In the Game of Extinction, It’s Good to Be Average
Jason Bittel

A new study finds that the world’s largest and smallest species are closest to the brink of oblivion.

The Somali ostrich is in big trouble.


According to a recent study, almost all it takes to predict an animal’s likelihood of extinction is to put it on a scale. Species with high or low body masses are disproportionately threatened, compared with those that are medium-size.  

The research, published recently in the journal PNAS, is the latest, biggest news from the world of extinction science. The scientists found that in any given group of animals—from bony fishes and birds to mammals and reptiles—species at the size extremes tend to be in the most trouble. For each group, species with a certain body mass are least likely to be threatened with extinction, and the farther a given species strays from that number, the worse off it tends to be. The safe(ish) zone for bony fishes, for instance, is around eight pounds. A bony fish just one order of magnitude larger—around 80 pounds—would be 294 percent more likely to be at risk.  

Big Macs

William Ripple, an ecologist at Oregon State University, is no newbie in this realm of research. In 2015 he published a paper that found that of the 74 species of large herbivores left on earth, 44 are threatened with extinction.

Humans are the one of the biggest threats to larger species like elephants.

Charles J. Sharp via Wikimedia Commons

Scientists had long suspected that the earth’s more voluminous inhabitants are more vulnerable, but studies had returned mixed results. But now, by gathering up the body masses for 27,647 vertebrates and checking them against each species’ threat status (as decided by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature), Ripple and his coauthors have shown definitively that it’s bad to be big.

“That just makes sense,” he says. Larger species are the ones humans more often come into conflict with and the ones we harvest for skins and other parts. “And, there’s more meat,” Ripple adds.

Habitat loss is also a contributing factor—another no-brainer when you consider that heftier animals, such as elephants, require more area to fulfill their daily needs than, say, a lemur. Ripple, however, was shocked to find that the world’s littlest vertebrates were equally effed. 

Small Fry

Ripple says tiny species are much less affected by large-scale harvesting by humans, since exploiting such animals requires more effort with less gain. For example, when deer are available, hunters won’t spend most of their time targeting shrews.

What, then, is putting the world’s pipsqueaks at risk? Small geographic ranges and habitat degradation. Think about species that live on just one island or rely on a particular watershed or type of forest. Should anything happen to that ecosystem—be it a new coal mine, a hurricane, or a new logging contract—that whole population could disappear in a flash. Their eggs are all in one basket, so to speak, and more and more of those baskets are sitting on the edge of a cliff.

Captive breeding brought the tiny Kihansi spray toad back from the brink of extinction.

Josh More/Flickr

You might wonder why losing something like the Devils Hole pupfish or the rufa red knot or the Kihansi spray toad matters. After all, if you could save only one species, would you pick a sea snail or the Attwater’s prairie chicken over a jaguar?

But Ripple says devaluing a species just because it’s itty-bitty is foolish. Bats and birds, for instance, play huge roles in their ecosystems through pollination, insect predation, seed dispersal, and much else.

“It’s important for us to be humble,” says Ripple, “in that humans do not understand all of the functions that are provided by wildlife species.”

Juuust Right

So what is it about all of those in-betweeners? What makes them so special?

Oliver Day, Oregon State University

Extinction risks are greater for animals at the small and large ends of the scale.

They aren’t hardier or better survivors or genetically superior to the big and small in any way, says Ripple. Medium-size animals are just more likely to occupy a Goldilocks-like niche. Humans are less apt to exploit them to the point of extinction, their habitat requirements are not as expansive, and their population distributions are not so specific. Medium-size species also typically reproduce faster than larger animals (which have longer gestation periods, and whose young take longer to reach sexual maturity), and they tend to have lengthier life spans than smaller animals.

None of which is to say that all the world’s moderates are bulletproof. Far from it―just ask any Tasmanian tiger. (Oh wait, you can’t.) But when you zoom out on the extinction crisis, you can see that those bodies on the edges tend to be the ones about to fall into the void.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

onEarth Story

A new review of the world’s largest herbivores shows 60 percent face extinction—and that’s bad news for everyone.

