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Of packrat poop, creosote bush and juniper-fed lamb

Jodi Peterson | Jul 23, 2014 05:00 AM

How can herbivores survive munching on poisonous plants? A new study helps prove something that scientists have long suspected -- that it’s not just enzymes in an animal's liver that break down toxic compounds in plants, but that bacteria in its guts also play a major role.

As an aside, if you’re wondering why an animal would deliberately eat a naturally toxic plant, that happens for several reasons – perhaps the plant contains a lot of nutrients, or it tastes good, or both (for example, larkspur and locoweed, which plague Western cattle growers). Or maybe better-quality forage isn’t available and the animal is desperate.

The new University of Utah study focused on the woodrat (Neotoma lepida, also called packrat), found in Western deserts. In desert areas where creosote bushes grow, the bushy-tailed rodents eat it and thrive, despite a toxic resin in the leaves that can cause kidney cysts and cancer. Apparently the creatures acquired this talent some 17,000 years ago, according to a press release about the study:

“In a natural climatic event at the end of the last glacial period, the Southwest dried out and our major deserts were formed,” the study’s senior author, Denise Dearing, professor and chair of biology, says. Creosote, which was native to Mexico, moved north into the Mojave Desert and replaced juniper there, but did not go farther north into Great Basin deserts. Desert woodrats in the Mojave started eating creosote bushes, while desert woodrats in the Great Basin kept eating toxic juniper, to which they had adapted earlier."

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Canada’s boreal forests are burning – and releasing loads of carbon

Krista Langlois | Jul 22, 2014 03:05 PM

Rumbling afternoon thundershowers are breaking over the Southwest, bringing gratitude and sweet relief – not that the region needed much relieving this year. Bouts of cool, wet weather throughout early summer helped stave off the conflagrations predicted to erupt after a dry winter, and by mid-July, most areas had already been deluged by a full month’s worth of rainfall. In other words, summer monsoon season has extinguished any lingering fears that 2014 would be a bad fire year.

“In a word, fire season was underwhelming,” says Chuck Maxwell, meteorologist at the National Interagency Fire Center's Predictive Services Group. “We had near normal to probably below-normal activity.”

But as the Southwest collectively inhales the smell of rain falling on dry land, parts of the Northwest and Western Canada are bathed in acrid smoke. Nearly a million acres are burning in Washington and Oregon alone – more than what typically burns over the course of a whole year. Some 12,000 firefighters have been deployed since the fires began earlier this month.

Yet though the deadly combination of drought and summer lightning strikes have led to a particularly severe fire season in eastern Washington and Oregon, some of the West’s biggest blazes are in Canada's Northwest Territories, where the total acreage burned so far this year is six times the 25-year average. In recent years, twice as much Canadian forest has been burning annually as in the 1970s, says University of Alberta wildland fire professor Mike Flannigan, and the northwestern part of the country is experiencing its hottest, driest summer in half a century. “What we are seeing in the Northwest Territories this year is an indicator of what to expect with climate change,” Flannigan says.

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The Birch Creek fire complex in Canada's Northwest Territories. Courtesy Kelly Pennycook, Environment and Natural Resources, Government of the Northwest Territories, and Dennis Quintill, via NWTFire. Photograph taken July 14,2014.

While fires in sparsely populated northern Canada have less of an impact on human safety and infrastructure than those in the Pacific Northwest, their effect on the environment may be greater. The ancient, stunted boreal forests that ring the Arctic Circle contain 30 percent of the world's land-based carbon, and when they burn, that carbon is released into the atmosphere, exacerbating global warming.

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A bison boost for Native economies

Wyatt Orme | Jul 22, 2014 05:00 AM

“Buffalo is better for you than skinless chicken,” Karlene Hunter will tell you. “It has more omega-3s than an avocado.”

Hunter is a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and CEO of Native American Natural Foods. The company, which she cofounded in 2007, makes all-natural, low-calorie buffalo snacks (Tanka Bars, Tanka Sticks, Tanka Bites) sold in over 6,000 retail outlets, including Whole Foods, REI and Costco.

