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Closure of federal sheep facility would be a victory for grizzlies

Sarah Gilman | Aug 20, 2014 05:05 AM

On the last day of August, 2012, a collared grizzly bear dubbed 726 by federal wildlife biologists vanished into the rugged Centennial Mountains on the Idaho-Montana border. A few weeks later, they recovered his collar near an established campsite. It appeared to have been cut, stoking suspicions that hunters may have shot the bear, a federally protected species, then hidden its carcass to avoid prosecution. Some environmental groups floated a more sinister theory (followed this June with a lawsuit), that the bear had been offed by a shepherd defending a flock that belonged not to a rancher, but to a federal institution: The Agricultural Research Service’s U.S. Sheep Experiment Station.

Today, despite investigators’ best efforts, the bear’s fate remains unknown. But its presence in those mountains underscores their importance as a wildlife highway between the greater Yellowstone ecosystem and pristine chunks of habitat to the west and north in Idaho and Montana (the mountains are within the “High Divide,” #2 on this map), particularly for Yellowstone’s expanding populations of grizzlies and wolves. Livestock don’t mix well with hungry predators; once a bear has learned how easy it is to take down a sheep or six, it’s likely to come back for more, and wildlife managers must kill it.

Environmental groups like the National Wildlife Federation have long worked with federal agencies and ranchers to head off such conflicts, negotiating the removal of livestock from more than 600,000 acres of federal land around Yellowstone. The Sheep Experiment Station, which grazes sheep on tens of thousands of acres in the Centennials, is something of a last holdout – and as I reported early in 2012, is pretty much working at cross purposes with the stated grizzly recovery goals of the Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and others. 

Yellowstone Griz small
The grizzly bear population in and around Yellowstone National Park has grown robust enough that the animals are dispersing outwards via habitat corridors like the one provided by the Centennial Mountains.

This summer, though, it’s begun to look as if the century-old institution might finally shut its doors – not for environmental reasons, but for financial ones. “A prolonged period of declining and flat budgets has resulted in underfunded programs at the (station),” Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack wrote in a letter this June, informing a Congressional appropriations subcommittee of the USDA’s plans to reassign the facility’s budget and employees. “The unit no longer has the critical mass of scientists necessary to address high priority research.”

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How much does a great monsoon season relieve drought?

Cally Carswell | Aug 19, 2014 05:10 AM

Since moving to New Mexico four months ago, I have taken up a strange new hobby. I call it "puddle peeping." It's cheap and easy. Any weirdo can do it: First, I make mental note of depressions in the patchy asphalt outside of my apartment. After it rains, I check on them periodically to see how long the puddles that form in them last. There's a good one next to the Zumba studio across the street that I watch from the window near my desk. As I type this, it's supporting a puddle about three feet wide. Amazing! I thought when I saw it. So far as I know, it didn't rain here this morning, last night, or anytime yesterday. That puddle, my friends, has persisted for more than 24 hours.

Sunset on another neighborhood puddle, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Courtesy Colin Dyck.

Before you write me off as someone you'd never want to have a beer with, in my defense, long-lasting puddles are rare natural phenomena in arid New Mexico, especially on sun-baked asphalt in the summer. Evaporation is such a powerful force here that sidewalks are often dry less than an hour after it rains. The first time I noticed a puddle in that spot across the street last for more than a day, it gave me a small thrill. Now, though, the puddle's novelty is starting to wane. Since at least July, it's materialized a couple of times a week. The puddle has become a feature of the neighborhood nearly as reliable as the four chihuahuas down the street who do their best to terrify my much larger mutt every time we pass their fence.

This monsoon season has been generous to New Mexico, with blessedly above average precipitation falling over most of the state since mid-June (see first map to the right). In early August, one of the more dramatic storms unleashed nearly 3 inches of rain on downtown Albuquerque, turning Central Avenue into a rushing river, and making my neighborhood puddle look pitiful by comparison.

2014 Monsoon Map NM
Percent of average precipitation in New Mexico since June 15. Darkest green indicates 200% above normal.

