Posts Tagged ‘genetic’

Uncertain Future for the Gray Wolf

 

Again, An Uncertain Future for the Gray Wolf

By Ken Fischman, Ph.D.

August 23, 2012

 

It looks as though Interior Secretary Salazar has struck a deal with Wyoming to end its Endangered Species listing for wolves in that state. According to the New York Times, the arrangement will be similar to that now in force in Idaho and Montana, with a minimum number of 150 wolves and 15 breeding pairs. However, wolves will still be treated as vermin, to be shot on sight year round in 4/5s of the state. Thus, Wyoming has apparently received from the Obama administration most of what it had held out for.

The New York Times August 21, 2012 Editorial, “Uncertain Future for the Gray Wolf, “ (c f.) questioned whether 150 wolves/state would be a viable population for Wyoming, Montana, or Idaho. If you consider that my state, Idaho, contains about 1.3 million people, 20,000 black bears, and over 100,000 elk, the number 150 stands in stark contrast to these populations. No reputable biologist that I know of believes that such a number would be anything but a relict population, genetically threatened by inbreeding, and possibly extinction.

Even Ed Bangs, who was US Fish & Wildlife Wolf Recovery Coordinator, recently admitted that this number of wolves “is not defensible.”
Interestingly enough, the lead article in Science, September 2011, “Trophic Downgrading of Planet Earth”, emphasizes the value of wolves and other top predators in keeping a healthy balance in our ecosystems. It was authored by some of the world’s leading Conservation Biologists. The article is excerpted on the Ancient Pathways web site under the title of  “Trophic Downgrading or Where Have All the Predators Gone,?” and contains a lot of valuable information on the effect of apex predators.

Additionally, Times readers should know that the wolf hunting season in Idaho is now year around, if you count private land, which is about 40% of the state. Any land owner, with a valid wolf tag can shoot wolves on sight. When you consider that the southern third of the state is desert, in which wolves are rarely seen, the territory safe for wolves shrinks considerably more. Also, the number of wolves that can be killed in 8 out of 13 “Wolf Zones” is unlimited.

Obama promised that he would reverse the Bush administration’s politicization of science. This does not appear to be true for wolves. I guess that it is because they do not vote.

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New York Times

EDITORIAL

Uncertain Future for the Gray Wolf

Published: August 21, 2012

A Wolf Pack in Isle Royale NP

Wolves In Isle Royale National Park

Wolves in Montana and Idaho lost their endangered species status last year. Interior had concluded that both states had developed management plans that would keep wolf populations at healthy levels.

The delisting has led to the death of hundreds of wolves in sanctioned hunts. But at least Montana and Idaho established limits on hunting seasons and on the number of wolves that can be taken across the entire state. In Wyoming, by contrast, wolves in four-fifths of the state will be essentially treated as vermin that can be killed at any time, and for almost any reason.

Interior says not to worry. Most of Wyoming’s wolves are in the state’s northwest corner, it points out, and can be shot only during a defined hunting season. Further, the state has agreed not to reduce the statewide population below 150 wolves and 15 breeding pairs.

This is a more protective plan than Wyoming’s politicians, ranchers and hunters wanted a year ago. But whether it’s enough to guarantee a sustainable population is far from clear. Interior has promised to review its deals with Montana and Idaho after five years. It must demand the same of Wyoming. The question there is whether, after five years, there will be any wolves left to review.

 

 

Trophic Downgrading or Where Have All the Predators Gone?

THE TROPHIC DOWNGRADING OF PLANET EARTH

(Or, where have all the predators gone?)

  J.A. Estes, et al. (2011) The Trophic Downgrading of Planet Earth (2011) Science, 15 July, 333(6040) 301-306.

Summary and Comments by Ken Fischman, Ph.D.

This is a paper that is worth your diving into because the information it contains is important to the health of our planet. I will help you get through it by summarizing and commenting on it. You can either read the summary or skip directly to my comments on it at the end of this post. What is it about? It deals with the recent and rapid disappearance of top predators, such as wolves, lions, & sharks, mostly brought about by the actions of that top predator of all – mankind, and the surprisingly profound effects their loss is having on ecosystems worldwide.  It was the feature article in the July, 2011 issue of Science, one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world. Among its 23 authors are: John Terborgh, Joel Berger, Michael Soule, and William Ripple. The former three are considered to be among the founders of the field of Conservation Biology, and Ripple is our foremost researcher into the effects of top predators on the ecosystems of North America. Simply put, a trophic cascade (TC) is the effect that the absence or abundance of a top or apex predator has on succeeding levels of the rest of the ecosystem. The authors have gathered a vast array of evidence showing that these losses lead to ever-increasing and widespread effects on other living creatures, on ecosystems, and on the Earth itself. Terborgh pioneered this type of study by showing the profound effects of the presence or absence of predators on the fauna and flora of isolated islands in the Barro Colorado, a recently flooded region near the Panama Canal. Soule, in a classic paper, neatly demonstrated how the presence or absence of coyotes effected the bird and cat populations within the urban canyons of San Diego. Ripple has shown the profound influence that the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstoneand loss of mountain lions in Zion National Park  have had on the animals and plants in those areas. In this paper, these scientists turn their attention to the effects of predators on ecosystems worldwide and warn us of the present and impending dangers that our  steady & seemingly inexorable extermination of predators is having on the Earth

Summary of the Paper

 The loss of apex predators all over the world is having a pervasive influence on nature. There are cascading effects of the disappearance of predators. These “top-down forcings” (causes of variability) are having unanticipated effects, such as increase in disease, wildfires, losses in carbon sequestration, appearance of invasive species, and disruption of biogeochemical cycles. In its 4.5 billion years of existence, our planet has undergone several mass extinctions, with huge loss of biodiversity, followed by novel changes. We are now in the early to middle stages of a sixth mass extinction. Man has mostly caused these recent extinctions. Many of them are started by the removal of apex predators. These extinctions may be mankind’s most pervasive effect on the natural world. Extinction obviously means a permanent loss of these animals, which in turn often has a ripple effect, causing many other changes throughout the ecosystem. These widespread changes are what are referred to by scientists as “trophic cascades” (TCs). Some of the ultimate outcomes of TCs are: fires, disease, climate change, habitat loss, and pollution. Theory behind concept of TCs: (1)  An ecosystem is shaped by its top consumers (usually apex predators). (2)  Alternative stable states. TCs push a system, and it reaches tipping points. These are thresholds or breakpoints, and when they are reached, significant phase shifts occur. (3)  Connectivity – this is built around connection webs and through the mechanics of predation, competition and mutualism (organisms that have a supportive effect on each other), biologically, and through physicochemical processes. Cryptic nature of TCs: Species interactions are usually invisible under stable conditions. They may require years to become evident due to the long generation times of some species.  The effects usually do not become evident until after the loss. The scales of TC s can be much more vast than most feasible scientific studies can handle. Most field biology studies concentrate on small, discrete areas, and on non-motile species, with short generation times, making them easy to  manipulate. This results in an incomplete and distorted picture of apex predator influence. Hence, the authors have written what is called a mega study, which brings together the results of many other similar studies, using similar protocols & subjects. This enables them to combine the studies & to note general principles and draw important conclusions with more certainty. Widespread Occurrence of TCs: TCs have been documented throughout the world. When apex predators are reduced or removed, and sufficient time and space are accounted for, their influence becomes obvious. “Natural experiments” showing these effects are pervasive: e.g. loss of: killer whales, lions, wolves, cougars, sharks, sea otters.

