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by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss

Dear EarthTalk: Is the federal government’s decision to take Yellowstone’s grizzlies off of the endangered species list good news or bad news for the iconic bear?   -- Jeffrey Elder, Los Angeles, CA

It depends who you ask. The majority of environmental and wildlife advocates would prefer to keep endangered species protections in place for Yellowstone’s grizzlies, which they consider to be still at risk. Meanwhile, many ranchers, hunters and libertarians applaud the Trump administration’s decision to take the fearsome predator off the list.

But why now? According to the National Park Service (NPS), some 690 grizzly bears now roam the greater Yellowstone ecosystem—up from only 136 or so bears in 1975. “The number of females producing cubs in the park has remained relatively stable since 1996, suggesting that the park may be at or near ecological carrying capacity for grizzly bears,” reports NPS.

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke considers the delisting decision “very good news for many communities and advocates in the Yellowstone region” and “the culmination of decades of hard work and dedication on the part of state, tribal, federal and private partners.”

But the non-profit Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) counters that while grizzly bear numbers in the Greater Yellowstone area may have improved since the animals were first protected in 1975, the bears continue to be isolated from other grizzly populations and are threatened by recent increases in human-caused mortality. Meanwhile, climate change and invasive species have taken a huge toll on two of the bears’ primary food sources, whitebark pine seeds and cutthroat trout, prompting the bears to prey on livestock outside national park borders, leading to increased conflict with livestock ranchers. CBD maintains that drought and climate change are likely to worsen these problems.

Recent scientific data showing a decline in the bears’ population over the past two years as a result of “managed kills” due to livestock conflict, car crashes and poaching support CBD’s claims. The group’s senior attorney, Andrea Santarsiere, says that the Trump administration’s real reason for pushing the delisting is more about appeasing trophy hunters “who want to stick grizzly bear heads on their walls” than about concern over the health of iconic American wildlife populations. 

“This outrageously irresponsible decision ignores the best available science,” says Santarsiere. “Grizzly conservation has made significant strides, but the work to restore these beautiful bears has a long way to go.” Overall, grizzlies now occupy less than four percent of their historic U.S. range. European settlement led to the decimation of some 50,000 grizzlies that once roamed the western half of the Lower 48.

“It’s incredibly disturbing to see the Trump administration end protections for these beloved Yellowstone bears even as their numbers are falling,” says Santarsiere. “This deeply misguided decision just isn't supported by the science, so the Trump administration may be leaving itself vulnerable to a strong legal challenge.”

While the Trump administration has not made any noise to date about delisting the other major population of grizzlies in the lower 48 in and around Montana’s Glacier National Park, environmentalists worry that it’s only a matter of time given the relative population stability there too.

CONTACTS: NPS Grizzly Bear Ecology, www.nps.gov/yell/learn/nature/gbearinfo.htm; Center for Biological Diversity, www.biologicaldiversity.org.

Dear EarthTalk: Does Volvo’s embrace of electric cars signal the beginning of the end of the gas-powered internal combustion engine? ­-- Macy Vigneault, New Orleans, LA

Volvo has announced that it will only sell hybrid and electric cars beginning in 2019, signaling a shift in the auto industry as a whole toward more fuel-efficient cars that can help reduce drivers’ carbon footprints and fuel costs.

“In the next five to 10 years, every car on sale will offer a hybrid, plug-in hybrid, or full EV [electric vehicle] variant,” says Nicholas Roche of Tesla Motors, the innovative California-based electric car company, “and the adoption rate of these technologies will increase dramatically.”

But while Volvo’s announcement may indicate a sea change coming, the internal combustion engine isn't going anywhere soon. For one, there will be one in every hybrid Volvo coming out of the carmaker’s factories before and surely long after 2019 (given that hybrids by definition include both petroleum-fueled and electric drivetrains).

The key factor that will keep the internal combustion engine alive and kicking for some time yet is our massive petroleum-based refueling infrastructure; indeed, we have come to expect a gas station around every corner and off ever highway exit. Meanwhile, electric charging stations are few and far between, and charging up an EV using a regular power outlet can take several hours as compared to filling up a gas-powered car in a few minutes.

And most electric cars still can’t make it as far on a charge as their gasoline-fired equivalents can on a tank of gas (this is where hybrids come in handy, giving the driver essentially the best of both worlds).

Only recently has Tesla and other EV makers started to crack the code on range with vehicles stocked with new high-performance batteries that can meet or exceed the distances a gas fill-up would normally yield. Only time will tell if such improvements ripple out throughout the EV industry and can start to displace internal combustion engines.

That said, Volvo’s recent announcement is still significant, with company CEO Håkan Samuelsson declaring “the end of the solely combustion engine-powered car.” If and when other traditional automakers follow suit and stop making cars solely powered by gas or diesel remains to be seen, but Renault-Nissan (whose Leaf is the top selling EV in the world), BMW, Volkswagen, General Motors and Toyota are also vying for big slices of the electric car pie. Tesla continues to be the leading EV pure play out there, but a few well-heeled EV start-ups including Faraday Future, Lucid Motors, Fisker Automotive and Nio are no doubt keeping Tesla’s Elon Musk up at night.

It’s anybody’s guess when the internal combustion engine car will become a historical relic, but the rapid advance in electric vehicle and battery technologies means that a future free of automotive gasoline and diesel emissions is an achievable dream.

CONTACTS: Volvo, volvocars.com; Tesla, tesla.com; Renault Nissan, alliance-renault-nissan.com.

