Going the distance – longterm investments reach longterm goals

Final designBy Sheila Colla and Christina Davy

An athlete’s road to the Olympics is long and difficult. Success at the games follows years of hard work, collaborative effort and perseverance through numerous setbacks. This formula for success is relevant in the conservation world as well. Rarely, if ever, are we able to easily bring an animal or plant back from the brink of extinction quickly without a slew of support. But given the right resources, we can bring species back from the brink.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, rats were introduced to the Galapagos island of Pinzon. The rats preyed on the eggs and hatchlings of the Pinzon island tortoises, and over time the population became dominated by adults – there were no juveniles left. In the 1960s conservation biologists realized the tortoises weren’t surviving to adulthood and collected all the remaining individuals for captive breeding. The Galapagos Tortoises of Pinzon Island were listed as “extinct in the wild”, because no wild individuals remained on the island.

Galápagos Giant Tortoise

Galapagos tortoises wallow in a pool on the Galapagos island of Santa Cruz – on nearby Pinzon, the tortoise population has not fared so well. Photo: Ryan M. Bolton. (click here to see more of photos of Galapagos and other wildlife)

Over the past few years, efforts have been focused on returning the island to its rat-free status to prepare it for re-introduction of tortoises. This is a huge task, but it was successful: and the tortoises were recently returned to their natural habitat, which is now rat-free. This successful project involved numerous biologists, park managers, and other supporters over five decades – and it worked. Examples like this one demonstrate that in some cases, long-term thinking and persistence are required for success. Species recovery involves huge challenges, but it can be done!

But here’s the catch: most grants for conservation work are only one to five years long. This makes the planning and execution of long-term projects extremely difficult, because even if your project is favoured by funding agencies, you never know when a change in the economy might cause your funding to run out. Long-term funding sources for conservation projects would go a long way towards creating effective conservation programs. Obviously, elected officials serve relatively short terms, and this makes it difficult for them to create long-term funding opportunities. But once again, the continuity of the Olympics show that long-term commitments are possible. It would be difficult to find a politician who doesn’t want to send Canadian teams to the next 40 Olympics. That’s 20 years of funding. Why can’t the same political dedication be focused on conservation?

In fact, we are currently seeing a trend in the other direction – the removal of long-term funding from research projects that have provided important outcomes for Canadian citizens. For example, research at Canada’s Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) has taught us how pollution affects lakes, and improved our understanding of heavy metal accumulation in fish and the effects of acid rain. These are topics that directly affect the health of Canadians. But the federal funding that made the ELA possible was cut suddenly in May 2012. The ELA may open again this spring, thanks two years of hard work finding new funding solutions, but its future is incredibly uncertain. We need the same long-term commitment to conservation research from Canadian citizens and government that we give to other important endeavors, like the Olympics!

Rooting for the underdogs

Final designBy Jenny McCune

Some of the best Olympic victories are the surprise ones:  pulled off by competitors who were not expected to win. Already in Sochi, we’ve seen a triumph by the last woman standing after a crash in the women’s 500m short-track speed skating race. It’s reminiscent of Australia’s historic first winter Olympic gold medal in 2002.  And wouldn’t Canada love to forget the men’s hockey upset at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, where the underdog Swiss managed to beat our dream team of NHL stars?

California dissanthelium (Dissanthelium californicum) was rediscovered on Catalina Island, California, in 2005 after not being seen since 1903. Photo by Jenny McCune.

California dissanthelium (Dissanthelium californicum) was rediscovered on Catalina Island, California, in 2005 after not being seen since 1903. Photo by Jenny McCune.

Like athletes, the underdogs of conservation can also surprise.  When I was working on Catalina Island in 2005, I noticed an unfamiliar-looking grass during a routine plant survey.  It turned out to be Dissanthelium californicum, a plant not seen since 1903, so presumed extinct!  These rediscoveries are more common than you might think.  Here in Canada, the lovely little pink sand-verbena once inhabited the wild wind-swept beaches of Vancouver Island’s west coast, but had not been seen since 1915.  A local botanist rediscovered it in 2000 on a beach along the Pacific Coast Trail in Pacific Rim National Park.  Unfortunately, it hasn’t been seen there again since 2001. Nobody knows whether it is holding out in the seed bank, waiting for the right conditions, or if trampling by hikers and competition from invading beach grass have made another comeback impossible.