Arizona hasn't been nearly as wet, but the rains have made a decent showing there, too (see second map to the right).

AZ Monsoon Map 2014
Percent of average precipitation in Arizona since June 15. Darkest green indicates 200% above normal.

The monsoons have, undoubtedly, given the residents of drought-plagued New Mexico and Arizona some measure of emotional relief. But how much real drought relief have they delivered?

The quick answer: Some, but not enough. And, it depends, on where you are and what drought impacts you're worried about.

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Poll shows strong Latino support for conservation

Sarah Tory | Aug 18, 2014 05:00 AM

Max Trujillo caught the conservation bug during childhood summers spent with his father hunting, hiking and camping in the wilderness of northern New Mexico. In the years that followed, Trujillo noticed that many Hispanic families were out enjoying the woods, but they weren’t involved in the mainstream environmental movement.

“As a community, we’re grossly underrepresented, and we’ve allowed that (trend) to grow in the conservation arena,” Trujillo, who is now 50 and lives in Las Vegas, New Mexico, told me recently.

So two years ago, Trujillo helped found one of the first national Latino organizations dedicated to conservation in the southwest, HECHO (Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and Outdoors), with the goal of translating Latino outdoor enthusiasm into more direct action to protect public lands, particularly from the increase in oil and gas activity near wilderness areas.

Trujillo had a hunch that the avid outdoor recreation streak he was seeing among Hispanics might also point to strong conservationist leanings. To test that, HECHO conducted a poll of 200 Latinos of voting age in Colorado and New Mexico, which asked about their participation in activities like hunting and camping, as well as their views on energy development and public land protections. In June, HECHO posted some surprising results.

For one, a whopping 93 percent of those interviewed said they believe the government should protect public lands for recreation and the overall health of the environment. What’s more, the results spanned age demographics and party affiliation, a clear indication, says Trujillo, that for Latinos partisanship doesn’t play a role in how they value the land.

A recent poll confirms overwhelming support for conservation among Latinos.

More than half the respondents—no matter their political affiliation—said they would like to see oil and gas companies prove their development won’t harm the environment or limit access to public land. These respondents said they would prefer a candidate who enforced such a view.

That’s especially significant given that over 40 percent of Latinos polled in both states acknowledge that natural gas extraction has the potential to create jobs.

Furthermore, the poll found that 77 percent supported a plan requiring oil companies to pay royalties on natural gas they burn in the extraction process in order to pay for pollution-mitigation efforts and to support conservation programs.

“It’s interesting,” said Maite Arce, the President of the Hispanic Access Foundation, “that given the diversity of the Hispanic community, support for conservation sees unanimous agreement. And for candidates who want to court the Latino vote, it also makes the environment a potential issue.

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Western states among the most dangerous for pedestrians and motorists

Jonathan Thompson | Aug 14, 2014 02:25 PM

If you’ve ever walked or biked alongside a Western highway, you know what it is to feel small, slow and vulnerable. Cars and trucks rip by, often without slowing or moving over, at outrageous speeds, their resulting wind gust threatening to knock you down, or worse, sucking you under a big rig’s wheels. Rural highways often don't even have paved shoulders, not to mention bike lanes. It can be terrifying.

Statistics released earlier this year by the National Highway Safety Administration suggest that your fear is perfectly rational. In 2012 — the most recent year of data — more than 1,300 pedestrians and cyclists were killed on Western roads. And Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico had unusually high pedestrian fatality rates, putting them among the top ten most dangerous in the nation for walkers.

Locations of pedestrian fatalities, 2003-2012, as compiled by Smart Growth America. Click on the image to go to the interactive map.

Meanwhile, being safely ensconced inside a hurtling can of death — er, a car — isn’t so safe, either, particularly in Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming, where motor vehicle fatality rates were about twice the national rate. While that’s likely due to the fact that folks in those states drive more miles, on average, than just about anywhere else in the U.S., there’s also a correlation between fatalities and energy booms: Many of North Dakota’s fatal crashes were clustered in Williams and McKenzie counties, home of the Bakken oil rush, and that state has seen a major jump in the number of fatal crashes involving large trucks.

