Selected tag(s): conservation

Why I have more hope than ever for the monarch’s recovery

A monarch butterfly nectars on an eryngo plant at Wagley Ranch on October 11. Read more about the monarch and explore David's notes from the field here.

I recently returned to Wagley Ranch near Mineral Wells, Texas to work with some of the very first landowners participating in the emerging Monarch Butterfly Habitat Exchange.

The visit was the last on my fall field testing tour of the state, during which I visited five Texas ranchers in just six weeks. It was great to end on a high note at Wagley Ranch, where we had the chance to see southward migrating monarchs. We even saw one monarch feeding on an eryngo plant.

It was a wonderful reminder of why our work with these ranchers is so important, because the habitat they are restoring and enhancing is providing a new home to monarchs. Each acre of healthy habitat restored will support 70 butterflies on their migration to their wintering grounds in Mexico.

So how do we bring these activities to scale in time to save the monarch from extinction? With the right tools, the right practices, and the right people. Read More »

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The secret survival of the “masked bandit” in the vanishing prairie

The black-footed ferret is known for its bandit-like mask of dark fur around its eyes. (Photo credit: USFWS Mountain Prairie)

The black-footed ferret, nicknamed the "masked bandit" for its racoon-like markings, is one of the most endangered mammals in North America – so scarce it was once thought to be extinct.

The last of the wild population of black-footed ferrets was thought to have died in 1974 in South Dakota, and the last ferret of the captive breeding program died in 1979.

Somehow, though, a number of ferrets were secretly surviving near the small town of Meeteetse, Wyoming.

In 1981, a cattle dog named Shep brought a dead ferret home to his owners. The ranchers took the ferret to a local taxidermist, who identified it as the once “extinct” black-footed ferret.

Read More »

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Once a pesky plant for farmers, this weed presents a new opportunity

Although milkweed contains toxins, it rarely poses any significant threat to people or animals. Grazing livestock generally avoid milkweeds when sufficient forage is available. (Photo credit: E. Dronkert)

A recent article called milkweed a “yield-robbing weed” for farmers.

Milkweed has a reputation for encroaching on cropland where it can compete with crops for soil and light. The plant can also create a nuisance on ranchlands, as cattle can be poisoned when poor foraging conditions lead hungry cows to milkweed-concentrated areas as a last resort.

This is why milkweed is difficult to find on most farms and ranches today. Along with climate change, it’s also a key reason why the beloved monarch butterfly population has declined by more than 90 percent in the last two decades.

The importance of milkweed

Milkweed is essential for monarchs, since butterflies need the plant to lay their eggs, and caterpillars exclusively feed on the milky sap-filled plant. It’s what makes monarchs poisonous to predators.

Increased herbicide application across the agricultural landscape, as well as mowing in roadside ditches and marginal areas, is eradicating milkweed from rural areas in the Corn Belt and other key regions of the monarch’s migration route.

In order to turn things around for the monarch, we need to change the incentive for landowners from spraying and mowing to protecting and restoring this vital habitat. Read More »

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How an innovative corn supply chain model can empower companies to help farmers

Grain elevator. Credit: Flickr user Wilson Hui

A new study out this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that trying to make supply chains more sustainable is not for the faint of heart, especially when it comes to food – and corn in particular.

Companies are keenly aware that consumers care about where their ingredients come from and how they were grown, and that improving efficiencies along the supply chain can be good for business. But the raw ingredients at the end of those chains are typically produced by a vast network of farmers who bring their corn to regional grain elevators and then sell their crops to grain traders. This is just the start of a lengthy and complicated process that can be challenging for food companies to disentangle and understand, let alone influence to become more sustainable.

That’s why the new study, which focuses on a corn supply chain model developed by the University of Minnesota’s Northstar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise (NiSE), can be an important tool for empowering food companies with information that can help them tackle the tough job of supply chain sustainability.  Read More »

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How the fastest American raptor nearly nosedived into extinction

“Peregrine” comes from the Latin word for traveler, an apt name for this raptor species. Peregrine falcons are limited only by extreme heat, extreme cold, or exceptionally high elevations. (Photo credit: Beth Fishkind)

The peregrine falcon is renowned for its ability to reach diving speeds up to 200 mph. It’s also known for having one of the longest migrations in North America, reaching up to 15,000 miles.

Peregrine falcons are one of the most widespread birds in the world, found on every continent except Antarctica. This extensive range is what made the American peregrine’s dive into near-extinction so worrying.

The peregrine’s swift descent

Historically, there were estimated to be approximately 4,000 breeding pairs of peregrines in the United States. Despite its eminent speed and strength, the population reached alarmingly low numbers in the 1970s when the bird completely disappeared from the eastern U.S. and only 300 breeding pairs remained throughout the rest of the country. Read More »

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A bird has united thousands. It will not divide us.

