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Sunday, May 19, 2013

Humans as "Super-Predators" – New Study Offers Startling Information about Hunting and Fishing

Submitted by Jim Burnett on January 18, 2009 - 4:00am
Bighorn sheep
A prized specimen for hunters, but how does removing the biggest and best affect the long-term health of the herd? 
Photo by bmass via Flickr.

Most areas of the National Park System are closed to hunting, a long-standing policy which is the subject of ongoing debate. A recently released study offers a scientific basis for the value of that policy to the overall health of both animal and plant species—and it includes some startling information about the impacts of humans as the "Super-Predators" in today's world.

I'd like to offer one disclaimer at the onset: I'm certainly not opposed to hunting, and properly-regulated hunting can be a useful wildlife management tool, especially in areas where natural predators have been removed from the equation.

That said, areas such as NPS sites where hunting is not allowed are valuable for many reasons, including the opportunities they provide for an increasingly urban population to readily observe a variety of wildlife species.

A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences provides an even more important reason to continue protecting wildlife and plants in parks from human predation: those populations may prove to be critical to the overall health or even the survival of some wild species.

Dr. Chris Darimont is a biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the lead investigator for the study,"Human Predators Outpace Other Agents of Trait Change in the Wild." Co-authors are five scientists from respected universities across North America.

The study looked at data on 29 species, including fish, invertebrates, mammals and plants. Several species studied are of particular interest in a number of parks: bighorn sheep, caribou, and American ginseng.

The study found that fishing and hunting, as currently managed, are causing surprisingly rapid changes in the body size of a variety of species, along with impacts on their ability to reproduce. The average body size of harvested populations was found to be 20 percent smaller than previous generations, and the average age of first reproduction was 25 percent earlier.
"By harvesting vast numbers and targeting large, reproductively mature individuals, human predation is quickly reshaping the wild populations that remain, leaving smaller individuals to reproduce at ever-earlier ages," said Darimont.
The rate of these changes was also startling. In animal and plant populations subject to human predation, observable changes were occurring three times faster than in natural systems.

Why is this a problem? Earlier breeders often produce far fewer offspring. Taken together, the "reduction in size and decrease in breeding age of fish and other commercially harvested species are potentially jeopardizing the ability of entire populations to recover."
"The pace of changes we're seeing supercedes by a long shot what we've observed in natural systems, and even in systems that have been rapidly modified by humans in other ways," Darimont noted. "As predators, humans are a dominant evolutionary force…Harvested organisms are the fastest-changing organisms of their kind in the wild, likely because we take such high proportions of a population and target the largest. It's an ideal recipe for rapid trait change."
So, what does this have to do with restrictions on hunting in most NPS areas?
I asked Dr. Darimont to comment on the idea that protected areas such as national parks can serve as reservoirs of genetic vigor and diversity for wild animals and plants, since other than losses due to poaching, the larger and older individuals are more likely to live and reproduce longer in those areas. He responded:
"Yes, protected areas, both marine and terrestrial, can safeguard fishes and mammals from potential evolutionary influences of human predation. The trick is to have them large enough to adequately protect mobile species that cannot recognize the boundaries of smaller parks or no-catch areas."
What about areas—in parks and elsewhere—where sport and subsistence hunting is allowed? You don't see many photos of proud hunters with spike bucks in hunting magazines, and conventional wisdom has been that removal of trophy-quality individuals from a population is not a problem.

This research offers a different opinion that's bound to generate some controversy—and keep in mind that the research findings deal not only with hunting, but also fishing:
"Ironically, some wildlife and fish management policies contribute to the rapid pace of trait changes. "Fishing regulations often prescribe the taking of larger fish, and the same often applies to hunting regulations," said Darimont. "Hunters are instructed not to take smaller animals or those with smaller horns. This is counter to patterns of natural predation, and now we're seeing the consequences of this management." In Alberta, Canada, for example, hunters who are permitted to target the largest specimens of bighorn sheep have caused average horn length and body mass to drop by about 20 percent during the last 30 years.
Even more startling than the reduction in size is the unexpectedly rapid rate of change in these individuals.
"The public knows we often harvest far too many fish, but the threat goes above and beyond numbers," said Darimont. "We're changing the very essence of what remains, sometimes within the span of only two decades. We are the planet's super-predator."
The findings aren't limited to animals. Dr. Paul Paquet is a biologist at the University of Calgary, and another scientist participating in the study. He notes that as ginseng is harvested in the wild, "the robustness and size of the plant is declining." Ginseng poaching has been a long-standing problem in some parks, and this study supports the need to continue efforts to control poaching in protected areas.

