I Support (my belly button’s) Biodiversity!

Thanks to the indefatigable Glenn Reynolds, I’ll never look at, or clean, my belly button the same way again:

If you were told you had an ecosystem living in your belly button, it might come as a bit of shock. Well, you probably do. These are just a few of the samples that Belly Button Biodiversity (BBB), a group of scientists from North Carolina University in Raleigh and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, have taken from themselves as well as students, science bloggers and others.

BBB want to strike down the “bad bacteria” stereotype and teach the world that many bacteria are harmless, helpful and a lot of times just hanging around, mooching off your body. The navel is an ideal place for bacteria to thrive because it’s isolated and most people don’t bother to wash it. (ed: ewww!) But what BBB wondered was, do the bacteria change from person to person?

The answer to that last question is yes, everyone has their own unique little navel ecosystem. The point of the research, as far as I can gather, is to teach all the compulsive anti-bacterial hand sanitizer, disinfecting spray-using hygiene freaks to lighten up a bit. A little dirt is actually really, really healthy for us. So let’s hear it for the bacteria living in our belly buttons! (but hey, let’s commit to maybe wash it once in a while).


Putting a Price on Nature

A thought-provoking piece on Yale’s Environment360 blog about protecting nature by pricing ecosystem services for trade in the marketplace. The payment for ecosystem services (PES) concept is at once old fashioned and cutting edge. It’s old fashioned because we long ago commodified the products of nature – lumber, salmon, water – for trade in the marketplace. But PES also seeks to attach market values to ecosystem services, such as the value wetlands provide by filtering pollutants from urban run-off, forests by purifying the headwaters of municipal water supplies, and native prairies by sequestering carbon. Conservationists first placed market values on ecosystem services to communicate the value of nature in terms politicians, corporations, and the public could understand. But PES is evolving into the idea that allowing ecosystem services to be valued, bought, and sold in a global marketplace just might save the environment.

The Yale360 piece points to a number of criticisms of the PES concept, and I know that readers of Free the Commons! could outline several concerns based on discussions we’ve had about the economics of nature, beginning with questioning how these “values” are derived, and when exactly did we agree that the Commons were privatized for trade? Those arguments being known, I’d like to offer a few of my own thoughts on why PES might not be the right idea.

First, the entire concept of buying and selling nature tells me that society (or at least parts of society) still consider nature as a commodity to be used, degraded, and potentially destroyed. Why else create a market if not to purchase the right to dispose of something the way you see fit? The idea of valuing, say, a wetland that is then traded in a market ensures only that the going market price is paid for the wetland before it is degraded or destroyed. That wetland has not been protected; that wetland is gone.

Second, consider this argument from the article in support of PES:

PES proponents can also point to early success stories: Vittel-Nestlé Waters recognized a few years ago that its aquifer in northern France was being polluted by nitrate fertilizers and pesticides from nearby farms. It devised a scheme to pay farmers to change their methods and deliver the ecosystem service of unpolluted water.

I think the first question to ask is why are individuals being allowed to pollute the aquifer? Now, let me make a point that PES supporters should understand: Nestle’s payment to these farmers represents a double loss for Nestle: the first loss is the cost associated with paying farmers to stop engaging in harmful activities – something they probably shouldn’t be doing anyway; the second loss is the foregone opportunity costs associated with using scarce financial resources to pay off the farmers. In what other ways could that money ($31.4 million according to the article) have been used? This is a tremendous waste of resources.

Third, I’ve seen something very similar to PES play out before, in Kansas. As a boy I could always find a place to hunt birds by asking my classmates if I could hunt their farms, or by hunting a neighbor’s land. We usually found some small way to pay the farmer for his kindness. But this practice began to change when, in an effort to sell farmers on the benefits of conservation, our federal farm agencies promoted the economic value of pheasants and quail: Protect some of your farmland, they said – we’ll show you how – and look at the money to be made by selling hunting rights. Now I do not criticize the farmers – it is their land and they have a right to its revenue. But the unintended consequences of this idea, to create a market where none existed before, has resulted in the loss of a hunting heritage that was far more open, neighborly, and communally beneficial than the network of high-cost hunting services that have replaced it.

I don’t know how PES will play out, but I will watch with interest as this debate unfolds. From a positive perspective, I am pleased that we recognize the need to protect the environment, even if I don’t think we’ve yet hit upon the right way to do it. We should always encourage new ideas and the dialogue that follows. All this requires is the willingness to listen to others, to engage their ideas with respect, and to proceed with a bit of humility. That’s why we’re here at Free the Commons! We aren’t certain we have the answers, but we hope to find the future of environmental protection and, with any luck and a lot of work, be a productive part of the dialogue.

