Category Archives: mammal

US government sued over failure to protect polar bears

 EDWARD HELMORE – THE GUARDIAN

The US government agency responsible for compiling the country’s list of endangered species will face a new legal challenge today over its failure to protect the polar bear.

Environmental groups are set to sue the Bush administration in a federal court in California, claiming the Fish and Wildlife Service is now in breach of its own mandate.

The FWS was due to have decided by January 9 whether to classify the polar bear as threatened due to climate change. This date itself was a full year after consultations began on the issue. But the service has said it is still reviewing technical data along with more than 670,000 comments on the issue.

The FWS inspector general has announced a preliminary investigation into the delay to determine whether a full-fledged investigation is warranted.

Environmental campaigners widely believe the decision is being held up by the Bush administration so it can complete sale of valuable oil and gas leases in coastal waters in Alaska — areas considered to be prime bear habitats.

“The Bush administration seems intent on slamming shut the narrow window of opportunity we have to save polar bears,” said Kassie Siegel, climate program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, which, along with Greenpeace and the National Resource Defence Council, is involved in the legal challenge.

With the polar bear having become a leading symbol of the planet’s deepening environmental crisis, its inclusion on the endangered list is a key issue to groups seeking to force the Bush administration to recognise the fact of climate change as a consequence of man-made atmospheric pollution.

While US law requires an endangered species listing decision to be made strictly on the basis of scientific information regarding the foreseeable future, groups believe that recent sales of oil and gas leases in the Chukchi Sea, as well as expectations of an energy and mining boom across the entire Arctic region, is the truer measure of the administration’s motivation.

“This administration has listed fewer species than any other — ever — under the Endangered Species Act,” said Siegel. “Time and again we have seen political interference in listing proposals that are supposed to be based on science.”

Environmental groups hope that the courts will force the administration to make a decision to protect the species — a decision that would be widely interpreted as a significant step toward acknowledging the extent of climate change. “For seven years they have denied or downplayed global warming,” added Siegel. “This is the thing that has pinned them into a corner; either they go to court and lose, or acknowledge it — and acknowledge that our greenhouse gas emissions are driving the polar bear to extinction.”

Disputed figures

There is disagreement over population numbers for polar bears. The animals are difficult to count in the wild. Unlike ring seals or walruses, which live and hunt exclusively on ice, polar bears are considered relatively adaptable. Alaskan political figures led by Governor Sarah Palin, a consistent advocate of increased oil and gas drilling, maintain the bears’ population is steady. But a recent US Geological Survey report stated that unless greenhouse gas emissions are curbed significantly, two-thirds of the world’s polar bears, including all Alaskan bears, will disappear by 2050.

What is not in dispute is the decline of ice cover. Surveys have shown there was 1m square miles less sea ice last summer than the average minimum extent observed between 1979-2000. Even this analysis is considered cautious. A study released in January by the US National Snow and Ice Data Center says the North Pole could be free of summer sea ice by 2030; one Nasa scientist says it might gone by 2012; and a meteorologist in Resolute Bay, Canada, told guardian.co.uk last summer of a projection in which the region could have “Florida summers in 40 years”.

Still, the forces arrayed against listing the bear are formidable. Listing a species obligates the Fish and Wildlife Service to develop a recovery plan and to designate critical habitats. In a cascade of knock-on effects, this would force all government agencies to ensure they do not jeopardise the species or adversely affect its habitats.

To Alaskan political figures, the implications are clear. Alaska senator Ted Stevens recently voiced concern that bear protections could interfere with construction of a pipeline from the state’s North Slope gas field. Adding polar bears to the endangered list, Stevens said, “would establish a dangerous precedent”.

Given the economic and strategic value of the oil and gas reserves in the US High Arctic — the leases on 29m acres of the Chuchki Sea raised $2.6bn and a further 83m acres are being made available — it is conceivable that the administration could reject listing the bear altogether.

