Herbs for Wildlife — Planting Edible Herbs for You and Wild Neighbours!

Each year I grow herbs, mainly for me but a little for wildlife, too.

For my part, I enjoy their fragrance when rubbing leaves between my fingers. I enjoy seeing their varied colours and textures on the deck and in the garden beds. And, of course, I enjoy tasting their lovely flavours.

There is something so satisfying about making a meal and simply popping outside to pick fresh basil for a pizza, parsley for a salad or lemon thyme for tea. I also like to dry my own herbs so I have lovely vibrant green herbs in my jars during the winter rather than the brownish herbs you often find in stores.

hoverfly herb

But I also get satisfaction when I leave some stems to go to flower as I know their tiny blooms are useful for loads of pollinators. From flower flies to little blue bees, they all come and work busily amongst my flowers.

I have a large oregano patch that has prolific clusters of pinky purple flowers that always seems to be full of insects. I tend to leave most of the patch alone, harvesting only a section of it for myself. But even a small pot of basil with a few flowers can help our insect allies.

The Caterpillar Connection

swallowtail caterpillar herb

Then there are plants like dill, fennel and parsley that are not only useful for their flowers but Black Swallowtail caterpillars enjoy the leaves as much as we do. If you are willing to share your plant then you will likely get to enjoy the experience of young caterpillars growing and then the final stage of a magnificent butterfly to grace your garden, even if it is only for a short time.

In this case, if you are concerned about not having any leaves for yourself, you can grow or buy extra plants or start a second crop a few weeks after you planted the first. If you are buying plants, you can always keep a few plants in a screened in area if you have one.

Of course, it’s best if you have lots of nectar plants for the adult butterflies to enjoy. Include annuals such as zinnias and calendula or perennials like milkweeds, Echinaceas, Monardas (Wild Bergamot and Bee Balm) and Joe-pye Weeds.

Growing Herbs

Growing herbs can be quite simple as most are happy with a big enough pot in full sun. Be sure to water daily, especially for plants like Basil and those in smaller pots that dry out more easily. Some will like fertilizing so add a bit of compost to your soil mix when planting.

bee herb

When it turns cold, some herbs survive the winter in my garden, like Oregano and Lemon Balm. Tender plants, however, need to come inside to a sunny window sill in order to live another year.

The Importance of Proper Window Placement

As the days are shorter in the winter, the sun becomes more important than ever. I’ve learned the hard way that I just don’t have the windows suited to help them all survive the cold for seven months. In one house I didn’t have enough space with windows that get full sun. In another house I had the window but with a baseboard heater below which meant my plants were between extremes of temperature, overriding the lovely sunny spot. So typically, I only bring inside my one Rosemary plant. The rest, like Basil and Thyme, I start from scratch each year.

Learn more about edible plants and how to garden for wildlife.

A New Threat for Bats

When it rains it pours. How can we help bats with this new threat?

Canada is home to 19 different species of bats and each and every one of them are important to our environment and also our economy.

When the sun goes down, bats get to work chowing down on the annoying pests in your backyard (I’m looking at you, mosquitoes!). They’re also extremely beneficial to the agricultural industry. In fact, bats save the agricultural industry $30 million every year. But sadly, they’re facing overwhelming threats that could eradicate them. From habitat loss to White-nose Syndrome, Canada’s bats have some mighty challenges. And now researchers are concerned that they could be dealing with yet another threat – neonics.

A little background on neonics: the agricultural industry has changed quite a bit in the last 20 years in terms of how they deal with pests. Systemic insecticides, like neonicotinoids (neonics), have been introduced and these insecticides get right into the plants – from the roots to the leaves. We’ve already learned that neonics are having terrible impacts on bees, butterflies and other pollinators, but it seems bats are very likely to be affected by them too.

There are three ways that neonics could impact bats by:

  1. Reducing the number of insects available
  2. Poisoning them when they eat insects that have been exposed to neonics
  3. Attacking their immune system, thereby making them more vulnerable to disease

Hunger

Bats need a lot of insects to fill up their tummies. In one night, a single bat can eat up to its own body weight in insects. While neonics isn’t the only culprit responsible for the global decline in insects, they certainly aren’t helping matters!

