Preserving Biodiversity in the Age of Climate Change

The dean of conservation biology has a message for young scientists: Get out of the lab

Hundreds of scientists are gathered in Oakland this week to share ideas on how to stem the tide of extinctions among plants and animals. On opening night of the inaugural North American Congress for Conservation Biology, they got an earful from Michael Soulé, professor emeritus at UC Santa Cruz, founder of the Wildlands Network and the Society for Conservation Biology. Considered the “father” of conservation biology, Soule is concerned that the work he started is getting bogged down in the lab. I sat down to talk with him at the conference. This is an edited version of the interview.

What were the biggest problems when you started working on conservation biology?

Coastal sage scrub and riparian habitat on the San Diego Refuge.

I was a kid naturalist in San Diego. I went around collecting things and going to tide pools and playing in the chaparral, the coastal sage scrub. Those places are gone now; they’ve been bulldozed and they’re now housing developments. So I saw with my own eyes, and was gradually more and more horrified to see, everything I loved disappear, bulldozed.

Later, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, I recognized that human population growth was a tremendous factor in changing and shrinking habitats all over the world. And we recognized that pollution — in those days it was DDT — was a big factor in causing the disappearance of brown pelicans, for example, on the West Coast. Continue reading

What Will Conservation Cost?

Probably billions, as climate change complicates conservation

The Bay checkerspot butterfly is one of the species that might need help migrating.

Traditional approaches to preserving biodiversity may not hold up as the climate changes.

One common tool environmental groups use now is to buy land. But that tactic only works if, once the land is protected, the species that live there can stay there. Climate change scrambles that notion. Species won’t necessarily be able to stay where they are in perpetuity. A new study in the journal Conservation Biology (abstract only) examines what it would cost to stick to the current approach and the same conservation goals in one area in California. And that number — again, for just one conservation area — is staggering. By 2100, the study finds, the total price tag will be about $2.5 billion.

“It is a dizzying number,” Rebecca Shaw, the associate vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund and one of the study’s authors, told me. “And it’s dizzying because climate change is dynamic and our conservation strategies are designed for static systems.”

Shaw explains that the current approach — searching out good habitat, buying the land, hands-on management and monitoring — is expensive anyway. But she predicts that climate change will double the cost.

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Fish vs. Farms Conflict Escalates in Central Valley

Proposed law would stop salmon restoration, deliver more water to Central Valley farms

The San Joaquin River flows from the Sierra Nevada to the Central Valley, where much of its water is diverted to aqueducts.

UPDATE: The House has passed the bill, with a vote of 246-175. It now goes to the Senate.

Meandering through the halls of Capitol Hill is a bill that would dramatically change California’s water picture. Sponsored by Tulare County Congressman Devin Nunes, the sweeping proposal would pipe more water to farms, and challenge the largest river restoration project in U.S. history.

Environmentalists and farmers tangoed for 18 years in federal court over the fate of the San Joaquin River, finally agreeing to restore water to some 60 miles of dry riverbed, and bring back the salmon that died off when the river was dammed just above Fresno.

“Most people associate the San Joaquin as a dry toxic river,” says Chris Acree, director of Revive the River, a Fresno-based non-profit. “Now that this water is back in that river, it allows us to identify ourselves with this river as a living river. This restoration program really is the broadest collaboration between agencies, landowners, stakeholders, and water users, where everybody has a voice.”

But Congressmen Devin Nunes says many Central Valley farmers have been left out of water decisions that put fish before farmers. His bill would not only reverse plans to restore salmon to this river, it would relax pumping restrictions in the Delta designed to protect other endangered fish.

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Water Efficiency May Ease Colorado River Woes

Study shows most western cities aren’t wasting as much water

Lake Powell, the Colorado River's second-largest reservoir, in April 2010 (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

There’s some good news for the 35 million people in the Western United States who rely on the Colorado River for their water, says a new study from the Oakland-based Pacific Institute.

No, the supply isn’t increasing.  And yes, the population is still growing.

But according to the paper, entitled Municipal Deliveries of Colorado River Basin Water, more efficient water use by water agencies across the West is making the supply/demand gap a lot less painful than it could be.