With no recorded sightings since 1915, pink sand-verbena (Abronia umbellata) was rediscovered on the west coast of Vancouver Island in 2000.  Photo by Matt Fairbarns.

With no recorded sightings since 1915, pink sand-verbena (Abronia umbellata) was rediscovered on the west coast of Vancouver Island in 2000. Photo by Matt Fairbarns.

It may seem easy for small plants to go unnoticed for years, but even more rambunctious (and conspicuous) mammals can go unobserved.  The black-footed ferret was declared globally extinct in 1979, and hadn’t been seen in Canada since 1937.  However, a small colony was discovered near Meeteetse, Wyoming, in 1981.  Based on that tiny remnant population, an intensive international captive breeding and reintroduction program has brought the black-footed ferret population back up to about 700 animals in the wild, including a small population in Grasslands National Park.

The black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) was last seen in Canada in 1937 before being reintroduced in 2009.  Photo by J. Michael Lockhart/USFWS.

The black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) was last seen in Canada in 1937 before being reintroduced in 2009. Photo by J. Michael Lockhart/USFWS.

Time after time, the Olympic Games have shown that you can never rule out the underdog.  It may take extraordinary luck or strange circumstances for them to triumph, but even the underdogs have years of training and commitment behind them.  Many species that we think are extinct may be holding on somewhere; but even if they are rediscovered, most are still on the brink of extinction.  It will take extraordinary circumstances – in the form of a lot of help and commitment from us – for these species to triumph over extinction in the long term.

High flyers – but what’s the buzz really about?

Final designIn preparation for the Sochi Olympics, many athletes would have undergone gruelling exercise regimes at high altitudes. The idea behind such training is that by acclimatising to lower oxygen availability, athletes can improve their oxygen-carrying capacity and endurance. But training at high altitudes and then suddenly switching to low altitudes – where air density can greatly affect speed – can also be detrimental. It’s been suggested this is the reason for the poor performance of the American speed skaters in Sochi.

Like athletes training in high altitudes and alpine terrains, animals living in these conditions also need to adapt. Recently, a study showed that alpine bumblebees can fly higher than Mount Everest. They coped with both the decreased air density and oxygen availability in a way that would impress any Olympic athlete. The bumblebees adapted to the thin air at high altitudes by swinging their wings through a wider arc.

Although this is impressive, it is not what the bee world is buzzing about these days. There is a decline in bee populations around the world, in both the well known domesticated honeybee, as well as wild bees. In some parts of China, pollination must now be done by hand as there are so few bees left. In Canada, the nation wide honeybee mortality rose to 28.6% last winter, double that of the previous year. Although these numbers are alarming, they only pertain to the honeybee, a species introduced to North America.

There are over 800 species of bees in Canada, and over 20,000 worldwide. These native pollinators have been pollinating our continent’s flowering plants since long before the arrival of honeybees. The former are much more difficult to track compared to the domesticated honeybee, but there is evidence to show that native bee populations are also in decline. For example, the rusty-patched bumblebee is a newly listed endangered species in Canada and the first federally listed bee in North America.

Pollinators allow nearly 70 percent of all flowering plants to reproduce, and the fruits and seeds from insect-pollinated plants account for over 30 percent of the foods and beverages that we consume. Native bees are crucial for pollinating our flora. The causes of the bee declines are still unclear, but are likely to be from a combination of pesticide use, habitat loss and disease. It is therefore important that research continues to help understand how to conserve these very important invertebrates. Our very own Liber Ero Fellow, Sheila Colla, has taken up the plight of the bumblebees. You can also help, by planting native nectar rich plants to attract pollinators, making your own bee house, becoming a bee keeper and volunteering for monitoring programs, such as the pollinator observer program run by Pollination Canada.