Normally, the Colorado bee swarm hotline starts ringing in mid-April. By May 1, a call is coming in every other day. And by the 15th, “somebody opens up the bee floodgates and they start swarming like the devil,” says Beth Conrey, president of the Colorado Beekeepers Association, who fields the calls on her cell phone. But now, something is off. “Swarms (usually) run like clockwork, but this year we’re so far behind I’m going to have to throw out that clock,” she says. She blames the absence of swarms on the cold, wet weather that hit the Front Range in April. But bees around the country are struggling, and everything from weather to pesticides to mites to land use is to blame.
Bee swarms are fascinating and freaky at the same time: The dark masses of buzzing bees cling to trees, chimneys, cars and mailboxes. Sometimes the outline of what they’re swarming on is still visible — a branch wrapped in bees — but other times, the bees hang in blobs that constantly change shape, like in a lava lamp. Beekeepers love catching swarms because it means a new, free hive — and it’s an adrenaline rush. And people who find swarms, who are often a little freaked out, love when beekeepers come remove them. “It kills two birds with one stone,” Conrey says of the hotline. “You have somebody that wants bees, and somebody that has bees, so voila.”
(If you’ve never seen a swarm, check out this guy who crawls under a SUV (or is it a SUbee?), scoops bees up with his hand, and drops them into a new hive (around minute 1:20)).
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Grizzly bears in the lower 48 were put on the endangered species list as threatened in 1975, a time when the survival of six bear populations in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Washington seemed tenuous. But thanks to decades of vigilance, the bears are doing much better, with about 1,400 to 1,700 in the lower 48, and the debate over removing them from the endangered species list has begun. It's already been going on for a while in the Yellowstone ecosystem, where a population of around 600 bears is isolated from northern bruins, but now there’s talk of delisting a larger population of about 1,000 bears in northwest Montana.
On May 2 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a draft conservation plan for how to manage that population, in what is known as the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, after they are removed from the endangered species list (which could happen within the next couple of years, as Fish and Wildlife Service grizzly recovery coordinator, Chris Servheen, told the Flathead Beacon this week, as long as a host of agencies agree to the plan, and the decision doesn't get hung up in court).
Since the bear population in northwestern Montana has been growing by an estimated three percent each year between 2004 and 2011, the draft plan maintains many management practices that seem to have been working. That means not increasing livestock allotments, motorized access or development in the “primary conservation area”: a big swath of Montana bordering Canada, and including Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
Buffer zones alongside that area will also be managed to be bear-friendly in the hope that bears will use those areas to move into other protected, but grizzly-poor ecosystems, like the Cabinet-Yaak to the east or the expansive Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.
Something in the 148-page plan that really struck me is that even with a grizzly bear-sized body of bear science amassed over the last several decades, there’s a basic question that we still can’t answer about bear biology. Due to the flexible, plant and meat-eating diet of the wide-ranging bears, there is no known way to figure out the maximum number the environment can support in the long term. This number, called carrying capacity, is something you’d want to know about any species you are trying to manage and conserve, and would help frame the impending debate about how many bears are enough. Without that number, “how many bears do we need?” becomes as much a question of human behaviors and values as a scientific one.
I like drones.
There, I said it, and in doing so I have made myself a pariah to many of my liberal friends. Because to them, a drone is a sinister, cowardly killing machine, buzzing around the skies of Pakistan sans pilot, just waiting to rain death from the sky. It is horrible. But then, so is sending a manned aircraft to do exactly the same thing, or a cruise missile, for that matter, which is really just a drone that blows up.
And then there are those for whom drones are tools used by the government to spy in our windows and find out what we’re eating for dinner, kind of like smart meters.
But I digress. Think beyond those applications for a minute to what drones actually are: Sophisticated remote control aircraft with extra capabilities, most notably (aside from shooting people or launching missiles) taking photographs or shooting video from a bird’s eye view at a fraction of the cost and danger of helicopters, airplanes or spy satellites. And that makes them very useful for all sorts of folks, including wildlife biologists, farmers, archaeologists, (and, yes, cops and government spies) and, especially intriguing for those of us in the Goat offices, journalists. You can also use them as burrito delivery machines, which is cool, too.
Let’s start with the biologists and other researchers. Back in 2010, two Idaho Fish & Game biologists and a pilot were killed when their helicopter crashed. They were doing an aerial survey of salmon spawning nests. Wanting to avoid a repeat, Idaho Power Company now uses drones to do similar salmon counts. And as the New York Times reported this week, the USGS is using them for similar work.
