Category Archives: conservation

Presenting the first fruit of a sabbatical – “Cities and Biodiversity Outlook: Action and Policy”

As regular readers (and friends/followers on Facebook and Twitter) may be aware, I am currently on sabbatical from my teaching responsibilities, and am trying to make the most of this year to maximize my productivity in terms of research, catching up with paper writing, and science communication, here on the blog and elsewhere. The blogging has been rather light over the past few months as I have been traveling and getting involved in some fascinating collaborations which haven’t left me much time to write. I hope to make up for that over the coming weeks and months, especially now that I’ve moved my blog to be part of this Coyotes Network. Nice to be part of so many exciting and invigorating collaborations on all fronts! I was so ready for it after 8 years of the teaching and scholarship grind…

My sabbatical started with a lovely two months in Stockholm, working with my friend and colleague Thomas Elmqvist to put together the Cities and Biodiversity Outlook (CBO) for the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). A Professor of Ecology at the Stockholm Resilience Center, at Stockholm University, Thomas is also the chief scientific editor of this effort bringing together some 150 scientists and practitioners from the urban ecology disciplines (yes takes multiple disciplines to study the ecology of cities) to make the first comprehensive assessment of the state of biodiversity and ecosystem services in cities throughout our increasingly urbanized world. Here is Thomas explaining the mission and context of the CBO:

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It was quite an inspirational and productive way to begin my sabbatical – to go to a city that was so different in so many ways from Fresno, to explore a new country, to meet some fantastic new colleagues and friends from distant lands, and to engage in such a stimulating exercise as assessing the world’s urban ecosystems to help identify ways to better manage them for long-term sustainability. I may write more about these experiences and share photos from the trip as time allows.

By the end of my nearly two months there, we had finalized the text of the CBO’s first major document: the Cities and Biodiversity Outlook: Action and Policy. This is our distillation of the current scientific understanding of urban ecosystems and biodiversity, and various ways cities can and are addressing the challenge of managing cities for sustainability. We synthesized insights and case-studies from the collective expertise of our 150-odd collaborators to produce a document that is intended to help ordinary citizens and urban planners, policy makers, and non-government practitioners grapple with the challenges and opportunities of global urbanization. As such, it is a relatively concise, well illustrated document written for non-expert readers – something for which my blogging had prepared me rather well, I realized. A more detailed Scientific Assessment, comprising of chapters covering different aspects of the urban ecological challenges, and detailed case-studies, written by the world’s leading experts in urban ecology, is currently being compiled and will be released sometime in spring 2013, as a print and an open-access e-book. Stay tuned for announcements about that.

Meanwhile, after spending a couple of weeks in Germany attending conferences, giving research talks, and catching up with some old friends, I wound up in India preparing for the official launch of the CBO at the 11th Conference of Parties (COP 11) of the CBD. The first public presentation of the CBO was a keynote talk by Thomas at the 2012 Urban Biodiversity and Design Conference in Mumbai on 10 October 2012. Then we moved to Hyderabad where the CBO was formally launched at last on 15 October 2012, at the Cities for Life Summit organized as part of COP 11. Here is Thomas (in the middle with the CBD Executive Secretary Mr. Braulio F. de Souza Dias on his left) showing it to the media at the launch press conference:

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That was when I finally got to see our work in print – quite nice colorful print too – and was pleasantly surprised to find myself listed among the 10 lead authors of the CBO! I honestly hadn’t really paid attention to the authorship of this report because it had been such a rich community exercise. In addition, since COP 11 was in India, and a large contingent of government officials, biodiversity scientists, and NGOs from all over India were in attendance that day, we simultaneously released another document: Urbanization, ecosystems, and biodiversity: Assessments of India and Bangalore. A smaller group of us (primarily Harini Nagendra, Maria Schewenius, and I) wrote this during a frenzied few weeks – and through an insane flurry of emails – after the CBO: Action & Policy had gone to the printers. Our initial print run of a 1000 copies of both the documents was exhausted within the hour, with journalists at the press conference fighting for the last copies of the India Assessment! I don’t think any of us were quite prepared for such an enthusiastic reception – but it has certainly reenergized the team working on the Scientific Assessment to complete the overall CBO mission.

A few hours ago, I had the opportunity to present an overview of the CBO at the December 2012 meeting of the Central Valley Café Scientifique in Fresno, to a very interested local audience of science enthusiasts and concerned citizens. Here are the slides from my presentation (adapted from Thomas’ keynote talk in Mumbai):

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I was once again surprised, and gratified, by the keen interest and sharp questions and comments from the audience in the vigorous discussion that followed. But I really shouldn’t be surprised – after all, we are all city dwellers, so who among us wouldn’t be interested in learning about the state of our own home ecosystem? I hope the key messages (the CBO has 10 of them) we worked so hard to craft over the summer in the Stockholm archipelago, will percolate and spread beyond last night’s immediate audience and start to reach those involved in the governance of Fresno and Clovis (and other cities). I am now hoping to meet the mayors of both cities so I can present them with copies of the CBO: Action and Policy.

