Forgot Password?
Home arrow GreeniacsArticles arrow Wildlife arrow Species Conservation
Written by Brandon King   
Share |
Monday, 12 April 2010

Species Conservation

On October 28, 1805, explorers Lewis and Clark encountered what they named the “Beautiful Buzzard of the Columbia.1 On February 16, 1806, they captured a live one of these birds—a “relic of the ice age”2 —and measured its wingspan at nine feet two inches. Less than two centuries later, in 1967, the massive bird that had become known as the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) was listed as an endangered species.3 By 1987, its population numbered 22 individuals, all of them in captivity. Today, there are 348 condors alive, 187 of which are in the wild.4 While this bird possesses a singular beauty, the problems it faces in the wild—habitat loss, poaching—are those faced by many other species. As the problems are similar, so are the solutions: successful species reintroduction programs, whether with whooping cranes or grey wolves, address many of the same challenges. Foremost among these challenges is proper socialization of the animals while they are in captivity and ensuring that they don’t disrupt the balance of the ecosystem they are released into.

The California Condor
As 19th century settlers moved west, they hunted the large mammals condors relied on for food.5 Condors would often scavenge the meat left behind by these hunters, which was embedded with poisonous lead shot. Many people were intrigued by the condor’s prehistoric appearance and large wingspan, and poached them to keep as trophies; others were kept as pets. Habitat destruction was also a major factor in the condor’s decline, as its habitat along the Pacific coast became increasingly developed into the 20th century.

In 1987, the last wild California condor was captured, and captive breeding programs began in the San Diego Wild Animal Park and Los Angeles Zoo. Critical to increasing the number of California condors during those bleak years that followed was a practice called “double clutching.” Double clutching involves removing eggs from nests and placing them in incubators to encourage females to produce another clutch of eggs.6 A second practice important to the condor’s success was making sure it didn’t “imprint” onto human beings. When a condor is born, it imprints onto the first living thing it sees and will later seek that species for a mate. To avoid this, captive-bred condors were fed by condor puppets and played tapes of adult condors.7 It is because of these techniques that researchers were able to eventually reintroduce the California condor to isolated patches of California, Arizona, and Baja, Mexico. The condor’s future remains uncertain, but its 348 living members provide hope.

The conservation that saved the California condor is called “ex situ” conservation, which “occurs in seed banks, zoos and botanical gardens.”8 Along with the California condor, the American bison and Peregrine falcon recovered through ex situ conservation programs.9 Other programs use different techniques: “in situ” conservation preserves a species in its “natural location by managing and protecting its habitat.”10 Translocations involve “moving wild born animals from one place to another,”11 which the U.S. did under its Northern Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery Plan in the 1980’s12 by moving packs of wolves south from Canada.

Species Reintroduction
A self-sustaining stock of a plant or animal is the first thing needed for a successful reintroduction. Second, the environmental factors that caused the species’ decline must be corrected. For example, lead shot was banned from waterfowl ammo in 1991 because of its effect on scavenging animals such as the California condor. Educating and sensitizing the public to conservation efforts is essential, as is proper socialization of the captive animal. In addition to learning to avoid man, the animal must be taught to “identify predators; find food; interact properly with [other members of its species]; to find/construct shelter.”13 Once these goals are accomplished and a species is reintroduced, it must be carefully monitored through devices such as radio collars or leg bands.

Reintroduction of Wolves
In 1995, 14 gray wolves (Canis lupis) were translocated from southern Canada to Yellowstone National Park, and 15 wolves were also released in Idaho at that time.14 “By the end of 2006, there were an estimated 36 packs in Wyoming, including 311 individual wolves,”15 and the total number of wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains Recovery Area was over 1,000. Today, wolves in the Northern Rockies as well as the western Great Lakes area are no longer on the endangered species list.16

A challenge with reintroducing wolves is breaking their homing instinct. In order to adjust this internal radar, which leads them back to their pre-capture home, the wolves translocated from Canada to Yellowstone were acclimatized in pens “near the release site for ten weeks before being released.” Those released in Idaho were not. Evidence gathered from radio collars showed that the three packs of wolves released in Yellowstone had not moved, while those introduced in Idaho had moved an average of 50 miles north.17 All subsequent efforts at wolf translocation have included acclimatization periods.

Reintroducing grey wolves to Yellowstone was an important step in controlling an elk population that had ballooned to 20,000 (today it is under 10,000).18 By hunting these elk, the wolves indirectly affected other parts of Yellowstone’s ecosystem, providing an example of how reintroducing a single species can alter nature’s complex feedback loops. Once wolves returned to Yellowstone, elk began feeding only on trees in areas with good views of an attack. With elk eating fewer trees, beavers were able to collect materials to build their dams with more easily. Grizzly bears emerging from hibernation found more beaver-created ponds containing succulents—a “critical food”19 —following their winter sleep. The effect of reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone seems thus far to be a positive one, but it illustrates the huge impact that a single species can have on an ecosystem.