While subsistence poachers of wildlife are less selective when looking for meat for the freezer, those mature elk and bighorn sheep with the prized racks are prime targets for other illegal hunters. Based on this research, the impact of such trophy selection may be greater than previously believed.
There are other implications for NPS managers.

A number of parks are wrestling with how to deal with an overpopulation of deer or elk. Where that's the case, there's plenty of debate about how to reduce those numbers—and who should do the work. Should the area be opened to public hunting, or should reductions be accomplished in a more controlled manner using pre-screened and presumably better qualified hunters? Would the best results be achieved using park or other government personnel?

That debate about the "who" goes on, but if it's deemed necessary to reduce wildlife populations in some parks, this study confirms the need for careful controls on not only how many, but perhaps even more important, which animals are taken. "This should be a wake-up call for resource managers," Darimont said. "We should be mimicking natural predators, which take far less and target smaller individuals."

I asked Dr. Darimont for his opinion about managed wildlife reduction programs. He replied,

"As a general rule, we'd expect less evolutionary impact if hunting and fishing mimics natural predation. This means forgoing our typical preference for the largest and taking far fewer individuals from a population each year. But in the context of parks, instead of control efforts, I would strongly favor restoration of natural predators like wolves over lethal control by park managers."
Not all areas are good candidates for reintroduction of predators, but the findings of this research deserve careful consideration as part of the planning for any reduction programs. It will be very interesting to watch the reaction of the wildlife management and hunting and fishing communities to this study, because it clearly calls for a reexamination of some well-entrenched practices.

There's also a significant political dimension to potential changes in hunting and fishing guidelines. In parks where hunting or fishing is allowed, regulations are usually under the control of state agencies, not the NPS. There's a lot at stake in financial as well as biological terms, and if this research receives the attention it deserves, expect some monumental political battles in the years ahead.

As a minimum, this information confirms the value of continuing to protect some animal and plant populations that are as free of human interference as possible. Those populations may prove to be invaluable—and irreplaceable—reservoirs of genetic diversity and vigor.

National parks have long been valued by many as places of "wildness" (as distinguished from "wilderness.") Henry D. Thoreau's quote, "In Wildness is the preservation of the world” is a popular one with advocates of preserving natural areas for their intrinsic values. This new study of human impacts on both plant and animal populations suggests that in recognizing the values of "wildness," Thoreau seems to have been on to something.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Is Climate Change Fueling a Deadly Disease in California and Other Parched States?


Environmental changes may be to blame for spiking rates of an often misdiagnosed and potentially fatal disease.

Photo Credit: Rob Hainer/ Shutterstock.com
If you haven’t heard of valley fever, you’re not alone. Although cases in states like California are rising, public awareness is low and misdiagnoses from doctors are sadly high. The AP reported an 850 percent spike in cases across the country from 1998 to 2011, with California and Arizona being the worst states.
“The fever has hit California’s agricultural heartland particularly hard in recent years, with incidence dramatically increasing in 2010 and 2011,” wrote the AP’s Gosia Wozniacka. “The disease — which is prevalent in arid regions of the United States, Mexico, Central and South America — can be contracted by simply breathing in fungus-laced spores from dust disturbed by wind as well as human or animal activity.”

Why have things gotten so bad? “The fungus is sensitive to environmental changes, experts say, and a hotter, drier climate has increased dust carrying the spores,” wrote Wozniacka.

Valley fever can have a host of symptoms and is painful, debilitating and sometimes deadly. It sometimes starts with flu-like symptoms but “the infection can spread from the lungs to the brain, bones, skin, even eyes, leading to blindness, skin abscesses, lung failure, even death,” reported Wozniacka.
The Reporting on Health Collaborative has been collecting stories from Californians who have been affected.  

Bernadette Madrid, 29, says she “was tested for practically everything except valley fever.” After months of misdiagnoses doctors finally realized she had valley fever, but by then it was so severe she was hospitalized and her parents were told she likely wouldn’t live. Her weight dropped to 80 pounds, and despite seven surgeries the disease has left her blind, and the drugs prescribed to fight it have destroyed her kidneys. 