These interactions are often complex. e.g. apex predators have little influence on megaherbivores:  Elephants, hippos, rhinoceroses, etc. in Africa are basically invulnerable to predation. Mostly, therefore effects are seen in the increase in smaller herbivores: e.g. Thompson’s gazelle, impala. Influence of apex predators on autotrophs (An organism capable of synthesizing its own food from inorganic substances, using light or chemical energy. Most plants are autotrophs): (a)  Increase of autotrophs – by suppression of herbivory (any animal that feeds mostly on plants), e. g. the loss of sea otters, which prey on shellfish,  have diminished the health of kelp forests. The extirpation of wolves from forests has resulted in a corresponding increase of ungulates adversely effecting other animals and plants in various ecosystems. e.g. the removal of wolves from what has become Rocky Mountain NP in Colorado has resulted in the overgrowth of elk, which in turn have devastated much of the plant life. (b) Decrease of autotrophs – e. g. large mouth bass by feeding on smaller fish, which feed on 200 kinds of plankton (microscopic aquatic plants & animals)  have decreased their numbers to such an extent in many mid western US lakes, that this has resulted in a loss of oxygen, leading to the demise of other life forms in these lakes. Herbivory and Wildlife: Increase in herbivory (mostly domestic animals that eat plants) has resulted in a change from grass lands to scrub lands, & the burning up to 500 million hectares (ha) in the global landscape and has released over 4,000 metric tons (Tg) of CO2 into the atmosphere. Diseases: e.g. Rinderpest (an infectious viral disease) in East Africa decimated ungulates. (animals like wildebeests & buffalos that chew their cud). This led to an increase in plant biomass, which in turn led to wildfires. Vaccination and control eliminated Rinderpest and this led to the recovery of the wildebeests and buffalos. Because of this, shrub lands became grass lands, which reduced the frequency and intensity of wild fires.

e.g. Impacts of predatory fish on mosquito larvae: effects the incidence of Malaria. Physical & Chemical Influences: There is a linkage between apex predators & atmospheric CO2. e.g.  presence or absence of predatory fish in lakes can effect the production & uptake of CO2. e.g. whaling transferred 105 million tons of carbon from whales to the atmosphere. e.g. Extinction of Pleistocene herbivores reduced atmospheric methane & contributed to a drop of 9° C. temperature drop in the Younger-Dryas period, some 12,900 years ago. Soils: e.g. Herbivores profoundly influence soils. e.g. introduction of rats & arctic foxes in high latitude (mostly arctic) islands reduces soil nitrogen by disturbing nesting birds. Water: e.g. collapse of large demersal (bottom feeders) fish in the Baltic Sea led to a 20% decrease of silica in pelagic diatoms (one-celled organisms that make up the majority of plants found in the open sea). e.g. Yellowstone wolves protect riparian vegetation from over-browsing herbivores. This leads to more shade & cooling of streams, which in turn decreases streambed erosion & increases cover for fish & other aquatic organisms & leads to an increase in songbirds.

Invasive Species: Lack of top-down predators allows invasive species to spread. e.g. spread of the brown tree snake, originally from the Solomon Islands, on Guam, which has exterminated most of its birds, was due to lack of other predators, which could have held the snake population in check. e.g. reduced fish predation in the Mississippi River led to the invasion of zebra mussels. Biodiversity (Abundance of & diversification in living creatures): Biodiversity(BD) is now largely confined to protected areas (e.g. national parks, designated wildernesses). Loss of BD has been mostly caused by over-exploitation (hunting, fishing, increase of areas reserved to domestic & other ungulates, etc.) has led to habitat loss & fragmentation of ecosystems. e.g. over browsing by an increasing population of elk in Rocky Mountain NP is due to lack of natural predators,(i.e. wolves). The same situation occurred in: the Kaibab Plateau, adjacent to the Grand Canyon in Arizona, which was overrun with deer. Minnesota has a serious problem with areas overrun by more than 1 million deer. Princeton NJ had to employ sharpshooters to kill deer, which were overrunning suburban gardens. Deer (ironically) starved on Deer Island in San Francisco Bay due to their burgeoning population, which was unchecked by predators.  Mesopredators (coyotes) in San Diego canyons strikingly changed populations of songbirds and cats.

e.g. Sea Stars in intertidal areas interact with mussels, wiping out many species. e.g. loss of small vertebrates after the extirpation of wolves, cougars & bears in temperate & boreal North American forests changed the ecology of these forests. Effects of Tree Longevity: e.g. wolves & other megapredators were almost entirely eliminated in the US by the 20th century. At that time there began to be recruitment failure & reduced tree growth rate in many places (most obvious in national parks). e.g. wolves were eliminated 100 yrs. ago on Anticosti Island in mouth of the St Lawrence River. This led to a decrease in the number of saplings & an increase in graminoids (grasses), e.g. wolves were extirpated from the Scottish island of Rum 250 -500 years ago, resulting in total loss of its forest. It is now treeless.

Conclusion: “Best management solution is likely restoration of effective predator regimes.” [English translation: Bring back the predators] Paradigm Shift in Ecology: There is clearly a top-down forcing in ecosystem dynamics.  [We argue that ] “burden of proof be shifted to show for any ecosystem, that consumers do (or did) not exert strong cascading effects.” Conclusions: Unanticipated changes in the distribution & abundance of key species, as well as pandemics, population collapses, eruptions of unwanted species, major shifts in ecosystem states, are caused by altered top down forcing , brought about by loss of native apex consumers. Repeated failures to anticipate & moderate such events arise through  fundamental misunderstandings of their causes. Resource managers usually base their actions on the expectation that physical causes are the ultimate drivers of ecological change. “Top-down forcing must be included if there is to be any real hope of understanding & managing the workings of nature.”

 COMMENTS – Ken Fischman, Ph.D.

 I find it helpful in understanding TDG to picture a pyramid, with the predator at the peak or top & prey animals at several successive & increasingly wider levels, (indicating larger populations) underneath. For example, sharks are the top predators in our oceans & they prey on smaller fish such as tuna, which in turn prey on smaller fish like anchovies, etc. until the lowest & most fundamental layer is reached, which consists of microscopic plankton (autotrophs) & is effected in a profound way.

Along this line, I recently read a paper published in Nature by Daniel Boyce of Dalhousie University in which the author utilized hundreds of thousands of historical records to show that the clarity of most of our oceans has been greatly increasing in the past few years. This is an indirect but powerful method, showing that plankton populations are decreasing rapidly. Because plankton are the base prey in our oceans, their scarcity would adversely effect all fish populations & since they are the ultimate autotrophs (think of what would happen if their dry land equivalent, grasses, were to decrease considerably) tend to increase CO2. Such a profound worldwide change undoubtedly has more than one cause, but the disruption of world fisheries through the loss of top predators is probably a contributing factor.

It is easy to overlook the effects of some predators, either because they are not charismatic megafauna, like “lions & tigers & bears oh my!” or are out of sight much of the time. For instance, who would even thought of sea stars as predators? I know that I had not until recently despite my background in Zoology.  Yet it has been shown that their loss can have profound effects on shellfish.  And those cute little sea otters. Who would have thought that they have an important effect on kelp beds? The film, “Jaws,” which came out in 1975, gave sharks a bad name that they have yet to overcome. That, together with the insatiable appetite of Chinese & other Orientals for shark fin soup (Talk about waste. They cut off the fins & throw the shark carcass away) & the dislike of commercial fishermen for sharks, who they view as competitors, in the same way that many elk hunters view wolves, has led to their wholesale destruction. No thought was given to the sharks’ role as the ultimate apex predator in the sea & the  effect their demise is having on other fish lower in the TC pyramid. It is quite possible, even probable, that the loss of many commercial fish species is linked not only to overfishing but also to the destruction of sharks, which has upset the ecological balance in oceans. In this connection, commercial fishermen may be doubly responsible for the serious depletion of fisheries worldwide, through their overfishing & destruction of apex predators.

My own studies on wolves and as an advocate for them has given me a fresh perspective on their importance in maintaining healthy forests. In this respect, the authors’ citing of studies showing that the eradication of wolves changed the flora of Anticosti Island in the St. Lawrence estuary & deforested the Scottish island of Rum, is instructive & worrying.

