Grizzly Bear
Yellowstone’s grizzly bear population has bounced back from dangerously low numbers since the mid-1970s, but environmentalists think the iconic predator of the American West still needs federal protections to be “out of the woods.” Credit: Nathan Rupert, FlickrCC.

Dear EarthTalk: Is the federal government’s decision to take Yellowstone’s grizzlies off of the endangered species list good news or bad news for the iconic bear? — Jeffrey Elder, Los Angeles, CA

It depends who you ask. The majority of environmental and wildlife advocates would prefer to keep endangered species protections in place for Yellowstone’s grizzlies, which they consider to be still at risk. Meanwhile, many ranchers, hunters and libertarians applaud the Trump administration’s decision to take the fearsome predator off the list.

But why now? According to the National Park Service (NPS), some 690 grizzly bears now roam the greater Yellowstone ecosystem — up from only 136 or so bears in 1975. “The number of females producing cubs in the park has remained relatively stable since 1996, suggesting that the park may be at or near ecological carrying capacity for grizzly bears,” reports NPS.

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke considers the delisting decision “very good news for many communities and advocates in the Yellowstone region” and “the culmination of decades of hard work and dedication on the part of state, tribal, federal and private partners.”

But the non-profit Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) counters that while grizzly bear numbers in the Greater Yellowstone area may have improved since the animals were first protected in 1975, the bears continue to be isolated from other grizzly populations and are threatened by recent increases in human-caused mortality. Meanwhile, climate change and invasive species have taken a huge toll on two of the bears’ primary food sources, whitebark pine seeds and cutthroat trout, prompting the bears to prey on livestock outside national park borders, leading to increased conflict with livestock ranchers. CBD maintains that drought and climate change are likely to worsen these problems.

Recent scientific data showing a decline in the bears’ population over the past two years as a result of “managed kills” due to livestock conflict, car crashes and poaching support CBD’s claims. The group’s senior attorney, Andrea Santarsiere, says that the Trump administration’s real reason for pushing the delisting is more about appeasing trophy hunters “who want to stick grizzly bear heads on their walls” than about concern over the health of iconic American wildlife populations.

“This outrageously irresponsible decision ignores the best available science,” says Santarsiere. “Grizzly conservation has made significant strides, but the work to restore these beautiful bears has a long way to go.” Overall, grizzlies now occupy less than four percent of their historic U.S. range. European settlement led to the decimation of some 50,000 grizzlies that once roamed the western half of the Lower 48.

“It’s incredibly disturbing to see the Trump administration end protections for these beloved Yellowstone bears even as their numbers are falling,” says Santarsiere. “This deeply misguided decision just isn’t supported by the science, so the Trump administration may be leaving itself vulnerable to a strong legal challenge.”

While the Trump administration has not made any noise to date about delisting the other major population of grizzlies in the lower 48 in and around Montana’s Glacier National Park, environmentalists worry that it’s only a matter of time given the relative population stability there, too.

Contacts: NPS Grizzly Bear Ecology, www.nps.gov/yell/learn/nature/gbearinfo.htm; Center for Biological Diversity, www.biologicaldiversity.org.


Gaming
Dylan Husted won the Judge’s Choice Award at Babson College’s Climate CoLab contest and went onto to launch the game as a start-up devoted to helping people fight climate change.
Dear EarthTalk: What are some ways people are using games to help reduce their carbon footprints? — Leah McNeil, Colchester, CT

Environmental advocates and organizations are increasingly employing gasification — defined by Merriam-Webster as “the process of adding games or game-like elements to something…so as to encourage participation” — to get people to learn about environmental problems and take action to reduce their carbon footprints and overall impact.

To wit, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Ecoresearch.net and the DecareboNet research project have partnered on a “game” called Climate Challenge that gets everyday people to pit their predictions about climate change and its effects against the opinions of experts around the world in an effort to see if the “wisdom of the crowd” can come up with answers faster than the experts alone.