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Week 28: Trump’s Wall Shouldn’t Be Allowed to Break Laws (Environmental or Otherwise)
Brian Palmer

The president won’t subject his offensive border project to environmental review, but his administration will subject the EPA museum to censorship.

Welcome to our weekly Trump v. Earth column, in which onEarth reviews the environment-related shenanigans of President Trump and his allies.


Wall of Shame

The Department of Homeland Security announced on Tuesday that it would waive environmental safeguards in order to expedite the building of Trump’s enormously controversial wall along the U.S.–Mexico border. The decision came in the wake of reports that the border wall’s construction would begin in a wildlife refuge and threaten endangered species that regularly cross between the two countries.

Jaguars, for example, have tentatively begun to reestablish themselves north of the border after their complete disappearance from the United States in the 1960s. The existing wall along portions of the border has already blocked the big cat’s movement. Extending the wall would virtually preclude the jaguar’s return, while also constricting the ranges of many other fragile southwestern species, such as ocelots, pronghorn, Mexican gray wolves, and even ferruginous pygmy owls.

The Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act require the federal government to review the impact on endangered species and natural resources of most prospective construction projects. In 1996, however, Congress passed a law allowing the attorney general to waive those two laws in the case of the border wall. President Clinton, to his great shame, signed the bill into law. Dissatisfied with the pace of wall construction, Congress passed another bill in 2005 that went even further, allowing the administration to waive any law that might impede the construction of the border fence. The bill grants the executive branch such sweeping powers that the Congressional Research Service openly pondered whether a president could legally use child labor to build the wall. (The CRS concluded he probably could not.)

Why Trump couldn’t submit his border wall to environmental review is unclear. Voters would learn how the wall would affect flooding and other aspects of the natural world, and there’s plenty of time to do the analysis. This wall isn’t exactly on a fast track. The United States began building a border fence 27 years ago, the money for what could be as much as a $40 billion project hasn’t been appropriated, and senior members of Congress remain skeptical about its worthiness. Pretending that environmental laws are the main impediment to construction is nothing but a distraction.

You’ll Never Guess Who’s Rewriting the Clean Power Plan

EPA administrator Scott Pruitt has called the Clean Power Plan “an effort to kill jobs across the country.” He is apparently unaware of both the intent of the Clean Power Plan (reducing carbon pollution from power plants) and the 75 consecutive months of job growth under the Obama administration. If President Obama was hell-bent on killing American jobs, as Pruitt implies, he failed pretty spectacularly.

Viktor Gmyria/123RF

Anyway, President Trump signed an executive order in March directing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to repeal and replace the Clean Power Plan. While Trump didn’t describe what its replacement would look like, the president’s group of informal advisers gives us a pretty good idea. According to a report in E&E News, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) have held a series of meetings with administration officials about the fate of the CPP.

The positive spin: Industry leaders reportedly want the administration to “fix” rather than gut the Clean Power Plan. But positive spin is still spin. Trump and Pruitt know they have to replace the Clean Power Plan with something that would at least superficially reduce greenhouse gas emissions from utilities, because the Administrative Procedures Act forbids an administration from throwing out valid regulations without a good reason. So, of course, they’re looking for a toothless plan that vaguely resembles the CPP.

That the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers are seriously interested in significantly cutting carbon emissions is highly doubtful. Chamber of Commerce leadership has consistently refused to acknowledge the human contribution to global climate change and is so vehemently opposed to sensible environmental regulations that many of its largest corporate members have quit the organization in protest. The National Association of Manufacturers has similarly tarred environmental rules as “anti-growth,” driving away major members like Duke Energy with its overheated rhetoric. NAM also intervened in a lawsuit in which children sued the federal government over its inaction on climate change. Then NAM attempted to withdraw from the case when it became clear the organization could be forced to hand over internal documents relating to its knowledge of and (possibly) its attempts to discredit the realities of climate change.

If these are the groups counseling Trump on climate change regulation, things are . . . exactly as bad as we thought.

Rewriting History

The Trump administration has worked hard to erase mentions of climate change from government communications such as websites, press releases, and tweets. But it missed a spot. A mini-museum about the history of the EPA, opened at the end of the Obama administration, extols the agency’s successes. The little exhibit celebrates, among other things, the Clean Power Plan and the Paris climate agreement.

