Why 2015 Will Be a Good Year for Wildlife
There’s always plenty of reason to get depressed about the prospects for wildlife at the start of a new year. Environmentalists were, for instance, unable to stop last weekend’s predator-hunting derby by Idaho’s abundant population of anti-wolf idiots. But there’s good news too: They didn’t kill any. (It took the sound and fury of 125 hunters to shoot just 30 coyotes.)
Better still, a study published last month in the journal Science reported that even if the Idaho effete tremble at the idea of living with their native predators, Europe is handling them just fine. The continent that gave us Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf is now home to twice as many wolves as the contiguous United States, despite being half the size and more than twice as densely populated. Look for wolves to expand their range this year, building on recent forays into Denmark and Belgium. Thanks to its equivalent of the Endangered Species Act, Europe also manages to live happily with an estimated 17,000 brown bears, compared with just 1,800 grizzly bears in the U.S.’s Lower 48.
My point is that we should start the new year not in frustration and despair at the plight of wildlife but intent on success, because the worldwide fight for wildlife has compiled an extraordinary record of achievement. (I’m thinking of the U.S. recovery of bison and bald eagles, for starters.) With that in mind, the list of areas where we should focus on winning in 2015 starts with the usual suspects: climate change and habitat loss.
Yes, I know, you’re tired of reading about the perils of a warming planet. Me too. But when it comes to wildlife, nothing else comes close to having the same impact. Species from coral to Kirtland’s warblers are already shifting their ranges to adjust to new regional temperatures, while other species have declined or simply vanished. Even protected areas may not provide much of a refuge: Without connectivity between high-quality habitats, many animals won’t be able to migrate to cope with rising temperatures.
So where can we work for progress on the issue? Republicans in Washington, who once dreamed up the ingenious marketplace fix for pollution called cap and trade, now think the Keystone XL pipeline is God. And for the next two years, the Party of No Hope is calling the shots in Congress.
On the other hand, China joined the United States late last year in announcing an agreement to reduce emissions, a surprise move that lent an air of optimism to the ensuing Lima, Peru, climate change negotiations. The accord that came out of Lima was weaker than many had hoped for. But negotiators will meet again late this year in Paris, and one proposed paragraph calls for a binding deal on “carbon neutrality/net zero emissions by 2050.” Will it happen? The reluctance of countries to make firm pledges in Lima does not bode well.
Activists on the issue might want to look to cities rather than nations for a quicker way to save the world, because cities tend to downplay ideology and experiment with practical fixes. (Not incidentally, many are among the first areas likely to face flooding from rising seas.) Cities have also lately become a lot quicker at copying one another’s success stories. For instance, bike sharing, introduced in Paris in 2007 as a fix for both traffic and pollution problems, has spread to 714 cities around the world. The city of Wuhan, China, alone now has 90,000 bikes in service. That may sound a long way from wildlife issues. But the C40 Cities Group now has 70 major cities, from London to Jakarta, Indonesia, working on other practical steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The global migration to cities may also help address habitat loss and fragmentation. One reason wolves and other species are making a comeback in Europe is that small farmers are abandoning marginal land at a rate of nearly 4,000 square miles—half of Massachusetts—every year, leaving room for the recovery of native species.
There’s also a promising movement among conservationists to put marginal land in urbanized areas—such as roadsides and power transmission corridors—back to work as habitat for endangered pollinators and other wildlife. Some forward-thinking utilities now recognize that they can save money and earn public-relations bonus points when they stop mowing transmission corridors and maintain them instead as a scrubby habitat of wildflowers, sedges, ferns, and low shrubs. A new group, the Right of Way Stewardship Council, is setting standards for right-of-way management with wildlife in mind, and a half-dozen power companies have sought certification so far. Utility rights-of-way add up in the U.S. to about nine million acres for power transmission lines and another 12 million for pipelines.
One pollinator biologist told me these transmission corridors have the potential to become a network of conservation reserves roughly one-third the area of the national park system. A handful of states—notably Arizona, Florida, and Iowa—are leading a similar movement to develop the habitat potential of highway margins. With America’s most beloved butterfly, the monarch, moving rapidly toward the U.S. endangered species list, it’s time to take advantage of the margins and medians on the nation’s four million miles of highways.
Wildlife may also get a break from the recent pact signed by 30 nations to halve the rate at which they are leveling forests over the next five years and restore a million square miles of degraded forest. Brazil, home to the largest continuous forest on Earth, declined to join the effort. But it has reduced deforestation significantly over the past decade. Despite satellite data from October showing an uptick in deforestation, Brazil expects to continue that downward trend.
The bad news is that rate of deforestation in Indonesia last year surpassed that of Brazil, and it’s only increasing. Wood-pulp and palm-oil plantations have wiped out vast areas of forest, leaving orangutans and countless other species homeless along with the indigenous human residents. Until that changes, shoppers should avoid all products from Indonesia and think hard about using the many common products made with palm oil.
On the other hand, some developing countries seem to be waking up to the idea that protecting at least some forms of wildlife really does matter to their economic well-being. Despite its deforestation failures, Indonesia recently declared the entire island nation a refuge for manta rays as part of an effort to move its outlaw fisheries industry back toward sustainability. More dramatically, Indonesia set fire to a foreign vessel fishing illegally in its waters and put other pirate fishing operations on notice that they should expect to be sunk on sight.
So, yeah, there are plenty of reasons to despair and do nothing. But that not-so-happy thought has me believing we can still work to make 2015 a very good year for wildlife.