“The science is unequivocal,” said Margaret Williams, director of World Wildlife Fund’s Bering Sea programme. “But anything is possible given this administration’s poor record on listing species. It’s hard to imagine such a decision could be made in good faith.”

Still, those opposed to the listing argue that the scientific justification to declare the bear as threatened isn’t there. They dispute evidence that bear populations are showing the signs of environmental stress — such as declining numbers, declining life expectancy, and low birth weight. “From my perspective, it’s very difficult to put a population on the list that’s healthy, based on a projection 45 years into the future,” said Ken Taylor, Palin’s deputy commissioner of fish and game, recently. “That’s really stretching scientific credibility.”

Hunting

Across the Arctic region of the North American continent, there is resentment over what Inuit regard as meddling southerners. Under Canadian regulations, indigenous communities are awarded licences to kill a certain number of bears each season. These “tags” are typically sold to wealthy US and European hunters, each bringing in as much as $50,000 each to impoverished communities.

If polar bears were listed, a complete ban on hunting on US territory would follow. Furthermore, the skins of bears shot in Canada would be banned from the entering the US. These measures would be a strong disincentive to US trophy hunters, who might take their lucrative business elsewhere.

Inuit elders say that since those in the south are the cause of the imbalance between nature and man, they have no right to challenge the Inuit’s tradition as huntsmen. But environmentalists stress their objective is not to deprive indigenous people of their livelihood.

Other Arctic species have been listed before — Kittlitz’s murrelets, for example — and more are proposed, including the walrus and ringed seal. But as the argument over the polar bear’s status intensifies, there’s no underestimating the emotional value invested in the outcome. “It’s a landmark decision and [a] landmark case,” said Williams. “But we still don’t know how it will play out.”

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Australians worst nation on Earth at preserving wildlife

 KathyMarks – New Zealand Herald

SYDNEY – Australians love their wildlife – after all, who could fail to warm to a koala, or a wombat, or a kangaroo? But few Australians know that they have the worst record on the planet for conserving their beautiful and unusual animals.

Of all the mammal species that have become extinct in the past 200 years, nearly half are Australian.

Since the British arrived, 27 mammals – about 10 per cent of the total – have disappeared.

These are statistics that “embarrass many conservationists, myself included”, says Tammie Matson, head of the species programme at WWF Australia.

The precarious state of much of Australia’s surviving wildlife is of even greater concern, and in Darwin last week Dr Matson launched a project aimed at raising awareness of the problems facing endangered species such as the karak.

The Flagship Species Programme will focus on 10 endangered creatures that embody the threats facing those inhabiting similar environments.

They include the snubfish dolphin, which was only discovered in 2005; the brush-tailed rock wallaby, an athletic creature that can scale almost vertical outcrops; the northern quoll, a small, spotted marsupial; and the brilliantly hued Gouldian finch, also known as the painted or rainbow finch.

There are several reasons why such creatures are at risk, and why Australia has already suffered such a high rate of extinctions.

Land clearing, with the resulting habitat destruction, is one.

A change in fire regimes – from the patchy, selective burnings carried out by Aborigines to today’s devastating bushfires – is another.

But by far the most harm has been wrought by the introduction of exotic predators, namely feral cats and foxes, according to Chris Johnson, a professor specialising in marsupial biology at Queensland’s James Cook University.

Their impact has been compounded by the culling of dingoes, which would otherwise have kept cat and fox numbers down.

Dingoes, which are thought to have first arrived in Australia at around 3000BC, had replaced larger predators, particularly the extinct thylacine, or Tasman tiger, on the mainland, said Professor Johnson.

But in sheep-farming areas, dingoes had been virtually eliminated.

“We should be rethinking the dingo’s ecological role,” he added.

Species already lost include the lesser bilby, a delicate marsupial that burrowed in desert sand dunes; it was only discovered in the late 1800s, and 50 years later was extinct.

The pig-footed bandicoot was tiny, with long legs, and paws that resembled hooves, or pigs’ trotters.

Early accounts say it looked like a miniature horse.

“There’s nothing like it living today,” said Professor Johnson.

