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Global Change, Wildlife and the Environment

Ed Robinson
December 6, 2021
Flying squirrel (Photo by EEI Tony, iStock)

The saw cut was challenging since the sizable limb forked off the main trunk of the maple tree near shoulder height. I let the sharp chain do its job, ensuring that my footing was secure and maintaining a firm hold on the powerful machine. With the cut nearly complete, I was startled to see a flying squirrel nearly in my face as it scampered down the branch and leapt to the ground. Remaining focused on the task at hand, I wondered why the squirrel waited to the last minute rather than soaring to safety from the canopy above when the saw first roared to life.

With the branch on the ground and the saw quiet, I had a few moments to consider the encounter with the tiny squirrel. My decision to cut the maple tree was a considered one, part of a yearly effort to “release” apple trees around the farm so they have plenty of sunlight for fruit production. Maple, ash and black cherry trees grow faster than the apples and will overwhelm the fruit trees if I ignore my annual duties. From the time I purchased the property, bringing roughly 80 old apple trees back into production has been a top priority because of their high value as a food source for a wide variety of wildlife.

Yet my decision to cut that maple had a big impact on the diminutive flying squirrel. It was late September and the animal was forced to relocate from a favored tree with cold weather on the horizon. Hopefully the squirrel was able to move on to a safe location with no lingering disruption to its short life. I see the animals rarely and enjoy having them in the forest, installing nest boxes to give them more housing options.

The incident above is useful to consider the impact that one man with a chainsaw can have in a tiny part of the natural world. Then imagine what happens when a professional logging crew moves into a large forest tract for a major cut, with mechanical harvesters dropping thousands of trees and giant skidders clawing at miles of trails across the terrain. The days of unregulated clear cutting are mostly in our rear-view mirrors, and well executed timber harvests are an important part of scientific forest management, but the hand of mankind often falls heavily on the ecosystems where we live and work. More often than not, man is an exploiter, not a gentle steward of the land, air and waters of our Earth.

You do not have to look very far to find examples of man’s impact on the land around us. When large numbers of Europeans began to colonize America in the 1600’s, it is estimated there were over one billion acres of virgin forest across the country. Reports from the USDA’s Forest Service estimate that over 90 percent of that original forest has been cut, with much of the remaining old growth timber slated for harvest in places like the Pacific Northwest. Only small pockets of undisturbed forest remain across New England, the biggest block being 5,000 acres preserved around Big Reed Pond, north of Baxter State Park.

Our country has also suffered the loss of over 120 million acres of wetlands, vital habitat for a wide variety of species and critically important for filtering and retaining fresh water supplies. Across the prairie regions of North America, potholes and marshes are the breeding habitat of choice for most migratory waterfowl, especially during periods of drought. According to the US Fish & Wildlife Service, states like Connecticut, Iowa and California have lost 70 percent or more of their original wetlands. Fortunately, Maine is blessed with over five million acres of wetlands, mostly freshwater, accounting for 25 percent of Maine’s total land area.

Our planet is part of a solar system that is in constant flux, and scientific history clearly demonstrates dramatic changes on Earth over eons of time. There are some people who refuse to accept that rapid climate change is now occurring and that man has had a demonstrable role in that change. To dispute climate change and our role requires a willful blindness to the reams of scientific data out there documenting the myriad of ways that our planet is responding to population growth, ongoing development, unchecked removal of forests, air and water pollution, and on and on.

An unfolding drama in Maine concerns attempts to document the presence and ongoing impact of a class of over 9,000 persistent synthetic compounds known as per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances, known by the acronym PFAS, the “forever chemicals.” They have been documented in the blood and breastmilk of humans and wildlife around the world, but their long-term effects are yet to be understood.

Climate change is a regular topic in the media and among the political class, so much so that it is easy to get lost in all of the claims and prescriptions for change. But the evidence is all around us when we care to look:

  1. Air and ocean temperatures are rising rapidly around the world, with annual average air temperatures in Maine rising more than 3 degrees F in the last 125 years.
  2. Snow arrives later each year in the mountain regions of the western US, leaving a 20 percent smaller snowpack in the last 75 years, thus contributing to growing water shortages across a number of states
  3. Rising temperatures have forced changes in the massive jet stream that dictates much of our weather. In recent decades, the jet stream has slowed from its traditional movements and sometimes gets “stuck” in one location, resulting in extreme wind and rainfall events across the states east of the Mississippi River. Last August, the city of McEwan, Tennessee received over 12 inches of rain in just seven hours, causing massive flooding and heavy loss of life.
  4. At the same time, many western states are experiencing several years of extreme heat and drought conditions. Long stretches without rain have severe impacts on land and wildlife populations, as do the related severe wildfires. According to a new report by USA Today, 18 of California’s worst 20 wildfires have occurred since 2003. Reservoirs, aquifers and rivers in many states are shrinking, causing water rationing and major losses for farmers.