Players are encouraged to research answers to questions about things like annual Arctic Sea Ice minimum coverage or the monthly average global surface temperature before submitting their answers. According to Climate Challenge creators, it’s not cheating to research to find the best answers; indeed, it’s the goal.

Players can come back every month for new questions, and see how they are doing compared to experts, friends, and even the collective “crowd” — and can win prizes by guessing closest to the actual value for a given question each month.

Another game focused on educating people about climate change is EduCycle, from Finnish game designer Neste. The free augmented reality (AR) app encourages players to design a city’s transportation, buildings and farms while cutting greenhouse gas emissions to levels specified under the 2015 Paris climate accord. “By simulating the carbon cycle in real life,” Neste maintains, “the game teaches kids and adults about the effects of global warming.”

Save Ohno is a creative take on gamification for the sake of the climate, courtesy of concerned college student Dylan Husted. The main character in the free online game is Ohno, who represents the player’s great granddaughter and is impacted by climate change in the future thanks to our actions and behaviors today. On the game’s SaveOhno.org website, players can see Ohno’s town get destroyed by extreme weather. But when players take positive action in the real world, the conditions in Ohno’s online (future) town improve accordingly.

Players can improve Ohno’s world by following tasks suggested within the game, and can also plug in real world campaigns and activism they are involved with to improve Ohno’s town. “An example ‘campaign’ could be a petition to get your local school to invest in renewables,” says Husted.

Meanwhile, World Climate Simulation is a role-playing exercise whereby groups can take part in mock United Nations climate negotiations and learn what it’s like to work with others to craft global environmental policy. The game uses an interactive computer model that allows participants to find out how their proposed policies impact global climate in real-time. All the tools and materials for the World Climate Simulation are available for free and multiple languages are supported.

Contacts: Climate Challenge, www.ecoresearch.net/climate-challenge; EduCycle, www.neste.com/preorderthefuture; Save Ohno, www.saveohno.org; World Climate Simulation, www.climateinteractive.org/programs/world-climate.


Green Booze
Mexico’s Tequila Ocho lets some of the blue agave plants at its Los Fresnos ranch reach full flower—a process that can take up to eight years and makes the plants no longer able to produce tequila—for the sake of local endangered bat populations that depend on them to thrive.
Dear EarthTalk: What’s the latest in greener booze? Are there any good organic beers, wines or liquors out there? — Mike Richardson, Norwalk, OH

Perhaps no other industry has responded to the greening of consumer preferences quite like beverage producers. From wine to beer to spirits, greener choices made from local and organic ingredients and packaged in lighter-weight containers abound. Indeed, getting a buzz on has never felt so good.

Brewers’ great contribution to the greening of the industry has been a renewed focus on localization. Back in the 1980s, there were less than 100 breweries across the U.S., most of them were part of big multi-national corporations. But today Americans have upwards of 5,000 breweries at their beck and call, many which source ingredients from nearby farms and save money and greenhouse gas pollution by not shipping their products out of their local region.

Besides local sourcing and distribution, hundreds of brewers across the country are also going green by choosing organic barley and hops. Some labels to look for in sustainable beer include Peak Organic and Brooklyn Brewery, both based out of New York, and Colorado-based New Belgium.

For its part, the wine industry has made great strides in recent years by upping its production of organic wines, too. Frey Vineyards, Grgich Hills Estate, Porter Creek, Cain, Ernest Vineyards and Pacific Rim are just a few of the U.S. based winemakers embracing organically grown grapes.

Winemakers are also showing green leadership through product packaging, with many eschewing glass bottles in favor of cardboard boxes or plastic-reinforced Tetra Paks. Not only does the process of creating traditional wine bottles emit large amounts of greenhouse gases, the weight of the glass also adds markedly to transportation emissions — nearly half of the products’ weight is in the bottles themselves.

Wine blogger Tyler Colman of DrVino.com estimates that boxed wine generates about half the greenhouse gas emissions per 750 ml as wine in glass bottles. That said, Tetra Paks aren’t so easy to recycle and thus are more likely to be tossed into landfill-bound trash than their glass counterparts. But aficionados skeptical of wine in a box might want to taste test French Rabbit’s Pinot Noir, created from organic ingredients and looking svelte in its Tetra Pak.

