All Hallows’ Eve is upon us. Soon, the streets will be full of wizards and witches conjuring spells, princesses and princes fighting dragons, and space rangers soaring to infinity and beyond. The revelers roam freely in our neighborhoods, trick-or-treating. Most Halloween icons are the stuff of fantasy; some are not. As conservationists, we know the reality for many of the real creatures we celebrate at Halloween is gloomy. As our autumnal festival approaches, three of its winged icons face more tricks than treats.
Take bats, for example. Around the world, bat species are taking a dive. There are more than a thousand bat species and 15 percent are at risk of extinction. Even more disturbing is the rate at which some species are being lost. Until recently, bats were the most common mammals in the northeastern United States. Millions have died in the past five years. What are the threats facing bats, who save farmers millions of dollars a year by eating pest insects? Just last week, the premier scientific journal Nature confirmed that a new fungal disease, white-nose syndrome, is killing hibernating bats in caves, driving the most common species, particularly the little brown bat, from great abundance to severe endangerment in just a few years. It appears that wind turbines, despite their great value in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, are the equivalent of bat food processors, with an estimate of hundreds of thousands of bats killed annually (it’s not the blades; it’s the pressure drop of their movement that explodes bat lungs!). Trick!
Vultures worldwide face just as many dangers. Vultures are essentially recyclers of carcasses. In so doing, they limit the spread of disease. But their very focus on finding and consuming large animal carcasses has put them in harm’s way. Across South Asia, anti-inflammatory drugs given to cattle persist in cattle carcasses and act as a deadly poison to many species of vultures. In India, vulture populations have suffered an astonishing 99 percent decline. In Africa, carcasses are poisoned by villagers targeting lions and hyenas, and there, too, vultures are suffering from poisoned carcasses.
In the United States, while some species like Turkey Vultures are thriving, others are threatened by a slower acting, but equally fatal, kind of carcass poisoning. Hunters may injure, but not kill, deer and elk. The animals that escape the hunter, but not death, are riddled with lead shot. When vultures and condors consume these carcasses, the ingested lead poisons them over time. This problem continues to hamper expensive efforts to recover populations of the majestic, and highly endangered, California condor. More unfortunate tricks for wildlife.
Finally, some owls – particularly the well-known spotted owl of western old-growth forests – now confront a new risk. Thirty years after timber management in the West was reshaped by the alarming decline of the spotted owl, a new problem is pushing this owl to the brink: an invasion by its near-relative, the barred owl, via the northern forests of Canada. The barred owl is aggressively displacing remaining spotted owls from their territories. Trick, again! Who gives a hoot? We do – loss of the spotted owl is a harbinger of future deterioration of old growth forests in the Pacific Northwest, the species they harbor, and the services they provide.
Just as our annual Halloween ritual always ends with our children receiving candy and other goodies, the time has come to give the winged icons of this ghoulish evening a few treats of their own to ensure they, too, do not become the stuff of fantasy. We can find solutions to the conservation challenges facing bats, vultures and owls. We need to identify and eliminate new disease risks for wildlife that are becoming more common, remove poisons (intentional and unintentional) from our environment, ensure protection of critical habitat and the ability to adapt to changing environments, and most importantly, remain committed to wildlife conservation in changing times. The biggest trick is to get engaged soon before it’s too late.
Joshua Ginsberg is Senior Vice President, Global Conservation Program WCS
Steve Zack is Coordinator, Bird Conservation WCS