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National Wildlife Federation March/ April 2012 - WWW.NWF.ORG WORLDEDITION Volume 50 Number 3

An Otterly amazing Comeback PG: 6 RESOTRING A PRARIE ICON PG: 16

WHY TAR SANDS SPELL TROUBLE PG: 28 ACTION REPORT PG: 42


CONTENTS

MARCH/APRIL 2012 FEATURES

6 An Otterly amazing Comeback By Anne Bolen

With help, the North Amenrican river otter has returnedd to many U.S. states, only to once again be fighting old adversaries 16 RESTORING A PRAIRIE ICON: Working with parthers, NWF has launched an effort to resume wild bison to a key piece of their original range in Montanaof their original range in Montana

WORLD EDITION Published by the National Wildlife Federation © Volume 50 Number 3 www.nwf.org

28 TAR SANDS TROUBLE By Daniel Glick

Increasing production and transportation of low-grade oil from alberta threatens a wide range of North American wildlife, from endagered whooping cranes to woodland caribou 42 ACTION REPORT How National Wildlife Federation is making a difference

DEPARTMENTS 12 NWF VIEW Be Out There and Give a Gift That Last a Lifetime By Larry J. Schweiger

24 NATURAL INQUIRIES The Bull Shark’s Double Life By Michael Tennesen

Three of the nearly 400 species of shark are responsible for most of the unprovoked attacks on people; one can survive in freshwater 34 NEWS OF THE WILD Declines in large speices put habitats at risk; digesting snakes put genes in overdrive; plants speak to bats 38 BACKYARD HABITAT Setting a Winter Table for Wldlife By Janet Marinelli

Rather then cutting down the native flowers in your garden, leave the seed heads and stalks standing for birds to feast on 46 FINAL FRAME Yellowstone National Park

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March/ April 2012 - WWW.NWF.ORG WORLDEDITION


LETTER TO THE EDITOR

WORLD EDITION Published by the National Wildlife Federation © Volume 50 Number 3 www.nwf.org

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ildlife’s ability to survive the challenges of the 21st century is becoming outpaced by the events that are transforming our world. Global warming, the loss of habitat, and people becoming more disconnected from nature than past generations are converging on a dangerous path for our planet. The work of NWF and our affiliates across the country provides answers to these challenges and will help ensure America’s wildlife legacy continues for future generations. Finding Solutions to the Climate Crisis Global warming is the single biggest threat to wildlife and wild places. The impacts of global warming, caused by increased carbon pollution, are already being felt: more droughts, food and water shortages, severe weather, and habitat loss. National Wildlife Federation is advancing bold yet practical solutions to global warming. The organization is working to expand clean energy and reduce our dependence on fosill fuels in order to improve our economy, our security and the planet’s future. In addition to working to change America’s energy policy, National Wildlife Federation educates businesses, institutions and individuals on achievable ways to reduce their carbon footprint.

NWF’s BE OUT THERE™ campaign is designed to inspire families to open the door and get outside. A daily dose of the outdoors improves children’s physical, mental and emotional well-being. The benefits of outdoor play are real: healthier kids with a life-long appreciation of wildlife and nature. It’s time to trade some screen time for green time. NWF is helping to make that happen with programs that bring people closer to the natural world. These programs and events provide meaningful experiences that touch their hearts and build a sense of conservation stewardship. Helping the BE OUT THERE™ campaign will be Ranger Rick®, NWF’s awardwinning children’s magazine, which has been enticing kids outdoors for more than 40 years. Dedicated staff, members, volunteers and affiliates of NWF are focused on protecting all of America’s great waters from coastal Louisiana and the Great Lakes to biologicallyrich wetlands across the country. All of these are vital to securing clean water for people, fish and wildlife as water supplies deteriorate in a warming world. In all, National Wildlife Federation’s work from coast to coast, community by community, helps protect, connect and restore habitat to ensure a healthy wildlife legacy for future generations.

Turning Inside Kids Out At the same time that global warming threatens our future, we as a nation are losing our connection with nature, connections that foster healthy children and an appreciation for the natural world. Today’s children are the first generation ever to grow up isolated from nature. Outdoor time for kids has decreased by almost 90 percent, while time spent inside, plugged into electronic media. March/ April 2012 - WWW.NWF.ORG WORLDEDITION

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An Otterly Amazing Comeback With the help of scientists, wildlife managers and fishermen, the North American river otter has returned to many U.S. states, only to once again be fighting old adversaries By Anne Bolen


FEATURE

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Otters are top pedators in river, lake and wetland ecosystems. However, Serfass had collected more than 400 otter scats from the Poconos to show anglers that while adult otters consume between one and two pounds of food a day, including some trout, they typically ambush slower-moving prey such as carp and suckers as well as amphibians, reptiles, insects and, one of their favorite foods, crayfish.Serfass presented more than 300 slideshows about the otters’ varied tastes to sportsmen throughout the state. He and Finkbiner eventually gained most of the anglers’ support, and by 2003, the reintroduction program had released 153 otters relocated from the Poconos, nearby states and Louisiana. Serfass went on to help with otter

he river otter’s playful anticS of sliding down hills or wrestling with littermates can charm the most stoic of hearts (see video of otters playing below). Indeed, this endearing member of the weasel family is so vivacious that we might assume these North American inhabitants always have thrived and will continue to do so. Yet by the early 20th century, unregulated trapping, habitat destruction and water pollution had caused the North American river otter to nearly disappear from much of the interior United States, with most of the remaining populations living in northern states and coastal environments. If it hadn’t been for revised management strategies and national legislation to protect waterways, a multistate reintroduction effort could not have restored the river otter to much of its historic range.

