Thursday, July 20, 2017

2666. The Biotech Industry Is Taking Over the Regulation of GMOs from the Inside

by Jonathan Latham, Independent Science News, July 19, 2017

The British non-profit GMWatch recently revealed the agribusiness takeover of Conabia, the National Advisory Committee on Agricultural Biotechnology of Argentina. Conabia is the GMO assessment body of Argentina. According to GMWatch, 26 of 34 its members were either agribusiness company employees or had major conflicts of interest*.
Packing a regulatory agency with conflicted individuals is one way to ensure speedy GMO approvals and Conabia has certainly delivered that. A much more subtle, but ultimately more powerful, way is to bake approval into the structure of the GMO assessment process itself. It is easier than you might think
I recently attended the latest international conference of GMO regulators, called ISBGMO14, held in Guadalajara, Mexico (June 4-8, 2017). ISBGMO is run by the International Society for Biosafety Research (ISBR). When I first went to this biennial series of conferences, in 2007, just one presentation in the whole four days was by a company. ISBR had some aspirations towards scientific independence from agribusiness.
I went for a second time in 2011, to the ISBGMO held in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Company researchers and executives were frequent speakers and the conference had become an opportunity for agribusiness to present talking points and regulatory initiatives as if they had the blessing of science. This year, in Guadalajara, companies were now on the conference organising committee and even conferring conference travel scholarships from the podium. A former conference organiser and ISBR board member told me that the previous ISBGMO (St. Louis, USA, in 2015) had been almost entirely paid for by Monsanto.

Spreading the industry message

In Guadalajara, industry speakers were clearly working from a scripted list. That list translates as the key regulatory objectives of the biotech industry.
Prominent on that list was “data transportability”. Data transportability is the idea that regulators from different jurisdictions, say India, or the EU, should accept identical biosafety applications. Implementation of data transportability would mean that although each country has unique ecosystems and species, applicants ought not to have to provide studies tailored to each. For example, when it comes to assessing effects on non-target organisms, for example of a GMO crop producing an insecticide, regulators in Australia should accept tests on European ladybird species or earthworms as showing that a GMO cotton can safely be grown there.
The appeal of data transportability for an applicant is clear enough—less cost and less risk of their GMO failing a risk assessment. Not once did I hear mention of an obvious downside to data transportability. The fewer tests to which a novel GMO is subjected the less research there is to detect a significant problem if one exists.
A second standard corporate line was “need to know versus nice to know”. In other words do not ask applicants for more data than they wish to supply. The downsides to this are identical to data transportability. Less data is less testing and less science.

Modernising risk assessment?

Another major theme of the meeting was ‘modernization’ of regulation. In this scheme the most ‘advanced’ nation was proposed to be Canada. Canada has adopted what it calls “trait-based GMO regulation”. In trait-based regulation the method of development (i.e. whether the crop was genetically engineered or not) is considered irrelevant. The trait is the sole focus. So if a GMO crop contains an insecticide it is assessed for risk against non-target organisms. If a GMO improves flavour or nutrition then, since there is presumably no risk from flavours or nutrients, then the crop receives what amounts to a free pass.
The Canadian approach sounds harmless, but it has the crucial property that it hands control of risk assessment to the applicant, because under such a system everything depends on what the applicant chooses to call their trait. Imagine you were asked to review the safety of an aircraft, but the manufacturer wouldn’t tell you if it was propeller-driven or a jet; likewise, if a submarine was diesel or nuclear powered.
The Canadian approach therefore, by just asking what the crop is supposed to do, effectively places outside of regulation most of the standard considerations of risk and hazard. Once upon a time, risk assessment was supposed to be about what a product is notsupposed to do. For proposing non-regulation over regulation, Canadian biosafety officials were given more prominent speaking opportunities at ISBGMO14 than any other national regulator.

