Growing Returns

Are monarch populations up or down? Scientist explains conflicting reports

It’s hard to know what to make of the recent monarch butterfly news. On one hand, the western population of monarchs native to California is down 86 percent this year compared to last – reaching a dangerously low threshold that puts them on the brink of extinction. On the other hand, the eastern population that migrates east of the Rockies and overwinters in Mexico is up 144 percent – the highest count since 2006.

With the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service currently weighing the need to list monarch butterflies as threatened or endangered, the stakes are incredibly high to understand what these population trends mean for the iconic species.

So how do scientists explain these apparently conflicting population numbers?

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The decline of the monarch butterfly is a natural disaster that requires attention now

Three reasons why this wildlife problem is a human problem – one that we can and must solve, fast.

The monarch butterfly is making national headlines as reporters and commentators are using the dooming western population count to sound the alarm about the loss of the orange and black icon.

But the species’ decline has not been a sudden one. Scientists have been predicting this for years as the monarch has been on a collision course with agricultural productivity and climate change for at least two decades.

(Photo Credit: Lamoustique)

Really, the dangerously low monarch count isn’t unlike a natural disaster in that it is a scary marker of a much larger and more dangerous transformational change.

The biggest difference between the monarch’s decline and natural disasters is that the monarch’s decline is ultimately seen as a wildlife problem, not a human problem – but they are one in the same. Here are three reasons why. Read More »

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Three ways Zinke failed as Interior Secretary. Why the next Secretary will likely fail, too.

This blog was co-authored by David Festa and Dan Grossman.

Two years ago, a colleague of ours penned a blog titled, “How Interior pick can make good on Trump’s promise to honor Theodore Roosevelt.”

Looking back now, it was optimistic for any of us to believe that Ryan Zinke could fulfill the responsibilities of the Interior Secretary, when it’s clear that the Trump administration has no respect for America’s natural resources and cultural heritage.

Here are three reasons why Zinke failed as Interior Secretary, and why we are deeply skeptical that his replacement will succeed, either.   Read More »

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Climate news got you down? Here are 3 bright spots that show promise in building resilience.

The federal government’s National Climate Assessment lays bare the grim future we face if we don’t reign in greenhouse gas emissions and scale up adaptation strategies in a hurry. Lost in most of the media coverage, however, is the fact that industry, government and communities are already coming together to build resilience so that people and wildlife can adapt to a changing climate.

Here are three shining examples. It may surprise you that some of these places are decidedly unblue.  Read More »

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Latest population count could spell doom for the monarch. Unless we act now.

The Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count began in 1997, when scientists first noticed declines and started to track the population.

In the years since, the western monarch butterfly population (the smaller of the two North American populations, which overwinters on the California coast) has dropped dramatically, and this year’s preliminary data is especially alarming.

Early reports on this year’s count suggest that populations have dropped 86 percent since last year, with the population at less than 0.5 percent of historic levels. Approximately 20,000 monarchs were counted at the monarch’s overwintering sites this Thanksgiving, compared to 148,000 counted last year. The Xerces Society estimates that the overall population will be around 30,000.

So far, 97 of the monarch’s overwintering sites along the California coast have been counted, representing approximately 75 percent of the total western population. (Photo Credit: Amy Marbach)

This is a grim number, especially when you consider studies showing that 30,000 butterflies is the average population needed to avoid a complete collapse of the western migration, and extinction of the entire western population.

It’s clear that western monarchs cannot survive even one more year of decline like this one. Read More »

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Monarch butterflies are migrating in large numbers, with support from some unlikely allies

Monarch butterflies fueled on recently planted prairie habitat on hog farms in Missouri this summer before beginning their annual fall migration south.

You may have noticed more monarch butterflies than usual this year. There’s a reason for that.

Researchers are finding that monarch populations are at the fourth highest level since 1993 – making this year’s population currently migrating south for the winter one of the highest of the past 25 years.

That’s great news for the beloved orange and black butterfly, which has faced a 95 percent population decline since the 1980s. This dramatic loss has been driven largely by increased applications of herbicides across the agricultural landscape, and additional threats posed by extreme weather and climate change.

But citizens, conservationists and even some forward-thinking companies are highly motivated to help recover the monarch before it’s too late.

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As much as Trump would like, economics do not trump science. These laws say so.

The Trump administration has made several attempts to remove science-based decision-making at multiple federal agencies, including those responsible for keeping the American public and our nation’s vital ecosystems healthy.

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

The latest proposal to insert economic considerations into Endangered Species Act (ESA) decisions is not only illegal – prohibited by the act itself – it’s also a misplaced attempt at incorporating economics where they simply do not belong.

It’s the latest in this administration’s politicization of science and, if successful, will ultimately interfere with efforts to craft durable, realistic solutions to public and ecosystem health. Read More »

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4 ways drones are helping people and nature prepare for climate change

Drones have taken off in popularity, as updates in technology have made them more affordable and maneuverable. These advancements are allowing researchers to capture high-resolution data with accuracy, precision and ease, making drones a valuable tool for understanding how the world around us is changing, and how we can manage this change.

My Environmental Defense Fund colleagues are exploring ways drones can help us build ecosystem resilience, from corn fields in the heartland to wetlands along our coasts.

Here are four inspiring examples. Read More »

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Trump’s ESA overhaul won’t give Americans what they want. Here’s what will.

We are observing the most coordinated set of attacks on the Endangered Species Act since it was signed into law nearly a half century ago.

Bald eagle soars thanks to endangered species act

The bald eagle – our nation’s symbol – would have likely gone extinct if not for the protections of the Endangered Species Act. Learn how our nation’s symbol soared back from the brink. Photo Credit: Bob Jensen

The latest series of assaults – from legislation introduced in Congress to proposed changes by the Trump administration – fall into the increasingly perilous partisan trap that pits industrial and economic interests against the environment and public health.

This two-sided narrative consistently drowns out moderate voices in national media coverage and has created an illusion of broad disagreement around the ESA that simply does not exist.

Recent surveys show that 83 percent of Americans support the ESA, including 74 percent of conservatives.

That’s a lot of bipartisan support. Yet House legislators and the Trump administration are pushing extreme proposals that cater to the political whims of a few special interests.

Americans deserve better. Here are six actions that will improve protections for wildlife, preserve our outdoor heritage and strengthen local communities. Read More »

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From satellites to artificial intelligence, how tech will change conservation as we know it

Wyoming is known for its panoramic landscapes, jagged mountains, and herds of pronghorn and bison. This imagery is associated with parks like Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. But not all of Wyoming’s landscapes are encapsulated in iconic national parks.

In southern Wyoming, the continental divide splits to form an enormous arid basin marked by vast sand dunes and grey, alkali lakes. The largest unfenced area in the lower 48, this region is known by Wyomingites as the Red Desert.

The Red Desert stretches across 4 million acres in south central Wyoming. It is home to the largest herd of pronghorn in the continental U.S., the largest desert elk herd, and the longest migrating mule deer herd in North America. Nearly three quarters of the area is covered by sagebrush grassland, and sage-grouse leks are present in much of the region. In the Red Desert’s northeastern corner, a series of alkali lakes known as the Chain Lakes provide critical wetland oasis for migrating shorebirds like ducks, trumpeter swans and white pelicans.

What differentiates the Red Desert from Wyoming’s other iconic landscapes is the rapidly increasing land use for energy development.

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