Black-and-white warbler (Photo by Don Reimer)
Black-and-white warbler (Photo by Don Reimer)
Our Confronting the End of Everything series discusses how, politically, Maine people could help avoid the human-caused environmental disasters facing the earth. These include global warming and the threats to many forms of life touched upon in this column.

“… there was no stronger power in this town than the power of denial.” — from “Swing Low” by Miriam Toews

Scientists have solidly confirmed that insects and birds have rapidly declined in vast numbers worldwide. The declines are interrelated; many bird species depend on insects for food.

The implications of the declines are shocking. In this series, we’ve discussed climate change, which contributes to the insect and bird losses. But global warming is only one cause of the immense tragedy that humans and other creatures potentially face — a tragedy that many of our leaders, including Maine’s, aren’t seriously confronting. By their limited response, they deny that it’s occurring.

Summarizing the issue, a United Nations report earlier this year warned that one million species are threatened with extinction. Economically and socially, “transformative changes are needed to restore and protect nature,” the report urges.

Insect apocalypse

In the summer, do you notice that the outdoor light on your porch is not so mobbed by moths as in the past? And that you don’t see a mass of smooshed insects accumulating on your car windshield when you drive somewhere?

The statistical evidence and the significance of the worldwide loss of insects in both numbers and species was laid out this year in a review of 73 historical reports in the scientific journal Biological Conservation: The dramatic declines “may lead to the extinction of 40 percent of the world’s insect species over the next few decades.”

Pointing out that insects are critical “for helping sustain life on earth,” Phillip deMaynadier, a state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biologist, told me of his concerns about several bee and butterfly species. Over 20 years, the beautiful monarch butterfly has declined, he said, by 80 to 90 percent in North America.

As for bees, the Biological Conservation report notes that they account “for a third of all pollinators.” Pollinators allow the reproduction of flowering plants.

Among the most important studies the report cites is a Puerto Rico rainforest survey covering 36 years. Between 78 and 98 percent of the “ground-foraging and canopy-dwelling” insects declined in numbers observed. Another big study described was in Germany, covering more than 27 years at nature preserves. It saw a 76-percent drop in the numbers of flying insects.

In the report, “intensive” (in other words, corporate or large-scale) agriculture was identified as a major agent of the declines, especially in its enormous application of pesticides. And then there’s the general encroachment on animal habitat by humans. (The world’s urban areas have more than doubled since 1992, according to the UN.) Global warming was also cited as a major factor, especially in the tropics.

Showing how interconnected life is, in the Puerto Rican rainforest there were “parallel declines in birds, frogs, and lizards” that eat insects. People pay more attention to bird and mammal losses, but insects support much of the life “above” them. Without insects, many ecosystems would fail. Animal pollination is needed for 75 percent of food crops.

DeMaynadier pointed out that besides pollination and “the basic food-chain function,” insects are necessary for decomposing organic matter and keeping the soil aerated.

Bird Armageddon

Earlier this year also, the prestigious journal Science reported that in the United States and Canada bird populations had experienced a “staggering decline,” with 3 billion fewer birds than 50 years ago, a decrease of 29 percent. This development signals “a widespread ecological crisis,” according to the American Bird Conservancy. Similar declines have been reported in Europe.

The lead author of the Science study, at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, said the declines for the first time “showed pervasive losses among common birds across all habitats, including backyard birds.” The declines included a 64-percent plunge in the number of Eastern forest birds. These include the melodious thrushes and warblers that a Maine hiker thrills to hear.

In its outline of the report, the Bird Conservancy notes that grassland species saw a 53-percent reduction in numbers. Shorebirds — another treasured Maine population — were a third fewer. The study compiled data from people across the continent who count birds as well as from weather radar, which shows flocks.

The guilty parties identified are the same as for insects: habitat loss (“especially due to agricultural intensification”), urbanization, climate change, and “pervasive use of pesticides associated with widespread declines in insects, an essential food source for birds.” In addition, cats and windows are problems.

Again, the warnings are dire. “Studies like this do suggest the potential of a systems collapse,” a leading British scientist commented to the Washington Post.

Adrienne Leppold, an IF&W biologist, told me the situation is “beyond it being urgent.” Even if action to counter the losses is taken promptly, “the future does not look bright for a lot of species.”