reintroductions in Maryland, New York and New Mexico. Since the U.S. reintroductions began in 1976, more than 4,300 river otters have been released in 22 states. As these animals tend to be elusive and have expansive ranges, confirming their location and numbers in an area is difficult. However, otters have been spotted or tracked with radiotelemetry or their paw prints and feces have been found in each of the states in which they were released as well as some to which they have migrated. Genetic testing by one of Serfass’s graduate students has shown, for example, that some otters from Minnesota have moved into North Dakota. Now after nearly four decades

of slow recovery, river otters continue to fight old adversaries—water pollution and shrinking habitat—only with less legal armament. The 1972 Clean Water Act was intended to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.” Yet Supreme Court rulings in 2001 and 2006 called into question whether small streams, headwaters and wetlands that are separate from “navigable waters” warrant federal protections. However, Nicole Duplaix, chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Otter Specialist Group, explains that because even small streams eventually feed into larger waterways, “All water is connected. The only time it is isolated

River otters need relatively clean wetlands, rivers and streams with plenty of prey and secluded places to den, such as former beaver lodges and riverbanks. So “otters are good indicators of what is in the water,” says Thomas Serfass, a wildlife ecologist at Maryland’s Frostburg State University.

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says Serfass. “As a result, you learn about local attitudes and about the people who are interested in conservation.” While interviewing outdoor enthusiasts, he found that some anglers viewed the otters as a threat to their prized game fish. Then he discovered two who were kindred spirits: Tom and Debbie Finkbiner. The Finkbiners operate their Slate Run Tackle Shop in Pine Creek Gorge, a mountainous woodland and network of rivers also known as the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania—and the first otter release site. Since 1976, the couple has been giving advice about the best places to fish in this angler’s Mecca. “So when we approached people with an idea such as supporting reintroducing river otters to the area,” says Tom Finkbiner, “they trusted us to do what was right rather than something for profit only.” He listened to his customers’ concerns: “They thought that each otter would eat up to 50 pounds of trout!” Then he gave them the facts: “I told them they could only do that if they had refrigerators.”

Doug Wheller

Serfass was a young graduate student when he took on reintroducing river otters to Pennsylvania in 1982. By the 1950s, historic overtrapping, water pollution and loss of more than half of the state’s wetlands had reduced the state’s otters to one population in the northeastern Pocono Mountains. Working with the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Pennsylvania Game Commission and other groups, Serfass chose seven tributaries in the central and western part of the state that he determined were able to sustain otters. But Serfass felt the reintroductions would not be truly successful without the support of the surrounding communities. “When you are doing a reintroduction project, if you are doing your job properly as a biologist, you should interact with the local people,”

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is when you are drinking it out of a glass.”Water pollution can be a real problem for otters. As in many states, some of Pennsylvania’s rivers contain pesticides and industrial pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and mercury. The otters’ prey can absorb these chemicals, which can then accumulate in the otters. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection reports that acidic fluid draining primarily from abandoned coal mines is in at least 5,500 miles of Pennsylvania’s tributaries, and silt from mining, development and agriculture has impaired nearly 9,000 stream and river miles. Now, a recent resource rush to drill for trillions of cubic feet of natural gas thought to be beneath two shale formations could increase the amount of silt sliding into the state’s waterways. The shale stretches from 10

“But this indicates how quickly a thriving population could potentially be impacted by an unexpected event.” Duplaix agrees: “Unusual weather events or accidents like oil spills or leachate from mining are never factored in when a law is changed or when regulations are weakened.”

New York down to Tennessee and under all of Pennsylvania’s otter release sites. As acid mine drainage kills aquatic life and siltation smothers insects and algae at the bottom of food chains, this pollution can “limit where the otters can expand to and thrive,” explains Serfass.Both Serfass and Duplaix say the fate of even historically stable otter populations should not be taken for granted. For example, most of the reintroduced otters were from coastal Louisiana, which was awash with Gulf of Mexico oil in 2010. “We don’t know the impact of the oil spill on otters in that area,” says Serfass.In April 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed a Clean Water guidance that would restore Clean

Water Act protections for millions of wetland acres and tens of thousands of stream miles nationwide. This guidance has yet to be finalized and implemented. The river otter may not have time to wait. As Duplaix points out, this North American icon “can be easily wiped out one watershed at a time.” How anglers have helped the otters by sharing their fish with them may yet be fully realized. But that is fine with Tom Finkbiner. “A lot of the decisions that I’ve made on conservation issues are not based on us. They are based on future generations,” he says. “I think it is wonderful to leave an area to those unborn outdoors people.”

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DEPARTMENT

Be Out There and Give a Gift That Lasts a Lifetime:

O

ne of the greatest gifts I received from my parents was not a tangible gift at all. It was a gift of an unquenchable curiosity

watching in wonder as we observed a doe nursing her twin fawns at a stream bank. We were inspired by the size of a great horned owl, which startled us as it silently glided overhead before landing in a nearby white pine.

Mom and Dad loved the outdoors, and they spent their free time in nature with their four sons, fostering in us a fascination for nature that lives on today. Mom always encouraged us to “find something to do” outside, and I often followed Dad as he trained his beagles and in later years hunted with him in the fields and forests of western Pennsylvania.

