Can Roadside Weeds Save the Monarch?

Monarch_butterflyThe number of monarch butterflies wintering in Mexico has plummeted in the last two years. Many factors are involved, but widespread use of glyphosate (an herbicide) is one cause that’s under human control.

The development of genetically modified plants that resist glyphosate is often sited as one of the causes of monarch butterfly decline. Because agricultural fields can now be liberally covered with the chemical, the little patches of milkweed that once thrived on on the edges of farm fields throughout the Midwest are now gone, taking the monarch caterpillar’s food source with them.

The Los Angeles Times reports that the Natural Resources Defense Council has filed a petition with the US Environmental Protection Agency asking that glyphosate not be spread on highway margins and utility rights of way to allow milkweed to grow there, as long as human safety isn’t compromised. It also asked that farmers establish glyphosate-free zones in their fields.

Read the entire article in The Los Angeles Times, here.

Photo: Monarch butterfly, Mark Musselman, USFWS

Drought Impacts

The drought continues, particularly in the West, but the wildlife impact being most noticed and reported is bears coming into developed areas searching for food.

The New York Times discussed the situation, with vivid anecdotes. A Colorado State University Extension web page gives an overview on drought impacts as part of a package of drought information, with half of the info on bears. A Mother Nature Network story went beyond bears. It provides links to specific stories on drought impacts, such as one on waterfowl in USA Today and a Wyoming Star-Tribune piece on pronghorn.

The pronghorn piece mentions the impact on hunting, but the waterfowl article does not. Farmers tilling under crops early this year or not harvesting them at all, will create confusion for waterfowl hunters who may find that field they always hunted in off limits this year because of baiting regulations. This press release from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources explains some of the issues.

Unsolved Mystery: Frog Abnormalities

On an August day 17 years ago, eight Minnesota junior high school students on a field trip caught 22 frogs in a farm pond. At least half of the frogs had some abnormality, mostly in their hind legs. The conscientious teacher reported the group’s finding to the state. Dutiful state scientists surveyed wetlands across Minnesota and found at least one hotspot of frog abnormality in every county in the state.

What have we learned about frog abnormalities in the last 17 years? Quite a bit, actually. There appear to be several causes, and sometimes the causes pile up to create a high rate of abnormalities. The causes also seem to vary by region.

Here’s a comprehensive overview of the situation in Minnesota from Minnesota Public Radio. You can read or listen, here.

Vermont also experienced a high rate of frog abnormalities back in 1995, but the interpretation there is a bit different than it is in Minnesota.

Read this article from The Outside Story, a syndicated nature column, about frog abnormalities in Vermont, which includes a nod to the lack of abnormalities in New Hampshire. Read it here.

Are you finding abnormal frogs? A fantastic resource for state biologists evaluating frog abnormalities is the Field Guide to Malformations of Frogs and Toads (with Radiographic Interpretations) by Carol Meteyer of the US Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center.

Find the 20-page PDF here, including lots of photos and x-rays (aka radiographs).

Photo: Frog with abnormality, by David Hoppe, courtesy of US Geological Survey

Rare Birds: Dry or Oily?

During Texas’s last drought, 23 whooping cranes died while wintering in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, says an Associated Press story in the Tampa Bay Times. With another drought this year, wildlife managers can only watch and wait to see what happens.

The total population of wild whooping cranes is about 400. The only self-sustaining wild population is the one that migrates between Aransas in Texas and Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada.

Read the story in the Tampa Bay Times, here.

In Colorado, St. Vrain State Park sits in the middle of a productive oil field. The state is short on funds. Oil companies are eager to expand into the park, which is home to bald eagles, American white pelicans and the state’s largest blue heron rookery.

Read about the conundrum in the Denver Post: This news story lays out the facts. This columnist explains the dilemma.

What’s a state to do? In Colorado, they said yes to limited drilling on 1/12. Read about the decision in the Denver Business Journal.

Photo: Whooping cranes in Aransas NWR, by Steve Hillebrand, courtesy US Fish and Wildlife Service

More Drought Impacts

The drought in Texas is so severe this year that it appears to be reducing reproductive success in animals ranging from deer to quail. This National Public Radio story discusses the results of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department wildlife surveys. Antelope in one area of the state may be especially hard hit, the story says, because they have been afflicted with a parasite that was already reducing their reproduction and survival.

In a press release, the department urges hunters to hunt early this season, so there will be more food later in the season for surviving deer.

A story that ran in AgWeek in August points out that Texas is so big that the impacts of its drought may be felt in other states. Not only does it share ecosystems with its neighboring states, but it is such an important migration route for birds, that hard times in Texas may have ripple effects all over the Americas in the bird populations that use the central flyway. Read more here.

Drought and Wildlife

U.S. Drought Monitor

Drought conditions are beyond “extreme” and into “exceptional” in Texas and parts of Arizona, New Mexico,  Louisiana, and Kansas. Earlier this year we focused on the impacts of floods and fires on wildlife regionally, now let’s focus on the drought.

In Texas, one concern is species that might be endemic to a single spring-fed pool. As the water level in that pool declines, so does hope for that species. Here’s info from the Texas Dept. of Parks and Wildlife. 

As in the stories of the spring floods, the drought is driving wildlife closer to developed areas and humans. And as with the spring floods, wildlife rehabilitators are leaping into the fray to save animals they fear are at risk. Articles like this one, describe the problem through the rehabilitators’ eyes, but lack the balance that the opinion of a state wildlife biologist would add. Find another, similar story here.

In Kansas, the Salina Journal says that near rivers, the number of insects, birds and mammals has been reduced by 50 to 80 percent because the animals either move, die or go into estivation, a sort of hibernation. The article also mentions fish kills in dry rivers. Read more here.

Map: U.S. Drought Monitor, US Dept. of Agriculture. Updated each Thursday.