OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

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Three OSU faculty members named fellows of American Geophysical Union

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Three Oregon State University faculty members have been named 2014 fellows of the American Geophysical Union. They are the only three fellows in this class from the state of Oregon.

The three selected as fellows were Edward Brook and Gary Egbert from the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences; and Beverly Law from the College of Forestry.

Brook is a paleoclimatologist who studies the Earth’s ancient climates through examination of ice cores, specializing in the history of greenhouse gases. His studies have helped explain the processes that led to large-scale climate shifts throughout Earth’s history. In 2011, he was part of a team that completed the excavation of a 10,928-foot ice core – the longest core ever drilled by United States scientists – with ice more than 67,000 years old.

Egbert is a geophysicist and oceanographer whose studies range from ocean tides to electromagnetic imaging of the solid Earth. In one pioneering study, he and his colleagues used satellite altimetry data to show that ocean tides lose significant energy over rough topography in the open ocean. These results imply that the tides may provide an important source of mechanical energy for vertical ocean mixing, and large-scale heat transport in the ocean – processes which are critical to Earth’s climate.

Law is a professor of global change biology and terrestrial systems science who examines the role of forests in the global carbon cycle, and the impacts of climate change on those forests. She was science chair of the AmeriFlux network of more than 100 research sites for 11 years, and in 2014 was listed as a “most highly cited” researcher, in the top 1 percent for the period of 2002-12. She is a principal investigator on a five-year, $4 million project studying the impacts of drought, insects and fires on western forests.

The American Geophysical Union established the AGU Fellows program in 1962, and restricts annual recognition to less than 0.1 percent of its overall membership. This year, 62 fellows were named for their scientific eminence, a major breakthrough, a major discovery, paradigm shifts and/or sustained scientific impact. They will be recognized on Dec. 17 at the annual AGU conference in San Francisco.

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Joan Buhrman, 1+ 202 777-7509, jbuhrman@agu.org

Precipitation, not warming temperatures, may be key in bird adaptation to climate change

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new model analyzing how birds in western North America will respond to climate change suggests that for most species, regional warming is not as likely to influence population trends as will precipitation changes.

Several past studies have found that temperature increases can push some animal species – including birds – into higher latitudes or higher elevations. Few studies, however, have tackled the role that changes in precipitation may cause, according to Matthew Betts, an Oregon State University ecologist and a principal investigator on the study.

“When we think of climate change, we automatically think warmer temperatures,” said Betts, an associate professor in Oregon State’s College of Forestry. “But our analysis found that for many species, it is precipitation that most affects the long-term survival of many bird species.

“It makes sense when you think about it,” Betts added. “Changes in precipitation can affect plant growth, soil moisture, water storage and insect abundance and distributions.”

Results of the study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation with support from the U.S. Geological Survey and others, are being published in the journal Global Change Biology.

The researchers examined long-term data on bird distributions and abundance covering five states in the western United States, and in the Canadian province of British Columbia, testing statistical models to predict temporal changes in population of 132 bird species over a 32-year period. They analyzed the impacts of temperature and precipitation on bird distributions at the beginning of the study period (the 1970s) and then tested how well the predictions performed against actual population trends over the ensuing 30 years.

The scientists keyed in on several variables, including possible changes during the wettest month in each region, the breeding season of different species, and the driest month by area. Their model found that models including precipitation were most successful at predicting bird population trends.

“For some species, the model can predict about 80 percent of variation,” Betts said, “and for some species, it’s just a flip of the coin. But the strongest message is that precipitation is an important factor and we should pay more attention to the implications of this moving forward.”

The study incorporated a lot of complex variables into the model, including micro-climatic changes that are present in mountainous environments. The research area encompassed California to northern British Columbia and the mountain systems drive much of the changes in both temperature and precipitation.

The researchers chose December precipitation as one variable and found it to be influential in affecting bird populations.

“Someone might ask why December, since half of the bird species usually present in the Pacific Northwest, for instance, might not even be here since they’re migratory,” Betts noted. “But much of the critical precipitation is snow that falls in the winter and has a carryover effect for months later – and the runoff is what affects stream flows, plant growth and insect abundance well down the road.”

The rufous hummingbird is one species that appeared affected by changes in December precipitation, the researchers say. The species is declining across western North America at a rate of about 3 percent a year, and the model suggest it is linked to an overall drying trend in the Northwest. The evening grosbeak is similarly affected the authors say.

