilkie. 2008. A standard lexicon for biodiversity conservation: Unified classifications of threats and actions. Conservation Biology 22: 897-911.

U.S. Global Change Research Program, Thomas R. Karl, Jerry M. Melillo, and Thomas C. Peterson, (eds.) 2009 Climate Change Effects from the U.S. Global Change Research Program, Regional Climate Impacts: Southeast.

US Global Change Research Program, Impacts of Climate Change on U.S. Regions and Sectors.

A full summary of the workshop with lists of strategies and the situation analyses is available here.

Posted in Climate Change, private lands0 Comments

Getting Off on the Right Foot with Conservation Planning Part III: How to Define the Problem

Conservation planning is a decision-making process to identify, prioritize, pursue, and protect conservation priorities in a way that will most effectively and efficiently achieve a goal.  (Third in a three part series).

Part 2 described why defining the problem is difficult, frequently overlooked, and yet important. Below is a list of questions that should help define the problem and develop a decision statement as the first step in the planning process.

How do we begin? We should start by evaluating our current decision-making processes. Ask why and how we need to improve the way we make decisions.

Who is the decision maker? This is a surprisingly difficult question and there are several scenarios – we may have single decision-maker, delegated authority, multiple decision-makers. Stakeholders, people outside the organization or agency that have interest or power in the decisions, have influence but they may not be decision makers.

What is our decision statement? At home it may be “My kid is acting up.” Our decision statement may be “How can we improve my kid’s behavior?”  At work it may be “We face competing interests between agricultural needs and habitat goals for riparian bird populations.” Our decision statement may be: “How can we optimize protection of riparian habitat for bird populations given competing needs for agriculture”.

Are we attempting to solve the right problem? Beware of decision frame blindness. Conservation issues are not simply technical or scientific, they reflect societal values – scientific, economic, political, and cultural values.  Are there other perspectives that aren’t being considered?  Are we framing the problem by earlier successes or failures? Are our assumptions false?   

Are we recognizing intractable problems? Intractable problems have already been decided, they are decisions that are out of our control, or they are decisions that require a greater level of investment of time, personnel, and resources than we have available. Failure is highly probable unless we re-define the problem so that it is within our ability to solve.

What is the scope of the decision? When & how often will the decision be made?  How large, broad, complicated is the decision?

What are our constraints for making the decision? Are there legal, financial, political constrains for making the decision. Are they perceived or real constraints?

A well-defined decision statement might take multiple attempts, but once you have a grasp on these questions, you can most likely develop a strong decision statement and get your conservation planning process off on the right foot.

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife0 Comments

Report From the Public Land Law Conference

Report From the Public Land Law Conference

Two Defenders staff members are attending the Public Land Law Conference at the University of Montana Law School this week.  The theme this year is “Strengthening our Roots: Forest Law and Policy in a Changing World.”  The conference is covering subjects including the new forest planning regulations, climate change law and forests, forests in the media, and collaboration.

Professor Charles Wilkinson delivered the keynote for the conference, providing his assessment of the current state of the Forest Service.  His presentation covered most of the subjects of the conference, but he focused in on one very timely issue: species diversity in the new Forest Service forest planning rule

Professor Wilkinson started with the history of the species diversity mandate.  The incorporation of species diversity requirements into Forest Service regulations was a historic moment, no previous law had provided for species diversity, not even the Endangered Species Act.  The current proposed regulations, however, contain no species diversity requirements. Instead of Management Indicator Species, which have been used to monitor biodiversity since the 1980s, the new rule would require each forest to determine Species of Conservation Concern (species that are stressed, but don’t necessarily tell us about species diversity more broadly) and Focal Species (species that are monitored but are not necessarily linked to broader species diversity).

According to Wilkinson, refusal to adopt a modern and scientifically supported species diversity plan is the biggest problem with the proposed new rule.  This lack of species diversity mandates is exacerbated in the proposed rule for two reasons.  First, science need only be “taken into account,” a phrasing that Prof. Wilkinson compared to “taking into account” the grizzly in the corner.  Second, most decisions will be made at forest level with broad discretion, meaning that there will be little court review of these plans.  This is all the result of the Forest Service trying to stay clear of litigation, encouraged by lawyers that seek to make plans “bullet proof.”

