Category Archives: Political Ecology

What does Ecology have to offer for Covid pandemic response planning?

It has already occurred to many ecologists that Covid pandemic management could obtain some useful advice from ecologists in many subdisciplines. Yet there is apparently no clear use of established ecological idioms for Covid planning that I can find in the literature. No doubt there were many informal meetings among ecologists and medical scientists, and epidemiology is an ecological subdiscipline. Some papers have been published about the behavioural ecology of individual interactions that could lead to infection spread (e.g., Shaw et al. 2021) and books and symposia will no doubt appear once the pandemic is over. But I can find no direct evidence that ecologists were consulted in the early days of the pandemic for ideas about disease spread in spite of an abundant literature on the subject (e.g., Jones et al. 2008, Halliday et al. 2017 and many others). Let us try to list some of the ecological principles that might have been useful if they were injected into the Covid pandemic planning and discussions from the start.

I can see six ecological principles that could be useful for any disease planning:
(1) Invasion ecology
(2) Island eradications
(3) Biosecurity considerations
(4) Pest control
(5) Population regulation.
(6) Evolutionary ecology.

Invasion ecology provides many examples of the clear principle that avoiding the introduction of a new species or disease is the simplest way to avoid potential future issues. Once a species is introduced it is typically impossible to get rid of it or alternatively very expensive.

Island eradications have given us several lessons in the difficulties of eradication of a pest once it is established. The best examples come from introduced rats on islands (Russell and Broome 2016, Wheeler et al. 2019) and cat eradication on Macquarie Island (Dowding et al. 2009). Advances are being made in eradication on islands but to achieve this on a continental scale eludes us unless the species is caught very early in its establishment.

Biosecurity considerations flow from the trade in illegal drugs but of late have focused on endangered wildlife. The principle is to prevent the entry or exit of dangerous or threatened organisms. ‘Do not let the organism in’ seems to be a message lost on most countries during the Covid pandemic.

Pest control has been a major issue both in conservation, in agriculture, and in epidemiology. It is the one ecological principle that has occupied 95% of the energy and the funding for Covid problems that have arisen partly from ignoring the previous three principles. Our success in dealing with Covid is about on par with our success in pest control, which is not a compliment.

Population regulation would seem to be an issue far from a pandemic, but it is an essential feature of the spread of the virus in densely populated areas. Much attention has been paid to social interactions and their behavioural consequences (e.g., Xu and Cheng 2021), but the matter has emerged again as ‘hot spots’ of viral infections and the discussions of whether vaccine availability should be prorated to these areas to reduce contagion or given to more susceptible older people or to essential workers however defined. Individual differences are a major area of behavioural ecology and there is an extensive literature that I think has not been mined for ideas of how to respond to a pandemic.  

Evolutionary ecology is another critical area of great interest in disease management because of the speed of mutational changes in disease organisms. Much of the current discussion is about virus variants that are ‘of concern’ and those that are variants ‘of interest’. Distinguishing these is relatively simple but has not been used as much as it should to prevent continued outbreaks from the new mutations by widespread testing. Much modelling has been done but too little empirical work to trace these invasions in detail from one continent to another.

The bottom line of this discussion is a plea for medical specialists to talk to ecologists and other natural scientists. I suspect too few medical people feel that biologists would have any insight to pandemic management decisions, and I am certain that many or most politicians have no idea of the complexities of the ecology of pandemics. So, this is a plea following Haley et al. (2021) and Shaw et al. (2021) for more cooperation and consultation between scientists who have knowledge of details that might help us in keeping ahead of the next wave.

Dowding, J.E., Murphy, E.C., Springer, K., Peacock, A.J., and Krebs, C.J. (2009). Cats, rabbits, Myxoma virus, and vegetation on Macquarie Island: a comment on Bergstrom et al. (2009). Journal of Applied Ecology 46, 1129-1132. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2664.2009.01690.x

Haley, D., Paucar-Caceres, A., and Schlindwein, S. (2021). A critical inquiry into the value of systems thinking in the time of COVID-19 crisis. Systems 9, 1-14. doi: 10.3390/systems9010013.

Halliday, J.E.B., Hampson, K., Hanley, N., Lembo, T., Sharp, J.P., Haydon, D.T., and Cleaveland, S. (2017) Driving improvements in infectious disease surveillance through locally relevant capacity strengthening. Science 357:146–148. doi:10.1126/science.aam8332.

Jones, K.E., Patel, N.G., Levy, M.A. et al. (2008) Global trends in emerging infectious diseases. Nature 451: 990–993. doi:10.1038/nature06536.

Russell, J.C. and Broome, K.G. (2016). Fifty years of rodent eradications in New Zealand: another decade of advances. New Zealand Journal of Ecology 40, 197-204. doi: 10.20417/nzjecol.40.22.

Shaw, A.K., White, L.A., Michalska-Smith, M., Borer, E.T., Craft, M.E., Seabloom, E.W., et al.  (2021). Lessons from movement ecology for the return to work: Modeling contacts and the spread of COVID-19. PLoS ONE 16, e0242955. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0242955.

Wheeler, R., Priddel, D., O’Dwyer, T., Carlile, N., Portelli, D., and Wilkinson, I. (2019). Evaluating the susceptibility of invasive black rats (Rattus rattus) and house mice (Mus musculus) to brodifacoum as a prelude to rodent eradication on Lord Howe Island. Biological Invasions 21, 833-845. doi: 10.1007/s10530-018-1863-4.

Xu, P. and Cheng, J. (2021). Individual differences in social distancing and mask-wearing in the pandemic of COVID-19: The role of need for cognition, self-control and risk attitude. Personality and Individual Differences 175, 110706. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2021.110706.

