New Study Identifies Viable Snow Leopard Habitats To Combat Climate Change
Previously, a study reported that nearly 40% of protected snow leopard areas throughout Asia were too small to support a sustainable population. In fact, only eight existing protected ranges can hold 50 or more breeding females.
However, the remote, high elevation regions of the Tibetan Plateau and its surrounding mountain ranges, also known as High Asia, are experiencing rates of warming higher than most other regions of the world. Because of this, how climate change will impact High Asia and its endangered snow leopards has become a significant conservation dilemma.
As such, a study, titled “Climate Refugia of Snow Leopards in High Asia,” done with partners such as Panthera and UC Berkeley, identified three areas of snow leopard habitat can sustain viable populations through the late 21st century.
“Given the species live in these remote regions, we didn’t know much,” said Dr. Byron Weckworth, Snow Leopard Program regional coordinator for Pantera. “(The study) illuminates the large scale implications of climate change on snow leopards.”
To identify habitats, the researchers considered what regions maintained a relatively constant arid to semi-arid climate through past glacial cycles. They built a statistical model of snow leopard habitat projected in three different ways: back in time 21,000 years ago to the last ice age, back 6,000 years ago to the mid-Holocene period, and forward to the year 2070. Together, these projections will show the warmest and coldest global climates that snow leopards have experienced in the past 100,000 years, including anticipated climate conditions of the near future.
Despite noticing considerable differences in expansion, contraction, and fragmentation of snow leopard range through different climatic periods, the scientists also identified three large climate refuges that have remained stable during past climate change events and expected to remain stable in the future. These three climate refuges include regions around the Altai, Qilian, and Tian Shan-Pamir-Hindu Kush-Karakoram mountain ranges. The three combined make up 35% of the current snow leopard range, a sufficient percentage to provide long-term refuge for the species.
Outside of these three refuges though, the pattern of change of the remaining 65% is concerning. Snow leopard habitat in Himalayan and Hengduan mountains is particularly susceptible to climate change. Depending on the scenario of climate change used in the model, Nepal and Bhutan could lose between 28-82% and 39-85% of viable habitat respectively by the year 2070.
Though the three habitable zones suggest that viable snow leopard populations could survive the effects of climate change through the 21st century, additional threats such as poaching and human intervention were not factored into the calculation of viability.
“The article makes the point that they would survive climate change but maybe not survive these other existing threats,” said John Harte, a professor in the Ecosystem Sciences Division in the College of Natural Resources. “We have to deal with all these threats.”
Snow leopard populations span a total of 12 Asian countries. Researchers concede that the political collaborations necessary to protect snow leopards are a major obstacle but insist that it is not an insurmountable challenge.
“Conservation is primarily a human issue,” Weckworth said.
Two Beetles Now Extinct After Delays in Protections, But One Lucky Species Protected
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) recently announced that the Stephan’s riffle beetle of Arizona and the Tatum Cave beetle of Kentucky have gone extinct. Both beetles were known to be threatened by unchecked human development and needed federal protections for the last two decades.
However, due to the FWS’ delay in deciding whether to protect them as “endangered”, the two species never received the habitat protections and recovery plans that have helped rescue other species on the brink of extinction.
“I’m deeply saddened by the loss of these two beetles, which we can never get back,” said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity. “The world is a little shabbier, and the Santa Rita Mountains and Tatum Cave are each a little less unique without these former resident beetles.”
The FWS first identified the Stephan’s riffle beetle as needing protection in 1984, reaching the same conclusion for the Tatum Cave beetle in 1994. However, it failed to take action because other species were considered higher priorities. Now, after numerous searches and surveys for the beetle species, none of which turned up any evidence of their survival.
The Stephan’s riffle beetle has not been observed since 1993.It lived in two springs in Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains outside of Tucson. In the 1800s, both habitat was degraded by rampant livestock grazing and again in the 1930s, with the Civilian Conservation Corps’ piping of water from the canyon’s main spring for domestic and recreational water supplies. Later, development of a campground and hiking trail degraded the beetle’s habitat. Drought from global warming, which also contributed to reducing the springs’ flows, probably was the last threat that nailed the coffin.
Meanwhile, the Tatum Cave beetle was once abundant when it was first discovered in 1957. But since 1965, no beetle has been found. Since that year, eight surveys to locate the beetle failed. The FWS identified urban sprawl pollution and cave alterations from human visitation as threats to the species.
Unlike the unfortunate beetles, the Miami tiger beetle, a rare beetle from Florida, was just granted protections under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Without the newest protections, the last two habitats of the beetle might have disappeared to make way for a Walmart and a theme park.
An aggressive predator from the pine rocklands of South Florida, the Miami tiger beetle was first documented in 1934. It then went unseen for another six decades and thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered in 2007 in Miami.