Tiered risk assessment

An equivalently unscientific innovation, which seems widely accepted, is called tiered risk assessment. Imagine a company presents to regulators an insect-resistant GMO crop. An obvious question arises. How is a regulator to know, since the crops produces an insecticide, if it will kill beneficial organisms such as the bees that feed on its flowers?
In tiered risk assessment this question is answered by feeding the purified GMO insecticide to a bee species. If no harm is observed the crop is assumed safe. No further tests are required. If the bees are harmed then a larger scale test, presumptively more realistic, is conducted. If harm is not observed the crop is assumed safe and no further tests are required. If harm is shown then an outdoor or larger-level test will be conducted.
Monsanto presented a lengthy exposition, in a plenary session, of the ‘soundness’ and ‘logic’ of this tiered approach. Tiered risk assessment has been the subject of little scientific debate (though see Lang et al., 2007), but the implications of the tiered approach are profound. It is an asymmetrical system in which passing any test leads to approval whereas failing that test does not result in disapproval.
Consider the comparison with pharmaceuticals. Currently, all pharmaceutical drugs must pass through three phases of clinical trials; first animal tests, then small scale human trials, then large scale human trials. Failure at any stage is considered terminal. Without wishing to give them any ideas, suppose the FDA were to replace this three-phase system with one under which approval in phase I (animal tests) allowed the developer to go straight to market. There would be, for good reason, an uproar, followed by an avalanche of dangerous medications on the market. But that is precisely the logic of tiered GMO testing.
Tiered testing is therefore a system in which failure is an unacceptable answer. In the scientific review paper that first proposed tiered risk assessment, there is no provision for rejecting the crop in the main figure, which diagrams the proposed decision tree (See Figure 1 of Romeis et al., 2008). Approvals are guaranteed. Agribusiness knows this perfectly well because many of the principal authors of Romeis et al are from the major seed and biotech companies.
The so-called logical innovations presented at ISBGMO14, such as data transportability, trait-based regulation, and tiered risk assessment, are thus intended as regulatory bypasses. They make it all but impossible for a regulator to turn down a GMO application, or even to collect sufficient information. No wonder the biotech industry likes to refer to risk assessment procedures as approval systems.
Given the lack of objection to these approaches at ISBGMO14, the biotech industry ought now to feel confident that the regulation of biotechnology is largely in their hands, but still it wants more.
In the coming years, an upsurge is expected in the GMO pipeline as new applications and new approaches become possible. This pipeline is predicted to include GMO algae, animal biotechnology, gene drives, and so forth. Many of these opportunities the industry knows will be controversial. A pacified regulatory environment is for them a necessity before that can happen.
This is more than a shame. When a comprehensive evaluation of the weaknesses and inherent limitations of scientific risk assessment is urgently needed to cope with these challenges, the chemical and biotech industries are forcing those assessment systems in the opposite direction.


Romeis, Jörg; Bartsch, Detlef; Bigler, Franz; Candolfi, Marco P; Gielkens, Marco M C; et al. (2008) Assessment of risk of insect-resistant transgenic crops to nontarget arthropodsNature Biotechnology; 26: 203-8.
Andreas Lang, Éva Lauber & Béla Darvas (2007) Early-tier tests insufficient for GMO risk assessmentNature Biotechnology 25: 35 – 36 doi:10.1038/nbt0107-35

2665. The Immense, Eternal Footprint Humanity Leaves on Earth: Plastics

By Tatiana Schlossberg, The New York Times, July 19, 2017
13 metric million tons of plastics enter the oceans each year.
If human civilization were to be destroyed and its cities wiped off the map, there would be an easy way for future intelligent life-forms to know when the mid-20th century began: plastic.

From the 1950s to today, 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been produced, with around half of it made since 2004. And since plastic does not naturally degrade, the billions of tons sitting in landfills, floating in the oceans or piling up on city streets will provide a marker if later civilizations ever want to classify our era. Perhaps they will call this time on Earth the Plastocene Epoch.

new study in Science Advances published Wednesday offered the first analysis of all mass-produced plastics ever manufactured: how much has been made, what kind and what happens to the material once it has outlived its use.