The Crunch is Here

There are times when we either act or give up, so if you think that the Covid epidemic, the conservation of endangered species, and the protection of old growth forests are irrelevant problems to your way of life, stop reading here. These three major problems are here and now and have come to a head as a crunch: do something or quit.

The Covid epidemic is the most obvious of the current crises and it is on the radio and TV every day with an array of instructions of how to avoid this virus disease. You can respond to all this in three ways: ignore the problem because you are immortal, take a few precautions when you have time but minimize inconvenience, or take the mortality rate and the sickness rate of Covid to heart and do all you can to prevent infection or spread of infection. In the third wave of this virus, too many people in North America are taking option 1 and 2, perhaps in the hope that the vaccines arriving now will solve the problem of infection. If you think the pandemic will go away without much death and disruption, read Kolata (2019) or one of the many good books on pandemics in history (e.g., Kelly (2006). They are with us and our governments must take note.

Of less visibility in the news media are conservation issues that are equally at a crunch point. The most obvious one in Canada is the decline of mountain caribou, and the current status of conservation efforts on their behalf. Nagy-Reis et al. (2021) have recently reported on the lack of success to date in conserving mountain caribou. We have known for more than 20 years that habitat loss and habitat changes were the critical factors driving mountain caribou populations in Western Canada to extinction. Forest cover within the caribou range is the key indicator for caribou conservation, and forest harvest is the main cause of habitat loss added to by forest fires in more northern areas. From 2000 to 2018 caribou lost twice as much habitat as they gained by restoration policies from forest companies and the governments involved. Loss rates of habitat in different subregions of Western Canada ranged from about 1% per year to 8% per year loss. If we had a bank account with these continued losses over 20 years, we would start a revolution. The accepted policies are failing caribou. Seismic lines that break up caribou habitat are regenerating at a slow rate. Changes in land use management must be implemented to prevent extinction but the crunch comes there – jobs in the forestry industry vs. conservation goals that do not generate cash for governments. Temporary fixes like wolf control will help, but as Nagy-Reis et al. (2021) point out are not sufficient to solve the problem. If we wish to reverse these caribou declines, we must make long-term commitments to land use planning and reduce human alterations of landscapes. 

The third problem in which crunch time is coming is the loss of old growth forests, and thus is related to some extent to the caribou conservation issue. Old growth forest is disappearing globally and in any country on Earth you can hear the cry (e.g. Lindenmayer et al. 2020, Watson et al. 2018). In British Columbia now you must drive many hours to see old growth (3 meters diameter) and they are still logging these stands. The reason for this is the clever foresters who classify “old growth” in this province, so that in their arithmetic at present 26% of our forests are called ‘old growth’. At high elevations many ‘old growth’ stands are small trees, and at one extreme old growth in terms of age could be Krummholz (‘knee timber’) < 1 m tall. The government classifies old growth in wetter areas as stands of 250 years or more in age, and in dryer areas trees of 140 years old, primarily because the logging companies so far have not wanted to log such “small” trees. Price et al. (2021) analysed the forest structure of British Columbia and classified old growth with a proper definition of a productivity class of trees that will grow to 25 m or more in height by age 150 years. By government definitions B.C. has about 50 million ha of forest, of which 26% is classified as ‘old’growth’. So, this means they believe that 13 million ha of forest in B.C. is old growth. But if you consider the more correct ecological definition of old growth as stated by Price et al. (2021) of trees that will grow > 25 m tall in 50 years you find that <1% of B.C. forest is old growth at the present time. People do not drive for miles to see 5 m trees which they already have in cities. They will drive to see trees that are 800-1000 years old and more than 3 m in diameter, so a common-sense definition of old growth prevails in the tourist population. But again, we are back at jobs in forestry vs tourism potentials and the government is so committed to the forest industry that you have to search hard to find anyone who will give you a public lecture on “old growth” logging. So, this is another crunch for our time, jobs vs some 800-year-old trees with a lot of wood that inspire us and our children as being part of nature. All these considerations do not even begin to consider the other species that are lost in logging old growth because they are small and rarely measured (Doak 1989). The accepted government policies are failing us and our children. It is time to use science to challenge these changes which will affect us all now and in the future.

Doak, D. (1989). Spotted owls and old growth logging in the Pacific Northwest. Conservation Biology 3, 389-396.

Kelly, J. (2006) ‘The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time.’ (Harper Perennial: New York.). ISBN: 978-0060-00693-8.

Lindenmayer, D.B., Kooyman, R.M., Taylor, C., Ward, M., and Watson, J.E.M. (2020). Recent Australian wildfires made worse by logging and associated forest management. Nature Ecology & Evolution 4, 898-900. doi: 10.1038/s41559-020-1195-5.

Kolata, G.B. (2019) ‘Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that caused it.’ (Atria Books: New York.). ISBN: 978-14299-79351

Nagy-Reis, M., Dickie, M., Calvert, A.M., Hebblewhite, M., Hervieux, D., Seip, D.R., Gilbert, S. L., Venter, O., DeMars, C., Boutin, S., and Serrouya, R. (2021). Habitat loss accelerates for the endangered woodland caribou in western Canada. Conservation Science and Practice (in press), e437. doi: 10.1111/csp2.437 .

Price, K., Holt, R.F., and Daust, D. (2021). Conflicting portrayals of remaining old growth: the British Columbia case. Canadian Journal of Forest Research 51, 1-11. doi: 10.1139/cjfr-2020-0453.

