by Carolyn Shea/Illustrations by Jonathan Carlson

How do balloons affect wildlife?

Eileen Andreason, via e-mail

At best, free-flying balloons become litter; at worst, they jeopardize wildlife. Once airborne, they can travel far afield and often end up joining the flotsam riding the world's oceans. One that was unleashed in a science fair experiment to investigate wind direction was retrieved on an island 1,300 miles from its release site. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration identifies balloons as a commonly reported source of marine debris. In 1999 more than 32,000 were collected during coastal cleanups around the world. Balloons can choke, smother, or cause starvation. Their strings and ribbons can cause entanglement. In water, they bear an uncanny resemblance to jellyfish and other organisms eaten by turtles, fish, cetaceans, and shorebirds. Dead sea turtles have washed ashore with balloons hanging from their mouths, and scientists have found whole balloons and parts of balloons in whales during necropsies. Mass launches have been banned by numerous entities, including the states of Florida, New York, and Texas; the National Park Service; the White House; and even Walt Disney World and Six Flags Great Adventure. Balloons should be handled responsibly—don't release them—and disposed of properly.


When is a species considered endangered?

Dennis Landi, Cerritos, California

Under the landmark Endangered Species Act (ESA), a species is endangered when it is "in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range." Upon designation, a species is afforded protection and a plan is formulated for its recovery. Currently, 983 plants and animals are classified as endangered by the federal government. But according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, hundreds more are backlogged as candidates for listing. They may remain in this administrative limbo for years due to political pressure or funding constraints. An example is the gravely imperiled black-tailed prairie dog, which the Fish and Wildlife Service has acknowledged is in dire straits. Ranchers oppose listing the species because they feel these animals—reduced to less than one percent of their historic range—compete with cattle for forage. At least 80 species have gone extinct while awaiting listing. In August of 2001 the Interior Department agreed to speed up listing for 29 species, in part to avoid lawsuits from conservation groups. Although the ESA is often knocked for its ineffectiveness and the impact it can have on local economies, it nevertheless represents a national commitment to preserve this country's biological wealth. In essence, the law functions as a Noah's Ark for species suffering severe declines. It is truly the last line of defense for many wild plants and animals that are facing unprecedented threats from our own activities. Without the ESA, our world would likely have been deprived of peregrine falcons, brown pelicans, and gray whales—some of the jewels rescued under its aegis.


Will freeing commercially bought honeybees help wild bees?

John and Susan Michel, Westminster, Maryland

Concerns are mounting over declining numbers of the pollinators we depend on for plant productivity in both horticultural and natural environments. Populations of feral honeybees have dropped 25 percent since 1990, as the insects have been beset by habitat destruction, pesticides, mites, beetles, and disease-causing microbes. Each year in the United States, bees pollinate about 130 crops, worth $10 billion. According to one estimate, they are responsible for pollinating a third of the human diet. The domesticated honeybee, Apis mellifera, which is the species predominantly available for purchase, was introduced by Europeans to ensure an adequate supply of beeswax for candles. This species is not invulnerable to the multiple onslaughts plaguing native bees. The Ecological Society of America reports that the number of domestically managed honeybee colonies in the United States has decreased by half since 1945, a decline that "highlights the danger of overreliance on a single species for pollination services." Releasing these bees won't aid the 4,000 species endemic to this continent. To encourage the natives, says James Cane, a melittologist (bee biologist) with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Bee Biology and Systematics Laboratory, grow flowering plants they can use. Check with your local extension agent or state conservation or agriculture department to learn what's appropriate in your area. Also, avoid using insecticides, especially during bloom time, and limit (or, better yet, give up) pesticide use in and around your home. Finally, encourage land-management agencies to plant bee-friendly vegetation in public spaces. Incidentally, by helping bees, you will also help other wildlife, including birds. Pollination by the insects is responsible for many of the red berries eaten by migrating songbirds in the fall.


© 2002  NASI

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