Professor Wilkinson’s keynote is especially relevant now, as the Forest Service is set to release a finalized version of the planning rule later this year.

Posted in National Forests, Public Lands0 Comments

Getting Off on the Right Foot with Conservation Planning Part II: Why Identifying the Problem can be the Biggest Challenge

Conservation planning is a decision-making process to identify, prioritize, pursue, and protect conservation priorities in a way that will most effectively and efficiently achieve a goal.  (Part II of a three part series)

Defining your decision problem is the first, most important, but  often most difficult  and overlooked step in a conservation planning process. 

A decision is as an outcome of a thought process that leads to a course of actions (among many possible actions).  A decision is many times an irrevocable allocation of resources.

What decisions do we need to make during a planning process? Values and Visions: What do we care about, and what do we want the future to look like if we are successful in our mission?  Priorities: Are some conservation values are more important to us than others? Stakeholders: Who has power and interest in what decisions we make?  If our projects are land-based, where are our conservation values located on the landscape? Strategies: What actions are we going to take to reach our conservation goals? Implementation: Who is responsible for each action and by when do we want them to implement? Monitoring: How are we going to measure our success towards meeting our conservation goals? Adaptive Management: How do we learn from our projects and readjust our strategies as needed?

Why are decisions are hard? Uncertainty: We feel we don’t have all the information we need to make conservation decisions.  Complexity: We need to consider many interrelated factors. High-risk consequences: The impact of the decision may be significant and costly. Alternatives: We may have many alternative projects with each its own set of uncertainties and consequences to weigh. Controversy: It can be difficult to predict how other people will react to our decisions?

Part 3 will describe how to define the decision problem to get off on the right foot with conservation planning.

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife0 Comments

The Science of Communicating Science

In real life, communication ranks among the top necessities of humans, as evidenced by early drawings depicting life scenes, the development of languages and dialects, visual arts, and so forth. We need to communicate with family, friends, partners, and clients, about the issues that matter to us. To patch together our daily lives, we are constantly communicating, even if we don’t give it a second thought.

But communication is a two-way route. It entails one side giving the information, and the other side reacting. If communication fails to fulfill this two-way purpose, then the message can be ignored, distorted, or misunderstood, even as it is being passed on. Science is among the fields where this failure to communicate is noticeably commonplace, and the burden is usually on the messenger (aka the scientist). If the scientist does not tailor the message according to the intended audience, people will only understand what makes sense to them.

The issue of communication (or lack thereof) between scientists and the general public is not new. Scientists have been accused of being geeky and speaking in terms that the general public cannot understand. Many articles have been written on how the public feels alienated and yes, even stupid, when it comes to scientific matters. The unfortunate result of this is that many people prefer to ignore important scientific issues completely, because they cannot form an educated opinion.

According to Randy Olson, scientist-turned-filmmaker and author of the book Don’t be Such a Scientist, the main problem with scientists is that they usually aim straight for the brain of their audience, as opposed to their emotions. They come up with various facts, statistics, and logic arguments, but neglect to engage their audience or to elicit some sort of response. How can you get the audience to relate if you don’t get them to respond? This shortcoming is cleverly shown in his mocku/documentary Sizzle, where he tries to find the truth about climate change and global warming from top scientists.

The field of climate change is a particularly difficult one in which to communicate with the public because of the associated uncertainty (an inherent characteristic of most science) and the complexity and scale of the issues. Fortunately for all of us, scientists and general public, there is hope.  Just a few weeks back, a few climate scientists gathered to discuss better ways to communicate science in more clear and unbiased ways.  Interestingly, they didn’t talk directly about climate science, but rather used a climate-related case study to defend, attack, analyze, and discuss various opposing opinions. The focus, according to conference organizer Professor John Sonsteng of William Mitchell Law School, was not on advocating for either side, but on justifying the science. That strategy will hopefully lead to better ways to lay down the facts in a manner that is understandable for everyone.

