Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Is the monarch butterfly truly endangered?

It's a topic of debate

Last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) declared that one of North America’s best known butterflies, the monarch, might be in trouble. But the agency put off protecting the insect under the federal Endangered Species Act. In the meantime, researchers are continuing to debate how best to gauge the health of monarch populations.

In recent months dueling preprints and publications have intensified the debate. In one camp: researchers who have documented drastic declines in the number of monarchs in Mexico and other areas where some butterflies spend the winter. They believe the species needs immediate help, particularly by protecting and expanding the milkweed-filled meadows where its larvae feed. In another: scientists who have tallied butterfly numbers in areas they occupy during the warmer months and concluded there is less cause for alarm. As a species, monarchs “don’t really need saving,” says Andrew Davis, an ecologist at the University of Georgia, Athens.

At issue is the fact that, given the butterfly's complex life cycle and migration patterns, there's no one reliable way to measure the insect's overall population. One way to measure is by estimating the amount of Mexican forest their overwintering population occupies; by this measurement, the butterfly's population has been trending downward

But a different picture emerges from data collected north of Mexico during other parts of the year, Davis and others say. Each season, scores of scientists and thousands of volunteers tally butterflies as they fly past recording stations, and count monarch eggs and caterpillars they find on milkweed, the larvae’s only food source. When Davis and colleagues examined 20 of these data sets, covering time spans from 15 years to more than 100 years, they saw little evidence of drastic declines. Winter and spring populations had shrunk a little but summer and fall surveys showed few losses, they reported in October 2020 in a preprint posted on Preprints.org, which has not yet been peer reviewed.

Davis acknowledges his view that monarchs are not in danger of extinction is unpopular: “No one wants [it], ironically,” he says. “They want to keep saving them.”

And the preprint has drawn mixed reviews. Insect ecologist Anurag Agrawal of Cornell University calls it “important. … Some of these data have never been put together this way.” But Leslie Ries, an ecologist at Georgetown University, rejects its conclusions. “The picture painted … includes many faulty conclusions based on the studies or data sets cited,” she says.

Volunteer surveys of butterfly populations are useful but have limitations, especially as to where and when the surveys were taken. Volunteers might be focusing on places where the butterflies currently are, rather than where they used to be, and monarch generations - there are four in a year - can expand or contract independently of one another. There are other complex factors effecting monarch populations - climate, weather, and milkweed availability - that need to be considered as well. 

While the overall data seems to point to a gradual reduction in the monarch population, more research is needed before the feds will take action.

Given such uncertainties and the fact that conservation efforts are already underway, U.S. officials say the monarch is not yet a prime candidate for federal protection, especially because resources are limited and other species are in greater need of help. But they plan to decide on the monarch’s status in 2024, FWS ecologist Lori Nordstrom explained last month at a virtual press conference.

The delay worries Tyler Flockhart, an adjunct ecologist at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Appalachian Laboratory who has been modeling monarch population dynamics. “We run the risk of studying this problem to death by not taking actions until we are completely certain.”

My advice is the same as always: plant that milkweed.

It's going to get worse before it gets better

One week ago, Donald Trump - a malignant narcissist and pathological liar who continues to falsely claim that last November's Presidential election was "stolen" from him - incited his followers in Washington, DC to march on the Capitol building, ostensively to protest Congress's counting of the states' electoral votes that would officially confirm Joe Biden as the next President of the United States. 

Obviously this mob did much more than just protest: Trump supporters and adherents of the batshit crazy "QAnon" conspiracy theory overwhelmed police, physically invaded the US Capitol, and forced Senators and Representatives to scramble for safety. It was clear that some of them didn't just want to disrupt the counting of electoral votes; they were looking for elected officials to kidnap and/or kill. Pipe bombs were placed to distract first responders. Guys in tactical gear crawled through windows and carried flex cuffs in Senate Chambers. (Thankfully, two of them have been arrested). Four protesters and a Capitol Police officer died in the melee; another Capitol Police officer apparently passed away later.

While the Capitol invasion may or may not have been an actual coup attempt, it was, at the very least, insurrection: a violent assault on our democracy. It is as chilling as it is outrageous and it is certainly this nation's darkest day since September 11, 2001.

Fortunately, the insurrection did not succeed. Police and federal agents finally got the upper hand, the building was cleared, Congress resumed counting the electoral ballots and, eventually, accepted Joe Biden as the winner of the presidential election. The nation's democratic process held firm, but it very easily could have been a different, catastrophic story. 