Poison

When bats do get hold of an insect or two, they’re at risk of ingesting the pesticide. Insects can be exposed to neonics and can carry around the pesticide on their wings, scales or hairs. Chowing down on multiple infected insects can affect a bat’s ability to move around using echolocation and more.

Disease

Neonics can remain in a bat’s body over a long period of time. One study tested bat tissue over the winter months and detected neonics. Carrying neonics for a long time could reduce a bat’s immune system, making it more vulnerable to disease such as White-nose Syndrome.

They Came From Below

Kilometres beneath our feet, deep in cracks under the Earth’s continents lives a vast, secret world of microbes

Every now and again, science comes up with a finding so revolutionary that it shakes up the way the rest of us see our planet. Those moments are pretty rare. I can point to only a handful in my life, including the time a very patient theoretical physicist from the California Institute of Technology explained quantum field theory to me. (Thanks, Sean Carroll!) I could never see the world the same way after that.

These are not the incremental — but important — findings that sharpen what we already know, like the news that more methane than ever is seeping out of Arctic permafrost, for example. Or that sea stars are melting like papier mâché, victims of a ferocious wasting disease. They are not like the discovery of a new species or the news flash that a creature once endangered has come back from the brink or the welcome research showing how an animal is adapting to planetary change.

These are the mind-blowers. And one showed up on my doorstep late last year.

It turns out that kilometres beneath our feet, nestled deep in crustal cracks under the Earth’s continents and far below the seabed floor lives a vast, secret world of microbes.

DEEP BENEATH US, MICROBES HAVE EXISTED FOR TENS OF MILLIONS OF YEARS TRAPPED IN A STATE OF SUSPENDED ANIMATION… LIKE SOMETHING OUT OF SCIENCE FICTION

Most are strangers to science. But because of novel scientific drilling techniques and DNA sequencing, scientists are beginning to find them. It’s all part of the Deep Carbon Observatory project that has been going on for about a decade, run by hundreds of scientists across dozens of countries.

They’ve come up with a bunch of ways to describe this newly discovered part of the planet: microbial dark matter. The Galapagos of the deep. The life of the Stygian sphere. The creatures themselves are mainly bacteria and single-celled archaea (microbes with no nucleus). And they are weird. Far weirder than their relatives on the surface. These fellows survive the underworld equivalent of fire and brimstone. They live under unimaginable pressure in high-temperature extremes long believed inimical to life. They manage with no light and almost no food, some nourished only by the meagre energy shed by rocks.

Some individuals seem to have existed for millions or even tens of millions of years trapped in a state of suspended animation. It’s like something out of science fiction. They don’t divide or grow. They are barely alive. How do they do it? Are they zombies, never capable of revival? Or are they just in purgatory, waiting for the moment when they can spring back to full life? Scientists don’t have a clue.

What they do know is that there are a lot of these microbes of the netherworld. Scientists calculate that 70 per cent of the planet’s bacteria and archaea live in these underground lairs. That means there are more inside the Earth’s crust than on top of it.

This space, dubbed the “deep biosphere,” is twice as big as the volume of the vast global ocean, making it the biggest ecosystem on the planet.

And it’s a massive carbon store. There’s so much life hidden in the innermost reaches of the crust that it contains anywhere from 245 times to 385 times more carbon than that held in all the humans now alive. Not only that, but these odd creatures are similar no matter which part of the planet’s deep recesses scientists sample. What’s underneath Seattle, Washington, is similar to what’s underneath South Africa.

So what does it mean? For one thing, it’s likely to redraw the tree of life, the schematic showing which species evolved from which. Is this dark world where life on our planet originated? Or did life seep into the crust from the surface and then evolve into wholly new forms?

Can these communities of underworld microbes move? Do they rely on earthquakes or tectonic plate movements in any way? Are they affected by waste products that humans are injecting into the deep Earth?

Perhaps most intriguingly, how are these new microbes connected to their cousins on the surface, if at all? Are they part of the planet’s biological cycles? Geological cycles? Chemical ones?

So far, we don’t have the answers. But isn’t it intoxicating to think of all that life underneath us, going about its business for millions of years, maybe influencing how our lives unfold? What else don’t we know?

URGENT: Help Protect Ontario’s Endangered Species Act

The deadline for public comments is March 4, 2019.

The Ontario government is reviewing its Endangered Species Act. But so far, the review appears to focus on making the act more efficient for economic development rather than improving outcomes for wildlife and habitat. Your voice can make a difference. But you must speak up now!

