Could the Russian invasion of Ukraine lead to worldwide declines in biodiversity? Plus other important conservation and environmental news.

A blue and gold Ukrainian flag; a grizzly bear in the woods

As goes Ukraine, so goes the world.

That’s the message of an important new paper — one of two striking recent studies looking at the wide-ranging environmental impacts of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

But that’s not all. In this edition of Links From the Brink, we also have the word on new science about protecting grizzlies, a discussion about the links between pesticides and Parkinson’s disease, news about a trio of traveling wolves, and more.

The Ukraine-Wildlife Connection

Think Russia’s invasion of Ukraine doesn’t affect you, or the world around you? Think again.

Ukraine has long been one of the world’s most important agricultural producers, and the war has severely diminished grain production and exports, causing food insecurity around the planet.

And that could soon affect the world’s wildlife. A study published last month in the journal Nature Sustainability predicted that a 33% reduction in Ukrainian exports could force the expansion of croplands — and reduction of wild habitat — in other parts of the world by an astonishing 8.48 million hectares (about 33,000 square miles). “This cropland expansion would impact biodiversity most in countries such as the United States, Spain, France, India and Brazil,” the researchers warned.

That’s just one potential scenario. If the war continues and all food exports from Russia and Ukraine come to an end, “cropland expansion and biodiversity loss would increase by up to 2.9 and ∼4.5 times,” according to the paper.

At a time when many nations have pledged to set aside 30% of their land and water for conservation, it’s clear that warfare is not only a humanitarian emergency but a threat multiplier of the extinction and climate crises. Military action no longer threatens only the regions in which it occurs but the planet, its people, and its wildlife as a whole.

Rebuilding Ukraine

Ukraine’s forests have suffered severe losses during the war, and so have its urban trees — especially in the cities that have been hardest hit by Russian missiles. A new paper in Urban Forestry & Urban Greening looks at the cultural and societal impact of the destruction of green spaces and discusses five factors the authors say should influence eventual replanting and restoration efforts:

    1. Residents’ desire to have their original environment restored.
    2. The unavailability of nursery stock for replanting immediately after the war.
    3. The impacts of bombing on soil.
    4. The importance of engaging residents in replanting efforts.
    5. The psychological value of saving some damaged trees as survivors of the war.

That last point reminds me of famous “witness trees” that outlived times of war and conflict, such as the irradiated hibakujumoku ginkgo trees of Hiroshima; Maryland’s willow oak, which still stands more than two centuries after the War of 1812; and the Survivor Tree crews rescued from the rubble of Ground Zero after 9/11.

The 9/11 Memorial & Museum calls this last tree “a living reminder of resilience, survival, and rebirth.” Its seeds have since been distributed to dozens of communities that have undergone their own tragedies — including some sent to Ukraine in 2022. Perhaps certain witness trees in Ukraine — or Gaza — could soon serve similar roles.

In Other News: Dogs to the Rescue?

We’ve written a lot about livestock guardian dogs, who have helped many a farmer or rancher to avoid conflicts with wolves, snow leopards and other predators who may want to prey on their herds. Can the same canine concept be used to protect farms from grizzly bears?

Grizzlies are known to occasionally prey on livestock, but they’re also attracted to farmland by the tasty aroma of grain storage. Their arrival can make people nervous and put the bears at severe risk. A new study sought to reduce that danger by placing guardian dogs at four farmsteads in Montana. While that’s admittedly a small sample size, the early results were more than encouraging. According to the study, published in Biological Conservation, the farmsteads previously had “chronic” problems with hungry bears wandering onto their properties, but the addition of guardian dogs caused a dramatic reduction in grizzly encounters, as evidenced by both camera traps and GPS tracking-collar data from tracked bears.

The authors suggest the need to expand this study, especially since the dog breeds traditionally used as guardians have an instinctual drive to protect animals (livestock), which may not translate long-term to guarding grain and people.

But to that point, this work might also support the broader use of guardian dogs in grizzly country, where they could protect livestock much like how they guard against wolves in other parts of the country. And that could help solve one of the biggest problems facing grizzlies.

“Conflicts with livestock are one of the most important obstacles with the recovery of grizzly bears,” wildlife ecologist Lance McNew said in 2019.

Whether it’s on a farm or in the field, it seems dogs could be one of the solutions to help both grizzlies and people.

Speaking of Wolves…

…a wolf pack has just been spotted in Nevada for the first time in more than a century. An individual wolf appeared in the Silver State in 2016, but the state hasn’t reported any wolves since then, let alone a group. The sighting hasn’t been officially confirmed yet — state wildlife officials classify the observation as “three suspected wolves” — but if I were a betting man, I’d place my money on Nevada to be the next state gray wolves repopulate.

Rights for Whales?

In the latest advancement of the Rights of Nature movement, the king of New Zealand’s Māori people last month called for whales to gain the same legal rights and protections as human beings. “The sound of our ancestor’s song has grown weaker, and her habitat is under threat, which is why we must act now,” said Kīngi Tūheitia Pōtatau Te Wherowhero VII.

Meanwhile a draft constitutional amendment proposes making Aruba the second nation to formally recognize the Rights of Nature and the right of humans to live in a clean environment. The public comment period will have ended by the time this article publishes, but we’ll be following this news with interest.

Webinar Watch

What are the connections between pollution, pesticides and neurological conditions like Parkinson’s Disease? This recent webinar from the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research digs into the emerging science:

An Update From the Brink

The complex calls of the straw-headed bulbul have made it (through no fault of its own) one of the world’s most trafficked, and most endangered, songbirds. But Singapore has emerged as a surprising stronghold for the species.

That’s it for this edition of Links From the Brink. We’ll be back next month with more news, science and analysis from the Anthropocene. Until then make sure to celebrate Bat Appreciation Day on April 17, World Curlew Day on April 21, Earth Day (of course) on April 22, and World Penguin Day on April 25. I’ll be breaking out my tuxedo for that one.

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Previously in The Revelator:

Cranes in Ukraine: Birds of Joy in a War-Torn Land

John R. Platt

is the editor of The Revelator. An award-winning environmental journalist, his work has appeared in Scientific American, Audubon, Motherboard, and numerous other magazines and publications. His “Extinction Countdown” column has run continuously since 2004 and has covered news and science related to more than 1,000 endangered species. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. John lives on the outskirts of Portland, Ore., where he finds himself surrounded by animals and cartoonists.