The Lesson
A recent report in Britain identified “23 species of mammals, birds, amphibians, and fish that once thrived in Britain and have the potential to live [there] again.”20 Reintroducing species such as the Eurasian lynx and brown bear would certainly “act as a huge draw for tourism”21 and might benefit the environment. On the other hand, it might throw entire ecosystems out of balance. Re-introducing megafauna like the European brown bear, which hasn’t lived in Britain since before the Middle Ages,22 will require thorough studies into its impact on “fragile biodiversity and already endangered species such as the Scottish wildcat.”23 The lesson in reintroducing species is that it can often be accomplished with proven techniques. However, it is humans who caused the disappearance in the first place, and unless they go about reintroduction with great prudence, they might disrupt an ecosystem once again.

Browse all Greeniacs Articles Browse all Greeniacs Guides        Browse all Greeniacs Articles

2 Id.
5 Id.
7 Id.
+US&fr=yfp-t-701& PressRelease wolf

19 Id.

21 Id.
22 Id.
23 Id.

Add your comment
RSS comments

Only registered users can write comments.
Please login or register.

Click here to Register.  Click here to login.

Last Updated ( Monday, 07 February 2011 )


Green Facts

  • Recycling 100 million cell phones can save enough energy to power 18,500 homes in the U.S. for a year.

  • For every 38,000 bills consumers pay online instead of by mail, 5,058 pounds of greenhouse gases are avoided and two tons of trees are preserved.

  • Americans throw away more than 120 million cell phones each year, which contribute 60,000 tons of waste to landfills annually.

  • Less than 1% of electricity in the United States is generated from solar power.

  • States with bottle deposit laws have 35-40% less litter by volume.

  • You will save 300 pounds of carbon dioxide for every 10,000 miles you drive if you always keep your car’s tires fully inflated.

  • The World Health Organization estimates that 2 million people die prematurely worldwide every year due to air pollution.

  • A steel mill using recycled scrap reduces related water pollution, air pollution, and mining wastes by about 70%.

  • Current sea ice levels are at least 47% lower than they were in 1979.

  • Americans throw away enough aluminum to rebuild our entire commercial fleet of airplanes every 3 months

  • A laptop consumes five times less electricity than a desktop computer.

  • Every week about 20 species of plants and animals become extinct.

  • It takes 6,000,000 trees to make 1 year's worth of tissues for the world.

  • You’ll save two pounds of carbon for every 20 glass bottles that you recycle.

  • 82 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. come from burning fossil fuels.

  • Americans use 100 million tin and steel cans every day.

  • In California homes, about 10% of energy usage is related to TVs, DVRs, cable and satellite boxes, and DVD players.

  • Recycling 1 million laptop computers can save the amount of energy used by 3,657 homes in the U.S. over the course of a year.

  • Recycling for one year at Stanford University saved the equivalent of 33,913 trees and the need for 636 tons of iron ore, coal, and limestone.

  • A tree that provides a home with shade from the sun can reduce the energy required to run the air conditioner and save an additional 200 to 2,000 pounds of carbon over its lifetime.

  • You will save 100 pounds of carbon for each incandescent bulb that you replace with a compact fluorescent bulb (CFL), over the life of the bulb.

  • Glass can be recycled over and over again without ever wearing down.

  • One recycled aluminum can will save enough energy to run a 100-watt bulb for 20 hours, a computer for 3 hours, or a TV for 2 hours.

  • An aluminum can that is thrown away instead of recycled will still be a can 500 years from now!

  • A single quart of motor oil, if disposed of improperly, can contaminate up to 2,000,000 gallons of fresh water.

  • Turning off the tap when brushing your teeth can save as much as 10 gallons a day per person.

  • In the United States, automobiles produce over 20 percent of total carbon emissions. Walk or bike and you'll save one pound of carbon for every mile you travel.

  • Washing your clothes in cold or warm instead of hot water saves 500 pounds of carbon dioxide a year, and drying your clothes on a clothesline six months out of the year would save another 700 pounds.

  • Refrigerators built in 1975 used 4 times more energy than current models.

  • Shaving 10 miles off of your weekly driving pattern can eliminate about 500 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions a year.

  • Nudge your thermostat up two degrees in the summer and down two degrees in the winter to prevent 2,000 pounds of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere.

  • Due to tiger poaching, habitat destruction, and other human-tiger conflicts, tigers now number around 3,200—a decrease in population by about 70% from 100 years ago.

  • Plastic bags and other plastic garbage thrown into the ocean kill as many as 1,000,000 sea creatures every year.

  • Bamboo absorbs 35% more carbon dioxide than equivalent stands of trees.

  • Recycling aluminum saves 95% of the energy used to make the material from scratch.

  • American workers spend an average of 47 hours per year commuting through rush hour traffic. This adds up to 23 billion gallons of gas wasted in traffic each year.

  • If every U.S. household turned the thermostat down by 10 degrees for seven hours each night during the cold months, and seven hours each weekday, it would prevent nearly gas emissions.

  • Rainforests are being cut down at the rate of 100 acres per minute.

  • 77% of people who commute to work by car drive alone.