As has long been the case, Native Americans are killed by car accidents — both as occupants and as pedestrians — at a much higher rate than other races and ethnicities. New Mexico's poor ranking (number 2 in the nation) in pedestrian safety is partly driven by a high pedestrian death rate in McKinley and San Juan counties, both of which have a high population of Native Americans. An analysis by Governing magazine found that pedestrian fatalities also occur at a higher rate in poor neighborhoods nationwide, and New Mexico is one of the poorest states (the South outdoes the West, though, when it comes to killing-by-car).

On the brighter side, the nation’s highways are generally getting safer, for both motorists and pedestrians. The period from 2009-2012 was the least deadliest string of four years on the nation’s highways since 1966, and the fatality rate dropped from 26 deaths per 100,000 population in ’66, to 11 per 100,000 in 2012. Pedestrian fatalities have also decreased nationally over time.

Still, one death is too many, and hundreds is downright barbaric. It's time our state and local highway departments stepped up and made cyclist and pedestrian safety the top priority of road and highway design and construction. We simply should not have to fear for our lives when taking a simple stroll or ride down the road.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News . He is based in Durango, Colorado, and tweets @jonnypeace.

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Fish and Wildlife declines to list wolverines as endangered

Sarah Jane Keller | Aug 14, 2014 10:15 AM

Not enough evidence of climate harm to list wolverines, says Fish and Wildlife

Climate change is a real force disrupting wildlife populations. But for the 300 or so wolverines living in the lower 48, there’s still not enough evidence of present or future danger to protect them under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Tuesday.

In February 2013, the agency proposed to list wolverines as threatened because climate change is eating away at spring snowpack in the northern Rockies, which in turn will harm wolverines since they raise their young in snowy dens. After more than a year of analysis, the agency officially withdrew its proposal this week.

It’s an important listing decision, not only for dictating future wolverine management, but also for gauging the Fish and Wildlife Service’s tolerance for using climate models to list species.

Wolverine photographed at Snoqualmie Pass, Interstate 90 corridor, east of Seattle. Photograph by Jeffrey C. Lewis.

Most ESA listings result from threats that are already happening, such as habitat loss from human development. But the proposal to list wolverines was based largely on predictions of how future snowpack will shrink in their high-alpine denning regions.  While the agency has always used ecological models to evaluate risks to sensitive species, climate predictions that play into the wolverine proposal add yet another layer of uncertainty.

Listing decisions based primarily on the threats of climate change also attract a new level of scrutiny since there have been so few. Thus far, polar bears, ringed seals and bearded seals are the only species listings primarily based on warming threats to their habitat.

If Tuesday’s decision is any indication, the challenge of predicting highly specific, small-scale climate impacts may prove a major roadblock to endangered species protection for other animals as well. For example, a judge in Alaska recently ruled that bearded seals, which were considered threatened because of melting sea ice, should not have been listed.

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Recreation-related death toll soars this summer

Jonathan Thompson | Aug 12, 2014 05:00 AM

On August 2, Marc Buckhout, a 36-year-old from Glendale, Arizona, went hiking on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. He never came back. Four days later his body was discovered near where he was last seen, hundreds of feet below the rim (cause of death was not yet available). It was the 21st death recorded in the national park’s boundaries this year, already nearly twice the average of 12 deaths annually.

It is the season of play, when folks get out into the great outdoors to raft rivers, hike, climb mountains, swim in reservoirs and BASE jump. It's also the season of dying while at play. They’ll fall off a cliff, or their parachute won’t open. They’ll get struck by lightning or have a heart attack on the trail. Heat will kill some; others will succumb to the cold in an alpine storm or a river. Many will drown. Friends and family will inevitably seek comfort in that old platitude: At least they died doing what they loved.