Watson, J.E.M., Evans, T., Venter, O., Williams, B., and Tulloch, A. (2018). The exceptional value of intact forest ecosystems. Nature Ecology & Evolution 2, 599-610. doi: 10.1038/s41559-018-0490-x.

On Innovative Ecological Research

Ecological research should have an impact on policy development. For the most part it does not. You do not need to take my word for this, since I am over the age of 40, so for confirmation you might read the New Zealand Environmental Science Funding Review (2020) which stated:

“I am not confident that there is a coherent basis for our national investment in environmental science. I am particularly concerned that there is no mechanism that links the ongoing demand environmental reporting makes for an understanding of complex ecological processes that evolve over decades, and a science funding system that is constantly searching for innovation, impact and linkages to the ever-changing demands of business and society.” (page 3)

Of course New Zealand may be an outlier, so we must seek confirmation in the Northern Hemisphere. Bill Sutherland and his many colleagues has every 3-4 years since 2006 (nearly in concert with the lemming cycle) put out an extraordinary array of suggestions for important ecological questions that need to be answered for conservation and management. If you should be running a seminar this year, you might consider doing a historical survey of how these suggestions have changed since 2006, 2010, 2013, to 2018. Excellent questions, and how much progress has there been on answering his challenges?

Some progress to be sure, and for that we are thankful, but the problems multiply faster than ecological progress, and I am reminded of trying to stop a snow avalanche with a shovel. Why should this be? There are some very big questions in ecology that we need to answer but my first observation is that we have made little progress with the Sutherland et al. (2006) list, which would be largely culled from the previous many years of ecological studies. The first problem is that research funding is too often geared to novel and innovative proposals, so that if you would ask for funding to answer an old question that Charles Elton proposed in the 1950s, you would be struck off the list of innovative ecologists and possibly exiled to Mars with Elon Musk. Innovation in the mind of the granting agencies is based on the iPhone and the latest models of cars which have a time scale of one year. Any ecologist working on a problem that has a time scale of 30 years is behind the times. So when you write a grant request proposal you are pushed to restate the problems recognized long ago as though they were newly recognized with new methods of analysis.

There is no doubt some truly innovative ecological research, and to list these might be another interesting seminar project, but most of the environmental problems of our day are very old problems that remain unresolved. Government agencies in some countries have a list of problems of the here-and-now that university research rarely focuses on because the research cannot be innovative. These mostly practical problems must then be solved by government environmental departments with their ever-shrinking resources, so they in turn contract these out to the private sector with its checkered record of gathering the data required for solving the problems at hand.

Environmental scientists will complain that when they do reach conclusions that will at least partly resolve the problems of the day, governments refuse to act on this knowledge because of a variety of vested interests; if the environment wins, the vested interests lose, not a zero-sum game. If you want a good example, note that John Tyndall recognized CO2 and the Greenhouse Effect in 1859, and Svante Arrhenius and Thomas Chamberlin calculated in 1896 that burning fossil fuels increased CO2 such that 2 X CO2 would = + 5ºC rise in temperature. And in 2021 some people still argue about this conclusion.

My suggestion is that we would be better off striking the word ‘innovation’ from all our granting councils and environmental research funding organizations, and replacing it with ‘excellent’ and ‘well designed’ as qualities to support. You are still allowed to talk about ‘innovative’ iPhones and autos, but we are better off with ‘excellent’ environmental and ecological research.

New Zealand Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. (2020). A review of the funding and prioritisation of environmental research in New Zealand (Wellington, New Zealand.) Available online: https://www.pce.parliament.nz/publications/environmental-research-funding-review

Sutherland, W.J., et al. (2006). The identification of 100 ecological questions of high policy relevance in the UK. Journal of Applied Ecology 43, 617-627. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2664.2006.01188.x.

Sutherland, W.J., et al. (2010). A horizon scan of global conservation issues for 2010. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 25, 1-7. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2009.10.003

Sutherland, W.J., (2013). Identification of 100 fundamental ecological questions. Journal of Ecology 101, 58-67. doi: 10.1111/1365-2745.12025.

Sutherland, W.J., et al. (2018). A 2018 Horizon Scan of Emerging Issues for Global Conservation and Biological Diversity. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 33, 47-58. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2017.11.006.

On the Bonn Challenge: Tree Restoration and the Climate Emergency

“Plant a tree and save the world” is the short version of the Bonn Challenge of 2011 and the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030 (Stanturf and Mansourian 2020), and so here we are with a major ecological challenge for the decade we have just started. Planting trees around the world to restore 350 million hectares of degraded land is the goal, and it is a challenge that ecologists must think clearly about to avoid failure of another grand scheme.

Restoring ecosystems is not easy as we have already learned to our dismay. What began as a relatively simple restoration of old fields used in agriculture, a few hectares of ploughed ground surrounded by forest or grassland, has now morphed into very large areas devastated by forest fires, insect outbreaks, or drought. The largest forest fires in Arizona prior to the year 2000 were 20,000 ha, but after prolonged drought by 2020 they have reached nearly 300,000 ha (Falk 2017). The larger and more severe the fire, the greater the distance seed must disperse to recolonize burnt areas, and hence the recovery from large fires differs dramatically from the recovery from small or patchy fires.

I concentrate here on forest restoration, but always with the caveat in mind that the trees are not the forest – there are a plethora of other species involved in the forest ecosystem (Temperton et al. 2019). The restoration of forest landscapes is driven by the estimate that forest originally covered about 5.9 billion ha of the Earth but at the present time there is about 4 billion ha of forest remaining. Restoration of degraded ecosystems has always been a good idea, and this program can now be tied in with the climate emergency. New trees will remove CO2 from the air as they grow so we can score 2 points with every tree we plant (Bernal and Pearson 2018).  