We urban ecologists have done our best to put together this report – now we must ensure that our messages translate into real world action in cities worldwide if we are to contain some of the alarming trends of urbanization’s impacts, and create better habitats for ourselves and for other species on an urban planet. Let me leave you with that thought, and with some links for further reading and action:

From Silent Spring to Silent Night: A Tale of Toads and Men

As the semester winds down here at Fresno State, the Tri Beta Biology Club has a couple more special treats for us. For this week’s Biology Colloquium, we bring you a real role model in Dr. Tyrone Hayes, an African American field biologist (yes, they exist, despite the stereotype) who became one of the youngest Full Professors at the University of California Berkeley. He will share his groundbreaking (and corporation-shaking) research on the effects of the herbicide Atrazine on amphibians, a taxon that has been in global decline for some time now, with pesticides hammering some of the nails in their collective coffin. Here’s an excerpt about Dr. Hayes’ work from the PBS documentary Frogs: The Thin Green Line:


And if that isn’t enough to grab your interest, this might:
Here are details of the colloquium:
Tri Beta Biology Club presents:


Dr. Tyrone Hayes
Professor of Integrative Biology
University of Californa, Berkeley
on Friday, May 6, 2011
at 3:00 PM in AG 109 (download maps here)

The herbicide, atrazine, is a potent endocrine disruptor. My laboratory’s studies in amphibians have shown that atrazine both demasculinizes and feminizes exposed males at levels as low as 0.1 ppb. Our previous worked examined morphological effects, including the loss of androgen-dependent sexually dimorphic features, and the development of estrogen-dependent features in exposed males. These findings are consistent with an induction of aromatase, resulting in decreased androgen secretion and inappropriate estrogen synthesis and secretion. Our ongoing studies focus on behavioral effects in male frogs exposed throughout life and demonstrate both the loss of male reproductive behavior and the induction of female-typical behavior in exposed males. These data on amphibians and the proposed mechanism are consistent with findings across vertebrate classes, including humans, and raise concern about the role of this common environmental contaminant in reproductive hormone-dependent cancers and declining fertility in humans.

Call the Biology department (559•278•2001) for more information. You can also download the flyer here.

Tigers Are Less Important Than Warblers

The above was the original title of an essay I wrote some 15 years ago, a bit of a rant really, in response to constant needling by some people wondering why I was studying tiny nondescript little warblers for my Ph.D. research instead of something more important… you know… like tigers. After all I was doing field work in a Tiger Reserve anyway, and there aren’t any warbler reserves, so why was I wasting my time? Hence, eventually, my response, outlining the greater importance of warblers.

That essay somehow landed on the desk of Joanna Van Gruisen, who happened to be editing a coffee-table book on wildlife conservation in India for the Ranthambore Foudation. She liked my contrarian essay well enough to want to include it in the book “In Danger” where most of the other contributions were about much more charismatic megafauna, including tigers! She did tone down the title, turning it into a question – see below. In the years since, I keep hearing from various people in India that they have read that article, which was also reprinted in a magazine, and more recently in another edited book on ornithological writings from India. Sometimes I get the sense that more people have read this article than have ready any (or all) of my academic papers. It is this kind of unexpected (honestly) response which encouraged me to try more science writing for nonscientists, eventually leading to this blog and other writing I am doing currently.

This warblers vs. tigers polemic, though, keeps coming back. Recently, a newfound friend on the internets, Arati Rao, wrote to me about going back to re-read it, wishing she could own a copy, but that the original book is now out-of-print. At her behest, therefore, I am reproducing the article below, and hope it finds new readers. I think I will scan the original print version also and post it online soon. Meanwhile, here it is:

Are Warblers Less Important Than Tigers?

Are Warblers less important than Tigers?

Now what kind of a stupid question is that?! Everyone knows that tigers are more important, being large predators, as apex species, at the top of the food chain, flagship species for conservation… etc. … etc. … etc.!!

These are arguments I have to face often enough when I tell people I am studying warblers—in Kalakad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve! For some reason, studying these tiny, nondescript, common birds is thought to be an entirely trivial, indeed arcane, academic pursuit of little practical or conservation value.

“What can studying little birds tell me about the habitat of large mammals, which are my primary concern?”—asks the reserve manager. On the other hand, if we focus on the larger mammals—the apex species philosophy of Project Tiger—and do our best to improve their habitat, other species will also naturally benefit. Given limited funds and manpower for conservation (research and action), is it not better to focus on the mega-fauna and let the mini- and micro-fauna take care of itself? The only small creatures one should worry about then are those that may form part of the food chain leading up to the larger focal species.

Before you accuse me of a biased perspective (which is undoubtedly true, for I make my living watching little warblers!), let me state that, in defending these little creatures, I am also arguing in favor of a broader ecological perspective in conservation—one that goes beyond the charismatic mega-fauna, and starts looking at species more in terms of their ecological role in the system, rather than their appearance/charisma, or tourism potential!

Tigers Are Less Important Than Warblers

So what is the ecological role of my favoured little leaf-warblers?

Leaf warblers (Genus Phylloscopus) must surely rank among the least glamorous vertebrates, so utterly lacking in charisma that even many die-hard bird watchers dismiss them lightly, scarcely bothering to try and even identify them to species level. Part of the problem is, of course, the fact that they are all small, dull-green coloured, and highly active in the forest canopy, making identification in the field difficult. It is only rarely—either when one is truly nuts about birds or when the fate of one’s Ph.D. thesis hangs on such identification—that one develops the eye for the subtle morphological, auditory and behavioural differences between species. These difficulties in identifying species, however, need not bother our busy manager too much, since they (the leaf-warblers) are all pretty similar ecologically as well—the role they play in the forest is largely independent of their taxonomic status, except insofar as structural aspects of their foraging microhabitat within the forest canopy are concerned.