It requires no leap of faith to review the above facts and to expect that there will be significant consequences for the flora and fauna around us. Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife in 2020 reported on the status of endangered and threatened species around the state. Since the state legislature passed the Endangered Species Act in 1975, 53 species have been listed by MDIF&W so that special attention could be paid to the species and to the habitat they need to survive. While some species like Atlantic puffins, peregrine falcons and spotted turtles have made progress in population recovery, others like the New England cottontail and the black tern have continued to suffer losses. Since 1975 only one species has been delisted, the bald eagle, but the timber rattlesnake is now considered extirpated in our state.

In recent years we have seen media reports of serious losses of important species that bear upon our own lives. A 2019 report in the journal Conservation Biology presented the results of a review of 73 scientific studies on insect populations. Most of the studies were conducted in North America and Europe. The authors concluded that 40 percent of insect species are declining, with a cumulative loss worldwide at roughly 2.5 percent annually. The most likely causes of the declines were agricultural practices (including pesticides like Roundup), habitat loss due to urbanization and climate change. Some commentary on the study challenged the authors’ methods and their attempts to draw global conclusions with limited data from Asia, South America and Africa, but there seemed to be general agreement with the report’s premise.

A major problem with following up on that report is that too little is known about the world’s insect population. Roughly 900,000 species of insects have been cataloged to date but scientists estimate the world contains as many as 30 million different species. Other than common species like honey bees and butterflies, few scientists are focused on insect studies and there is precious little data to determine how populations are changing over time. What is not in dispute, however, is that ongoing losses of important insect populations will have significant impacts on every other species on Earth, including humans and our avian neighbors, many of whom depend upon insects to feed their young.

Not long after the above report was released, the United Nations released a report on biodiversity and ecosystem health around the world. This was a massive undertaking with 455 contributors and authors. Their major conclusion – up to one million species of plants and animals are threatened with extinction, some of them within decades. A reviewer for Northern Woodlands stated that reading the report was enough to make him cry.

Late in 2019, another study was issued by Cornell University’s highly respected Lab of Ornithology to the journal Science. An international team of scientists from seven institutions reviewed 50 years of data accumulated from billions of bird counts by citizen scientists. The study was widely reported across the country because of the shocking results of a study of 529 species of North American birds. The headline conclusion was that since 1970 the total population of those 529 common species of birds had fallen by 30 percent, a total loss of just under three billion breeding adult birds. While some species managed to grow their numbers over the period, including wild turkeys, some raptors and waterfowl, many of our favorite birds have declined precipitously (among them warblers, larks, dark-eyed juncos and Baltimore orioles).

Close to home we have seen significant impacts on the beautiful and sometimes rare ocean-going birds along our coastline. I have written previously on the Herculean volunteer efforts to help Atlantic puffins, roseate terns and piping plovers recover from their steep declines. But many other birds have suffered losses as a result of predation, ocean warming, declining food species, extreme weather events and rising sea levels. Razorbills, common murres, northern gannets, black and Arctic terns have all faced mounting challenges as they are forced to forage longer distances to find food, neglecting their young and exposing them to predators or severe weather. MDIF&W, Maine Audubon and other conservation groups are actively trying to lend a hand to species facing these challenges but there is only so much that can be done for birds that range far out to sea most of the year.

We ask each other: what can be done to counteract the problems listed above and so many others reported on the evening news? At times it seems overwhelming, both in the number of issues faced by our planet and the scope of change needed to make a difference. It would be one thing if we could focus on correcting the damage we have done in the 400 years since Europeans descended upon these shores in vast numbers, but our economy and lifestyles are built upon processes and products that do more harm with each passing day.

I become quite frustrated with many of the politicians in both parties who are supposedly leading the charge in solving our nation’s climate and environmental problems. Many of them seem to have only the barest grasp of the facts and scope of our problems, leading them to propose solutions that are at best simplistic and often ill considered. Some would have us believe that all we need to do is shut down our energy pipelines and traditional power plants, buy electric cars and our problems will be solved. That is of course complete nonsense because we are many years away from having the manufacturing infrastructure to build and charge all those vehicles, and we have yet to create the high powered, long-life batteries required to power those vehicles or the mines that are necessary to produce the lithium and other minerals for those batteries. Just getting permits to build the massive mining operations for lithium and other rare earth minerals will be a long slog.

Even if we somehow manage to convert to electric cars (plus trucks, buses, ships, trains and cranes) and meet all of the targets in the Paris Accords, we will still be a long way from solving our climate problems. While we have made great strides in installing new alternative energy sources in America, mostly solar and wind powered, they still represent a fraction of the total power consumption of our economy. Until we have significantly improved battery storage technologies, our electricity grid cannot be adequately run on solar and wind power – the huge battery systems now being installed by utility companies to handle excess solar or wind power often can store only four hours of energy. As we saw last winter in Texas, and as Europe experienced last summer, alternative energy sources can sometimes fall short for days at a time.