“Although population growth has increased very quickly, the amount of water delivered has not kept pace,” said study author Michael Cohen. “That shows that people have been getting much more efficient with their use of water.” Continue reading

A Water Meter Mandate for California Farms

Regulators seek better tracking of farm water use

Flooded rice fields in the Sacramento Valley. (Photo: Craig Miller)

Most urban dwellers get a water bill each month that’s based on how much water they use. But on some California farms, that’s not the case.

“In many parts of the state, the amount of water farmers use is not measured,” says Susan Sims of the California Water Commission.

Instead, farmers are charged a flat rate for water in some districts. Sims says that makes it difficult for farmers to conserve water. “It’s very hard, even when you want to conserve. I think the first step in saving water is knowing what you’re using.”

Toward that end, the Water Commission votes today on rules that would require water districts to meter the volume of water farmers use — and to charge them accordingly. Sims says many water districts, including some in the San Joaquin Valley, already do this. Others in Northern California don’t. Continue reading

Green Fire Spreading

A new documentary broadens awareness of a timeless thinker

“Civilization has so cluttered this elemental man-earth relationship with gadgets and middlemen that awareness of it is growing dim. We fancy that industry supports us, forgetting what supports industry.”
— Aldo Leopold,
A Sand County Almanac

Everybody in California seems to have at least a vague notion of who John Muir was. Now, with the help of a new documentary film, Aldo Leopold may get more of the props he earned during his fascinating life as a forester and conservationist.

Leopold’s following has been growing since his work in the first half of the 20th century. When Steve Dunsky set about with his co-producers creating Green Fire, they heard plenty of superlatives from the biographers, historians and naturalists they interviewed. One called Leopold the third pillar of conservation’s “Holy Trinity,” with Muir and Henry David Thoreau. Continue reading

What Will Your Water Cost?

Report: Big changes needed to avert “widespread environmental and economic losses” in California

Grand illusion? Water rushes over the spillway at Nicasio Reservoir in Marin County. (Photo: Craig Miller)

A high-profile team of experts is calling for a major overhaul of the way California manages its water. In a 500-page report from the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California, the authors say decades of well-intended water policies simply haven’t worked, leaving the state vulnerable to major crises, including water shortages, catastrophic floods, decline & extinction of native species, deteriorating water quality, and further decline of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

“Our system has been dying a death by a thousand cuts,” says co-author Ellen Hanak, an economist and policy analyst at the PPIC. Hanak says that the state’s water management efforts have been “incremental” and “piecemeal,” with little success to show for it. Continue reading

Beetlemania Creeping Into California

As if drought and wildfires weren’t enough, California’s coniferous forests face another climate-related threat

(Photo: Reed Galin/Lone Tree Productions)

In the last decade, tiny forest-dwelling beetles have wiped out pine trees on millions of acres in the Canadian and American West, including Southern California. The rest of the state has been largely spared, but forest ecologists say that’s likely to change.

Reporter Ilsa Setziol recently spent some time tracking these bugs with an entomologist from the US Forest Service. They found beetles at work in Jeffrey pines and coulter pines in the San Bernardino National Forest, east of Los Angeles. Continue reading

Of Birds, Bats and Blades

The wind energy industry faces multiple challenges in California.

Flocks of birds near wind turbines in Solano County. (Photo: Craig Miller)

It’s hard to find people who are just flat out against wind energy. As with real estate, attitudes seem to come down to location, location, location. That’s why three of the thorniest issues with wind are project siting, transmission (lines for the power produced), and the industry’s turbulent history with birds and bats. Some of those challenges are highlighted in this slide show, designed to accompany my two-part radio series. Continue reading

Citizen Science: The iPhone App

A new iPhone app aims to make recording and sharing observations of the natural world fast, easy, and could eventually help bring climate models into better focus.

Ken-ichi Ueda and Scott Loarie demonstrated the new iNaturalist iPhone app at Stanford's Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve (Photo: Richard Morgenstein)

At Jasper Ridge, a biological preserve and study area on the Stanford campus, a dozen of the preserve’s docents gathered this week to learn about a new iPhone application that could ultimately help scientists study how ecosystems are adapting to climate change.

The new app, called iNaturalist, is the mobile version of a citizen-science website by the same name.  The iPhone app is still in testing and not yet available, but the website,, is already an active online community of citizen-scientists around the world who use the site to record and share their sightings. Continue reading