All 18 species leaf warblers occurring in the Indian subcontinent are migratory, breeding in the temperate summers from Himalaya north to the Arctic circle, and taking over the peninsular (including Himalayan foothills, and much of Northeast India) forests from September through May. While each individual may weigh only 7-11 grams (range includes all species; give or take a gram), one may still emphasize the term take-over, when describing their relationship to their forest habitats: they number in the billions and form probably the most abundant avian guild in the subcontinental forests during our tropical winter. My study at Mundanthurai (in the southern western ghats) records a density of 6-8 leaf warblers (of two species) per hectare of forest—usually any given patch of forest may have 2-3 species, depending on the type of forest; and I doubt there is any forest habitat in India that does not host at least one species some time of year. Picking a random hectare from my 20 ha study plot at Mundanthurai, I find 6 leaf warblers (of 2 species) making it their home for 7-8 months— for these are territorial individuals that remain on site for much of the winter. And what do they do during this period? Well, eat insects, mostly! Humdrum as their lives may sound, they spend over 75% of their waking hours foraging for insects (and other arthropods—but insects predominate) in the foliage. Since they are not concerned about finding mates or raising young during this season, and want merely to survive in good shape for the next summer, their other activities—preening and maintaining territories through vocal and visual dialogue with neighbors—does not take much time. Hmm… a bunch of small, dull birds spending most of their day peering at leaves in search of insects—do I seem to be only weakening the defense? Not really…

Consider the fact that each leaf-warbler, on average, eats 3 insects every waking minute (this is averaging over all their activities throughout the day). Since they forage by picking prey off a substrate—mostly leaf, sometimes also twigs and flowers—the prey largely consists of herbivorous insects. In the case of my one hectare on Mundanthurai, it is mostly caterpillars eating leaves. A single leaf-warbler thus eats an average of 180 insects every hour, or about 1980 per day (assuming an average 11 hour working-day from dawn to dusk). The six individuals on our plot thus rid the plants of almost 12,000 insect pests—every day!! Multiply that with the number of days (200-250) that they are in residence on that one ha plot and you may begin to appreciate the service they render to all the plants. Now I ask you to consider removing these warblers from the study plot, since they seem to take away so much research and conservation energy from your more favoured mammals, and picture the forest as it may appear in a few weeks’ time…! The scenario could become even more dramatic if you (in your large-mammal chauvinism) remove all the other insectivorous birds from the plot as well: I estimate each hectare of Mundanthurai’s forest has at least 40 insectivorous birds, including other warblers and flycatchers (both resident and migrant), minivets, shrikes, drongos, babblers etc. The average number of prey may come down to just over 2 per bird per minute—which gives a total of about 5000 insects per hour, or 55,000 per day in every hectare of forest! Remove those insectivores: …and don’t be surprised if in a few weeks your plants start to appear ragged with their foliage tattered… and your endangered langurs become unhappy because so many leaves are now packed with toxic anti-herbivore compounds produced in response to caterpillar nibblings… and the plants make fewer flowers and fruits as they are forced to spend too much energy in self defense… in turn making the nectarivores and frugivores unhappy… and regeneration of the forest slows down as fewer seeds get produced and dispersed… and the ground starts to dry faster because the canopy is thinner and more sunlight gets in… I leave you to work out the rest of the ecological cascade effects on your own!! For now, I’d be happy if you simply pause to appreciate the job done by the nondescript little green jobs—the leaf warblers—and their insectivore colleagues that travel thousands of kilometers every year to eat all those insects.

Before you start protesting that you will never contemplate removing all those birds, and that I am just another doomsayer, consider the fact that 80% of the warblers (esp. the Green leaf warbler, which is the most common one here) as well as the next most abundant migrant (Blyth’s reed warbler) spending each winter at Mundanthurai come from the forests of the hill regions around the Caspian Sea, from Turkey east through Kashmir, including bits of southern Russia and Afghanistan. Now imagine that these hills—breeding grounds for so many migrant insectivores—are deforested on a large scale, either directly by us or through effects of global climate change, cutting down the bird population by 90%. Such declines is not very unrealistic, as those studying migrant forest birds in the Americas will tell you—though they worry more about forests in the wintering areas being cut down rather than in the breeding grounds. In fact, over the past two decades, Americans and Europeans are increasingly facing the prospect of another Silent Spring.  Not, this time, due to the factors mentioned in Rachel Carson’s clarion call in the 1960s—over-use of chemicals in agriculture at the height of the green revolutions—but to a suite of other human activities that have hit the habitat of avian migrants in both their northern breeding grounds and southern wintering grounds. Many species of migrant songbirds, which enliven the northern spring after the dreary and silent winters, have been pushed to the brink of extinction—some like the Kirtland’s warbler down to a few scores of breeding pairs—over the past two decades, even as my ornithologist comrades in the west are racing against time to figure out the causes of these declines, so we may try and reverse the process! The culprits are, of course, us humans: deforesting the tropical wintering grounds; fragmenting the temperate forests into suburban woodlots more accessible to human subsidized nest-predators such as domestic cats and other small carnivores (wild or feral) thriving on our garbage; and directly subsidizing populations of non-migratory nest-parasites like the north-American cowbird through back-yard bird feeders, enabling them to survive the harsh winter, and fool over 200 gullible species of songbirds into raising their offspring! We seem to be particularly adept at causing damage to the ecological fabric of this planet, even when we mean good—feed them poor little birdies in the winter, or the cute raccoons at night!!

Getting back to our continent, where we have no information on population trends of forest birds at all—whether resident or migratory, in tropical south and south-east Asia or temperate Russia, Mongolia and Siberia—declines paralleling those on the other continents are very much on the cards, if, indeed, they haven’t occurred already! Given the contempt that these migrants have for human geopolitical boundaries, their populations are subject to forces beyond the control of any one national conservation agency, let alone the manager of a single Tiger Reserve. And if their populations are found to be declining as drastically as many New World migrants’ have over the past several decades, mammal chauvinists may be reduced to haplessly watching the habitats of their favourite creatures getting degraded.

Do you think even the tigers might get worried about such a scenario??

Is it worth studying these warblers, trying to figure out what makes their populations tick, and how to save them—and ensure they continue to keep all those insects down?

Are warblers less important than tigers?? Isn’t the question itself meaningless?

