May 15, 2013

Illinois Senate Approves Bill to Limit Dog Tethering

The Illinois Senate has approved limits on how people let their dogs out. The legislation would specify the length cord owners could use tying their dogs up outside. Brian Mackey has more.

The animals would have to be kept on a rope or light chain that's at least 10 feet long.

The sponsor of the legislation is State Sen. Linda Holmes (D-Aurora). She said the measure is meant to promote the humane treatment of animals.

"This is basically for the welfare of keeping the animal healthy," Holmes said." And it also has a psychological benefit: animals don't do well that are kept tethered on short leashes. They become aggressive."

Holmes acknowledged people with smaller lots might have a hard time using such a long tether, but she suggested they can always put their dogs on a leash and go for a walk.

The measure passed the Senate 43-9, but still has to get through one more vote in the Illinois House.

A Honey Bee collecting pollen.
(Wikimedia Commons)
March 29, 2013

Bee Populations in Decline, Debate Swarms Around Pesticides

As the spring pollination season approaches in Europe, there’s growing concern about the impact of a widely-used group of pesticides on bees–pesticides which are also used in the US.

In a vast cherry orchard outside Lleida, Spain, beekeeper Antoni Areste sets his honeybees loose on the first flowering crop of the season.

It’s a busy time of year for Antoni Areste, a beekeeper with 600 hives of honeybees. It’s also a worrying time, because Areste says his bee mortality rates are going up year after year.

“We’ve always had a five to 10 percent yearly loss of hives,” Areste says. “But now it’s 30 percent. It’s not viable. We beekeepers are the protectors of the environment.”

Because without bees, flowering plants don’t get pollinated.

And it’s not just honey producers who are concerned. Bees of all kinds are vital to the pollination of dozens of crops in Spain and around the world. If bees are in trouble, so is much of the food supply.

That’s why Areste has closely followed the growing debate in Europe over the use of neonicotinoid pesticides, or ‘neonics’ for short. Neonics are widely used on an array of flowering crops. And Areste believes traces of the chemicals are contributing to his losses.

A bee “ghost town”

He says the neonics take their toll gradually.

“You notice how the population of a hive slowly begins to drop,” as the bees eat contaminated pollen, Areste says. “Until finally one day the hive just dies. You open the box and you find only some remains of honey and pollen. It’s like a ghost town.”

No one disputes that neonics – a widely used class of pesticides that attack insects’ nervous systems – can kill bees. The question is whether they’re harmful at the sub-lethal doses bees and other pollinators currently encounter on food crops.

Neonics have been around for about 30 years, but about 10 years ago they started being used to coat seeds before they’re planted. The chemicals are absorbed into the crops and spread throughout their tissues, to fight off insect predators.

The problem, said British bee researcher Dave Goulson, is that when used to treat seeds, traces of the toxins also end up in a plant’s flowers, where bees feed, and collect pollen.

Goulson says the amounts of pesticides that the bees encounter on the flowers isn’t typically enough to kill the bees. “But these are neurotoxins,” he says, ‘so they’re still going to be affecting its brain.”

Study finds huge drop in queen production in exposed hives

Goulson and a team of researchers in Scotland have just published their findings from a study on the effects of neonics on wild bumblebees. In their experiment they fed some bumblebees nectar laced with amounts of neonics similar to what you’d find on, say, sunflower or corn crops. Meanwhile they kept a control group of bees pesticide-free by putting their nests outside on their university campus, “and just (letting) them grow as bumblebee nests do.”

Weeks later they brought the nests in and measured a key indicator of bee hive health: queen bee production. Each year it’s the queens who go out and start new hives. Without them, bee populations die off.

Goulson’s team found a huge difference between the pesticide-free bees and the bees exposed in the lab — an 85% drop in queen production.

Goulson believes the drop occurred because the bees exposed to neonics were disoriented, and collected less food for the hives’ grubs, which include the next generation of queens.

“Its like they’re drunk, or have been taken some other kind of drug,” he says, “and it makes them more easily confused, more easily lost, and so on.”

It’s studies like these that have given European regulators pause. Several European countries already restrict the use of neonics, including France, Italy, Slovenia and Germany. In January Europe’s Food Safety Authority concluded that neonics pose an unacceptably high risk to pollinators. That, in part, led the European Commission to propose a two-year ban on their use on flowering crops.