On the other hand, the California towhee shows a negative association with December precipitation, appears to be drought-tolerant – and its populations remain stable.

“We cannot say for certain that a change in December precipitation caused declines in evening grosbeaks or rufous hummingbirds,” said Javier Gutiérrez Illán, a former postdoctoral researcher at Oregon State and lead author on the study. “Our model shows, however, a strong association between the birds’ decline and precipitation changes and the fact that this variable pointed to actual past changes in populations gives it validity.”

“The study shows that models can predict the direction and magnitude of population changes,” he added. “This is of fundamental importance considering predictions were successful even in new locations.”

The next phase of the research is to use the model to determine if there are patterns in the sorts of species affected – for instance, birds that are migratory or non-migratory, or short- or long-lived. They also hope to test additional variables, including land use changes, wildfire impacts, competition between species and other factors.

“In general, our study suggests that if climate change results in winters with less precipitation, we likely will see a spring drying effect,” Betts said. “This means that populations of drought-tolerant species will expand and birds that rely heavily on moisture should decline.”

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Matt Betts, 541-737-3841

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Discovery of a bud-break gene could lead to trees adapted for a changing climate

CORVALLIS, Ore. — Scientists have confirmed the function of a gene that controls the awakening of trees from winter dormancy, a critical factor in their ability to adjust to environmental changes associated with climate change.

While other researchers have identified genes involved in producing the first green leaves of spring, the discovery of a master regulator in poplar trees (Populus species) could eventually lead to breeding plants that are better adapted for warmer climates.

The results of the study that began more than a decade ago at Oregon State University were published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, by scientists from Michigan Technological University and Oregon State.

“No one has ever isolated a controlling gene for this timing in a wild plant, outside of Arabidopsis, a small flowering plant related to mustard and cabbage,” said Steve Strauss, co-author and distinguished professor of forest biotechnology at OSU. “This is the first time a gene that controls the timing of bud break in trees has been identified.”

The timings of annual cycles — when trees open their leaves, when they produce flowers, when they go dormant — help trees adapt to changes in environmental signals like those associated with climate, but the genetics have to keep up, Strauss said.

While trees possess the genetic diversity to adjust to current conditions, climate models suggest that temperature and precipitation patterns in many parts of the world may expose trees to more stressful conditions in the future. Experts have suggested that some tree species may not be able to cope with these changes fast enough, whether by adaptation or migration. As a result, forest health may decline, trees may disappear from places they are currently found, and some species may even go extinct. 

“For example, are there going to be healthy and widespread populations of Douglas fir in Oregon in a hundred years?” said Strauss. “That depends on the natural diversity that we have and how much the environment changes. Will there be sufficient genetic diversity around to evolve populations that can cope with a much warmer and likely drier climate? We just don’t know.”

Strauss called the confirmation of the bud-break gene — which scientists named EBB1 for short — a “first step” in developing the ability to engineer adaptability into trees in the future.

“Having this knowledge enables you to engineer changes when they might become urgent,” he said.

Yordan Yordanov and Victor Busov at Michigan Tech worked with Cathleen Ma and Strauss at Oregon State to trace the function of EBB1 in buds and other plant tissues responsible for setting forth the first green shoots of spring. They developed modified trees that overproduced EBB1 genes and emerged from dormancy earlier in the year. They also showed that trees with less EBB1 activity emerged from dormancy later.

“The absence of EBB1 during dormancy allows the tree to progress through the physiological, developmental and adaptive changes leading to dormancy,” said Busov, “while the expression of EBB1 in specific cell layers prior to bud-break enables reactivation of growth in the cells that develop into shoots and leaves, and re-entry into the active growth phase of the tree.”

The study began when Strauss noticed poplar trees emerging earlier than others in an experimental field trial at Oregon State. One April morning, he found that four seedling trees in a 2.5-acre test plot were putting forth leaves at least a week before all the other trees. Strauss and Busov, a former post-doctoral researcher at Oregon State, led efforts to identify the genes responsible.

They found that EBB1 codes for a protein that helps to restart cell division in a part of the tree known as meristem, which is analogous to stem cells in animals. EBB1 also plays a role in suppressing genes that prepare trees for dormancy in the fall and in other processes such as nutrient cycling and root growth that are critical for survival. Altogether, they found nearly 1,000 other poplar genes whose activity is affected by EBB1.