She singled out the decline of the grasshopper sparrow, now on the endangered list, and of the breeding population of the great blue heron on our coastal islands, which is down 83 percent since 1983.

Herb Wilson, a Colby College ornithologist, said he found the study data “pretty compelling,” adding that “sadly,” there’s not much public consciousness of what’s happening.

Sally Stockwell, the Maine Audubon Society’s longtime conservation director and a wildlife ecologist, said it’s clear that Maine birds “are following similar trends to what we see across the country.” Our hermit thrush and wood thrush, for example, have declined by 40 to 50 percent over the past 40 to 50 years, she said.

“These are interior forest-nesting birds,” she added, thriving in “big patches of forest.” Thus, they’re victims of forest fragmentation.

There has been an even bigger decline — 70 percent, she said — in “aerial insectivores” like tree swallows and swifts. Here the cause, obviously, is the decline of insects. The same goes for warblers in the forest; they feed insects to their young.

Stockwell thought there was “a pretty good connection” between a pervasive insect-killing pesticide family called neonicotinoids (or neonics) and the loss of birds.

Other lives threatened

Humans are also posing immense threats to other life forms. Let’s just note a few facts in passing:

— If you’re 50 years old, you have lived during a period in which 60 percent of the number of wild animals in the world have disappeared.

— The UN report on species extinction notes that “more than 40 percent of amphibian species, almost 33 percent of reef-forming corals, and more than a third of all marine animals are threatened.”

— Last year there was a heartbreaking story in the Portland Press Herald: “Decades of chemical pollution suspected in Maine’s seal die-off.”

— On November 14 of this year, in the same newspaper: “Scientists meeting in Portland say right whales on path to extinction.”

— IF&W’s biologist deMaynadier reminded me that Maine’s iconic brook trout need insects to eat. They also need cold stream and lake water. All are becoming increasingly scarce.

Let’s also note in passing a couple of the Trump administration’s moves that will accelerate the great die-off:

— The administration has weakened the Endangered Species Act. Seventeen states have sued to try to block this action. (Maine is not among them. The office of Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey, a Democrat, told me, “We do not plan to sign on at this time,” but would not say why.)

— Trump is aggressively rolling back environmental regulations, promoting fossil-fuel development, and opening public lands to mining.

It’s not just Donald Trump, however. We are all responsible. In our personal lives, of course. But this series is about what, politically, is being done and could be done in Maine.

What is being done?

One possible answer is that Maine politicians are making things worse.

Although restraining global warming depends on global efforts, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills’ and the Democratic Legislature’s attempts to help deal with the Climate Crisis could contribute to the survival of Maine’s insects, birds, and other life, such as by keeping intact and preserving more of our carbon-dioxide-absorbing forest.

But as I have noted in a previous column, it’s questionable whether Mills is “for real” on climate change, with her possibly already-achieved “carbon neutral” goal.

In addition, her promotion of the Central Maine Power Co. transmission-line corridor through the North Woods and her acquiescence in the Land Use Planning Commission’s new rules allowing more development in the North Woods strongly encourage more forest-habitat fragmentation.

What about pesticides and herbicides? Both Mills and the Legislature do not appear to be dealing with them as a priority.

The Legislative Council decided at its October 23 meeting not to allow three bills into the upcoming legislative session that would have required more regulation of the controversial neonicotinoid insecticides or the equally controversial herbicide glyphosate (known by the brand name Roundup). The council is composed of legislative leadership.

Senate president Troy Jackson (D-Allagash) was the only Democrat on the council to vote against all three bills. When I asked for the reasoning behind his votes, his office referred to the criterion that only “emergency” bills should be allowed into the second regular session, which gets down to work in January. In practice, however, any bill that gets a majority vote constitutes an “emergency.”

Rep. Stanley Paige Zeigler (D-Montville), an advocate for pesticide regulation, thought it was significant to mention to me that in Jackson’s Aroostook Country district there are many potato farmers. Farmers often use a lot of pesticides and herbicides.

In fairness, Jackson has shown some sensitivity to these issues. He got a bill through the first session requiring one-time monitoring of aerial herbicide spraying, with a report due in the coming year. And his office said he’s “working on a bill to ban the aerial spraying of herbicides containing glyphosates.”