Dr Matson, a zoologist, points out that most Australian species are unique to the continent, so when one vanishes, the loss is felt globally.

She has just returned from a decade working in Africa and says Australia could learn much from the poorer continent.

“We’re very good at a lot of things, including sport,” she said.

“But we’re also very good at killing our mammals. We’re not shooting them out [of existance] anymore, but we’re having the same effect by removing their habitat.”

– INDEPENDENT

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Endangered macaques put down for ‘aggressive behaviour’

INternational Animal Rescue

A pair of endangered monkeys has been put down by a British zoo due to their “aggressive behaviour”.

Officials at Newquay Zoo made the decision to destroy two of their three male black-crested macaques after the animals began constantly fighting with each other, claiming it was impossible to find the monkeys new homes.

However, their actions have been criticised by conservationists, with TV naturalist David Bellamy questioning the decision to put down any endangered animal.

“They must be mad. We have a duty to protect endangered species,” Mr Bellamy told the Daily Mail.

Alan Knight, chief executive of International Animal Rescue, said: “Our own work in Indonesia rehabilitating and releasing captive macaques back into the wild has proved the importance of allowing them to socialise for a considerable period of time in order to establish their own hierarchy within the group.”

“Captive animals are largely unable to behave and interact as they would in the wild, and that is when problems arise. It is hardly surprising that the male macaques started fighting. Living together in captivity doubtless caused them a huge amount of stress. The way to conserve endangered species like these is to give them greater protection in the wild, not to keep small numbers captive in completely unnatural conditions,” he added.

Defending the decision, the Zoo’s Curator, Stewart Muir, said: “The euthanasia came at the end of a lengthy consultation process with vets and our ethics committee. Everyone at the zoo is deeply upset. It was the last resort.”

The black-crested macaque is found in the wild on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi where it is at threat from both hunting and the destruction of its habitat, the newspaper reported.
Help IAR save animals from suffering around the world.

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Tasmanian devil now officially endangered

ABC News

The status of the tasmanian devil has been upgraded from vulnerable to endangered.

The devil is one of the 51 species with a change of status because of increasing vulnerability.

Sightings of the devils have declined by more than 50 per cent and the devil facial tumour disease is found across half of Tasmania.

The changes are part of the Threatened Species Scientific Advisory Committee’s five year review.

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With eye on economy, India may be blind to endangered tigers

Environmentalists fear that the new Act could reverse decades of progress in preserving the tigers, forests.

LiveMint.com

Kailashpuri, India: A tale about the forest dweller and the tiger sounds like some ancient Indian fable, a parable of man versus beast handed down through the ages and adapted by Rudyard Kipling for Western consumption.

But this is a real-life story unfolding today, as India’s government seeks to protect the country’s dwindling population of Bengal tigers while balancing the privileges of man. India has nearly half the world’s estimated 3,500 tigers. But in a country where the human population has ballooned to more than 1.1 billion—most of whom live on less than $2 (Rs79) a day—the government is also focused on expanding the economy and reducing poverty.

Parliament recently passed a law that enshrines the right of forest dwellers to remain in the forests and could allow the return of hundreds of thousands of people who abandoned their claim to the forest decades ago.

Environmentalists fear that the new law—known as the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, and due to come into force in the coming weeks—throws open the gates of India’s national parks and reverses decades of progress in preserving the country’s shrinking forests and the tigers that live in them.

“The economy is the priority now and everything else can go to hell,” said Valmik Thapar, a conservationist and author who for more than a decade has publicized the plight of India’s critically endangered tigers.

As more and more of India’s forests are logged or turned into farms to feed its ever-expanding human population, the number of tigers has plummeted from an estimated 40,000 in 1925 to fewer than 1,500 today, a figure that some experts say is the tipping point for extinction. Protecting the animal has long been a national goal.

In Rajasthan, the Ranthambore National Park attracts tens of thousands of tourists every year eager to glimpse the elusive orange-and-black striped cats, the core of a growing tourism trade here that brings in more than $22 million a year, including at least $300,000 in park entry fees. But the potential strains created by the Forest Dwellers Act are plain to see here, too.

