2019 Keynote Address
Dr. Jennifer Malpass
Adapt or Die: Changes in who we serve and who we are
2019 Plenary Session
Death And Taxas:
Extinction and Speciation During the Anthropocene
We are closing in on a decade since the concept of the “Anthropocene” first took root. The term stems from the Greek words for human (Anthropo-) and new (-cene) and represents a backward glance—as far back as the beginning of the Agricultural Revolution—and a prophetic gaze forward—into our LCD mobile phones, the modern crystal ball. This burgeoning geologic epoch is one steeped in enough controversy that it has yet to be formally adopted by the appropriate parties. But there is little question among scientists that the proposed Anthropocene (or, conservatively, our current Holocene) has recently become an epoch indelibly defined by humankind’s impact on Earth’s climate, biogeography, biodiversity, geomorphology, and stratigraphy.
Because we are scientists, we recognize that the systems above are as reliant on each other as wildflowers are to pollinators. But because we are also wildlife biologists, we have the privilege of focusing our studies on the species that comprise Earth’s biodiversity. The trickledown effects of humankind’s impact can be seen in wildlife through range shifts, the spread of pathogens and invasive species, habitat loss, extirpations and extinctions, and more. The effects we see are so pervasive, it seems appropriate that wildlife have become our canary in the coalmine. But it is unseemly that today we have grown numb to the deafening silence of each canary lost to the coalmine.
And so, we find ourselves faced with death, the plight of declining to extinct taxa, the discovery of new taxa, and the rediscovery of taxa thought to be extinct. Extirpation, recovery, extinction, and rewilding: one thing they have in common is humans, one thing that differentiates them is the passage of time. To reach extinction, to resort to rewilding, means we’ve waited too long. In the Anthropocene, time is money, and the costs to rebuild a species from genes and spare parts can be exponentially greater than those necessary to manage a species in decline.
Today, we extoll the efforts spent to recover the California condor and hang our head over the loss of the Xerces blue butterfly, extinction’s cautionary poster child. Stories like these force us to ask ourselves when is it appropriate to step in, and is it ever too late? Are we ready to learn from past mistakes in time to prevent future ones? Because at some point, in the not-too-distant future, we’ll learn whether action or inaction bears a steeper price to pay.
These are sobering thoughts in trying times, but the challenges are not insurmountable. Even as science marches forward, there is still time to remember the past so that we are not condemned to repeat it. These are the questions we’ll be exploring, using case studies from the past – the elephant seal, California condor, Xerces blue butterfly – to inform crises in the present – Sierra Nevada red fox, Lange’s metalmark butterfly, mountain yellow-legged frog.
As we stand at the crossroads of a geologic epoch that portends permanency, as scientists it seems unquestionable that in this world nothing can be said to be certain except death and “taxas”. One is inevitable, the other enviable. That humankind will continue to leave our indelible mark on the planet seems inescapable, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be one of beauty. Of a planet – and its “taxas” – made whole again for future generations.
2019 Plenary Speakers
Dr. Alexis Mychajliw
Paleobiologist, La Brea Tar Pits of Los Angeles, California
Speaker Biography: As a conservation paleobiologist, Alexis combines modern, historic, and paleontological datasets to pinpoint the factors underlying extinction or survival in the face of change. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the La Brea Tar Pits of Los Angeles, California. There, she uses millennial-scale snapshots of an ecosystem trapped in asphalt to connect the dots from the Late Pleistocene into the Anthropocene. She earned her B.S in Biology from Cornell University’s College of Agriculture & Life Sciences in 2012. She then received her PhD in 2017 from Stanford University, where, as an Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellow, she studied extinction dynamics of Caribbean mammals through paleontological excavations and monitored endangered species in the Dominican Republic’s UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. At Stanford, she co-led community-engaged courses to bridge the science-policy gap in partnership with the California Office of Research & Planning and the Department of Homeland Security. Her most recent research has sent her to museum warehouses, basements, and closets in search of fossil and historic grizzly bear specimens, working with the California Grizzly Research Network to imagine a California where grizzlies roam the state once again.
Plenary Talk Title: Of Creatures Huge, Fierce, and Strange: the Pleistocene Roots of our Anthropocene Extinctions in North America
Plenary Talk Abstract: More than a century ago, naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace reflected, upon considering the fossil record, that “we live in a zoologically impoverished world, from which all the hugest, and fiercest, and strangest forms have recently disappeared”. Despite this prescient observation, the past 100 years have witnessed only further accelerations in species losses, pushing us into what some have termed the Earth’s 6thMass Extinction event and moving such events from the realm of paleontology into that of conservation biology. The conservation challenges we face in the Anthropocene now demand collaboration between paleo- and neontologists to better quantify what deep-time extinction patterns look like as expressed on decadal timescales. In fact, such challenges may be seen as opportunities to document the process of extinction as it unfolds in real-time and allow for extinction lessons of the past to inform management interventions.