The scale of plans for the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030 are challenging and Stanturf and Mansourian (2020) provide current details country by country. For example, Brazil a country of 836 million ha has pledged to restore 12 million ha (1.44%), with some countries like Spain and Russia so far not pledging any Bonn Challenge restoration. The take-up of actual restoration is uneven globally. The USA has committed to restore 12 million ha to the Bonn Challenge, but Canada has made no formal commitment, although the federal government has proposed to plant 2 billion trees during this decade to counteract climate change.  

Many problems arise with every ecological restoration. Not the least is the time frame of the recovery of damaged ecosystems. Forests recover slowly even when carefully tended, and 100 years might be a partial target for temperate forests. For North American west-coast forests a 400+-year time frame might be a target. Most private companies and governments can not even conceive of this scale of time. For those who think everything should work faster than this, Moreno-Mateos et al. (2020) report a large sample of >600 restored wetlands that recovered to only 74% of the target value in 50-100 years. Schmid et al. (2020) found that the microbial community of a lignite mine in Germany had not recovered to the control level even after 52 years. Ecological time does not always conform readily to industrial time.

Other constraints blur the grand global picture. Restoration with trees should not be done on tropical grasslands because of their inherent biodiversity values (c.f. Silveira et al. 2020 for excellent examples), nor can we restore trees on rangeland that is used for agricultural production lest we engage in robbing agricultural Peter to pay forester Paul (Vetter 2020). These important ecological critiques must be incorporated into country-wide plans for reforestation whose primary aim might be CO2 capture. Again the devil is in the details, as Vetter (2020) clearly articulates.  

The Bonn Challenge remains ongoing, waiting for another review after 2030. Who will remember what was promised, and who will be given the awards for achievements reached? What quantitative goals exactly have been promised, and what happens if they slip to 2050 or 2070?  

Bernal, B., Murray, L.T., and Pearson, T.R.H. (2018). Global carbon dioxide removal rates from forest landscape restoration activities. Carbon Balance and Management 13, 22. doi: 10.1186/s13021-018-0110-8.

Bonnesoeur, V., Locatelli, B., Guariguata, M.R., Ochoa-Tocachi, B.F., Vanacker, V. et al. (2019). Impacts of forests and forestation on hydrological services in the Andes: A systematic review. Forest Ecology and Management 433, 569-584. doi: 10.1016/j.foreco.2018.11.033.

Falk, Donald A. (2017). Restoration ecology, resilience, and the axes of change. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 102, 201-216, 216. doi: 10.3417/2017006.

Moreno-Mateos, D., et al. (2020). The long-term restoration of ecosystem complexity. Nature Ecology & Evolution 4, 676-685. doi: 10.1038/s41559-020-1154-1.

Silveira, F.A.O., Arruda, A.J., Bond, W., Durigan, G., Fidelis, A., et al. (2020). Myth-busting tropical grassy biome restoration. Restoration Ecology 28, 1067-1073. doi: 10.1111/rec.13202.

Stanturf, J.A. and Mansourian, S. (2020). Forest landscape restoration: state of play.
Royal Society Open Science 7, 201218. doi: 10.1098/rsos.201218.

Temperton, V.M., Buchmann, N., Buisson, E., Durigan, G. and Kazmierczak, L. (2019). Step back from the forest and step up to the Bonn Challenge: how a broad ecological perspective can promote successful landscape restoration. Restoration Ecology 27, 705-719. doi: 10.1111/rec.12989.

Vetter, S. (2020). With Power Comes Responsibility – A rangelands perspective on forest landscape restoration. Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems 4, 549483. doi: 10.3389/fsufs.2020.549483.

On the Rules of Civilization in 2020

We are all citizens of the Earth, so we will start with the single assumption that we wish to protect the Earth for our children and grandchildren, If you do no agree with this assumption we hope you will find life on Mars to be more congenial. If you are content with life on Earth, please observe these rules.

  1. Listen to Greta, in English or Swedish.
  2. For further guidance join 350.org. https://350.org/about/   
  3. If you think the present climate crisis is a minor problem, please read David Wallace-Wells’ book (2019). 
  4. If you are an old person (>45 years) go to (9) below. If you are a young person, keep reading.
  5. The world is a mess and it is not your fault. Do not give up. Become active. Vote. Go to political meetings and ask questions.
  6. Ask about policies at the local, regional, and national level. How is this policy – this war, this new freeway, this new oil pipeline – helping to solve the Earth’s climate crisis.
  7. Do not take business-as-usual for an answer to your questions. Challenge the system to do better.
  8. Work to make voting compulsory. That would begin to ensure democracy. Cut the voting age to 16. Work for proportional representation. You must design a fool-proof world. We have failed to do so.
  9. If you are an older person and at least 45 years old, realize that half or more of your life is over. You have time now to atone for your environmental sins of the past and to work hard to protect the Earth for the young people. Read Stiglitz (2012) or Reich (2018).
  10. Support strong legislation. For many policies we old people should not have a vote. At best to be nice to the elderly, perhaps our vote should count in the reverse proportion of age/100, so a 50 year old would have ½ a vote, and a 75 year old would have ¼ a vote relative to the young people who will inherit the planet.  
  11. Stop supporting the electoral parties who have made the environment a mess. Demand real sustainability, not nonsense policies.
  12. Encourage taxes on wealth. No matter what you may think, you cannot take it with you. Believe it or not, there are countries on Earth with good policies for people and for the environment. Mimic the good. Shame the bad.
  13. If you wish to be radical, vote for policies that provide the highest salaries and lowest taxes to nurses, doctors, teachers, and social workers, and the lowest salaries and highest taxes to CEOs, politicians, lawyers, economists, and TV personalities.
  14. Work for equality in the world, and remember that you as an individual are important, but you are not the most important person in the world. We already know who that is.