Karen Werts said, “I have lost two years of my life to valley fever and now live with these constant fears in the back of my mind. I would not wish this for anyone, even my worst enemy.” It took doctors two months after her symptoms started to test Werts, 53, for valley fever. She said
The valley fever symptoms were bad, and I also had two bouts of pneumonia and the night chills and sweats continued. But I was placed on the highest dosage allowed of Diflucan, and I would compare the side effects of this anti-fungal medication to chemotherapy. I lost my eyelashes, eyebrows and most of my hair, and had sores in my nose and mouth. I had severely cracked and bleeding lips, and joint pain that made moving unpleasant. I was so fatigued that even getting up to use the bathroom was a huge effort. I also had to undergo constant blood tests to check my liver function, due to the Diflucan.
“On January 9, 2001, my big, strong healthy husband of 30 years died at age 49, a 144-pound shell of his former self,” said Cheryl Youngblood, who lost her husband Michael to valley fever. “He left behind four children and two grandchildren. It was just three months shy of our 30th wedding anniversary.” 
In California in recent years, hundreds have died from valley fever. Humans are not the only ones at risk: dogs are just as susceptible to valley fever as people are, and the disease is often fatal, when owners -- and even veterinarians -- cannot figure out their pets' puzzling and painful symptoms.

One of the groups most at risk are prison inmates. “Prisoners are vulnerable both because they are more likely to have chronic diseases like HIV and diabetes, and because they are often coming from outside the geographic area and have not developed immunity to the fungus,”wrote Tracy Wood from the Voice of OC for the Reporting on Health Collaborative. 

Rebecca Plevinreported that 200 inmates in California, mostly from the San Joaquin Valley, are hospitalized a year because of valley fever. “A study by the state prison health system found that the rate of valley fever in Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga was 600 times the rate found outside the prison walls in Fresno County,” she wrote. “On top of that, research studies have shown that blacks are far more likely to develop the most serious form of the disease. The prison population has a higher proportion of blacks than whites, and prisoner advocates criticize state and federal agencies for putting black inmates in harm’s way.”  
A new federal health order is seeking the relocation of 3,000 highly at-risk inmates from two San Joaquin Valley prisons.

Tara Lohan, a senior editor at AlterNet, has just launched the new project Hitting Home, chronicling extreme energy extraction. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis, including most recently, Water Matters: Why We Need to Act Now to Save Our Most Critical Resource. Follow her on Twitter @TaraLohan.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Natural Austerity: Ready for Rationing? Why We Should Put the Brakes on Consumption If We Want to Survive



Stan Cox talks about his new book "Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing."



This article was published in partnership with GlobalPossibilities.org.
It’s not clear whether Stan Cox is a plant breeder with a penchant for politics, or a political provocateur who finds time to do science. Whichever aspect of his personality is dominant, Cox artfully draws on both skill sets to make the case for rationing, perhaps the most important concept that is not being widely discussed these days. The power of his new book, Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing, comes from his blending of scientific analyses of dire resource trends with a compelling moral argument about the need to reshape politics and economics.

In his day job at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, the country’s premier sustainable agriculture research facility, Cox works to develop perennial sorghum. A member of the editorial board of the magazine Green Social Thought (formerly Synthesis/Regeneration), Cox also has been thinking long and hard about the multiple ecological crises we face. In 2010 he published Losing Our Cool, a sharp-edged examination of the impacts of our society’s obsession with air-conditioning.

In this new book on rationing, he argues that we have to become a society that puts the brakes on consumption—in an egalitarian fashion—if we want to survive. A society dependent on reckless growth that enriches a small minority of people cannot expect to endure and flourish for the long haul. Cox believes that the right kind of rationing can produce a happier and healthier life for everyone.

Robert Jensen: In your book, you mention that some have compared raising the possibility of rationing to “shouting an obscenity in church.” Why is that idea so unacceptable today?

Stan Cox: People have shown a willingness to accept rationing in a broad variety of situations in which society-wide scarcity is obvious—wartime, say, or when governments have a fixed supply of subsidized food to sell, or in a drought when there's only so much water to go around. But if rationing is proposed as a way to preserve resources and ecological life-support systems for the future—for dealing with environmental problems or providing equitable healthcare, for example—then we are talking about limiting consumption when there is no apparent scarcity. In that situation, we all like to believe that we exercise freedom in the marketplace, and to many it seems outrageous to limit that freedom. 