Mass extinction has been traditionally defined in the fossil record as the loss of 75% of species over < 2 million years. While many are familiar with the demise of non-avian dinosaurs 65 million years ago, other past calamities include, for example, the End Ordovician (440 million years ago) when a severe glaciation chilled the planet, lowered sea levels, and killed off small marine organisms, and the End Permian (250 million years ago), also known as the “Great Dying”, that wiped out 95% of species on Earth as a result of volcanism, oceanic anoxia, and global warming. Contextualizing our historic and projected losses in this language of past extinctions can be difficult, however. Recent attempts to translate IUCN assessments into geologic timescales have yielded sobering results: extinction rates since 1500 AD are occurring up to 100 times higher than expected as compared to the fossil record’s background rate.
While 1500 AD is a regularly assumed benchmark because of European arrival in the Americas, it neglects the ways that indigenous peoples and natural climatic changes have shifted baselines for thousands of years prior. Though today we think of species like mountain lions, gray wolves, and grizzly bears as vulnerable top predators, they are instead relatively small-bodied survivors nested within a once larger suite of megafaunal diversity that included American lions, dire wolves, and short-faced bears. In fact, the roots of our modern community structures and conservation dilemmas stretch back to the Late Pleistocene, when North America lost ~72% of its megafauna during a time of major ecological upheaval spurred by human arrival and climatic shifts. New studies documenting the last appearances of megafauna, the genomic footprints of human arrival, and changing vegetation communities are enhancing how we approach the question of extinction in North America, which in turn shapes how we contextualize the ongoing losses of the Anthropocene. By reconstructing these challenges of North America’s past as prelude to today’s Anthropocene extinctions, we can better develop interdisciplinary partnerships that enhance species recovery, reintroduction, and perhaps, rewilding.
Dr. Peter H. Bloom
Zoologist, V.P. , Bloom Biological, Inc
Speaker Biography: Pete Bloom grew up in California as a natural historian focusing on the ecology and conservation of birds of prey and their habitats. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from California State University, Long Beach in zoology and biology, respectively, and a Ph.D. in natural resources from the University of Idaho. He has conducted long-term research on a wide variety of raptor species, centered in southern California, with occasional forays to Peru, Ecuador, Argentina, India, Kazakhstan, and Switzerland. He has authored or coauthored over 45 peer-reviewed publications on raptors as well. He and colleagues have captured nearly 800 Golden Eagles and more than 35,000 other raptors, mostly nestlings, in a quest to learn more about the importance of natal dispersal, philopatry, movements, and unusual migration patterns as they relate to conservation biology.
Plenary Talk Title: California Condor Conservation 1930 – 2050
Plenary Talk Abstract: The “modern” California Condor research period began in 1980, and I was employed on the California Condor program by the National Audubon Society from 1982 – 1987, a short but significant period in Condor conservation. During this time, all remaining wild Condors were captured and brought into captivity, and the captive breeding program was initiated. To prepare for this presentation, I collaborated with the Condor reintroduction programs, which provided information on the history of reintroduction, current status, and threats. I will address: 1) the period prior to 1980, 2) USFWS – National Audubon era from 1980 – 1987, 3) USFWS and collaborators from 1988 – 2019, and 4) the future to 2050. Many of the challenges for Condor conservation of the last several decades will continue. With a projected population of 60 million people by 2050, habitat loss in California will continue to be a major issue. The use of lead ammunition for hunting in California is ending this year. However, lead ammunition has not been banned in Arizona or Utah although hunters are encouraged to use nonlead ammunition within the Condor range. Micro trash will continue to be a problem. To what degree is West Nile Virus a threat? How will climate change affect the Condor? Do we continue supplemental feeding indefinitely? Despite the continuing hurdles to success, and unknown problems that may arise in the future, due to the perseverance of all the people involved, I am optimistic about the Condor’s future. However, the Condor may likely be forever “conservation reliant.” One “cost” of maintaining a conservation reliant species may be in the form of lost opportunities for saving lesser known species, or even suites of species. For example, between 1980 and 1987, seven Hawaiian bird species went extinct. An important question for the Condor program in the future then may be the cost of expanding the reintroduction program to other areas and the cost of maintaining those new populations indefinitely.