Collecting rusty nails and scraps of wood from nearby home construction sites, we built tree shacks in the aspen stands. We built earth-filled log dams in Girty’s Run and stocked the impoundments with bluegills that we transplanted from a nearby lake. We emulated Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett by building a network of “wilderness” trails with

about nature.

some neighborhood friends and our pet beagle. Before many parents turned to perscriptions to calm their hyperactive kids, recess periods in our elementary school’s playground provided important outlets for students like me to expend pent-up energy. As much as I enjoyed three daily recesses, the best part of my day was running into the woods after school. Today, I worry about how much time kids spend indoors in front of televisions, computer screens and game devices. I worry, too, about how little connection children have with nature and how

Admittedly, it was a lot easier to get kids outside back in those days. There were far fewer of the distractions that keep youngsters indoors. My hometown of Pittsburgh launched KDKA, the world’s first commercial radio station and later the first round-the-clock commercial television channel. At first, that was the only channel we could watch on our 16inch Crosley television, which seemed to take forever to warm up. These days, children are bombarded by hundreds of television channels displayed on high-definition, flat screens complete with theater-quality surround sound. They create an endless stream of text messages on their cell phones and have access to the Internet, games, gadgets and seemingly endless other high-tech distractions. By today’s standards, my family did not have a lot of money to buy toys. Mom and Dad paid $7,000 for our home, and Dad worked 12 hours or more a day to earn his $60 weekly salary. Computers or other electronic gadgets didn’t exist. The only “cell phone” in our world was on Dick Tracy’s wrist. Yet we never thought of ourselves as poor because we were rich in imagination and exploration. Several hundred acres of field and forest awaited us just outside our front door, and we explored every inch, finding simple joys at every turn. I remember 12

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Trina Moore 14

sleep better. Citing a rise in childhood obesity rates and a litany of health problems related to sedentary lifestyles, Senator Mark Udall (D-CO), chairman of the Senate’s Subcommittee on National Parks and co-chair of the bipartisan Senate Outdoor Recreation Caucus, insists that getting kids out into nature

should be a bipartisan concern. Having worked at the Colorado Outward Bound School for 20 years, including a decade as its executive director. At a recent congressional briefing on the benefits of reconnecting youngsters with nature, Senator Udall

and Representative Ron Kind (D-WI) announced their intention to introduce Senate and House versions of the Healthy Kids Outdoors Act. If enacted, the legislation would support state, local and federal strategies to connect our nation’s youth with the outdoors through natural play, recreation such as

camping, hiking, hunting and fishing, public health plans, service learning and other initiatives. For the sake of our children, I hope the bill receives bipartisan support and is passed quickly. In the meantime, each of us must do our part to get children into the outdoors to discover the wonders of nature, as I did

many years ago. It’s a gift that continues to renew my spirit and one that I hope to pass on to my grandchildren.

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Owen Jones

little physical exercise they are getting. Based on my own experiences, I believe unstructured outdoor time allows children the freedom to explore, create and imagine. Kids who spend at least an hour each day outdoors generally are healthier—physically and mentally— and, according to recent studies, they

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Restoring

a prairie icon

THE STORY HAS BEEN TOLD MANY TIMES


FEATURE

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n little more than a decade during the late 1800s, market hunters all but wiped out the continent’s largest land mammal, the American bison, killing the animals by the thousands for their hides, meat and, all too often, simply for the thrill of seeing them hit the ground. By the beginning of the 20th century, a species of tremendous ecological, cultural and economic importance had vanished from the prairie and survived only in small captive herds and a remnant population in the mountains of Yellowstone National Park.

agreements, which only permit livestock grazing if it is needed to help improve wildlife habitat, are a critical part of creating space for bison. In recent decades, NWF has used a similar approach to resolve wildlifelivestock conflicts on U.S. public lands immediately adjacent to Yellowstone park, retiring nearly 600,000 acres of grazing allotments in the process. Using funds donated through its Adopt-a-Wildlife-Acre program, NWF also has negotiated voluntary grazing agreements with multiple ranchers on CMR lands, safeguarding some 54,000 acres of wildlife habitat that now is potentially available to bison.

Sadly, that wasn’t the end of the story. These commercial hunters quickly shifted their aim to other native wildlife, destroying huge populations across the West of elk, pronghorn, moose, deer and bighorn sheep. That’s when concerned Americans took steps to stop the carnage. “Over the last 100 years, hunters and conservationists have done a tremendous job in this country of recovering elk, deer, pronghorn and other large mammals,” says NWF President Larry Schweiger. “Working primarily through state fish and wildlife agencies, we have restored most of our big-game populations—an incredible achievement. But we still have one major species to go, the American bison.” To help fill that gap, NWF has launched a new initiative to restore wild bison to an important part of their original range: the area in and around Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge (CMR) in north-central Montana.. Sprawling across some 125 miles, with more than a half-million acres of nearly pristine short-grass prairie, the refuge straddles Fort Peck Lake, a massive reservoir on the Missouri River with 1,500 miles of shoreline. Because travel in the area is restricted only to designated routes, much of the landscape remains the same as when shooters killed the region’s last native bison more than a century ago. CMR also encompasses the 56,000acre UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge, much of which is a federally designated wilderness area. 18

At the same time, NWF staff has been talking with sportsmen and ranchers in communities surrounding the refuge and elsewhere in Montana to win support for bison restoration. Kit Fischer, an