Reich, R. (2018). Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few. 219 pp. ISBN: 978-0-385-35057-0)

Stiglitz, J.E. (2012) ‘The Price of Inequality.’ W.W. Norton and Company: New York. 560 pp. ISBN: 978-0-393-34506-3

Wallace-Wells, David (2019) ‘The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming ‘ Tim Duggan Books: New York. 304 pp. ISBN: 978-0-525-57670-9.  

On Fires in Australia

The fires of Australia in their summer 2019-20 are in the news constantly, partly because the media survive on death and destruction and partly because to date we have never seen a whole continent burn up. It is hardly a ‘Welcome to the Anthropocene”  kind of event to celebrate, and the northern media display the fires as nearly all news of the Southern Hemisphere is treated, something unusual, often bad, but of no general importance to the real world of the Northern Hemisphere.

What do we hear from a cacophony of public opinion?

“Nothing unusual. We have always had fires in the past. Why in 1863…..”
“Nothing to do with climate change. Climate has always been changing….(see point 1)
“Main cause had been Green Policies. If we had more forestry, there would have been many fewer trees to burn….”
“Inadequate controlled burning because of the Greens’ policies….(see point 3)
“Why doesn’t the Government do something about this?”
“Fortunately these fires are a rare event and not likely to occur again…….

In reply an ecologist might offer these facts:

  1. Much research by plant geographers and ecologists have shown how many plant communities are dominated by fire. The boreal forest is one, the chaparral of Southern California is another, the grasslands of Africa and the Great Plains of the USA are yet more.
  2. By preventing fire in these communities over time the fuel load builds up so that, should there be a subsequent fire, the fire severity would be very high.
  3. By building houses, towns, and cities in these plant communities fire danger increases, and an active plan of fire management must be implemented. Most of these plans are effective for normal fires but for extreme conditions no fire management plan is effective.
  4. Climate change is now producing extreme conditions that were once very rare but are now commonly achieved. With no rainfall, high winds, and temperatures over 40-45ºC fires cannot be contained. Severe fires generate their own weather that accelerates fire spread with embers being blown kilometers ahead of the active fire front.
  5. The long-term plan to have controlled patch burns to relieve these fire conditions are impossible to implement because they require no wind, low temperatures, and considerable person-power to prevent controlled burns getting away from containment lines should the weather change.

Since a sizeable fraction of dangerous fires are deliberately set by humans, methods to detect and prevent this behaviour could help in some cases. Infrastructure such as power lines could be upgraded to reduce the likelihood of falling power poles and lines shorting out. All this will cost money, and the less the fire frequency, the fewer the people willing to pay more taxes to reduce public risk. Some serious thinking is needed now because Australia 2020 is just the start of a century of fire, drought, floods, and high winds. We do not need the politicians of 2050 telling us “why didn’t someone warn us?

There is a very large literature on fire in human landscapes (e.g. Gibbons et al. 2012), and I include only a few references here. They illustrate that the landscape effects of fire are multiple and area specific. Much more field research is needed, and landscape ecology has a vital role to play in understanding and managing the interface of humans and fire.

Badia, A. et al. (2019). Wildfires in the wildland-urban interface in Catalonia: Vulnerability analysis based on land use and land cover change. Science of The Total Environment 673, 184-196. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2019.04.012.

Gibbons, P, et. al. (2012) Land management practices associated with house loss in wildfires. PLoS ONE 7(1): e29212. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0029212

Gustafsson, L. et al. (2019). Rapid ecological response and intensified knowledge accumulation following a north European mega-fire. Scandinavian Journal of Forest Research 34, 234-253. doi: 10.1080/02827581.2019.1603323.

Minor, J. and Boyce, G.A. (2018). Smokey Bear and the pyropolitics of United States forest governance. Political Geography 62, 79-93. doi: 10.1016/j.polgeo.2017.10.005.

Ramage, B.S., O’Hara, K.L., and Caldwell, B.T. (2010). The role of fire in the competitive dynamics of coast redwood forests. Ecosphere 1(6), art20. doi: 10.1890/ES10-00134.1.

On Salmon Hatcheries as an Ecological Paradigm

The West Coast of North America hosts 5 species of Pacific salmon that are an invaluable fishery resource and at least in theory a resource that is completely sustainable. The management of these fisheries provides a useful case study in how humans currently approach major resources, the mistakes they make, and how attempts to fix mistakes can lead to even further mistakes.

Salmon have been a major resource utilized by the First Nations of the Pacific Coast after the glaciers melted some 10-12,000 years ago. Salmon are anadromous fish, living in the ocean and spawning in fresh water. Their populations fluctuate from year to year but until the 1900s they were essentially considered an inexhaustible resource and thus became a target for exploitation. The buildup of salmon fisheries during the last 100 years coincided with an increase in environmental damage to freshwater spawning grounds. Dams on rivers cut migration routes to spawning grounds, pollution arising from mining, and erosion from forestry and agriculture all began to cut into spawning habitat and subsequently the available catch for the fishery. Salmon catches began to decline and in the late 1800s hatcheries began to be built both to restore fish stocks that were threatened and to increase the abundance of desirable fish like salmon (Naish et al 2007).