It’s unlikely that plant breeders will use the finding any time soon, Strauss said. Breeders tend to rely on large clusters of genes that are associated with specific traits such as hardiness, tree shape or flowering. However, as more genes of this kind are identified, the opportunity to breed or engineer trees adapted to extreme conditions will grow.

Funding for the research was provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Department of Energy and the Tree Biosafety and Genomics Research Cooperative at Oregon State.

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Steve Strauss, 541-737-6578

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Animal trapping records reveal strong wolf effect across North America

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Scientists have used coyote and red fox fur trapping records across North America to document how the presence of wolves influences the balance of smaller predators further down the food chain.

From Alaska and Yukon to Nova Scotia and Maine, the researchers have demonstrated that a “wolf effect” exists, favoring red foxes where wolves are present and coyotes where wolves are absent.

This effect requires that enough wolves be present to suppress coyotes over a wide area. Fur trapping records from Saskatchewan and Manitoba reveal that where wolves are absent in the southern agricultural regions of each province, coyotes outnumber foxes on average by 3-to-1. However, where wolves are abundant in the North, the balance swings dramatically in favor of foxes on average by 4-to-1 and at an extreme of 500-to-1 at one site.

In between is a 200-kilometer (124-mile) transition zone where too few wolves are present to tip the balance between coyotes and foxes.

The results of the study by Thomas Newsome and William Ripple in the Oregon State University Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society were published today in the Journal of Animal Ecology by the British Ecological Society.

“As wolves were extirpated across the southern half of North America, coyotes dramatically expanded their range,” said Newsome, a post-doctoral researcher. “They were historically located in the middle and western United States, but they dispersed all the way to Alaska in the early 1900s and to New Brunswick and Maine by the 1970s.”

“So essentially coyotes have been dispersing into wolf and red-fox range in the North but also into areas where wolves are absent but red fox are present in the East,” Newsome added.

Newsome came to the United States on a Fulbright scholarship from Australia where he earned a Ph.D. from the University of Sydney and specialized in the study of dingoes, that continent’s top predator. There’s a debate among Australians, he said, about the potential role of dingoes in suppressing introduced pests that have already decimated wildlife there.

“Over the last 200 years, Australia has had the highest extinction rate in the world,” Newsome said. “The debate is about whether the dingo can provide positive ecological benefits. Where dingoes have been removed, the impacts of introduced red foxes and feral cats have been quite severe on native fauna.”

Dingoes are managed as a pest in New South Wales, the country’s most populous state. To reduce dingo predation in the livestock industry, Australia also maintains the world’s longest fence, which runs for 5,500 kilometers (3,400 miles) in an attempt to exclude dingoes from almost a quarter of the continent.

In North America, the effect of wolves on coyotes and red foxes provides a natural case study that can be instructive for Australians. “Australians can learn a lot from how wolves are managed in North America, and Americans can learn from the ecological role of the dingo,” Newsome said.

As coyotes have expanded in North America, they have become a major cause of concern for the livestock industry. In the United States in 2004, researchers estimated annual losses due to coyote predation on sheep and cattle at $40 million. To reduce those damages, the Wildlife Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture has a program to reduce coyote numbers, an effort that has drawn criticism from conservation groups.

In reviewing the fur trapping data from two U.S. and six Canadian jurisdictions, Newsome and Ripple eliminated potential sources of bias such as records from fur farms that raise foxes. The fur prices of coyotes and red foxes are also strongly correlated, and the two species occupy much of the same types of habitat, so they are equally likely to be targeted and caught in hunters’ traps.

“This study gives us a whole other avenue to understand the ecological effects of wolves on landscapes and animal communities,” said Ripple. He has studied the influence of carnivores on their prey — such as deer and elk — and on vegetation from aspen trees to willows. He and his colleagues have shown that the removal of top predators can cause dramatic shifts within ecosystems.

Wolves are naturally recolonizing many areas of the United States following their reintroduction into Yellowstone National Park and surrounding areas in 1995. Scientists are studying wolf interactions with other species, and in particular, there is interest in determining whether recolonizing wolves will suppress coyote populations and have cascading effects on red foxes and other species.

Newsome received funding from the Australian-American Fulbright Commission and from the government and universities of New South Wales in Australia.