That’s about to change. Trump officials have become aware of the museum, and they’re preparing to expunge its mentions of climate action. They might even take it one step farther—the administration is reportedly considering adding an homage to coal to the museum.

“It should be no surprise that there may be changes,” Nancy Grantham, an EPA public affairs employee, told the Washington Post.

It may be unsurprising, given the president’s many affronts to both the environment and the truth, but it’s still disturbing. Tyrants invariably censor museums in their attempts to alter history. Augusto Pinochet, Nicolae Ceaucescu, and Francisco Franco, among others, censored museums to alter the historical record.

It is, I concede, slightly hyperbolic to compare the alteration of a tiny museum outside the EPA credit union to the censorship habits of some of the worst dictators of the 20th century. But Trump is attempting the same basic trick: to limit public discussion of a major issue by erasing it wherever he can. Pruitt and Trump say they want discussion and debate about climate change, but they obviously don’t. If they did, they would leave the museum intact as a historical record, and possibly add the administration’s own views as a counterpoint. Instead, they want to pretend the Paris climate agreement never happened and that climate change is a fairy tale parents (and teachers and scientists) tell children.

Stay up-to-date on Trump’s environmental antics by visiting NRDC’s Trump Watch or following it on Facebook or Twitter.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

onEarth Story

Trump’s already offensive wall will also endanger an already endangered species.

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Thanks to the Trump administration’s regulatory freeze, the endangered rusty patched bumblebee might not get the protections it desperately needs.

Policy Primer

The Clean Power Plan is the most important step America can take to reduce the risks of climate change and build a better future.

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The president either completely misunderstands the Paris Agreement or has chosen to flagrantly mischaracterize it.

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Climate science is under its fiercest attack yet. But one group has been countering the onslaught—by connecting with everyday Americans in their own communities.

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The incoming head of the EPA believes states should be in charge of their own environmental regulations. Been there, done that, got the oil-soaked T-shirt.

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We know that you know that Trump’s assessment of the Paris Agreement is way off base. Here’s how to convince those who don’t.

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A recent ruling on methane emissions serves as a smackdown to Pruitt’s EPA—and a way forward for environmentalists.

Other Countries Are Giving Up Gas-Powered Cars—Will the U.S. Ever Hop Aboard?
Jeff Turrentine

How inevitable is the advent of the electric vehicle in America? We asked an anthropologist.

Tesla has received around half a million reservations since its Model 3 was unveiled in April.

Steve Jurvetson/Flickr

Great Britain has become the latest nation to announce plans for phasing out the sale of new diesel- and gasoline-powered cars in the not-too-distant future. Like France, Britain chose 2040 as its deadline for hitting the brakes. India and Norway also say they will bid farewell to gas-burning vehicles by 2030 and 2025, respectively.

Something’s clearly going on, even if it’s still too early to determine what that “something” is. In the case of Great Britain, weaning consumers off the pump seems related to mounting concern over air pollution, which is starting to get out of hand on the scepter’d isle. France’s decision, according to its environment minister, is a response to President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord: a public doubling-down on the country’s commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Norway’s case may have something to do with easing the cognitive dissonance that comes from trying to maintain an environmentally progressive reputation while simultaneously being one of the world’s largest oil and gas exporters outside of the Middle East.

Suffice it to say that the current American president hasn’t followed suit. The White House has yet to make any kind of statement revealing its general feelings toward gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles—or their future in this country, for that matter—aside from rolling back fuel-efficiency standards and releasing of several photographs of President Trump playing in a truck. (He looks like he’s having fun! Guess big rigs are safe for now, at least.)

But it’s worth asking: Why aren’t we following suit? Is our climate-denying, truck-infatuated president really to blame here? Or are other factors—cultural, political, economic, technological, infrastructural—keeping our country, specifically, from making a pledge to take our foot off the gas and switch to electric vehicles?

For some answers, I called Thomas Turrentine, a research anthropologist and the director of the Plug-in Hybrid & Electric Vehicle Research Center UC-Davis’s Institute of Transportation Studies. (Given the relative uncommonness of our shared surname, the professor and I are most likely distant cousins, but neither of us can verify this with any certainty.) 

