Celebrating America’s Environmental Stewardship

Guest post by Jim Steele

Published in Pacifica Tribune July 10, 2019

What’s Natural?

Celebrating America’s Environmental Stewardship

I resent the one-sided mis-characterization of humanity as “destroyers of our environment”. Humans certainly had negative impacts on most ecosystems. However, in contrast to a recent United Nations report insinuating we are threatening one million species with extinction, humans have been working hard to restore nature and prevent further extinctions. Most endangered species are still staggering from disruptions initiated centuries ago. But now humans are correcting past mistakes.

Islands have been extinction hotspots. Sixty-one percent of all known extinctions have occurred on islands and 37% of today’s critically endangered species are found only on islands. The main driver of island extinctions has been purposeful or unintentional introductions of alien species. Introduced species are implicated in 81% of all island extinctions. With no natural predators, Island species did not evolve needed behaviors to avoid introduced rats, cats and stoats. Researchers now suggest eradication of rats and other introduced mammals could prevent the extinction of up to 75% of threatened island birds, reptiles and mammals.

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Similarly, past introductions of disease decimated island species whose immune systems were ill-prepared to combat alien pathogens. For example, after sailors inadvertently introduced mosquitos into Hawaii in the early 1800s, mosquitos began transmitting avian malaria. By the late 1800s Hawaii’s lowland birds were noticeably disappearing, even in undisturbed habitat. Mosquitos were restricted to warmer lowlands, so cooler high elevations served as a refuge. But high elevation birds regularly migrate to the relative safety of lowland valleys during winter storms, so are still threatened by malaria. Due to landscape changes, introduced predators and introduced diseases, Hawaii became known as the extinction capital of the world. Unfortunately eradicating introduced diseases will be extremely difficult.

In 1750 Russian fur farmers began introducing red and arctic foxes to the Aleutian Islands. Breeding birds that once thrived in predator-free environments were deemed fox food. By 1811 native Aleuts complained foxes were reducing once abundant seabirds but populations continued to plummet. The Aleutian goose was soon considered extinct until a few pairs were found on 3 fox-free islands. Humans embarked on programs to eradicate introduced foxes allowing seabirds and geese to recover. The Aleutian goose recovery has been so rapid, that along the coast of northern California where the geese winter, they are now considered a pest in local parks.

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Lost habitat has caused many extinctions, especially species dependent on rapidly disappearing wetlands. For centuries wetlands were being drained and converted to croplands and pastures. However, in the United States that trend is being reversed. Due to more efficient farming methods, the extent of land covered by crops decreased 18% between 1938 and 1992, allowing most of that land to return to more natural habitat. Due to improved wildlife management and incentives to conserve wetlands, wetland-dependent birds have increased by over 30% since 1968. Unfortunately, the incentives to protect wetlands have been counteracted by misguided government subsidies for biofuels in the name of fighting climate change. As a result, some farmers have been enticed to drain their wetlands to grow corn.

The probability of extinction by chance is greatly enhanced when a species’ range is extremely small, and their original abundance is low. Minor habitat disturbances can then cause extinctions. For example, most extinct plant species in California were found in only one or two counties, and due to low abundance were known only from one or two collections.

Nonetheless people are still striving to restore wetlands. We preserve habitat by establishing land trusts. My research prompted restoration of a Sierra Nevada watershed that was initially degraded over 100 years ago. Meadows then stayed wetter during California’s 3-year drought than had been the case before the drought and before restoration. Furthermore, bird populations significantly increased. Colleagues are now restoring other meadows as are several other non-profit organizations.

The United Nations’ report hyping one million extinctions in the near future should be regarded with extreme suspicion. It engages in fearmongering that only evokes a sense of helplessness. It repeatedly argues their environmental goals for 2030 and beyond “may only be achieved through transformative changes across economic, social, political and technological factors.” Their proposed remedy smells of a hidden political agenda. It ignores the tremendous strides humans have taken towards being better environmental stewards.