An icon of the sagebrush sea, the greater sage-grouse is a sight to behold. Males often gather in large numbers to woo females and strut with chests puffed and spiky tails fanned. (Photo credit: Tatiana Gettelman)

It was a sunny, cool morning – a typical September day in Colorado. I pulled up to the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge and walked towards a stage where the state flags for Colorado, Nevada, Montana and Wyoming waved in the wind alongside the American flag.

It was a good morning. Then-Secretary of the Interior Department, Sally Jewell, had announced earlier that morning that the greater sage-grouse – a bird with habitat spanning parts of 11 western states – was “not warranted” for listing under the Endangered Species Act, thanks to one of the largest collaborative conservation efforts in America’s history.

A success story in the sagebrush sea

Sixteen million sage-grouse once roamed the American West. The Plain Indian tribes lived among the birds, hunting them for food and mimicking the males in their ceremonial dances. Meriwether Lewis spotted them “in great abundance” in 1805 during his expedition with William Clark, providing the first written account of the species.

As of 2010, there were approximately 200,000 to 500,000 birds remaining.

Read More »

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Why we need a new era of collaborative conservation

This year’s Gulf of Mexico dead zone is the largest ever recorded, affecting 8,776 square miles – similar in size to the state of New Jersey.

Agriculture – from fertilizers and livestock production – is a major source of the nutrients that cause these harmful algal blooms in our lakes and coastal areas. Fertilizers are required to grow food, but we know that making farming practices more efficient and creating natural buffers and filters around farms can reduce runoff.

Farming is already risky business, with unpredictable weather, tough global competition and fluctuating commodity prices.

Implementing conservation practices at scale without hurting growers’ productivity requires understanding the challenges of different sectors and bringing together their expertise and investment. It’s a collaborative effort, and we must recognize that we are all working around a common goal: a more sustainable food system.

This month, Environmental Defense Fund is launching a series of public events – in Bozeman, St. Louis, and Des Moines – to highlight, advance, and celebrate collaborations among private landowners, food and agriculture companies, policy makers, and the public.

Read More »

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How the Midwest can save the monarch

Monarch lands on a milkweed in the Midwest

Monarch populations have declined by 90 percent in the past two decades due, in large part, to the loss of milkweed across the Midwest.

Once again, summer has brought the highly anticipated sightings of monarch butterflies across the country. An online tracker from Journey North shows the beloved orange and black butterflies fanning across the Northeast and Upper Midwest, where the eastern population is completing its northern migration. I spotted a monarch in Missouri just last week.

It’s a wonderful sight and an inspiring reminder of the monarch’s magical migration. But the opportunity to witness this natural miracle is dwindling. Over the last two decades, the monarch population has declined by 90 percent, bringing the butterfly dangerously close to extinction.

There are many factors contributing to this devastating loss, from climate change to deforestation. But a major contributor is the loss of milkweed habitat across the U.S., particularly in the Midwest where native prairies have largely been converted for agricultural use. Monarchs need milkweed to lay their eggs – eggs that turn into caterpillars that feed exclusively on the milky plants. So how do we restore this vital milkweed habitat where monarchs need it the most? Read More »

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3 ways the Farm Bill can protect croplands from extreme weather

Photo Credit: Flickr user Benjamin Disinger (License)

Here’s a statement that everyone can agree on, regardless of politics: Farmers benefit from making their croplands more resilient to the effects of extreme weather.

Report after report, including a study this week in the journal Nature Geoscience, has shown that shifting climatic conditions will hit agriculture hard, threatening food supplies and farmers’ incomes. This week’s report found that in years when the Arctic was warmer than normal, the average decline in yields across the United States was as high as 4 percent – and in Texas, corn yields were as low as 20 percent of what they are in typical years.

Farmers can take steps to protect their operations from extreme weather – but they can’t do it alone.

The 2018 Farm Bill can and should play a powerful role in helping farmers adapt to changing climatic conditions by prioritizing and supporting public-private partnerships, innovation, and financial models that can accelerate deployment of conservation practices.

Read More »

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What does the end of the Paris deal mean for agricultural innovation?

Agriculture has faced increasing disruption from extreme weather and climate shifts over the past 40 years.

In the face of an ever-changing climate, agricultural innovation is more important than ever.

No matter your views on climate change, the United States’ exit from the Paris agreement could compromise the ability of farmers and agribusinesses to become more resilient in the face of extreme weather events.

In the absence of federal leadership, individual farmers, state and national ag associations, food companies, retailers, and environmental organizations will need to fill the void.

I’m confident we can do this, because all the farmers I’ve ever known are incredible innovators and are willing to implement practices that can mitigate the effects of an unpredictable climate – practices that also protect their businesses. Read More »

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