Editor's note: News about conservation and the environment is made every day, but some of it can fly under the radar. In a recurring feature, Conservation News shares three stories from the past week that you should know about.
Increased protections could offer a reprieve for one of Australia’s most iconic and threatened species.
The story: With populations falling by more than 50 percent in some areas in recent years, koalas on the east coast of Australia have been officially classified as endangered, reported Rachel Treisman for NPR. The change in their status signifies that they face a much graver risk of extinction and could help to elevate protections for the species.
These memorable marsupials have struggled over the past decade, facing a barrage of threats — from drought to habitat loss. Most significantly, koalas were heavily affected by the devastating Black Summer bushfires of 2019, which burned millions of acres of land, including critical habitat for the species. In total, the World Wildlife Fund-Australia estimates that 60,000 koalas were impacted in the disaster.
The big picture: It isn’t just fire that has pushed koalas to the brink: Land clearing has ramped up throughout eastern Australia in recent years, bulldozing habitat that this species needs to thrive. Because of this, conservation experts and animal welfare organizations have called on the government of Australia to greatly increase protections in the forest and woodland habitats that koalas call home.
And according to a new study by Conservation International, protected areas work extraordinarily well when it comes to conserving wildlife. In fact, mammal diversity within protected areas is an incredible 66 percent greater than in non-protected areas.
“Protected areas are one of the most important tools in our conservation toolbox,” said Jorge Ahumada, a co-author of the study and scientist at Conservation International. “We know they help save wildlife.”
The race is on to save a rare marine mammal teetering on the edge of extinction.
The story: In the waters between Baja California and Mexico lives the smallest, most rare porpoise on the planet: the vaquita. For many years, conservationists have worked to save this charismatic marine mammal from extinction — but a recent survey found that as few as 10 individuals are left in existence, reported Gabrielle Canon for The Guardian.
In most cases, vaquita are caught accidentally as bycatch in legal fisheries or by illegal fishing boats hunting a banned species of fish called totoaba — endangered in its own right and highly sought-after in the Chinese market for its perceived nutritional and medicinal properties. Governments and conservationists have pursued multiple efforts to save this species, including a total ban on fishing activities throughout the vaquita’s habitat range as well as attempts to establish a captive breeding program. Still, the population continues to dwindle.
The big picture: Against all odds, there is still hope for the critically endangered species, some experts believe. “If we can prevent them from being caught in nets, they will survive,” said Francis Gulland, Commissioner at the US Marine Mammal Commission, in an interview with The Guardian.
“There isn’t the governance to enforce another way of fishing and to support and compensate fishers who fish in a way that would allow vaquita to survive,” Gulland said, lamenting that efforts have largely involved top-down bans on fishing, rather than working to get buy-in from local communities that rely on the industry for their livelihoods.
This bottom-up approach to conservation has been proven elsewhere in the world, particularly through the development of “seascapes” — massive stretches of coastal land and sea that combine different conservation techniques to help countries sustainably manage the oceans they depend on. This includes the Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape, a Texas-sized swath of ocean along the shores of Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia and Ecuador.
Together, in partnership with Conservation International, these governments have worked with local communities to balance the needs of all the people who depend on the ocean — without depleting it. Over the past 17 years, these countries and more than 100 groups in the region have cooperated to stitch together a network of 77 MPAs within the seascape that protect one of the busiest marine migratory routes in the world, traversed by sharks, turtles, whales and seabirds.
- FURTHER READING: What on Earth is a ‘seascape’?
The gray wolf is back on the list of animals protected under the Endangered Species Act in the United States.
The story: A federal judge has overturned a Trump-era decision that removed wolves from the endangered species list in the United States, reported Catrin Einhorn for the New York Times.
Former president Donald Trump finalized the controversial decision during his last days in office, despite objections from scientists and wildlife experts that wolf populations were too vulnerable to merit removal from the list. In the months that followed, wolves faced a massacre. In Wisconsin, hunters killed more than 200 wolves in less than 60 hours — 20 percent of the total population of wolves within the state — blowing past the state-set quota of 119.
The big picture: The judge’s decision to add the gray wolf back to the endangered species list offers a chance for these iconic predators to regain a rocky foothold in states across the country from the Pacific Northwest to the Great Lakes.
But for complex and contentious reasons, wolves remain unprotected in one of their most critical habitats: the northern Rocky Mountain states of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Here they face aggressive state management plans like the recent wolf-trapping rule set by Idaho officials, which allows for the extermination of 90 percent of the state's wolf population. Recently, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland authored an essay in USA Today, sharing her dismay at the killing of wolves in the region:
“The clock is ticking,” wrote Secretary Haaland. “We must find solutions that allow wolves to flourish, even while we balance the needs of hunters and ranchers and others who live and work along with wolves on the landscape.”