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Our situation is not hopeless. Simply funding the eradication of invasive species on islands would save a significant number of threatened species. America’s regulations have promoted the recovery of several endangered species now listed as species of “least concern”: bald eagles, humpback whales, brown pelicans and many more. Improved agricultural practices and our efficient economy have allowed more land to convert from cropland back to natural habitat despite feeding a growing human population. Learning from past mistakes, we are now on a trajectory to create win-win situations for both humans and the environment.

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Jim Steele is retired director of the Sierra Nevada Field Campus, SFSU

and authored Landscapes and Cycles: An Environmentalist’s Journey to Climate Skepticism

39 thoughts on “Celebrating America’s Environmental Stewardship

  1. Good call.
    Here in Wellington we are ramping up local (citizen driven ) trapping of rats and possums that threaten local native birds. Even in our area
    of Brooklyn (South) we see many native bids at our house because of a nearby predator free fenced sanctuary. The situation is not hopeless. We can improve and have improved the lot of native species and have significantly prevented extinctions.
    Note to green blob: Having doubts about catastrophic climate change does not mean we do not care about the environment. I compost food waste, avoid needless consumption and cycle where I can. So much so that a work colleague called me hypocritical (in a good way) as I was both skeptical on climate change but also actively cared for the environment we live in.
    I suspect I am not the only WUWT member with these views.

    • “Here in Wellington we are ramping up local (citizen driven ) trapping of rats and possums that threaten local native birds.”

      I’m looking for a *good* rat trap! 🙂

      Great article, Jim. No “gloom and doom” here. Things are getting better and will be better in the future if we just use our common sense.

    • opossums , a marsupial , are indigenous to the US , most rats are not .Also , possums eat tons of tics, helping to reduce the prevalence and spread of lyme disease. The average wandering Kitty Cat is a much larger threat to the native bird population .

      • Possums also spread E.P,M. (EQUINE PROTOZOAL MYELOENCEPHALITUS).They get in the barn and set up shop in the hay and eventually piss on the hay which is how the pathogen is transmitted to the horse. It is very pricey and time consuming to deal with and therefor i am no fan of these critters.

  2. Humans certainly had negative impacts on most ecosystems.

    You should have stopped there. But no you, then you went to “but now humans are correcting past mistakes.
    That is aspirational Jim. Aleutian Geese might be doing ok but vast tracts – millions of hectares pa – of tropical forests cintinue to be razed. https://assets.bwbx.io/images/users/iqjWHBFdfxIU/iI_zloMwGz00/v0/-1x-1.png
    You can’t turn bad news into good by clicking yours heels together. If humans ONLY wipe out a million species it will be a miracle.

    • Don’t forget wind farms get permits allowing collectively around 5000 eagles to be sliced and diced. Hey the wind farms do the counting!

    • aspirational

      Yup, you could say that. Many, many people have done the hard field work rescuing endangered and threatened species over decades. Some species recovery efforts have been so successful that the critters are considered local pests. The local residents are flummoxed that the pests are protected, and can not be bothered.
      Other efforts continue, with everything from the great whales to sea turtles to birds to frogs.
      But all this requires hard work, so I guess that is why you do not know anything about it.

      Now on to your destruction of tropical forests:
      Well, look at that! Your chart shows a big upswing in 2015.
      Gee, I wonder what happened then. (search, search, search…..)
      Here it is:
      Palm Oil Plantations! Made necessary and profitable by Biofuel Mandates.
      The mandates themselves were passed into law at the behest of the Environmental Movement after a long, intense, sustained campaign for “Clean, Green” biofuels.
      That’s right, to really trash the environment requires the Environmental Movement.
      Greenpeace, I am looking at you.

    • 8.7 million species on the planet, of which 7.7 million have yet to be discovered.

      If true (ha,ha), then I suggest that 7.7 million species are so rare they have yet to be discovered. So Loydo, the real number of possible extinctions is 7.7 million not 1 million. Pssst, don’t tell AOC. 🙁

      Now if we spend millions of dollars, euros, etc. trying to find and identify the 7.7 million undiscovered species, we’ll find we can’t. OMG they are already extinct! And AOC, Attenborough, Green Peace will all scream hysterically.