We do not however, need to go to the ends of the earth to find examples of TDG. In my own little part of northern Idaho, we have seen the results of overfishing in Lake Penderay, invasive species like spotted knapweed & the infamous zebra mussels, and loss of biodiversity caused by overpopulation of elk in the Clearwater NF. There are a substantial number of elk hunters in the state of Idaho, whose idea of heaven seems to be forests containing only elk & hunters. One of their leaders recently stated that he would only be satisfied when hunters success rates reached 90% Success rates throughout the Northwest have been historically at around 18 -20% (Spokesman Review 2/22/08). Idaho already contains over 100,000 elk. He apparently wants to turn Idaho into an elk farm, where hunters do not even have to get off their ATVs to kill elk. I doubt that many other Idahoans would agree with that vision. These hunters & the politicians who support them are responsible for the present vendetta against wolves, which in the last year has resulted in the killing of around 429 out of only 760 wolves in this state & the extension of the wolf hunt to year around, a hitherto unheard of strategy for “managing” wildlife.

I hope that this publication on the importance of top predators, like wolves, will be brought to the attention of state wildlife organizations like IDF&G and will result in a change of their policy toward a greater respect for these animals. For those of you who are interested in finding out more about this fascinating & important subject of how the loss of top predators is effecting the earth, I recommend the following books:

Monster of God – by David Quammen A very readable account of how our fear & killing of predators is changing the world.

Where The Wild Things Were – by William Stolzenberg A journalist writes about the research that been revealing the key role that predators play in ecosystems.

Song of the Dodo – by David Quammen One of our best scientific & nature writers chronicles the researchers & their studies who have created the new field of Conservation Biology.

Of Wolves and Men – by Barry Lopez A brilliant examination of wolf biology & the often-searing history of mankind’s relationship to these fascinating & badly misunderstood animals.

Wolf Country – by John B. Theberge. The results and conclusions of wolf biologist from an eleven year study of wolves in Algonquin Park, Canada. This book includes a lot of valuable information, written in a readable and popular format.

Ancestors Of African Pygmies And Neighboring Farmers Separated Around 60,000 Years Ago

Ancestors Of African Pygmies And Neighboring Farmers Separated Around 60,000 Years Ago

Etienne Patin, et al. (2009) PLoS

ScienceDaily (Apr. 11, 2009) — All African Pygmies, inhabiting a large territory extending west-to-east along Central Africa, descend from a unique population who lived around 20,000 years ago, according to an international study led by researchers at the Institut Pasteur in Paris. The research concludes that the ancestors of present-day African Pygmies and farmers separated ~60,000 years ago.

Pygmies are characterized by a forest-dwelling hunter-gathering lifestyle and distinctive cultural practices and physical traits (e.g., low stature). Two groups of Pygmy populations live in the African rainforests: the “Western Pygmies” and the “Eastern Pygmies”. The common origins of the two groups of Pygmies, separated by thousands of kilometers, have been long debated, and their relationships with neighboring farmers remained obscure.

The researchers, led by Lluis Quintana-Murci, studied the genetic profile of twelve populations of Pygmies and neighboring farmers dispersed over the African continent, using sequence data from non-coding regions of their genomes. Using simulation-based procedures, they determined that the ancestors of Pygmy hunter-gatherers and farming populations started to diverge ~60,000 years ago, coinciding with a period of important human migration both within and outside Africa. Much later, ~20,000 years ago, Western and Eastern Pygmies separated, concurrently with a period of climate change leading to large retreats of the equatorial rainforest into refugia.

The common origin of all Pygmies unmasked in this study led Etienne Patin, one of the leading authors, to conclude that “they have probably inherited their distinctive shared physical traits, such as low height, from a common ancestor, rather than by convergent adaptation to the rainforest”. However, complete genome-wide profiles of these populations are now needed, both to characterize more precisely their demographic history and to identify genes involved in the adaptation of these populations with different lifestyles to their specific ecological habitats.

MYTHS & FACTS ABOUT WOLVES

                                                                       MYTHS & FACTS ABOUT WOLVES  (1/16/12, Rev. 6/15/13)

Northern Idaho Wolf Alliance (NIWA)

and

Ancient Pathways to A Sustainable Future

Contact: Ken Fischman, Spokesman

bigfish@gotsky.com

•      Minnesota’s wolf population has been stable, at 3,000 since,(2004, 5X as many as in Idaho).

•     Wolves were removed from the Endangered Species List by

a political manoeuver, in placing a rider on a must-pass appropriations

bill. It was never voted on or even debated. This marks the first time an

animal was removed for other than scientific reasons.

•     Wolves were hunted in Idaho barely five months after being taken off the

Endangered Species List. No other species has had this happen to

them. Almost 300 wolves were killed in Idaho & Montana’s first hunts

in 2010 and this number increased to over 550 in 2012.(did not include wolves killed for livestock depredation)

•   In most of Idaho they did not even setting an overall quota for the

2011 – 2012 hunt. Hunters may kill as many wolves as they can,

individual hunter limits are 10 wolves each, & they are

allowed to utilize: traps, baiting, & electronic wolf calls to do so.

•    The killing of such a large percentage of the wolf population

amounts to a slow motion extermination campaign. It is certainly not

“Managing” wildlife.

•     The 2011-12 Idaho wolf hunting season was 10 months long – beginning

September 1st. & ending in June. This long a hunting season is

highly unusual for any animal, & impacts the wolves’ mating denning

seasons.

•   The  long wolf hunting season creates an almost year-round danger

for hikers, bird watchers, campers, & boaters from accidental shooting

by hunters. It is not safe to go out into the woods at any time now.

•    There have been only two authenticated killings of humans by wolves

in North America in the last 200 years, You are in greater danger of

killed by a dog. Dogs killed 27 people in 1997-1998 . 

•   Wolves belong in our wild areas. They are an essential part of a

healthy and functioning ecosystem. As an apex or keystone

predator they are crucial to the well being of everything from

flowering plants and trees to insects and all the other mammals,

including elk and deer.

•     There has been talk about the Idaho wolves being “aliens” because

they were introduced from British Columbia & Alberta. These statements

have no scientific basis. All state wildlife agencies as well as independent scientists

agree that  genetically, the wolves that

were historically eradicated from the northern Rockies

and the wolves that have been re-introduced in the past

decade are the same species, Canis lupus.

•     There have been wild claims that these wolves are huge, many over

200 pounds. All 188 wolves killed in the first Idaho wolf hunt in 2009 were officially

weighed by IDF&G agents. The average female was 86 lbs. and the

average male, 101 lbs. The largest was 127 lbs.

•     Many hunters claim that wolves are decimating elk herds – According to the Rocky

Mountain Elk Foundation 2007 Report, the Idaho elk population has been above

100,000 since 1985, and the Northern Rockies elk population has

increased 32.9% in the last 25 years, to over one million animals. Elk #s

increased by 3,000 in 2010 alone.

•     Idaho’s elk population fluctuates, but the hunters’ have a

perception that elk numbers are decreasing. This is probably due to the

wolves pushing elk off the valley floors and into the mountains,

making the hunters work harder to find them.

•     Contrary to the claims of ranchers, wolves are not killing off large

numbers of  livestock – According to the USDA

Statistical Bureau they are responsible for less than 2% of all

livestock deaths due to predation( less than 0.1% in Idaho).

In 2008, feral dogs killed more than four times as many sheep in Idaho than wolves did.

Eagles and other raptors carry off far more lambs than wolves kill.

•    There are 2.2 million cattle in Idaho. Last year wolves killed 71 of them.

Can you do the math to figure out the % killed? Hint: It is less than 1/100th

of 1%.