Roland Geyer, the lead author of the study, said, “My mantra is that you can’t manage what you don’t measure, and without good numbers, you don’t know if we have a real problem.”
The authors, who come from the University of California, Santa Barbara, the University of Georgia and the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole, Mass., used plastic production data from a variety of sources to make their estimates.

Their findings suggest that staggering amounts of near-eternal litter is present in the environment — the oceans, landfills and freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems — and the numbers are quite likely to increase, with 12 billion metric tons accumulating in landfills or in the environment by 2050. (One metric ton is 1.1 short tons, the measure more commonly used in the United States.)

Scientists estimate that five million to 13 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean each year, according to previous studies. New data suggests contamination in rivers and streams, as well as on land, is increasingly common, with most of the pollution in the form of microscopic pieces of synthetic fiberslargely from clothing.

The primary explanation for the rocketing rise in plastic is its use in packaging, which accounted for about 42 percent of nonfiber plastic production in 2015. Building and construction is the next largest plastic-consuming sector; it used 19 percent of nonfiber plastic that year.

The authors estimate that packaging, which is typically used for less than a year, made up 54 percent of the nonfiber plastic that was thrown away in 2015.

Most of the plastic that has been made is no longer in use — about 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been thrown away since 1950. About 12 percent of that has been incinerated, which is the only way to permanently dispose of plastic; 9 percent has been recycled, which only delays final disposal; and 60 percent — about 4.9 billion metric tons — is in landfills or scattered in the environment.

In Europe, 30 percent of nonfiber plastic is recycled, compared to 9 percent in the United States. Europe also burns more plastic — about 40 percent of its nonfiber plastic waste — while the U.S. incinerates around 16 percent. China recycles about 25 percent and burns about 30 percent of its plastic waste. The authors estimate that recycling, disposal and incineration rates in the rest of the world are probably similar to those in the United States.
Dr. Geyer cautioned that recycling was not a cure-all for global plastic pollution. He said the sole benefit of recycling was to reduce the amount of new plastic being produced, adding, “We don’t understand very well the extent to which recycling reduces primary production.”

The features that have made plastic so important in the global market are the same ones that make it such a pervasive pollutant: durability and resistance to degradation.

Dr. Geyer said there was not enough information on what the long-term consequences of all this plastic and its disposal would be. “It accumulates so quickly now and it doesn’t biodegrade, so it just gets added to what’s already there.”

“Once we start looking, I think we’ll find all sorts of unintended consequences,” he added. “I’d be very surprised to find out that it is a purely aesthetic problem.”

Monday, July 17, 2017

2664. Mary Oliver on Creative Life

By Maria Popova, Brain pickings, October 12, 2016

“In the wholeheartedness of concentration,” the poet Jane Hirshfield wrote in her beautiful inquiry into the effortless effort of creativity“world and self begin to cohere. With that state comes an enlarging: of what may be known, what may be felt, what may be done.” But concentration is indeed a difficult art, art’s art, and its difficulty lies in the constant conciliation of the dissonance between self and world — a difficulty hardly singular to the particular conditions of our time. Two hundred years before social media, the great French artist Eugène Delacroix lamented the necessary torment of avoiding social distractions in creative work; a century and a half later, Agnes Martin admonished aspiring artists to exercise discernment in the interruptions they allow, or else corrupt the mental, emotional, and spiritual privacy where inspiration arises.
But just as self-criticism is the most merciless kind of criticism and self-compassion the most elusive kind of compassion, self-distraction is the most hazardous kind of distraction, and the most difficult to protect creative work against.
How to hedge against that hazard is what beloved poet Mary Oliver (b. September 10, 1935) explores in a wonderful piece titled “Of Power and Time,” found in the altogether enchanting Upstream: Selected Essays (public library).

