For the Conservation Curious

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Bee Kind to Bees April 23, 2014

Last night at my Rotary club meeting we heard from a fellow club member, who talked about his beekeeping hobby. This is a fascinating occupation and one with a lot of conservation value, so I thought I would blog a bit about it today.

Egyptians may have been the first people to raise their own domesticated bees. Jars of honey were found within Tutankhamun’s tomb, and as stories would have it, the honey was still edible. According to my Rotarian friend, as long as no water gets into the honey, it can stay edible. If water gets in the honey ferments… although to me that sounds like a good problem to have. Mead anyone?!

Anyway, many cultures over the years domesticated bees and created different hive structures. Yet it wasn’t until the 18th century and the creation of the moveable comb hive that made apiculture (i.e. beekeeping) more sustainable. Why is that, you ask? Well the original forms of bee hives had to be destroyed in order to get at the honey, killing the bees in the process. Now you can easily open up the different combs of the hive, taking the honey you want and leaving the rest intact. In fact, I learned last night that there is a queen bee excluder, a metal grate that keeps the queen bee from laying eggs in most of the hive. This keeps the edible honey bee brood-free yet allows her to lay enough eggs in a portion of the hive. I guess I never thought that deeply about honey before, but know I am glad to know about the excluder!

Why is beekeeping important for conservation? There are more than 20,000 species of wild bees out there, but they’re not doing so well. With the way we tend to grow crops in the U.S. and elsewhere – a monoculture of genetically-engineered corn or soy, with lots of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, for example – native bees can’t find enough pollen to bring back to their hives to make honey. No honey, no food for any of the bees, the hive dies. We have also paved and built over a lot of prime bee food habitat – meadows and other grasslands – further reducing their pollen supply.

Colony collapse disorder is a major concern for bee colonies. It was first documented in 2006, according to the USDA, and showed up to 90 percent mortality among affected hives. The population of managed honey bees in the U.S. has declined from five million in the 1940s to less than 2.5 million today. What causes colony collapse disorder? While no one has an exact answer, scientists believe that it is a combination of Varroa mites, fungi and viruses, pesticides, lack of food and other stressors. It may be the perfect storm of problems for honeybees worldwide. And since honeybees and their pollination skills contribute $15 million annually towards the economy, losing the bees will harm us in our stomachs and pocketbooks. Like almonds? Then you should really be concerned… all almonds must be pollinated by bees. No bees, no almonds!

Beekeeping is a challenging hobby, but also very rewarding. Not only do you get tasty honey, but you can help support populations of healthy honeybees for the future. Don’t have the room or desire to have a hive or two of your own? Not to worry… you too can assist native bees by planting native, flowering plants like bee balm, purple coneflower, goldenrods and milkweeds. To learn how to plant a pollinator garden (that will attract butterflies as well as beneficial bees) go to http://beespotter.mste.illinois.edu/topics/beegarden.

Bees are fascinating insects. From the queen to her female worker bees to the male drones, the hierarchy of the hive and the important tasks each bee is born knowing how to do will astound you. I encourage you to learn more about both native and imported bees so that the next time you see one you won’t be so quick to squash it. Instead admire it from a distant and thank it for the great job is does pollinating our flowers and crops. Without that little bee, your dinner wouldn’t be quiet as diverse and tasty.

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Sustainability Makes Sense for All March 12, 2014

Sometimes I am amazed by how controversial a seemingly harmless word can be to certain people. I understand why some people don’t like the terms “climate change” and “global warming” – they have become highly politicized and the actual events behind the terminology threatened people’s comfortable way of life. Even I have become annoyed by the abuse and misuse of those terms in the media. But I cannot fathom why the term “sustainability” has such a negative connotation in various quarters of the population. Lately I have had to defend the importance of this term, so I thought I’d blog about it here.

I first came across the negative perception of sustainability in reference to the Agenda 21 movement. Agenda 21 is itself a non-binding, voluntary action plan of the United Nations in regard to sustainable development. However, groups of right-wing and libertarian organizations have used Agenda 21 as an example of the UN’s desire to take over the world. The Republican National Committee adopted a resolution opposing Agenda 21 and their party has stated that “We strongly reject the UN Agenda 21 as erosive of American sovereignty.” Numerous states have passed (or are drafting) legislation barring government participation in the Agenda. The Tea Party calls Agenda 21 a conspiracy by the UN to deprive people of their property rights.

That’s a lot to put on the imaginary shoulders of a non-binding, voluntary document!

I have only read portions of Agenda 21 so I’m not going to defend the document here. What I will do is discuss why even if someone is opposed to the tenets of that document they can and should support sustainability. A compilation of the definitions for “sustainable” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary equate to something that can be used now but still be around for future generations to enjoy. When we practice sustainability we are ensuring that our future generations are not harmed by our actions of today. To me, that seems like a non-partisan ideal.

