Good News About the Environment

California Condor
California Condor. US Fish & Wildlife Service

Global warming is transforming the world’s climates, invasive species are spreading, smog is making us sick, and neonicotinoid pesticides are killing wild bees. Environmental reports seem to accumulate in a succession of disasters and dire predictions, and it frankly can become depressing to hear. Ignoring our environmental problems will not make them go away and awareness is crucial, but once in a while it’s important to look on the brighter side of things.

So, here are a few positive environmental stories:

Biodiversity, the Glass Half Full Edition

When we hear anything about biodiversity, it generally consists in mournful accounts of population declines and loss. That is not the whole story, as many species common today have actually rebounded from once very low numbers. In the beginning of the 20th century in North America, whitetail deer were exceedingly rare, beavers and Canada geese were on their way to extinction. Wild duck populations were a sliver of today’s numbers, and the same could be said of wild turkeys.

It is through a combination of protective laws and active habitat management that all of these species are now abundant. First, a suite of federal laws and treaties turned things around. Market hunting for wild species was halted, and the trade in dead wildlife was stopped through the Lacey Act. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act narrowed bird hunting to only ducks, geese, and a few other species, while private groups like Ducks Unlimited managed millions of acres as waterfowl breeding, feeding, migration stopover, and wintering habitat.

Newly established wildlife refuges (such as the now famous Malheur National Wildlife Refuge) protected the remaining heron, egrets, and pelicans from feather collectors.

Gone But Not Really

In 2016 a Brazilian ornithologist announced the discovery of a population of blue-eyed ground dove, a striking bird species not observed since 1941.

The re-discovery allowed the establishment of a conservation plan and the protection of critical habitat. These types of surprise discoveries show up on the media with regularity: rare plants, insect, and frogs are found long after they were thought to be extinct. Even some large, presumably conspicuous species have been found: the La Palma giant lizard, the terror skink (less than 50 cm long, you’ll be glad to know), and the smoothtooth blacktip shark all managed to stay out of sight for sometimes over 100 years. These so-called Lazarus species provide hope and encouragement, allowing with some precious opportunities for effective conservation planning and habitat protection.

Endangered Species Recoveries

Bringing a species back from near extinction is generally not something that happens on its own.  A lot of hard work is involved, including habitat management and protection, captive breeding, and reintroductions. For example:

  • Bald eagles populations have now rebounded from dwindling numbers. Hunting them became prohibited, nest sites were protected, and pairs were re-introduced in portions of their former range. The pesticide DDT, which impairs bird reproduction, was banned from use in the United States in 1972. From less than 500 pairs in the contiguous U.S., the population now exceeds 10,000 pairs spread across every state in the country.
  • One of North America’s largest birds, the Whooping Crane, saw its population dwindle to less than 20 individuals by the 1940s. Since then, two separate breeding populations were re-established from a captive flock maintained by the International Crane Foundation. The non-profit organization famously facilitated migration between their wintering area in Florida and their breeding grounds in Wisconsin by getting the birds to follow an ultralight aircraft.
  • Because of poaching and lead poisoning, the iconic California condor became extinct in the wild in 1987, with only a few individuals left in zoos. Sustained captive breeding efforts sponsored by private conservation groups raised the population size from 22 to over 400. In 1996 a first group was successfully released into the wild in Arizona. Condors now stretch their 9-ft wingspan over Arizona, Utah, California, and Baja California in Mexico.

    Water and Air Quality

    The post-World War II era was incredibly prosperous in many countries, as people benefited from the technological edge brought about by brand new petrochemical industry. Tractors and synthetic pesticides increased agricultural yields, earth-moving and construction equipment helped build housing tracts for an increasing population, and all kinds of plastics snuck into every part of our lives. The manufacturing processes involved in making all of these things generated huge amounts of hazardous waste which for the most part were not disposed of thoughtfully. As a result, from the 1950s through the 1970s air and water pollution was pervasive, and the toxic stew affected people’s health.  Since then, we have experienced major improvements:

    • The Clean Water Act is now over 40 years old, and it has helped make once terribly polluted rivers and lakes swimmable, fishable, and even drinkable. The discharge of hazardous waste is now tightly regulated, and many of us can attest for the obvious improvements in water quality of our neighborhood waterways. Nevertheless, much work remains to be done to better reduce pollution from non-point sources, like agricultural fields and impervious surfaces.
    • The Clean Air Act of 1972 set clear air quality standards, which each state has to meet by controlling pollutant emissions. As a result, and despite an economy which has grown substantially, Americans experience fewer serious negative health effects from air pollution. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports a 69% drop in air pollution emissions between 1970 and 2014. One particularly successful endeavor of the Clean Air Act was the reduction of acid rains emanating from fossil fuel burning.
    • An increasing number of states and provinces are limiting the use of lead ammunition for hunting and lead-based tackle for fishing.
    • In a determined shift away from coal, the Clean Power Plan is adding regulations to the Clean Air Act designed to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels for energy production, and support for renewable energy solutions. Significant climate and health benefits are expected.
    • In 2015 there finally was a global effort to reduce greenhouse gases and mitigate climate change, and world leaders ratified the Paris Agreement.