NWF outreach coordinator, says the challenge is more political and social than biological. “Restoring bison would be relatively easy because the animals are native to CMR,” he says. “The hard part is building public consensus and deciding this is the right thing to do.” The decision to restore bison to CMR must include approval from both FWS and Montana’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission, which has authority over wildlife management in the state. Public support seems to be on the side of the bison. A survey commissioned by NWF last winter found that 94 percent of the state residents polled agreed “we should try to find places where we can have wild populations of all species that once lived in Montana, including bison.” The poll also found that most Montanans see bison as wildlife akin to elk and deer, and some 70 percent

favor CMR as a likely place for the huge mammals to roam. Montana Governor Brian Schweit-zer has other ideas. He has pushed the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission to consider several tracts of stateowned land in western and west-central Montana as possible sites for bison herds. These tracts, however, are too small to accommodate free-ranging bison. Nevertheless, the agency has launched an environmental analysis of the proposals, which involve starting herds with bison from Yellowstone. Meanwhile, NWF and other groups remain focused restoring the animals to the much larger and more remote CMR, using bison transplanted from locations other than Yellowstone. The park’s bison sometimes carry brucellosis, a disease that originated in cattle and

Because it contains some of the most productive and wildest habitat in the West, CMR has long been a focal point of conservation efforts by NWF and its affiliate, the Montana Wildlife Federation. Managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the refuge is home to nationally renowned populations of elk, pronghorn and mule deer and a wide range of other species, from bighorn sheep to black-footed ferrets. “If we are going to restore bison to their native prairie habitat anywhere in North America, this is the best place to do it,” says Tom France, executive director of the NWF Northern Rockies and Prairies Regional Center in Missoula. Domestic bison are common throughout the United States, numbering some 430,000. They generally exist, with a few exceptions, in captivity or as privately owned herds. No wild bison herds exist today in their original prairie habitat in this country. “It’s the only native wildlife species that isn’t permitted to roam freely within its natural range,” says France. “These animals are treated like livestock.” In promoting bison restoration, NWF is working with other conservation groups and several Indian tribes with large reservations near CMR. The Federation’s efforts also dovetail with work that the American Prairie Foundation (APF) is doing nearby. The nonprofit group has purchased or leased about 120,000 prairie acres adjacent to CMR and established a small herd of genetically pure bison that could provide stock for the refuge or other areas. APF Managing Director Dick Dolan says bison restoration “is part of a larger vision of prairie restoration.” While APF has been purchasing private lands adjacent to CMR, NWF has been developing agreements with ranchers who hold cattle grazing permits on the refuge. These March/ April 2012 - WWW.NWF.ORG WORLDEDITION

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NWF Takes Action: Securing Bison Habitat Through its grazing allotment retirement program, NWF recently secured 7,200 acres of important habitat for bison and other wildlife in the Gallatin National Forest, just north of Yellowstone National Park. The program, which to date has safeguarded more than 620,000 acres of habitat, utilizes a market-based approach to conservation. “These retirements succeed because they work for all parties involved,” says Federation Special Projects Coordinator Hank Fischer. Learn more about the Adopt-a-Wildlife-Acre program, including how you can help, at www.nwf.org/wildlifeacre.

can cause female cows to abort their fetuses. Relocation of even disease-free Yellowstone bison is a source of constant controversy among many ranchers who fear the spread of brucellosis to their livestock. Ranching is an important industry in Montana, with the six-county area surrounding CMR alone supporting some 380,000 cattle on more than 15 million mostly grassland acres. NWF’s solution to the disease threat is straightforward: eliminate it by starting with bison that never have been exposed to brucellosis. 20

“Our goal is to restore a herd of bison while also maintaining a vibrant ranching industry,” France says. “Ranching has been and will continue to be an important part of Montana’s economy and culture. We’re confident that wild bison also will benefit Montanans in many ways, including economically in the form of sporting opportunities and tourism. There’s more than enough room for both bison and cattle out here under the Big Sky.”

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NWF and Tribes Seek to Establish Genetically Pure Bison

The park was the last refuge for the remaining few dozen wild U.S. bison to live through the uncontrolled killing of the late 1800s. Today, 2,300 to 4,500 descendents of those survivors, all purebred, live in Yellowstone, but during harsh winters they are prone to leave the park for lower elevations to the west and north. Under an agreement with the National Park Service, officials from the Montana Department of Livestock capture a portion of the bison that wander out of Yellowstone during harsh winters. The officials test the captives for brucellosis, a contagious disease that causes cattle to abort calves. State officials kill bison that test positive, even though no case of brucellosis transmission from bison to cattle has ever been documented. As part of this program, Montana officials are keeping about 160 bison in quarantine. Some of these animals have been held for five 22

Michael Shepard

NWF is working with Native American communities in northeastern Montana to restore prairie ecosystems and preserve cultural heritage. A key component of this work is an effort to establish significant bison herds within large, fenced areas on the Fort Belknap and Fort Peck Indian reservations. Fort Belknap is home to Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes, Fort Peck to Assiniboine and Sioux. The tribes already harbor captive bison herds, but these animals, like most U.S. bison, carry about 1 or 2 percent cattle genes. People on both reservations hope to replace these animals with new herds of genetically pure bison from Yellowstone National Park.