Through my job I promote sustainable landscape design and management for anyone who deals with land – municipalities, schools, homeowners, business owners, etc. The goal of the program is to show people how they can save money and improve human health and quality of life by rethinking how they deal with the natural world. You don’t have to be a tree hugger to appreciate saving money. And you don’t have to be a doctor to appreciate better health. Anyone can find benefits from sustainability.

I do believe that there is a limit to growth. If we sacrifice the environment and natural resources for ever-increasing economic growth we will reach a point where it all crashes. I don’t believe anyone would want that or have something to gain from it. So if we start to incorporate sustainability into our daily lives we can continue to have enjoyable experiences without dooming future generations. And in the end we may even save some money to put toward things we’ll really enjoy (like vacations and better benefits for employees) while enhancing the aesthetics of our communities.

So when you think of the term sustainability, think of a town where kids walk to school, getting enough exercise to cut the obesity rate dramatically: a town where small businesses thrive, where tree-lined streets clean our air and shade us during the hot summers. A sustainable community is one that will survive the ups and downs of the market, find new ways to compete in the global marketplace and attract new residents because of its desirable homes and businesses. Sounds like a place I’d like to live in!

 

Conservation Easements Make Dollars and Sense March 6, 2014

What happens if you own a beautiful, pristine piece of land on the fringe of a city and can no longer afford to keep it? The developers come knocking on your door, looking to turn your 100 acres of woods and meadows into 10, 10-acre home plots. You sign the dotted line, hand over the deed and in come the bulldozers and other heavy machinery, ready to cut down many, if not all, trees and grade the land so it’s as flat as a table top. Once that happens, it’s too late to bring back the habitat.

However, there is another alternative for landowners who want to protect their land but make money off it in the process. It’s called a conservation easement. A conservation easement, as defined by the Land Trust Alliance, is “a legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust or government agency that permanently limits uses of the land in order to protect its conservation values. It allows landowners to continue to own and use their land, and they can also sell it or pass it on to heirs.”

Yes, that’s right – the landowner still owns the land and can continue to live on it – but certain rights are removed, such as development rights. A land trust may approach a landowner or vice versa. The land trust pays a reduced price to the landowner to place the conservation easement on the property. The easement remains on the land in perpetuity – i.e. forever. The easement will contain detailed information about what can and can’t take place on the property. Usually the construction of additional buildings is restricted and there are management guidelines for how to make sure the habitat stays healthy. The land trust is in charge of at least yearly monitoring visits to make sure the landowner isn’t violating the easement. If a violation is found, they will work with the landowner to correct the violation or take them to court as a last resort.

Conservation easements can be very flexible though, so major violations that require legal action are not an everyday occurrence. They are very beneficial to the landowner because easements can provide tax deductions and drastically reduce estate taxes when the land is passed on to the next generation. The land trusts benefit by knowing that they are protecting land from being developed. The environment benefits because good habitat remains as-is, particularly in areas of high development pressure, where conservation easements make the most sense. It’s a win-win-win situation.

If you are a landowner considering a conservation easement on your property, where do you begin? Locate your nearest land trust or conservancy and talk to them about it. They will probably want to visit your property to see if it meets their criteria. Your state conservation agency may also be able to assist in connecting you to the right people. Check out the Land Trust Alliance website at www.landtrustalliance.org.

 

Hidden in Plain Sight August 16, 2013

Filed under: Science — newdomino @ 1:00 PM
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Last week newspapers announced that a new species of mammal had been discovered.  The olinguito looks like a cat-like teddy bear.  It had been hiding in plain sight at The National Zoo.  Keepers had confused it with a known species, the olingo, which is a close relative.  How could people have been unaware for so long?  They had tried to breed the olinguito with olingos in other zoos, totally unaware that she couldn’t… she wasn’t their type!

New Mammal Photo: Associated Press

Aside from this comedy of errors, it gets one thinking about what other new species might be out there, hidden in plain sight?  Or others that are better hidden?  Normally charismatic megafauna – a mouthful of a word that means cute, large creatures (as opposed to “creepy” insects or “slimy” worms) – particularly mammals, are thought to have all been discovered.  But this olinguito proves that we don’t know as much about the natural world as we think we do.  So what happens when a rain forest is cut or burned down to grow soy beans and palm oil?  We may be losing more than we bargained for.

I can’t say that I lose sleep over these thoughts, but I do spend a good deal of my waking hours wondering about the environment.  Thinking about how the actions of humankind affect the intricate web of all other species on the planet.  Some may think that the olinguito isn’t all that important. It’s just a fruit eating relative of the raccoon, living out its days in South America. What does it matter if we never knew they existed and then they went extinct?  Perhaps in the grand scheme of things it wouldn’t be a big deal? But perhaps the olinguitos pollinate fruit trees that humans depend on?  Or they are eaten by another animal that would otherwise prey on farm animals? We can never foresee all the connections between one species and the next. 

