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Battling for Bison on Public Land

Everyone knows (uh, right?) that bison used to be ubiquitous across much of what became the United States, especially in the plains, and that European settlers set off a massive annihilation of the ungulates. Estimates of the number of North American bison, pre-colonization, range from 30 to 50 million. By the start of the 20th century, some estimates put the total number at around 1,000.

If you've been to Yellowstone or any park or preserve containing a "conservation" herd of bison, you know that we've managed to pull bison back from the brink. If you've eaten a bison burger, perhaps this is even more obvious. 

What saving bison means and does not mean, however, is a hotly debated topic because the goals of wildlife conservationists and those of commercial bison and cattle ranchers are at odds. The former wants wild herds to roam freely over wide swaths of public land. The latter already uses much of that land and worries that bison will compete for forage with its livestock. 

There are other issues, too, such as concern that brucellosis, a bacterial infection present in some wild bison herds, will be transferred to domestic cattle and bison herds if the wild bison roam wide and, well, free. Plus, private land-owners worry wild bison will trample their fences to get at hay or water during drought. Bison ranchers who graze their stock on public land worry about this, too, because what is to keep a landowner from shooting a bison he finds on his land and assumes it's wildlife rather than livestock? 

Montana is ground zero for this emerging range war because many Yellowstone bison carry Brucella (the bacteria that causes brucellosis) and move down from the highlands during the winter, toward grazing lands outside the park. The Park Service has been wrangling with the livestock industry for decades over this issue and worked out a sort of compromise that allows for some bison to roam into rangeland outside the park as long as they are ushered back into the park after winter. Nevermind that no one has documented any cases of cattle contracting brucellosis from bison outside of experiments in which the two animals were closely penned together. Montana ranchers go to lengths to keep brucellosis-free stock, which can be shipped out of state without costly testing.

A newly-released report by the Department of Agriculture shows that Brucella can be reliably removed from Yellowstone bison, through quarantine and treatment. This, in theory, should allay the livestock industry's concern around the disease. It seems it will do little, however, to quell the larger battles—which exist not just between wildlife folk and livestock folk, but also between bison ranchers and wild bison advocates.

Much of that contention is around the wild bison genome. A long history of cross-breeding with cattle means that only a small percentage (the American Prairie Preserve estimates 1.5 percent) of bison alive today are truly not hybrids. And the wild genome is being degraded, wildlife advocates argue, by bison ranchers using artificial selection to encourage certain traits.

"Evolutionary natural selection is what produced wild bison. Evolution has not ended, and natural selection is necessary to maintain the characteristics of wild bison, over the long haul," says James Bailey, a retired professor of wildlife biology at Colorado State University and author of American Plains Bison: Rewilding an Icon. "We don't leave bison to future generations of Americans. We leave the bison genome."

Dave Carter, executive director of the National Bison Association, a trade group that promotes bison ranching, argues that one can't make blanket statements about ranchers monkeying with bison genes. "A lot of ranchers have bulls and cows in pastures and they sort it out in the rut. It's all romance in the pasture," he says.

Carter notes that some of the larger producers, such as Ted Turner and Dunham Ranch, do manage herds for specific traits. Still, he says, bison ranches do not artificially inseminate their stock, do not use growth hormones, and use antibiotics only to treat illness. "Bison producers in Montana have worked hard to demonstrate that they are good neighbors with the cattle business," he added. 

Bailey pulls no punches when it comes to the influence livestock industry has on wildlife conservation efforts. "The ag industry does a good job of promoting themselves as the last real Americans and all that," he says. "[As if] they're the only people with family values and that kind of stuff. Then there's the Marlboro man.

"I don’t think the livestock industry should be controlling our public lands to the extend that we have privately-owned cattle on almost all of our public lands and public bison on none of them [outside of special herds in national parks and forests]."

The Nature Conservancy and the American Prairie Preserve both support wild bison herds on their respective conservation landscapes. And the National Wildlife Federation is working to restore bison to Montana's 1.1-million-acre Charles M. Russell (CMR) National Wildlife Refuge, as part of a larger program to address wildlife-livestock conflicts and restore the prairie grasslands to their natural state. A major tenant of this program is an "Adopt a Wildlife Acre" fundraising campaign, in which NWF uses donations to offer ranchers a fair price in exchange for their agreement to retire their public land grazing leases.