      We are approaching the end of the warm period between ice ages. When the next ice age starts, then humans will see climate change!

      • Those 7.7 million are based on models. Models that like the climate models, fail whenever anyone tries to validate them. Models that were written to create scary numbers in order to justify more grants for the people who wrote the models.

    • Pay attention Loydo, the article is about America’s stewardship. FYI not much rainforest destruction here.

      Indeed rainforest destruction is a concern and like corn’s threat to American wetlands, subsides for biofuels threaten tropical forests.

      Palm Oil in Southeast Asia

      Sugarcane in Brasil

      In Great Britain the demand for wood for “sustainable” power generation resulted in the importing of wood from America.

      The climate alarmism, pushing biofuels, is a huge threat the environment.

    • How many of those acres are being razed because of the global warming scam?

      BTW, I love the attitude that progress must be ignored until progress is complete.

    • First of all Jim is pointing out what the US has done, not some country cutting down their jungle. This is to combat the whole “US is bad!” attitude that has become quite prevalent. As for the cut jungles, it’s a crackpot idea that palm oil can replace fossil fuels that has lead to cutting down a bunch of the jungle you are so worried about. I know that isn’t the only reason jungle is getting cut but care to tell me how first world countries can enforce their environmental laws on third world countries?

      Secondly only citizens of rich countries have the time or can afford to care for the environment. Citizens of poor countries are to busy trying to survive to care what happens if they cut down a tree or eat what some organization has declared is an endangered bird. The solution is to raise up the poor countries to the point where they have the time and money to care about their local environment, to do that they need cheap/reliable energy. Working at cross purposes to their claimed cause, environmentalist champion policies that prevent poor countries from getting cheap/reliable energy. Really makes one wonder at the true purpose of the movement.

    • So stop mandating crap like palm oil and wind turbines. It’s YOUR SIDE that is causing current extinctions. Own it, nature boy.

    • Humans have certainly had a positive impact on the ecosystem of most concern to them, i.e., the ecosystem that is centered around the survival of the species homo sapiens. If one accepts the historical record, then this ecosystem has expanded from a little corner of Africa to every continent and most islands of the Earth. Rather satisfactory, I would say.

  3. Island huh? Extinction hotspots?

    Would that possibly be because island, by their very nature, are in many ways closed eco systems?

    A species, isolated from it’s common source on the ‘mainland’ (or wherever), evolves separately until it is different enough to be regarded as a separate beastie.

    Now why this is not as such a bad thing, it needs to be asked if the beastie would have evolved into a separate species had it not become genetically isolated from the ‘mainland’. Was there an ecological vacuum the species could have evolved to exploit had it been still linked, or would have the lack of isolation and lack of a ‘need’ meant that the separate species simply would not have evolved in the first place?

    Or, if we want to be pragmatically brutal about it all, if Mainland Beastie and Island Beastie were allowed to compete, would one have exploited an advantage to simply displace and interbreed its cousins out of existence?

    I am not saying that humans should go out of their way to wipe things out, or even stand back and allow unnecessary population and environment degradation to happen, but I am saying that nature is brutal and competitive and evolution has little sympathy for dead ends. Some species die because factors they cannot control force them, but there are also some species that die because basically they are too stupid to live.

    I mean lets be honest, if there is a species that is intrinsically determined to avoid sex, have an evolutionary pointlessly specialised diet and is only redeemable because it is fluffy, then should we really feel guilty if they sleep themselves into the history books?

  4. “I mean lets be honest, if there is a species that is intrinsically determined to avoid sex, have an evolutionary pointlessly specialised diet and is only redeemable because it is fluffy, then should we really feel guilty if they sleep themselves into the history books?”

    Pandas spring to mind for starters!

