Our grants program is on of our most popular and impactful initiatives; to date we have awarded nearly $50,000 to wildlife conservation projects around the world. We pick important projects that are unlikely to be prioritized by other funding institutions, focusing on those that generate natural history information, build partnerships between scientists and artists, or that support efforts to understand and enact measures to reduce human/wildlife conflict.
In this issue’s grant-winner spotlight, we hear from Sebastian Harris, who received funding from us to study the relationships between Pennsylvania ants and the other species that use their mounds.
Why did you become interested in this research topic?
For whatever reason, positive relationships between taxonomically disparate organisms is super interesting to me, more so than other subjects in ecology. At the time I conducted the study, I was studying under Dr. Amy Savage, a Myrmecologist from Rutgers University. In searching for a research subject, I came across some old natural history notes highlighting the use of abandoned ant mounds as refuge for hibernating snakes. Ants are her specialty, snakes are mine, so it was sort of a no brainer!
Why did you look to The Alongside Wildlife Foundation to support this project?
Finding funding for natural history research can be difficult, with the influx of so many scientists studying much “bigger” topics. Having seen some of the projects funded before me in the year prior, I felt like my research would fit the foundation’s mission well.
You are an artist in addition to a scientist and have supported the foundation in multiple ways (by becoming a recurring donor and by donating a portion of the proceeds from your sales of stickers). Why do you feel it’s important to do so?
I think the destruction and degradation of nature is moving at such a pace that supporting organizations who are attempting to combat it has become increasingly important with each passing day. Ultimately, I believe in the mission and potential of The Alongside Wildlife Foundation. There’s a need to address research questions that are often overlooked, and now that the foundation has begun protecting land, I’m even more excited to support.
What are you passionate about now and why? What’s next for you and how can we follow your work?
Finding a way to merge creativity and conservation is what I’m most passionate about. My plan is to build projects that connect people with the conservation of nature, especially those who might not have direct access to it. I will continue to release art campaigns to support various efforts and will be producing more informative content via social media. You can follow me on YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter or check out my personal website.
Days are getting shorter, nights are getting cooler. This year flew; it feels like it was only yesterday that it was March, a beautiful time to step outside; it had been weeks since the trees first started showing off their new lime-green leaves, colorful flowers were bursting through grassy roadsides, reptiles were emerging to take advantage of the reliably warm days and the sounds of migrating birds filled the forests; I felt as though we were all invigorated by the sun on our skin (or feathers) and by breathing the same warm air.
I was surprised to see many Coopers Hawks around the neighborhood this year, sitting on fence posts and scanning the area for prey too distracted to notice a raptor swooping down upon them. Looking around and reflecting on our shared recent history, I am reminded of Pablo Neruda when he said, “You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep spring from coming.”
Indeed, we have seen many flowers cut. But, here we are. And spring did come again.
This is not a space where I aspire to get political and given the focus of our organization there’s little need for me to do so: vast majorities value wildlife and appreciate wild ecosystems, regardless of political affiliation. But that said, we are not in the business of denying reality: if you place high priority on conservation then it’s been tough lately, especially while coming to terms with a global pandemic. From cutting the size of National Monuments, threatening National Wildlife Refuges with oil drilling, and stripping protections from migratory birds, there are over a hundred environmental rollbacks we can point to from recent years. And, regardless of who is in charge of the United States, the drivers of our extinction crisis continue virtually unabated both here and abroad; habitat loss, disease, and invasive species remain major problems with climate change looming.
But there is reason for optimism. I would not be a conservation biologist if I didn’t have hope. I wouldn’t have started this conservation charity if I felt we couldn’t make a difference together. I’m not just blowing smoke; I can point to specifics. When our current president was merely a candidate he did something that just a few years ago would have seemed radical and preposterous: He made protecting 30% of this country’s land and water a key component of his platform. Biden didn’t come up with the idea, E.O. Wilson has long touted his dream of protecting half of the planet and keeping it for nature. He wasn’t even the first presidential candidate to push for the plan (known as 30×30), rather I believe it was Joaquin Castro who brought the idea into the national conversation. But, Joe Biden is the first president to endorse the idea, and the significance can hardly be overstated. I’m pleased to know that the Alongside Wildlife Foundation can help this vision become a reality, thanks to your generous support we recently created a fund that we expect will be sufficient to purchase land in about five years. We are not The Nature Conservancy, and we never will be, and won’t be forming new national parks either, but what we can do is focus on the places and the species that aren’t getting the attention they need, that are falling through the cracks, and that will guide our decision-making process.
Two steps forward, one step back. Sure, it’s a cliché but it’s a cliché that helps me remember not to get complacent or to expect easy conservation victories. So, let us remember and mourn the cut flowers. Some will never bloom again. But spring did show up this year. And, so did you.
