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Science Explores Conservation Successes on Three Continents
The black-footed ferret, North America's most endangered mammal. Reintroduced populations are now thriving in Shirely Basin, Wyoming.
[Image courtesy of LuRay Parker, Wyoming Game and Fish Department]
Over the past 25 years, the black-footed ferret was one of the most endangered mammal species in North America, its population decimated by illness, poisoning and destruction of prairie habitat. But after an urgent intervention and difficult early conservation efforts, the ferrets are being returned to the grasslands of Wyoming and nearby states and their numbers are growing again.
The recovery of the black-footed ferret is one of the conservation success stories on three continents detailed by researchers this week by the journal Science. While scientists have worked to support ferrets, others have worked to sustain rare birds in Europe and to protect swathes of rain forest in Peru. A related Policy Forum suggests ways to improve relationships between local, national and international conservation groups.
The Return of the Ferret
Some biologists worried that black-footed ferrets (Mustela nigripes) were extinct before a colony was discovered near Meeteetse, Wyo. in 1981. Seven of those ferrets were captured for a captive breeding program and, after a difficult start, the black-footed ferret is successfully breeding and repopulating its Wyoming homeland again, according to new research from a group headed by Martin B. Grenier, a mammal biologist at the University of Wyoming and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
More than 220 captive-born ferrets were reintroduced to Wyoming's Shirley Basin between 1991 and 1994, but disease overcame many and by 1997 only five of these ferrets were found in the wild. Monitoring was intermittent after that, but in 2003, researchers counted 52 black-footed ferrets and that number continues to grow. The population was up to 223 in 2006. In the 10 August issue of Science, Grenier and colleagues write in a Brevium that early survival is key to this carnivore's population health, unlike later adult survival that is critical to most endangered species.
The ferrets have bred in the wild for 7.5 generations, "largely obviating fears that inbreeding depression or captive propagation would impair population establishment or short-term persistence," the authors write. "Although some attempts may not yield immediate success, the Shirley Basin example shows that species recovery is possible, given the ferret's capacity to persist at low population levels and to increase rapidly in favorable environments."
European Union Successfully Protects Rare Birds
Annex I species like the Black-throated Diver (Common Loon) have been shown to benefit from European conservation policy.
[Image courtesy of RSPB Images]
Researchers report in the 10 August issue of Science that an international policy to conserve rare or vulnerable birds in the European Union has been successful as measured by both population increases and in number of areas set aside for bird protection.
Fifteen E.U. nations signed onto a directive beginning in 1979 to protect or improve the habitat of a list of rare and vulnerable birds. Results of a census analyzed by Paul F. Donald and British colleagues show that between 1990 and 2000 the European population of the listed bird species increased in comparison to those not on the list. Researchers also found that this result was only true for the European populations—the pattern was not found for these species outside of the European Union.
Among the birds to benefit: the Black-throated Diver (Common Loon); the Red-throated Diver; the Slavonian Grebe; the Eurasian Bittern, and the Barnacle Goose.
"Because global threats to biodiversity are largely anthropogenic, already considerable in scale, and accelerating rapidly, their solutions will depend largely on international policy intervention," the authors conclude.
About 20 regional or global conservation agreements are underway. As countries and regions are increasingly joining to conserve global resources, the authors say, this first measurable success of one of the first such agreement shows promise for future international conservation attempts and provides processes for evaluating progress.
Conservation Works in the Peruvian Rain Forest
A new study published online in the 9 August of Science Express shows that rain forest damage and destruction have been slowed by Peruvian conservation and land-use policies. Paulo J.C. Oliveira of the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology and a group of American and Peruvian colleagues found that high-resolution satellite monitoring of the rain forest shows a reduced rate of deforestation.
Tropical forests are important to world ecology and climate, but they are always at risk from human development. Peru has enormous tracts of tropical forest—about 255,000 square miles of it, enough to cover France, but researchers have lacked a refined understanding of the impact caused to the forest by human activity.
Oliveira's group fine-tuned an automated satellite analysis system to identify change down to the level of a few tree falls. During the 1999-2005 study period, forest disturbances and deforestation increased about 1300 square kilometers per year, but only about 2 percent of that occurred in protected areas.
The researchers conclude that Peru's portfolio of land-use policies can provide broad protection while still allowing for indigenous people to live and make money. "A balanced portfolio of forest use and protection, along with substantive law enforcement, could be used to sustain the services provided by tropical forests to society while also protecting those forests," they say. "Increased satellite monitoring of logging and other forest disturbances will thus be essential to conservation, management and resource policy development efforts in Peru and other rainforest nations."
Global Conservation Needs Local Influence
As international non-governmental conservation organizations grow in size, wealth and power, some local and national entities see their investments as a threat. Jon Paul Rodriguez and an international group of conservationists, writing in a Policy Forum in the 10 August issue of Science, say that a one-size-fits-all-countries approach to global conservation does not always mesh well with individual country needs.
The top-down approach does not always include local stakeholders such as community leaders, scientists, policy makers and conservation experts. The authors suggest that these conservation organizations borrow best practices from modern multinational corporations and incorporate local expertise for more successful programs. That could also build depth of conservation knowledge in the country by expanding and sustaining the local conservation expertise.
Edward W. Lempinen and Evelyn Brown
9 August 2007