About 200,000 villagers live just outside the national park, many of them former forest dwellers. They were coaxed out of the forest over the past 30 years with promises of schools, health clinics and electricity—all part of a government-backed programme to protect the tiger habitat.

“By now, most of us have forgotten how to live in the forest. We are farmers now, not hunters,” said Chittat Gurjar, 67, a slim man in a white turban. Another villager, Kastoori Gurjar, 78, said she has no intention of returning to live in the forest. But she does want to visit.

“We just want to be allowed back in to worship our gods, who stayed in the forest,” she said, with tearful eyes as she recalled her childhood in the thick woods of the park.

The rights of India’s forest dwellers need to be protected, the Act’s supporters say. Media reports that thousands of forest dwellers have been evicted and many forest communities violently harassed in recent weeks, which some analysts say is an effort to limit the number of people eligible to initiate land claims underthe Act.

Environmentalists and wildlife experts are lobbying Parliament and the courts to strike down the law, widely seen as a populist vote-getter in the lead-up to next year’s general elections.

“This is legislation that no one in Parliament can say no to. It’s part of India’s romanticized notion of forest dwellers as people who live in harmony with the land,” said Goverdhan Singh Rathore, whose non-governmental organization, the Prakratik Society, provides schooling and medical care for many of the villagers who were once forest dwellers.

“That might have been true in the past, but the reality now is that if the growing numbers of forest dwellers are allowed to remain in the national parks and others with historic claims to the land are allowed back in, India’s forests will be gone very soon, and with them, the tigers,” Rathore said.

Luxury hotels and “eco-lodges” have sprouted on the edges of the Ranthambore National Park. Tourists pile into open-roofed jeeps and 20-seater buses that rumble along dirt roads through nearly 800 sq. km of forest, passing langurs, elk-sized deer called sambhars and monitor lizards that dart back into the brush as the cars pass.

But here, as throughout India, the chances of seeing a tiger are getting slimmer.

At least four of India’s 27 tiger reserves no longer have tigers. Some observers believe that at least nine other reserves in India also are in danger of losing their remaining tigers to poachers or to villagers who set out poisoned carcasses to kill animals that venture beyond the boundaries of the reserves to attack their livestock.

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Bear species: six of eight face extinction

Telegraph – Paul Eccleston

Six of the eight species of bear in the world are now officially classed as facing extinction.
In pictures: Endangered bears

The smallest, the sun bear, is the latest to be classified as vulnerable on the Red List of Threatened Species.

Of the other species four – Asiatic black bear, Sloth bear, Andean bear and Polar bear – are also listed as vulnerable.

The giant panda is facing the greatest threat and remains in the endangered category.

There is least concern over the European brown bear and the American black bear.

The sun bear found in Souteast Asia, Sumatra and Borneo, will be included in the 2007 Red List drawn up by the World Conservation Union (IUCN).

Previously it was known as ‘Data Defficient’ meaning not enough was known about it to give it a classification.

Rob Steinmetz, co-chair of the IUCN Bear Specialist Group’s sun bear expert team, said: “Although we still have lot to learn about the biology and ecology of this species, we are quite certain that it is in trouble.

“We estimate that sun bears have declined by at least 30 per cent over the past 30 years (three bear generations), and continue to decline at this rate.

“Deforestation has reduced both the area and quality of their habitat. Where habitat is now protected, commercial poaching remains a significant threat.

“We are working with governments, protected area managers, conservation groups and local people to prevent extinction of the many small, isolated sun bear populations that remain in many parts of Southeast Asia.”

Bear hunting is illegal throughout Southern Asia, but they suffer heavy losses from poachers, who risk the small chance of being caught against lucrative gains from selling parts.

Bile from the bear’s gall bladder is used in traditional Chinese medicine and their paws are consumed as a delicacy.

