Harsh winter kills Dutch wildlife

February 25, 2009

As a followup on my post on human intervention in the food web, our Dutch correspondent JP reports that the harsh winter has killed a third of the animals in the Netherlands’ Oostvaardersplassen nature reserve. The Oostvaardersplassen is an interesting place – after the land was reclaimed from a lake (a “polder“) in 1968, managers introduced wild Heck cattle and Konik horses to prevent dense vegetation from taking over waterbird habitat. Now the Oostvaardersplassen “represents a wetland ecosystem that is not unlike those that would have existed on river banks and deltas previous to human disturbance.”

Twelve hundred of the estimated thirty-six hundred cattle, horses, and deer have perished from winter starvation. Scientists and managers have deemed the deaths normal. According to this poorly Google-translated article (which I quote directly since the translation is hilarious):

According to State, which administers the area, this is not to panic mortality of touch. “There are also many new animals born,” says forester Hans Breeveld. “The animals that no longer will make, we and we deliver them from their suffering.” The animals are ‘no additional winter food. With the support of the Cabinet and the Lower House is a few years ago agreed that nature are going to go in the Oostvaardersplassen.

Ecologist Frans Vera, at Wageningen University, supports this approach. He is a mortality of 30 percent not shockingly high. “Even though the 50 percent, then it’s good to do. Earlier that 25 percent is considered quite normal.”

However, according to JP and to the equally poorly translated comments, people are not very happy that the government is letting the animals die. They see the Oostvaardersplassen as more of a zoo than a wild space, since the terrestrial park of park is 1900 ha, or only 7.3 square miles. As one commenter says (again, poorly Google-translated):

Eight legal arguments and totally obsolete. There is no question of a chance to draw what is in nature or occurs. There is too little habitat that these animals in the harsh winter fully enclosed zitten.

So are these animals wild or are they in a zoo? And what then should be the human responsibility? Personally, I think the managers are doing the right thing to maintain a healthy population within the park’s carrying capacity. But similarly to the NJ dolphins, it’s hard to sit back and watch animals starving to death. I suspect issues like this will become more and more common as we enter…dum dum dum….THE MANAGED WORLD.

Thanks, JP!


The Managed World: A Tale of Two Trophic Troubles

February 18, 2009

Macquarie Island, before and after cat elimination. (From 80 Beats at Discovery Network)

There is no place on earth, no matter how remote, untouched by humans. We are mighty: we can trawl the deep, explore the South Pole, and fish every single island in the South Pacific. But as every young nerdling knows, with great power comes great responsibility. The Managed World is an occasional series in the Oyster’s Garter that explores the hard choices that come from a human-dominated world.

Most food webs look more like a tangled web than the Great Chain of Being – since predators eat each other and most animals eat more than one prey species, their relationships are complicated. But sometimes changing the population of a single predator can bring the entire ecosystem down like dominoes. It’s called a trophic cascade.

The New York Times has two examples of humans changing the populations of key species, and the consequences that result. The first took place on Macquarie Island, a small island between Australia and Antarctica. Like on many isolated islands, the native birds evolved without predators and live in burrows. Introduced cats were eating the birds and running amuck. So researchers embarked on an intensive cat-elimination program. Sounds good so far – kill the kittehs, save the birds.

Elk feeding. (NYT)

The only problem is that there are also introduced rabbits and introduced plants. With no more cats, the rabbits bred like rabbits and ate all the native plants. Introduced plants took over the bare slopes and prevented the native birds that this was all supposed to help in the first place from nesting in the best burrowing sites.

The second involves a lawsuit over feeding elk in Jackson, Wyoming. When elk were depleted and starving at the turn of the century, people started feeding them. Now Jackson has an elk overpopulation that eats all the native willows and breeds disease (that can then be passed on to cattle). But if the lawsuit wins, stopping the elk feeding would cause a kind of economic cascade – there’s an entire tourism economy built around the easy-to-find elks. And while unnaturally large populations of elk breed disease amongst themselves, starving elks stealing cattle feed would pass disease, too. So nobody knows what to do. (I don’t suppose anyone wants to introduce more wolves? They’re proven to control elk and I bet they’re good for tourism!)

The conclusion: it is  very, very hard to predict (as Donald Rumsfeld would say) the unknown unknowns. There’s a million stories like these – even Lyme disease in the Northeast is thought to be connected to a trophic cascade with wolves, deer, mice, and ticks. To end with a slight non sequiter, this is why I’m leery of geoengineering. If we can’t even properly manage the ecosystem of 21-mile-long Macquarie Island, I worry that the cure for global warming could be even worse than the disease.


The Managed World: Non-native oysters in the Chesapeake

October 20, 2008

There is no place on earth, no matter how remote, untouched by humans. We are mighty: we can trawl the deep, explore the South Pole, and fish every single island in the South Pacific. But as every young nerdling knows, with great power comes great responsibility. The Managed World series in the Oyster’s Garter explores the hard choices that come from a human-dominated world.

