policy

Bird flu is back in the U.S. - PART II

Avian influenza samples awaiting testing: A photo from my visit to the USGS National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, WI, in September 2015. Continued monitoring of wildlife and poultry is important now more than ever in light of the news of this recent outbreak.  Credit: Erica Cirino

Avian influenza samples awaiting testing: A photo from my visit to the USGS National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, WI, in September 2015. Continued monitoring of wildlife and poultry is important now more than ever in light of the news of this recent outbreak.

Credit: Erica Cirino

Since Friday, which is when I broke the news that a new case of lethal avian influenza had hit the U.S. in the first time in about seven months, nine new cases of the low-pathogenic version of that virus have been confirmed.

All 10 of these new cases are (for now) isolated to farms in Dubois County, Indiana, the state’s most productive turkey- and egg-producing region.

According to the Indiana Board of Animal Health, the state agency in charge of monitoring the outbreak, birds on nine commercial turkey farms and in one egg-laying facility have tested positive for the H7 strain of avian influenza--which was found to be highly pathogenic on that first farm. So, in accordance with federal and state animal health regulations, all of these birds will all have to be euthanized. An 11th farm, a commercial egg-laying facility, hasn’t tested positive for avian influenza, but is located in close proximity to an infected farm. So its birds will be euthanized as a precaution.

In all, on these 11 farms more than 400,000 egg-laying hens and turkeys will be euthanized to prevent the spread of avian influenza to other farms in the region. Euthanasia also prevents avian influenza from spreading into the environment, where wild migratory birds can pick up the virus and carry it elsewhere.

In addition, a quarantine area has been set up around Dubois and surrounding counties, which restricts the movement of animals, equipment, workers and vehicles between farms. Besides euthanasia of birds on infected and possibly infected farms, quarantine is another measure that can help prevent the spread of disease.

Currently, H7N8 is not known to infect humans or other animals. However, like all flu viruses, H7N8 can mutate readily, meaning human infection is not out of the question. That the first case was highly pathogenic suggests that the low pathogenic strains found on the other nine farms likely already underwent mutation. Strains belonging to the same H7 group as the H7N8 avian influenza strain that’s now in the U.S. has been known to sicken people in other countries.

The 2014-2015 outbreak led to the combined death and euthanasia of more than 48 million chickens, turkeys and other fowl, increasing egg prices, causing egg shortages and hurting U.S. poultry farmers’ bottom lines. While no one got sick, in order to prevent similar economic devastation and possible human infection, federal farm and health officials continue to research the virus and conduct routine sampling of both poultry and wild birds across the country.

The federal government is also working to stockpile up to 500 million doses of avian influenza vaccines that would be distributed to U.S. farmers if a major outbreak were to grow out of these 10 confirmed cases.

That first farm diagnosed in this most recent outbreak belongs to Farbest Foods, Inc. Earlier this month, Farbest Farms had reported an unusual amount of turkey deaths to the Indiana Board of Animal Health. Tests done by the Indiana Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory at Purdue University and USDA-APHIS National Veterinary Laboratory in Ames, Iowa, subsequently confirmed that the deceased turkeys had contracted the lethal virus.

Avian influenza is a disease I learned quite a lot about over the past six months. Consequently my interest in avian influenza has led me to closely monitor the news and social media for new cases.

It’s a borderline addiction at this point, I’d say. Which is good for you in the sense that you can rely on me to deliver you the most up-to-date info on any new developments. For me it means staying connected to my sources—wildlife experts, farmers and public health officials—and keeping a vigilant eye on my news and Twitter feeds.

It's hard to predict what will happen next. Stay tuned!

What's green infrastructure, and why should you care?

Natural wetland at Sunken Meadow State Park, Kings Park, (Long Island) N.Y. Credit: Erica Cirino, January 2016

Natural wetland at Sunken Meadow State Park, Kings Park, (Long Island) N.Y. Credit: Erica Cirino, January 2016

Recently, I pursued an environmental story for a Long Island paper that was refreshingly unlike most environmental news news today: hopeful and positive. 