•     IDFG’s “wolf-management” strategy will reduce wolves to a remnant

population. Most wolf biologists agree that they  would become genetically isolated,

prone to inbreeding and inherited diseases, and unable to perform their historic

function in bringing balance to the ecosystem.

•     IDFG is using conflicting numbers when reporting wolf population.

They assumed a steady annual increase of 20 to 22% whereas in

reality Idaho’s wolf population increased by 8.8%, 15.6%, and

dropped 0.4% in 2007 , 2008, and 2009 respectively. In 2012, they decreased 11%. (USFW statistics).

•     In Yellowstone National Park the wolf population fluctuates. They declined by 27%

in 2007, & they lost nearly all their pups due to severe weather, disease, and prey scarcity. This happened again in

2008.- and this is in a place where they aren’t even hunted.

• There has never been a single case

of livestock depredation due to wolves reported in Idaho’s Panhandle.

and IDFG estimated the wolf population there to be a

minimum of 55 wolves in 2012.

Nevertheless, the wolf hunt quota for the Panhandle was removed.Hunters killed 71wolves there.

•     IDF&G’s attitude toward wolves is that they are damned if they do

& damned if they don’t. If wolves kill livestock, IDF&G retaliates. If

they do not kill livestock, they want them killed anyway they say, in order to reduce the possibility of livestock depredation.

•     Anti-wolf people claim that wolves are infected with tape worms(Echinococcus),

& that they are a threat to infect hunters with the worms. The Montana &

Idaho wildlife agencies as well as independent scientists have stated that

these worms were endemic to domestic livestock long before

the wolves were restored. Big-animal veterinarians

testified in state legislatures that there is little or no danger of people becoming infected.

All wolves released in Yellowstone and Idaho in 1996 were dewormed first.

•     If you chunked up Idaho into areas each of 100 square miles and

evenly distributed people, elk and wolves among the chunks you

would have in each chunk 1,800 people, 140 elk, and 1 wolf. That

demonstrates how few wolves there really are. How are they to

fulfill their role of keystone predator?

Scientists debate number of wolves needed for species’ survival

 

Scientists debate ‘magic number’ of wolves needed for species' survival

[To my knowledge, this is the first article in the media to address from a scientific point of view the important issue of how many wolves are needed for a viable population. Chaney points out that according to the Conservation Biology 50/500 rule, from 2,000 - 5,000 wolves are needed in the Northern Rockies to insure a population with sufficient genetic diversity.

He also points out that the areas chosen for reintroduction, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, are artificial, ignoring the fact that wolves regularly move back and forth between these states and Canada. 

He looks at the much cited 1987 restoration goal of 150 wolves per state, and bluntly labels it as a dishonest political, and not a scientific number. Ed Bangs, the retiring Wolf Coordinator for USFW has admitted as much in a recent interview.

Finally, I would be remiss in not stating that Chaney's enlightening article appears to have come too late to save Northern Rockies wolves. As most readers know, they have been removed from the protection of the ESA. Idaho's and Wyoming's stated plans for them, will basically lead to either their total extermination or to their reduction to a few struggling packs and lone wolf wanderers, that will have little or no effect on the ecosystem and will be seldom even glimpsed in our forests.]

by Ken Fischman

By ROB CHANEY of the Missoulian | Posted: Sunday, May 22, 2011 7:00 am 

Conservation groups and the federal government continue to disagree how many gray wolves are needed in the Northern Rockies to ensure the species’ survival. National Park Service photo

One of the biggest arguments left unresolved by last year's wolf lawsuit was the most obvious: How many wolves are enough?

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took the gray wolf off the endangered species list in 2009, with the caveat that at least 150 wolves and 15 breeding pairs endure in each of the three states in the northern Rocky Mountain population (Montana, Idaho and Wyoming).

Recent surveys found at least 1,700 wolves in that area – more than enough to justify delisting.

But a coalition of environmental groups sued the government, claiming those numbers were wrong. To survive and thrive, they argued, the population needed at least 2,000 and preferably 5,000 wolves.

FWS biologists said they used the best available science to pick their number. Coalition members cited the well-established rules of conservation biology to justify their threshold. While the scientists dueled, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy decided the case on a technicality and Congress reversed him with a budget rider. Wolves in the Northern Rockies are now delisted, but almost nobody's happy.

*****

Over the past decade, biologists have sought a "magic number" that would simplify endangered species debates. In 2010, an Australian team led by Lochran Traill of the University of Adelaide published a study declaring 5,000 was the population size required to prevent any species' extinction.

"We don't have the time and resources to attend to finding thresholds for all threatened species," Traill told Science Observer Magazine. "(T)hus the need for a generalization that can be implemented across taxa (classes of animals and plants) to prevent extinction."

But another group of U.S. Forest Service researchers along with American and British professors warn that a simple tool may be a flawed tool. While they agree that an easily understood standard helps persuade judges or members of Congress of the need for action, the 5,000 figure doesn't add up. Their paper will be published in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

"It's natural for any policy maker and practitioner to look for ways of simplifying the overwhelming process of endangered species management," said Greg Hayward of the Forest Service's Alaska Region Office. "If that worked, it would be a delightful world to live in. But if you're really going to do anything positive, in terms of turning around the situation for these species, going for that simple rule of thumb isn't going to help."

Both sides use a lot of math to make their points. Traill and company looked at 1,198 species with a computer model that calculated how many of each would be needed for the plant or animal to survive in the long term. In particular, the study looked at how many are needed to ensure a species doesn't in-breed itself into extinction.

That's key because one requirement to getting off the endangered species list is a population big enough to guarantee genetic diversity. Earthjustice attorney Doug Honnold relied on that in his argument to Molloy, to show why the wolf should remain a listed species.

"If you're talking about genetics, then there are some basic genetic principles that apply across all species," Honnold said. "It's been documented with every species that's been studied."

Honnold referred to what's called the "50-500 rule" which states you need at least 50 breeding-age females of a species for short-term survival or 500 for the long term. In the case of wolves, there's usually only one breeding female in a pack of four to 10 wolves, so the total population number balloons to 2,000-5,000.

*****

The "magic number opponents" respond that genetics isn't everything. In the case of wolves, where might that 2,000-5,000 figure apply? Do we need a minimum viable population in the three states where wolves were reintroduced back in 1995? Or should the figure be spread across the six-state area now delisted by congressional fiat (adding Utah, Washington and Oregon to Montana, Idaho and Wyoming)? Does it count the Canadian wolves that have relations with American packs along the international border?

"Under the Endangered Species Act, we sort of ignore other segments of populations that are outside the United States," said Hayward's colleague, Steven Beissinger of the University of California-Berkeley. "In the case of the paper we did, one thing we found was, the particular technique people used to come up with this minimum number was very context-specific."

In other words, each animal needs its own formula. Passenger pigeons had different lifespans and breeding rates than wolves. They could fly across continents at will, while wolves may be stymied by freeways. Passenger pigeons were, in fact, the most abundant land bird in the continental United States – 3 billion to 5 billion individuals – before the population crashed between 1870 and 1890. [ note: Here I disagree with the reporter. The passenger pigeon population did not crash. It was deliberately exterminated, using the most atrocious means imaginable.]

Science rarely gets to be just science. Lots of scientific reasons justify the wolf's presence on the landscape: It reduces elk populations, which in turn improves the plant communities along streams, which brings back songbirds and beavers.

But reduced elk numbers aggravate a hunting community that's invested millions of dollars to improve elk habitat. Wolves also have proved a poster target for politicians who want to leash the Endangered Species Act.

Natural Resources Defense Council staff scientist Sylvia Fallon said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service knew it would face public resistance if it proposed reintroducing lots of wolves, so it picked a deliberately low 150-per-state figure to get the reintroduction in play.

"They (FWS biologists) say they came up with that number in consultation with scientists, but they never said who they were," Fallon said. "It was some guesswork factoring in social and political considerations at the time, what would be acceptable to the states and the public."