 

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Thomas Newsome, 541-737-3197

Wiliam Ripple, 541-737-3056

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Coyote (Photo: Shawn McCready)

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Red fox (Photo: Kelly Colgan Azar)

Gray Wolf, credit- Doug McLaughlin copy 2

Gray wolf (Photo: Doug McLaughlin)

OSU scientists part of national APLU report outlining research challenges

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The national Association of Public and Land-grant Universities released a report today outlining six “grand challenges” facing the United States over the next decade in the areas of sustainability water, climate change, agriculture, energy and education.

The APLU project was co-chaired by W. Daniel Edge, head of the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Oregon State University. The report is available online at: http://bit.ly/1ksH2ud

The “Science, Education, and Outreach Roadmap for Natural Resources” is the first comprehensive, nationwide report on research, education and outreach needs for natural resources the country’s university community has ever attempted, Edge said.

“The report identifies critical natural resources issues that interdisciplinary research programs need to focus on over the next 5-10 years in order to address emerging challenges,” Edge noted. “We hope that policy-makers and federal agencies will adopt recommendations in the roadmap when developing near-term research priorities and strategies.”

The six grand challenges addressed in the report are: 

  • Sustainability: The need to conserve and manage natural landscapes and maintain environmental quality while optimizing renewable resource productivity to meet increasing human demands for natural resources, particularly with respect to increasing water, food, and energy demands.
  • Water: The need to restore, protect and conserve watersheds for biodiversity, water resources, pollution reduction and water security.
  • Climate Change: The need to understand the impacts of climate change on our environment, including such aspects as disease transmission, air quality, water supply, ecosystems, fire, species survival, and pest risk. Further, a comprehensive strategy is needed for managing natural resources to adapt to climate change.
  • Agriculture: The need to develop a sustainable, profitable, and environmentally responsible agriculture industry.
  • Energy: The need to identify new and alternative renewable energy sources and improve the efficiency of existing renewable resource-based energy to meet increasing energy demands while reducing the ecological footprint of energy production and consumption.
  • Education: The need to maintain and strengthen natural resources education at our schools at all levels in order to have the informed citizenry, civic leaders, and practicing professionals needed to sustain the natural resources of the United States.

 

Three other OSU researchers were co-authors on the report, including Hal Salwasser, a professor and former dean of the College of Forestry; JunJie Wu, the Emery N. Castle Endowed Chair in Resource and Rural Economics; and George Boehlert, former director of OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center.

Wu played a key role in the climate change chapter in identifying the need to better understand the tradeoffs between investing now in climate change adaptation measures versus the long-term risk of not adopting new policies.

Edge and Boehlert contributed to the energy chapter, which focuses primarily on renewable energy.

“The natural resources issues with traditional sources of energy already are well-understood,” Boehlert said, “with the possible exception of fracking. As the country moves more into renewable energy areas, there are many more uncertainties with respect to natural resources that need to be understood and addressed. There are no energy sources that do not have some environmental issues.”

Salwasser was an author on the sustainability chapter that identifies many issues associated with natural resource use, including rangelands, forestry, fisheries and wildlife and biodiversity. The authors contend the challenge is to use these resources in a sustainable manner meeting both human and ecosystem needs.

The project was sponsored by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to Oregon State University, which partnered with APLU and authors from numerous institutions.

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Dan Edge, 541-737-2810; Daniel.edge@oregonstate.edu

Scientists gather in Bend for “Week of Fire” April 7-10

CORVALLIS, Ore. – In what organizers have dubbed a “Week of Fire,” forest scientists and fire managers will meet in Bend April 7-10 to discuss the latest research on fire ecology and its implications for forest management.

The week will include a series of events: the 3rd biennial Central Oregon Fire Science Symposium, the first meeting of the newly formed Oregon Prescribed Fire Council and a four-day training course, The Ecological and Social Effects of Fire in Central Oregon.

All activities will be held at the Central Oregon Community College. The public is welcome to attend, but registration fees apply to the training course and to the symposium. Attendance at the prescribed fire council meeting on April 10 is free. Schedule and registration information are available at http://centraloregonfiresymposium.org/.

“Fire science and management experience are coming together to really allow our profession to be able to deal with the growing challenge of managing forest fires,” said John Bailey, a professor in the Oregon State University College of Forestry and one of the event planners. “The spatial extent and cumulative severity of wildland fires are unprecedented recently in much of the West and are likely to continue or increase. Fuel accumulations have and continue to markedly outpace treatment rates, feeding these fires.”

The fire-science symposium will run April 8-9. Bailey and speakers from Oregon State, the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and other organizations will address fire ecology, fire science and the potential benefits of using prescribed fire as a tool to reduce future fire risk. 