Our phone conversation boiled down to the exploration of a single question. Will America ever make a bold commitment to give up the gas tank, as these other countries have?

Turrentine notes certain inescapable factors standing in the way of such a transition, at least for the time being. One of them is the way that we tax fuel. “Oil-producing nations like Venezuela, Russia, and the U.S. tend to have very low fuel taxes, almost to the point where it can feel like a subsidy,” he says. (Norway, he points out, is a notable exception to this rule.) On top of that, Americans—in keeping with all the hegemonic stereotypes—care much more about size and power than do vehicle owners in other countries. Between our low fuel prices, low fuel taxes, and seemingly inborn cultural affinity for SUVs, we simply don’t experience the same positive tropism toward electric vehicles, which may cost far less to operate but which don’t necessarily flatter their drivers in quite the same way.

Then there are the issues of coordination and infrastructure development. Turrentine says that while countries like Britain, France, and Norway are not tiny, they’re nevertheless small and centralized enough that “they can probably set a goal like this and then figure out a way to get there.” Successfully transitioning from a gas-powered fleet to an electric one requires developing an ambitious, nationwide infrastructure system for fueling: a collaboration between carmakers, battery developers, utilities, and governments, all of whom are trying to balance their desire for cooperation with their desire to make (or save) money.

One big question that remains wherever electric cars are making inroads: Where are people charging them, and how might that affect infrastructure development? Turrentine’s team at UC-Davis is currently monitoring the habits and behaviors of 200 electric-car households in California as part of a long-term empirical study. He and his colleagues have noticed that the prospect of free electricity for electric cars at workplaces has, proportionally and logically, diminished the marketplace for home-charging stations. “The Tesla customers in our study aren’t even buying the charging equipment at home, because why should they? They can charge at work for free.”

Data like that that doesn’t, in and of itself, constitute a bad omen. What it does get at are the highly complicated economics that need to be ironed out before we can move to the next level.

So, what positive signs does he see? One is that batteries are becoming cheaper, stronger, and longer-lived. (“It’s all about the battery,” he told me more than once during our conversation.) Another is that recent trends toward automation in car manufacturing augur well for the ascent of electric vehicles, which lend themselves to automated production far more than gas-powered vehicles do. Turrentine explains:

There’s just sort of a natural fit between electrics and automation. Vehicles are increasingly becoming computers—connected to the internet, connected to each other. If you can imagine an assembly plant where you’re building a V6 engine, all of those different parts, making an electric car is just so much simpler. If computers are running the motor, you want to power them with electricity. You don’t want to do it with combustion.

So he’s hopeful, then, that the electric-vehicle revolution is nigh? Even here in the United States?

“I actually do think that we may have turned a corner,” Turrentine told me. “We’re not at profitability yet. But there are a lot of people in the car companies who think that profitability is about to arrive.” And that kind of optimism, he says, is the stuff that sparks investment and development, and that ultimately leads to paradigm shifts. 

“Electric-vehicle divisions who had 30 guys working on them a while back may now have 300, or even 3,000 people,” he said in conclusion. “And those folks are getting raises and bigger budgets. Meanwhile, over on the other side of the factory, where they’re still making diesel, those guys are thinking about what they’re going to be doing for their next job.”

So, Great Britain, France, Norway, and India … carry on. We’ll catch up with you later.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

onEarth Story

Bosses are offering employees cold, hard cash to give up their “free” parking space at work. And it may be a win-win for everybody—including Mother Earth.

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Everybody’s excited about the coming EV revolution. But without the right infrastructure, it’ll never go anywhere.

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In quantifying carbon pollution's damage to society, Trump sees America as an island unto itself—and we all know what climate change does to islands.

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Governor Hickenlooper wants to rev up the transition away from gas power, but there are a few roadblocks to clear.

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The president wants to relax national fuel efficiency standards and bully states into scuttling their own plans for lower emissions and cleaner air.

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So many technological innovations in the automobile industry stem directly from guidelines intended to reduce gas guzzling. If we lose these guidelines, we’ll also lose a lot of our workforce.

Meet the Fish That Builds Works of Love on the Seafloor
Clara Chaisson

Who knew the unassuming male puffer fish is one of nature’s greatest artists?