FWS attorneys rejected that claim in their court briefs, but they never got to have the argument in Molloy's courtroom. Without ever discussing what an appropriate number should be, the judge only said the federal government illegally used state boundaries to divide a natural population.

*****

Beissinger suggested a better target in the search for the elusive magic number. Instead of a unified field theory of how many of a species is needed to survive, we humans should settle on what risk factor we're willing to work with, he said.

"In my profession, we don't have a single standard that's been set for what degree of risk we're willing to accept for a species to go extinct," he said. "I could make a calculation for a species and say nine times out of 10, it would be viable there, for 50 years. Would that be good enough, or would you want a 95 percent chance, or an 80 percent chance? But it's too naive to use just measures of population size and come up with some rule of thumb whether a population is safe or not."

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

Note: some passages were bolded by KF for emphasis

 

Ancestors of African Pygmies Separated 60,000 Years Ago

 

ScienceDaily (Apr. 11, 2009) — All African Pygmies, inhabiting a large territory extending west-to-east along Central Africa, descend from a unique population who lived around 20,000 years ago, according to an international study led by researchers at the Institut Pasteur in Paris. The research concludes that the ancestors of present-day African Pygmies and farmers separated ~60,000 years ago.

Pygmies are characterized by a forest-dwelling hunter-gathering lifestyle and distinctive cultural practices and physical traits (e.g., low stature). Two groups of Pygmy populations live in the African rainforests: the "Western Pygmies" and the "Eastern Pygmies". The common origins of the two groups of Pygmies, separated by thousands of kilometers, have been long debated, and their relationships with neighboring farmers remained obscure.

The researchers, led by Lluis Quintana-Murci, studied the genetic profile of twelve populations of Pygmies and neighboring farmers dispersed over the African continent, using sequence data from non-coding regions of their genomes. Using simulation-based procedures, they determined that the ancestors of Pygmy hunter-gatherers and farming populations started to diverge ~60,000 years ago, coinciding with a period of important human migration both within and outside Africa. Much later, ~20,000 years ago, Western and Eastern Pygmies separated, concurrently with a period of climate change leading to large retreats of the equatorial rainforest into refugia.

The common origin of all Pygmies unmasked in this study led Etienne Patin, one of the leading authors, to conclude that "they have probably inherited their distinctive shared physical traits, such as low height, from a common ancestor, rather than by convergent adaptation to the rainforest". However, complete genome-wide profiles of these populations are now needed, both to characterize more precisely their demographic history and to identify genes involved in the adaptation of these populations with different lifestyles to their specific ecological habitats.

 

Journal Reference:

  1. Patin et al. Inferring the Demographic History of African Farmers and Pygmy Hunter-Gatherers Using a Multilocus Resequencing Data SetPLoS Genetics, 2009; 5 (4): e1000448 DOI:10.1371/journal.pgen.1000448
 
 

The Empire Strikes Back

 

                                    “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”

                  How Agribusiness Treats Scientists Who Question GE Safety

                                             by Ken Fischman, Ph.D.

 

Doctor Pusztai’s Potatoes

     My Phone was ringing off the hook.  When I breathlessly reached it, I found my neighbor, Dr. Charles Benbrook on the other end.  “I have a house guest who I think you might want to meet” he said.  “It’s Dr. Arpad Pusztai. We are having a get-together tonight at my house.  Do you want to come?”

Did I want to come?  Is the Pope Catholic? Do cows give milk?  I had been reading about Pusztai for months in preparing for a lecture I was about to give on Genetic Engineering.  The name Arpad Pusztai (pronounced poos-tee) is not exactly a household word, but in some rarified circles he has rock star status.  He lives in Scotland.  What on Earth was he doing in the little town of Sandpoint, Idaho? I had better begin at the beginning.

Genetic Engineering(GE) is the science of taking genes from one organism and inserting them in the cells of another, thus making novel combinations of genes that never would have appeared in the normal course of Evolution.  e.g. When a gene for producing the pesticide Bt is inserted into corn, every cell in the corn plant becomes a miniature insecticide factory.

Right from the beginning, there has been controversy about the nature of these new combinations, dubbed Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and their possible effects. Proponents of GE, which include Agribusiness, many Molecular Biologists (scientists who do GE), and US government agencies, argue that it will bring great benefits and is safe because GMOs are essentially the same as naturally-occurring organisms.  Its opponents disagree, both as to the so-called “normal” nature of GMOs and as to their possible effects.

The question arises, how can we determine if GMOs, are safe to use as food and to let into our environment? One obvious way is to do scientifically controlled experiments on their safety.  But because of the official government attitude that GMOs are a priori “substantially the same” as natural organisms, relatively little research into that question has been done.

In 1998, Arpad Pusztai, who worked in the Rowett Institute in Edinborough, Scotland, received the first grant in the United Kingdom to examine the effects of GMO food on animals.  Dr. Pusztai, who fled his native Hungary during the anticommunist uprisings of the 1950s, is a biochemist, who specializes in nutritional studies.  He has written almost 300 scientific papers and has an international reputation.  He was thrilled to get the grant.  He did not know that it was going to destroy his scientific career.

Dr Pusztai studied rats fed GMO potatoes, in which a gene from the Snowdrop plant was inserted.  That gene produces a Lectin.  That is a chemical that helps protect plants from insect pests.  He thought that it was going to be a straightforward study that would support the conventional scientific wisdom that GMO plants were just like ordinary plants.  He found instead that the presence of the gene resulted in stunted organ growth and produced immune system problems in the rats.

He sent off a paper to one of the most prestigious scientific publications in the world, an English  journal, The Lancet.  It was reviewed and accepted.  That was his first mistake.  The second one was when he was interviewed on BBC national television about his discovery.  The Head of the Rowett Institute called Dr Pusztai and congratulated him on his presentation.

Three days later, the roof fell in.  He was locked out of his laboratory and subsequently fired. His wife and co-author also lost her job at the institute, and the wrath of the scientific establishment came down on his head.  Letters came pouring into The Lancet, criticizing his paper and The Lancet for having accepted it.  They ranged from charges that his controls were inadequate, his interpretation of his data incorrect, to insinuations that he had totally botched the experiment by mistakenly putting an entirely different, toxic chemical into the potatoes.  The Editor of The Lancet, to his credit, vigorously defended the scientific value of Dr Pusztai’s paper.

After weeks  and months of such a bombardment, Dr Pusztai and his wife decided to take a vacation to get away from all the stress.  That was mistake number three, and this is when the story really gets scary.  While he was away, his home got broken into, and guess what was taken – his research data books!  I wonder how much they would bring at a pawn shop?  At about the same time his former lab at the Rowett Institute was also broken into.

Perhaps the unkindest cut of all came when rumors were spread that, yes, Dr. Pusztai had been an eminent scientist, but that now he is old and suffers from dementia.  He had become addled.

Back to that evening at Dr. Benbrook’s house on Upper Pack River Road.  Chuck Benbrook runs an internet information service, called Ag BioTech InfoNet.  It is devoted to GE impacts and applications to agriculture, especially pesticides.  Dr Benbrook is an agricultural economist, who formerly worked in Washington D.C. as Executive Director of the Subcommittee of the House Committee on Agriculture .  He met Dr Pusztai at a conference in Paris, and invited him to the US where he had arranged a speaking tour for him.

I spent over three hours dinning and talking with Dr. Pusztai.  I found him to be charming, highly intelligent, and surprisingly unbitter about what had happened to him.  If he is demented, maybe we should all have Alzheimer’s.  He was as sharp as a tack.