“Forests in Central Oregon have evolved with fire,” said Bailey. “It’s not a matter of if they will burn; it’s when and how. The science is there to show that working with fire to steer it instead of trying to stop it is safer, cheaper and more ecologically fitting for the land.”

Since 2001, more than a million acres burned in Oregon alone during two fire seasons. Nationally, more than 8 million acres burned in six of those 12 years. Of particular concern is the growing number of large fires that burn uncontrollably and threaten life and property. In that same time, annual fire suppression costs have increased markedly and now consistently approach $2 billion.

“This is a bigger issue than the federal government can handle alone,” said Geoff Babb of the Bureau of Land Management, one of the symposium organizers. “These fires cross jurisdictional boundaries and require that we work together with local and state governments and university scientists.”

Highlights of the symposium include a presentation by Scott Stephens of the University of California, Berkeley, on the policy and management implications of last year’s Rim Fire in California. A special memorial will be held for Bob Martin, a pioneer of prescribed burning who inspired generations of fire managers in Central Oregon.

The Oregon Prescribed Fire Council’s inaugural meeting on April 10 will provide people with interests in prescribed burning — fire and fuels managers, natural resources specialists, private landowners, industry, air quality regulators, ranchers — to address a variety of issues. The council was founded in 2013 to address issues such as smoke management, worker training, legal liability and sharing of resources. Since the 1970s, such councils have been forming throughout the country, most recently in Washington and California.

“The opportunities and challenges in implementing prescribed fire are complex and in need of attention through collaboration,” said Amanda Stamper, chair of the Oregon council. “Ecological restoration and wildfire hazard reduction often depend upon the application of fire after treatments such as thinning and mowing, particularly in the dry forests and rangelands east of the Cascades.”

“Ultimately prescribed burning and wildfire management efforts need to focus on creating more resilient ecosystems and fire-adapted communities,” said Timothy Ingalsbee of the Association for Fire Ecology, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to fire ecology research, education and management. “The sooner we learn how to work safely and live sustainably with wildland fire, the better.

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Editor’s Note: Reporters are welcome at the Central Oregon Fire Science Symposium. To make arrangements, contact Timothy Ingalsbee, 541-338-7671, fire@efn.org.

Fire maps, risk ratings for Oregon communities and other information about forest fires in Oregon are available at Oregon Explorer’s Wildfire Risk Explorer, www.oregonexplorer.info/wildfire.

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Jean Nelson-Dean, U.S. Forest Service, 541-383-5561

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John Bailey, Oregon State University, 541-737-1497

Amanda Stamper, U.S. Forest Service and Oregon Prescribed Fire Council, 541-968-5851

Geoff Babb, Bureau of Land Management, 542-383-5521

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2013 prescribed burning operations on the Oregon State University’s McDonald Forest near Corvallis, Ore. OSU researchers and students conducted the burn with assistance from the Oregon Department of Forestry. Photo: Taylor Fjeran, Oregon State University

OSU selects public health leader, ecologist for Distinguished Professor Awards

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The leader behind what will become Oregon’s first accredited school of public health and a terrestrial ecologist who identified a new paradigm in wildlife research have been named 2014 recipients of the Distinguished Professor Award by Oregon State University.

Marie Harvey, a professor in OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences, and William Ripple, a professor in the College of Forestry, will receive their awards this spring and give public lectures on campus.

The Distinguished Professor title is the highest designation Oregon State gives to its faculty.

Sabah Randhawa, OSU provost and executive vice president, said the two faculty members chosen for the honor share similar traits of innovative leadership, internationally recognized scholarship and service to the university and their respective fields.

“Marie Harvey and Bill Ripple exemplify what we hope all of our faculty will strive to become as they develop their careers,” Randhawa said. “They both have revolutionized their fields, drawing respect and admiration not only from their colleagues on campus, but from around the world.”

Harvey is widely known for her pioneering work in reproductive and sexual health, shifting the research from an exclusive focus on women to one that examines the relationship dynamics of couples as it applies to both pregnancy and disease prevention. That shift, along with Harvey’s work in diversity and equity, prompted the American Public Health Association to present her with its Lifetime Achievement Award.

“I am very pleased that Marie Harvey is being honored with the Distinguished Professor title,” said Tammy Bray, dean of OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences. “In addition to her scholarly contributions to the field of public health, I most appreciate her leadership and partnership with me in the effort to transform our college to become the first accredited school of public health in Oregon.”