The simple model of salmon hatcheries was that the abundance of juvenile fish was the main factor limiting the adult population, so that adding more juveniles to wild juveniles moving out into the ocean would be profitable. This view of the world I call the “Farmer Paradigm” and if you are a dairy farmer with 4 cows that produce X milk, if you add 4 more cows to your farm, you now get 2X milk and thus more profit. But it became apparent with fish hatcheries that adding more juvenile fish did not necessarily increase the resulting fish catch. Some simple reasons might be that more juveniles were eaten by the predators waiting at the mouth of the river or stream, so that predation on juvenile fish was limiting. Alternatively, perhaps the ocean only had a given amount of food for juvenile growth, so that adding too many juveniles induced starvation deaths. Other explanations involving disease transmission could also be invoked.

Whatever the mechanism, it became clear that hatcheries for salmon sometimes worked and sometimes did not work to increase the productivity of the fishery. The Farmer Paradigm had to add a footnote to say “its complicated”. One complication noted early on was the possibility that natural selection in hatcheries was not equivalent to natural selection in wild populations. If hatchery fish were replacing wild fish in any population, the genetic changes involved could work in two directions by either making the entire population more fit or less fit, more productive or less. Much depends on what traits are selected for in hatcheries. In one example for sockeye salmon in Washington State, hatcheries appear to have selected for earlier spawning, so that wild sockeye in one river system return to spawn later than hatchery raised sockeye raised in the same river (Tillotson et al. 2019). Since in general juveniles from early spawners have poorer survival, climate change could favour earlier breeding and thereby reduce the overall productivity of the sockeye population in the river system. We are far from knowing the long-term selection that is occurring in hatcheries, and what it means for future populations of salmon (Cline et al. 2019, Stevenson et al. 2019).

Hatcheries are popular with the public because they indicate the government is doing something to assist fishers and hatcheries should increase and maintain fisheries production for species we love to eat. Consequently, there is a social signal that might be suppressed in data that might suggest a particular hatchery was in fact harming the fishery for a particular river or lake system. If someone wishes to do an economic analysis of the costs and benefits of a hatchery, one runs up against the standard simple belief that more juvenile fish equals higher fishery production. When Amoroso et al. (2017) tried to evaluate for pink salmon in Alaska whether hatcheries were an economic benefit or a loss, their best analysis suggested that recent increases in pink salmon productivity were higher in areas of Alaska with no hatcheries, compared with those with hatcheries. Since different river populations of pink salmon mix in their oceanic phase, it is difficult to obtain a clear experimental signal of hatchery success or failure. The immediate and the longer-term unintended consequences of hatcheries require further study. The assumption that every hatchery is an ecological and social good cannot be presumed.  

Salmon hatcheries are for me an ecological paradigm because they illustrate the management sequence: unlimited abundance → overharvesting → collapse of resource → find a technological fix → misdiagnosed problem → failure of technological fix → better diagnosis of the problem → competing socio-economic objectives → failure to act → collapse of the resource. This need not be the case, and we need to do better (Bendriem et al. 2019).

Amoroso, R.O. et al. (2017). Measuring the net biological impact of fisheries enhancement: Pink salmon hatcheries can increase yield, but with apparent costs to wild populations. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 74, 1233-1242. doi: 10.1139/cjfas-2016-0334.

Bendriem, N. et al. (2019). A review of the fate of southern British Columbia coho salmon over time. Fisheries Research 218, 10-21. doi: 10.1016/j.fishres.2019.04.002.

Cline, T.J. et al. (2019). Effects of warming climate and competition in the ocean for life-histories of Pacific salmon. Nature Ecology & Evolution 3, 935-942. doi: 10.1038/s41559-019-0901-7.

Naish, K.A. et al. (2007). An evaluation of the effects of conservation and fishery enhancement hatcheries on wild populations of salmon. Advances in Marine Biology 53, 61-194. doi: 10.1016/S0065-2881(07)53002-6.

Stevenson, C.F. et al. (2019). The influence of smolt age on freshwater and early marine behavior and survival of migrating juvenile sockeye salmon. Transactions of the American Fisheries Society 148, 636-651. doi: 10.1002/tafs.10156.

Tillotson, M.D. et al. (2019). Artificial selection on reproductive timing in hatchery salmon drives a phenological shift and potential maladaptation to climate change. Evolutionary Applications 12, 1344-1359. doi: 10.1111/eva.12730.

Do We Need Commissioners for the Environment?

Canada has just gone through an election, the USA will next year, and elections are a recurring news item everywhere. In our Canadian election we were spared any news on the state of the environment, and the dominant theme of the election was jobs, the economy, oil, gas, and a bit on climate change. The simplest theme was climate change, and yes, we are all in favour of stopping it so long as we do not need to do anything about it that would cost money or change our lifestyles. Meanwhile the fires of California and Australia and elsewhere carry on, generating another news cycle of crazy comments about the state of the environment.

Is there a better way? How can we get governments of the world to consider that the environment is worthy of some discussion? There is, and New Zealand has led the way in one direction. New Zealand has a Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, an independent Officer of Parliament, whose job it is to provide Members of Parliament with independent advice on matters that may have impacts on the environment. The Office is independent of the government of the day and the Prime Minister, and consequently can “tell it like it is”. A few quotations for the 2019 report give the flavour of this recent New Zealand report:

“If there is one thing that stands out from [our] reports, it is the extent of what we don’t know about what’s going on with our environment.  

“…the blind spots in our environmental reporting system don’t represent conscious choices to collect data or undertake research in some fields rather than others. Rather, they represent the unplanned consequences of a myriad choices over decades. Ours has been a passive system that has harvested whatever data is there and done the best it can to navigate what’s missing.