In short, the story details the approval of grant money awarded by various pro-environmental groups and environmental management agencies to the Town of Huntington to install and implement a "green infrastructure" project. While reviewing the official documents and doing my interviews, I started thinking hard about green infrastructure and its place in today's overly polluted world.

If you're unfamiliar with infrastructure, much less green infrastructure, here are two basic things you should know:

  1. Infrastructure, in the physical sense, is defined as the basic structures and equipment needed for everyday life to function in a given place or region. For instance, roads and bridges are an example of infrastructure. Since they are made of manmade materials, they are considered “gray” infrastructure.
  2. Green infrastructure then, is infrastructure made of natural materials and is engineered in a way that closely mimics that which is natural. Green infrastructure projects include preserving wetlands, which naturally filter water, instead of building wastewater treatment plants, and restoring floodplains instead building levees in flood-prone areas.

So why should you care about green infrastructure? Green infrastructure takes advantage of the environment’s natural abilities to preserve ecosystems, as well as provide a sustainable supply of natural resources, especially clean water. The key word there is “sustainable.” Think of how often wastewater treatment plants need to be repaired, replaced or overhauled. 

Wetlands are extremely productive ecosystems chock full of microbes, wildlife—importantly, insects, shellfish and fish—that help cycle water, nitrogen and sulfur. Many of these organisms are “bioremediators," meaning they’re able to naturally remediate polluted environments by breaking down toxic materials into less or non-toxic materials. For example, "phytoremediators" include cattails and other reedy plants that can pull heavy metals out of water and soil, leaving behind a much less toxic environment. Thick sandy soils are bioremediators because they naturally filter hydrocarbons out of water contaminated by gasoline or oil.

In suburban and urban areas (usually more so than rural areas), pollution is a persistent environmental problem. Gray infrastructure like roads and bridges and pipes easily transport pollutants—from petroleum to manufacturing chemicals to fertilizers—into groundwater and surface waters such as lakes, bays and rivers. Shoring up green infrastructure and replacing some gray infrastructure with green infrastructure can go a long way in making for a less toxic environment. 

Rain garden in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Rain gardens--gardens filled with native plants in permeable soils--can go a long way in filtering pollutants out of stormwater runoff before it enters the water table. Credit: Brian Ash (Wikimedia)

Rain garden in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Rain gardens--gardens filled with native plants in permeable soils--can go a long way in filtering pollutants out of stormwater runoff before it enters the water table. Credit: Brian Ash (Wikimedia)

Green infrastructure can be implemented on virtually any scale—from private households to public buildings to sprawling municipal zones. Examples include:

So this brings me back to my local news story. As a lifelong Long Island resident, over my 23 years I’ve become well-versed in my home region’s contamination and environmental problems. I’ve seen and experienced the pollution firsthand. That’s why I’m especially excited to report on a new project slated for Centerport Beach, meant to help improve water quality in Northport Bay (currently home to a lot of dirty stormwater runoff, wastewater effluent and other unpleasant-sounding substances). Northport Bay routinely has beach closures after heavy rains because so much pollution runs off into it—causing dangerous algal blooms and other toxic water problems, and harming the health of people, wildlife and pets. This problem is widespread among communities on and around the Long Island Sound—and elsewhere in the nation (check out the water situation unfolding in Flint, Michigan).

This year the Long Island Sound Futures Fund extended 22 grants to various communities along the Long Island Sound so that these communities can implement water-remediation projects, many of which incorporate green infrastructure….

Well I don’t want to spoil the story, so I ask you pick up a copy of this week’s Northport Observer and look for my byline. :)

From an environmental/journalistic perspective, I have a balanced view: Projects like these are positive progress, but there is much, much more left for us to do. Clean water shouldn’t be a luxury. People shouldn’t have to worry about getting sick from drinking or swimming in contaminated water. Green infrastructure has a lot of potential as an affordable, sustainable way to help remediate, preserve and protect the environment, and should be seriously considered as a fundamental part of building policy in communities across the nation, and world.