So I celebrate the discovery of the olinguito and hope that it raises awareness of the importance of scientific discovery.  Just when you think there are no new significant species to discover… that the deep sea trenches and outer space are the only truly undiscovered countries… the olinguitos will prove you wrong! Way to go charismatic megafauna!

 

 

Sustainable Bus Tours for 2012 August 16, 2012

I am going to make a few shameless plugs for three fall events that I am helping to organize.  As you are readers of a conservation-focused blog I have a feeling you might be interested in knowing about them…

The first event is a Sustainable Forest and Meadow Bus Tour in Lebanon County, PA.  Attendees will get to see various ways of planting, managing and maintaining warm season grass and wildflower meadows, food plots for wildlife, timber plots and tree farms.  The tour is appropriate for small and large landowners, municipal and park managers and anyone else interested in creating great habitats.  The price is only $35, which includes a meal, handouts and a spot on the bus.  To register, go to http://www.dcnr.state.pa.us/ucmprd1/groups/public/documents/document/dcnr_010455.pdf to download the form or register online.  The deadline to register is August 24, so hurry!

The second tour takes place on September 20 in Luzerne County, PA.  This tour showcases a variety of businesses, parks and landscapes that have natural stormwater management features, native plantings, and green building practices.  Sites include Plains Animal Hospital, Nescopeck State Park, The Lands at Hillside Farms, and Kirby Park Natural Area, among others.  The variety of sites and the sustainable features you will see at each make this a great tour for just about anyone.  And the $30 price tag can’t be beat!  To register for this tour, call Vinnie Cotrone at 570-825-1701.  The deadline to register is Sept. 14.

 

 

 

 

Last but not least is the Stormwater and Sustainable Open Space BMPs tour in Montgomery County, PA on October 24.  This innovative tour will showcase places like Ursinus College, Shelly Square Shopping Center, and Cuddy Park – all places that feature green stormwater management solutions like native plantings around detension basins, swales, riparian buffers and more.  To register for this event, go to http://agsci.psu.edu/sustainable-landscapes/montgomery.  The price is $35 and includes continental breakfast, lunch, handouts and a spot on the bus.  The deadline to register is October 12.  Sponsorships are still available too.

 

 

 

 

All of these great events are part of the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Sustainable Lands Program.  We work with a variety of organizations like the PA Environmental Council, Penn State Cooperative Extension, county conservation districts and more, to bring educational tours, workshops and publications to municipal officials, non-profit staff, landscape architects and the public.  More information about our events, publications and more can be found at: http://www.dcnr.state.pa.us/conservationscience/sustainablelands/index.htm.

I hope you can join us for one or more of these great events.  And if you are interested in becoming part of one of the five the Sustainable Lands Partnerships across the state, please email me at jsprajcar@pa.gov.

Thanks!

 

 

Threatened, Endangered, Extinct: What Does it all Mean?! July 30, 2010

There is a lot of scientific terminology out there; how can anyone know what it all means? I work in the conservation field and sometimes even I am not 100 percent sure what all the terms means in relation to the commonness or rarity of a species, so I will try to give a brief summary here… 

When talking about threatened, endangered and extinct species, it helps to know whether you are discussing it from the state, federal or international perspective, because each may have slightly different definitions and regulations.  In terms of the U.S. federal government, some species fall under the Endangered Species Act.  Richard Nixon created this Act in 1973 to protect “imperiled” species from extinction caused by human development and economic growth.  The term “imperiled” is more commonly referred to as “endangered” and it signifies a species that could become extinct – i.e. completely die out on the planet.  

Once a species is put on the federal list it doesn’t mean that it will stay on there forever.  A conservationist’s ultimate goal might be to restore a species and its habitat to such an extent that the species is no longer endangered or threatened.  When that occurs the species is de-listed and loses some of the protections afforded to it by the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  The bald eagle and gray wolf are examples of animals that were once on the brink of extinction, but thanks to conservation efforts, bans on hunting and pesticide laws, are now rebounding enough.  Species can also be “downlisted,” meaning that the threats against them have lessened, so they go from a status of endangered to threatened. 

While every state must obey the federal rules that apply to animals under the ESA states can also have their own versions of ESAs that cover other plants and animals.  California, for example, has their own ESA – the most comprehensive of all state acts (it’s modeled after the federal act).  Any threatened or endangered species in the state is protected under those regulations.  Their Department of Fish and Game works with developers, land owners and others to try to lessen the negative impacts of shopping mall, housing development, road construction, etc. on the listed species.  