Rescuers evacuate an injured person from the Kaibab Trail in the Grand Canyon in June of 1963. Photo by James Blaisdell, courtesy Grand Canyon National Park.

This summer’s tragic tally of outdoor recreation fatalities has grown daily, and in the Grand Canyon, on Mount Rainier and on Colorado's rivers, it's been an especially fatal season. While there are databases that keep track of climbing accidents or whitewater deaths, there is not one that tracks recreational deaths in general across the region, so it's impossible to know whether the Western death toll is higher than normal. But there's no doubt that Western outdoor playgrounds have seen their share of death this summer.

And for every fatality, there are deaths avoided, sometimes narrowly, often thanks to search and rescue teams putting their own lives on the line to rescue someone who has fallen, collapsed or got himself stuck on an exposed ledge. Here are some of the fatal lowlights and rescue highlights, of the summer. Hopefully we can all learn something from them.

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Is Canada's massive mine waste spill a sign of things to come?

Sarah Gilman | Aug 11, 2014 04:10 AM

From behind a screen of trees, it comes as a dull roar: A gray churn of water and debris that overtops roads, snaps trunks, carves chunks of earth from banks as if they were butter. It looks like a flash flood, something you’d see coursing from the mouth of a redrock wash in Utah, a desert arroyo in New Mexico. But this is central British Columbia, with plenty of vegetation and porous soil to catch and slow rain.

Rise into the air in a helicopter, though, and the source creeps into view: A massive earthen-walled pond full of waste from the adjacent Mount Polley copper and gold strip mine, operated by Imperial Metals. The containment dam is rent by a steep new canyon where, sometime in the dark morning hours of August 4, a viscous slurry of pulverized rock vomited free across the dark conifer forest into adjacent Polley Lake and roared down Hazeltine Creek, widening it from 4 feet to 150 in places, before settling in Quesnal Lake.

All told, some 2.6 billion gallons of water and 5.9 million cubic yards of potentially toxic silt escaped. Combined, that’s nearly three times as much waste as flowed from a Tennessee Valley Authority coal ash containment pond near Knoxville in a now (in)famous 2008 disaster that buried hundreds of acres, destroyed a handful of homes, mucked up the Emory River, and cost over a billion dollars to clean up.

Though preliminary water quality tests came back within the safe range, officials continue to advise residents of Likely, BC, population 300, and the surrounding area not to drink, swim or bathe in it until further testing is conducted, necessitating the delivery of nearly 20,000 bottles of water. And given that the tailings held in the pond were known to contain hundreds of thousands of pounds of heavy metals including arsenic, lead and cadmium, concerns remain for local residents, as well as for wildlife that may consume or be exposed to the metals – particularly the region’s salmon.

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Critics see GOP wildfire bill as attack on environmental protections

Sarah Tory | Aug 08, 2014 05:00 AM

Forests and grasslands are smoldering across vast areas of Oregon and Washington, scorching homes and habitat in what may turn out to be a particularly gnarly fire season. Although nationally the season has been quieter than usual, intense fires have been burning in the Pacific Northwest and parts of California, and the West Coast is predicted to have above-normal risk through September. And as the West grows hotter, a debate about how to fight the flames is emerging.

Much of the controversy surrounds a recent series of congressional bills aimed at increasing logging activity to help lessen the risk of forests igniting. The latest bill, sponsored by a group of Republican senators, proposes expediting certain wildfire prevention projects by reducing the bureaucracy associated with so-called “hazardous fuel projects,” which thin out overgrown – and fire-prone forests.

A new bill proposes reducing environmental regulations for wildfire prevention projects. Photo by National Park Service.

On its face, the bill appears helpful for fire mitigation: make it easier for companies who want to remove the forest material that’s kindling wildfires and threatening people and animals. But watchdogs say it has the potential to undermine the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the law that requires thorough impact assessments ahead of government decisions on public lands. The bill, introduced by Senator Dean Heller, R-Nev, a strong defender of private property rights and greater public land access, is very unlikely to make it through this session of Congress, but analysts say it does mark a continued GOP attack on environmental legislation.