Lingering thoughts:

  • What are your ideas about green infrastructure?
  • Which green infrastructure project grants awarded by the Long Island Sound Futures Fund do you think will be most beneficial to Long Island Sound communities?
  • What green infrastructure projects do you want to see in your community?

My top 5 wildlife stories of 2015

2015 was a year for new marine sanctuaries, protections for hunted wildlife, help for bees, and much, much more. Credit: Erica Cirino

2015 was a year for new marine sanctuaries, protections for hunted wildlife, help for bees, and much, much more. Credit: Erica Cirino

December 31, 2015: Again we are at the end of another year, a time for reflection and resolutions—and countdown lists.

Like New Year’s goals, these lists are an inevitable part of crossing from one year into the next, at least in the journalism world.  As an environmental and science writer, I’ve spent much of the year reviewing stories in these two fields, particularly stories in my area of specialty, wildlife.

There are many reasons why I choose to write about the wild creatures that call this planet home: They are living relics of nature in a world quick to embrace and employ technology. They have incredible power to change entire ecosystems, and yet can be extremely vulnerable to changes in their habitat. And, perhaps most important to me, they are simply amazing to study and observe.

So, in the spirit of the New Year, I bring to you my top 5 wildlife stories of 2015:

5. U.S. creates plan to protect pollinators

The use of modern pesticides, namely, neonicotinoids, as well as climate change, viruses and habitat loss are resulting in the tremendous loss of bees. Recognizing these dangers to bee health—and thus U.S. crops—in May the Obama administration announced a plan to help cut honeybee losses down to no more than 15 percent per year, by 2025.

The plan also protects other pollinators, like butterflies, through initiatives such as public education, expanding/preserving pollinator habitat and studying pollinators more closely.

4. New ocean sanctuaries established

While fishing, ocean acidification and rising water temperatures still pose significant threats to the health and safety of marine wildlife, several important new marine sanctuaries meant to protect these creatures were established this year. This includes one of the world’s first marine protected area for sharks and rays, located in the Philippines. Other marine sanctuaries were established off the coast of Maryland and in Lake Michigan, as well as an enormous marine sanctuary around the islands of Palau.

3. Pioneering research studies crow cognizance

Wildlife scientists long knew crows were smart, and have observed them using tools (mainly designed to find and consume food) in the laboratory setting. But in a recently published paper two scientists describe how they caught crows making and using tools in the wild—and caught it all on camera. It’s the first instance of tool- making and use being observed in crows outside the laboratory setting.

2.  U.S. and China promise to end the ivory trade

With elephant and other wildlife poaching causing major species losses, U.S. President Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping this year announced they would work together to stop the sale and trade of all commercial ivory.

The U.S. already has almost a complete ban on commercial ivory and some individual states have enacted or proposed even stricter laws. What makes this plan so momentous is that China’s involvement in the agreement is a new turn for the country, which historically helped enable the ivory trade to thrive.

1. U.S. restricts trophy hunting six months after death of Cecil the lion

Six months after Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer caused a global uproar with his killing of Cecil the lion, a well known male lion in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made changes to the Endangered Species Act that would make it harder to bring lions, dead or alive, into the country.

The changes create two lion subspecies listed under the act: lions from India, West and Central Africa; and lions from East and Southern Africa. The former group, with a population of about 1,400 would be listed as endangered, while the latter, with a population of about 17,000, would be classified as threatened.

Those importing endangered lions would need to receive a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service after it’s approved the importation will benefit lion conservation efforts. To bring threatened lions into the U.S., hunters would need to secure permits from countries with a “scientifically sound” approach to lion management—in other words, that they do not endorse the so-called “canned hunting” and hunting-for-profit methods associated with the death of Cecil.

The changes also make it more difficult for trophy hunters convicted of wildlife law violations to import lion trophies.

Let’s hope for positive progress in wildlife science and conservation in 2016!


Lingering thoughts:

  • What new legislation or rules benefitting wildlife would you like to see in 2016?
  • What are your top 5 wildlife stories of 2015?
  • What wild animals do you think are most in need of conservation help?