Two of the bills the council shot down had been sponsored by Rep. Lori Gramlich (D-Old Orchard Beach) and dealt with banning glyphosate. At the council’s December 6 meeting, appeals will be heard, but Gramlich won’t be appealing because, she said, she wants to focus on the one bill she did get approved, a narrower one to keep glyphosate away from children. At this point, it’s the only herbicide or pesticide bill the Legislature for sure will take up.

Rep. Nicole Grohoski (D-Ellsworth), however, will be appealing the rejection of her bill that seeks to ban home and landscape use of three neonicotinoids. She said she has been concerned about “the collapse of pollinators” and has heard from “multiple constituents” about the issue.

Another pesticide bill has a chance to be admitted. Bangor Democratic Sen. Geoffrey Gratwick’s measure to increase regulation of chlorpyrifos was tabled to allow him to appeal.

A retired physician, Gratwick told me chlorpyrifos creates “many medical problems.” He called it a “nasty chemical” and said it was going to be banned by the Environmental Protection Agency until the Trump administration decided differently. It was banned from home use in 2001 but is heavily used in agriculture. It kills both insects and worms. It’s used on corn, cotton, and many other crops.

Concerns about pesticides and herbicides occur around the world. Neonicotinoids are the most widely used insecticides, toxic to both insects and birds. Used both in the home and in agriculture, they’re considered by Environment Maine, the Center for Food Safety, Friends of the Earth, the League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club, and other groups as big offenders in the worldwide decline of bees. These groups want them banned.

But in 2017 our state horticulturist, Gary Fish, joined chemical-industry, farm, and retailer interests to kill a bill that would have more stringently regulated neonicotinoids. “First and foremost,” he told a legislative committee, “Maine bee scientists do not find associations between neonicotinoids and pollinator decline.”

Other scientists apparently do. The European Food Safety Authority banned their use on crops in 2013. A year later, they were banned in American national wildlife refuges, though last year the Trump administration removed the ban.

Glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide. It’s used massively in forestry and agriculture. The World Health Organization’s cancer-research panel has classified it as “probably carcinogenic in humans.” Scientific evidence is beginning to pile up that it’s harmful to bees. Germany has decided to ban it because of its effects on insects. (“What we need is more humming and buzzing,” Germany’s environment minister is quoted as saying.)

On its own, the State of Maine has never banned any pesticide or herbicide, following instead “the lead of its federal counterparts at the EPA,” Megan Patterson, director of the Board of Pesticides Control, told me. The board has restricted some at the state level.

Asked how concerned Governor Mills is about these issues, her communications chief, Scott Ogden, responded by email with a narrow focus: the Maine Climate Council, which is coordinating efforts to deal with global warming, will come up with recommendations, he said, to deal with the changing climate’s effects on wildlife. He was unresponsive on whether the governor will introduce bills dealing with pesticides and herbicides.

But Ogden mentioned ongoing partnerships between state government and Maine Audubon to “integrate bird conservation with forest management and planning efforts” and produce a new Maine Bird Atlas.

And Maine’s IF&W department will be joining with Audubon and the Maine Entomological Society to conduct a year-long study beginning this January of the state’s insect population. It will be gathering data from scientists to help figure out “strategies” required to reduce threats to insects.

Sarah Haggerty, a conservation biologist at Audubon, said that for the study the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund has provided $12,000 (the money comes from lottery-ticket proceeds) to hire a temporary biostatistician.

Haggerty emphasized that the decline of insects is serious. When we understand the meaning of the loss, “it is really going to change the way the world looks to us.”

Maybe.

Not enough

So, the state government is doing a little. Considering the size of the threat, very little. Mostly, studies. Except in wartime or during major economic crisis, government is slow-moving. A big reason is that politicians feel they must negotiate among various interests. They pay special heed to vested interests. In practice, that means interests with a financial stake, represented by lobbyists.

The UN’s threatened-species report warns that “opposition from vested interests” can be expected worldwide. The report ventured that these forces could be overcome with a “fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic, and social factors.” In other words, by a dramatic change in everything we do — a very big task.

There’s another, related factor hindering human response to human-caused biological catastrophe. I began this column with a quote about denial, which comes in various forms. As I just suggested, paid denial is common. Looking away from unpleasantness is extremely common. Perhaps the most common form of denial is caused simply by habit.

Even so, what can be done? And who should be held to account? Those will be the subjects of the next and concluding part of this series.