Larger than the state of Delaware, the Pine Ridge Reservation is in Shannon County, one of the poorest in the United States. In a 2012 New York Times op-ed, columnist Nicholas Kristof dubbed the reservation “poverty’s poster child.” At the time of his reporting, half the adults over forty had diabetes and the unemployment rate hovered around 70 percent.

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Buffalo in Yellowstone National Park. Photograph from Flickr user, Jerry Burke.

Hunter’s company, which aims to source its food and ingredients from Native American producers, is now beginning a new project: Help native ranchers find economic opportunities and create more Native American sources of buffalo meat for her products.Currently Native American Natural Foods buys the wild rice it uses from Red Lake Nation Foods in Minnesota and its cranberries from processors in Wisconsin who deal directly with native growers. Yet only 17 percent of the company’s buffalo supply comes from Native producers. The new project, called the Tanka Fund, would help finance and support Natives in raising bison on Indian land in Western and Midwestern states. To make this happen, the company recently teamed up with Indian Land Tenure Foundation, a national organization that restores Native control of reservation lands that have fallen out of tribal ownership.

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Efficiency lessons from Germany

Jonathan Thompson | Jul 21, 2014 05:05 AM

Just days after its national soccer team became world champions, Germany won another less glamorous but important competition: It was ranked number one in energy efficiency by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. The United States, meanwhile, showed even less proficiency for efficiency than for soccer. It finished a dismal 13th place out of 16 countries, beating out only Brazil, Russia and Mexico.

Somehow, I doubt that the poor ranking will bruise American pride. After all, as a nation we tend to look upon efficiency and conservation with about as much fondness as Ann Coulter has for soccer. We mistakenly conflate consuming less power with having less power, and thus see efficiency as impotence — a world of slow cars, dim lightbulbs, tepid showers and unbathed, tofu-eating wimps. We live in a land of abundance, especially those of us in the American West, so have no pressing need to make do with less. And even when we try to wean ourselves from fossil fuels, we tend to emphasize the more — more solar plants, more wind farms, more desert covered with gleaming mirrors — than on simply consuming less in the first place.

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Efficiency hasn't slowed growth in Germany. Here, cranes construct hundreds of new housing units alongside a huge, new park in central Berlin. It was made possible in part by federal laws that require developers to fund green spaces. Photo by Jonathan Thompson.

Germany, meanwhile, is in the throes of its Energiewende — the transition away from coal and nuclear towards renewable energy sources. During the first half of 2014, nearly one-third of Germany’s electricity came from renewable sources. They’ve accomplished this, in part, by a strong feed-in-tariff policy that incentivizes the installation of rooftop solar or small- to medium-scale wind power. Often overlooked, though is the less sexy side of the Energiewende: A policy to reduce energy consumption by 20 percent by 2020 (compared to 2008 levels) and a whopping 50 percent by 2050 via higher building standards, better appliances and the like. Thus the number one ranking in energy efficiency.

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Washington’s new clean-water plan is a mixed bag

Kevin Taylor | Jul 18, 2014 05:10 AM

Washington’s governor last week announced a bold approach for creating cleaner, safer waters for fish and the people who eat them. Unless he didn’t.

Every day, the state’s Department of Health releases a map of waterways so polluted that restrictions are placed on the amount and types of fish people should eat. Washington has many troubled waterways, including the industrialized Duwamish River (“River of No Return,” HCN June 23, 2014). On the other side of the state, an entire section of the Spokane River has signs posted near its banks (and on the state map) warning: “Don’t eat any fish.”

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Advisory from the Washington state health department.

The state has been under pressure recently from the federal Environmental Protection Agency to revise its fish consumption rate to better protect the health of people who eat locally caught fish. (The rate is a measurement of how much fish is being consumed, in order to help state officials decide how to regulate pollution accordingly. Until now, the rate has been out of date and misleadingly low.) The EPA, in turn, is being pressured thanks to a lawsuit filed last year by tribes and environmental groups, who argue that many Indians, immigrants and impoverished people eat far more fish than the state currently assumes.