Activists are flying the little machines around for their work, too. People for Ethical Treatment of Animals uses them to keep an eye on hunters. And hunters sometimes shoot them down. There’s even a whole Website devoted to conservation drones.
But I’m most excited by the possibilities for news reporters. Call them the poor man’s helicopter, if you will. Or the modern journalist’s chopper (okay, I know, poor man = modern journalist). A decent pilot -- and it’s my understanding that these things aren’t easy to fly -- could get not just nice scenic shots for videos, but also close up aerial looks at wildfires, open pit mines, toxic waste dumps, wildlife and the like. I’m not the only one that’s fired up about it. The University of Nebraska set up a drone journalism lab back in 2011, and other journalism schools have been following suit. Actual drone journalism tends to be happening more overseas, because the U.S. FAA still doesn’t allow general or commercial use of these things, though universities and scientists have been given the green light.
The FAA is worried about drones crashing into other airplanes, or maybe into innocent bystanders on the ground. But there are also privacy concerns. But those are easily avoided: You just need a Stealth Wear Hoodie!
And now, for your viewing pleasure, I leave you with some newsy and not-so-newsy videos shot with the help of drones.
This video about the drought was put together by University of Nebraska students with the help of drones:
This one became famous as one of the earlier examples of drone journalism -- a riot in Poland:
And this is just a lot of fun. Turn up the volume, put it on full-screen and sit back and relax...
Jonathan Thompson has recently proclaimed himself drone editor at High Country News. Now he just needs his own drone and a flying lesson. His Twitter handle is @jonnypeace.
For evidence that a new kind of information economy has come to the West, look not to San Francisco or Seattle, but south-central Wyoming. On the outskirts of Cheyenne, an Air Force town of 60,000 residents, Microsoft is building a massive, $158 million data center, a high-tech warehouse packed with computer servers that will store the company's "cloud" -- software and data like Gmail and Facebook that are used over the Internet. Last April, when Microsoft announced its plans, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead remarked that "Wyoming is a perfect fit for data centers." Microsoft apparently agreed, in no small part because Wyoming's state government paid the company $10 million to locate there.
Big data centers have been popping up around the West in recent years. Some of the world's biggest Internet companies -- Google, Facebook, Amazon -- are being drawn to the region for a variety of reasons, including hefty incentives from local and state governments trying to attract economic development. The "cloud" would seem to exist in an ethereal, purely digital realm but its material manifestation is staggering, and is reshaping some Western communities. It's a recent trend that raises a couple of questions: Why do companies build data centers where they do, and what's in it for towns like Cheyenne?
This is “a direct assault on rural Colorado,” Rep. Brian DelGrosso, R-Loveland, fumed at Colorado’s Democratic lawmakers last week.
From the strength of his rhetoric, you might think wealthy Front Range cities had proposed phasing out production agriculture or even banning all guns. In reality, though, DelGrosso was piling scorn on a policy that would create opportunities for a major state industry – renewable energy.
“You will not crucify us on the backs of windmills and solar panels,” another Colorado Rep., Lori Saine, R-Dacono, exclaimed.
At issue is Democrat-backed Senate Bill 252, which passed both houses of the state Legislature on a party-line vote and headed for the governor’s desk on May 1. If signed into law, which seems likely given that Gov. John Hickenlooper has signaled his support, it will require the rural electrical cooperatives that serve 70 percent of the state’s landmass and 25 percent of its residents to double the amount of renewable energy in their mix from 10 percent to 20 percent by 2020.
Coal is always a hot topic on the Colorado Plateau, home to many of the mines and power plants that feed electricity-hungry Southwestern cities hundreds of miles away. But in the past few weeks, black gold has been in the news even more than normal as the Navajo Nation has weighed a new lease for the 2,250-megawatt Navajo Generating Station in Page, Ariz., and moved closer to buying the Navajo Mine, which feeds the Four Corners Power Plant. It may be unpopular elsewhere, but all signs indicate that in Navajoland, coal’s not going away any time soon.
NGS is a complex power plant: It’s got a ton of different owners, including the federal government – which relies on the power to pump water to Phoenix and Tucson – and utilities in Nevada, California and Arizona. Two of those owners want out of the coal business: In March, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced the city would be coal-free by 2025. That means its utility, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, will have to sell its 21 percent ownership in the plant. And in April, NV Energy, the largest utility in Nevada, said it, too, was bailing, ditching its 11 percent share. It remains to be seen if the plant’s operator, the Salt River Project, a Phoenix-based utility, will buy both shares. “The potential exit of NV Energy from (the plant) further complicates an already complex process under way to extend the life of this important Arizona resource,” SRP spokesman Scott Harelson told The Arizona Republic.