 

The Mexican Maze

     University of California at Berkeley (U C Berkeley) graduate student David Quist went down to Oaxaca, Mexico, to show farmers how to test seeds for GMOs.  Oaxaca is known as the birthplace of Corn, and its ancestor plant, Teosinte, still exists there.  It was feared that genes from GM corn (or maize as it is properly known), might, by way of its airborne pollen, get into Teosinte and the form of maize farmed there called Criolla, and turn them into “superweeds.”  These are wild forms of domestic plants, that because they have been genetically transformed, with let’s say built-in pesticide-producing capabilities, can successfully compete with their agricultural relatives and crowd them out.  For this reason, and because transgenic (GE) crops are considered a particular threat to biodiversity, the Mexican government had declared Oaxaca a GMO-free zone.

Quist needed controls to show the farmers what both positive and negative results looked like. For the positives, he brought along store-bought corn from the US, where at least 40 % of the crop is now GMO.  He used native Mexican Criolla for the negatives.  But, something was wrong.  He kept getting positive signals from the Criolla.

Quist took samples of the Criolla back to Berkeley where he and his major professor, Dr Ignacio Chapela of the Department of Environmental Science, decided to do more detailed studies.  They came up with two major findings: (1) Much of the Criolla had a Cauliflower Mosaic Virus(CMV) gene in it.  CMV is used by Molecular Geneticists as a Promoter, typically used to “turn on” or activate inserted foreign genes; and (2) There was other foreign genetic material in these plants, and (3) most importantly, it had moved around in the Criolla DNA.  Genes are not supposed to do this.  They are supposed to sit tight where they are put.  If they move around, they could have different, unexpected effects.

Chapela and Quist submitted their findings to Nature, perhaps the most respected and tough-to-get-into journal in the world.  Their paper underwent four rigorous peer-reviews in eight months, was accepted and published.

 

The Death Star

     The proponents of GMO’s insist that GE is a safe, predictable, and exact science.  They give the impression that they know and can control where each inserted gene goes in the genome, and how it is expressed.  They do not talk much about the possibility that these genes could be passed to other plants.

This paper challenged all of those assumptions, and the reaction was not slow in coming.  Several Letters to the Editor were sent to Nature by both present and former graduate students and others who had connections with the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, across the campus at U C Berkeley.

Plant and Microbial Biology had recently signed a contract with bioengineering giant, Syngenta, for which they received twenty five million dollars.  In turn, they agreed to do research for Syngenta and to put Syngenta employees on their Board of Directors.  Even in these days of megabucks, this is a lot of money for one department.  Quist and Chapela had been among a lot of people at the University who had opposed the deal, concerned that it would encourage research that favored genetic engineering and curtail  studies that did not.  We shall see how this plays out.

The letters were unusual for a scientific publication.  There were the usual challenges about possible errors in: techniques, controls, statistics, and interpretations.  However, there were in addition,  ad hominem arguments, accusing Quist and Chapela of allowing their political convictions to sway their research conclusions. There were also allegations that they did not have appropriate scientific backgrounds to understand the intricacies of GE.

Nature ran an editorial that for the first time in 133 years of publication, rescinded support for a paper which however they did not ask to be withdrawn.  In addition, in an unusual move, Nature asked Quist and Chapela to retest their samples using a different technique, and gave them a scant four weeks in which to do it.  They actually accomplished this, and confirmed their original results.

AgBioWorld Foundation, a pro-biotech web site run by Tuskegee scientist C.S. Prakash, was a center for criticism of Quist and Chapela.  It posted many emails critical of them, and curiously enough, 60 of the emails seemed to come from two persons, Mary Murphy and Andura Smetacek.  This caught the eye of an enterprising columnist, Jonathan Matthews, from the British publication, The Ecologist, who succeeded in tracing the emails to the Bivings Group, a Washington PR firm. One of Bivings’ largest customers is another bioengineering giant, Monsanto.  Bivings specializes in ‘Internet Advocacy’ campaigns and ‘Viral Marketing’.  In other words, Bivings floods internet postings and chat groups with anonymous or bogus correspondents, in an attempt to influence opinions favorable to their clients.

Matthews discovered that neither Murphy nor Smetacek are real people. He also revealed that AgBioTech was linked to Bivings on the internet.

GMOs have become a multibillion dollar business, very important to the AgBioTech industry and to the governments of the United Kingdom and the U.S., which support these businesses. This industry has many allies in the molecular biology field, whose prestige, research money, and very jobs depend on the public’s perception that GE is a good thing.  These institutions  will go to great lengths to protect their investment, and they will oppose anyone who tends to cast doubt on the worth and safety of their discoveries.  And, they do not always play fair.

An analysis of these circumstances shows a clear pattern of strategy. Attack the dissenters’ science and methodology through letters to the editor in scientific journals, internet web sites, and press releases from scientific organizations, controlled or influenced by the judicious use of industry money.  In this way, divert the argument away from biological conclusions and toward experimental techniques.  Make personal attacks, either upon the investigators integrity or competence, or better yet, both.  Finally, attempt to destroy their careers, thus preventing them from doing further research along these lines, and as a warning to other scientists that research into the safety of GMO’s will not be helpful to their careers.

I will bring you up to date about Drs. Chapela and Pusztai.  Quist and Chapela’s results have been confirmed by several other investigators. Dr. Chapela later came up for tenure at Berkeley.  He was supported both by his own department and by the unanimous vote of the university tenure committee.  In an unprecedented move, he was denied tenure by the Chancellor.  He will have to leave the University.  Protests were organized and letters circulated by students and faculty, to no avail.

As for Arpad Pusztai, veterans of the Hungarian uprising are not creampuffs.  They are survivors.  Dr. Pusztai started an organization with a web site, devoted to telling about the other, darker side of GE.

 

For more information on GEs and GMOs, we refer you to Dr. Fischman’s first article, “The Dark Side of Genetic Engineering,” which appeared in The Reader, vol. 2, No. 1, Jan. 6. 2005., and is posted on the web site, Ancient Pathways To A Sustainable Future, or http://is.gd/APTASF

 

 

The Number of Wolves Needed for Survival

 

 

There has been a swirl of recent events, which threatens the very survival of wolves in the northern Rockies. First, there was the delisting of wolves from the ESA, then the declaration by IDF&G that there will be no kill quota in most of the state during the upcoming wolf hunt, and IDF&G's target of killing 60 out of the estimated 80 wolves in the Lolo region of the Clearwater NF, for allegedly lowering the numbers of elk there. 

Right from the beginning of wolf reintroduction, there has been controversy over the numbers of wolves that would indicate that they were biologically and genetically recovered. Much of the numbers thrown around were quite frankly politically derived and not scientific.

The following article is as far as I know, the first serious attempt by a reporter to examine this issue in an objective way. For that reason, it is well worth reading, if only to compare it with the nonsensical and often irrational opinions that have appeared in much of the western states media.

Ken Fischman

 

 

Scientists debate ‘magic number’ of wolves needed for species' survival

 

By ROB CHANEY of the Missoulian | Posted: Sunday, May 22, 2011 7:00 am |

 

Conservation groups and the federal government continue to disagree how many gray wolves are needed in the Northern Rockies to ensure the species’ survival. 

One of the biggest arguments left unresolved by last year's wolf lawsuit was the most obvious: How many wolves are enough?

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took the gray wolf off the endangered species list in 2009, with the caveat that at least 150 wolves and 15 breeding pairs endure in each of the three states in the northern Rocky Mountain population (Montana, Idaho and Wyoming).

Recent surveys found at least 1,700 wolves in that area – more than enough to justify delisting.

But a coalition of environmental groups sued the government, claiming those numbers were wrong. To survive and thrive, they argued, the population needed at least 2,000 and preferably 5,000 wolves.

FWS biologists said they used the best available science to pick their number. Coalition members cited the well-established rules of conservation biology to justify their threshold. While the scientists dueled, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy decided the case on a technicality and Congress reversed him with a budget rider. Wolves in the Northern Rockies are now delisted, but almost nobody's happy.