Gov. Inslee agrees. “I gotta tell you, there are people who eat a lot of fish,” he said at his press conference last week. Inslee announced Washington would match Oregon with the most-protective “fish consumption rate” in the nation at 175 grams per day. The new rate assumes that each Washington resident, on average, consumes a six-ounce serving of locally caught fish per day, or a little more than 11 pounds a month, and that waterways must be clean enough that levels of pollutants like mercury or PCBs accumulating in fish won’t kill anyone. The current standard is based on an assumption of 6.5 grams per day, or a little more than five pounds in a year.

But moments after unveiling the higher consumption rate, Inslee proposed a tenfold weakening of the state’s water quality standards that protect against cancer risk. Amid criticism, Inslee insisted there’s “no backsliding” on water standards and that “there is no either-or between environmental and economic health.”

The regional head of the EPA appears to think the change is backsliding. “If Washington reduces the level of cancer risk protection … tribes, certain low-income, minority communities, and other high fish consuming groups could be provided less protection than they have now,” EPA’s Region 10 director Dennis McLerran wrote to a state senator just days before Inslee’s announcement. By increasing the fish consumption rate but rolling back the cancer risk assessment — two arcane calculations in the formula that sets water quality standards — "they are giving with one hand and taking away with the other," said Fran Wilshusen, habitat director for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

The governor’s advisory team was surprised to discover there would indeed be less protection when crunching the numbers, said Kelly Susewind, special assistant to the director of the state Department of Ecology. Which is why, Susewind said, the rollback is a “hybrid” in which the standards are weakened across the board, but the department will not allow discharge (from industry or municipalities) of cancer-causing toxic at levels higher than presently permitted.

Critics of the cancer risk assessment change call it a concession to industry and municipal wastewater dischargers. The dischargers argue tougher clean water standards are prohibitively expensive and may even be unreachable with current technology. Boeing derailed former Gov. Christine Gregoire’s attempt at setting a higher fish consumption rate that may have catalyzed stricter pollution standards in 2012, according to documents obtained by the independent journalist group, InvestigateWest.

“Business is worried about the economic impact” of tougher water quality standards, Susewind said. “(Companies) are looking at investing on a 20- or 30-year schedule, and they ask, ‘How will I know that 10 years from now I (won’t) end up with a limit I can’t comply with?’” Susewind said. The governor’s plan, he said, allows business more certainty.

“So the good news is that nothing is getting worse?” asked Chris Wilke, executive director of Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, a nonprofit that’s been pushing for bigger improvements to water quality standards for years. “That’s not why we started this process,” Wilke said, referring to the quest for a more realistic (and higher) fish consumption rate that would require stricter water standards.

Wilshusen has been advocating for a more protective fish consumption rate since the mid-1990s. She praises Inslee for raising the rate, but said all the moving parts to the governor’s plan, including running it through the legislature next year before it’s actually implemented, make its success far from certain.

“It’s like when you were a kid and ordered something from the back of a comic book,” Wilshusen said. “And when the envelope comes in the mail, you open it and say, ‘Hey! It didn’t look like that.’”

After 25 years of work, she said, “What we got this week is disappointing.”

Kevin Taylor writes from Spokane, Washington, where he does not eat the fish.

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California gears up to fine water wasters: Should we turn our neighbors in?

Judith Lewis Mernit | Jul 17, 2014 07:50 AM

Five years ago, when south-central Texas was suffering through its driest year in more than a century, public officials in the city of San Antonio turned in desperation to a new tactic to enforce water conservation: They dispatched the police. From April of 2009 and on through the rest of the year, off-duty officers and other city employees prowled neighborhoods looking for over-green lawns, leaky hoses and inveterate sidewalk-washers, issuing tickets to observed offenders. The city also set up an online form residents could use to report their neighbors, just in case the authorities let one slide.

"We don't go out in a car with sirens blazing or anything like that,” San Antonio Water System spokeswoman Anne Hayden said back then. “But we do take the report and send out a letter saying, 'You've been reported for not following water rules.'"