The Ontario Endangered Species Act is a last line of defence against extinction in an era that scientists have termed the sixth mass extinction on the planet.

Canada’s wildlife depends on innovative regulations, policies, and programs that make conservation of species at risk the primary goal.

Stronger and more effective action is the key to protection and recovery of Ontario’s endangered species and providing clarity for business, not building further holes in the Endangered Species Act.  The Act already contains exemptions and permits for industry and the need for permits has been removed entirely for some activities that negatively impact species at risk.

The government wants to hear from people on four aspects of protecting endangered species that they pose as challenges to economic development.

Here’s what we think:

1. Landscape Approaches

We support recovering species by looking at the entire landscape and taking actions that will contribute the most to improving habitat and protecting species from harm; however, care must be taken to ensure the individual needs of each species are still taken into account. There are situations where a species-specific approach is still warranted.

2. Species Listing Process and Protections

The ability of the Committee on the Status of Species at Risk in Ontario (COSSARO) to determine the status of species, independent of government, is essential to the proper functioning of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Improved communication and transparency in all aspects of species assessment and protection is warranted to provide clarity for the public and business.

Habitat loss or degradation is a primary cause for species decline. Automatic protection, combined with clear communication on where impacts can and cannot occur, would protect species while providing certainty of what to expect for economic development.

3. Species Recovery Policy and Habitat Regulations

Delays and inaction are detrimental to species while at the same time providing little economic certainty since business is uninformed of the parameters under which they must operate.  What is needed for species and economic development is for government to focus resources on quickly providing the framework for protecting habitat and taking action.

4. Permitting Processes

We are in favour of consistent application and streamlining of decisions, which must also include decisions to deny a permit for an activity that would harm a species or its habitat. Permits allowing harm to endangered species or their habitat poses considerable risk so need to come with strict conditions. Extinction is permanent.

What you can do

Let the Ontario government know you want strong protection for Species at Risk in Ontario, which means a prioritization on conserving species at risk and the habitats they depend on through improved implementation of the Endangered Species Act in its current form.

Post your comment on the Environmental Registry by March 4, 2019
Post Your Comment

You can use all or part of CWF’s position as outlined above or craft your own response.

Protect Ontario’s Endangered Species Act. Protect Wildlife. Our economy will benefit by clear regulations, swift responses and improved communications, not by delays and exemptions in applying the Ontario Endangered Species Act, which is a critical backstop against extinction.

Find out more about endangered species in Ontario and CWF’s conservation efforts:

A Good Start for Monarchs

The overwintering Monarch population in Mexico has increased. Let’s help them when they make their trip home to Canada!

The monarch butterfly boasts a 4,000 kilometre migratory trek – that’s 95 marathons! They begin their journey in the north, at the end of summer or early autumn. While western Monarchs aim to overwinter in California’s pine, cypress and eucalyptus trees, Monarchs east of the Rockies head to Mexico’s oyamel fir forests for the winter months.

Losses and Gains

The overall Monarch population has declined about 90 per cent since the 1990s. The Monarch was assessed as Endangered in Canada in 2016 by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Species in Canada (COSEWIC).  The federal government has not yet decided whether to accept this recommendation and list the species officially as Endangered.

However, a recent count has shown that after years of declines, the number of Monarchs in the Mexican wintering area has increased.

© Donna Cook

“The latest assessments in Mexico show that 14 colonies of overwintering butterflies occupied a total area of 6.05 hectares of the oyamel fir forest,” says Carolyn Callaghan, Senior Conservation Biologist, Terrestrial Wildlife with the Canadian Wildlife Federation “This is a 144 per cent increase over the 2018 result, and the highest area recorded since 2006.”

The World Wildlife Fund Mexico in collaboration with partner organizations has been conducting the annual assessment of the oyamel fir forest since 1995.

The observed increase is thought to be due to favorable weather conditions across the eastern range throughout the spring, summer and fall of 2018. It may also be due in part to recent widespread and large-scale efforts across the US to restore thousands of hectares with milkweed and nectar plants.

“This is a much-needed and promising result indicating that Monarch did have the good year that many of us observed in southern Canada. However, millions of hectares of Monarch habitat have been lost in recent decades due to increases in herbicide use, changes in agriculture and other development. If positive Monarch population trends are to continue, then Canada needs to do its part in improving Monarch habitat at a landscape scale.”