years. Persistent testing for brucellosis has shown them to be brucellosis free. These animals could be used to establish herds of truly native bison on the two reservations. In addition to the cultural, ecological and economic benefits to the tribes, establishing genetically pure Yellowstone bison on the reservations would serve the nation as insurance against extinction of the last truly wild U.S. bison. “We have only one herd of pure bison in the United States,”

says Robert Magnan, Fort Peck Tribe’s director of Fish and Game. “They’re all in Yellowstone. If anything happened to them, we would lose those purebred animals.” If Montana officials, who have been gathering public comment on the issue, transfer Yellowstone animals to the tribes, reservation managers plan to release the bison into specially fenced pastures where they can roam freely but not wander onto neighboring ranches. These animals gradually would replace

the present herds, which the tribes would sell or use as meat for traditional cultural events and for efforts to provide better food for reservation residents suffering from diabetes. Fort Peck, the smaller of the two reservations, already has 4,800 acres fenced, with water sources and facilities for continued brucellosis testing. “We’re ready to go right now,” Magnan says. At Fort Belknap, Mike Fox, who heads the reservation’s bison project, hopes to add 1,500 more fenced acres to the 2,000 already prepared to receive Yellowstone animals. His current long-term plan is to harbor 400 to 500 Yellowstone bison, but ultimately he would like to see the herd

reach 1,000 head, he says. As the herd grows, Fox hopes the reservation will attract tourists who want to see free-ranging bison and nearby historic and cultural sites, such as Bear Paw Battlefield, where Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce fought a decisive battle in 1877.

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The Bull Shark’s Double Life By. Michael Tennesen

Three of the planet’s nearly 400 species of shark are responsible for most of the unprovoked traumatic attacks on people; one of them can survive in freshwater


DEPARTMENT

A

NWF Priority: Protecting the Marine Environment

nglers have been known to stretch the truth at times, but Willy Dean wasn’t exaggerating when he described the fish he caught in the Potomac River in the fall of 2010. “When I first seen it, it was like Jaws,” he told The Washington Post. The Maryland fishing enthusiast was referring to the nearly 8-foot, 300-pound bull shark that landed in one of his nets. What was a shark doing in freshwater, far from the Atlantic Ocean? As it turned out, the creature simply was doing what comes naturally. “There’s nothing unusual about bull sharks in the lower Potomac and the Chesapeake Bay area,” says George Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research and curator of the International Shark Attack File. The species ranges worldwide in tropical and subtropical waters, according to Burgess, and “it is the only large shark that can survive in both freshwater and saltwater.” Most ocean sharks need salt in their bodies to prevent their cells from expanding and rupturing. But bull sharks have a special gland near their tails that helps retain salt and they have kidneys that recycle the substance when they enter freshwater. In recent years, the predators have been sighted in the Mississippi River, Florida’s Indian River Lagoon and more than 2,000 miles from the ocean in the Amazon River. But it is the creatures’ habit of ranging in shallow coastal waters that can cause problems for people. Three of the planet’s nearly 400 shark species are responsible for most of the traumatic unprovoked attacks on humans: tiger sharks, white sharks and bull sharks. The first two “are essentially offshore species that occasionally venture near shore,” says Chris Lowe, head of California State University’s Shark Lab in Long Beach. “But bull sharks are a true near-shore species.” Bull sharks rarely occur north of Mexico on the Pacific Coast, but they range from Massachusetts to Florida along the Eastern Seaboard. Thirteen of the planet’s 79 confirmed shark attacks 26

As part of its efforts to address threats to marine ecosystems, NWF has formed a long-term partnership with the prestigious Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida. Initially, the two organizations will establish an innovative research, education and public outreach initiative focused on science-based coral reef ecosystem restoration in the face of increasing sea surface temperatures and ocean acidification.

in 2010 occurred in the Sunshine State, and bull sharks accounted for some of those, including one fatality—one of only two U.S. shark fatalities that year. (By comparison, 29 people died from lightning strikes in the United States in 2010.) University of North Florida biologist Jim Gelsleichter currently is investigating the bull shark’s hormone levels to help understand its nature. Named for its blunt snout and habit of head butting prey, it is one of the few shark species that will tangle with creatures larger than itself. “An earlier study found high levels of testosterone in one of the three bull sharks it looked at,” says the scientist, who is attempting to validate those results. “In Florida, we suggest that people avoid swimming in murky waters when visibility is limited,” Female bull sharks frequently bear their young in estuaries, bays, harbors and river mouths, enabling their offspring to spend their early years in shallow areas where they are safe from marine predators. Burgess and his associates have been tracking bull sharks in Florida’s Indian River Lagoon and have discovered that the predators often feed on stingrays. “We found one bull shark that had a stingray spine that went completely though its heart—in one side and out the other,”

Burgess says. “Yet the shark appeared to be perfectly healthy. It is one tough animal.” Still, the sharks’ habit of spending time near shore makes them susceptible to certain pollutants. In one study, Gelsleichter found trace amounts of prescription medications in 90 percent of the juvenile bull sharks he examined. He also is concerned about the potential effects of the 2010 Gulf oil spill on the predators. Oil can be a slow killer, cautions the biologist, and effects “won’t show up for years.” While bull shark numbers in U.S. waters declined during the 1990s, stricter fishing regulations have helped the species recover along parts of the East Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico. However, increasing numbers should not be considered “a warning to run and get out of the water,” says Burgess. “We face much greater risks everyday in our lives. Believe me, shark recovery is a good thing for the future of the oceans.”

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Tar

Sands

rouble

Increasing production and transportation of low grade oil from Alberta threatens a wide range of North American wildlife By. Daniel Glick


FEATURE

i

three times more carbon dioxide than conventional oil production. Already, the industry is the fastest growing source of carbon dioxide pollution in Canada.

n a lobbyist-packed room on Capitol Hill last spring, lawmakers from the House Committee on Foreign Affairs convened a hearing with a portentous title: “Rising Oil Prices and Dependence on Hostile Regimes: The Urgent Case for Canadian Oil.” The topic was whether the federal government should accelerate approval of a controversial pipeline to transport liquefied Canadian tar sands crude across the U.S. heartland. Representatives heard from a parade of industry boosters who, while acknowledging some downsides to tar sands production, reassured lawmakers that the industry was improving its environmental record by employing vigilant monitoring techniques and hightech solutions.