Mary Oliver
Mary Oliver

Oliver writes:
It is a silver morning like any other. I am at my desk. Then the phone rings, or someone raps at the door. I am deep in the machinery of my wits. Reluctantly I rise, I answer the phone or I open the door. And the thought which I had in hand, or almost in hand, is gone. Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once. Privacy, then. A place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.
But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation. And what does it have to say? That you must phone the dentist, that you are out of mustard, that your uncle Stanley’s birthday is two weeks hence. You react, of course. Then you return to your work, only to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the mist.
Oliver terms this the “intimate interrupter” and cautions that it is far more perilous to creative work than any external distraction, adding:
The world sheds, in the energetic way of an open and communal place, its many greetings, as a world should. What quarrel can there be with that? But that the self can interrupt the self — and does — is a darker and more curious matter.
Echoing Borges’s puzzlement over our divided personhood, Oliver sets out to excavate the building blocks of the self in order to understand its parallel capacities for focused creative flow and merciless interruption. She identifies three primary selves that she inhabits, and that inhabit her, as they do all of us: the childhood self, which we spend our lives trying to weave into the continuity of our personal identity (“The child I was,” she writes, “is with me in the present hour. It will be with me in the grave.”); the social self, “fettered to a thousand notions of obligation”; and a third self, a sort of otherworldly awareness.
The first two selves, she argues, inhabit the ordinary world and are present in all people; the third is of a different order and comes most easily alive in artists — it is where the wellspring of creative energy resides. She writes:
Certainly there is within each of us a self that is neither a child, nor a servant of the hours. It is a third self, occasional in some of us, tyrant in others. This self is out of love with the ordinary; it is out of love with time. It has a hunger for eternity.

Art by Maurice Sendak for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

Oliver contrasts the existential purpose of the two ordinary selves with that of the creative self:
Say you have bought a ticket on an airplane and you intend to fly from New York to San Francisco. What do you ask of the pilot when you climb aboard and take your seat next to the little window, which you cannot open but through which you see the dizzying heights to which you are lifted from the secure and friendly earth?
Most assuredly you want the pilot to be his regular and ordinary self. You want him to approach and undertake his work with no more than a calm pleasure. You want nothing fancy, nothing new. You ask him to do, routinely, what he knows how to do — fly an airplane. You hope he will not daydream. You hope he will not drift into some interesting meander of thought. You want this flight to be ordinary, not extraordinary. So, too, with the surgeon, and the ambulance driver, and the captain of the ship. Let all of them work, as ordinarily they do, in confident familiarity with whatever the work requires, and no more. Their ordinariness is the surety of the world. Their ordinariness makes the world go round.
In creative work — creative work of all kinds — those who are the world’s working artists are not trying to help the world go around, but forward. Which is something altogether different from the ordinary. Such work does not refute the ordinary. It is, simply, something else. Its labor requires a different outlook — a different set of priorities.
Part of this something-elseness, Oliver argues, is the uncommon integration of the creative self — the artist’s work cannot be separated from the artist’s whole life, nor can its wholeness be broken down into the mechanical bits-and-pieces of specific actions and habits. (Elsewhere, Oliver has written beautifully about how habit gives shape to but must not control our inner lives).
Echoing Keats’s notion of negative capability,” Dani Shapiro’s insistence that the artist’s task is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it,” and Georgia O’Keeffe’s counsel that as an artist you ought to be keeping the unknown always beyond you,” Oliver considers the central commitment of the creative life — that of making uncertainty and the unknown the raw material of art:
Intellectual work sometimes, spiritual work certainly, artistic work always — these are forces that fall within its grasp, forces that must travel beyond the realm of the hour and the restraint of the habit. Nor can the actual work be well separated from the entire life. Like the knights of the Middle Ages, there is little the creatively inclined person can do but to prepare himself, body and spirit, for the labor to come — for his adventures are all unknown. In truth, the work itself is the adventure. And no artist could go about this work, or would want to, with less than extraordinary energy and concentration. The extraordinary is what art is about.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Van Gogh’s spirited letter on risk-taking and how inspired mistakes move us forward, Oliver returns to the question of the conditions that coax the creative self into being:
No one yet has made a list of places where the extraordinary may happen and where it may not. Still, there are indications. Among crowds, in drawing rooms, among easements and comforts and pleasures, it is seldom seen. It likes the out-of-doors. It likes the concentrating mind. It likes solitude. It is more likely to stick to the risk-taker than the ticket-taker. It isn’t that it would disparage comforts, or the set routines of the world, but that its concern is directed to another place. Its concern is the edge, and the making of a form out of the formlessness that is beyond the edge.
Above all, Oliver observes from the fortunate platform of a long, purposeful, and creatively fertile life, the artist’s task is one of steadfast commitment to the art:
Of this there can be no question — creative work requires a loyalty as complete as the loyalty of water to the force of gravity. A person trudging through the wilderness of creation who does not know this — who does not swallow this — is lost. He who does not crave that roofless place eternity should stay at home. Such a person is perfectly worthy, and useful, and even beautiful, but is not an artist. Such a person had better live with timely ambitions and finished work formed for the sparkle of the moment only. Such a person had better go off and fly an airplane.
She returns to the problem of concentration, which for the artist is a form, perhaps the ultimate form, of consecration:
The working, concentrating artist is an adult who refuses interruption from himself, who remains absorbed and energized in and by the work — who is thus responsible to the work… Serious interruptions to work, therefore, are never the inopportune, cheerful, even loving interruptions which come to us from another.
It is six A.M., and I am working. I am absentminded, reckless, heedless of social obligations, etc. It is as it must be. The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard. The poem gets written. I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame. Neither do I have guilt. My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely. It does not include mustard, or teeth. It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot. My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive. If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.
There is no other way work of artistic worth can be done. And the occasional success, to the striver, is worth everything. The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.
Upstream is a tremendously vitalizing read in its totality, grounding and elevating at the same time. Complement it with Oliver on love and its necessary wildnesswhat attention really means, and the measure of a life well lived, then revisit Jane Hirshfield on the difficult art of concentration.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

