The Butterfly Effect — Climate change threatens everyone

Last month, local, state, and federal agencies held a press conference to announce that, at the Pine Bush Preserve, the endangered Karner blue butterfly had exceeded the federal recovery threshold. This is good news in a world sorely in need of it.

There were fewer than 1,000 of the quarter-sized butterflies in 2007; last year, there were 15,000. For decades, we’ve covered efforts to restore the butterfly that, in our childhood, was so common it could be taken for granted.

The week of the announcement, we interviewed, for a podcast, Alan Fiero who had just retired from teaching at Farnsworth Middle School where, over many years, he worked with students to girdle aspen trees and build fences to protect the lupine that Karner blues rely on, and even to breed the now-rare butterfly.

Fiero cautioned that the announcement was just a step in the right direction, not a solution.

We greatly admire Fiero’s work — since making the podcast, we’ve have heard from students who were inspired by him to pursue careers in science — and believe one person can make a difference in the world.

But sometimes it takes a concerted national effort — the Pine Bush Preserve is one of 13 federal recovery units for the butterfly, part of a national plan to save it — to make and sustain real progress in a world that humans can too easily trash.

We thought of this on Friday when students at Farnsworth released the monarch butterflies they had carefully tended at their Butterfly Station. This is a ritual we look forward to every year and once again it is captured on our pages by photographer Michael Koff.

But the sad truth is that, although a teacher read in Spanish the miraculous story of the monarchs’ migration to Mexico, monarchs number less than one-tenth of their population in 1996. The miracle is being messed with by man.

A study by the World Wildlife Fund earlier this year found milkweed, the plant monarchs depend on in much the same way Karner blues depend on lupine, is disappearing due to herbicide use and land conversion. Extreme weather conditions, from warmer climate to winter storms, are also threatening the monarch as is illegal logging in Mexico where monarchs spend their winters, the study found.

We ran a similar story earlier this month on a study published in “Global Change Biology” that found habitats of North American birds, especially their wintering grounds in Central America, face their greatest threats from human activities. The study drew on data collected by citizen scientists from a database called eBird that lets volunteers enter bird observations from all over the world. We commend these volunteers just as we commend the kids at Farnsworth.

But it’s not enough.

The birds with which we are all familiar, because they breed in the Northeast — birds like warblers, vireos, and flycatchers — spend about 60 percent of their time wintering in Central America. The study concluded loss of wintering habitat will be made worse by long-term effects of climate change.

“Human activities are placing pressure on bird populations from many different angles at varying intensities, the study’s lead author, Frank La Sort, told us. “Birds are responding with tools designed to function under gradual environmental change — but how effective this will be under rapid change occurring from many different sources is not understood.”

What is needed to help not just birds and butterflies but our planet as a whole is an overarching national policy and a global commitment. Sadly, with Donald Trump’s rejection of the Paris Accord and his disregard for the science of climate change, the United States is moving in the opposite direction and we can see it playing out, again and again, locally.

Decades ago, we wrote about the movement in New York State — spearheaded by the late Steve Browne of Knox — to get hunters of waterfowl to replace their lead shot with non-toxic substances to protect the very sport they cherished. Lead, once in the food chain, can cause harm not just to waterfowl but to other creatures, including humans.

We have, for example, over past decades, written of efforts that saved the American bald eagle, a bird that symbolizes our nation. In the 1960s, the numbers of pairs of bald eagles in the continental United States was fewer than 500. The pesticide DDT was banned — it weakened eagles’ eggs so they couldn’t hatch — and hunting was regulated so that today there are more than 4,000 pairs of bald eagles and they are no longer an endangered species.

Again, over the years, we’ve written of individual efforts, most notably by Guilderland veterinarian Ed Becker, an expert in wild bird rehabilitation, as he saved injured eagles, one at a time. We watched as he released a once-crippled, now healed bird. As the eagle soared aloft, so, too, did our spirits. This is another example of a difference an individual can make, but it, again, is not enough.

Earlier this summer we got news from Cornell University that the eagle is now being threatened by another human-driven cause: lead. Dr. Krysten Schuler explained in June that out of 300 bald eagles tested in New York State, 17 percent had lead levels high enough to cause death from lead poisoning. The study further found that 83 percent of the tested had eagles had lead exposure.

“The impact of lead on wildlife and the environment has been an issue for more than two decades,” said Schuler. “Despite the federal government instituting a national ban on the use of lead ammunition for waterfowl hunting in 1991 due to an estimated one million ducks and geese dying annually from accidentally ingested lead, lead is still routinely used in some ammunition and fishing tackle.”

So what was the first thing our new secretary of the interior, Ryan Zinke, did? On his first day in office, Zinke rescinded the ban on lead bullets and lead fishing tackle in national wildlife refuges. Some hunting groups and gun-rights groups had objected to the plan, to be fully phased in by 2022, saying that non-toxic steel shot is more expensive.

“How shameful that this administration is casting science aside along with the welfare of wildlife,” responded the president of the American Bird conservancy, George Fenwick, in a statement at the time.

During his confirmation hearing, Zinke said there is “debate” on humans’ influence on climate change.

This is in sharp contrast to the majority of the American public, which knows that global warming is happening and that it is largely caused by human activity, according to the Yale Program on Climate Communication. The Yale survey shows that nationally about 75 percent of Americans want to regulate carbon dioxide and about 70 percent want to regulate carbon pollution from coal-fired plants; in fact, a majority of adults in every single congressional district in the country supports regulated carbon pollution from coal-fired plants.

Yet the White House wants to do the opposite. At the same time, Trump has proposed massive cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency that would slash its budget by over 30 percent.

Just last week, we ran an EPA map showing the municipal storm sewer system across the country that the agency is in charge of regulating. Locally, Voorheesville was cited with 24 violations. Federal protections are in place to keep water clean, which is essential for a healthy future.

Reductions in the EPA’s enforcement budget of close to 60 percent, as proposed by Trump, would limit its ability to find offenders and penalize them. Funds for EPA programs that clean up toxic wastes and that further research and technology would be greatly reduced as well.

Public health and our nation’s environment are not expendable.

The Yale study also shows that, while most Americans know that climate change is happening, most do not believe it will hurt them, personally. This includes every congressional district in New York State.

We urge our readers to peruse our pages and website; look at the stories we’ve cited here from birds and butterflies to clean water for humans. Harm is already here. Right here, right now.

While we commend those who are heroically acting to help, it is not enough. We need to, each of us, to recognize the threat and make a concerted effort to restore the natural balance before it’s too late.


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