It’s been a long time since we had a Managed World entry, and it seems appropriate to start again with our namesake, the mighty oyster. Atlantic oysters (Crassostrea virginica) aren’t so mighty in Chesapeake Bay these days. They’re down to less than 1% of their historic populations due to overfishing, disease, and pollution.

A lack of oysters not only means that we are denied sweet fried goodness, but that the Chesapeake has lost the ability to clean itself. In the mid-1800s, it’s estimated that oysters filtered all the water in the Chesapeake in 3.3 days. Now there are only enough oysters to filter the water once each year. No oysters means too much phytoplankton which means hypoxia and more oyster death. And despite a $58 million attempt (a somewhat half-hearted attempt, but a lot of money nonetheless) at oyster restoration, populations have not rebounded.

Now the Army Core of Engineers and Maryland Department of Natural Resources is proposing to introduce the Suminoe oyster (Crassostrea ariakensis) to the Chesapeake. The Suminoe oyster is native to Asia, and theoretically resistant to the diseases that have decimated Atlantic oysters. The idea is that sterile (triploid) Suminoe oysters will be introduced to the Bay to filter their little patooties off, thus improving water quality and paving the way for a native oyster recovery. Unfortunately, a small percentage of sterile triploid oysters have the power to revert to fertile diploidy, meaning that the Suminoe oysters could likely establish themselves permanently in the Bay.

Non-native bivalve species do not have a particularly dignified history. Read the rest of this entry »


The Managed World: Can you run a power line through a state park if it’s carrying clean electricity?

July 15, 2008

There is no place on earth, no matter how remote, untouched by humans. We are mighty: we can trawl the deep, explore the South Pole, and fish every single island in the South Pacific. But as every young nerdling knows, with great power comes great responsibility. “The Managed World” series in the Oyster’s Garter explores the hard choices that come from a human-dominated world.

Southern California would seem like the ideal place for solar and wind power. It’s sunny almost half the days of the year, and the deserts get their fair share of wind. In California, most of the people live densely packed along the coast, while the interior is either desert or farmland.  The price of solar on the residential scale (i.e. on the roofs of those densely built buildings and houses) is still too high to be economically feasible (though the price is dropping every day, it seems) but economics of scale make large solar plants feasible.

For SoCal, that means putting up big renewable energy farms out in places like Riverside and Imperial Counties – especially Imperial County, which has a tiny population and tons of empty land. Even though the the U.S.  Bureau of Land Management recently put a halt to all new solar projects, enough are already underway to substantially shift Southern California’s power generation to renewable sources (There’s a state mandate to get up to 20% by 2010). Unfortunately, there’s this pesky problem: Getting the electricity from hither to yon, known more specifically as Imperial County and San Diego County.

First, you’ve got these big ole mountains in the way. Well, not big so much as dramatic. The topography of the land east of San Diego made it impossible to build a railroad from San Diego eastward for a hundred years, and even now there’s no highway that runs straight east (locals might think of I-8, but in fact it bends far to the south, almost to the Mexican border). The same problems that made it hard to build a railroad or highway make it difficult to build a high voltage transmission line from the up-and-coming renewable plants (and the already existing Sempra-owned natural gas plants, in Arizona) to San Diego. Read the rest of this entry »


The Managed World: Tidal power in the UK

June 24, 2008

There is no place on earth, no matter how remote, untouched by humans. We are mighty: we can trawl the deep, explore the South Pole, and fish every single island in the South Pacific. But as every young nerdling knows, with great power comes great responsibility. “The Managed World” series in the Oyster’s Garter explores the hard choices that come from a human-dominated world.

Science Magazine reports that the UK is pondering the world’s biggest tidal power generator. The Severn estuary, which separates southwest England from south Wales, has the second-biggest tidal flux in the world – the water rises and falls 45 feet (15 meters) between high tide and low tide. That’s a huge amount of power, and Britain wants to builf a tidal dam, or “barrage”,  to capture it.

A barrage is a huge dam, similar to a hydroelectric dam, built across an estuary. The Severn barrage is designed to let water freely flow into the estuary through sluice gates, which would then close to impound water in the estuary. The water would then slowly be let out through turbines.  Locks can be built to let ships through, but there’s no channel for water critters except through the turbines.

The ecological impacts could be vast and devastating. Over 68,000 birds overwinter in the Severn estuary, feeding from mudflats at low tide and sheltering in marshes. The barrage would essentially eliminate low tide, flooding these habitats and making them unavailable to birds. Also, many species of fish and invertebrates migrate into estuaries to breed, and the barrage could either prevent adults from migrating in or trap the larvae inside. Because of these vast negative impacts, it’s not surprising that Britain’s largest environmental groups have rejected the Severn barrage plan.

However, there’s no way the UK will be able to meet the EU’s goal of 15% renewable energy by 2020 without some drastic changes. Currently, only 5% of the UK’s current power is renewable. The Severn barrage alone would provide another 5% of the UK’s total energy, in reliable, carbon-free, and low-maintenance form. The only comparable barrage, the La Rance Tidal Power Plant in France, has been in operation for 40 years without a breakdown. This type of cheap, reliable, carbon-free power is pretty tantalizing, even at a hefty construction cost of £15 billion and the abovementioned environmental costs.