What Was Lost in the Fire: A Conservation Memorial

On the all too rare mornings when the Central Valley’s dirty air has been cleansed by a winter storm—and before the Tule fog has set in—I find myself fortunate enough to be gazing out upon the snow-topped peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains from my office window, my view bracketed by two amazing National Parks: King’s Canyon (with Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states of the US) at the southern edge, and Yosemite to the north. As a hiker and rock-climber in my youth, I spent many hours poring over photographs of these places in books checked out of the American Center Library in Bombay. I dreamt of visiting Yosemite, a mecca for rock-climbers, imagined myself walking through the fantastic landscapes captured on film by Ansel Adams, feeling the granite under my fingers. Rock-climbing gave way to bird-watching as I grew into an ecologist and a conservation biologist, and Yosemite assumed even more significance as one of the holiest places in any conservation pilgrimage of the US, indeed the world. What a model for nature conservation this National Park was, is. How wonderful the wilderness I could picture in these places in the writings of John Muir and others. And how lucky I am now to be living so close to such places. When I gaze out at the mountains, or visit Yosemite as part of the throngs of millions that flood its beautiful valley every year, I try to imagine what the place might have looked like a century or two ago—a fantasy we all share, those of us who despair over the state of the natural world. In my dreams now, though, I don’t see it as a “pristine” wilderness untouched by humans, but a home to a community of native people, the Ahwahneechee who once thrived there, but whose existence has been sought to be erased from our collective memory and imagination, as a centerpiece of the still prevailing notion of a National Park as pristine wilderness, a place where human beings don’t belong (and therefore never did), except as visitors who may be allowed to look and to listen, but scarcely to touch anything.

Today, I am pleased to share with you the following essay by Eric Michael Johnson, who reminds us of the human history of Yosemite, and what we in the conservation community have lost in seeking to airbrush humans out of our imagination of what Nature is supposed to look like, “unspoilt”. We must reclaim that history too if we are to reconcile our existence on this planet—not apart from, but as active participants in, Nature. This guest post is part of Eric’s Primate Diaries in Exile blog tour. You can follow other stops on this tour through his RSS feed or by following Eric on Twitter.

The modern conservation movement began at dawn on December 8, 1850, above the north fork of California’s San Joaquin river. Soft orange light had just begun to spill over the craggy peaks of the eastern Ahwahnee mountains causing the jagged minarets to ignite like still burning embers from the Indian campfires below.

All remained still inside the wigwams of the Ahwahneechee camp. But an attuned ear would have noticed that the early morning trills of the hermit thrush were strangely absent. A disturbed silence had entered the forest, broken only by the occasional clumsy snap of twigs as if from an animal unfamiliar with its surroundings. There was also the faint smell of smoke.

Suddenly, fires roared to life throughout the camp as multiple wigwams were engulfed in flame. White men quickly scattered from the light and into shadow. A party of vigilantes in the company of Major John Savage had used smouldering logs from the Indians’ own campfires to set the shelters ablaze. It was a tactic that those with experience in the Indian Wars knew to inspire panic and the crucial element of surprise. Dozens of Ahwahneechee fled their burning wigwams as the fire rapidly spread to the surrounding forest. Thick plumes of smoke were bathed in the same searing glow that was now descending from the rocky peaks above.

“Charge, boys! Charge!!” bellowed the gravelly voice of Lieutenant Chandler. A heavy drumbeat of foot falls now joined the sound of crackling pine. Thirty men, many wearing identical red shirts and crude suspenders purchased at the mining supply depot, dashed from the surrounding bushes with their rifles.

“So rapid and so sudden were the charges made,” wrote the chronicler Lafayette Bunnell, “that the panic stricken warriors at once fled from their stronghold.” Savage’s men fired indiscriminately into the Ahwahneechee camp, a people who had called this valley their home for centuries.

“No prisoners were taken,” recalled the witness to these events, “twenty-three were killed; the number of wounded was never known.” All in all, it was a successful mission. However, the author noted that even more “savages” could have been hunted down and murdered had the fire not raged so out of control as to spread down the mountainside endangering their own camp. As the ragtag militia fled downhill to rescue their supplies the Ahwahneechee survivors escaped further into the mountains, little knowing that they would never be able to return home.

One month later, on January 13, 1851 by order of the governor and through a special act of Congress, the Savage militia received federal and state support to “punish the offending tribes” in the region now called the Yosemite Valley. For the leadership of California’s newly established government the approach for dealing with the native population had become a “war of extermination.” For more than a decade afterwards the land between the Merced and Tuolumne rivers remained under permanent military occupation until it became the first state park in US history to be ceded by the federal government.

I was raised in the mountains of Northern California and walked the trails near the site of this tragic massacre as a child. But I had never heard of John Savage nor the terrible events that lay behind the formation of Yosemite National Park, a picturesque symbol of the conservation movement and a vacation resort for millions. Rather it was John Muir, that noble wanderer and founder of the Sierra Club, whose name was synonymous with this national treasure. When my brothers and I climbed out of the family station wagon to witness the majesty of this glacier carved valley, it was Muir’s name that adorned the signs along the manicured trails and the celebrated volumes in the gift shop. If the indigenous population was mentioned in any of the brochures or trail guides I have no memory of it and I left with no indication that the region had once been inhabited. The impression I received was that Yosemite had always been a pristine wilderness, as sparse and pure as the Ansel Adams portraits that hung on my family’s wall for years afterwards.

But it was this skewed interpretation of wilderness that John Muir had successfully promoted, a vision that has haunted the conservation movement ever since. In his famous nineteenth century travel writings in the Sierra Nevada mountains Muir described Yosemite, not just as a picturesque marvel of nature, but as something divine that was beyond human frailties. The landscape of the “Sierra Cathedral Mountains,” was a “temple lighted from above. But no temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite,” he wrote. It was a place that was “pure wildness” and where “no mark of man is visible upon it.”