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Sprinkler on the sidewalk. Photograph by Flickr user Jeremy Price.

The gambit may have seemed extreme at the time, but it worked. The city used no more water in 2009 than it did in 1984, even with nearly twice the population. By 2011, the “water police,” along with other aggressive conservation policies, had driven the city’s water use down 130 gallons per person per day — about two-thirds of the state average. San Antonio’s now-permanent conservation ordinance has kept the water level in the Edwards aquifer stable enough to sustain both an endangered blind salamander and the city’s drinking water supply through successive years of drought.

In California, state and local officials have long been mulling a way to achieve a similar kind of success, and persuade the state’s residents to stop wasting water in this third driest year of the century. In January, Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency, asking the state’s residents politely to reduce their water use by 20 percent. It’s almost as if no one read the news that week: Statewide water use hardly declined at all; in some places, such as coastal San Diego and west Lake Tahoe, water consumption actually went up.

So on Tuesday, the State Water Control Board decided more draconian measures were in order. The agency directed local jurisdictions that don’t already have mandatory water restrictions in place to adopt them: No more hosing off driveways, running fountains that don’t recirculate and watering the sidewalk with a poorly aimed sprinklers. And it authorized local agencies to fine water scofflaws as much as $500 per day.

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This hummingbird's survival hinges on precipitation, new study shows

Sarah Tory | Jul 16, 2014 04:05 PM

Every year, the rufous hummingbird – a tiny fire-colored ball of feathers that weighs just three grams – flies up to 3,900 miles from its winter home in Mexico all the way to Alaska. At about three inches long, the rufous takes one of the longest migratory journeys of any bird its size. Over the past several decades, however, the feisty hummingbird has suffered: its numbers are declining at a rate of 3 percent per year, and now, scientists have a new theory as to why.

The rufous hummingbird is declining by 3 percent a year. Scientists believe drier conditions in the West are largely to blame. Photography by Flickr user Andrew Reding.

Most scientific studies have focused on the fact that warmer temperatures push some birds into higher, cooler elevations and latitudes, but there’s no consensus yet about how climate-driven changes in rain and snowfall will impact them. Yet newly published research that looked at climate impacts to 132 bird species across five western states and British Columbia, suggests that precipitation plays a surprisingly important role for many bird species, and particularly, for the rufous’ long-term survival.

“The findings suggest that many birds tune into things that are controlled not by temperature but (mostly by) moisture availability, which carries over from the winter snowpack,” said Julia Jones, a geoscience professor at Oregon State University who participated in the study. According to the report, rain and snow trends had major impacts on the population patterns of 60 percent of the bird species studied.


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Grasshopper plagues: agricultural nightmare or ecological boon?

Krista Langlois | Jul 15, 2014 12:35 PM

In early June, meteorologists at the National Weather Service in Albuquerque, New Mexico, were puzzled: There was a big splotch on the radar that didn’t look like any weather system they’d ever seen. Maybe their software had a bug?

Turns out, the dark green blob hovering over Albuquerque wasn’t a software glitch at all but a giant swarm of grasshoppers. John Garlisch, an agricultural extension agent at New Mexico State University, told Modern Farmer that the state’s dry winter allowed more grasshopper eggs than usual to hatch this spring, and the ongoing drought has caused a dearth of fresh growth on rural rangeland, forcing the swarm to take flight in search of greener pastures. The well-watered gardens of Albuquerque must’ve looked mighty appealing.

By now, the grasshoppers have mostly died of natural causes or been eaten by cats, says forecaster Brent Wachter of the National Weather Service. But this summer’s incident raises the question: As climate change continues to impact weather patterns across the West, will grasshopper swarms big enough to show up on Doppler radar become a more regular concern? And if so, how concerned should we be?