RJ: Before getting to the specifics of how rationing might work, let’s talk about those cultural assumptions about freedom and abundance. We live in a world that routinely tells us there are no limits, that whatever limits we bump up against we can overcome with human creativity and advanced technology. You seem to believe that we live in a physical world with physical limits.

That’s a rather sensible position, of course, but it seems to cast you in the role of Eeyore, always the gloomy one. How do you defend yourself?

SC: OK, you’re getting down to the heart of the matter right away here. When opposing any kind of environmental responsibility, the Right loves to raise the specter of rationing, but it’s really the bigger idea of overall limits to growth that’s at the heart of our anxiety. We face an irresolvable contradiction: We all know intellectually that no kind of growth can go on to infinity, yet if we exist within a capitalist economy, our lives and livelihoods wholly depend on unceasing expansion of economic activity. A year, even a quarter, of slack or negative growth might reduce national carbon emissions but it also triggers widespread human misery. The converse isn’t true; robust growth doesn’t necessarily bring prosperity to all. In recent decades, the benefits of growth have flowed almost exclusively to the top of the economic pyramid.    

With the imposition of any serious physical or ecological limits on the economy, familiar capitalist economic relations would malfunction, to say the least. So those at the top of the economy who benefit from growth have every reason to be alarmed by the idea of fair rationing. And if we agree to overall limits but remain committed to the current means of rationing resources and goods—that is, “to each according to ability to pay”—then the rest of us should be alarmed as well. But with a commitment to “fair shares for all,” as they put it back during World War II, and with everyone playing by the same rules (and of course with a much smaller chance of global ecological breakdown), life under physical limits could well be a better life for the great majority of us. 

RJ: You mention WWII, one of the cases of successful rationing. As you say, the conventional wisdom is that such rationing is only possible in times of crisis, when the need to limit consumption is clear. So, how would you explain the crises we face today that make rationing necessary? 

SC: In the 1940s, Washington did shore up support for the ration system by promising a world of plenty once the war was over. And except in a few resources like rubber, there was no absolute scarcity. Farms and factories were highly productive, there was no unemployment, and wages were rising. But a huge share of what was produced—for example, 4,000 calories worth of food per soldier per day—was diverted to Europe and the Pacific. People could see that with the end of the war, all those resources and goods were to be available again to everyone.

Now the green future, if there is one, will parallel the wartime ‘40s in the sense that a large part of the economy will have to be diverted for a period of years, or in this case, decades. We won’t be using resources to pump up the consumer economy, because they will have to be shifted into vast projects needed to build non-fossil, non-nuclear energy sources; convert to a much less energy-dependent infrastructure; build or convert to more compact, low-consumption housing; rework agriculture; and rearrange living and working patterns to reduce the amount of transportation required. The economist Minqui Li has estimated for the United States that building the necessary wind and solar capacity alone would cost $120 trillion.

All of that production will be unavailable to the consumer economy. It may provide stimulus, but with a nationwide policy of leaving resources in the ground, bigger paychecks will serve to drive up the prices of goods that are available. If the past is any guide, the only acceptable solution will be price controls and fair-shares rationing. Indeed, in both the ‘40s and the ‘70s, there was popular demand for formal rationing. Next time around, as you say, we won’t have the consolation that we can look forward to a peacetime or post-energy-crisis cornucopia. For example, alternative energy sources, even at full capacity, will provide far less total energy than do fossil fuels today. However, we may still be able to anticipate better times to come, once the physical conversion of society has achieved its goals.

At that point, not only will most of the economic effort that had gone into the conversion become once again part of the “civilian” economy, but that new economy will be able to satisfy more real needs for each unit of physical consumption. I guess if there is any light at the end of the tunnel, that’s it. If the conversion is successful, there won’t be as much easy energy around, and GDP won’t be rising, but quality of life will have been given the space needed for improvement.

RJ: Let’s go back to these two basic points that are so contentious. Your pitch for rationing is partly based on an assessment of physical realities: Resources are finite, and technological capacities to stretch resources have limits. Lots of people don’t accept that. You also are arguing that we are going to live with a much a lower level of consumption. For lots of people, that is depressing. Let’s tackle both of those.

First, one of the major things you argue we have to ration is energy, at a time when lots of people are celebrating new technologies that allow humans to tap into new sources of fossil fuels (fracking, tar sands, etc.).  How do you see our energy future? 