[T]he main canyons widen into spacious valleys or parks of charming beauty, level and flowery and diversified like landscape gardens with meadows and groves and thickets of blooming bushes, while the lofty walls, infinitely varied in form, are fringed with ferns, flowering plants, shrubs of many species, and tall evergreens and oaks.

It’s not that Muir didn’t encounter native peoples in his travels, he did, but he found them to be “most ugly, and some of them altogether hideous.” For a wilderness as pure as his holy Yosemite “they seemed to have no right place in the landscape, and I was glad to see them fading out of sight down the pass.” But, ironically, these “strange creatures” as Muir described them were the ones responsible for many of the features that gave Yosemite Valley it’s park-like appearance, the “landscape gardens” that Muir so valued. It is this forgotten legacy that has undermined many of the successes in the global conservation movement today, one that traces directly back to John Savage and John Muir and the first protected wilderness site that later became the model followed around the world.

Yosemite Valley / Image: Wikimedia Commons

It wasn’t only Muir who was struck by the ordered beauty of Yosemite Valley. Lafayette Bunnell, the New York physician who accompanied Savage on his exploits in 1851, recalled that “the valley at the time of discovery presented the appearance of a well kept park.” Likewise, Galen Clark who was the state guardian of the Yosemite Grant after it was ceded to California, remembered similar conditions when he first visited in 1855.

“At the time,” Clark wrote, “there was no undergrowth of young trees to obstruct clear open views in any part of the valley from one side of the Merced River across to the base of the opposite wall.”

However, these conditions didn’t stay that way for long. Forty years later he found that Yosemite’s open meadow land had all but disappeared, estimating that it had been “at least four times as large as at the present time.” The reason for this, known in the nineteenth century but little appreciated until recently, were the many ways that Yosemite’s first inhabitants had transformed their environment over hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Chief among these was the strategic use of fire.

“Native Americans’ uses of fire pervaded their everyday lives,” explains UC Davis ecologist M. Kat Anderson, whose research appears in the edited volume Fire in California’s Ecosystems. These ranged from setting fires to keep the land open and aid in travel, a wildlife management tool to burn off detritus and increase pasturage for deer, as well as for fire prevention purposes.

“Native Americans thoroughly understood the necessity of ‘fighting fire with fire,'” Anderson says. “Their deliberately set fires were often designed to preclude the kinds of catastrophic fires that regularly devastate large areas today.”

These fires may also have played an important role in promoting biodiversity. In 1996 Anderson wrote the Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project’s final report to Congress (pdf here), co-authored with CSU, Fresno archaeologist Michael Moratto. In their report the authors state that most plants useful to the tribes of the Sierra Nevada were shade-intolerant varieties that required regular burning in order to thrive. These species included deer grass for use in basketry, edible native grasses, as well as a variety bulb, corm, and tuber species. By setting intentional fires throughout the forest “gaps or grassy openings were created, maintained, or enlarged within diverse plant communities,” the authors wrote. “The result was that plant diversity was maximized.”

However, for Muir, as it was for many conservationists in the nineteenth century, these fires were “the great master-scourge of forests” and extinguishing their fury would be his divine mission. “Only fire,” he wrote in 1869, “threatens the existence of these noblest of God’s trees.” It wasn’t enough to simply keep loggers and shepherds from degrading the forest. They needed strict and unyielding protection. To that end Muir would advocate federal forest protection and fire suppression measures with every politician and government official who might listen.

At times, as friends noted, Muir’s zeal to protect forests overshadowed all other concerns. In a revealing moment described by his close friend Mary Louise Swett, written to Muir’s fiance four days before their marriage, Mrs. Swett impressed upon the young woman her future husband’s intensity.

“I hope you are good at a hair splitting argument,” she wrote. “You will need to be to hold your own with him. . . He told Colonel Boyce the other night that his position was that of champion for a mean, brutal policy. It was in regard to Indian extermination.”

In contrast to Muir’s advocacy of exclusion and suppression, Yosemite Park officials praised the logic of regular controlled burns “when the Indians were Commissioners” and stated that “absolute prevention of fires in these mountains will eventually lead to disastrous results.” But, for Muir, “the best service in forest protection — almost the only efficient service — is that rendered by the military.” Without enforcing the power to seal off protected forests from encroachment Muir feared that his ultimate goal of preservation would fail.

“One soldier in the woods, armed with authority and a gun,” he wrote, “would be more effective in forest preservation than millions of forbidding notices.”

In the end Muir’s position won out, supported as it was by such figures as then-New York City Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, General William Jackson Palmer, and Captain George Anderson, the military official recently charged with protecting Yellowstone National Park. For those critics who still maintained that Indian-style fires should be employed in Yosemite, Muir had an alternative solution as he made clear before a meeting of the Sierra Club on November 23, 1895.

“Since the fires that formerly swept through the valley have been prevented,” he said, “the underbrush requires much expensive attention that will call for the services of a skilled landscape artist.” However, these funds never materialized to the extent that Muir imagined. As a result, the once park-like expanses of the Yosemite he had heralded soon became overcrowded through unchecked growth. At the same time, the United States was saddled with the high costs of suppressing every fire that ignited because the build up of fuel on the forest floor now threatened to wipe out the entire region.

Yosemite Valley in 1866 and 1961.