In addition to the ownership uncertainty, in January the Environmental Protection Agency told the plant, one of the dirtiest in the country, to cut haze-causing emissions by 84 percent by 2023, which would cost $500 million in pollution controls. The worry is that all of these factors combined will force NGS to close, although Salt River Project insists that won’t happen.
There’s a lot at stake here for the Navajo Nation: It’s projected that the plant and the coal mine that feed it would contribute nearly $13 billion to the tribal economy over the term of the new lease, and employ about 1,000 people, mostly Native Americans.
There may be no better place on the planet to generate solar electricity than Arizona. The entire state shows up as a big red stain on those solar radiation maps, and there are plenty of places to put solar panels, from fallow alfalfa fields to parking lots and canals, where photovoltaic arrays can generate power and provide shade from the brutal sun. And then there are all those rooftops, nearly three million in the state, that are just begging to be adorned with miniature solar power plants.
It’s all added up to put Arizona in second place in the nation for installed solar capacity -- 1079 megawatts and growing, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. Many of those megawatts are generated with small, rooftop systems. Arizona Public Service, the state’s biggest utility, says 24,000 of its customers have rooftop solar, thanks both to direct cash incentives for installing solar, and to the state’s net metering program, which requires APS to pay customers for power generated by residential renewable systems.
Now, perhaps emboldened by the recent Republican takeover of the Arizona Corporation Commission -- the body that regulates net metering and renewable portfolio standards -- APS has launched an effort to destroy or diminish net metering, saying it costs non-solar ratepayers too much. Predictably, the move has angered renewable energy advocates and Arizona’s burgeoning solar industry. But the utility may not have anticipated the strong backlash from prominent Republicans, which will put the ACC in a tight spot when it has to make a ruling on the proposal.
Net metering is when a utility charges the customer for the amount of electricity she uses, minus the amount of electricity generated by his rooftop or backyard solar panel, wind turbine or whatnot. On a sunny afternoon, when no one is home using power, the meter will actually run backwards, with that excess solar power going back into the big bucket of the grid. After the sun sets, and the customer cranks up the air-conditioner and the lights, her meter runs forward again. At the end of the month, if a customer has generated more than she used, the excess rolls over to the following month; a yearly surplus will net her a check. In other words, each rooftop panel is like a little power plant from which APS is buying power.
Except that it’s not. For APS the rub [pdf] lies in the fact that it pays the rooftop solar producer the same retail rate -- that includes charges for transmission and infrastructure -- that the customer pays APS, as opposed to the wholesale rate APS pays other power producers. The result is that the solar-generating customer ends up not paying her share of the infrastructure costs. Those costs, in turn, get passed on to other customers. That adds up, wrote APS CEO Don Brandt in an op-ed in the Arizona Republic, where he claimed that net metering ends up costing the average non-solar-generating APS customer some $20,000 over a lifetime.
APS is expected to make a formal proposal of some sort -- it will most likely ask that it pay something like wholesale rate to individual solar producers -- at the end of May. The Arizona Corporation Commission will make the final call. In November, voters elected an all-Republican commission, sending candidates who were thought to be sympathetic to renewables packing. In January, the commission reduced residential solar incentives and nixed commercial incentives for Tucson Electric Power’s service area. APS, it seems, will have an easy go of diminishing net metering.
Or maybe not. The solar industry -- including companies based in Arizona -- is rallying the troops, claiming that the death of net metering would deal a huge blow to business. Direct cash incentives for rooftop solar installations have dropped almost to zero, leaving net metering as the only real monetary incentive for an Arizona homeowner to pay for a solar system. Other grassroots groups have joined in the fight, as well, including an unexpected one: TUSK, or Tell Utilities Solar won’t be Killed, led by former Congressman and Republic icon Barry Goldwater, Jr. (not to be confused with the Goldwater Institute, founded by Goldwater’s uncle, which wants to get rid of all solar incentives and the renewable portfolio standard). Goldwater argues that by encouraging more rooftop solar, net metering promotes competition (essentially against the “utility monopolies”), which keeps prices down. He also sees developing solar as a means to achieving energy independence.
With Goldwater and friends in the ring, APS is likely to face a much tougher fight. It might want to reconsider. After all, each new rooftop solar panel takes a little nibble out of the need to build another utility-scale solar plant -- and the associated transmission -- to comply with Arizona's requirement that at least 15 percent of APS's electricity come from renewable sources. That potentially saves APS and its customers money (though it also takes away an opportunity to make more money, which may be the real rub here). Or perhaps APS could just forget about passing off those extra costs to their customers and just, well, eat them. It certainly can afford it: Last year’s operating income [pdf] was a mere $605 million.
Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News. His Twitter handle is @jonnypeace.
Lead is banned in paint, gasoline, dishes, and children’s toys, and now California is looking at removing the largest unregulated source of the neurotoxin by also banning lead ammunition. One motivation is to generally protect wildlife and human health, but some see it as a way to improve the prospects of California condors; lead poisoning is the leading cause of death for the massive, inky-feathered carrion eaters.
Twenty-six endangered California condors have died from lead poisoning since 1996. One recently notable lead casualty was a 9-year old bird in Big Sur that died last November. Even though lead ammunition is already banned in the bird’s California range, the source of the lead was a .22-caliber bullet, and he likely swallowed it while chowing down on a shot-up carcass.
Condor #318 was one of the first captive bred condors released on the California coast around Big Sur. According to the Ventana Wildlife Society, which studies and manages the central California population, he was one of only a handful of breeding males in the region—and the first to breed in Pinnacles National Park in 100 years.
In 1987, there were only 26 California condors, all in captivity. Now there are about 150 of the intensively monitored scavengers flying free in central California, Utah, Arizona, and Mexico, and some are starting to breed on their own. But after years of extreme, hands-on efforts to rescue North America’s largest land bird, poisoning from lead ammunition in left-behind animal carcasses or in post-hunt gut piles is still one of the major things preventing a self-sustaining population of wild condors emerging from the priciest species rescue in American history.
There’s strong scientific evidence for the connection between lead ammo and condor deaths [pdf], even though some groups, like the National Shooting Sports Foundation try to discredit it. And unlike with some endangered species, it’s easy to point to individual human actions (like loading that lead .22 round) that have real consequences for single condors in the sparse population.
After so many years and dollars have been spent trying to bring the condor back to the landscape, the question is: What will it take for people to change their behavior, and stop using lead ammo in the bird’s range?
Imagine discovering that the clear, rushing water of the river in your remote neck-of-the-woods is contaminated with nitrates, sulfates, and selenium -- a toxic heavy metal that causes deformities in fish. Then, to complicate things, imagine that the source of the pollution is upstream in another, neighboring country with its own leaders and environmental laws. What would you do?
That's the situation on the Kootenai River (spelled Kootenay in Canada) in northwestern Montana. Five mines digging high-grade metallurgical coal along the Elk River, a tributary of the Kootenai in British Columbia, have been contaminating the Kootenai for years, according to a recent study conducted by University of Montana scientists. Now, four of those mines want to expand, one new coal mine is being proposed, and three new mine exploration projects are under way.
“This is an international problem that will require an international solution," Michael Jamison, Crown of the Continent program manager with the National Parks Conservation Association, recently told The Missoulian. The first step, he and others say, is to enlist the aid of the International Joint Commission, a U.S.-Canada organization created over a century ago to handle these kinds of water disputes.
There was a time when environmentalists were all googly-eyed about natural gas, primarily because the cleaner-burning fossil fuel was far more climate-friendly than coal – or so it seemed. The Sierra Club and Chesapeake Energy even became allies in the fight to phase out coal. But as tales of tainted water and polluted air emerged from worried gas patch residents, big environmental groups grew more distant. Soon, natural gas seemed to entirely lose its luster. It’s true that natural gas is cleaner than coal when burned, but it’s mostly made of methane – a greenhouse gas much more potent than CO2. And a series of recent studies all seemed to conclude that a lot of methane was leaking into the atmosphere throughout the the natural gas supply chain – too much, it seemed, for it to be crowned the cleanest of fossil fuels.
Then, this week, the Environmental Protection Agency further complicated the narrative. It lowered its estimate of how much methane leaked out along the supply chain by about 20 percent. The revision, according to the Associated Press has “major implications for a debate that has divided environmentalists: Does the recent boom in hydraulic fracturing help or hurt the fight against climate change?”
How much methane is actually leaking out as natural gas is produced and consumed does, indeed, have big implications for that debate. Troubling measurements taken in two Utah and Colorado gas fields last year show that nine and four percent of methane produced there, respectively, was escaping -- a lot more than expected and more than the 3.2 percent or less rate needed for gas to be better for the climate than coal. But despite this study, and the EPA's softer assessment of leakage, we still don’t have a firm grasp on how much of the gas is being lost to the atmosphere in all of our major gas fields, or from well-to-consumer.Read More ...