Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Eighteen holes of extra wetlands

Many experts and the US federal government expect H5N1 to come to North America soon on migratory birds. Without entering into the contentious area of whether they are important vectors of spread, let's assume it for the moment. The big fear among the poultry industry is that it will then get into terrestrial birds (poultry) and devastate the poultry industry. It's not just a North American problem. Every continent has countries with poultry industries of some kind. Now that the virus is in Africa, there is fear it will endanger an important source of protein and also find a new environmental niche where it can evolve in unpredictable ways.

So people have been thinking of ways to prevent mixing of wild birds with domesticated ones, and, not incidentally, acknowledging that some human actions have increased it. Consider wetlands.
NAIROBI - Restoring wetlands and clearing poultry farms from migratory flyways could help curb the spread of bird flu by stopping wild birds from mixing with domestic fowl, a U.N.-commissioned report said on Tuesday.

The clearance of wetlands due to drainage for agriculture or hydroelectric projects is forcing some wild birds on to alternative sites such as farm ponds and paddy fields, bringing them into direct contact with domestic poultry, the report said.

This increases the spread of the virus, which has jumped from Asia to Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

"There's a contraction for the habitat for wild birds and a natural situation arising which promotes the inter-mixing of wild birds and domestic poultry," said David Rapport, a Canadian professor and lead author of the report.

"So should a pathogen arise in domestic poultry, it becomes more likely to be spread into wild birds... because the health of those ecosystems has been compromised," he told a news conference in Nairobi. (Reuters)
If you know that US Interior Secretary Gale Norton has just declared victory over wetland loss you might think we are moving in the right direction. You'd be wrong. Much of the gain that offsets continuing losses is from areas not usually considered wetland by normal people: artificially created ponds, such as golf course water hazards and farm impoundments. Maybe you didn't notice this little piece of sleight-of-hand, but the sporting community did. And they didn't like it. From Field&Stream:
Thursday (March 30), Interior Secretary Gale Norton called a press conference to claim our long nightmare of wetlands loss had finally come to an end due to unprecedented gains since 1997 (click here [.pdf] to read the report she cites). However, she then admitted much of that gain has been in artificially created ponds, such as golf course water hazards and farm impoundments.

The sporting community--from Ducks Unlimited to the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership--reacted quickly, and not favorably. Researchers long ago established that natural wetlands such as marshes, swamps and prairie potholes are far more productive than even the best-designed artificial wetlands. And sharp-edged water bodies like water hazards, farm ponds, and even reservoirs offer very little for wildlife. Putting man-made ponds in the same class as natural wetlands is like ranking pen-raised quail with wild coveys. [NB: Vice President Cheney was "hunting" pen-raised quail when he shot the elderly lawyer in the face].

The boldness of Norton's claim was particularly galling given the Bush Administration's record on wetlands. President Bush, like other presidents before him, promised a policy of “no net loss” of wetlands, but his administration has consistently supported rollbacks of the Clean Water Act to satisfy industry and development.

In fact, at the same press conference, the Fish and Wildlife Service reported a continued loss of 523,500 acres of natural wetlands during the same time period. So how could the nation have come out ahead if it lost more than half a million acres? Norton didn't try to hide the truth: The 715,300-acre “gain” was mainly artificial ponds. (Field&Stream)
If you think this is tough language, there's more:
While saying the nation's wetlands picture remains “precarious,” Norton added that "even ponds that are not a high quality of wetlands are better than not having wetlands." Now there's ringing endorsement of the president's program.

Norton's announcement was likely an act of setting the table for more administration assaults on wetlands protections. It was probably no coincidence that three days earlier, the Army Corps of Engineers and Environmental Protection Agency proposed new regulations that encourage development of companies that build artificial wetlands used by industries that destroy the vital natural habitats. It's part of the wetlands mitigation banking concept--which gives companies permits to drain wetlands, as long as they produce “new” wetlands somewhere else.

Norton may think a water hazard is better than no wetlands but for fish, wildlife and sportsmen, but it may be even worse. That type of public policy provides an excuse for more permits to drain more natural and productive wetlands to be replaced by non-productive water hazards. Those might be good for real estate values along the 18th fairway, but for fish and wildlife that rely on wetlands ecosystems to survive, it's terrible.
Not to mention bad news for the poultry industry.

I'm not a hunter, but I grew up where hunting is considered a normal activity. The start of deer hunting season is an event. If you're a Republican and you've pissed these folks off, your political troubles are deep indeed.

That's the good news.