Canadian Habitat is Key

A recent study using stable isotopes showed that a significant percentage of the Monarchs overwintering in Mexico originated in southern Canada. Yet Canada lags far behind in recovery efforts for the beleaguered species, says Callaghan.

Habitat restoration is already happening across the United States, where thousands of hectares of roadsides and utility corridors are being planted with milkweed and other nectar-bearing wildflowers to act as both breeding areas and fuel stops for migrating butterflies. State and federal departments of transportation, energy and agriculture are all actively involved.

The roadsides and utility corridors are also mowed and sprayed less, providing cost savings as well as crucial habitat for Monarch and many other pollinating insects. And now governments in the US are providing support for farmers to grow milkweed and nectaring plants to help the Monarch recover.

“CWF and dedicated partners are working hard to improve and increase habitat for Monarch in eastern Ontario,” she says. “We are hoping to expand our pilot project to help restore more of the migration network in southern Canada. With support from the Ontario Trillium Foundaton and the partnership of HydroOne, Lanark County, and the National Capital Commission, we are making habitat gains. With the partnership from the federal and provincial governments, we can play our part in restoring the Monarch migration network across the whole breeding range.” And that really would be good news for Monarchs.

Learn more about how CWF is helping the Monarch Butterfly and how you can get involved.

Hola Monarcha!

Guest blogger Donna Cook is a nature interpreter who writes about her recent visit to the Monarch Butterflies’ overwintering grounds in Mexico.

Lying down in a high mountain meadow looking up at the sky, we are thrilled to see thousands of Monarch Butterflies flying in a stream above us.

Orange, black and white wings flutter along in a light breeze heading for the large fir trees where the Monarchs roost from late October through March of each year. Fellow visitors speak in hushed voices so as not to disturb the insects and there is a sense of excitement in the air.

Like many Canadians, we love visiting Mexico. This February we headed inland to see where the Monarch butterflies overwinter.

Mariposa Monarcha

The butterflies are called “Mariposa Monarcha” in Spanish — a fittingly beautiful name for a brilliant insect that has an incredible life cycle.

Like us, they have flown all the way from Canada. Unlike us, they have had to dodge hurricanes, find enough food to fuel their flight and deal with changing weather. Monarch numbers have been decreasing over the past two decades and there have been calls to add them to the Canadian endangered species list.

Cerro Pelόn

© Donna Cook

There are a handful of Monarch Reserves in Mexico. We decided to go to Cerro Pelόn first. It is one of the least visited areas.

Horses lead us along a steep trail through the forest passes and dense patches of wildflowers. Our mounts stop for us to dismount and we walk to the roosting trees. I imagine the butterflies feeding on these colourful plants, storing up energy for the journey north.

The roosting trees are large with millions of butterflies clinging to the branches. The branches droop with the weight of so many insects. A few roosting trees are visible from the trail and I wonder how many there are in total.

We continue walking uphill to an open meadow where we lay down to watch the skies. Here, about 50 other visitors share the experience.

It was a spectacular day. We came down from the trail covered in dust and walking on air.

El Rosario

© Donna Cook

Our second destination was El Rosario. This is where thousands of visitors arrive each weekend from Mexico City and abroad.  As we hike from the village to reach the trailhead, a couple of local kids skip along beside us. They greet us with “Hola” then sing a Monarch song. We smile as we share their enthusiasm.

The Monarch reserves are important to the local communities, providing them jobs and income. These kids are hoping to sell us butterfly souvenirs to help support their families.

As we hike into the reserve, it appears that the old growth trees have been logged nearly all the way to the roosting trees. Deforestation is one of the threats to the Monarchs’ survival here. New trees have been planted and there is a determined effort to protect these wintering grounds.

The environment at El Rosario is similar and there are more butterflies here. We are fortunate as it is mid-week and the crowds are thin. Butterflies engulf us and some land on the people in the group. Cameras are clicking, and binoculars are passed around. Another amazing day!

Regresando al norte

We will return to Canada, but this generation of Monarchs will not. They will fly north in April and find wild milkweed plants to lay eggs on. The next generation will continue the trip reproducing along the way.