Sometimes there are no better artists to convey the importance of protecting the ocean than sea creatures themselves. Equipped with nothing more than fins and dogged determination, male puffer fish in the waters off Japan create ornate geometric designs in the sand. The delicate displays could give any artist and his paintbrush (and opposable thumbs) a run for his money.

Divers first spotted the elaborate circular patterns, spanning more than six feet on the ocean floor, in 1995. But it wasn’t until 2011, that scientists figured out the origin of these “mystery circles.” Sir David Attenborough explains the remarkable process in the “Courtship” episode of BBC Earth’s Life Story, excerpted above.

(a) Early stage; (b) middle stage; (c) final stage; and (d) after spawning

Yoji Okata

The whole process takes a labor-intensive seven to nine days, and the suitor works around the clock. Though the finished product is spectacular to human eyes, scientists aren’t sure if female pufferfish are quite so appreciative of their lovers’ labors. The fine sand particles in the middle of the nest create a soft bed for a clutch of eggs, and, it's possible that, “the beautiful lines and structure could serve only to channel those particles to the center and have no aesthetic purpose,” researcher Alex Jordan told LiveScience.

Whatever their purpose, the structures are made all the more stunning by their impermanence. Rather than maintain his hard-won love palace, the male pufferfish makes a new masterpiece each time he mates.

And so castles made of sand melt into the sea, eventually.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

onEarth Story

Simon Beck walks in winter wonderlands to create “Snow Art”—and send an environmental message.

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On Australia’s Cape York Peninsula, artists weave deadly “ghost nets” into totems.

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An Inuit woman’s portrait on vanishing sea ice is a powerful metaphor for climate change’s cultural toll.

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Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Artist Chie Hitotsuyama crafts realistic animals out of recycled newspaper.

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Through her tragically beautiful photo series, a Minneapolis artist reminds us why hundreds of thousands of birds won’t be making it to their winter destinations this migratory season.

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Maskbook invites people around the world to express their environmental anxieties.

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A new report estimates that around 700,000 tons of fishing gear are abandoned in the oceans each year. Now the good news: We can curb this.

The Border Wall Is Underway . . . Right in the Middle of a Wildlife Refuge
Jeff Turrentine

Trump’s already offensive wall will also endanger an already endangered species.

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge is home to a small population of endangered ocelots

Tom Smylie, USFWS

For the past two years, President Trump’s idea for a wall on the U.S.–Mexico border has existed as little more than a psychosocial blueprint. At his rallies and other public events, Trump riles up the crowd with bellowed promises to “build that wall,” a guaranteed applause line—or, to be honest, a scream line. And when paired with a second promise to “make Mexico pay for it,” an even larger roar of approval erupts from Trump’s fans.

But now the wall seems to be finally, er, getting off the ground. (Please pardon the pun—and if not, I’ll just pardon myself! Apparently that’s a thing now.) One sign of the wall’s passage from the abstract to the concrete: on Wednesday, the U.S. House of Representatives began debate on H.R. 3219, the “Make America Secure Appropriations Act,” which, if passed, would provide $1.6 billion for “physical barrier construction” along the border.

Another sign is what’s quietly taking place down in Texas.

At the southern tip of the Lone Star State, along the banks of the Rio Grande, the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge sits on little more than 2,000 acres. Among birdwatchers, it’s a bucket-list destination, widely recognized as one of the best spots in the country for seeing a wide variety of species—more than 400 of them, by some counts—in a relatively compact setting. It lies at the nexus of two migratory routes (one north to south, the other east to west), and birds flock here from all directions. The refuge also marks the northernmost range for many avian species of Central and South America.

A small and vulnerable population of endangered ocelots also takes refuge in Santa Ana. These leopardlike felines with unusual markings once roamed throughout the lower Southwest. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, only about 50 ocelots remain on American soil, nearly all of them restricted to a tiny swath of South Texas. The cat’s survival and recovery depend on its ability to hunt and raise its cubs in a protected environment―such as the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. Habitat loss and inbreeding (which is often the result of habitat loss) have already weakened the few dozen ocelots left in Texas. The best way for the population to regain its genetic diversity and increase its numbers, wildlife experts say, is through mating with ocelots in northern Mexico—via connected habitat exactly like the one found here.