  5. It’s about control, really. Not about caring what happens to those mystical 1.8+/- million species set to disappear in a puff of smoke. Hyperbole is supposed to stir your emotions and make you do things that you might otherwise avoid doing.

    Maybe some day, these narrow-minded, micro-visioned meddlers will go the way of all things and leave the rest of us alone.

  6. The one thing that did the most to save the wilderness in Scotland was the arrival of fossil fuel which meant people stopped cutting down native woods or digging up peat for fuel.

    But ironically, the greatest threat now to woodland is the nutty environ-mentalists who get it into their heads that trees are not natural on bog and then set out with a vengeance to clear whole swathes of perfectly natural woodland that has been there for 1000s of years because some daft academic has told them that bogs don’t have trees.

    And lest I forget – the other way the eco-nutters are destroying Scotland is by digging up peat and cutting down woodland to build their favourite bird-killing “bird mincers”.

    And as they raise fuel prices …. where will people be getting their fuel from in Scotland? Yes, we’ll be returning to the “good old days” of chopping down the forests and digging up the peat.

    You couldn’t make up this madness

  7. On the other hand, if the species only exists on one small island, they are hardly essential to the global ecology.

  8. If you wish to terminate a life form, plant or animal, just convince Asian men it will make them more virile (large) if bought from a 99 year old “chemist”. I’m rooting for dandelions and mosquitoes.

    How can we get rid of the rats in Washington?

  9. Thanks to preservation efforts , here in South Dade and Monroe county Florida , adjacent to 2 National parks,and numerous preserves, the once endangered Salt Water Crocs are popping up everywhere , including beaches , parks , and backyards . But , “never smile at a crocodile ” , especially if you’re a canine . Alligators tend to be more aggressive , and within the past few years there have been a number of well publicized cases of dogs, and humans (especially children) , attacked by the toothy reptiles , but , despite rare, human encounters with both species are inevitable ,and potentially life threatening , and though I’ve not heard of an AMERICAN Croc attacking a human , sooner or later it’s bound to happen . It’s a jungle out there , and though we want to preserve the jungle and the critters who live there, most want them to keep their distance . Others ………https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_1tfI6x-Yoo

  10. A huge change in the US in the last few decades is the movement to leave cropland unplowed / undisced at all times. That is the no-till land management process.

    Here’s a breakdown by state of what percentage of land each US state has under no-till management:

    https://pbs.twimg.com/media/D-46guaWwAQagHe?format=jpg&name=small

    75% of cropland in Tennessee is pretty impressive!

    No-till lets the microorganism, soil fungi, worm and nematode populations remain healthy.

    There’s a ranch in Georgia that has gone to a “radically traditional” way of ranching. They now have 26 eagles nesting on the ranch!

    • If you’re curious about how the ranch manages the grass and “mimics nature” this 45 minute video is very informative:

  11. I am presently reading Dr. Steele’s book, Landscapes and Cycles ….
    Simply excellent.

  12. ” Island species did not evolve needed behaviors to avoid introduced rats, cats and stoats.”

    Stoats or goats? I have read about sailors leaving goats on islands but not weasels.

  13. The truth is that in most countries there is environmental stewardship we can be proud of and rapacious destruction we can be ashamed of.

    The slow and steady steps to regenerate ancient forests in the UK are initiatives my country can be proud of. Whether that outstrips the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, I tend to doubt.

    Most developed nations denuded their woods and forests by the end of the 19th century, so it is quite to be rapacious any longer. The 20th century was more about poisoning rivers with industrial waste, the atmosphere with toxic gases and degrading land through open caste mining. Even those three are now coming under control in the 21st century.

    We are learning the hard way that trying to turn the whole world into cattle grazing and mono crop agriculture does not work. So wetland restoration is starting to occur. As is meadow restoration and woodland.

    Thing is, less developed nations are doing now what we did 150-200 years ago, so things may get a little worse before they get significantly better.

    I suggest we rectify the damage our forebears did to our own nations before flagellating others for doing what our ancestors did before them.

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