2663. The Government Is Now the Yellowstone Grizzly’s Biggest Threat

By Thomas McNamee, The New York Times, July 14, 2017

In March 2016, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service proposed removing the Yellowstone grizzly bear population from the list of threatened species. The uproar was ferocious. Conservationists, scientists, 125 Indian tribes and some 650,000 citizens expressed concern about the move.

Now the government has gone and done it anyway.

Why? Because, foremost, the service’s biologists and administrators believe that the population has recovered to self-sustainability. And it has in fact grown a lot since 1984, the year I published “The Grizzly Bear,” when mother bears numbered in the low 30s — the brink of extirpation. The Department of the Interior now claims that “an estimated 700” grizzlies inhabit the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem — a vast wildlands centered on the world’s first national park but also including Grand Teton National Park, portions of six national forests, three national wildlife refuges and other federal, state, private and Indian lands.

A true recovery could be the greatest triumph yet for the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which is itself politically endangered. The states surrounding Yellowstone National Park — Idaho, Montana and Wyoming — have been pressing for the delisting for years, so that they can assume management of the bears outside the boundaries of the Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks. All three states plan to issue hunting licenses, which would be few in number but a major victory in the culture wars of the mountain West.

This is not the first time the feds have tried to delist the Yellowstone grizzly. They did it in 2007 and were met with a barrage of legal fire from conservation groups, which won in court and again on appeal. The court restored the bear to full protection in 2009, with a stinging rebuke of the government’s scientific claims.

So is it a true recovery this time? Nearly all conservation biologists outside government say that an absolute recovery will never be possible for the Yellowstone grizzly population.
The Yellowstone grizzly’s food system is collapsing. One of the bears’ most important sources of nutrition has been the seeds of the whitebark pine, but the tree is under a double attack.

The native mountain pine beetle has historically been kept in check by periodic deep freezes, but there haven’t been any of those for years now, and this beetle has been killing pine species throughout the Rocky Mountains. The other attacker is the nonnative white pine blister rust, a deadly fungus that attacks the stems of the trees. More than 80 percent of the whitebarks are now dead or dying in the Greater Yellowstone region.

