In 2016, the giant panda was downgraded from “endangered” to “vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. ©Brad Josephs

We’ve closed the books on 2016. It’s natural to want to assess the past year, now that we’ve made it through to the end. In the past 12 months, there has been some significant, positive progress: according to World Wildlife Fund, the giant panda is no longer endangered; for the first time in years, tiger numbers grew; the Arctic’s federal waters were spared from U.S. drilling plans; and newly developed, antipoaching technology led to dozens of arrests in Africa.

What do all of these gains have in common? They were made possible because of science. It was research-based data that proved that panda and tiger populations were in grave danger, leading to the establishment of more reserves and legislation to protect them; it was empirical knowledge that showed that drilling in the Arctic’s Beaufort and Chukchi Seas would cause tremendous risks to indigenous communities, wildlife and the environment and that there was no way to effectively clean up after a spill; and it was technical know-how that led to new infrared cameras that could identify poachers from afar by their body heat—even in the dead of night.

Can 2017 hope to have any similar gains for wildlife, public lands and the environment when an attack on science has just been declared?

A recent count found that in 2016 at least 3,890 tigers were likely to exist in the wild—up from an estimated 3,200 in 2010. This increase is attributed to improved survey methods, rising tiger populations and better protection efforts in some tiger-range nations. ©Surya Ramachandran

In Wisconsin

I come from and currently live in the state where John Muir grew up and attended college, and where the first Earth Day was held, on April 22, 1970, as an environmental teach-in by United States Senator Gaylord Nelson. Wisconsin has traditionally prided itself on its environmental leadership.

But I woke up to news today—just three days into 2017—that shocked me. On December 21, 2016, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) removed language from a page on the Great Lakes on its website that stated that humans and greenhouse gases are the main cause of climate change. Whole sentences attributing global warming to human activities and rising levels of carbon dioxide have gone missing.

The Wisconsin DNR now says climate change is a matter of scientific debate. Formerly titled “Climate Change and Wisconsin’s Great Lakes,” the web page used to correctly assert that “human activities that increase heat-trapping (greenhouse) gases are the main cause” of climate change. The old text goes on to say “scientists agree” that the Great Lakes region will see longer summers and shorter winters, decreased ice cover, and changes in rain and snow “if climate change patterns continue.”

In 1970, after a massive oil spill in California, then U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin proposed Earth Day, an annual observance for environmental awareness. ©National Park Service

Now, under a new title of “The Great Lakes and a Changing World,” the DNR says, “As it has done throughout the centuries, the Earth is going through a change. The reasons for this change at this particular time in the Earth’s long history are being debated and researched by academic entities outside the Department of Natural Resources.”

The Wisconsin DNR also deleted a page from its site that included a toolkit for “classroom teachers and informal educators in parks, refuges, forestlands, nature centers, zoos, aquariums, science centers, etc., and is aimed at the middle-school grade level. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in partnership with six other federal agencies—National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA, NASA, U.S. Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management—developed the kit to aid educators in teaching how climate change is affecting the nation’s wildlife and public lands, and how everyone can become climate stewards.”

Apparently, teaching the next generation what’s actually happening to the planet and how to care for the Earth is no longer considered worthwhile.


In a report on the Great Lakes, the Wisconsin DNR stated that the reasons for climate change are “being debated.” In truth, scientists say that the Great Lakes, such as Lake Superior, are experiencing higher temperatures, increased precipitation and lengthier growing seasons that result in increased production of blue-green and toxic algae due to anthropogenic climate change.

In reality

Despite what climate-change deniers currently in charge of the Wisconsin DNR would have us believe, the science behind human-caused climate change is not being debated.

In 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international body set up by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Program to assess the science related to climate change, issued a report that surveyed the latest climate change science and found that with 95 percent certainty “that the human influence on the climate system is clear and is evident from the increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, positive radiative forcing, observed warming and understanding of the climate system.”

The report—the United Nation’s fifth since 1990also states “warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean[s] have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased.”

Glacier retreat is one of the most visible signs of rapid climate change. Notice how far the Kenai Fjords Bear Glacier in Alaska has retreated from 1909 to 2005. ©National Park Service

In 2017

It’s January 2017, and we’re entering into a dangerous time. If we don’t limit the average global temperature increase to no more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (or 2 degrees Celsius) above the preindustrial level—and the U.S. pulls out of the Paris climate accords—the world as we know it will suffer drastic changes; alterations so dramatic that humans and ecosystems both will have a hard time adapting.

But we’re also entering another—almost more sinister—epoch. Now, politicians seem to think that if they don’t like what scientific data proves, they can make the results go away, just by hiding them.

Three days into January 2017, I also read a story from Wisconsin Public Radio. It said that Wisconsin lawmakers are considering breaking up the DNR, scattering its environmental, fishing, forestry, hunting and parks programs among three existing agencies and two new ones. In other words, we won’t have a department of natural resources anymore; nor, I dare say, soon after that, any natural resources left.

Rapid climate change results in increased sea levels and storm surges, such as this one at Golden Gate National Recreation Area. ©National Park Service

I want you to be vigilant in 2017. I want you to stand up for science. I want you to be alert, attentive, observant, watchful, eagle-eyed, hawk-eyed and on the lookout for the wildlife and the places you love.

Or they could be taken from you, sentence by sentence, with a few strokes of a pen.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,