Another issue we must deal with is public resistance to installing new energy systems in our backyards, along our highways, on our mountains and in the ocean. American consumers can be frustratingly fickle when asked what they want – focus groups have demonstrated that time after time. While most Americans maintain that they want to see a greener economy and an improved environment, when the solutions hit close to home, all too often we witness the rise of NIMBY – Not In My Backyard, or on my favorite hills, or off my shoreline. If we are determined to rush headlong toward the complete decommissioning of coal, gas and oil-fired electricity generating plants, it will require massive installations of new energy sources. That will require huge investments not just in wind and solar systems, but the development of new energy systems based upon hydrogen, fusion, and yes, even traditional nuclear power. It should be obvious that we cannot install all of those systems away from all public view, miles from population centers, and in deep ocean waters. Are Americans willing to accept the huge investments and compromises necessary to make these changes? So far, the answer is often “no.”

Our country has a great history of innovation, and of accepting sacrifice when necessary to meet significant common goals. On a micro level, there has been a grassroots swing to the use of solar power in small residential installations, and now community-wide projects are popping up all over. Some states have managed to install large arrays of wind turbines, for which the technology and scale continues to advance. Many communities are updating their building codes to encourage better decisions in designing, constructing, siting and insulating new buildings. Fortunately, the efficiency of solar panels has improved considerably in the last decade and additional innovation will surely follow. New battery storage technologies are in development at universities and small companies around the world, and in a few years, we should see dramatic gains in the efficiency and safety of battery systems for all kinds of applications.

Consumers are driving change in business practices, for instance, in the choice and amount of packaging materials for consumer products. Fast food companies are under pressure to stop the use of materials that cannot be recycled or composted in less than 100 years. Innovator companies are finding ways to collect and make use of all kinds of petroleum-based waste materials from discarded fishing nets to water bottles, along with enhanced recycling of glass, aluminum and paper products. It would be nice to think that the 40 states without recycling laws for drink containers will finally step up – the 10 states with such laws currently recycle about 70 percent of these containers, while the others send their waste to landfills or incinerators. Far too many of those containers still end up as potentially hazardous waste along our roadsides and in our waters.

Many of the conversations about global warming focus on carbon dioxide emissions, and for good reasons. CO2 goes into our atmosphere in vast quantities and it lasts for hundreds of years, contributing to a warming planet. There is increasing focus by regulators and scientists on capturing and recycling that waste carbon, or in preventing its creation at the source. Progress is being made at capturing that carbon for pumping deep underground in the spaces left after oil and gas have been pumped to the surface. Other companies are looking at using the carbon for industrial purposes.

Of equal concern, but with little focus historically, methane is another greenhouse gas in need of attention. Methane is the second most important greenhouse gas after CO2 but it is more problematic in the short run. According to a recent report in C&E News methane has a life of only 20 years in the atmosphere but it can be 84 times more harmful than CO2 in that timeframe. One third of methane emissions are from fossil fuel infrastructure and there is growing pressure to force energy companies to prevent those emissions and to harness the methane for productive use. Another major source of methane is your favorite milk or beef cows – their digestive systems produce excess quantities of methane that amount to nearly 30 percent of global methane emissions. Work is underway to modify diets for the animals and many people advocate giving up beef and dairy products to shrink global herd numbers. Landfills are the source of roughly 20 percent of methane but it is possible to capture many of those emissions and to cap landfills with soil that will encourage methane-digesting microbes.

Hydrogen has long been discussed as a possible fuel of the future. Some vehicles today use fuel cells that burn hydrogen to produce electricity, heat and water with no harmful emissions. The problem is that making hydrogen today by splitting water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen is too energy intensive for it to make financial sense. Some “gray” hydrogen is made by reforming methane but waste CO2 is then vented to the atmosphere, a no–no as discussed above. So called “blue” hydrogen can be made by capturing the CO2 and injecting it into the Earth. There is now considerable interest in making “green” hydrogen using power generated by renewable resources. For that to make economic sense, the renewable power would have to be low cost and excess to energy needs like the national grid. C&E News recently reported on a company called C-Zero that is working on “turquoise” hydrogen, somewhere between green and blue, using novel catalyst and pyrolysis technology to convert methane to hydrogen and solid carbon. C-Zero and others are hoping to use that carbon to make valuable industrial products like synthetic graphite for lithium-ion battery anodes or carbon black, used in tires for strength.

While it may seem like small beans in the grand scheme of the climate change issue, each of us can make a difference in the way we live and consume. Cutting back on your use of plastics and energy, focusing on recycling and composting, insulating and maintaining your home in top condition, these and many other common-sense steps will all have an impact. Use the power of your feedback to seek change by the companies that supply you with products and services. As for wildlife and the environment around us, you can help by improving the habitat on your land, feeding songbirds in the winter, contributing to scientific and conservation organizations and by supporting government organizations like MDIF&W through the purchase of conservation stamps and license plates, sporting licenses and donations via your income tax forms. If millions of Americans mobilize to meet the challenges we face, we might just be able to make a massive difference within our lifetimes.