Harvey has been a faculty member at OSU since 2003 and associate dean of the college since 2011. Her title is Distinguished Professor of Public Health.

Ripple began his career studying old-growth forests and spotted owls and evolved his research to look at the impact of predators. His work led to a new field called “trophic cascades” – or how large predators exert powerful influences on ecosystem structure and function. Examples include the influence of wolves in Yellowstone Park on everything from the composition of hardwood forests to streamside erosion.

His prominence as an ecologist has led to consulting efforts with the National Academy of Sciences, The White House, President Clinton’s Forest Summit, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others. Ripple will be Distinguished Professor of Ecology.

“Bill Ripple has been a fantastic teacher and researcher in the College of Forestry and well deserves being named a Distinguished Professor,” said Thomas Maness, dean of the college. “He is an internationally known leader in the ecology of top predators and his studies on the impact of gray wolves in Yellowstone, along with co-author (OSU professor emeritus) Robert Beschta, have been featured in numerous scientific journals and in popular media. They have directly impacted conservation research and policies.”

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 Sabah Randhawa, 541-737-2111; Sabah.Randhawa@oregonstate.edu

Loss of large carnivores poses global conservation problem

CORVALLIS, Ore. – In ecosystems around the world, the decline of large predators such as lions, dingoes, wolves, otters, and bears is changing the face of landscapes from the tropics to the Arctic – but an analysis of 31 carnivore species to be published Friday in the journal Science shows for the first time how threats such as habitat loss, persecution by humans and loss of prey combine to create global hotspots of carnivore decline.

More than 75 percent of the 31 large-carnivore species are declining, and 17 species now occupy less than half of their former ranges, the authors reported.

Southeast Asia, southern and East Africa and the Amazon are among areas in which multiple large carnivore species are declining. With some exceptions, large carnivores have already been exterminated from much of the developed world, including Western Europe and the eastern United States.

“Globally, we are losing our large carnivores,” said William Ripple, lead author of the paper and a professor in the Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society at Oregon State University.

“Many of them are endangered,” he said. “Their ranges are collapsing. Many of these animals are at risk of extinction, either locally or globally. And, ironically, they are vanishing just as we are learning about their important ecological effects.”

Ripple and colleagues from the United States, Australia, Italy and Sweden called for an international initiative to conserve large predators in coexistence with people. They suggested that such an effort be modeled on the Large Carnivore Initiative for Europe, a nonprofit scientific group affiliated with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

The researchers reviewed published scientific reports and singled out seven species that have been studied for their widespread ecological effects or “trophic cascades.” This includes African lions, leopards, Eurasian lynx, cougars, gray wolves, sea otters and dingoes.

Ripple and his Oregon State co-author Robert Beschta have documented impacts of cougars and wolves on the regeneration of forest stands and riparian vegetation in Yellowstone and other national parks in North America. Fewer predators, they have found, lead to an increase in browsing animals such as deer and elk. More browsing disrupts vegetation, shifts birds and small mammals and changes other parts of the ecosystem in a widespread cascade of impacts.

Studies of Eurasian lynx, dingoes, lions and sea otters have found similar effects, the authors reported.

Lynx have been closely tied to the abundance of roe deer, red fox and hare. In Australia, the construction of a 3,400-mile dingo-proof fence has enabled scientists to study ecosystems with and without the animals, which are closely related to gray wolves. In some parts of Africa, the decrease of lions and leopards has coincided with a dramatic increase in olive baboons, which threaten farm crops and livestock. In the waters off southeast Alaska, a decline in sea otters through killer whale predation has led to a rise in sea urchins and loss of kelp beds.

The authors call for a deeper understanding of the impact of large carnivores on ecosystems, a view that they trace back to the work of landmark ecologist Aldo Leopold. The classic concept that predators are harmful and deplete fish and wildlife is outdated, they said. Scientists and wildlife managers need to recognize a growing body of evidence for the complex roles that carnivores play in ecosystems and for their social and economic benefits.

Leopold recognized such relationships between predators and ecosystems, Ripple said, but his observations on that point were largely ignored for decades after his death in 1948.

“Human tolerance of these species is a major issue for conservation,” Ripple said. “We say these animals have an intrinsic right to exist, but they are also providing economic and ecological services that people value.”