My home state of Pennsylvania, on the other hand, does not have its own ESA.  There are “jurisdictional agencies,” however, that can create their own regulations protecting threatened and endangered species from harm.  The Pa. Fish and Boat Commission, as an example, has a list of protected reptiles, amphibians and fish – if the Commission catches someone hunting, trapping or otherwise harming these species they will be fined and/or put in jail.  The same goes for mammals and birds.  Unfortunately there is no state list of protected plants and insects in Pa.  If a developer wanted to build an industrial park on a field of endangered sedge, they could do so with no penalty or required mitigation.  State agencies still try to work with the developer to prevent this from happening but there are no legal “teeth” to it – it can only be a suggestion, not a requirement. 

Extinction is forever; you might have heard that phrase before.  While the statement is generally true, sometimes you hear of a supposedly extinct species, but then a few individuals are found, out of the blue.  The indri, a large lemur on the island of Madagascar, is one such species, as is the ivory-billed woodpecker, which some people claim to have seen in recent years in Arkansas.   I like to hope that there are enough pockets of good habitat in the world, away from the hands of man, where these so-called extinct species can continue to live on.  Sadly some species are truly extinct… the dodo bird and passenger pigeon are two well-known examples.  We can’t get those creatures back unless cloning on a Jurassic Park scale ever takes place. 

When you hear the word “extinct,” it typically applies on a global scale, but some species are locally-extinct (meaning that they have disappeared in a given area but more may survive elsewhere).  This is also referred to as “extirpation.”  Then there are the species that are “extinct in the wild,” meaning that the only remaining individuals of a species are in captivity, like the Hawaiian crow, Scimitar Oryx and Barbary lion.  Zoos may do captive breeding to increase the population with the hope of releasing some back into the wild, but that won’t be possible for every species.  Some have no habitat to go back to, like the red-tailed black shark.  This small freshwater fish, common in the aquarium trade (I had 2 growing up!), is extinct in the wild.  Dams on rivers in Thailand are the main blame for the species’ extinction, and unless someone removes the dams, there is little change the fish could ever be reintroduced.  

When you get down to it, this terminology encompasses the breadth of species out there, our impacts (both positive and negative) on them, and the need to conserve what we can.  For as John Muir, one of the fathers of the conservation movement, once said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”  If we lose an endangered species to extinction, it may affect many other species as well. 

 

Why Conservation Matters – Part 2 March 23, 2010

You’ve probably all heard the saying, “If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” I like to tie that saying in with my thinking about endangered species and extinction – if a species that no one has ever seen before goes extinct, does it really matter? I mean, who’s to know? Unfortunately that scenario probably plays out all the time, as people cut down rainforests, dredge river beds and fill in wetlands. Particularly in remote areas of South America, Africa and Indonesia, what were once areas untouched by the hand of man are now falling to the pressures of development, timer harvesting, the bush meat trade and other impacts to the natural resources. In these places the biodiversity, or variety of living things, is enormously high. There could be hundreds, if not thousands or tens of thousands, of unknown species living in the tree canopy, the leaf litter or the streams. The majority of these unnamed creatures are insects, but also include plants, small amphibians, birds and even an occasional mammal.

So back to my earlier question: if these species become extinct, does it matter? With our busy, over-programmed lives it can be easy to think that no, in the grand scheme of things those species are not important. What is one variety of ant compared to the entire wealth of species on the planet? Yet that ant performs a role in its environment, and that role may no longer be filled. The web of life describes the interconnected nature of one species to another. Pull on one of the web’s strands and many individual species feel the tug. Remove one of those species and the overall shape of the web changes. Remove enough of those species and the web falls apart.

From the lowliest micro-organism to the mightiest redwood tree, each species has a role to play and a niche to fill. Conserving as many species and special places as possible is important to our well being. Conservation is about protecting the things that we love, but it is more than that. For I may not love spiders but I recognize (and love) that they play an important role: they eat some insects that I dislike even more. And just because I will never see 99.99 percent of the species on this planet doesn’t mean that they are not valuable and worth protecting. They exist (and love being alive), therefore they deserve our respect.

Conservation of these 3 to 30 million species (the exact number is unknown because there are so many unidentified species out there!) does not have to be at odds with human progress, either. So many times people pit conservation against economic development, saying you can’t have one with the other, but I disagree. So much of our economic development is tied to the cleanliness of our environment and the abundance of our natural resources. Look at tourism – people don’t visit Yellowstone National Park to see the strip malls; they go for the natural scenic vistas and wealth of animals. Look at recreation – people don’t choose to swim in polluted waters or fish in rivers where all the fish have lesions and tumors; they want clean water and healthy organisms.

Even some industries that may traditionally be at odds with the environment can be tweaked to support it: Agriculture can use organic practices, a variety of plants (rather than just one) and no-till to help protect the surrounding environment. New housing and commercial developments can use low impact development principles to reduce lot sizes, keep as many trees on-site, reduce construction impacts and provide healthy outdoor recreation. Quality of life doesn’t have to suffer for conservation.