The grandchildren of the butterflies we saw in Mexico will arrive in southern Canada in late May. I plan to welcome them here by planting some native milkweed and wildflowers to help them along.

Say “Hola Monarcha” in your garden too! Learn how with CWF’s Gardening for Wildlife.

 

 

 

 

UPDATED: A New Start for the North Atlantic Right Whale?

Great news for the North Atlantic Right Whale.

We are approaching the end of the calving season for Endangered North Atlantic Right Whales. But this year there is good news: as of February 13, 2019, there are six new calves in the population!

This is a wonderful discovery. Let’s not forget 2017, when 17 of these whales were killed and the subsequent calving season when no calves were born.

New Food Sources = New Hope?

A trio of blue whales observed while showing an extraordinary and rare behavior. © David Gaspard | CWF Photo Club
A trio of blue whales observed in the St. Lawrence River near Matane, Québec while showing an extraordinary and rare behavior. © David Gaspard | CWF Photo Club

These discoveries offer another important hope. Since 2010, Right Whales have been reducing their use of traditional summer feeding grounds (the Bay of Fundy and Roseway Basin). It is speculated that this is due to the  reduced quality of food found there. Conversely, they have become more common in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, possibly because they are seeking new areas to feed. Did they find a better food source?

At first glance, it appears that four of these six mothers were feeding in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 2017 and two in 2018. This is great news because many scientists have been concerned that the animals would not be able to find enough food in this non-traditional habitat to support reproduction.

The Cost of Pregnancy

The distinctive v-shaped blow of the mother and calf North Atlantic Right Whale stands out against the steel-blue of the sea and sky. © Allan McDonald
The distinctive v-shaped blow of the mother and calf North Atlantic Right Whale stands out against the steel-blue of the sea and sky. © Allan McDonald | CWF Photo Club

What they eat is directly tied to their ability to reproduce. Becoming pregnant and raising a calf requires a large amount of energy.

Female Right Whales stop feeding at the end of the summer and swim to the southern U.S. to give birth in the winter. During this time, they provide milk to their babies (for about 12 months!) and slowly swim back to their feeding grounds in Canada the following summer where they can finally eat again.

To do all this means they must start their journey south good and fat. It requires so much energy that most adult Right Whales only give birth once every two to three years.

What This Means for These Whales — And Us

These highly endangered animals are doing their part to survive in this world: they are finding enough food to keep having babies.

The rest is up to us. This is not a small challenge!

Lobster traps drying in the sun near Bonavista, NFLD. @ Megan Lorenz | CWF Photo Club
Lobster traps drying in the sun near Bonavista, NFLD. @ Megan Lorenz | CWF Photo Club

Our activities in the ocean — particularly fishing and shipping — seriously injure and kill many North Atlantic Right Whales every year.

Canada took great efforts to reduce risk from these activities to these whales in 2018 by introducing important fishing and shipping regulations. This appears to have had some success because we saw zero mortalities in the Gulf of St. Lawrence since the regulations were invoked (there were 12 Right Whale deaths in Canadian waters in 2017 alone).

But the danger is not gone.

There is much we need to learn, and much more we need to change in these activities if we want to continue to benefit from our oceans without carelessly eliminating a species from our planet.

Learn more about the 2018 marine conservation regulations.

Devastating Downfall for Western Monarchs: A Harbinger of Things to Come?

All along the California coast in fall and winter, there are places you can visit where colonies of adult Monarch butterflies overwinter.

At the ocean’s edge, dozens or even hundreds of the brilliant orange butterflies gather, lighting up the coastal vegetation. I have always intended to visit with my kids. Sadly, recent survey results suggest that it would be best to hurry.

Many people are aware that Monarchs overwinter in Mexico. And this is true: the Mexican overwintering site contains mainly the Monarchs that migrate from breeding areas in central and eastern North America.

 

Monarch migration map
Map of the Monarch Butterfly migration. There are two distinct migrations: western and eastern. The western migration terminates on the California coast (see red highlighted area). Map © Xerces Society

Lesser-Known Western Monarchs

Much less known to Canadians is the fact that there is also a western migratory population of Monarchs. Most of these Monarchs breed on western species of milkweed as far north as southern BC, Oregon and Idaho, and aggregate every fall in hundreds of small clusters of coastal Pacific forest from northern California to Mexico.