Check out these recent papers from some of our grant winners on topics ranging from ants to snow leopards! These projects may be quite different but here’s what they have in common: our grassroots network of donors helped make them happen.
Observations of Snakes Associated With Active Nests of Allegheny Mound Ant (Formica exsectoides) in Northeastern Pennsylvania
Sebastian A. Harris and Amy M. SavageHarris, S.A. and Savage, A.M., 2020. Observations of Snakes Associated with Active Nests of Allegheny Mound Ant (Formica exsectoides) in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Northeastern Naturalist 27:585-595. https://doi.org/10.1656/045.027.0317
Refuge availability is an important component of snake ecology and conservation, yet we have limited understanding of the extent to which snakes use the nests of other animals for refuge. Despite their ubiquity in many forests, the use of ant nests as refuge by snakes has only been reported by a few publications. Between 15 September and 14 October 2019, we set out camera traps to assess whether snakes inhabited active ant mounds and the associated habitats engineered by Allegheny Mound Ant in northeastern Pennsylvania. We recorded a total of 44 snake images captured at 2 ant mounds, representing 24 individual encounters and 3 snake species. Species observed entering and emerging from mounds included Ring-necked Snake and Red-bellied Snake. We observed both Ring-necked Snakes and Red-bellied Snakes briefly entering and exiting nests. The latter was also observed basking outside of a nest, and we observed both species enter a nest without resurfacing. These results suggest that active ant mounds constructed by Allegheny Mound Ants represent an underappreciated resource for these small-bodied snake species.
Leopard (Panthera pardus) density and diet in a forest corridor of Terai: implications for conservation and conflict management
Kandel Sagar Raj, Lamichhane Babu Ram, and Subedi NareshKandel, S.R., Lamichhane, B.R. and Subedi, N., 2020. Leopard (Panthera pardus) density and diet in a forest corridor of Terai: implications for conservation and conflict management. Wildlife Research 47:460-467. https://doi.org/10.1071/WR19126
Increasing forest fragmentation and degradation has forced wildlife to live in close proximity to humans, increasing the chances of human-wildlife conflict. Leopard typifies the problem faced by large carnivores. It is a threatened species with a wide distribution, with a large part of their range outside protected areas, leaving them vulnerable to human-leopard conflict. Understanding their status and diet in such non-protected forests is necessary for their long-term conservation. Leopard density was found to be relatively low in the forest corridor compared with protected areas. Nearly one-third of leopard diet from domestic livestock and dogs suggests that human-leopard conflict could be problematic in the survey area. Increasing prey density in the forest corridor and improving livestock husbandry in the periphery will contribute to increase leopard density, reduce the human-leopard conflict and enhance the functionality of the corridor.
In the shadows of snow leopards and the Himalayas: density and habitat selection of blue sheep in Manang, Nepal
Marc Filla, Rinzin Phunjok Lama, Tashi Rapte Ghale, Johannes Signer, Tim Filla, Raja Ram Aryal, Marco Heurich, Matthias Waltert, Niko Balkenhol, and Igor KhorozyanFilla, M., et al. 2021. In the shadows of snow leopards and the Himalayas: density and habitat selection of blue sheep in Manang, Nepal. Ecology and Evolution 11:108-122. https://doi.org/10.1002/ece3.6959
There is a growing agreement that conservation needs to be proactive and pay increased attention to common species and to the threats they face. The blue sheep plays a key ecological role in sensitive high‐altitude ecosystems of Central Asia and is among the main prey species for the globally vulnerable snow leopard. As the blue sheep has been increasingly exposed to human pressures, it is vital to estimate its population dynamics, protect the key populations, identify important habitats, and secure a balance between conservation and local livelihoods. We conducted a study in Manang, Annapurna Conservation Area (Nepal), to survey blue sheep on 60 transects in spring (127.9 km) and 61 transects in autumn (134.7 km) of 2019, estimate their minimum densities from total counts, compare these densities with previous estimates, and assess blue sheep habitat selection by the application of generalized additive models (GAMs). Total counts yielded minimum density estimates of 6.0-7.7 and 6.9-7.8 individuals/km2 in spring and autumn, respectively, which are relatively high compared to other areas. Elevation and, to a lesser extent, land cover indicated by the normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) strongly affected habitat selection by blue sheep, whereas the effects of anthropogenic variables were insignificant. Animals were found mainly in habitats associated with grasslands and shrublands at elevations between 4,200 and 4,700 m. We show that the blue sheep population size in Manang has been largely maintained over the past three decades, indicating the success of the integrated conservation and development efforts in this area. Considering a strong dependence of snow leopards on blue sheep, these findings give hope for the long‐term conservation of this big cat in Manang. We suggest that long‐term population monitoring and a better understanding of blue sheep-livestock interactions are crucial to maintain healthy populations of blue sheep and, as a consequence, of snow leopards.