“In some ways, the most important recommendations in this report are those that relate to the prioritising and gathering of data in a consistent way. Despite attempts over more than two decades, no agreement has ever been reached on a set of core environmental indicators. This has to happen. Consistent and authoritative time series coupled with improved spatial coverage are essential if we are to detect trends. Only then will we be able to judge confidently whether we are making progress or going backwards – and get a handle on whether costly interventions are having an effect.

https://www.pce.parliament.nz/publications/focusing-aotearoa-new-zealand-s-environmental-reporting-system

This report is full of ecological wisdom and would be a useful starting point for many countries. Canada has (to my knowledge) no Environmental Commissioner and although various provinces and cities provide State of the Environment Reports, they are largely based on inadequate data. In some cases, like commercial fisheries, Parliaments or Congress have mandated annual reports, provided the secure funding, and retained independence of the relevant director and staff. In many cases there is far too much bickering between jurisdictions, use of inadequate methods of data collecting, long time periods between sampling, and no indication that the national interest has been taken into account.

Most Western countries have National Academies or Royal Societies which provide some scientific advice, sometimes requested, sometimes not. But these scientific publications are typically on very specific topics like smoking and lung cancer, vaccine protection, or automobile safety requirements. We can see this problem most clearly in the current climate emergency. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of the United Nations provides excellent reports on the climate emergency but no government is required to listen to their recommendations or to implement them. So, we have local problems, regional problems and global problems, and we need the political structures to address environmental problems at all these levels. New Zealand has provided a way forward, and here is another quote from the 2019 report that ecologists should echo:

Given that many of the environmental problems we face have been decades in the making and that for nearly 30 years we have [made] specific reference to cumulative effects that arise over time…it is astonishing that we have so little data on trends over time.

….it takes time to assemble time series. If we start collecting data today, it may be a decade or more before we can confidently judge whether the issue being monitored is getting better or worse. Every year that we delay the collection of data in an area identified as a significant gap, we commit New Zealand to flying blind in that area. …..A lack of time series in respect of some environmental pressure points could be costing us dearly in terms of poorly designed policies or irreversible damage.

One example may be enough. Caribou herds in southern Canada are threatened with extinction (Hebblewhite 2017, DeMars et al. 2019). Here is one example of counts on one caribou herd in southern Canada:

2009 = 2093 caribou
2012 = 1003
2019 = 185

It would be difficult to manage the conservation of any species of animal or plant that has such limited monitoring data. We can and must do better. We can start by dragging state of the environment reports out of the control of political parties by demanding to have in every country Commissioners of the Environment that are fully funded but independent of political influence. As long as the vision of elected governments is limited to 3 years, environmental decay will continue, out of sight, out of mind.

There is of course no reason that elected governments need follow the advice of any independent commission, so this recommendation is not a panacea for environmental issues. If citizens have independent information however, they can choose to use it and demand action.

DeMars, C.A.et al. (2019). Moose, caribou, and fire: have we got it right yet? Canadian Journal of Zoology 97, 866-879. doi: 10.1139/cjz-2018-0319.

Hebblewhite, M. (2017). Billion dollar boreal woodland caribou and the biodiversity impacts of the global oil and gas industry. Biological Conservation 206, 102-111. doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2016.12.014.

On Planting Trees to Solve the Climate Emergency

Rising CO2 levels could possibly be stopped by planting lots of trees. In recent months the media have rejoiced in a proposal (The Bonn Challenge) to plant trees on 350 million ha of degraded forest land around the globe by 2030 and thereby stop or greatly slow the global increase in CO2. The Bonn Challenge was first proposed in 2011 at a meeting in Germany and to date 43 countries have made pledges to plant trees to cover about half of the proposed needs, perhaps a total of 1 billion trees. Lewis et al. (2019) recently reported on progress to date in meeting this challenge. The question that a flurry of letters to Nature and other journals have raised is whether this goal is ecologically feasible.

There has always been a cohort of scientists seeking a technological fix to the climate emergency by capturing greenhouse gases or changing the atmosphere. To date all these technological fixes fail the economic test. Can biologists ride to the rescue for the CO2 problem and save the world? Clearly many people as well as politicians are technological optimists who hope that we can continue our lifestyle with little change in the coming decades. No one likes nay-sayers but it is important to hear what problems might arise to achieve a forestry solution to the climate emergency.

Lewis et al. (2019) mapped the land areas potentially available for restoration by planting trees. To achieve the Bonn Challenge most plantings would need to be in tropical and subtropical areas where tree growth is rapid. Bond et al. (2019) concentrated their analysis on Africa where about 1 million km2 have been proposed for restoration with trees. But they point out that much of this proposed area is grassland and savannah which support high value biodiversity. Tanzania we might presume would not be happy if the Serengeti was converted to a closed forest ecosystem. If we proceed with the Bonn Challenge and grasslands and savannahs become closed forests, several unintended consequences would occur. Trees utilize more water to grow and given a fixed rainfall in an area, less water would go into rivers, streams and lakes. Trees also absorb more solar radiation so that the climate in the restored areas would warm, while a main objective of the Bonn Challenge is to reverse global warming.

The list of ecological problems is long. Plantations of monocultures typically capture less CO2 than natural forests on the same land area. Forest fires release large amounts of CO2 from both natural forests and plantations, and rising temperatures are increasing forest losses to fire. Carbon capture estimates depend critically on turnaround times which depend on tree growth rates and the uses to which wood is put after a tree is harvested. Smith et al. (2015) concluded in an earlier analysis that afforestation could not achieve the goal of limiting global warming below 2ºC.