So maybe someday, in a perfect and hopefully not too warm world, everyone will have a better understanding of science in general, of climate, and of how important those are to our everyday lives.

Posted in Climate Change0 Comments

Getting Off on the Right Foot with Conservation Planning Part I: Why plan?

Conservation planning is a decision-making process to identify, prioritize, pursue, and protect conservation priorities in a way that will most effectively and efficiently achieve a goal.  (First in a three part series)

Why plan? Just to name a few reasons: Planning builds organizational consensus over the selection of projects and allows the organization to be more proactive. Planning improves outreach to the community by stating the values of the organization or agency and by rigorously reviewing projects for public benefits.  Planning improves chances for success with funding programs that rely on criteria for selecting successful applicants. Planning helps with vetting conservation projects for their long-term suitability to meet the mission. Planning makes conservation decisions more defensible to withstand scrutiny by outside parties and the community in general.

Seems logical enough, no?  Then why is even the idea of undertaking a conservation planning process is a seemingly overwhelming task for both small and large conservation organizations and agencies alike?  Even though we know that we need conservation planning to move us from being opportunistic  (taking projects as they  come through the door) to being more strategic (figuring out a decision process for selecting actions that will be the most effective at meeting conservation goals), we can’t seem to muster the time, energy, or resources to begin the journey.  The notion of embarking on a lengthy and complicated process, taking time away from the “real work” of conservation, and stretching limited resources even further can be a strong deterrent from planning. 

So, it seems, if we are going to plan, we should make the process as useful as possible.  No one wants to think they are being more strategic because we have a plan, then to realize down the road that their plans are not useful in the end. We all know it is pointless to go through the process of developing plans that are not being used to guide our decisions, yet it happens all of the time.  Many times it happens because the process is flawed from the beginning.

Planning Parts 2 will describe why identifying a decision problem is the biggest challenge, but one of the most important initial steps in the planning process. Planning Part 3 will describe how to define the decision-problem.

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife, Uncategorized0 Comments

Arctic

Arctic Sea Ice Continues Decline

Arctic sea ice continues its precipitous decline: as we near the end of the summer ice-melt season, all indications suggest that the extent of sea ice has fallen to record or near-record lows this year. Satellite measurements by the National Snow and Ice Data Center found that the sea-ice extent was 1.68 million square miles, just 70,000 square miles above the all-time record low, set in 2007. That may seem like a substantial cushion over the minimum, but it’s a far cry from the 1979-2000 average September minimum of nearly 3 million square miles. NSIDC won’t be able to pinpoint the final minimum until the sea ice begins to re-form, but the 2011 extent is already below the previous second- and third-place years, 2010 and 2008. However, they report the rate of melt is slowing and might not surpass their records for 2007. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that another ice-tracking team, at the University of Bremen in Germany, reports that their measurements show 2011 ice extent reached the lowest extent that they have ever recorded, at 1.64 million square miles (Bremen’s measurement for 2007 was 1.65 million square miles). The Bremen team’s methodology differs from NSIDC’s, hence the slight differences in their figures. But the two groups are close enough to be clear that the Arctic is melting, and fast. And that’s not the worst news.

The worst news is that the trend in Arctic ice VOLUME is even more dramatic than the trend in area. The Polar Science Center in Seattle estimates that the current trend in sea ice volume is running well below 2007, even though the two years are running practically neck-and-neck on extent. The sharp decline in volume means that the ice that is there is thinner than in the past, and therefore more prone to melting in the future.

In 2007 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noted that Arctic sea ice had declined 2.7% per decade over the past 30 years and warned that “In some projections, arctic late-summer sea ice disappears almost entirely by the latter part of the 21st century.” The IPCC may have been overly optimistic: if ice continues to be lost at current rates, we could see complete loss of summer ice by 2040. .  And it’s that overall trend – not whether this year is the lowest or second lowest – that spells big trouble for Arctic wildlife like polar bears.

Posted in Alaska, Climate Change0 Comments


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