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Environmental News

"EARTH TALK"

From the Editors of E / The Environmental Magazine

THIS WEEK'S COLUMN

Dear EarthTalk: What is the Burrowing Owl Conservation Network and why is it so important to put so much effort into saving one species?
—Ginny Bateman, Portland, OR

Once a common species in California and across North America, the Western burrowing owl has become a rarer and rarer sight over the last three decades given habitat loss and other environmental perils the bird faces.

© iStockPhoto/Thinkstock

Western burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia) are tiny, long-legged members of the owl family, native to the Americas and preferring open landscapes where they can dig new holes or use existing ones (such as abandoned prairie dog, skunk or armadillo homes) to nest and rear their young. Unlike most other owl species, these small but charismatic birds are more often seen out and about during daylight hours, but they are most active and do their primary feeding at night, preferring a diet of small rodents and large insects.

Once a common species in California and across North America, the Western burrowing owl has become a rarer and rarer sight over the last three decades given habitat loss and other environmental perils the bird faces. Biologists consider the bird an indicator of wider ecosystem health, so if its population numbers are healthy then local ecosystems are likely thriving. But these days the bird is endangered in Canada and threatened in Mexico, is a state endangered species in Colorado, and is considered a “species of special concern” in Florida and most of the western U.S. It is also listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN’s) international “Red List” of endangered and threatened species (albeit as a species of “Least Concern” in comparison with others in more dire straits).

A group of dedicated birders, conservationists, biologists and concerned citizens in San Francisco’s East Bay came together to protect dwindling burrowing owl populations locally but ended up creating a movement that spans the entire North American continent. Their group, the Burrowing Owl Conservation Network (BOCN) believes that burrowing owls are vital to maintaining healthy, functioning ecosystems, and as such is working on several fronts to help protect habitat and reverse the animal’s population slide.

First and foremost, BOCN works to conserve habitat for burrowing owls in California and beyond, including constructing artificial burrows to help re-establish burrowing owl colonies while larger ecosystem restoration efforts are underway. Teaching children and communities about ways they can help protect and improve burrowing owl habitat is another important part of BOCN’s work. Other ways the group helps the owls is by advocating for legislation and policy changes that encourage conservation of habitat, networking with like-minded individuals and institutions, and conducting field and laboratory research to increase understanding about how to help burrowing owls and create habitat conditions ideal for their survival.

The fact that burrowing owl populations in other parts of the world are rebounding gives hope to BOCN and other wildlife advocates and environmentalists. The birds are common and widespread in Central and South America, where they inhabit fields and even sometimes parks in urban areas.

Whether the birds can replicate their success in Latin America up north remains to be seen. As for what readers can do to help, learning about the behavior, biology and habitat needs of wild animals like the burrowing owl is a sure way to develop respect for nature’s inhabitants and a lifelong willingness to protect them. And nothing beats witnessing burrowing owls go about their rounds. Seeing them in the wild is enough to convince anyone that they are worth fighting to protect.

CONTACTS: BOCN; IUCN Red List.

 
A NEW SET OF ANSWERS IS FEATURED EACH WEEK!

 

Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that cutting and burning trees adds more global warming pollution to the atmosphere than all the cars and trucks in the world combined?
—Mitchell Vale, Houston, TX

Deforestation in tropical rainforests -- from logging, coffee growing, meat and milk production and other economic activities -- adds more CO2 to the atmosphere than the sum total of cars and trucks on the world's roads. Pictured: Cattle in a clearcut portion of the Amazon Rainforest.

Photo © iStockPhoto/Thinkstock

By most accounts, deforestation in tropical rainforests adds more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than the sum total of cars and trucks on the world’s roads. According to the World Carfree Network (WCN), cars and trucks account for about 14 percent of global carbon emissions, while most analysts attribute upwards of 15 percent to deforestation.

The reason that logging is so bad for the climate is that when trees are felled they release the carbon they are storing into the atmosphere, where it mingles with greenhouse gases from other sources and contributes to global warming accordingly. The upshot is that we should be doing as much to prevent deforestation as we are to increase fuel efficiency and reduce automobile usage.

According to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a leading green group, 32 million acres of tropical rainforest were cut down each year between 2000 and 2009—and the pace of deforestation is only increasing. “Unless we change the present system that rewards forest destruction, forest clearing will put another 200 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere in coming decades…,” says EDF.

“Any realistic plan to reduce global warming pollution sufficiently—and in time—to avoid dangerous consequences must rely in part on preserving tropical forests,” reports EDF. But it’s hard to convince the poor residents of the Amazon basin and other tropical regions of the world to stop cutting down trees when the forests are still worth more dead than alive. “Conservation costs money, while profits from timber, charcoal, pasture and cropland drive people to cut down forests,” adds EDF. Exacerbating global warming isn’t the only negative impact of tropical deforestation. It also wipes out biodiversity: More than half of the world’s plant and animal species live in tropical rainforests.

One way some tropical countries are reducing deforestation is through participation in the United Nations’ Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) program. REDD essentially works to establish incentives for the people who care for the forest to manage it sustainably while still being able to benefit economically. Examples include using less land (and therefore cutting fewer trees) for activities such as coffee growing and meat and milk production. Participating nations can then accrue and sell carbon pollution credits when they can prove they have lowered deforestation below a baseline. The REDD program has channeled over $117 million in direct financial aid and educational support into national deforestation reduction efforts in 44 developing countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America since its 2008 inception.

Brazil is among the countries embracing REDD among other efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Thanks to the program, Brazil has slowed deforestation within its borders by 40 percent since 2008 and is on track to achieve an 80 percent reduction by 2020. Environmentalists are optimistic that the initial success of REDD in Brazil bodes well for reducing deforestation in other parts of the tropics as well.

CONTACTS: WCN; EDF; REDD.

A SYNDICATED COLUMN ONLY ON AMERICAJR.COM

 

 

 

 

 

SEND IN YOUR QUESTIONS...

GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/thisweek/, or e-mail: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php.

 

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