Growing Returns

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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How the farm bill helps landowners and wildlife thrive together

This week, the Senate advanced a farm bill that includes many important provisions for conservation on America’s working farms, ranches and forestlands. Among these provisions is language codifying the Working Lands for Wildlife program that helps farmers and ranchers restore habitat for at-risk wildlife. It’s the first time the program has been formally recognized in the farm bill.

Thanks to the work of private landowners, conservation groups, tribes, and state and government agencies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided in September 2015 to remove the New England cottontail from the endangered species candidate list due to recovery. (Photo credit: Brian Tefft, Principal Wildlife Biologist at Rhode Island Division of Fish and Wildlife.)

Through the Natural Resources Conservation Service program, USDA provides technical and financial assistance to landowners who voluntarily make improvements to wildlife habitat on their property. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pairs this with regulatory predictability under the Endangered Species Act.

It’s a win-win approach for improving agricultural productivity while enhancing habitat for wildlife.

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California’s budget is not about resistance. It’s about resilience.

The California legislature has passed a budget bill that gives me great hope for the state and for the nation. That’s because the budget was not only passed with bipartisan support – it also proves that conservation has broad political appeal.

California has rebuked the Trump administration on a number of issues including healthcare, immigration and the environment, leading many Americans to see California as the ultimate resistance state. But when I take a closer look at this budget, I think it has less to do with resistance, and everything to do with resilience.

Resilient people, communities, institutions and, yes, environment. Read More »

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Raise a glass (of tequila!) to celebrate this endangered bat’s recovery

When the lesser long-nosed bat was first listed as an endangered species 30 years ago, there were fewer than 1,000 bats in existence. Today, the bat’s population has grown to an estimated 200,000 bats living in 75 roosts across the southwestern United States and Mexico.

A lesser long-nosed bat feeding on an Agave blossom at night in Tucson, Arizona.

The lesser long-nosed bat is one of only three nectar-feeding bat species in the U.S. – uniquely providing valuable ecosystem services through bat pollination and the dispersal of fruit seeds, including for agave plants used in tequila production.

The relationship between bats and tequila may seem obscure at first, but the bat-plant association is so strong that the disappearance of one would threaten the survival of the other.

BATS Magazine

The lesser long-nosed bat is the first bat species to be removed from the endangered species list due to successful recovery. How the bat bounced back is not your typical conservation success story. Read More »

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Will we be prepared for the next natural disaster? Let’s make sure the answer is “Yes.”

It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly a year and a half since Hurricane Matthew delivered devastating floods across eastern North Carolina. With so many families and communities still recovering from that storm, the thought of having to prepare for the next one is daunting, but it’s a necessary reality.

The wide-spread devastation that the 2017 hurricane season brought to the U.S., Puerto Rico, and the Caribbean demonstrates the critical importance of planning and making necessary investments to reduce the vulnerability of our communities in the future. (Photo credit: The National Guard)

This month, a group of North Carolina state legislators will convene in Raleigh to discuss how to spend the state’s remaining federal disaster relief funds provided in the wake of Matthew.

In addition to the needs of still ongoing recovery efforts, the North Carolina House Select Committee on Disaster Relief is expected to begin exploring investment opportunities related to flood control and risk mitigation. Read More »

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Federal rollbacks + huge new oil and gas project = trouble for Wyoming

This blog was co-authored by Jon Goldstein and Sara Brodnax.

Last week, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management collected comments from citizens and groups concerned about the impacts of a proposed 5,000-well oil and gas project in eastern Wyoming.

The situation has a troubling irony, because as BLM reviews the project’s environmental risks, it is simultaneously working to roll back its own commonsense standards to stop oil and gas companies from venting, flaring, and leaking away pollution and valuable natural gas.

Oil and gas development in Wyoming

Rapid oil and gas development at times put Pinedale, Wyoming on par with smoggy Los Angeles in terms of ozone levels.

It’s the same story for the greater sage-grouse, which without strong mitigation measures will likely abandon critical breeding sites in the area set to be impacted by the planned oil and gas project. Here, too, BLM has signaled several attempts to unravel the collaborative, decades-forged plans to protect the imperiled bird.

The combination of weakening policies while expanding development could have disastrous consequences for Wyoming and other western states if methane pollution goes unchecked and the greater sage-grouse continues to decline.

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A rare desert wildflower is no longer endangered, but the law that saved it may be

When most people think about the Endangered Species Act, they picture the bald eagle, the sea turtle or the grizzly bear. They don’t think as often about the grasses, ferns, flowers and conifers that the ESA also protects.

That makes sense when you consider that there are approximately 26 known animal species for every known plant species. But animals, including humans of course, rely heavily on plants for food, oxygen, shelter and more.

Just like animals, plants increasingly face habitat loss, pollution, disease and climate change, which threaten their existence.

There are currently 949 species of plants listed as endangered or threatened under the ESA, including several species of cactus, mint and milkweed – a vital plant for monarch butterflies. But even the more obscure and isolated plants demonstrate how closely plant resilience is tied to the health of both local and broader ecosystems. Read More »

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Why Trump should care about the fate of the sage-grouse even more than African elephants

When the Trump administration announced that it was lifting the ban on imports of game trophies, there was public outcry. For days, my twitter feed was filled with photos of African elephants. It was, in Trump’s words, a “horror show” – one that ultimately ended when the president made the decision to keep the trophy ban in place.

At the same time the trophy ban was making headlines across the globe, a different story was unfolding back home. A great American wildlife conservation story was being rewritten. Read More »

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New online hub pairs landowners with conservation investors

Assessing habitat for songbirds at a ranch in the Central Valley.

The drive through the Central Valley’s mosaic of agricultural land, water infrastructure, riparian zones and floodplains has become a familiar one for me and my colleagues. We meet frequently with landowners who are creating, restoring and protecting habitat for wildlife on these working lands.

At each farm and ranch we visit, I am inspired by the landowners who are stepping up to do what they can for the at-risk species that are a part of the Central Valley’s ecology and history.

Whether they are managing flooded fields for Chinook salmon and giant garter snakes, planting trees for Swainson’s hawks and riparian songbirds to nest, or allowing native milkweed and wildflowers to grow for monarch butterflies to breed and feed, these landowners are showcasing conservation innovations that honor and sustain the region’s natural heritage. Read More »

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The wild turkey may be America’s greatest wildlife conservation success story

Three male wild American turkeys displaying full plumage. The turkey’s bald head can change color in seconds with excitement or emotion. The birds’ heads can be red, pink, white or blue. [Photo credit: Larry Smith2010]

When most Americans think about great wildlife success stories, they think about the bald eagle, the peregrine falcon, or possibly the recent news of sea turtle recovery.

What many people forget, or perhaps never knew, is that America’s wild turkey population was once estimated to be approximately 30,000 – a number comparable to today’s estimates for polar bears worldwide.

Thankfully for us (and the gobblers), American wild turkeys now number close to seven million.

So how did the turkey bounce back? The answer lies in what some consider America’s greatest wildlife conservation success story. Read More »

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