Among the services that have been documented in other studies are carbon sequestration, riparian restoration, biodiversity and disease control.

Where large carnivores have been restored — such as wolves in Yellowstone or Eurasian lynx in Finland — ecosystems have responded quickly, said Ripple. “I am impressed with how resilient the Yellowstone ecosystem is. It isn’t happening quickly everywhere, but in some places, ecosystem restoration has started there.”

In those cases, where loss of vegetation has led to soil erosion, for example, full restoration in the near term may not be possible, he said.

“Nature is highly interconnected,” said Ripple. “The work at Yellowstone and other places shows how one species affects another and another through different pathways. It’s humbling as a scientist to see the interconnectedness of nature.”

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Bill Ripple, 541-737-3056

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Leopard. credit Kirstin Abley copy 2
Leopard


Dingo, credit Ken Shaw copy 2
Dingo


Gray Wolf, credit- Doug McLaughlin copy 2
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Sea otter, credit Norman S. Smith copy
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Eurasian lynx, credit Bodel Elmhagen copy
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puma also known as cougar, credit william ripple
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lion, credit kirstin abley
African Lion

Efforts to curb climate change require greater emphasis on livestock

CORVALLIS, Ore. – While climate change negotiators struggle to agree on ways to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, they have paid inadequate attention to other greenhouse gases associated with livestock, according to an analysis by an international research team.

A reduction in non-CO2 greenhouse gases will be required to abate climate change, the researchers said. Cutting releases of methane and nitrous oxide, two gases that pound-for-pound trap more heat than does CO2, should be considered alongside the challenge of reducing fossil fuel use.

The researchers’ analysis, “Ruminants, Climate Change, and Climate Policy,” is being published today as an opinion commentary in Nature Climate Change, a professional journal.

William Ripple, a professor in the College of Forestry at Oregon State University, and co-authors from Scotland, Austria, Australia and the United States, reached their conclusions on the basis of a synthesis of scientific knowledge on greenhouse gases, climate change and food and environmental issues. They drew from a variety of sources including the Food and Agricultural Organization, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and recent peer-reviewed publications.

“Because the Earth’s climate may be near a tipping point to major climate change, multiple approaches are needed for mitigation,” said Ripple. “We clearly need to reduce the burning of fossil fuels to cut CO2 emissions. But that addresses only part of the problem. We also need to reduce non-CO2 greenhouse gases to lessen the likelihood of us crossing this climatic threshold.”

Methane is the second most abundant greenhouse gas, and a recent report estimated that in the United States methane releases from all sources could be much higher than previously thought. Among the largest human-related sources of methane are ruminant animals (cattle, sheep, goats, and buffalo) and fossil fuel extraction and combustion.

One of the most effective ways to cut methane, the researchers wrote, is to reduce global populations of ruminant livestock, especially cattle. Ruminants are estimated to comprise the largest single human-related source of methane. By reflecting the latest estimates of greenhouse gas emissions on the basis of a life-cycle or a “farm to fork” analysis, the researchers observed that greenhouse gas emissions from cattle and sheep production are 19 to 48 times higher (on the basis of pounds of food produced) than they are from producing protein-rich plant foods such as beans, grains, or soy products.

Unlike non-ruminant animals such as pigs and poultry, ruminants produce copious amounts of methane in their digestive systems. Although CO2 is the most abundant greenhouse gas, the international community could achieve a more rapid reduction in the causes of global warming by lowering methane emissions through a reduction in the number of ruminants, the authors said, than by cutting CO2 alone.

The authors also observed that, on a global basis, ruminant livestock production is having a growing impact on the environment:

  • Globally, the number of ruminant livestock has increased by 50 percent in the last 50 years, and there are now about 3.6 billion ruminant livestock on the planet.
  • About a quarter of the Earth’s land area is dedicated to grazing, mostly for cattle, sheep and goats.
  • A third of all arable land is used to grow feed crops for livestock.

In addition to reducing direct methane emissions from ruminants, cutting ruminant numbers would deliver a significant reduction in the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production of feed crops for livestock, they added.

“Reducing demand for ruminant products could help to achieve substantial greenhouse gas reductions in the near-term,” said co-author Helmut Haberl of the Institute of Social Ecology in Austria, “but implementation of demand changes represent a considerable political challenge.”

Among agricultural approaches to climate change, reducing demand for meat from ruminants offers greater greenhouse gas reduction potential than do other steps such as increasing livestock feeding efficiency or crop yields per acre. Nevertheless, they wrote, policies to achieve both types of reductions “have the best chance of providing rapid and lasting climate benefits.”