*****

Over the past decade, biologists have sought a "magic number" that would simplify endangered species debates. In 2010, an Australian team led by Lochran Traill of the University of Adelaide published a study declaring 5,000 was the population size required to prevent any species' extinction.

"We don't have the time and resources to attend to finding thresholds for all threatened species," Traill told Science Observer Magazine. "(T)hus the need for a generalization that can be implemented across taxa (classes of animals and plants) to prevent extinction."

But another group of U.S. Forest Service researchers along with American and British professors warn that a simple tool may be a flawed tool. While they agree that an easily understood standard helps persuade judges or members of Congress of the need for action, the 5,000 figure doesn't add up. Their paper will be published in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

"It's natural for any policy maker and practitioner to look for ways of simplifying the overwhelming process of endangered species management," said Greg Hayward of the Forest Service's Alaska Region Office. "If that worked, it would be a delightful world to live in. But if you're really going to do anything positive, in terms of turning around the situation for these species, going for that simple rule of thumb isn't going to help."

Both sides use a lot of math to make their points. Traill and company looked at 1,198 species with a computer model that calculated how many of each would be needed for the plant or animal to survive in the long term. In particular, the study looked at how many are needed to ensure a species doesn't in-breed itself into extinction.

That's key because one requirement to getting off the endangered species list is a population big enough to guarantee genetic diversity. Earthjustice attorney Doug Honnold relied on that in his argument to Molloy, to show why the wolf should remain a listed species.

"If you're talking about genetics, then there are some basic genetic principles that apply across all species," Honnold said. "It's been documented with every species that's been studied."

Honnold referred to what's called the "50-500 rule" which states you need at least 50 breeding-age females of a species for short-term survival or 500 for the long term. In the case of wolves, there's usually only one breeding female in a pack of four to 10 wolves, so the total population number balloons to 2,000-5,000.

*****

The "magic number opponents" respond that genetics isn't everything. In the case of wolves, where might that 2,000-5,000 figure apply? Do we need a minimum viable population in the three states where wolves were reintroduced back in 1995? Or should the figure be spread across the six-state area now delisted by congressional fiat (adding Utah, Washington and Oregon to Montana, Idaho and Wyoming)? Does it count the Canadian wolves that have relations with American packs along the international border?

"Under the Endangered Species Act, we sort of ignore other segments of populations that are outside the United States," said Hayward's colleague, Steven Beissinger of the University of California-Berkeley. "In the case of the paper we did, one thing we found was, the particular technique people used to come up with this minimum number was very context-specific."

In other words, each animal needs its own formula. Passenger pigeons had different lifespans and breeding rates than wolves. They could fly across continents at will, while wolves may be stymied by freeways. Passenger pigeons were, in fact, the most abundant land bird in the continental United States – 3 billion to 5 billion individuals – before the population crashed between 1870 and 1890. [ note: Here I disagree with the reporter. The passenger pigeon population did not crash. It was deliberately exterminated, using the most atrocious means imaginable.]

Science rarely gets to be just science. Lots of scientific reasons justify the wolf's presence on the landscape: It reduces elk populations, which in turn improves the plant communities along streams, which brings back songbirds and beavers.

But reduced elk numbers aggravate a hunting community that's invested millions of dollars to improve elk habitat. Wolves also have proved a poster target for politicians who want to leash the Endangered Species Act.

Natural Resources Defense Council staff scientist Sylvia Fallon said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service knew it would face public resistance if it proposed reintroducing lots of wolves, so it picked a deliberately low 150-per-state figure to get the reintroduction in play.

"They (FWS biologists) say they came up with that number in consultation with scientists, but they never said who they were," Fallon said. "It was some guesswork factoring in social and political considerations at the time, what would be acceptable to the states and the public."

FWS attorneys rejected that claim in their court briefs, but they never got to have the argument in Molloy's courtroom. Without ever discussing what an appropriate number should be, the judge only said the federal government illegally used state boundaries to divide a natural population.

*****

Beissinger suggested a better target in the search for the elusive magic number. Instead of a unified field theory of how many of a species is needed to survive, we humans should settle on what risk factor we're willing to work with, he said.

"In my profession, we don't have a single standard that's been set for what degree of risk we're willing to accept for a species to go extinct," he said. "I could make a calculation for a species and say nine times out of 10, it would be viable there, for 50 years. Would that be good enough, or would you want a 95 percent chance, or an 80 percent chance? But it's too naive to use just measures of population size and come up with some rule of thumb whether a population is safe or not."

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

 

The Dark Side Of Genetic Engineering

THE DARK SIDE OF GENETIC ENGINEERING

Ken Fischman, Ph.D.

“Everything has both intended & unintended consequences, & the intended

consequences may or may not happen, but the unintended consequences always do.”

Dee Hock, former CEO of VISA International

In 1988, Showa Denko, a Japanese pharmaceutical company, shipped the first batch of genetically engineered L-Tryptophan to the United States. L-Tryptophan is an amino acid, normally contained in all of our cells. Naturally-derived L-Tryptophan had been sold over the counter for decades to thousands, perhaps millions, of people to relieve symptoms of insomnia or depression. There had never been reports of any ill effects.

The genetically engineered L-Tryptophan killed 37 Americans, more than 5,000 others came down with a hitherto unheard of disease called Eosinophilia Myalgia Syndrome, and many were permanently injured.

Showa Denko’s attorney admitted in federal court that it was most likely that the genetic engineering had caused the calamity. Just prior to the trial, Showa Denko destroyed the original batches of bacteria from which the L-Tryptophan had been extracted.  Showa Denko was clearly at fault, but because the bacteria were no longer available for analysis, it could never be definitively proven that it was specifically the genetic engineering that did it. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) declared that it was not the genetic engineering that was at fault, and the deaths and injuries were probably due to some manufacturing error. Instead of banning only the genetically engineered variety, they banned all over-the-counter sales of L-Tryptophan.

When Watson and Crick unlocked the secret of DNA in 1956, they fundamentally changed our world. They enabled scientists to understand many of the basic properties of inheritance. This was followed by the introduction of techniques enabling scientists to manipulate those processes in order to alter living organisms in ways that had never before been possible. In rapid succession, scientists deciphered the code found in the sequence of molecules along the long DNA chain, and discovered that DNA produced a similar molecule called RNA, which in turn produced proteins. Some kinds of proteins make up most of our cell structures, while others function as enzymes, controlling essential bodily processes. This new field of science is called Genetic Engineering (GE) and the new forms of life produced by it are termed Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). They are brought to you by modern wizards called Molecular Biologists.

Molecular Biologists have been able to decipher the genetic code laid out in the linear sequence of genes and identify many of their functions.  They can snip them out of the chains of DNA and insert them in the cells of other organisms. Farmers, animal husbandmen, and scientists have been breeding animals and plants for thousands of years in order to produce new combinations of characteristics. However, up until now, these characteristics had always been ones that had preexisted in some members of the same species. Through eons of evolution, living organisms accumulated combinations and sequences of genes that for the most part work together harmoniously. However, the techniques of Molecular Biology shorten the time dimension and leapfrog the species barrier. For example, it is now possible to take the “antifreeze” gene from Flounders, a cold-water species of fish, and insert it into the genome (total array of genes in an organism) of a potato! This enables GE potatoes to survive periods of frost, and to extend their growing seasons. Thus, scientists can now combine genes that had never before been in the same organism.

The wonderful potentialities of this science have been emphasized for years by molecular biologists, the medical establishment, agribusiness, and government itself. They tell us that they will be able to cure humanity’s illnesses, produce wonder drugs grown in genetically-altered animals, grow made-to-order organs for transplantation, feed the starving millions of mankind, etc. However, none of these institutions talk about the dark side. This article explores the dark side.

