Wild Matters: Beleaguered Belugas Get a Boost and More

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Animal Conservation News

Beluga Whale, © Brian J.Skerry / National Geographic Stock

© Brian J. Skerry / National Geographic Stock

Beleaguered Belugas Get a Boost

Endangered Cook Inlet belugas finally have something to smile about: the long-awaited designation of more than 3,000 square miles of critical habitat that scientists deem essential to their survival.

Despite what appears to be a perpetual grin on their blubbery faces, these small white whales–a genetically unique and geographically isolated population of belugas found only in Alaska’s Cook Inlet—are in serious trouble. Previous unregulated hunting, pollution and other problems including climate change likely contributed to a decline that reduced their numbers from more than 1,300 in the 1970s to fewer than 350 in 2008, the year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared them an endangered species. When Alaskan officials sued to overturn federal protection for the species, Defenders stepped into the battle on the belugas’ behalf. “We are pleased that the critical habitat designation was based on the results of more than 20 years of scientific research, and not on politics,” says Karla Dutton, Defenders’ Alaska program director. “We will continue to help belugas by ensuring that sound science and sensible policy drive their recovery.”

That should keep us all smiling.

Kate Davies

Smile, You’re on Canid Camera!

Sierra Nevada Red Fox, Photo: U.S. Forest Service

Sierra Nevada Red Fox, Photo: U.S. Forest Service

It doesn’t happen very often, but every now and then an animal previously considered extinct surprises us all. That’s exactly what happened when U.S. Forest Service cameras caught this critter (above) on a motion-activated camera for a second time, confirming that the Sierra Nevada red fox—one of the rarest, most elusive and least-known mammals in California and the United States—has returned to northern California. Once found throughout California’s mountains, the animal was thought extinct from the southern Sierra Nevada for two decades.
The news is exciting, but it should also serve as a reminder: We have a responsibility to protect our wildlife and to prevent them from ever disappearing in the first place. Not everything gets a second chance.

Caitlin Leutwiler

Finished with Finning

Shark Fins, © Mark Conlin / SeaPics.com

© Mark Conlin / SeaPics.com

Sharks get a bad rap as mindless killers. The truth is that these picky predators are essential to ocean health. But that hasn’t stopped the killing of up to 73 million sharks each year to feed the growing global demand for shark-fin soup, an Asian delicacy once enjoyed primarily by a small, wealthy class. Shark-finning, the brutal practice of cutting off fins—usually while a shark is still alive—and throwing the wounded fish back to sea to die, is cruel, wasteful, unsustainable, and it's on the rise.

To subdue the slaughter, Defenders is backing legislation that would ban the possession, sale, trade and distribution of shark fins in California—currently a major supplier and consumer. Washington state already passed a similar law and at press time, Oregon was not far behind.

Meanwhile scientists, who several years ago used DNA to trace scalloped hammerhead shark fins from the world’s largest fin market in Hong Kong to the sharks’ birthplace in American waters, have now done the same for the heavily exploited copper and dusky sharks. “We know very little about the shark fin trade,” says Demian Chapman, the study’s lead and the assistant director of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University in New York.  “But by using DNA zip coding we can identify source populations that are contributing most to the trade and prioritize them for management.”

Sharks roam widely but return to their coastal birthplace to reproduce. This means if a population collapses, it would be extremely unlikely that sharks from a different area would repopulate the region, says Chapman. This is exactly what happened with the dusky shark. Once commonly found along the Eastern Seaboard, it is now rare and a species of concern for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

But DNA zip codes and better regional monitoring and management could mean the end—or fin as the French say—to the finning of our most imperiled shark species.

More Articles from Summer 2011

“As a photographer, I learned a long time ago to get in touch with my feminine side,” says photographer Jim Chagares, whose sensitive portrait of an Alaskan brown bear nursing her cubs struck a chord with our readers and won the grand prize in Defenders of Wildlife’s 2011 photography contest.
Wolves always seem to get the short end of the stick in Alaska, where politicians often shoot first without even bothering to ask questions later. But that wasn’t the case this time.
One of the world’s most far-sighted environmental laws took a serious beating in April when Congress and President Obama quietly stripped federal protections for wolves in the Northern Rockies.
For those who had hoped Barack Obama’s election would result in conservation initiatives that finally restore protections for imperiled wildlife and natural ecosystems, the results have been seriously disappointing.
Clean up from the largest human-caused environmental disaster in U.S. history in the Gulf of Mexico last year isn’t close to over.
Yellowstone bison that search for food across park boundaries during harsh winter months are typically hazed back into the park or captured and sent to slaughter.
When the weather warms, Vitro Hilton, like so many of us, can’t wait to get his grill on. A vegetarian, he already has come a long way in reducing his carbon footprint.