Costa Rica To Ban Recreational Hunting

Via Drudge Report, Costa Rica appears to be ready to ban all recreational hunting in this biodiversity rich country. The nation’s legislature approved the hunting ban in a preliminary 42 – 5 vote, and President Laura Chinchilla is prepared to sign the measure into law, according to reports. If the ban goes into effect, Costa Rica would be the first country in the America’s to prohibit the sport.

I’m not aware that there is a long recreational hunting tradition in Costa Rica, as there is in America, Canada, and some other Latin American nations. The move though is surprising to me. My opinion of recreational hunting is shaped by our hunting heritage here at home, where being a successful hunter meant survival during our country’s early years. Today I see hunting as an incredibly important means of maintaining our relationship with the natural world. Specifically, I see hunting as one of the few direct activities that allows an individual to experience, understand, and appreciate, in unmistakeable terms, our role in the environment, and the environment’s role as sustainer of human life. We are quickly becoming a people wholly disconnected from nature, and not just in superficial terms, but in terms of humanity’s reliance upon nature as the source of our sustenance: air, water, and food. I think hunting for your dinner, even once in your lifetime, leaves a lasting impression upon the hunter of the significance of the natural world to your own humanity, and to our existence as a species. Maybe this is not an issue in a place like Costa Rica, where I’ll make an assumption that the people may be more closely connected to their environment than we are at home. Still, the move is surprising.

Eyeless Spiders and the End of Species

If some smidgen of bacterial goo was found on a faraway asteroid, it would be the discovery of the year, perhaps the century. Life on Earth would not be alone! Yet when it comes to the life that surrounds us, people can be remarkably cavalier, even downright callous: What’s another frog species more or less? What’s it do for us, anyways?

That’s the question Wired asks in its coverage of a September 11 report from the Zoological Society of London and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (two separate groups). Their report, titled “Priceless or Worthless?”, lists the top 100 species closest to extinction. The report’s authors, according to a press release, “hope[s] to push the conservation of ‘worthless’ creatures up the agenda that is set by NGOs from around the globe.”

Within the conservation movement there seems to be a “what have you done for me lately” mentality regarding the conservation of species. There has been a tremendous effort to attach utilitarian values to endangered species, and nature in general: in other words, to monetize the value of life on the planet. Those species and places that don’t seem to offer value to the human species tend to be ignored. From the press release:

“All species have a value to nature and thus in turn to humans,” says Dr Simon Stuart, Chair IUCN Species Survival Commission. “Although the value of some species may not appear obvious at first, all species in fact contribute in their way to the healthy functioning of the planet.”

Yes! We find species within some systems and not others because they evolved over millenia to be a part of that system. Take away any part, any piece, and the system is no longer whole. It may continue to function, but this is not the same thing. But we humans tend to overestimate our understanding of the natural world, when in fact, we know so little about the biosphere. We are not so much arrogant as ignorant, and we tend to err by ignoring and/or devaluing what we do not know or understand or see. This is the case with the conservation of the small, the mundane, the non-charismatic species in the world.

But there are deeper questions that deserve to be asked, and answered:

“While the utilitarian value of nature is important, conservation goes beyond this. Do these species have a right to survive, or do we have a right to drive them to extinction?” said Jonathan Baillie, the ZSL’s conservation director.

Should this not be the first argument, the first line of reasoning, in dealing with species? That they have value beyond what we assign to them? Don’t they have some inherent value, some inherent worth? Now I understand the utilitarian arguments; they are important arguments, necessary arguments: For one, I happen to believe that these utilitarian arguments inevitably lead even the most utilitarian of us to the deeper questions about inherent worth. I think first we must see that a thing is valuable to us, and then to others of us, and finally to our species. Then we will make the intellectual leap to the value of the species for its own sake.

So, having thought about that, what about this? Workers on a $15 million highway project in Texas have been shut down due to a dime-sized spider no one has seen in 30 years.

Workers found the Braken Bat Cave Meshweaver (Cicurina venii) spider, which hasn’t been seen in three decades, in the middle of a $15.1 million highway construction project in northwestern San Antonio. The eyeless arachnid is on the endangered species list—since construction would disrupt the spider’s natural habitat, the project has been halted for the foreseeable future.

No one said species conservation would be easy. How far can our bio-ethics take us beyond our pedestrian needs for streets and power plants and housing developments? A spider for the comforts of life? Tough one, no?