Until recent years, early each summer there were vast runs of spawning cutthroat trout up the tributaries of Yellowstone Lake — a high-fat feast for grizzlies. Since the illegal introduction in the 1980s of nonnative lake trout, however, which feed on juvenile cutthroats, the spawning runs are down by 90 percent.

A little-known but significant food source is an annual aggregation of army cutworm moths at high altitude in the Absaroka Mountains. One bear can eat up to 40,000 moths — 20,000 calories’ worth — in one day. The moths depend on moist microhabitats that are drying as summers continue to warm.

A less well understood but equally grave danger is that Yellowstone grizzlies live on what is effectively an island, its surrounding “sea” being devoid of grizzlies in all directions. Island populations are subject to inbreeding and hence lowered reproduction rates, and grizzlies are among the least fecund of mammals to start with. When island populations fall into reproductive decline, there are no adjacent populations to resupply them.

Many of the thousands of public comments on delisting have focused on the renewal of hunting. Very few people can stomach the image of a grizzly bear shot down — somehow it’s not like an elk or a deer. Management by the states is supposed to be rigorously overseen by the federal authorities, and over-hunting would seem to be unlikely under the proposed guidelines. Yet pursued by even a small number of hunters, Greater Yellowstone’s grizzlies would become much less visible for the millions of visitors who want only to see one.

Because they’re so hard to find in any case, grizzly bears are formidably hard to count, and a number of eminent scientists reject the government’s population claims. David Mattson, a recently retired visiting senior research scientist at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, maintains that the population has “grown very little if at all during the last decade. Most of the claimed increase is an artifact of changes in method” of counting, “a fact often obfuscated by the agencies promoting delisting. And the population has been declining for at least three years.”

The only way Yellowstone’s grizzly bears can be expected to thrive in the long run is for their ecosystem to be connected by a corridor of occupied habitat to other grizzly populations — the one centered in Glacier National Park to the north and others up the Rocky Mountain chain to Alaska. That’s still possible, if grizzly hunting remains forbidden and the connecting lands are safeguarded in perpetuity against incursion and development, which they are not today.

Classification of the Yellowstone grizzly as a threatened species is set to expire at the end of July unless the courts step in again. Taking away federal protection now — with the bears’ food sources plunging and their ecosystem isolated — is an act of either deceit or folly.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

2662. Audubon Society Report: Water and Birds in the Arid West: Habitats in Decline

By National Audobon Society, July 5, 2017

Executive Summary

Water is the most precious resource in the West—for people, birds, and other wildlife. Riparian habitats like the forests and wetlands that line the Colorado River support some of the most abundant and diverse bird communities in the arid West, serving as home to some 400 species. The Colorado River also provides drinking water for more than 36 million people, irrigates 5.5 million acres of farms and ranches, and supports 16 million jobs throughout seven states—with an annual economic impact of $1.4 trillion. But dams, diversions, drought, and water demand are triggering declines in cottonwood-willow forests and other native river habitat. Saline lakes—landlocked saltwater lakes fringed with wetlands found throughout the Intermountain West—are beacons for millions of birds crossing an otherwise arid landscape. However, these lakes are shrinking and in some cases nearly disappearing. In short, precipitous declines in western water quantity and quality are exacting a toll on health, prosperity, and quality of life for rural and urban communities—and putting birds and wildlife at jeopardy.
Water and Birds in the Arid West: Habitats in Decline represents the first comprehensive assessment of the complex and vital relationships that exist among birds, water, and climate change in the region. Our research focused on two of the most imperiled and irreplaceable western ecosystems: 1) the Colorado River Basin; and 2) the West’s network of saline lakes—including the Great Salt Lake and Salton Sea as well as other smaller but vitally important lakes. Audubon science staff collaborated with outside experts in hydrology, water chemistry, and ecotoxicology, as well as ornithology, in an extensive review of the scientific literature on birds, water, and climate change in the region, with a particular focus on eight western states: Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming. In addition, we synthesized regional bird data from a number of sources to assess impacts on birds in the region, and convened avian experts to deepen our shared understanding of the migratory movement of shorebirds and waterbirds among western saline lakes.   

