Defending the brown bears of Bristol Bay

Defending the brown bears of Bristol Bay

Brown bears in Alaska’s Bristol Bay region spend each year roaming the largely unspoiled land found between the coast and massive mountain-lined national parks and reserves. Standing up to a foot taller than the average human, and weighing as much as a grand piano, these bears are some of the most iconic wildlife species found in America’s great outdoors. In other parts of North America they’re called grizzly bears.

Brown bears are not listed as an endangered species—in fact, some populations are doing quite well—but in Southwest Alaska, they face an impending threat from the proposed development of an open-pit gold and copper mine.

“Bears are large creatures who need large spaces to be able to survive,” said Drew Hamilton, an  Alaska-based expedition leader with Natural Habitat Adventures who has spent more than a decade observing and photographing Alaska’s bears.

“The plans for this mine will put up barriers to movement and threaten the primary food source for brown bears—salmon.”

Bristol Bay’s brown bears spend winters hibernating in dens until emerging in springtime to graze on the region’s fresh flowers and plants, along with any appealing dead wildlife found along the way. In the summer season, salmon are a brown bear’s food of choice—and just as favored by consumers who support a $1.5 billion commercial salmon industry.

Building a big mine upstream has real potential to impact everything downstream. And what’s downstream from the proposed Pebble Mine is everything that makes up Bristol Bay. There has been bi-partisan, diverse community-led opposition to the Pebble Mine project for two decades.

Still, developers want to dig a mine one-mile-wide and quarter-mile deep. Carving out Pebble Mine would lead to the destruction of 3,000 acres of wetlands and more than 21 miles of salmon streams. The scar on Alaska’s pristine, productive environment would be visible from space.

“Where the mine plan truly hurts bears is the infrastructure associated with the mine. The proposed road corridor and the power plant would sit squarely in the middle of a route that bears use to move up and down the western shores of Cook Inlet. Development would also get in the way of the route many bears use to get across the mountains as they migrate to match seasonal fish abundance,” says Hamilton. “Any assault on salmon is an assault on bears and Alaskans.“

Bristol Bay boasts the world's largest wild salmon fishery. But what that really means is the region is home to an abundance of biodiversity. In an age of climate change and pressure to develop, it’s vital we protect these wild places.

Locals and visitors regularly spot beluga whales, humpback whales, caribou, brown bears, and moose, not to mention trees, flowers and plants of all types. Pebble Mine exposes the entire biome to a potentially toxic, uncertain future.

The US government put the permitting process on a fast-track, working even during a government shutdown. The administration released a rushed and incomplete draft environmental impact review of the plans, which is now open to public comments and review.

“The time to stop this is now,” Hamilton concluded.

Take action: Tell the Administration that Pebble Mine is too risky for the region’s brown bears, salmon and people.

Published April 30, 2019 at 05:00AM

US failing to meet Arctic protection goals

US failing to meet Arctic protection goals

Plans to expand oil and gas drilling in the United States’ Arctic hit a roadblock in the federal courts, which prompted the government to pull plans for this year. Unfortunately, the icy waters off of Alaska remain at risk—and not just from oil and gas.

Though the US government is meeting some of its commitments in the Arctic, not enough is being done and, in many instances, the government is backsliding, according to a new analysis commissioned by WWF.

First, the good news

WWF’s Arctic Council Conservation Scorecard—which scores all Arctic nations on the progress they’ve made toward Arctic Council recommendationsfound that the US continues to perform well in the area of monitoring Arctic sea ice and other ecological conditions. This is important as the region continues to warm faster than any other place on Earth, creating a cascade of impacts that nature and people everywhere are forced to live with.

In December 2018, voluntary shipping routes and so-called ‘Areas to Be Avoided’ by ships went into effect in the Aleutian Islands, Bering Sea, and Bering Strait. The US and Russia agreed on the measures and ship traffic is largely respecting the rules to enhance maritime safety and protect marine areas with ecological importance and subsistence values.

But we’re still missing the mark

Aside from science and shipping, there are many instances in which the government is trying to reverse existing environmental and management standards.

Since 2017, the US government has attempted to jump-start fossil fuel exploration in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. And even though the courts have effectively frozen such plans, the US government hasn’t given any indication that it will stop efforts to auction off areas offshore with the hopes of industry drilling more.

On paper, the US has a strategy for the Arctic but there is no mention of biodiversity-related objectives. Likewise, resilience and adaptation to climate change are also missing, directly impacting the security of indigenous and local communities in America’s Arctic.

Ultimately researchers had limited access to data and experts from the US government, which makes grading national efforts more difficult. Some government employees and agencies declined to share information due to current politics around the role of government in science and vice versa. The government shutdown in early January 2019 also likely impacted participation.

What’s next

WWF delivered the findings to Arctic Council members with a message to accelerate ambition and action to safeguard nature and people living in the Arctic.

“The future of the Arctic is being shaped by the actions taken today,” said David Aplin, director of education and outreach, WWF’s Arctic Field Program. “The people of Alaska and the environment on which communities so greatly depend are directly impacted by the shortcomings identified in the Arctic Scorecard. Governments must do more to protect biodiversity through strengthened governance and international cooperation.”

Published April 30, 2019 at 05:00AM

A “Cinderella” story in tiger conservation

A “Cinderella” story in tiger conservation

On a cold February evening in 2012, a starving and near-hypothermic Amur tiger cub was found by hunters in the forest of the Primorsky Province, Russian Far East. Aptly named Zolushka, Russian for "Cinderella", she was rehabilitated and released into the Bastak Nature Reserve the following year. Four years later, Zolushka has given birth to four cubs altogether, with the unknown gender of her fourth cub finally identified using WWF-Russia supported camera trap footage - a girl!

The significance of this female cub is of great importance to establishing a permanent tiger group in this area. Bastak Nature Reserve can host 3-4 female tigers since a female’s territory is smaller than a male’s, which can encompass the territories of 2-3 females. With a resident male already occupying the area, two of Zolushka’s male cubs have already dispersed in search of their own territories and the third male is likely to leave as well. But it is likely that the young female cub may stay in the Reserve.

"This is great news for us as the increase of females is a key to successful existence of the tiger group in Evreiskaya Province," says Alexei Kostyria, Coordinator of Rare Species Conservation Unit at WWF Russia Amur branch.

With around 3,900 tigers left in the wild, every tiger birth is a cause for celebration. WWF works with partners and governments to protect this species and restore populations in all tiger range countries.

Published April 23, 2019 at 05:00AM


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