President Trump is about to make that much more difficult.

Over the past six months, at the behest of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency (CBP), federal officials and hired contractors have been conducting preliminary work at the refuge for the construction of the first portion of the border wall. They didn’t choose this federal land at random. Ninety-five percent of the land along the Rio Grande in Texas is either state owned or privately owned; the president could start building his wall on other people’s property, but the legal process would be lengthy and complicated.

Fighting the Trump Agenda: Tracking Trump's attacks on the environment and how you can help NRDC stop him.

Once news of the project leaked (thanks to an anonymous official disturbed by the secretive manner in which the process was unfolding), a spokesman for the CBP confirmed on the record that the agency had received a waiver to begin testing soil samples, a first step toward groundbreaking on the 18-foot-high barrier. The same anonymous official told a reporter from the Texas Observer that construction could begin as early as January and that it would entail clearing land, building roads, and erecting numerous surveillance stations and light towers up and down a three-mile stretch—effectively turning what many call the crown jewel of our national wildlife refuge system into a miniature military installation.

“The border wall is a bad idea from start to finish,” says Andrew Wetzler, a wildlife specialist and deputy chief program officer at NRDC. “It’s bad for people, it’s bad for local economies, and it’s bad for the wildlife that depend on intact, open space to survive. Wildlife refuges are the last places we should be chopping up with walls.”

But wait: it gets worse. Sources say that President Trump is planning to cite the REAL ID Act, a 2005 law pertaining to national security, in order to skirt an environmental impact study that would otherwise be mandatory for any project of this size and scope on federal land. And by citing this same act—which was passed when the country was still reeling from the 9/11 attacks—the Trump administration could essentially sidestep the Endangered Species Act, which would typically prohibit the destruction of habitat belonging to an endangered species like the ocelot.

In short, by starting his wall on federal land, Trump gets to avoid having to deal with private landowners and their issues. And by waving a copy of the REAL ID act around as he sets about destroying pristine wildlife habitat, he avoids having to deal with the American public, too. No friction from concerned ranchers or other stakeholders. No environmental impact studies. No public comment period.

And it’s all for a three-mile stretch that any ambulatory human could easily avoid in favor of an un-walled stretch on either side of it. All for the fragmentary symbol of a barrier.

But for an ocelot, it’s a very real barrier, indeed, one that could wall it in to extinction.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

onEarth Story

Another reason to oppose President Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico: It would be devastating for wildlife.

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Plus: Dems in Congress get gagged, while oil drillers get ready to make a noisy mess of the Atlantic.

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One of the world’s largest cats prowls the American Southwest—and almost no one knows it’s there.

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By leaving the Paris Agreement, the president also withdrew the country from the world community. Does he understand what this means? Does he even care?

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The energy secretary’s take on a basic law of economics was either confused or deceitful.

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Four out of five of us express support for the Endangered Species Act. Its attackers should take note.

Don’t Mess with Our National Parks, Zinke! A Message from Purple America
Jeff Turrentine

The interior secretary’s proposal to hand over park management to private companies has riled up some very unhappy campers.

Glacier National Park's Cut Bank campground

Jonathan C. Wheeler/Flickr

Today is Congressman Jason Chaffetz’s last day in office. The Republican from Utah is quitting his career in public service to cash in as a Fox News talking head. But during his final months as a representative, Chaffetz did something highly unusual for a congressperson: he publicly admitted making a serious mistake by sponsoring a particular bill, and then he apologetically withdrew it.

Chaffetz’s error? Introducing HR 621, also known as the Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act, which would have authorized the transfer of 3.3 million acres of public land to individual states—at which point the states could do whatever they wanted with them, including selling them off to the highest bidder.

These holdings, Chaffetz had originally asserted, “serve no purpose to taxpayers.” Taxpayers disagreed. In Montana and New Mexico—two states where federal land management is a major local issue—thousands rallied to voice their fervent opposition to the bill. Their message to Chaffetz and any others who would transfer, sell off, or privatize federal lands: Dont even think about it.