Research Objectives:
  • Increase our understanding of how the decline of riparian habitat in the Colorado River Basin and at saline lakes is impacting birds
  • Assess the status of key western bird species representative of multiple species that depend on riparian and saline lake habitat
  • Analyze impacts and threats to these species’ habitat posed by lack of available water and the anticipated effects of climate change
  • Provide recommendations for water management policy priorities and practices and future science research
Click here to view a PDF version of this summary, including a foreward by David O’Neill, Audubon's Chief Conservation Officer and Senior Advisor to the CEO. Click here to view a PDF of the full report. Have questions? Click here to read the FAQ.

Map of Water Assets and IBAs in Western US
Western Water Priority Landscapes: A map of the rivers, saline lakes, Important Bird Areas (red stars) and Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network sites (yellow stars) of the western United States.

Riparian Systems of the Colorado River Basin
Although riparian zones account for less than 5 percent of the southwestern landscape, they support over 40 percent of all bird species found in the region and over 50 percent of breeding bird species. These include at least 400 species along the lower Colorado River. If current western water trends continue and are compounded by climate change, many bird species face diminished and degraded habitat and an uncertain future.

Key Findings:
  • Native riparian trees and shrubs such as cottonwood-willow ecosystems that provide productive habitat for birds and other wildlife are disappearing as a result of water development—including damming, flow regulation, surface water diversion, and groundwater pumping.
  • Hydrology changes have also spurred the spread of non-native plants, particularly saltcedar, throughout the Colorado River Basin—reducing biodiversity and the number and variety of birds in many riparian habitats.
  • Populations of the following breeding birds, once common along the Colorado River, have experienced significant regional declines: Bell’s Vireo, Yellow Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, and Summer Tanager.
  • Three species—Yuma Ridgway’s Rail, Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo, and Southwestern Willow Flycatcher—are now listed as federally threatened or endangered, and at risk of extinction if current trends continue.
  • Climate change is projected to exacerbate habitat declines across the basin, reducing water supply, raising temperatures and aridity, and disrupting phenology—the timing of seasonal natural phenomena such as spring floods, plant flowering, and insect hatching.

The Colorado River Basin: How Reduced Flows Impact Birds and Habitat

Water levels in Colorado River over time
Time series of average annual peak flows in the Lower Colorado River and Colorado Headwaters sub-basins over the past century. Both sub-basins show a sharp decline in the magnitude and variability of peak flows over the past century, concurrent with increasing hydrologic modi cations within the Colorado River Basin. Text boxes depict construction of major dams (blue), notable changes in vegetation (green), and federal listing of threatened and endangered species (red) that relate to the lower Colorado River as a case study of change. Peak flow data are from the National Water Information System (USGS 2016b).

Success Story: Bringing a Desiccated Delta Back To Life

Photo: EcoFlight

The 2014 Colorado River pulse flow taught us just how resilient habitat can be. For nearly two decades, the river had failed to reach the sea. But in 2014, billions of gallons of water flowed for three weeks to its long-dry delta as part of the agreement between the U.S. and Mexico. The Colorado River “pulse flow” proved that a limited return of water can have immediate impacts on even on the most desiccated of landscapes, providing a scientific argument for continued work in this area. A 2016 International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) report on the pulse flow describes the results: newly germinated plants and increases in bird diversity and abundance. Further studies will help demonstrate if these encouraging developments will hold.

Saline Lakes and Wetlands of the West
We focused our analysis on the nine western saline lakes with the greatest importance for birds. More than half of these have shrunk by 50 to 95 percent over the past 150 years. However, despite widespread awareness of the importance of water—and concern about adequate western water supply—much of the available research on saline lakes and birds was focused on individual lakes. By bringing these isolated studies together, we were able to better understand how birds “use” the widely dispersed lakes and wetlands as an interconnected network of habitats. No other linked ecosystems in the Intermountain West can meet these species’ requirements—and because shorebirds and waterbirds congregate in large numbers at major lakes, they are particularly vulnerable to habitat loss.