All these problems should not stop the reforestation of closed forest areas that were degraded in historical time, as Bond et al. (2019) have pointed out. But unfortunately, this news that we cannot reverse climatic warming by planting large numbers of trees continues the negativity that bedevils the science of ecology – you cannot achieve this goal given the ecological constraints of the Earth. Politicians and the public at large do not want to hear these messages and prefer the belief that technology will come up with a simple inexpensive solution. To shout that “this will not work” is not a way to become popular.

We appear not to have progressed from what David Schindler said 22 years ago:

“Humans, including ecologists, have a peculiar fascination with attempting to correct one ecological mistake with another, rather than removing the source of the problem.”
                  (Schindler 1997, pg.4).

Bond, W.J., et al. (2019). The Trouble with Trees: Afforestation Plans for Africa. Trends in Ecology & Evolution (in press). doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2019.08.003.

Lewis, S.L., et al. (2019). Regenerate natural forests to store carbon. Nature 568, 25-28 (4 April 2019). doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-01026-8.

Schindler D.W. (1997). Liming to restore acidified lakes and streams: a typical approach to restoring damaged ecosystems? Restoration Ecology 5, 1-6. doi: 10.1046/j.1526-100X.1997.09701.x.

Smith, P. et al. (2016). Biophysical and economic limits to negative CO2 emissions. Nature Climate Change 6, 42-50 (January 2016). doi: 10.1038/nclimate2870.

Big Science – Poor Data?

The big global problems of our time are climate change, human population growth, and migration. From these emerge all the others that worry us from inequality leading to poverty, regional wars, emerging diseases, and biodiversity loss. As ecologists we typically worry about climate change and biodiversity loss. We can do little directly about climate change except to change our life style and replace our do-nothing-politicians. We can have some effect on biodiversity conservation, a subject of later discussions. But the elephant in the room is always climate change, and Bill McKibben (2019) has presented us with a synopsis of a positive evaluation from the viewpoint of fossil fuels and is currently bringing out a book on these issues (McKibben 2019a).

There is much discussion of these articles in reviews such as Diamond (2019) and in the social media. The negative concerns for the future have in recent years been getting more press than the positive possibilities and these negative views may cause the public to give up and say all efforts are hopeless. But these three references from McKibben and Diamond push the possibility of a positive outcome, premised partly on the growing concern of humans to the effects of climate change and the emerging technologies in energy capture that do not depend on oil and gas. I do not wish to question these statements but rather to raise the question of where ecological scientists should fit into this picture.

If natural capital is in decline and some to many species are at risk of extinction, what should be the reaction of a young ecologist just starting their ecological career? I can see two extreme responses to the current situation. One I will call the Carry-on-Regardless approach, and the other the Mad Panic approach. The Carry-on Regardless approach believes that we as one or a few scientists have little ability to change the global paradigm of environmental destruction. Certainly, we will use our own efforts to educate and give good environmental example to all we encounter. But as a scientist the most important achievement one can make is to do good ecological science, to understand in some small way how populations and communities of organisms interact and sustain themselves at the present time. In this way we can hopefully solve some immediate practical problems but more importantly collect some critical data for the next generations of ecologists to use in understanding the changes that will go on during the next several centuries. In a simple manner, future ecologists will be able to say, ‘so this is how system X was working in 2020”. We have no way to know now how much our hard-earned knowledge will be useful to our great-grandchildren, but we press on in the hope that it will be of some help in understanding the trace of the human footprint down the ages.

The Mad Panic approach at the other extreme argues that you should stop all the research that you are doing and become an advocate to try to convince the world to change course and prevent disaster. There is no time to do research, we ought to be out there shouting from the rooftops. If you wish to work at the research end of this school of thought you should perhaps be looking for an ecological disaster (e.g. plastics in the ocean) that you can investigate to beat politicians over the head about how we must change now to prevent further disaster. There is certainly a need for this sort of action.

The problem is how to advise ecologists starting their careers. There is no simple answer, and some are better at the first approach and others at the second. The key point is that we need both, and my concern (being a Carry-on phenotype) is that we need to have clear and precise data of how the planet is changing as a prerequisite for the second approach. We do not have this now except for a few species in a few locations. We have very little long-term data on biodiversity, and we only kid ourselves if we decide that a 3-year study can be classified as a long-term study, or that a list of species in a given area tells us something about ecosystem function. Consider how long it has taken to show clear trends in climate data, or in a more news-worthy area how little economic understanding has emerged from all the detailed minute-by-minute data on the stock market over the last 70 years.

So, we end up with big questions and poor data, and somehow hope that we can model the future changes in the world’s ecosystems to give the public guidance. To achieve this goal, we need more Carry-on Regardless ecologists doing good work and fewer, less strident Mad Panic environmentalists. Environmental warning bells are certainly going off, and we should listen to them and try to gather the data necessary to understand what is happening and how good management might counter negative environmental trends. It is good to be optimistic, but we must couple our optimism with strong ecological studies to understand how communities and ecosystems function. And we are a long way from having enough of these basic studies to be confident of future projections to guide the next generations.

Diamond, Jared. 2019. Striking a balance between fear and hope on climate change. New York Times, 15 April 2019.

McKibben, Bill. 2019. A Future Without Fossil Fuels? New York Review of Books, April 4, 2019, pp.

McKibben, Bill. 2019a. Falter: Has the Hunan Game Begun to Play Itself Out? Henry Holt and Company, 291 pp. ISBN:13: 9781250178268