Who were these protesters who so rattled Chaffetz that he felt obliged to kill his own bill and completely reverse his position? Environmental activists? A bunch of left-leaning land-use policy wonks flown in from San Francisco and Washington, D.C.? Members of the anti-Trump #resistance who are unhappy with just about anything the GOP supports these days?

Hardly. Many of them were fly-fishing guides, mountaineers, hunters, outfitters, or other small-business owners whose lives and livelihoods are tied to the continued preservation of this land. In other words, they were locals. Conservatives, moderates, and liberals. Republicans and Democrats. Grandparents, parents, and grandkids. The protesters represented a true cross-section of the citizenry—and the electorate. Though Chaffetz’s response to voter anger has often been to suggest that it’s fake, he couldn’t get away with it this time. A few days after the protests, he made it clear on Instagram. “I hear you,” he wrote, “and HR 621 dies tomorrow.”

I hope Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke was paying attention. While Zinke was appointed, not elected, to his job, and doesn’t have to worry about constituent outrage in quite the same way that Chaffetz did, there’s still a lesson for him in the short, awkward saga of HR 621. And he’d be a fool not to heed it.

Zinke recently proposed to privatize campgrounds in national parks and other federal lands, essentially allowing for-profit companies to manage them in the day-to-day. Zinke says the use of private companies could help cover the more than $10 billion in long-delayed maintenance projects at our underfunded national parks. But he has another reason for handing over public lands to private concessionaires—and it has less to do with closing budget gaps and more with an ideology that reflexively glorifies business and diminishes government.

“As the secretary, I don’t want to be in the business of running campgrounds,” Zinke told the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association, a trade group representing more than 98 percent of the RV industry. “My folks will never be as good as you are. We are going to have more public–private partnerships soon. I think that’s where the industry should be going.”

Imagine, if you will, you’re a longtime National Park Service employee listening to your new boss utter those words. What would it feel like to hear him tell a group of RV manufacturers that they’re more qualified to run our national campgrounds than are the thousands of park rangers, guides, and other NPS employees who have dedicated their lives to working in these unique and ecologically specific spaces, keeping them safe, beautiful, and accessible to the American people?

Here’s something that Zinke doesn’t bring up nearly as much: The Trump budget for the next fiscal year, if enacted, would cut funding to the NPS by 13 percent and add another $30 million to the nearly $11 billion in already deferred maintenance costs that the interior secretary has publicly decried. It also proposes cutting more than 1,200 NPS jobs, a staff reduction of 6 percent.

Secretary Zinke is implicitly endorsing harmful cuts to his own agency that will result in lost jobs while at the same time telling us that those folks, his folks, probably weren’t the best people for the job anyway. And all this is done in the name of a terrible long-term goal: ceding public land management to companies that are obliged—culturally and often legally—to increase profits and maximize shareholder value. What might that look like in a Yellowstone campground circa 2027? Curtailed camping hours? Billboard advertising? The addition of theme park–style rides and attractions? Fast-food franchises?

Hopefully we’ll never find out, because Zinke may be in for a surprise. The same display of righteous anger that caught Jason Chaffetz off guard is coalescing around Zinke’s boneheaded idea—and once again, the coalition transcends political and demographic boundaries.

Earlier this week, a writer named Christopher Barron penned a blistering critique of the way that Zinke and his boss, President Trump, have handled the public-lands issue since taking office. In his piece for The Hill, a widely read publication among policy experts, Barron vigorously defends the monument-protecting Antiquities Act, which the Trump administration is working hard to dismantle, and lambasts “corporate interests who don’t understand the value of public lands to average Americans.” In making his case, Barron notes that working-class and rural voters, “unlike the elites in Washington, often can’t afford exotic vacations or high-priced private hunting preserves . . . Instead, many working-class Americans rely on access to federal public lands.”

It’s tough talk, aimed at Trump and Zinke―and it’s coming from a rock-ribbed Republican who not only voted for Trump but works full-time as a conservative political strategist. And Barron’s censure is just another sign that the public, left and right, is finally catching on to something that really ought to be quite obvious: There’s nothing “conservative” about abandoning the conservation of our most sacred public spaces.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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Monitor Lizards Are Caught Up in Bizarre Trafficking Scheme
Jason Bittel

People shop online for a rare root that’s considered holy. What ships instead will make you cringe.