Dear EarthTalk: What are some ways companies are using plastic waste from the ocean in their products to take a stand for the environment? —Simone LaTourneau, Boston, MA

A recent study published in the journal Science estimates that there are some 86 million metric tons of plastic in the world’s oceans today—and that every year we add another eight million more. The pieces of plastic we discard break down into smaller and smaller bits during their travels through the ocean, but never break down completely, becoming part of our food chain when consumed by marine life. According to the non-profit Plastic Oceans, plastic particles outnumber plankton (the feedstock of the marine food chain) by a factor of 26 to one in some parts of the ocean. Meanwhile, the BBC reports that anyone consuming an “average amount” of seafood in a given year ingests some 11,000 plastic particles annually.

The good news is that some companies are trying to do their part by collecting and incorporating ocean plastic debris into their products lines and packaging. Most recently, Canada’s Lush Cosmetics announced it would start using in its packaging ocean plastic collected by volunteers in and around Vancouver, BC, where the company is based. Meanwhile, Method Home has been working with its recycling partner Envision Plastics to take plastic waste collected from beaches around Hawaii to go into its new line of Home Dish+Hand Soap bottles, now available coast-to-coast. Furthermore, Method’s soaps are mostly biodegradable and the company powers its factory with renewable wind energy.

Perhaps a more surprising user of ocean waste plastic is Dell Computers, which recently started processing plastics collected from beaches, waterways and coastal areas and using them as part of the packaging system for its leading “2-in-1” laptop line, the XPS 13. Likewise, German activewear maker Adidas has partnered with the non-profit Parley for the Oceans in launching three lines of its popular UltraBoost shoes all made from plastic debris from oceans and beaches. Each pair reuses 11 bottles worth of plastic and features laces, heel linings and sock liners also made from recycled materials.

Meanwhile, Norton Point sunglasses teamed up with the non-profit Plastic Bank in launching three styles of eco-friendly sunglasses made out of plastic collected around Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts where the company is based.

And then there’s Pharrell Williams’s newly released clothing line, G-Star RAW, which uses plastics salvaged from shorelines around the world and turns them into a clothing fiber called Bionic Yarn. Jeans, graphic tees and kimonos are the company’s first products using the nouveau earth-friendly fiber, but fashion forward consumers should stay tuned for different products and styles coming soon.

Yet another twist on keeping plastic waste out of the ocean comes from Florida-based Saltwater Brewery. By now, we all know about how those plastic six-pack can holders can get wrapped around unsuspecting marine wildlife and choke them or cause internal distress if ingested—so the small beer maker has started manufacturing so-called Edible Six Pack Rings made from barley and other natural materials that break down easily once in the ocean water column and are easy for animals to digest, just in case one or two gets loose during your next picnic or outing on the water.

CONTACTS: Plastic Oceans, www.plasticoceans.org; Lush Cosmetics, www.lush.com; Method, www.methodhome.com; Dell Ocean Plastics, www.dell.com/learn/us/en/uscorp1/corp-comm/ocean-plastics; Adidas & Parley, www.adidas.com/us/parley; Envision Plastics, www.envisionplastics.com; Norton Point, www.nortonpoint.com; Plastic Bank, www.plasticbank.org; Saltwater Brewery, www.saltwaterbrewery.com; G-Star RAW, www.g-star.com.

Dear EarthTalk: Why do antimbacterial soaps and other products with triclosan get such a bad rap from health and environmental advocates? -- Wanda Caravan, Hartford, CT
Antibacterial soap products aid in killing bacteria. But rumors that they are no more effective in doing so than traditional soap and water, coupled with concerns that such products could actually be harmful to human health and the environment, prompted the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to undertake studies, the results of which were released in 2016.

As to the possibility that these products can cause harm, the ingredient that has some scientists worried is triclosan, an antibacterial and antifungal agent that has been shown to negatively affect hormone regulation in some animals. Human health relies on a well-functioning endocrine system to regulate the release of specific hormones that regulate metabolism, sleep and mood, as well as growth and development. When certain chemicals disrupt the system, they can do major damage to the physical process of maturation.

When you use a product containing triclosan it absorbs through your skin or mouth and enters the body. One recent study found triclosan in the urine samples of 75 percent of the U.S. children and adults screened. Researchers also found that triclosan may contribute to the growth of antibiotic-resistant germs in the body. This can cause your immune system to weaken and become more vulnerable to serious illnesses and disease.

More than 95 percent of the consumer products containing triclosan are disposed of in sewage drains. As a result, the substance is now prevalent in our nation’s waterways. In fact, according to a U.S. Geological Survey study of 95 different organic wastewater contaminants in U.S. streams, triclosan was one of the most frequently detected chemicals. This is particularly worrisome because triclosan is lipophilic, meaning it can be absorbed through fatty tissues like skin—and therefore many aquatic animals may be carrying triclosan in their bodies as well.

As for the controversial question of whether antibacterial soap is more effective than traditional soap and water, the answer seems to be no. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), washing your hands thoroughly with ordinary soap and warm water is still just as effective at warding off infection as treatment with triclosan. A 2016 report by the agency found that the costs of antibacterial soaps likely outweigh the benefits, and now manufacturers will have to justify the use of triclosan in their products or pull them from store shelves.

The implications of these findings are that anti-bacterial soaps may not be widely available in the U.S. for much longer. The non-profit Beyond Pesticides reports that as a result of these negative studies, many major manufacturers “have quietly reformulated their products without triclosan.”

Says the FDA’s Theresa Michele: “Following simple handwashing practices is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of many types of infection and illness at home, at school and elsewhere…we can’t advise this enough. It’s simple, and it works.”

CONTACTS: FDA, www.fda.gov/forconsumers/consumerupdates/ucm378393.htm; Beyond Pesticides, www.beyondpesticides.org.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of the nonprofit Earth Action Network. To donate, visit www.earthtalk.org or send questions to question@earthtalk.org

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