When it comes to sustainability, hard liquor may be the last to the party but is rallying hard to catch up. Mexico’s Tequila Ocho, for instance, lets some of the agave plants on its Puerta del Aire ranch reach full flower — a process that can take up to eight years and makes the plants no longer able to produce tequila — for the sake of local endangered bat populations that depend on healthy, flowering agave plants to thrive.

Meanwhile, California’s Square One not only uses organic grains in its vodka but sources a significant amount of the electricity needed in its production facilities from a local wind farm. Kentucky-based Maker’s Mark uses locally sourced grains in its famous bourbon and converts production waste into energy to power its distillery. And Puerto Rico’s DonQ rum composts its waste and uses run-off to irrigate its fields while powering its still with excess steam from its treatment plant.

Contacts: Tetra Pak, www.tetrapak.com; French Rabbit, www.frenchrabbit.com; Frey Vineyards, www.freywine.com; Dr. Vino, www.drvino.com; Tequila Ocho, www.ochotequila.com; Square One, www.squareoneorganicspirits.com; DonQ Rum, www.donq.com.


Volvo
Volvo’s 40.1 concept car features an all-electric drivetrain and is a symbol of the Swedish automaker’s move away from internal combustion engines.
Dear EarthTalk: Does Volvo’s embrace of electric cars signal the beginning of the end of the gas-powered internal combustion engine? — Macy Vigneault, New Orleans, LA

Volvo has announced that it will only sell hybrid and electric cars beginning in 2019, signaling a shift in the auto industry as a whole towards more fuel-efficient cars that can help reduce drivers’ carbon footprints and fuel costs.

“In the next five to 10 years, every car on sale will offer a hybrid, plug-in hybrid, or full EV [electric vehicle] variant,” says Nicholas Roche of Tesla Motors, the innovative California-based electric car company, “and the adoption rate of these technologies will increase dramatically.”

But while Volvo’s announcement may indicate a sea change coming, the internal combustion engine isn’t going anywhere soon. For one, there will be one in every hybrid Volvo coming out of the carmaker’s factories before and surely long after 2019 (given that hybrids by definition include both petroleum-fueled and electric drivetrains).

The key factor that will keep the internal combustion engine alive and kicking for some time yet is our massive petroleum-based refueling infrastructure; indeed, we have come to expect a gas station around every corner and off every highway exit. Meanwhile, electric charging stations are few and far between, and charging up an EV using a regular power outlet can take several hours as compared to filling up a gas-powered car in a few minutes.

And most electric cars still can’t make it as far on a charge as their gasoline-fired equivalents can on a tank of gas (this is where hybrids come in handy, giving the driver essentially the best of both worlds).

Only recently have Tesla and other EV makers started to crack the code on range with vehicles stocked with new high-performance batteries that can meet or exceed the distances a gas fill-up would normally yield. Only time will tell if such improvements ripple out throughout the EV industry and can start to displace internal combustion engines.

That said, Volvo’s recent announcement is still significant, with company CEO Håkan Samuelsson declaring “the end of the solely combustion engine-powered car.” If and when other traditional automakers follow suit and stop making cars solely powered by gas or diesel remains to be seen, but Renault-Nissan (whose Leaf is the top selling EV in the world), BMW, Volkswagen, General Motors and Toyota are also vying for big slices of the electric car pie. Tesla continues to be the leading EV pure play out there, but a few well-heeled EV start-ups, including Faraday Future, Lucid Motors, Fisker Automotive and Nio are no doubt keeping Tesla’s Elon Musk up at night.

It’s anybody’s guess when the internal combustion engine car will become a historic relic, but the rapid advance in electric vehicle and battery technologies means that a future free of automotive gasoline and diesel emissions is an achievable dream.

Contacts: Volvo, volvocars.com; Tesla, tesla.com; Renault Nissan, alliance-renault-nissan.com.

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