So again, well-intentioned people have to choose – carbon-free energy, or giant critical habitat estuary? This is the that we must reduce emissions – we are already surpassing the IPCC worst case scenario. But estuaries are critical habitat for hundreds of thousands of species and provide important ecosystem services such as flood control and pollution filtration.

One potential angle that I did not see discussed in my uncomprehensive readup on the Severn barrage is the potential for estuaries to act as carbon sinks. Because estuaries (and mud flats) have little oxygen in their soil, plant matter gets buried and doesn’t decompose for a long, long time. How much carbon is buried in the Severn estuary, and would the barrage release it? This might be one way to decide whether the energy generated by the Severn barrage would be worth the ecological damage.


The Managed World: Green Noise Means You Can’t Have Everything

June 17, 2008

There is no place on earth, no matter how remote, untouched by humans. We are mighty: we can trawl the deep, explore the South Pole, and fish every single island in the South Pacific. But as every young nerdling knows, with great power comes great responsibility. “The Managed World” series in the Oyster’s Garter explores the hard choices that come from a human-dominated world.

Green is in, but for how long? As the number of “environmentally friendly” products and messages grows and grows, people are starting to see the tradeoff that need to be made. Do you care more about organic or local, salmon or renewable energy, energy-intensive paper or petroleum-based plastic?

The New York Times seems to think this is a public relations problem. They label the phenomenon “green noise” and claim it’s “static caused by urgent, sometimes vexing or even contradictory information played at too high a volume for too long.” So their solutions focus on reducing the volume of information.

But that’s wrong. These are real tradeoffs that can’t be fixed by a sleeker message. The recent Wired piece on “Inconvenient Truths: Get Ready to Rethink What it Means to be Green” gets at some of these problems, albeit in a tediously self-satisfied way. (Calling yourself environmental apostates is SO Bjorn Lomborg.)

Wired decided that it cared most about climate change, and made this list accordingly:

Now, you can take issue with these individual points – and I do. For example, I think their Farm the Forests point – that old growth forests should be razed and made into carbon-sequestering furniture, and new forests should be planted into order to trap more carbon – to be both ludicrous and incorrect. Nonetheless, the Wired article is thinking in the right direction. They focused on a particular issue instead of pretending that all environmental goals are automatically compatible.

We can’t have everything all at once. Living in San Diego, I buy local produce, which is grown in the high desert with water from the San Joaquin delta and Colorado River, all pumped for hundreds of miles over mountains at huge energetic expense and at serious ecological cost to the delta. The part of our electricity that is renewable comes from wind farms, but the windmills kill migrating birds. So, as we try to figure out what world we want, the question is not “should we make compromises” but “what compromises should we make?”


The Managed World: Charismatic vs. endangered

June 2, 2008

There is no place on earth, no matter how remote, untouched by humans. We are mighty: we can trawl the deep, explore the South Pole, and fish every single island in the South Pacific. But as every young nerdling knows, with great power comes great responsibility. “The Managed World” series in the Oyster’s Garter explores the hard choices that come from a human-dominated world.

The first Managed World was about a top land predator: wolves in Yellowstone, and whether we really want wild wolves after all. It seems fitting that the second Managed World is about a top sea predator: sea lions in Oregon, and whether we really want wild salmon after all. This is the conflict: salmon are tasty, and sea lions like to eat them. Salmon populations are plummeting over the Pacific Northwest, but sea lions don’t care and still like to eat them, especially when the salmon are conveniently trapped against the side of a dam. So the sea lions get trapped and removed, unless somebody shoots them when they’re in the traps.

Are sea lions and cormorants really competing with people for fish? If they are, does that justify moving or killing them? What if the fish are endangered (as in the case of the Oregon salmon run)? Does it matter that sea lions are fuzzy and charismatic and about as smart as a dog?

Being just as cold-hearted as my beloved marine invertebrates, I would have said that last question was the least interesting. Who cares if the sea lions are fuzzy? It’s the ecosystem that matters. However, that is not how most people think. Read the rest of this entry »


The Managed World: Wolves in the West

April 13, 2008

There is no place on earth, no matter how remote, untouched by humans. We are mighty: we can trawl the deep, explore the South Pole, and fish every single island in the South Pacific. But as every young nerdling knows, with great power comes great responsibility. That is why I’m introducing a new series in the Oyster’s Garter: The Managed World.

If we want to have nice things, like coral reefs and top predators, we’re going to have to actively take care of them. There’s too many people with too much technology for a laissez-faire approach. We need to actively choose the world we want to live in – and I am rooting against the world of Oryx and Crake.

So, for this first Managed World: wolves. The American West isn’t as big as it used to be. There’s no uninhabited lands for unprotected wolves to roam – instead, there’s a patchwork of ranches and towns and farms. So do we want truly wild wolves? Or do we only want to have wolves as exhibits in a park-zoo?

Read the rest of this entry »


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