Monarchs breed on western species of milkweed as far north as Oregon and Idaho.
Monarchs breed on western species of milkweed as far north as Southern B.C., Oregon and Idaho.

By November, most western butterflies have arrived on the coast and have formed stable colonies that will persist until February.  Every year at American Thanksgiving, the Xerces Society coordinates volunteers to conduct a census of these overwintering populations.

“Devastating” Downfall in Numbers

western monarchs on pink flower

Preliminary census results for the 2018 western Monarch counts are nothing short of alarming.

Counts this past Thanksgiving showed that California’s overwintering butterfly population has declined 86% over the previous year, which was already one of the lowest on record.

In the 1980s, the California coast hosted over 4 million butterflies. Early estimates from 2018 data are projecting just 30,000. Words like “catastrophic” and “devastating” are emerging from normally-restrained senior scientists.

Why Are Western Monarchs Declining?

What has caused such a tremendous decline? The precise reasons for the 2018 decline are unclear, but California’s devastating wildfire season, combined with historic droughts in the west could be to blame.

Wildfires in California
The 2018 wildlife season was the most destructive wildfire season on record in California. Approximately 8,527 fires burned over an area of 1,893,913 acres (766,439 ha).

The uncomfortable truth is that Monarchs across their entire North American range have faced many unrelenting threats for at least two decades. Loss of larval milkweed plants due to herbicide and pesticide use, crop intensification, and climate-related changes have already brought Monarch numbers across North America to all-time lows.

Foretelling the Future

monarchs-flying-blue-sky

Do the western survey results predict the future of the eastern migratory population? Time will tell.

Every February, scientists at MonarchWatch estimate the amount of area in the Mexican Oyamel fir forests that is occupied by overwintering Monarchs from central and eastern North America.  This population has also declined by around 90% since record keeping began.  

In 2018, many of us observed an excellent summer for Monarch in eastern Canada. But migration is risky, and intense tropical storms or prolonged drought during the fall migration can lead to high mortality.  We are both hopeful and anxious about this year’s results.

Working Towards Restoration for Monarchs

monarch restoration sign

Still, at the Canadian Wildlife Federation, we are not intending to sit and wait for the news. It is unthinkable that a beloved species that was previously abundant could be facing a perilous future. In 2018, with the help of the Ontario Trillium Fund, CWF launched a pilot habitat restoration project. With fantastic partners including Hydro One, Lanark County and the National Capital Commission, we are restoring 10 acres of native meadow habitat along roadsides and rights of way. Four sites are prepared, and are ready for seeding with native plants in the spring of 2019.

It’s a small start, but we have a vision to expand habitat along linear migratory networks through southern Ontario and beyond.

We Must Act Now

monarch-on-child-hand

One thing is clear: the Monarch across North America is in  a precarious situation, and it will take all hands on deck to prevent its further decline.

If we are to succeed, it will be due to hard work and commitments by all levels of government, industry partners, the agricultural community and private citizens.  That is the best way to ensure that our children and grandchildren will be able to witness the spectacle of Monarch migration and overwintering.

It can’t wait anymore.

Stay tuned for further updates on the status of Monarch Butterfly and CWF’s Monarch Habitat Restoration Project.

Prophets of Loss

Sometimes it’s the little things that reveal the big picture.

Consider a recent paper in Nature about how plants in the tundra, the coldest ecosystem in the world, are growing taller now as the climate warms.

What are the implications? Will the taller plants absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, offsetting some of the warming? Or will they help heat up the soil even more in the winter as they increase decomposition rates, releasing yet more of the massive amount of carbon the soil stores? So far, that’s unknown. What is known is there are massive changes afoot in an ecosystem that is warming more quickly than any other part of the planet. And with that comes a pressing need for the world’s species to adapt swiftly to new conditions if they are to survive.

Sometimes larger truths are made apparent by putting all sorts of little trends together into a sweeping analysis. Take the latest Living Planet Report from the World Wildlife Fund, published in October. Its authors looked at nearly 17,000 individual populations of animals with backbones — mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians. In all, that amounted to about 4,000 species. In just 44 years, from 1970 to 2014, their populations dropped in size by an average of 60 per cent.

Put another way, human activities have halved those populations — on average — in less than 50 years. In the densely biologically diverse South and Central America and the Caribbean, the average population drop is 89 per cent.