"The Wildlife Refuge is supposed to be for wildlife, but we are leasing it out for cows," says Bailey. "So the National Wildlife Federation is using public funds to pay [ranchers] not to graze our land. It doesn't make much sense but that's been a pretty common thing around the country."

So, aside from working to restore wild bison in pockets around the West, what can be done? Without a significant percentage of Americans giving up beef and therefore reducing demand for livestock grazing, there's no clear answer. Bailey says two attempts to gain federal protection for wild bison through the Endangered Species Act, failed.

"Around 2009 I submitted a proposal to list bison in the U.S. as a threatened species, but the meager response I got from the Fish and Wildlife Service, in my opinion, should be an embarrassment to the Fish and Wildlife Service," he says.

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Malaria Rising

For years, scientists and climatologists have expected to see climate change impact malaria's deadly reach, since the parasites that cause it (Plasmodium), and the mosquitoes (Anopheles) that spread it, grow and survive best in warm climates. Now a new study out of the University of Michigan confirms that the disease, and the bugs that bear it, are expanding into higher altitudes and previously unexposed communities.

The study, published in the journal Science, analyzed malaria records from highland regions of Ethiopia and Colombia, and then normalized them for influences such as malaria control programs or unusually high rainfall (control programs are reducing malaria rates, overall, and high rainfall boosts cases).

"We saw an upward expansion of malaria cases to higher altitudes in warmer years, which is a clear signal of a response by highland malaria to changes in climate," said the study's author, theoretical ecologist Mercedes Pascual.

The researchers examined malaria case records from the Antioquia region of western Colombia from 1990 to 2005, and from the Debre Zeit area of central Ethiopia from 1993 to 2005.

The report is especially troubling because the tropical highlands of Africa and South America contain very dense populations. The Debre Zeit region sits between roughly 5,000 and 8,000 feet above sea level and is home to 37 million people, or nearly half of Ethiopia's population. Many of these people live in rural areas where the insects could thrive.

"Because these populations lack protective immunity, they will be particularly vulnerable to severe morbidity and mortality," said co-author Menno Bouma, honorary senior clinical lecturer at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, which contributed to the study.

In an earlier study, the same researchers estimated that without new control programs, just one degree (Celsius) increase in temperature could lead to an additional 3 million malaria cases annually in Ethiopian children.

"Historically, the highlands regions of those countries were considered havens from malaria, places where people could go to get away from the disease," says University of Michigan spokesman Jim Erickson.

For travelers, this trend should not immediately impact malaria rates for those who follow the Centers for Disease Control recommendations to take antimalarial drugs when visiting areas up to 8,200 ft in Ethiopia and up to 5,577 ft in Colombia (the Antioquia region sits just under 5,000 ft).

Still, it's important to consider that warming temperatures are already changing the footprint of at least one serious (yet preventable) disease. Plus, while the CDC rates the risk of contracting malaria in Ethiopia as "moderate," it notes that the Plasmodium parasite there is resistant to the common anti-malarial drug chloroquine.

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Why The Polar Vortex is Good for Wolves

The Park Service website for Michigan's Isle Royale National Park describes it as "a rugged, isolated island where wolves... abound." Rugged and isolated, yes. Wolves abounding? Not quite. Only 8 wolves live on the 133,000-acre island today, down from 24 in 2009, according to Lake Superior Magazine's Phil Bencomo. The pack's isolation, and resulting lack of genetic diversity, is causing its decline. 

But the deep freezes accompanying this winter have have brought more to the upper Great Lakes that ice caves, it has formed ice bridges between the island and the nearest mainland, around 20 miles away. This is a rare event, not seen since 2008. That time, no new wolves came to the island—in fact, two collared wolves are believed to have to used the bridge leave it. Prior to 2008, the water had remained open since 1997, when an alpha male came to the island via the frozen lake. All the island's wolves alive today descend from that animal.

Rolf Peterson, a Michigan Technological University researcher who has studied Isle Royale’s wolves and moose for more than 40 years, told Bencomo that he predicts that, by 2040, Lake Superior simply won't have significant ice cover in the winter.