The conservation decisions of the nineteenth century have left a lasting legacy that is still felt today. In a study that appeared in the March, 2010 edition of Ecological Applications (pdf here), Penn State researchers Andrew Scholl and Alan Taylor published their analysis of how successful this fire suppression policy ultimately was. The authors sought to test the claim that intentional fires had been a widespread feature of Native American stewardship. To accomplish this they collected data throughout a 2,125 hectare region of the Yosemite National Park including the number of different species, the density by which trees were packed together, and their age as revealed through boring into trees to remove core samples.

You might also want to check out The Camp Fire – Paradise, Butte County CA and see how a small maintenance check could have prevented millions of damage in property and life.

These core samples that Scholl and Taylor collected revealed the environmental history of every tree in their survey. Because tree ring shows evidence of environmental conditions at the time that section was exposed to the outside world, by analyzing these tree cores they were able to identify both when a fire took place and how widely it had spread based on the fire damage recorded in the rings. Furthermore, if one region contained significantly younger trees than another, it would indicate evidence of a serious fire that had wiped out entire sections of forest. In the end, the researchers were able to construct a map of forest change between the years of 1575 – 2006 and the impact that fire had on forest biodiversity.

The results of this analysis were highly significant (p < 0.01) and found that shade-tolerant species such as White fir and incense cedar had increased to such an extent that Yosemite Valley was now two times more densely packed than it had been in the nineteenth century. These smaller and more highly flammable trees had pushed out the shade-intolerant species, like oak or pine, and reducing their numbers by half. After a century of fire suppression in the Yosemite Valley biodiversity had actually declined, trees were now 20% smaller overall, and the forest was more vulnerable to catastrophic fires than it had been before the United States expelled the native population.

However, based on the rotation of historic burn sites throughout the forest, it left no question that the fires had been intentionally set rather than the result of random lightening strikes or other accidental burns. Native American groups had profoundly altered the landscape of the Yosemite Valley in ways that were both advantageous to them as well as to the local ecosystem as a whole. They were successful stewards of the forest, not because they had no impact on the environment, but because the forest was their home and they relied upon it for every aspect of their lives. In support of these findings two additional studies, one also in Yosemite and one along the California coast, came to similar conclusions. Despite John Muir’s passionate desire to protect Yosemite’s magnificent trees, after 100 years of conservation the overall density among the 14 most abundant large-diameter species had declined by 30%.

For Muir and his nineteenth century contemporaries, conservation meant “government protection should be thrown around every wild grove and forest on the mountains.” This continues to be the standard model for conservation around the world. However, as in Yosemite, the global conservation effort has focused their attention on the idea of pristine wilderness to the exclusion of all other concerns, including those of the people who have lived there for centuries.

In 2003 the harmful effects of these policies were denounced by indigenous delegates from around the world when they presented a joint declaration before the Fifth Parks Congress then being held in Durban, South Africa.

“The strategy to conserve biodiversity through national parks has displaced many tens of thousands of very poor park residents, transforming them into conservation-refugees,” they announced. “First we were dispossessed in the name of kings and emperors, later in the name of state development, and now in the name of conservation.”

However, just as there could have been for the Ahwahneechee in 1851, there is also an alternative today. Nobel prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom, along with her colleague Tanya Hayes at the University of Indiana, Bloomington, conducted a study in 2007 (pdf here) that compared vegetation patterns throughout 84 forests in 15 separate countries, only half of which were under national protection. In a direct rebuff to the claims of conservationists, they found no significant differences in vegetation density between forests that were protected and those that were not. However, there was one criteria that made a difference: the direct involvement of local and indigenous populations. Those regions where local groups were able to define the rules for how their forest was managed had significantly higher vegetation densities than those that didn’t, regardless of their protection status.

Vegetation Density Associated with User Group Right to Make Rules.
From Ostrom and Hayes, 2007.

“The above findings clearly contradict the belief that protected areas are the only way to conserve forests,” they wrote. In so doing they offer an opportunity to change course on a policy, well intentioned though it may have been, that led to the expulsion of native peoples and the commitment to an expensive conservation strategy that has had little result. In other words, it’s time for the exclusionary approach of John Savage and John Muir to be tossed on the fire.

In July, 1929, seventy-eight years after the Ahwahneechee people had been driven from their homeland, a frail, elderly woman quietly processed acorns on the valley floor. Her weather worn face appeared thin, yet firm like crumpled paper. She was a living record of the trials her people had suffered ever since they were herded into open air prisons at the point of a bayonet. As she sat, pulling back broken shell from acorns like damaged fingernails, a curiosity-seeking tourist offered her a nickel if she would serve him. I can only imagine the lifetime of rage she must have felt in that moment.

“No!” she cried. “Not five dollars one acorn, no! White man drive my people out–my Yosemite.”

Her name was Maria Lebrado, but she had once been known as Totuya. She was the granddaughter of Ahwahnee Chief Tanaya, a revered leader who had attempted to shield his people from harm only to witness the murder of his son and the loss of everything he held dear. Now the last remaining member of her tribe, Totuya had returned home in order to die.

During her brief stay she was interviewed at length by a Mrs. H.J. Taylor and given a tour of the lands she had not seen since she was a child. However, as she looked out upon what her beloved Yosemite had become, she cast her glance down in disapproval. What had once been a wide open meadow used for games by her entire village was now an overgrown field, pockmarked with thin trees and scrub brush.

“Too dirty, too much bushy,” she explained sadly. After centuries of care the land she cherished had been allowed to lay dormant and unused, the fire needed to bring this valley to life having been extinguished long ago. Her beloved Ahwahnee was lost.

Can a whale survive in a raucous, noisy city? My, what a noisy species we are on this planet!

Some thought-provoking images from National Geographic on how noisy our oceans have become lately, thanks to our technology:

The deep is dark, but not silent; it’s alive with sounds. Whales and other marine mammals, fish, and even some invertebrates depend on sound, which travels much farther in water than light does. The animals use sound to find food and mates, to avoid predators, and to communicate. They face a growing problem: Man-made noise is drowning them out. “For many of these animals it’s as if they live in cities,” says marine scientist Brandon Southall, former director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) ocean acoustics program.


