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 stories from the past week that you should know about.
The return of apex predators to one of the United States’ most iconic national parks could help make the ecosystem’s wildlife more resilient to climate change.
The Story: A new study found that wolves in Yellowstone National Park are helping to create stronger and healthier elk herds by preying on weaker members of elk populations, reported Christine Peterson for National Geographic. When wolves were eradicated from the park because of state-run predator control efforts in 1926, local elk populations skyrocketed — and most were undernourished due to the limited availability of food and resources. Now that the wolves have been successfully rewilded into the park, researchers decided to track their feeding patterns — and discovered that the wolves were more likely to prey upon older and sick elk, leaving more resources for stronger members of the population.
The Big Picture: “In a future that will be very unpredictable, we want a buffer [against mass die-offs],” said Doug Smith, Yellowstone’s senior wildlife biologist. “Humans help stabilize elk populations, but they don’t do the same thing as wolves.” Not only are elk crucial sources of food for predators such as bears and wolves, they also help control the park’s vegetation growth and improve soil fertility through their grazing habits. As climate breakdown accelerates, studies show that Yellowstone National Park will experience more frequent droughts and intense heat waves, which experts say could put elk populations at risk if their numbers grow too high. By preying on weaker members of the elk population, wolves could actually help make the elk more resilient to the impacts of climate change by ensuring healthier elk herds, according to the study.
Changes to one of the United States’ most important conservation laws could increase greenhouse gas emissions and disrupt wildlife habitats.
The Story: The Trump Administration recently weakened the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a law that requires businesses and government agencies to research and disclose the environmental impacts of infrastructure projects such as the construction of roads and pipelines, reported Lisa Friedman for The New York Times. These changes are part of a series of more than 100 deregulatory actions that the Trump administration has made to rules that protect clean air and water, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, since coming into office. According to officials, if the revisions to NEPA are approved, they will allow agencies to complete projects without considering their impact on climate breakdown — or how the project itself could be affected by the future impacts of climate change such as sea-level rise and heat waves.
The Big Picture: “This sweeping rollback to NEPA is yet another example of a decision that moves us in the wrong direction,” said Rachel Golden Kroner, a social scientist at Conservation International. “The changes to this law will contribute to environmental degradation, greenhouse gas emissions and social injustice by not considering future climate impacts and making it more difficult for communities to participate in land-use decisions.” According to recent analysis, environmental regulations have been weakened on nearly every continent since the COVID-19 pandemic began — and many of these decisions were made without input from local communities. While some world leaders claim that easing environmental restrictions could help the economy recover, a recent study revealed that investing in policies that support nature and clean energy could actually offer more immediate economic benefits and high long-term savings than traditional policies.
Demand for Cuba’s most colorful snail species could have widespread consequences for the country’s forests and wildlife.
The Story: The illegal wildlife trade in eastern Cuba is driving the extinction of Polymita snails, considered the “most beautiful snails on the planet,” reported Douglas Main for National Geographic. Although it has been illegal to collect and trade these critically endangered snails since 2017, they are consistently targeted by wildlife traffickers for their colorful and intricately designed shells. According to reports by agencies that monitor wildlife trafficking, more than 23,000 Polymita snail shells were seized by Cuba’s customs department between 2012 and 2016.
The Big Picture: “The exchange of wildlife and wildlife parts is devastating to nature because it decimates species populations … which are critical to the health of their respective ecosystems,” said Conservation International’s Senior Climate Change Scientist Lee Hannah in a recent interview with Conservation News. In Cuba, Polymita snails help keep coffee trees healthy by eating moss and harmful fungi from their bark and provide a crucial source of food for many native bird species such as the Cuban kite. Not only could the global wildlife trade eradicate important species such as the Polymita snail, it could also be detrimental to human health: “[The wildlife] trade puts species in contact with other species — and other diseases — that they likely would have never encountered naturally in the wild. Taking tropical species and putting them in close contact with people at wild animal markets is flirting with disaster,” added Hannah.
Prioritizing nature protection in the private sector — through sustainable farming and fishing, clean energy and climate-smart infrastructure — could create more than 10 trillion dollars in business opportunities and millions of new jobs, according to a new report.
Driven by tourism, transportation and climate change, the spread of invasive species into ecosystems around the world could put native species at risk, according to a new report.
Cover image: Palm trees in Cuba (© Les Kaufman)