In 1992 the FDA issued a ruling, stating that genetically engineered foods are “substantially” like natural foods, and therefore do not need to be regulated.  This has come to be known as the “Substantial Equivalence” rule.  The significance of this ruling was that the food industry would not have to perform safety studies and clinical tests on GMOs, such as are required before new drugs come onto the market. The ruling also removed much of the oversight that the FDA would exercise on drugs after they reached the market. The Federal Government could thus argue, and subsequently did, that because these GE foods are just like regular foods, there is of course no need to label them in order to distinguish them from other, non-GE foods.

European countries, on the contrary, have adopted a different approach  to the marketing of GMOs.  They have put the onus of proving the safety of these foods on the manufacturers, by invoking what is called the “Precautionary Principle”.  This states, in part, that “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health, or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.  In this context, the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.”

Due mostly to these fundamentally different approaches, the United States and the European Union are locked in a struggle.  The Bush administration appealed to the World Trade Organization to issue substantial fines on European countries which do not allow importation and sale of GMO food from the US.

It has been repeatedly stated by both government and food industry spokesmen that there have been no documented cases of someone being harmed by GE food.

In light of these claims, an interesting incident occurred in 1996. Pioneer Hybrid, then the largest seed company in the world, wanted to make an improved soybean. Soybeans lack some of the 21 Essential Amino Acids (EAA) that human beings and most other animals need for life, but cannot produce on their own. Most of us get our EAAs from meat. Vegans, however, must carefully balance the types of plants they eat in order to make sure that they get all 21 EAAs in their diet. Pioneer extracted a gene from Brazil nuts in order to increase the soybean’s production of another amino acid, Methionine. They then gene-spliced it into their soybeans in an effort to improve their nutritional value, and hopefully the company’s profitability.

Just before this GE soybean was scheduled to go on the market, it came to the attention of some University of Nebraska scientists. By a stroke of good luck, they just happened to have some blood sera from people who were allergic to Brazil Nuts, and they decided to test these beans on it. They got a strong allergic reaction. Quite a few people are allergic to Brazil nuts, and eating these soybeans might have killed many of them. Obviously, something else besides the gene for the amino acid had been transferred into the soybeans.

When genes are to be introduced into host cells, they do not come alone. After the donor DNA has been cut into many pieces, it is then inserted into bacterial plasmids (circular bacterial DNA), and in this form, the genes can be duplicated to any number necessary. Then, they must overcome the host cell’s defenses against invasion of foreign DNA. This is usually accomplished by attaching a “ferry,” – an infectious virus or bacterium – to that gene. The virus or bacterium can penetrate into the cell and insert the gene into the native DNA. A way also has to be found to identify and select those cells in which the new gene has been inserted and to dispose of all cells that do not contain this gene. This is usually done by attaching a so-called Antibiotic Resistance Marker (ARM) gene. This ARM confers antibiotic resistance, usually to Streptomycin. Treating the cells with Streptomycin then kills all cells which do not possess the desired inserted gene.

Genes do not function all by themselves. Most of them are active during only part of the life of the cell.  They may need the assistance of other genes, called Promoters, which “turn on” or activate them. Therefore, a promoter gene, derived from a virus,  is also attached. These genes may also bring with them uninvited guests. When genes are snipped out of their original DNA chain, the process is not exact. The chain is cut in various places by enzymes, leaving pieces of, or entire neighboring genes, attached to the gene to be inserted. The properties of these DNA Fragments may not be known and their presence may not even be detected.

From this and other evidence, a reasonable person could draw the conclusion that contrary to what the FDA and food industry say, GMOs used as foods are definitely different from regular foods, and need to be tested and labeled to safeguard the health of both ourselves and the rest of the planet.

There are several good arguments why GE foods should be labeled. For one, people should have the right to know what is in the food they feed to their families. But even more importantly, if GE foods are not labeled, and something goes wrong, and people get sick and/or die, what could be done to trace the source of the problem? Epidemiologists, those public health officials whose job it is to track down the causes of diseases and other health hazards, would have no way to trace the problem back to the GE foods.

One more important point. Agribusiness companies such as Monsanto consistently claim that their GE seeds will increase crop yields with these techniques, thus being able to feed the world’s ever-increasing human population and avoid famine and starvation. Unfortunately most of the evidence so far demonstrates that on the contrary, most of them either marginally increase or even decrease yields. One theory of why this occurs is that much of the plant’s energy has been diverted from normal growth into perpetually producing the inserted gene’s product.

A holy grail of molecular biology has been the hope that GE will one day be able to cure inherited diseases by substituting normal genes for the abnormal ones. For the first government-sanctioned attempt at Gene Therapy, children with a hitherto consistently lethal disease were selected. These so-called bubble babies have non-functioning immune systems, and need to be physically isolated from the environment  in artificial enclosures. They usually die in early childhood from infections against which they have no defense. A number of clinical trials were begun around the world, in which ostensibly normal genes were inserted into such children.  Eleven children were selected for one trial in France. Their physicians were optimistic due to the preliminary results. Most of the children showed improved immune functioning. Then one boy came down with Childhood Leukemia. They assumed that this was an unfortunate coincidence. A few months later a second child developed Childhood Leukemia.

Analysis of their DNA showed what had happened. In the first child the Promoter gene accompanying the therapeutic gene had landed square in the middle of an Oncogene called LMO-2, and turned it permanently on. An Oncogene is a gene, probably needed for normal development, which if switched on permanently, causes cancer. Analysis of the other child’s DNA provoked  much more concern. The same Promoter gene landed near the same Oncogene, but not on it. Promoter genes show a gradation of effects, depending how close they are to the gene in question. The closer, the stronger the effect.  All gene therapy trials were immediately stopped.

The results of this trial are exceptionally chilling. It showed that it matters very much where in the host genome the foreign gene is inserted. The fact is that the scientists have no idea of where the gene is going to land; where, if any, there is a “good” place to land; and no way exists at this time to direct it to such a place.  There has been much talk about “targeted gene repair” , but so far scientists have been unsuccessful in directing foreign genes to specific sites, and may never be able to do so.

Perhaps even more importantly, the question arises as to whether the insertion of the Promoter gene in the Oncogene in one case and near the Oncogene in the other, was a coincidence. Considering the vast amounts of DNA in a cell, and that a human cell is estimated to contain 10 – 30,000 genes, it is very unlikely that this was an accident. Therefore, we are left with the possibility that when foreign genes are inserted into a human cell, their destination may not be random, but directed, but not by us. In these cases, it was directed to an Oncogene, with tragic results.

There has lately been some good news in the field of gene therapy. The latest trials of this technique have met with better results.

The prospect of worldwide distribution of GMO’s is particularly troubling because they differ in several crucial respects from pollution by petrochemicals and radioactive substances.  Unlike chemicals, GMOs can replicate themselves, thus producing potentially immense amounts.  They can mutate(change) their genetic constitutions, and therefore, their properties.  Furthermore they can disperse to other environments, either on their own, or by piggybacking on other organisms by becoming integrated into their DNA.  It is quite likely that if  some of them prove to have deleterious effects, it will be impossible to correct the situation, and put them back in Pandora’s box.

In this new world of GE, which we are entering so rapidly, the term caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) takes on a new and ominous meaning.

The Dark Side of GE, 10/29/03

Newsletters, 2011

Our Newsletters will begin in July, 2011.

With respect to our wild lands,  it will cover topics, such as Hunter Gatherers, Wilderness Survival, and Predator Prey Relationships, with emphasis on the role of wolves in healthy ecosystems. 

The environment takes in an even wider swath, so the Newsletter will also cover Cancer, Climate Change, Peak Oil, and Molecular Genetics, especially Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).

Anything that effects the health of the Earth is grist for our mill, and hopefully of interest to you. We will therefore upon occasion, wander farther afield if it seems relevant to your interests, to such topics as primitive skills, wilderness awareness, the evolution of man, and so on.

 

 

Please check the News category for the latest topics of interest