Like living in a city! Remarkable, really, to think about how much the noise generated by a terrestrial species—us—now drowns out the acoustic seascape underwater, in the marine realm. Here’s another image from a study in the vicinity of Boston harbor (no longer a place for a quiet tea party, I’m afraid) that ought to shut us up, at least momentarily, and make us ponder what havoc we wreak upon this earth and its creatures:

Posted via email from a leaf warbler’s gleanings

What links collapsing honeybee colonies and disappearing house sparrows? Neonicotinoids!

A new class of insecticides based on nicotinoids seem to be the key factor underlying the widely reported declines in house sparrows and other birds as well as the alarming colony collapse disorder in honeybees, according to a new book “The systemic insecticides: a disaster in the making” by Dutch cancer biologist Henk Tennekes. Is this our generation’s “Silent Spring“? Perhaps – we’ll have to read the book to dig into the specific details. I have to say though, that the wide use of apparently broad-spectrum insecticides seems like a far more plausible cause of such widespread declines in bees and insect-dependent birds than cellphone towers or a litany of other local factors that have been suggested, unconvincingly. What strengthen’s the case is that neonicotinoids apparently make bee colonies more susceptible to the combination fungal/viral infections that have recently been implicated in colony collapse! Here’s an excerpt from today’s article in the Independent raising the alarm on this:

Scanning the sky with his binoculars, he searches carefully for any sign of movement: the steady beat of a blackbird’s wings, the fluttering of a flock of starlings. It has been a week now since he saw the starlings: just four of them flitting from tree to tree, feasting on the autumn berries.

Birds are a real rarity these days. In his boyhood, he recalls, he would watch the acrobatics of entire flocks as they ducked and dived after insects. But now the skies are silent, barring the hum of the odd airplane. Turning back to his fruit and vegetable patch, he continues the laborious task of pollinating the raspberry plants by hand, gently brushing pollen onto the slender stigmas inside the flowers. In the past, bees, wasps, butterflies and flies would have done this job for him; nowadays such insects are likewise a rarity. Farmers instead resort to robot bees to pollinate their crops: tiny motors, encased in fuzzy fabric, which hover from flower to flower.

Will this bleak outlook be a reality for future generations? It is nearly 50 years since Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, the book that warned of environmental damage the pesticide DDT was causing. Today, DDT use is banned except in exceptional circumstances, yet we still don’t seem to have taken on board Carson’s fundamental message.

According to Henk Tennekes, a researcher at the Experimental Toxicology Services in Zutphen, the Netherlands, the threat of DDT has been superseded by a relatively new class of insecticide, known as the neonicotinoids. In his book The Systemic Insecticides: A Disaster in the Making, published this month, Tennekes draws all the evidence together, to make the case that neonicotinoids are causing a catastrophe in the insect world, which is having a knock-on effect for many of our birds.

Already, in many areas, the skies are much quieter than they used to be. All over Europe, many species of bird have suffered a population crash. Spotting a house sparrow, common swift or a flock of starlings used to be unremarkable, but today they are a more of an unusual sight. Since 1977, Britain’s house-sparrow population has shrunk by 68 per cent.

The common swift has suffered a 41 per cent fall in numbers since 1994, and the starling 26 per cent. The story is similar for woodland birds (such as the spotted flycatcher, willow tit and wood warbler), and farmland birds (including the northern lapwing, snipe, curlew, redshank and song thrush).

Ornithologists have been trying desperately to work out what is behind these rapid declines. Urban development, hermetically sealed houses and barns, designer gardens and changing farming> practices have all been blamed, but exactly why these birds have fallen from the skies is still largely unexplained.

However, Tennekes thinks there may be a simple reason. “The evidence shows that the bird species suffering massive decline since the 1990s rely on insects for their diet,” he says. He believes that the insect world is no longer thriving, and that birds that feed on insects are short on food.

So what has happened to all the insects? In the Nineties, a new class of insecticide – the neonicotinoids – was introduced. Beekeepers were the first people to notice a problem, as their bees began to desert their hives and die, a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

Read the rest of the article at

[via Common Dreams]

Pinnacles National Park… now that has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?

You’ll likely agree, if you’ve ever been to Pinnacles National Monument, that it is a special place deserving protection. Especially now that it has become a new breeding ground for the endangered California Condors reintroduced to Pinnacles recently. You may remember my recent blog post with images and thoughts from a class trip to Pinnacles last spring, and about the ongoing travails of the newborn Condor chick and its parents. I haven’t heard anything since about the status of the poor chick, but this bit of news just might be cause for some cheer.

Pinnacle landscape
Pinnacles National Monument, a 26,000-acre swath of spectacular volcanic rock formations outside Soledad, Calif., would be elevated to a National Park under legislation introduced Thursday by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.)
Pinnaclemap Pinnacles is a nesting place for the endangered California condor, North America’s largest soaring bird, with wingspans up to 10 feet. And it is a global destination for naturalists and outdoor adventurers attracted by the park’s scenic views and unique rock-climbing landscapes. Making Pinnacles a National Park, Boxer said, would “draw even more visitors to this spectacular piece of California’s natural and cultural heritage.”
Rep. Sam Farr (D-Carmel), who introduced companion legislation in the House, called the area “packed with historical significance,” adding that “its geological distinctiveness is second to none.” A park designation, he said “would be a major boon to an economically starved area, a huge benefit for the state’s Central Coast. Pinnacles is a hidden gem.”
Pinnacles is a culturally significant area for several Native American tribes, and it served as a backdrop for John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” and “East of Eden.” The monument was established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, and has expanded since.