As written, the bill would amend an existing law designed to help clear out forests clogged with flammable underbrush called The Healthy Forests Restoration Act. That law, signed by President George W. Bush in 2003, diminished the paperwork associated with the environmental reviews that timber companies are required to perform under NEPA.

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What diabetic grizzlies can tell us about human obesity

Wyatt Orme | Aug 07, 2014 04:05 AM

Most researchers studying grizzly bears are from U.S. Fish and Wildlife or university ecology departments, not biotechnology companies. Still, Kevin Corbit, a senior scientist at the Southern California biotech firm Amgen, spends his days in a lab in Pullman, Washington, analyzing bear blood. He leaves the actual touching of the 700-pound predator to the capable handlers and their trusty anesthesia. Corbit chuckles as he reflects on his work: “I guess it’s not logical to study bears with a biotech job.”

Maybe it is logical, though, judging from a study he recently published, in collaboration with Washington State University’s Bear Center. With the goal of developing a better long-term treatment for human obesity, Corbit strayed from the status quo of testing mice and rats, which aren’t great predictors of human response. Instead of trying medications on rodents, he decided to examine the genetics of grizzlies and their metabolism. The bears were the perfect fit; before hibernating each year, they become extraordinarily obese.

A grizzly roams in Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Flickr user, Shane Lin.

In the new study, Corbit and his colleagues discovered a natural state of diabetes in bears that not only serves a real biological purpose, but also is reversible. The bears’ bodies effectively turn up or down their responsiveness to the hormone insulin—much, Corbit says, “like a dimmer switch.” The bears are at their fattest in the late summer, sometimes consuming more than 50,000 calories and gaining up to 16 pounds in a day. But despite the weight gain, they’re at their least diabetic. Their insulin dial is turned up, which helps them store fat for seven months of hibernation.

When the bear hibernates and needs to live off its fat stores, it turns its insulin responsiveness way down. The animal becomes, in human terms, like a Type 2 diabetic, and insulin-resistant. And yet, the bear is actually losing, rather than gaining, weight. Year in, year out, despite the extremes of fall gorging, then foodlessness for the entire winter, the bear’s blood sugar remains consistent. It stays healthy thanks to PTEN, a unique genetic mutation (that appears in only some humans) that allows for the insulin dimmer switch.

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Glacier tourists to get a dose of climate education in Alaska

Krista Langlois | Aug 06, 2014 04:05 AM

Two big things have happened since John Neary arrived in Alaska's rainy capital city 33 years ago: Juneau's most famous attraction, the Mendenhall Glacier, has receded by more than a mile; and the number of visitors to the glacier has nearly tripled, to 450,000 a year. “On Monday afternoons, the busses are lined up 30 deep,” Neary says. “The place is not suited to the volume of traffic it's receiving.”

The surge can largely be explained by an increase in Alaskan tourism over the last few decades. But visitors have more than doubled in the past 16 years alone, and at least part of that can be attributed to “last chance tourism,” or the flow of people rushing to see at-risk places before they're destroyed by climate change. An online list of the top nine destinations to explore “before climate change takes them away” includes the flooding city of Venice, the acidifying corals of the Great Barrier Reef, and the receding glaciers of Alaska.

Yet while Alaskan cruise lines are reaping the benefits, the economic boon of last-chance tourism is, of course, fleeting. A few hundred miles away on the Kenai Peninsula, Portage Glacier has seen its visitor numbers drop dramatically, in part because the once-famed tongue of ice has retreated completely out of sight. Neary, who took over the direction of the Forest Service's Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center 18 months ago, says that's not an immediate concern at Mendenhall, but before long, there won't be any more translucent blue ice floating in Mendenhall Lake.

“When I first came here, the glacier was visible from the west lake shore line,” he says. “Now you can't even see the face.”

Mendenhall ice cave
The ice caves at Mendenhall Glacier may disappear as the glacier recedes, but the real damage is likely to occur downstream, in the marine food chain.

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