No alternative?

But Europe’s agro-chemical industry says studies like Goulson’s are flawed. Angel Martin, of the European Crop Protection Association, said such a moratorium would be devastating for agriculture.

“For the major crops like sunflowers, maize, and rapeseed,” Martin says, “the lack of availability of this technology for farmers will mean loss of economic growth of 5 billion euros.”

And Martin says for some of the pests, growers won’t be able to find alternatives.

Environmental groups like Friends of the Earth say there are non-chemical alternatives to the neonics. But Martin says farmers would just stop planting some crops, at the cost of thousands of jobs.

Those arguments convinced enough European governments to block the moratorium, at least for now. The ban fell short of an absolute majority in a vote last week. But it will be reconsidered later this spring.

The vote will be watched closely in the US Neonicotinoids are used heavily on corn there, and last week a coalition of activists filed a lawsuit against the EPA, hoping to force the agency to ban some of the pesticides because of the risk to bees.


March 28, 2013

Landlocked Midwest Farmers Raise Saltwater Shrimp

Shrimp is the number one seafood product in the United States. While most shrimp is imported from Asia or Ecuador, some is being raised indoors in the Midwest. The challenge is to simulate an ocean environment in a barn or other structure.


(Elizabeth M. Rogers/Wildlife Conservation Society via AP)
March 06, 2013

Elephant Poaching Pushes Species To Brink Of Extinction

A new study of Central African forest elephants has found their numbers down by 62 percent between 2002 and 2011. The study comes as governments and conservationists meet in Thailand to amend the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

African forest elephants have been in trouble for a while, but only now have scientists figured out that over half of them have died over the last decade. It took hundreds of researchers nine years, walking literally thousands of miles, counting piles of elephant dung as well as elephant carcasses stripped of their ivory tusks, to realize that the majority of the dead had been shot.

"We can see from seizures of ivory, and we can see from the number of carcasses that are starting to lie around in the forest, that elephants are in deeper and deeper trouble," said Fiona Maisels, who was part of the team that published these findings in the latest issue of the journal PLOS.

There's always been ivory poaching in Africa, but after a ban in 1989, the trade diminished. Now, however, the numbers have exploded. Some 25,000 African elephants are being killed every year, with much of that coming from forest elephants living in the heart of Africa.

Organized by the Wildlife Conservation Society, the research project found that the closer people, roads and villages are to elephants, the more animals die. The researchers used geographic information systems to correlate these factors to the numbers of killed elephants. They also discovered the "corruption to dung" ration.

"The more corrupt the country," Maisels says, "the less dung there is." Government corruption meaning officials who overlook or even participate in the illegal trade.

But the biggest contributor to the uptick in elephant killing is a huge spike in demand for ivory in China, where new wealth means more people can buy ivory. "And this [is] mainly to do with the fact that there is a very big middle to wealthy class in China now," Maisels says.

Chinese collectors covet ivory for figurines, chopsticks and trinkets. China is by no means the only market, but wildlife experts say China consumes half the supply. A growing population of Chinese workers in Africa makes the trade that much easier. As a result, the price of ivory has shot up ten fold over the past five to seven years.

The Chinese government has promised to discuss measures to curb the trade at the CITES meeting this week. But Maisels, who teaches wildlife biology at the University of Stirling in Scotland, says education is most important.

"Chinese students come up to me and say, 'Wow, you know, what can we do, we had no idea,'" she says. "That's the story that's put out, [that] they're anesthetized, the tusks are taken out and they're patted on the bottom and sent out to grow a new set."

Biologist Richard Ruggiero at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has spent 30 years working with elephants in central Africa. He says the numerical death count is bad enough, but he believes this is an animal that is somehow aware that something terrible is happening to it.

"Behind the numbers is a real tragedy of a very sentient creature, who really knows that there's a genocide going on," Ruggiero says. "They understand the concept of mortality. They show signs of mourning dead. They understand what tusks mean. They'll pick them up from a carcass."

Ruggiero says it's not just an African or Chinese problem. It requires everyone to take notice to halt the lucrative trade.

"Hopefully people will see the big picture," he says, "will see the aesthetics that elephants cannot and should not be reduced to numbers in a balance book of a business that trades in their teeth."


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