In a rush, The Center for Biological Diversity filed an emergency petition for protection in 2014. A year later, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service followed suit, proposing the species to be listed under the ESA. Last week, the agency finally formalized those protections.
It also responded to another lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity concerning the Stephan’s riffle beetle and the Tatum Cave beetle for not adding protections. The agency declared that neither beetle would be protected under the ERSA because both species are now presumed to be extinct. However, it acknowledges that like the Miami tiger beetle, both species could conceivably still exist but just be hard to locate. If they are ever found again, the agency will reconsider their protection.
Despite the hope, given the amount of time spent and intense efforts to locate them as well as the destruction caused to their tiny habitats, rediscovering the beetles seem unlikely at best.
“Few people ever saw the Stephan’s riffle beetle or the Tatum Cave beetle, and perhaps not many will mourn their passing,” the Center for Biological Diversity’s Michael Robinson said in a prepared release. “But the extinction of species, tiny and tremendous alike, leaves us all a little poorer, whether we recognize the losses or not.”
END Wildlife Trafficking Act Finally Signed into a Law
Recently, Congress passed and President Obama has signed into the law the Eliminate, Neutralize, and Disrupt (END) Wildlife Trafficking Act. The bill was initially introduced in December 2015 to Congress. Now, almost a year ago, both the Senate and House of Representatives voted and passed the bill unanimously. President Obama was also behind the Act.
The END Act is intended to “support global anti-poaching efforts, strengthen the capacity of partner countries to counter wildlife trafficking, and designate major wildlife trafficking countries.” It is aimed to curb the rampant illegal wildlife trade which continues to decimate imperiled species.
Senators Chris Coons and Jeff Flake drafted the bill as a response to the growing wildlife trafficking crisis:
“Passage of this legislation is a critical step forward in tackling the rapidly growing crisis of wildlife trafficking as demand for wildlife products has spiked in recent years,” said Coons in a recent press release. “Not only are iconic wildlife species in grave danger of disappearing, but wildlife trafficking also fuels well-organized criminal networks, threatening global security.”
The Act builds upon President Obama’s 2013 Executive Order, which established a presidential task force to combat illegal wildlife trade, and his 2014 National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking. A similar bill called the Global Anti-Poaching Act, which was led by Representatives Ed Royce and Eliot Engel and passed late last year, helped pave the way for the END Wildlife Trafficking Act.
Specifically, the END Wildlife Trafficking Act will:
- facilitate partnerships between the US government and other countries fighting terrorist organizations and international crime syndicates that profit from wildlife trafficking;
- allow prosecutors to treat smuggling or selling endangered species as a predicate offense under money laundering statues;
- Improve transparency and accountability by directing the US State Department to explicitly identify countries that are major sources, transit points, or consumers of trafficked wildlife products; and
- enhance national security while also benefiting animal welfare—from expanding law enforcement networks to providing targeted assistance via shared intelligence, equipment and training to fight poachers.
This law will ensure that the U.S. leads charge to end international wildlife trafficking by requiring the Federal Wildlife Trafficking Task Force to work with affected countries by analyzing threats and putting together a “strategic plan” to fix the problem.
Specifically, it will direct the Task Force to:
- identify countries of concern regarding the supply, poaching, or transit of wildlife and wildlife products;
- collaborate with the national wildlife service of a country of concern to analyze the threats to wildlife in that country, and to prepare a strategic plan with recommendations for addressing wildlife crime;
- coordinate efforts to implement strategic plans among federal agencies and non-federal partners; and
- coordinate with stakeholders qualified to provide assistance regarding anti-poaching activities, law enforcement efforts, and strategies to reduce illicit trade and reduce consumer demand for illegally traded wildlife and wildlife products.
It is the sense of Congress that the United States should continue to work with foreign countries, including China, Thailand, and Vietnam to combat global wildlife trafficking. Through the Act, the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development can work with affected countries to:
- provide assistance to carry out strategic plan recommendations, including improving the effectiveness of wildlife law enforcement;
- design and implement programs to increase the investigational capacity of wildlife law enforcement and customs and border security officers and to combat the transnational trade in illegal wildlife; and
- take actions to strengthen international cooperation and partnerships to combat the global wildlife crime crisis.
It should also implement agreements and negotiations aimed at reducing demand for ivory and rhino horn as well as eliminate illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife products. The Department of State may also provide defense articles, services, and training to security forces of a country of concern to counter poaching and trafficking. It may also provide support in the development and replication of community-owned wildlife conservancies and community-based conservation programs.
“As the passage of this bill shows, clamping down on poaching is not a partisan issue, said Joanna Grossman, federal policy advisor for the Animal Welfare Institute. “The bloody trade in wildlife parts has become one of the chief funding sources for terrorist groups and organized criminal syndicates around the globe. The END Wildlife Trafficking Act provides vital tools to protect our national security and save animals from extinction.”