Dr. Ben Sacks
Professor, University of California, Davis
Speaker Biography: Dr. Sacks is professor of wildlife biology and genetics at UC Davis, and Director of its Mammalian Ecology and Conservation Unit (MECU). The MECU is composed of faculty, post-doctoral, graduate, and undergraduate researchers who work on population genetics, systematics, ecology, evolution, and application of noninvasive genetic and genomic tools to research and monitoring of endangered wildlife. Current projects in the MECU include red, kit, gray, and island foxes; wolf-like canids, black bears, elk, mule and black-tailed deer, salt marsh harvest mice, giant kangaroo rats, and blunt-nosed leopard lizards in North American. MECU researchers currently collaborate internationally on conservation of mountain gorillas, lions, Himalayan and Indian wolves, African wolflike canids, and Highland wild dogs and dingoes of Australasia. Dr. Sacks has served since 2013 on the IUCN Species Survival Commission within the Canid Specialist and Canid Taxonomy and Nomenclature working groups. He obtained a Ph.D. in Ecology at UC Davis in 2002 and a Master’s in Wildlife Biology at UC Berkeley in 1996. He served briefly as Assistant Professor at California State University, Sacramento (2007-2010), before turning his full attention to the MECU at UC Davis (formerly Canid Diversity and Conservation Unit).
Plenary Talk Title: Navigating the Complexities of Small Population Size, Hybridization, and Functional Role to Save the Sierra Nevada Red Fox
Plenary Talk Abstract: The Sierra Nevada red fox (Vulpes vulpes necator) is teetering on the edge of extirpation, and biologists are debating whether to intervene or not. Once seemingly gone from its namesake habitat, a small native Sierra Nevada red fox population was rediscovered in the past decade. Since that time, biologists have faced an increasingly complex story fraught with imminent threats of small population size and inbreeding depression. A candidate for genetic rescue, the foxes did not wait for human-initiated augmentations or reintroductions. Native female foxes have recently bred with Great Basin red foxes, producing hybrid offspring. In the short term, the population appears to be growing as a consequence of outbreeding. In the long term, it is unclear how outbreeding will impact the persistence of locally adapted genes. This uncertainty raises the question of what can, and what should, biologists work to save – the purely native Sierra Nevada red fox for its unique evolutionary and genetic lineage, or its ecological role as a mountain-dwelling predator in the subalpine/alpine ecosystem? With fewer than 50 native individuals remaining within a few isolated populations in California and Oregon, biologists are pressed for time to acquire empirical data that guide the way forward. Meanwhile, the population continues to change. Red foxes have appeared in new regions of the mountains, including south of Mammoth, more than 60 kilometers south of previous detections, and populated areas of lower elevation where they are exhibiting habituated behaviors. This presentation explores the dilemma of protecting native animals and their genetic lineages, functional roles, and contributions to biodiversity. As scientists, we gather and interpret data necessary to guide decisions. As humans, we move forward into an uncertain future being cognizant of past mistakes and knowing that our predictions might fall short, but always striving to be the animals’ best advocates. Co-Authors: Cate B. Quinn (University of California, Davis, CA) and Sarah Stock (Yosemite National Park, CA).
Director of Conservation, Revive & Restore
Speaker Biography: Tom joined Revive & Restore in June of 2017 20+ years of experience as a conservationist, environmental advocate, natural resource planner and ecologist. Most recently Tom served as the Executive Director of the California Ocean Science Trust. Tom started his career on the Connecticut River as the first River Steward for the Connecticut River Watershed Council. Tom left the Watershed Council to join The Nature Conservancy to establish the Plymouth Pinelands Program in Plymouth, MA where the focus was the conservation of globally rare pine barrens and coastal plain ponds. In 2005 Tom joined the California Program of The Nature Conservancy in the San Luis Obispo office. In early 2009 Tom left TNC to start the Tejon Ranch Conservancy. Tom holds a BA in Economics from Boston University and a MS in Resource Management from Antioch New England. Since 1997, Tom has also served as a natural history tour guide on three continents.
Plenary Talk Title: Genetic Rescue: From Insights to De-Extinction
Plenary Talk Abstract: Tom will provide a brief overview of the efforts at Revive & Restore to advance the application of genomic and biotech tools in the conservation toolkit. The radical reductions in cost and the ever-increasing rapidity of genetic sequencing are making genomic tools ever more affordable to wildlife biologists. Genetic information can provide a number of new insights for wildlife managers such as: new understanding of immune response; much more precise population delineations; or genetic sources of climate change resilience (or lack thereof). Broadly dubbed “genetic rescue,” the opportunities accruing from rapid advances in genomics and genetic engineering range from improved insights all the way to the possibility of de-extinction. Tom will highlight a few projects that display the power of these tools. For instance, Revive & Restore holds an Endangered Species Recovery permit to develop methods to bring back two frozen black-footed ferret cell lines in the San Diego Frozen Zoo. That work will be complemented by experiments to see if the resistance to the non-native sylvatic plague can be engineered to be an inheritable trait. Tom will also provide a quick update on the long-term goal to return proxies of passenger pigeon back to the forests of Eastern North America.