Additionally, bears are often killed when they prey on livestock or raid agricultural crops. Bears simply roaming near a village may be killed because they are perceived as a threat to human life.

Dave Garshelis, co-chair of the Bear Specialist Group, which met earlier this month in Mexico, to update the status of the eight species, said: “Although the bear population estimates for Asia are not as reliable as we would like, we estimate that bears in Southeast Asia are declining at a particularly rapid rate due to extensive loss of forest habitat combined with rampant poaching.”

Bruce McLellan, also a co-chair, said: “An enormous amount of effort and funding for conservation and management continue to be directed at bears in North America where their status is relatively favourable.

“It is unfortunate that so little is directed at bears in Asia and South America where the need is extreme. We are trying to change this situation but success is slow.”


The eight species:

Vulnerable:

Asiatic black bear (Ursus thibetanus):

Markings: Black, with an easily recognisable white “crescent moon” on its chest.
Distribution: Roughly coincides with forest distribution in southern and eastern Asia and found in all countries except Malaysia.
Population: Unknown but unofficially as many as 28,000 in China.

Sloth bear (Helarctos malayanus):

Markings: Shaggy black coat especially over the shoulders. U or Y shaped white/yellow marking on the chest. A whitish ‘bare’ face.
Distribution: India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bhutan. Until recently they were also known to occur in Bangladesh, but their continued existence there is uncertain.
Population: Estimated 10,000 to 20,000.

Andean bear (Tremarctos ornatus):

Markings: Black or brown thick coat with whitish or cream “spectacles” with colour extending to the throat and chest.
Distribution: Endemic to the Tropical Andes and the only bear in South America.
Population: Maybe 20,000.

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus):

Markings: Dense creamy-white fur. Large and stocky with hind limbs that are longer than the forelimbs, and a long neck. Large furry feet.
Distribution: Arctic – most northerly found bear. U. S. (Alaska), Canada, Russia, Denmark (Greenland), and Norway.
Population: About 20,000 to 25,000.

Sun bear (Helarctos malayanus):

Markings: Short black/dark brown water-repellent fur, yellow crescent on chest and white face.
Distribution: Mainland Southeast Asia as far west as Bangladesh and northeastern India, as far north as southern Yunnan Province in China, and south and east to Sumatra and Borneo.
Population: Unknown.

Endangered:

Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca)

Markings: Unmistakable white coat with black fur around eyes, ears, muzzle, legs and shoulders. WWF emblem.
Distribution: Confined to south-central China.
Population: Approximately 1,600 individuals in the wild.

Least concern:

European brown bear (Ursus arctos)

Markings: Brown bear with mound of muscle on the nape of its neck. The colour of the fur on paws varies from almost black to chocolate brown and grey to red and light brown.
Distribution: Europe, Asia, the Middle East, North America.
Population: Total population is estimated to exceed 200,000.

American black bear (Ursus americanus) also known as Grizzly bear.

Markings: Usually black coats but can vary through cinnamon, blond, and honey-coloured. White and bluish grey along Canada’s Pacific coast.
Distribution: North America – Alaska, Canada and south to mountains of northern Mexico.
Population: Thriving in most areas. 850,000 – 950,000. Twice as many as all other species combined.

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Groups to Monitor Whales in Beaufort Sea

Associated Press – Dan Joling

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Endangered humpback whales swam into the Beaufort Sea off Alaska’s northern coast this summer, far beyond their usual range, but federal officials monitoring the waters say it’s too soon to determine whether it’s a trend or an anomaly.

Environmental groups say the presence of humpbacks hundreds of miles north of their usual habitat likely is another sign of the effects of global warming and the shifting Arctic ecosystem. They are calling for more study of the endangered animals’ habits before industrial activity is allowed to expand off Alaska’s northern shores.

Robin Cacy, a spokeswoman for the federal Minerals Management Service, which oversees lease sales for offshore petroleum drilling in federal waters, confirmed that humpback whales were spotted in the Beaufort Sea east of Barrow, the northernmost community in the United States. Humpback whales were seen in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska’s northwest coast last year, she said.