Thanks to Canada’s burgeoning tar sands production, the country is now the largest crude oil supplier to the United States, selling more than each of our previous top exporters—Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Venezuela—according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. If tar sands mining continues apace, industrial development eventually will encompass an area of boreal forests and wetlands the size of Florida. Tar sands development impacts not only birds but fish, forest mammals and humans alike. In Alberta, First Nations

locals told Symons they no longer eat fish from the Athabasca River for fear of contaminants. Subsistence hunters now have to range great distances to find game like woodland caribou as herds scatter and the animals’ numbers decline. President Obama may yet have something to say about tar sands’ future. The project in question during last spring’s congressional hearing is the 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline, proposed to run from Alberta to south Texas. This conduit would carry 830,000 barrels a day of liquid bitumen. Because it would cross international borders, the pipeline requires presidential approval after a series of environmental assessments of the project. A decision

is expected by the end of 2011. Conservationists say it will be one of the most important—and far-ranging— environmental decisions of the Obama presidency. That’s because the pipeline has an expected lifespan of 50 years and will, among other things, lock the nation into a dirty, carbon-intensive and expensive fuel for generations as well as sanction a long-term, international pollution-delivery system. The project would cross some of the heartland’s most sensitive environmental areas, including the Ogallala Aquifer, the Sand Hills and the Yellowstone River—already contaminated by a tar sands pipeline spill last June.

The last witness presented a different take. NWF Senior Vice President Jeremy Symons, who had recently returned from Alberta’s tar sands region, told the hearing room that the super-sized scale and speed of developing this thick, low-grade petroleum defied meaningful environmental safeguards. Already, tar sands development had produced devastating ecological ripples. Massive toxic tailings ponds, open-pit mines, chemical-belching smokestacks and processing plants now stretched along hundreds of square miles that were once part of an intact boreal forest wilderness. This far northern wilderness provides critical breeding habitat for millions of North American birds, including migratory songbirds, waterfowl and shorebirds. A single square mile of boreal forest can support 500 nesting pairs of migrants. Toxic tailings ponds have killed thousands of these birds, particularly waterfowl that spend the winter in the United States. Symons noted that Alberta’s tar sands development also lies smack in the middle of a flyway that serves the endangered whooping crane and other species. He then showed the hearing room a photograph of one of the high-tech solutions the industry employs to 30

prevent cranes and other birds from dying in toxic ponds: a scarecrow draped in a yellow rain slicker, looking very much like the Grim Reaper, pointing ominously to the sky. Dirty Business Ominous is a good word to describe the Canadian tar sands industry. Billed as a fix for U.S. dependence on Middle East oil, tar sands are instead another example of this country’s “desperate quest for more extreme oil,” Symons says—a nightmare vision of an inefficient, toxic and greenhouse gasspewing energy future.

Tar sands contain low-grade hydrocarbons mixed in with sand and clay, which must be mined by the megaton, processed, liquefied, transported and refined to make transportation fuels. It takes 4 tons of tar sands to make one barrel of a black, viscous, raw form of oil called bitumen, and the process of transforming tar sands into one barrel of oil can take up to four barrels of water—not to mention vast quantities of natural gas to power the process. Some estimates suggest that mining, producing, transporting and burning oil produced from tar sands emit March/ April 2012 - WWW.NWF.ORG WORLDEDITION

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Wildlife Sentinels Tar sands development’s effects on wildlife already offer a huge clue about its dangers. In September 2010, Kevin Timoney of Treeline Ecological Research and Robert Ronconi of Dalhousie University published a study in the Wilson Journal of Ornithology linking the yearly deaths of 458 to 5,029 birds from at least 43 species to the toxins contained in tailings ponds. Noting that annual mortality data provided by energy companies and the government “underestimate actual mortality,” the scientists wrote that even their own estimate “represents an unknown fraction of true mortality.” In just one event during the spring of 2008, 1,600 ducks died after landing in a tailings pond operated by Syncrude Canada, Ltd. The company initially hushed up the incident, but after an anonymous tip to authorities, it was forced to pay a $3 million fine. Toxic tailings ponds represent just one of many dangers tar sands development poses to the continent’s birds. Open-pit mining for the petroleum that begins the process destroys enormous swaths of boreal bird habitat. Drilling fragments forests, while water withdrawals harm wetlands and other aquatic systems. A 2009 report from the Boreal Songbird Initiative estimates that these and other threats posed by tar sands exploitation will result in the loss of between 6 million and 166 million birds during the next 30 to 50 years. One species of particular concern is the endangered whooping crane. In the early 1940s, only 16 of these elegant, 5-foot-tall birds were known to exist. Their numbers have slowly climbed, but the crane’s long-term survival is precarious at best: Tanker spills, habitat loss, illegal hunting, predators, power lines and poison already pose deadly obstacles for this iconic species. Increased tar sands production will make the whoopers’ rebound more tenuous. The breeding area for the only selfsustaining population of the cranes is in Wood Buffalo National Park, just north of Alberta’s tar sands mines. Traveling to their wintering grounds in Texas, the 32