The mechanism? As the WWF puts it, it’s still mainly guns, nets and bulldozers. But now, it’s also heat, toxins and invasive creatures taking over.

That’s a lot of death. And it’s swift.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature, which compiles the Red List of endangered species, also came up with some new numbers in 2018. Of the 93,000 or so species it has assessed, more than 26,000 have populations so severely diminished that they are at risk of extinction. That’s more than a quarter.

Again, that’s a tremendous amount of death. Not only that, but today, 872 of the species we once shared the planet with have gone extinct, and another 1,700 are on the brink.

This matters because we know that sometimes, conditions on the planet spiral out of control; things change so swiftly that species don’t have the chance to adapt like the plants of the tundra are doing. The result: a mass extinction. That phenomenon has happened just five times over the 4.6 billion years that Earth has been here. The last one, 65 million years ago, killed off the dinosaurs.

So the great question is this: Does all the death that the Red List and the World Wildlife Fund are chronicling mean we are in the throes of the sixth mass extinction?

Paul R. Ehrlich says yes. Ehrlich is the Stanford University biologist who came to fame in the 1960s with his book The Population Bomb. Back then he predicted humans would overwhelm the Earth’s ability to support us. Only a technological revolution in agriculture could avert disaster. Now in his 80s, Ehrlich along with two co-authors has produced a new analysis. Human population numbers have kept growing exponentially. But in the process, we have wrought what he and his two co-authors call “biological annihilation.” Ehrlich says it’s not enough to look at which species are close to extinction: we need to look broadly at what has happened to different populations in the last century and what happened to their habitat.

Their analysis looked only at land-dwellers with backbones — terrestrial vertebrates. Even in species the Red List considers to be of least concern, they found high death rates: ranges have shrunk, some local populations have been wiped out, and remaining populations have seen sharp declines though they don’t yet rank as endangered. Ehrlich calls this “population decay.”

The point is that the planet is losing the exquisitely evolved networks that support life as a whole, and with it we are losing the planet’s collective genetic memory. And the question is, what if, as the planet changes so fast, species need that vanishing genetic information to survive?

Reprinted from Canadian Wildlife magazine. Get more information or subscribe now! Now on newsstands! Or, get your digital edition today

The Next Extinction Level Event — Is It Already Here?

Are we witnessing a mass extinction?

Life began on Earth 3.8 billion years ago. Since then it’s been through a lot — including five mass extinctions.

That last extinction occurred 65 million years ago when it is believed that a six mile wide asteroid hit the earth killing off the dinosaurs. Many scientists agree that the next mass extinction might happen sooner rather than later — as in, it’s already underway.

The Sixth Extinction

Vancouver Island Marmot

You see, species are going extinct at a rate that this planet has never seen before. According to The Sixth Extinction – An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert, we’re losing some species 45,000 times faster than we ever did before. With the rate we’re going, we could lose between 20 to 50 per cent of our species within the century.

We could lose between 20 to 50 per cent of our species within the century.

Scientists believe that one-third of freshwater mollusks, sharks and coral reefs are well on their way to vanishing from our waters. Moreover, a quarter of our mammals, a fifth of our reptiles and a sixth of our birds are on their way out too. And every time another species goes extinct, we are all witnessing something we shouldn’t be able to witness.

The Cause? You Guessed It…

city smog

Why in the world are we headed in this downward spiral? Sadly, the culprit is largely because of you and I.

Humans have really taken over. Our population is exploding and we are digging our grubby fingers into things all over the globe — tinkering with the soil, water, air and more.

Think about it, since the industrial revolution we’ve added nearly 365 billion metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, and 180 billion tons more by cutting down forests. We’re also placing dams in our rivers, fishing immense amounts of the ocean’s fish, and using more and more of the world’s water.

Plus, thanks to us, species are getting around in a way that would never have been possible just a few short centuries ago. Species are being transported in airplanes and cargo vessels from one continent to another, introducing a range of invasive species that put native species at risk.

The Cost of Convenience

What we need is a little bit of perspective. So many of our decisions are based on convenience and making life easier that we forget to ask ourselves — but at what cost? Who will pay the price? It might be the brightly coloured butterflies that visit your garden every spring. Or the majestic whales that have swam our oceans for centuries. Are we really willing to risk losing these beautiful creatures?