population numbers and endangered status? What’s being done, if
anything, to help them? — Vicky D., Sacramento, CA
The world’s reptiles — turtles, snakes, lizards, alligators and
crocodiles — are indeed in trouble. The International Union for
Conservation of Nature, which publishes an annual global roster of
threatened and endangered species called the Red List, considers some
664 species of reptiles — representing more than 20 percent of known
reptile species worldwide — as endangered or facing extinction.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service considers about 10 percent
of American reptiles threatened or endangered.
Why care? The non-profit Center for Biological Diversity (CBD)
considers reptiles “amazing creatures” with clever adaptations that
have helped them survive for millions of years. CBD also points out
that reptiles are valuable indicators of wider ecological health.
“Because many reptile species are long-lived and relatively
slow-moving, they suffer from disturbances like habitat loss or
pollution for extended periods,”
the group reports, adding that a diverse community of reptiles living
in a given area is evidence of a healthy ecosystem that can support
the plant and animal life they and other species need for food and
So what’s causing the reptiles’ decline? “While habitat loss is the
most obvious cause of endangerment, declines are even occurring in
pristine areas from threats such as disease, UV radiation and climate
change,” reports CBD. Over collecting and unregulated hunting also are
taking a toll on reptile populations.
In order to help stem the tide of reptile loss, CBD leverages the
court system to pressure the federal government to protect at-risk
species. For instance, back in 2004 the group worked with the
Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection in filing a petition to add
the Tucson shovel-nosed snake, which dwells in the quickly
disappearing wild desert around fast-growing cities like Tucson and
Phoenix, to the federal list of endangered species. Finally in 2011
the federal government agreed that it would add the snake to its list
of endangered species which will help it get the habitat protection
needed to ensure long term survival.
CBD also works on other fronts for reptiles. The group’s campaign to
outlaw “rattlesnake round-ups” — contests whereby hunters collect and
kill as many snakes as they can in a year — has helped stem population
declines of eastern diamondback rattlesnakes. And CBD’s efforts to
educate the public about the plight of freshwater turtles, which are
over collected for food and the pet trade in the southern and
Midwestern parts of the U.S., helped convince several states for the
first time to regulate turtle harvests.
One way everyone can help reptile species in decline is to make our
backyards friendly to them. The U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent
Wildlife Research Center offers tips on what to plant and how to
arrange a landscape to encourage reptiles and other wildlife.
Landowners that take these steps may be rewarded with fewer pests,
given reptiles taste for large numbers of mosquitoes and other insects
as well as small rodents. Other pro-reptile tips include driving
carefully (road mortality is a big issue for snakes, turtles and other
species) and keeping outside areas around your property free of
garbage that might attract raccoons, crows and other pests that also
prey on reptiles.
* * * * *
Dear EarthTalk: What’s the deal with New York City buildings switching
over from heating oil to natural gas? Is this a trend in other U.S.
cities as well? — Mitchell Branecke, Yonkers, NY
Anyone who has lived in New York City knows that particulate matter is
omnipresent there. Commonly referred to as soot, such particulate
pollution is comprised of fine black particles derived of carbon from
coal, oil, wood or other fuels that have not combusted completely.
Due to this preponderance of soot in the air, asthma rates in some
parts of the Big Apple (like Harlem and parts of the Bronx) are sky
high. Environmentalists have been pointing the finger for years at the dirty residential heating oil used by so many New York City buildings, many of which were built before natural gas was widely available.
According to the non-profit Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), just one
percent of the buildings across the five boroughs of New York City
burn noxious heating oils, but those structures send more particulate
matter airborne than all of the city’s cars and trucks combined.
That’s why mayor Michael Bloomberg announced this past June that an
innovative public-private partnership (known as NYC Clean Heat)
between the city’s government and leading banks, energy providers and
environmental groups would be putting up $100 million in financing and
other new resources to help buildings there make the switch to cleaner
fuels. NYC Clean Heat kicked off last year when the city ordered the
phase-out of the dirtiest home heating fuels: No. 4 and No. 6 oils
that are still used in some 10,000 New York City buildings and which
create a significant air pollution hazard. Switching out those fuels
with cleaner burning oil (such as No. 2), biodiesel or natural gas
will go a long way toward meeting Bloomberg’s aggressive new “PlaNYC”
goal of reducing soot pollution some 50 percent by 2013. The mayor’s
office reports that the new restrictions will save 120 lives and
prevent 300 asthma-related hospital visits a year, while generating
some $300 million in construction activity in the short term.
Property owners interested in a clean heat conversion can access the
funding, which is coming from a combination of city coffers and
financial institutions including Chase, Deutsche Bank, Hudson Valley
Bank, Citibank and the Community Preservation Corporation. On the
environmental side, EDF is offering technical assistance and outreach
to buildings that are undergoing fuel conversions by making available
a team of trained energy professional to help evaluate conversion
options, coordinate with utilities and beef up energy efficiency
measures. As for the utilities, Con Edison and National Grid, the two
primary providers for the New York City metro area, have agreed to
upgrade their natural gas infrastructure to make it easier and cheaper
for buildings to make the switch. And Hess Corporation, the city’s
largest residential heating oil provider, has begun to offer customers
new incentives to switch to natural gas, ultra-low sulfur No. 2
heating oil and biodiesel.
Large numbers of buildings in several other older U.S. cities, mostly
in the Northeast, still rely on dirty heating oil, mostly because they
were built before natural gas was widely available. Whether some of
these locales will follow New York City’s lead in marshalling
resources to facilitate a wholesale switchover remains to be seen and
may hinge upon the success of New York City’s program. But no doubt
individual property owners who can make the switch are doing it of
their own accord due to the low price of natural gas versus oil.