NWF Takes Action: No to Tar Sands While stopping the Keystone XL pipeline became a cause célèbre during 2011, NWF was one of the first conservation groups to commit resources around the country to halt the spread of tar sands oil. NWF has issued comprehensive reports, organized events and lobbied the White House and congressional staff, among other actions. Canada-179 Iran -115

Saudi-264

Iraq-133

Kuwait-102

Billions of Barrels of Oil

birds migrate directly over tar sands pits—coincidentally following part of the same path as the proposed pipeline. Duane Hovorka, executive director of the Nebraska Wildlife Federation, an NWF affiliate, says tar sands operations pose a series of threats to whooping cranes all along their migration route. The Athabasca River, for example, runs northward from the tar sands toward the Wood Buffalo refuge, and Hovorka says the industry is “polluting the river with some nasty stuff.” Peter Lee, executive director of Global Forest Watch Canada, says woodland caribou already have been severely affected. Clear-cutting, pit mining and giant tailings ponds have

disturbed 75 percent of the habitat used by caribou in areas overlapping tar sands development. At 50 percent disturbance, “they have at best a 5050 chance of survival,” Lee says. “It doesn’t look good for woodland caribou in that area.” Timoney, after filing a freedom of information request with the Alberta government, learned that between the years 2000 and 2008, scores of black bears, deer, red foxes, coyotes, moose, muskrats, beavers, voles, martens, wolves and bats perished in the vicinity of tar sands operations. He and other scientists believe that provincial and

national governments are not accurately monitoring effects of the industry, and that the deaths he’s uncovered represent only a small percentage of actual mortality. “The rate and extent of recent human disturbances is unprecedented,” emphasizes wildlife ecologist Fiona Schmiegelow of the University of Alberta. “Over the course of a few decades, this region has been radically transformed, with an associated loss of habitat and wildlife populations at a landscape scale.” The saddest part of this marauding tar sands development is that it’s not necessary. NWF’s Symons says the United States is chasing a “mirage of energy security” by supporting the industry. “Alberta tar sands operations are the most destructive source of oil on the planet,” he says. Price hikes, toxic spills and a reliance on a low-grade fossil fuel hardly constitute a road map for this country’s energy future. “One myth I often hear is that Canada will find a responsible way to mine tar sands,” Symons told Congress. “Years of experience

have proved otherwise.” More importantly, he adds, “the answer to our oil addiction doesn’t lie in simply switching suppliers”—especially when that new supply is linked to so many deadly consequences.

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News of the Wild


DEPARTMENT

News of the Wild Predators, Snakes and Bats Declines in Large Species Put Habitats at Risk: A new review of recent ecological studies indicates that the decline of large animals at the top of their food chain, caused largely by human activity leading to habitat loss, has had farreaching consequences, including changes in vegetation, wildfires, water quality and the spread of infectious disease. “The loss of apex consumers is arguably humankind’s most pervasive influence on the natural world,” the study concludes. The biggest population declines have been in big predators, such as wolves on land and sharks in the sea, but species such as elephants and bison also have dropped from millions to a few thousand during the past century and a half. These species “have diverse and powerful effects on the ways ecosystems work, and the loss of these large animals has widespread implications,” says James Estes, an ecologist at the University of California–Santa Cruz. In the study, published in Science last July, he and 23 colleagues cite how the extirpation of wolves in Yellowstone National Park contributed to destruction of aspens and willows by uncontrolled elk populations as an example of how apex consumers affect ecosystems. More data are needed to understand these effects but, Estes says, “To the extent that conservation aims toward restoring functional ecosystems, the reestablishment of large animals and their ecological effects is fundamental.”

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Digesting Snakes Put Genes in Overdrive: Snakes that go months between meals, such as Burmese pythons and rattlesnakes, save energy by reducing the size and function of vital organs, including the heart, stomach, liver and kidneys, while fasting. “Snakes are specialists in conserving energy,” says Todd Castoe, a biologist at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. After eating, however, the reptiles “have to rapidly ramp up everything,” Castoe says, because the reduced organs are essentially useless for digestion. Within 48 hours of a meal, the organs increase by 35 to 100 percent and will remain enlarged for the time it takes to digest the prey, perhaps two weeks, before again shrinking. New research by Castoe and his colleagues has established that this growth requires switching on some 1,800 dormant genes in the heart alone—almost 10 percent of the snake’s 20,000 genes— boosting metabolism by 40-fold within 48 hours. This metabolic jump is among the greatest of any vertebrate species. Plants Speak to Bats: Recent experiments with Pallas’s longtongued bat, which feeds on plant nectar and uses echolocation to find blossoms, indicate that the dish-shaped leaves of the Cuban rain forest vine Marcgravia evenia reflects bat signals in a loud and very conspicuous way. This increased echo, says lead researcher Ralph Simon, a biologist at Germany’s University of Ulm, helps the bats find the flowers more easily and increases vine pollination. Although the study focused on one bat species, “the echolocation behavior of all nectar-feeding bats is quite similar,” Simon says, “so the echo signal of the dish-shaped leaves should be receivable for all nectar-feeding bats.” Such bats make several hundred visits nightly to flowers and eat 100 to 150 percent of their body weight in nectar.