To Quote…

All men are brothers, we like to say, half-wishing sometimes in secret it were not true. But perhaps it is true. And is the evolutionary line from protozoan to Spinoza any less certain? That also may be true. We are obliged, therefore, to spread the news, painful and bitter though it may be for some to hear, that all living things on Earth are kindred.

-Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

Another great Abbey quote. Make you feel any differently about wolves?


Gray Wolves Make a Comeback

Did you miss the news dump on Friday? The Friday before Labor Day weekend? If you missed it, you’re not alone. Check it out:

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced today that the Wyoming population of gray wolves is recovered and no longer warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Beginning September 30th, wolves in Wyoming will be managed by the state under an approved management plan, as they are in the states of Idaho and Montana.

Depending on your politics you either view this news as tremendously exciting, or horribly depressing. The news is exciting because we have successfully managed to reintroduce gray wolf populations into the Northern Rockies, and have done so so successfully that the wolf is being delisted and returned to state control. In the U.S., wildlife is generally under the control of the states, unless there is some special concern that warrants federal intervention, such as endangered species.

Of course, this issue of state control may be the reason for your blue attitude about the delisting of the gray wolf. You see, state control generally means that the state will be in charge of managing population numbers. Population numbers will be managed through controlled hunts (hunting seasons) and ongoing predator control. This is the part some people don’t like, due to their distrust of local politics in these matters, owed largely to the general hostility that the northern Rocky Mountain states have shown toward the wolf reintroduction program.

For my part, I view wolf reintroduction and delisting as a general conservation victory. Let’s first remember that the purpose of the Endangered Species Act is to protect species threatened with extinction: it’s not intended as a long-term wildlife management tool. It’s job is to recover species. Hat tip to the ESA. Since wolf reintroduction began in 1995, the population has grown to nearly 1,800 individuals in the northern Rocky states. The reintroduction program overall is considered a wild success, exceeding everyone’s expectations; therefore, continued ESA protections appear unnecessary. And lest you harbor concerns, the Fish and Wildlife Service will continue to play a role in wolf management, monitoring populations and requiring the states to maintain a minimum number of breeding pairs so that the population is sustained.

No doubt there will continue to be a lot of hard feelings about the wolf reintroduction program, and I fully expect the environmental groups to challenge the wolf delisting, just as I anticipate future problems with state management. The politics of wolf reintroduction is not going to disappear overnight. But really, isn’t all of this a hopeful sign for the future? The successful reintroduction of a major predator species, the return of a beautiful wild animal – and they are beautiful – once all but forgotten in the western United States?

(photo courtesy U.S. FWS)


Dear Kitties: Please Stop Eating All of Our Birdies

We need more predators. The sheepmen complain, it is true, that the coyotes eat some of their lambs. This is true but do they eat enough? I mean enough lambs to keep the coyotes sleek, healthy and well fed. That is my concern. As for the sacrifice of an occasional lamb, that seems to me a small price to pay for the support of the coyote population. -Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

The story from a week or so ago that domestic cats are butchering our birds and frogs and voles and snakes and every other manner of creature that ever has walked, slithered, or crawled across the face of the Earth wasn’t exactly startling news to me. I own a cat; a sleek, healthy, happy, affectionate domestic shelter-rescue shorthair, and she loves to kill things. I hate it that she kills things, but the killing of things is in a cat’s nature. It cannot be avoided anymore than we can avoid the urge to walk upright.

Reading the story instantly reminded me of the Abbey quote above, and made me wonder whether cats have simply replaced coyotes in the predator-prey relationship. The coyotes are making a comeback, this is true, but there numbers must be nowhere near what they once were. Is it likely that the household cat has simply replace the role once filled by the coyote – the killer of many small living things? I don’t have an answer, but I am always curious by these things. Just like I have long been curious whether domestic cows are worse or better for the range than the multitudes of bison that once roamed the prairies. It seems that the two things may be equivalent – the cow and the bison – but I have read just enough to know that in practice and behavior and ecological impacts of the two ungulates are not the same. So I remain curious about my feline’s role in nature, and whether she is throwing all of nature askew by her possibly un-coyote-like behavior.

I suppose, to be honest, there is something we can do to intervene in this slaughter that Audobon and the American Bird Conservancy and others have warned us about: we could keep our cats indoors. In my opinion, this is a cruel thing to do to a cat if you live in a suburban or rural setting. It is likely a very kind thing to do in an urban environment or densely populated area where the poor cat wouldn’t stand a chance outdoors. But I would no sooner lock my cat indoors all day than I would force my kids to watch 12 hours of TV a day. If you make the decision to adopt a cat, you should certainly be aware and understand the consequences, but likewise you must be willing to allow a cat to be a cat.