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The water-energy nexus could become a collision in a warming world

Jonathan Thompson | Jul 11, 2014 03:15 AM

If you thought fracking was a water-guzzling and violent way to get the oil and gas flowing from shale, then you should check out oil shale* retorting. Earlier this month, details were made public regarding an oil shale project Chevron proposes for western Colorado. Of particular note was the amount of energy and water it will take to produce 100,000 barrels of oil per day. If you think about it, it makes about as much sense as melting down five quarters to make a silver dollar.

In 2012, Chevron announced it was ceasing its oil shale research operations to focus on other things. However, the company continued to pursue water rights associated with the project. Boulder-based environmental group Western Resource Advocates wondered why, and took Chevron to court to find out. It turns out they still want to develop oil shale by strip mining the shale and then using Staged Turbulent Bed retorting, which “processes mined and crushed oil shale rock to remove the shale oil by heat transfer … accomplished by mixing spent oil shale, which has been heated (to temperatures as high as 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit) in a separate combuster, with fresh shale, causing the fresh shale to decompose and release the shale oil,” as it's described in the Chevron documents. They’re planning on cooking a bunch of rocks, in other words, and that requires water.

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In order to cool and condense the steam in its turbines, the Four Corners Power Plant in northwestern New Mexico built Morgan Reservoir on an arid mesa next to the plant. Windsurfers can occasionally be seen enjoying the warmed waters of the lake. Photo by Jonathan Thompson.

Chevron says it will need 16,000 acre feet — or 5.2 billion gallons — of water per year to retort 100,000 barrels of oil per day, or about three-and-a-half gallons of water for every gallon of oil produced. An additional 8,000 acre feet per year will be needed to slake the thirst of their man camps, serve other purposes and, the other crazy part of all of this, generate energy. Chevron estimates that they’ll need a 375-megawatt natural gas fired power plant to generate the heat required to retort the shale. The power plant, in turn, will require 2,520 acre feet of water per year to operate. The Chevron documents suggest they may try to produce as much as 500,000 barrels per day, meaning they’d need about 120,000 acre feet of water in all, more than one-third of Las Vegas’ allotted share of the Colorado River.

In the documents, Chevron admits that the whole endeavor remains economically unfeasible, and thus has no plans to start mining shale anytime soon. But the details are telling because they shine a light on the water-energy nexus. That is, it takes a lot of water to produce most sources of energy. And moving and treating water requires a lot of energy, which takes a lot of water, which… well, you get the picture. As the world warms and potentially dries up, says a recent report from the Department of Energy, the water-energy nexus is likely to pose challenges, and the connection could become a full-fledged collision.

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Lake Mead watch: At lowest levels since 1937

Sarah Tory | Jul 10, 2014 11:35 AM

For almost two decades, the white band of mineral deposits circling Arizona’s Lake Mead like a bathtub ring, has grown steadily taller, a sign that America’s largest manmade water source is in deep trouble. This week it fell to its lowest level since 1937, when Hoover Dam was completed and the reservoir filled.

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The white bathtub ring around Lake Mead shows how much water levels have fallen in recent years. Credit: Chris Richards/Flickr.

The record-setting mark of 1,082 feet  is just seven feet shy of the level that would spur more strict water rationing. It's the latest indication of  a worrisome trend affecting the Colorado River Basin: an unholy mix of drought exacerbated by climate change and increasing water use that’s leaving 40 million people who depend on the river for their drinking water and an entire region of water dependent industries thirstier than ever.

Water in Lake Mead has been dropping steadily since 1998, the last year in which the reservoir was near capacity. Currently it’s just 39 percent full, a number that the Bureau of Reclamation predicts will continue to drop.

There’s a 50 percent chance that by 2017, water levels in Lake Mead will have fallen below 1,075 feet, the amount needed to trigger water use restrictions for Arizona and Nevada. Those two states will be rationed first, out of the seven that share Colorado River water.

So you’d think that the seven states that rely on the Colorado River would be working frantically to reduce the amount of water they take out of the river.  Well, not quite. Despite diminishing river flows and climate change models that indicate more intense and frequent dry spells, a growing population throughout the West mean most of the cities and water districts in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona are planning to use more Colorado River water, not less.

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