This might be one of the wolf pack's last chances to stem its decline—and if temperatures continue to rise as they have this week, the window is quickly closing.

Meanwhile, a major debate is brewing around whether biologists should intercede by introducing new wolves and deepening the genetic pool. Nearly the entire island is Wilderness with a capital W, and thereby protected by the Wilderness Act, so the short answer is "that's not legal."

But here’s the thing: the reason the wolves are suffering is tied directly to the fact that cold winters are exceedingly rare. So, the only way to effectively and sustainably help the island's wolves is to, basically, reverse climate change. This makes the whole argument over the legal implications of the Wilderness Act rather inconsequential.

Writes Bencomo: "Rolf [Peterson] contends that humans have already significantly impacted Isle Royale through climate change and other influences, so wilderness preservation today requires active human assistance, not merely drawing up park boundaries and stepping away. 'The 20th century notion of ‘wilderness’ is not immutable.' He argues that intervention is essential to fulfilling the NPS mission of conservation."

I expect that we are going to see more and more instances where land managers are stuck between preserving ecosystems (by leaving them alone) and trying to somehow preserve them by helping them adapt to a changing climate.

As Isle Royale's superintendent Phyllis Green said: “When you get these really large effects that are more indirect, I mean, climate change is so huge, it’s not like a situation where people went in and trapped out a species. You have this very insidious effect that’s going to happen over time to multiple species. So trying to sort out our role in that is why this decision process is taking the time it is.”

Read more about the decades-long Isle Royale wolf and moose study on this website, and sign up for email dispatches during the winter study here.

UPDATE: An Isle Royale wolf that escaped via the ice bridge has been found dead. Nicknamed "Isabelle," the collared adult female had been injuried previously in attacks by other wolves. It's not clear what ultimately killed Isabelle. She was not shot, and cause of death was not immediately apparent.

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Slush Funds: How to Cash in on Global Warming

There have been plenty of books documenting the myriad ways that climate change will take us all down. In Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming (Penguin, $28), Seattle journalist and frequent Outside contributor McKenzie Funk takes a contrarian approach, reporting on the people—and, in the case of Greenland and Canada, countries—that are poised to profit handsomely from the coming chaos. Funk tracks down Arctic oil strategists, Israeli snowmakers, arable-land grabbers, and those cunning enough to privatize public services, from water delivery to firefighting. So is it pragmatism, opportunism, or pure steely greed?

Outside: How did you figure out there were so many people trying to make a buck off global warming?
Funk: In 2010, I read that there was a Canadian military mission asserting the country's claim on the Northwest Passage. My first thought was, That's absurd. Who's afraid of the Canadian military? My second was, Hey, they're looking for an opportunity. The effects of climate change are real, and there's a rush up there in the Arctic. I decided to look at how others are repositioning for the new reality. Some were predictable, like the burgeoning movement in Greenland to attain independence from Denmark, based on revenue from oil under the melting ice. Others were more surprising, like oil companies buying up water rights in the American West for oil and gas extraction.

You write, "There is something crass about profiting off disaster, certainly, but there is nothing fundamentally wrong with it." Why not? Aren't you a jerk if, like some Wall Street bankers, you buy up Ukrainian farmland from peasants in exchange for vodka?
I found that example the most difficult. Wall Street has its own set of morals. I write about an American investor partnering with a feared warlord in South Sudan to buy land. As a libertarian, he believed in what he was doing beyond just making money. He thought that private investment was more stable than aid. Would I go partner with a warlord so he would burn down the city of Juba to create a libertarian peace? No. But this investor has a poodle, a wife, kids he loves. He was a nice guy. There aren't that many perfect villains in the world.

You note that the same oil companies that created the climate catastrophe will also be the ones to profit from it. That's not very satisfying. Where's the retribution narrative?
Climate change is a moral failing for the rich, but it's a moral failing for the rest of us, too, because we haven't done anything about it. It takes a lot of complacency to build a seawall around New York and let the problems pile up on the other side of the world. We're going to save ourselves first. A lot of us don't have that much to worry about, and that raises the moral stakes. You're screwing someone else if you're American.

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