SC: Until a few years ago, a lot of environmentally minded people were hoping that the imminent peak and subsequent decline in the annual extraction of conventional fossil fuels would do our work for us, enforcing strict limits on consumption. Now a bonanza of so-called unconventional fuel reserves has blown that possibility away, forcing us to face the necessity of practicing self-restraint. Can we leave precious energy in the ground when we have the ability to bring it out? If we manage to do that, I guess it will be a first. But that’s what we need to do.

It will be a test of how addicted to dense energy we really are. Are we willing to launch an all-out assault on the Earth, just to avoid a disruption of economic business-as-usual? Unconventional fuels are a disaster—destroying vast landscapes, wrecking water supplies, causing spills of petroleum and nasty chemicals, increasing carbon emissions, and giving the human economy the capacity to do all the usual ecological damage that potent energy sources encourage. And these fuels are no free lunch. Individual gas wells are small and dry up quickly, so enormous numbers of them have to be drilled. They require a huge investment of energy and other resources to produce each unit of usable fossil energy. Yet even with all those problems, that energy is too valuable not to use, and we face a seemingly irresistible temptation to use up these resources as fast as we can extract them. You could say we’ve met our 21st-century Mephistopheles in the sands of Alberta and the Marcellus shale.

RJ:Second, in a world where so many people associate happiness with consumption, how do you make the argument that for those of us in the more affluent parts of the world, less can be more?

SC: In the early 1990s, several economists took note of an apparent statistical anomaly. While people in richer countries tend to be happier than those in poorer countries, increases in average real income in richer countries have not conferred an increase in happiness. In the words of Richard Easterlin, a University of Southern California economics professor whose name has become attached to this seeming paradox, “raising the incomes of all” will not “raise the happiness of all.”

It’s a fascinating problem, but the solution is just as dreary as most explanations of modern life. As society becomes materially richer in the aggregate, it takes a higher income every year just to keep up and maintain the same level of contentment. When everyone has an increasing income, it becomes harder and harder for anyone to achieve greater happiness. In this sense, times haven’t changed much in the century-plus since Thorstein Veblen described this phenomenon. Erosion of happiness is largely a result of everyone trying to keep up with the Joneses.

It’s not just the global north. In many nations once considered poor (and in which most people still are poor), rising incomes are not bringing happiness. On the contrary, examination of average income levels in countries worldwide has shown that more rapid aggregate growth is associated with a reduction in average happiness. The kind of breakneck growth that can carry a nation as a whole from poverty to affluence in a single generation also tends to worsen inequality and eat away at its citizens’ sense of well-being. But make no mistake, simply putting more emphasis on the pursuit of happiness cannot tame a capitalist economy any more effectively than can appeals to life or liberty. Inequitable growth in consumption is in the DNA of capitalism, and that has to be faced directly.

RJ: It’s clearer now why rationing is like an obscenity in church. It means leaving fossil fuels in the ground and permanently reducing overall consumption for almost everyone in the United States. That will require collective action through government and a serious overhaul of the economy. All this has to happen at a moment when what passes for leadership in the political system can’t face the basic problems, let alone imagine serious systemic change.

So, last question: What do you hope your book will accomplish? It’s a clear, compelling argument for rationing in a society that seems unwilling to accept limits and unable to comprehend the need for them. How do we get this into the public conversation?

SC: My aim is, in a way, parallel to what I tried to do with Losing Our Cool—to touch off a debate where there seemed to be total agreement. Air-conditioning has always been viewed as being of pure benefit to humanity, which it’s not. Rationing is constantly being held out by the Right as an unutterably nightmarish fate that awaits us if we get serious about ecological restraint and fairness. Meanwhile, the environmental establishment (in basic agreement with the Right) wants to go on letting people believe that the human economy can just keep on growing, that the market can allocate fairly, and that rationing is indeed an evil to be avoided at all costs.

My purpose with this book is to ask, so rationing’s the worst that could happen? Really? Well, let’s see how bad it might actually be—which may not be as bad as you think. And then let’s compare it to major-league worst-case scenarios, like the global ecological meltdown and all-against-all conflict that we could well see if we don’t restrain ourselves.

Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. He is the author of Arguing for Our Lives (City Lights, 2013) and All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice (Soft Skull Press, 2009) among other works. He can be reached at rjensen@austin.utexas.edu. Twitter: @jensenrobertw.