Yellow monitor lizard

Neil D'Cruze

What would you say if I told you I had a rare, holy root called Hatha Jodi that could protect you during journeys or on the battlefield? A root that, when washed in water from the Ganges River, can ward off evil spirits, help you acquire wealth, and make you more attractive? A root that looks like two hands clasped in prayer and is found in only a few secret, sacred sites across Nepal and India? And what would you say if I could sell it―and all of its magic­―to you online for as little as $55?

Well, you should call me liar—or worse, an illegal wildlife trafficker.

For starters, whether the Hatha Jodi root has ever existed is unknown and, in this case, almost irrelevant. That’s because scientists have conducted tests on some of these “roots” found online (and in markets across India) and determined that they aren’t even of plant origin. In fact, they are pieces of animals. And very specific pieces, at that.

Neil D’Cruze, a trained taxonomist with a PhD in herpetology, says these so-called roots are actually the two-headed penises of protected monitor lizards. (In case you’re wondering, snakes and lizards have branched penises, with each side responsible for transporting sperm from a different testicle.)

Monitor lizard penises masquerading as Hatha Jodi roots

Neil D'Cruze

You probably have a lot more questions, too. And so does D’Cruze, who is a senior wildlife adviser for World Animal Protection and a visiting academic at Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit. D’Cruze has been investigating the Hatha Jodi trade since last December, when the issue first popped up on his radar. “It’s really difficult to ascertain exactly what is going on here,” he says.

Of the four species of monitor lizard found in India, the Bengal and yellow monitor lizards cannot be traded, according to Indian law and Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna. (The CITES designation protects animals threatened with extinction, prohibiting all trade, domestic or international, except under “exceptional circumstances.”) The reptiles currently face serious threats, including habitat loss, lack of food thanks to pesticides, and illegal hunting for their meat, skin, and fat. The latter is a popular ingredient in traditional medicine.

But why would dealers go out of their way to replace a root with the genitalia of a protected species—especially when almost any old actual root would do? Also curious is that lab tests conducted by David Megson at Manchester Metropolitan University in the United Kingdom confirm that some of these specimens are plastic—which means some dealers have made molds of the lizards’ business ends and have started manufacturing fake penises to pass them off as fake roots.

“I have been fortunate enough to work on a variety of interesting forensics cases, but I never thought I would be involved with something like this,” says Megson. “Chopping off a lizard’s penis and claiming it’s a rare root . . . It is a very bizarre world that we live in.”

Indeed. What we do know is that the Hatha Jodi trade is growing. After D’Cruze and his fellow investigators learned the root’s true identity, they began searching for it online and quickly racked up more than 200 “Hatha Jodi” listings on a host of commercial websites, including Amazon, Etsy, eBay, Alibaba, and Snapdeal.

A Hatha Jodi store in Delhi

Neil D'Cruze

India is taking this new threat to its monitor lizards seriously. At the end of May, a joint task force composed of officers from the Wildlife Trust of India, the federal Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, the Crime Branch of the State Police, and the forest department carried out a sting at a house in the city of Bhubaneswar. The officers posed as buyers, negotiated a deal, and later swept through the building where they confiscated more than 200 pieces of dried lizard phalluses.

In the past month, wildlife authorities have conducted 14 such raids in six Indian states, in both rural and urban areas. Still, D’Cruze says it will take a lot more research to get to the bottom of this mess. He says there are three competing theories to explain the strange substitutions. “If a real plant does exist at these extremely remote locations, then the four Indian species of monitor lizard, given their wide distribution, would be easier and cheaper to source,” says D’Cruze. “If the plant does not exist, then it is just a deceitful piece of marketing used to dupe customers.”

Or authorities. A third possibility is that consumers are seeking monitor lizard parts in the first place. Giving credence to this theory is the fact that many of the listings make statements like “This item is real Hatha Jodi—Not fake!” but then neglect to explain what real and fake actually mean. Such wink-wink code words might help buyers and sellers sidestep the law.

“But I suspect that the majority simply buy the Hatha Jodi thinking that it is in fact a holy root,” says D’Cruze. As he says, what market forces may be at play in this absurd trafficking ring are still a bit of a mystery. 

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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