Key Findings:
  • Collectively, saline lakes in the West support global populations of birds, including over 99 percent of the North American population of Eared Grebes, up to 90 percent of Wilson’s Phalaropes, and over 50 percent of American Avocets.
  • Saline lakes are critically important to migratory shorebird species, whose populations have declined nearly 70 percent since 1973.
  • Water levels in saline lakes have declined dramatically in the last 100+ years due to draining, diversions of inflows, and lake and groundwater extraction.
  • Lower water levels have increased lake salinity, altering food webs and reducing invertebrate food sources for migrating and resident shorebirds and waterbirds.
  • Drier conditions under climate change will exacerbate the impacts of water diversion on saline lakes by decreasing freshwater inflows.

Saline Lakes: a Critical Web for Waterbirds, Waterfowl, and Shorebirds

Data visualization: Katie Peek

Success Story: Owens Lake

Photo: Kim Davies/Flickr CC (BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Work initiated by Audubon and partners two decades ago demonstrates how science-based planning can restore vital bird habitat, even with limited water. By directing relatively small amounts of water to southern California’s saline Owens Lake, we were able to create an array of distinct bird habitats. This experiment in habitat restoration was a resounding success: in a recent spring count, 115,000 birds—including 20 different shorebird species—were tallied.

Approaches to western water that protect the needs of birds and wildlife as well as people are possible, but only if stakeholders align good outcomes for water-dependent habitats with solutions that decrease shortage risks for people. Ultimately, the challenge is to find sustainable ways for people and birds to use water and co-exist in the West. That is where Audubon—and this report—comes in. By providing a clear, credible assessment of the importance of sound western water management for birds and habitat, we can mobilize the Audubon network of members, chapters, and others who love birds around balanced water solutions. The following recommendations provide a springboard for conservation action; they also lay the foundation for further research and the development of innovative water management solutions. 

  • Identify and support balanced solutions and water policies at the local, state, and federal levels that avoid depleting water supplies for rivers, lakes, and wetlands and associated habitats
  • Engage with water users, policy-makers and community leaders to collectively improve understanding of the importance of finding solutions that work for people and birds 
  • Train and mobilize the Audubon network on behalf of creative, sensible water solutions and policies
  • Increase public and private investment in water conservation, habitat restoration, and research
  • Secure voluntary water-sharing agreements, including market-based solutions, and encourage flexible water management practices to improve water flows for habitats
  • Leverage our science to develop and implement management plans that factor in habitat needs and restoration of native vegetation
  • Advance scientific understanding of bird populations and habitat linkages across western landscapes through additional research, field study, and monitoring
  • Use climate change and connectivity modeling to prioritize conservation and restoration
  • Foster greater dialogue and action to reduce global climate change and its impacts on water availability


Water management practices that fail to take into account ecosystem health and the impacts of climate change are the greatest threats to birds that rely on the Colorado River Basin and western saline lakes. It is our hope that the findings and recommendations in this report will play a vital and much-needed role in shaping the future of water in the West. Decisions about water allocation and management are being made now: cities, states, and even countries are coming to the table to develop water solutions. The challenges we face on the Colorado River and across saline lakes are significant. However, this does not mean there is not enough water to go around. There is. We need a new phase of collaboration, innovation, and flexibility when it comes to how we use, share, and manage water, coupled with investments in water conservation, improved infrastructure, and habitat restoration. Solving these water management challenges will enable the people, birds, and wildlife of the arid West to thrive together—now and into the future.

Click here to view a PDF version of this summary, including a foreward by David O’Neill, Audubon's Chief Conservation Officer and Senior Advisor to the CEO. Click here to view a PDF of the full report. Have questions? Click here to read the FAQ.