Such steps could have other benefits as well, said co-author Pete Smith of the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. "Cutting the number of ruminant livestock could have additional benefits for food security, human health and environmental conservation involving water quality, wildlife habitat and biodiversity,” he explained. 

Agricultural researchers are also studying methane reduction through improved animal genetics and methods to inhibit production of the gas during digestion.

International climate negotiations such as the UNFCCC have not given “adequate attention” to greenhouse gas reductions from ruminants, they added. The Kyoto Protocol, for example, does not target ruminant emissions from developing countries, which are among the fastest-growing ruminant producers.

In addition to Smith and Haberl, co-authors include Stephen A. Montzka of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Clive McAlpine of the University of Queensland in Australia and Douglas Boucher of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington D.C.

 

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Bill Ripple, 541-737-3056

Significant advance reported with genetically modified poplar trees

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Forest geneticists at Oregon State University have created genetically modified poplar trees that grow faster, have resistance to insect pests and are able to retain expression of the inserted genes for at least 14 years, a report in the Canadian Journal of Forest Research just announced.

The trees are one of the best successes to date in the genetic modification of forest trees, a field that is much less advanced than GMO products in crop agriculture. The advance could prove especially useful in the paper and pulp industries, and in an emerging biofuel industry that could be based on hybrid poplar plantations.

Commercial use of such trees could be done with poplars that also had been engineered to be sterile so they would be unlikely to spread their characteristics to other trees, researchers said.

Development of male sterile trees has been demonstrated in the field, which can be used for male varieties of poplar. Female sterility has not yet been done but should be feasible, they said. However, it is unclear if regulatory agencies would allow use of these trees, with sterility as a key mitigation factor.

“In terms of wood yield, plantation health and productivity, these GMO trees could be very significant,” said Steven Strauss, a distinguished professor of forest biotechnology in the OSU College of Forestry. “Our field experiments and continued research showed results that exceeded our expectations. And it is likely that we have underestimated the value these trees could have in improved growth and production.”

A large-scale study of 402 trees from nine “insertion events” tracked the result of placing the cry3Aa gene into hybrid poplar trees. The first phase was done in field trials between 1998 and 2001, and in 14 years since then study continued in a “clone bank” at OSU to ensure that the valued traits were retained with age.

All of the trees were removed or cut back at the age of two years before they were old enough to flower and reproduce, in order to prevent any gene flow into wild tree populations, researchers said.

With this genetic modification, the trees were able to produce an insecticidal protein that helped protect against insect attack. This method has proven effective as a pest control measure in other crop species such as corn and soybeans, resulting in substantial reductions in pesticide use and a decrease in crop losses.

“Insect attack not only can kill a tree, it can make the trees more vulnerable to other health problems,” said Amy Klocko, an OSU faculty research associate. “In a really bad year of insect attack you can lose an entire plantation.”

Hybrid poplar trees, which are usually grown in dense rows on flat land almost like a food crop, are especially vulnerable to insect epidemics, the researchers said. Manual application of pesticides is expensive and targets a wide range of insects, rather than only the insects that are attacking the trees.

A number of the GMO trees in this study also had significantly improved growth characteristics, the researchers found. Compared to the controls, the transgenic trees grew an average of 13 percent larger after two growing seasons in the field, and in the best case, 23 percent larger.

Some of the work also used a drought-tolerant poplar clone, another advantage in what may be a warmer and drier future climate. The research was supported by the Tree Biosafety and Genomics Research Cooperative at OSU.

Annual crops such as cotton and corn already are routinely grown as GMO products with insect resistance genes. Trees, however, have to grow and live for years before harvest and are subjected to multiple generations of insect pest attacks. That’s why engineered insect protection may offer even greater commercial value, and why extended tests were necessary to demonstrate that the resistance genes would still be expressed more than a decade after planting.

Some genetically modified hybrid poplar trees are already being used commercially in China, but none in the United States. The use of GMO trees in the U.S. still faces heavy regulatory obstacles, Strauss said. Agencies are likely to require extensive studies of gene flow and their effects on forest ecosystems, which are difficult to carry out, he said.

Strauss said he advocates an approach of engineering sterility genes into the trees as a mechanism to control gene flow, which together with further ecological research might provide a socially acceptable path for commercial deployment.

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