Both the House and Senate Sergeants-at-Arms as well as the Chief of the Capitol Police resigned following the invasion due to their failures, and a full accounting needs to happen as to why the Capitol Police had such a hard time defending the building. Was security purposely hamstrung by Trump-supporting administrators? Were there sympathizers in their ranks who facilitated the invasion? 

The days since the Capitol invasion have been a whirlwind of activity that ended up with Trump being permanently banned from his beloved Twitter account and, earlier today, being the first President to be impeached twice, just days before his term as the worst President in the history of this nation mercifully comes to an end. 

But while Trump may be on his way out, his rabid and heavily-armed base of far-right extremists, white supremacists and conspiracy theorists lives on, and they're not going to simply disappear. There are reports that extremists are emboldened, that more violence is planned for this weekend or for the day of Biden's inauguration, and that the threat of violence will continue even after Biden becomes President. We may, in fact, be entering a new era of political violence featuring bloodthirsty and deranged domestic terrorists such as this guy.

Exactly a decade ago, after a shooting in Arizona that killed six people and wounded a US Representative, I issued a call for civility in politics. That post seems rather na├»ve now. This country is awash in misinformation and conspiracy theories, and its politics are no longer merely polarized but now completely tribalized, wherein it has become more important to hate the other side than to support your own. These trends were evident even before Donald Trump became President; he merely accelerated them.

It's going to get worse before it gets better, and I'm afraid many more people are going to lose their lives.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Tom Herman wasn't all that

Last weekend, the University of Texas fired Tom Herman after four years at the helm of the Longhorn football program, replacing him with Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. It's a risky and extremely expensive move for Texas, which is on the hook for upwards of $24 million to buy out Herman and his assistants before they even pay Sarkisian and his staff a single dime. And Sarkisian, who is by all accounts a great offensive mind but who drank his way out of a head coaching job at USC several years ago, is by no means a slam dunk to return the Longhorns to greatness. 

But Herman couldn't return the Horns to greatness, either, which is why he is being let go. Texas simply discovered that Tom Herman wasn't all that.

In that regard, it's interesting to come across this video about Herman's 2016 University of Houston team, which makes the argument that the Coogs would have been the first Group of Five team to make the College Football Playoff if they hadn't experienced some "weird" losses:

"How can you beat #3 Oklahoma led by Baker Mayfield, and #3 Louisville, led by Lamar Jackson, but not take care of business against Navy or SMU?" The narrator asks. The answer, at least partially, is Tom Herman: he could get his team up for big games but couldn't do the same for lesser opponents.

To be fair to Herman, player injuries played a role in at least a couple of his head-scratching losses while he was at Houston. And to be fair to his players, constant rumors about Herman's next coaching gig - he obviously had one foot out the door the entire time he was at UH - had to be a major distraction. 

That being said, head-scratching losses are still losses, and by the time Texas poached him from Houston at the end of the season his shortcomings were already evident. I wrote at the time of his departure:

For a man who preaches the importance of winning conference championships, he managed a rather sad 2-3 record in the AAC West this past season, good enough for fourth place. Herman is also a less-than-stellar 6-4 on the road. Those numbers won't cut it on the Forty Acres.

Sure enough, his numbers didn't cut it at Texas. Herman's overall record was a respectable 32-18, but it came with a few major issues. First, Herman's Longhorns lost 7 times to unranked teams when they were ranked in the AP Poll: as was the case at Houston, he simply couldn't get his players up for games against lesser opponents. More important for the Longhorn faithful, however, is that Herman's teams lost to archrival Oklahoma four out of five times while he was head coach there (one of those losses being in the 2018 Big XII Championship game, which was Herman's only conference championship appearance at Texas). While Herman's Longhorns did win all four of the bowl games they went to and ended the season ranked in the AP top 25 three out of his four years at the helm, it wasn't good enough for the Orangeblood faithful. A 1-4 record against the Sooners and zero conference championships was not what they expected when they hired him; he just didn't live up to the hype.

For Steve Sarkisian's part, if he and his staff can recruit the state's best players, and if Sarkisian himself can stay off of Sixth Street, he may have a chance at bringing Longhorn fans the glory they desire. If he can't, then it will be just another instance of Texas throwing a lot of money into something and getting very little in return.

As a UH fan and alum, I must say I am getting a bit of schadenfreude out of the fact that, as of this moment, all of Art Briles, Kevin Sumlin and Tom Herman are unemployed.