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Canaries in the coal mine

March 27, 2013

The news two weeks ago about the declining numbers of monarch butterflies at a key butterfly preserve in Mexico gives one pause for concern. Reports from the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage site, indicate that these beautiful creatures occupied 59% less land in December 2012 than the previous year, their colonies covering the smallest area recorded in 20 years. The area covered by monarch colonies has dwindled from 44.9 acres in 1997 to a mere 2.9 acres this winter. A major reason cited for this decline is loss of habitat due to climate change (drought) and illegal logging in the Mexican forest, not to mention the powerful pesticides and herbicides (in widespread use in U.S. agriculture) designed to poison plant life (weeds) and insects (even the good ones).

Birds may be in trouble, too. Just this month, The American Bird Conservancy (ABC) issued a report calling for the discontinued use—until an independent review can be done—on a class of neurotoxic pesticides called neonicotinoids (“neonics” for short) pending an independent review of their effect on birds, invertebrates and other wildlife. In January this year, the European Food Safety Authority identified neonics as being an “unacceptable” danger to bees.

Still another report on CBS Evening News last week addressed the loss of wetland habitat due to widespread and prolonged drought along the Central Migration Flyway used by geese, ducks and other birds. Continued loss of wetlands will lead to serious population declines, said research scientist Denis Dean of the University of Texas at Dallas, who was interviewed for the report. Dean, who studies wildlife environments, warned that if the situation reaches a tipping point where the birds are no longer able to continue their migration due to lack of water and habitat, there will be mass die-offs. “I wouldn’t say we are there, because clearly we haven’t seen the mass die-offs,” Dean said, “but I think we’re getting close in many cases.”

Reports like these remind us of canaries in the coal mines, caged sentinels taken underground by miners to detect toxic gases, primarily carbon monoxide, in time to warn the miners of life-threatening danger. Canaries, butterflies, amphibians, bats and bees, to name just a few, are sentinels warning us of dangers ahead if we continue to damage our planet. Like coal miners of the past, we ignore these warnings at our own peril.