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Backyard

Habitat Setting a winter table for wildlife


DEPARTMENT

m

any people think that once the last goldenrod has bloomed in fall, the wildflower spectacle is over for the year. However, the spent stalks and pods that are the remnants of summer’s blossoms have a stark, sculptural beauty, especially when silhouetted against a blanket of snow. And even when the riot of floral color has settled into a winter palette of muted browns and grays, many plants continue to serve wildlife. Seed-eating birds such as juncos and goldfinches flock to the dried flower heads of asters, coneflowers and other native plants at a time when other food is scarce. Winter wildflower stalks also provide wildlife with places to seek refuge from storms and predators, and insects pass the winter in the dead stalks. That’s why gardeners should ignore the conventional horticultural wisdom and hold off on the ritual known as fall garden cleanup. Do not deadhead wildflowers growing on your property. Instead, leave spent flower stalks until spring so that birds can feast on the seeds and insects can complete their life cycles and emerge when the weather warms. If you’re fanatical about removing the stalks after the first frost, you’ll not only be depriving birds of a source of winter sustenance but also disposing of some of next year’s pollinators and other beneficial insects that fertilize native plants and food crops and help keep garden pests in check. Following are a few of the native wildflowers with seeds that birds will gobble up in winter: • Coneflowers: Nine native coneflower species grow from across the eastern and central Lower 48 to the Rocky Mountain states. The plants produce large flowers with sturdy orange-bronze “cones” at the center. During the cold months, goldfinches perch on or just below the blackened winter cones to pluck out the seeds.

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• Sennas: In many areas of the country, two native species—American senna and Maryland senna—bear a profusion of flowers in mid- to latesummer, followed by long, drooping seedpods. They provide shelter as well as chocolate-colored seeds that offer nutritious winter meals for songbirds and wild turkeys and other game birds. When in flower, sennas are magnets for certain native bees and butterflies. They also serve as host plants for cloudless sulfur butterfly caterpillars. • Round-head bush clover: Native to areas in the eastern two-thirds of the country, this plant is not particularly showy but it is robust and beneficial for wildlife. Its bronze seed heads decorate the winter garden and provide food for

songbirds and game birds. Neil Diboll, president of Prairie Nursery in Westfield, Wisconsin, calls round-head bush clover “an excellent late-season ‘emergency food’ for birds.” The plant grows 3 to 6 feet tall, he points out, “so the seeds are elevated above even deep snow cover that obscures lower-growing plants and their fruits.” • Other good winter seed sources: Depending on where you live, these may include asters, black-eyed Susans and late-blooming native sunflowers. Unless you have room in your garden for them to spread, avoid sunflower species that increase rapidly by rhizomes or that are prolific self-sowers.

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Action Report

How National Wildlife Federation is MAking a Difference: Your Dollars at Work .


FEATURE

N

WF has been committed since the early 1940s to stopping development in sensitive areas prone to flooding. People who hold mortgages from federally insured or regulated lenders are required by law to have flood insurance, which private insurers often are unwilling to provide. So in 1968 Congress created the National Flood Insurance Program, housed in the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Today nearly 20,000 U.S. communities participate in the program, which, through its subsidies, encourages coastal and floodplain development that inevitably will burden taxpayers with costly, repetitive insurance claims while causing habitat destruction. In recent years, high-risk properties have accounted for more than $35 billion in claims. “As global warming increases the frequency and intensity of storms and associated flooding and causes long-term rise in sea level, the nation’s coasts and floodplains are increasingly jeopardized,” says Adam Kolton, executive director of NWF’s National Advocacy Center. “Meanwhile, FEMA continues to subsidize insurance for people and companies that build in flood-prone coastal areas.” NWF has devoted special attention recently to measures designed to ensure that FEMA provides flood insurance only when proper safeguards for wildlife and habitat are in place. Among the successes: •NWF and its partners in 2009 won a series of court cases requiring FEMA to ensure protections of wildlife and habitat in two flood zones proposed for development. These cases benefit endangered Key deer in Florida and dwindling orca and Chinook salmon populations in Washington’s Puget Sound. •Late last year, NWF and the Florida Wildlife Federation (FWF) achieved a

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successful settlement of a federal case challenging FEMA’s practice of issuing flood insurance for storm-surge areas along the Florida coast, which includes 90 percent of U.S. sea turtle nesting habitat. “This settlement will require FEMA to scrutinize its flood insurance program as it relates to wildlife,” says Manley Fuller, FWF president. •NWF stopped a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project in the Mississippi Delta that would have drained 314 square miles of wetlands and bottomland forest, and the Federation continues to block a Corps levee project in southeast Missouri that would close off one of the last Mississippi River floodplains. •NWF has partnered with taxpayer groups and other organizations to create SmarterSafer.org, a coalition committed to reforming the federal flood insurance

program. SmarterSafer.org has since successfully defeated schemes that would have expanded federal insurance subsidies and has helped advance a flood insurance reform bill through the U.S. House of Representatives. “NWF advocates a range of new federal, state and local policies that reduce the risk to people and wildlife and that discourage developments that are sure to flood and to cost taxpayers money,” Kolton says. NWF’s current efforts to reform the federal flood insurance program and protect floodplains—and the wildlife that depend on them—could not succeed without your support. In fiscal year 2011 alone, NWF members contributed some $90,000 these efforts.

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Final

During a recent visit to Yellowstone National Park, Illinois- based PAtrick Connolly notice a handsome bull elk atthe the base of a hill leading up to Roosevelts Arch att he park’s north enterence. Keeping a safe distance, Connolly Followed thre animal. When the elk reached the arch, it looked back down. “ i fired off two images the elk turned it head and sauntered into the park,” says Connolly. This one earned him honorable mention in the amator Mammals Category of this year’s photo contest.

Frame Welcome to Yellowstone:


National Wildlife

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