Also, endangered fin whales were detected this summer by acoustic monitoring north of the Bering Strait in the Chukchi Sea, Cacy said. The fin whales were recorded as far north as Point Lay, a coastal Inupiat Eskimo village of 235 about 700 miles northwest of Anchorage.

Some of the whales were spotted by observers involved with the oil industry. Shell Exploration and Production and its contractors performed seismic work this summer in anticipation of bidding on leases. Lease sales are scheduled for 2008 in the Chukchi Sea and 2009 in the Beaufort Sea. Cacy said some whales also were spotted by observers involved with barge traffic.

No one was expecting humpbacks near the activity connected to Outer Continental Shelf lease sales, said Brad Smith, a protective resources biologist for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

“We expected those to be further south and west of the OCS planning areas,” Smith said. “We didn’t anticipate that they’d been encountered in any of the OCS exploration activity that we’re doing this year.”

Brendan Cummings, ocean programs director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the sightings may be an indication of a recovering humpback population expanding its range or of desperate animals in search of food.

Other species that use the Chukchi Sea, from walrus congregating on Alaska’s northwest shore to gray whales seeking new feeding areas, are behaving differently because of climate change, he said.

“It looks like the populations are suffering from it,” he said. “All signs point to global warming. That would be the first suspect of why the whales are there.”

Deborah Williams, a former Department of Interior special assistant for Alaska, and now an advocate for finding solutions to climate change, said the presence of humpback and fin whales so far north has significant implications for the animals’ management and development.

“We now have even more compelling reasons to protect the Arctic Ocean and the species dramatically affected by climate change,” she said.

Sheela McLean, spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fisheries service in Juneau, said humpbacks range widely and have been spotted on the Russian part of the Chukchi Sea. However, humpbacks are not usually associated with pack ice, so sightings further north might be shifts in distribution caused by climate change, she said.

This year was a record low year for pack ice. The National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder in September recorded 1.65 million square miles of sea ice. That’s 39 percent below the long-term average from 1979 to 2000.

Gary Strasburg, a spokesman for the Minerals Management Service in Washington, D.C., said a sighting of an endangered species in a new area would not mean an immediate change in how the agency regulates petroleum exploration. The agency would determine whether the presence of humpbacks was a trend, and if so, determine the appropriate response, he said.

Federal laws allow a certain level of “harassment” of marine mammals, Smith said. Permits issued in 2007 for exposure of marine mammals to noise from seismic activities covered neither humpback nor fin whales, he said.

“They do, however, have authorization to harass other whales and marine mammals, which were expected to be encountered during the course of their seismic operations,” Smith said, including ringed seals, bearded seals, gray whales and bowhead whales.

Conditions imposed upon exploration for humpbacks may be no different than what’s in place now, Smith said. The sensitivity of bowhead whales, which remain close to sea ice and are hunted in limited numbers by Eskimo whalers, is considered equal to or greater than the sensitivity of humpbacks, he said.

Cummings does not agree with that assessment of humpbacks — or with the government’s protective measures in general.

“These are animals that are entirely dependent on sound,” he said of humpbacks.

Permits issued don’t take into account the federal government’s own research indicating how easily whales can be deflected from their intended paths. The noise could have consequences for whales’ feeding and energy expended feeding behavior, especially mothers migrating with their young.

“We don’t believe that permits issued to date in the Beaufort Sea comply with the spirit or the letter of the Marine Mammal Protection Act or the Endangered Species Act,” he said.

Humpback, fin and bowhead whales are all baleen whales. Humpback and fin whales feed on krill and plankton plus small, schooling fish such as herring or capelin.

Humpbacks are seasonal feeders, building up body fat reserves in the summer and migrating to warmer, subtropical areas during the winter breeding season.

Full-grown humpback whales average 42 feet long and weigh 25 tons. Females average 45 feet long and 35 tons.

Fin whales are even larger. The long, slender whales grow to nearly 88 feet, the second longest of the whales behind blue whales.

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