So will a National Park prove a safer place to raise one’s young than a mere National Monument? Will the upgraded designation offer any real added protection to a far-ranging raptor against more widely dispersed threats such as the lead in ammo used for “sport” hunting locally (not to mention poisons used more deliberately by the govt for “predator control”)? Or is it (as the above article suggests, mostly about increasing tourism and economic opportunities for local communities? Lets hope this at least provides more momentum to ongoing efforts to ban the use of lead ammo more comprehensively. Otherwise, where’s a young Condor family to go, if even a National Park isn’t safe enough?

Collateral damage in our ongoing war against wildlife

It just astounds me how much, and how cavalierly, we continue to poison our wildlife and ecosystems, in ways that often also harm us, just to maximize perceived profit from ranching, farming, or other industry. Why do we do this to ourselves, our fellow creatures, and our homes on this planet?

Here’s an example: casualties of so-called “predator control” poisoning programs run by a US govt. agency, apparently at the behest of ranchers (more likely some ranching/farming lobbies), to control “predators” that may cause some harm to whatever product is being ranched/farmed. Is there any science behind these management decisions?! Or is it ok to just drop these poison-baited mines all over the landscape based on a perception of threat?

The video offers a link at the end to the website of Predator Defense where you can get more information, and even join the effort to have at least these two poisons banned, even if it takes longer to minimize these predator control programs.


To flush or not to flush, that is the (pissing) question!

Photo: Dan ForbesPhoto: Dan Forbes

In a laboratory 10 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, a mechanical penis sputters to life. A technician starts a timer as a stream of water erupts from the apparatus’s brass tip, arcing into a urinal mounted exactly 12 inches away. James Krug smiles. His latest back-splatter experiment is under way.

After that opening, surely you’ll want to read the rest of Joshua Davis’ wonderful article in Wired magazine, on the technological, social, institutional, political, and environmental ramifications of urinals. Eye-opening stuff about an everyday piece of technology that you probably never think about even as you are quite literally pissing in it. While trying to minimize that back-splatter.

Of course, this applies mainly to us guys, so the waterless urinal only solves half the world’s water-wasting problem. Perhaps even less than that, because ladies’ rooms don’t have urinals and they are likely wasting (for all I know) a larger tankful per flush on a regular toilet – so are there plans to extend these waterless technologies across that gender gap, I wonder?

After all, as my friend Susannah Lerman reminds me (through pictures she just posted on facebook from her recent trip to the middle east), it is possible to have waterless WCs as well:

Pic ©Susannah Lerman

Don’t see any water tank or plumbing behind that throne, do you? You wouldn’t, because that, my friends, is a composting toilet, from the Lotan Center for Creative Ecology in Kibbutz Lotan near Eilat in the Arava valley of Israel. Now that’s something even more likely to get the clog into the plumbers union, eh?

On a lighter note, pondering the gender differences between excretory technologies reminded me of this classic application of the ideal-free distribution model of habitat selection by Dave Barry to a conundrum faced only by guys: which urinal to choose when faced with a row of them along a public restroom wall. Although, I doubt Barry has ever heard of the ideal-free distribution model.

Have I given your week a good start then, with this Monday morning blog post? No? Well, piss-off then!

Having Your Land & Sharing It, Too: A World of Reconciliation Ecology

The California State University, Fresno Consortium for Evolutionary Studies, Tri Beta Biology Honors Club, and the Department of Biology invite you to a special public lecture on March 16, 2010, at 7:30 PM in McLane Hall, room 121, as part of our ongoing Evolutionary Biology Lecture Series.

Eminent evolutionary ecologist Prof. Michael Rosenzweig is renowned for his contributions to the theoretical and empirical foundations of evolutionary ecology. He founded and continues to edit the academic journal Evolutionary Ecology Research. He is the author of a several books including “Species Diversity in Space and Time“, and the popular “Win-Win Ecology” where he lays out his perspective on conserving biodiversity in places where we humans live and work, not just in remote protected areas. This approach, which he called Reconciliation Ecology, draws upon principles of evolutionary ecology in an interdisciplinary framework to develop new solutions to reconcile human development with biodiversity conservation on our planet.

Given the recent spate of depressing news about conservation in the US (about which I have recently complained, nay ranted right here on this very blog) it is my pleasure to invite you to this talk about reconciliation ecology, which is sharply relevant right now. And since this is a public lecture, please feel free to share this announcement, and bring bring your friends and family along too!

Here’s the abstract of his talk, and you can download the flyer via the link below:

Life is in peril. A mass extinction threatens to take more than 90% of the world’s species. Evolution will not be able to replace these species, neither in kind nor in number. Our religious and ethical responsibilty to protect our world is challenged as never before.
But there is good news: we can prevent this mass extinction with a method called Reconciliation Ecology. Reconciliation Ecology means working out ways for us to have our land and share it too.

Reconciliation Ecology is not a pipe dream. It is widely practiced all over the world. And it is successful. Reconciliation ecology puts nature back into the everyday lives of people, surrounding us with living wonders we usually associate with a vacation in a National Park. It is not expensive and it redesigns our own habitats so that we can keep them, keep living in them, keep using them for our needs, keep earning profits in them… while at the very same time making them havens for wild species of plants and animals.

The new habitats we engineer to satisfy both our desires and the needs of nature will not resemble those of a thousand years ago. This will surely put new evolutionary pressures on the species we harbor. They will change in ways we are only beginning to study. But surely it is better to meet them halfway, better to give them a chance to adapt to us, than to let them vanish utterly and leave our grandchildren with an impoverished world that bears evidence that we did not choose to fulfill our responsibilities.