Friday news roundup: Dwindling elk herds and the end of new coal plants?


With beautiful, unseasonably warm weather this week, the West's normally hungry news watchers had trouble keeping our eyes on the computer screens and away from the fruit trees blooming outside. Rallying our strengths, we found birds and elk did not fare well in Western news this week. Our cheer at the climate-conscious news coming from Environmental Protection Agency was tempered by disheartening reports on our immigration policies from Amnesty International. We will hope for continued fair weather and better news next week. Here is what caught our attention:

Energy and pollution
Arguably the biggest national environmental news this week was the Environmental Protection Agency’s release Tuesday of a proposed rule limiting the carbon dioxide emissions from new power plants. Recently built natural gas powered plants will easily meet the new standards, unlike the pre-existing coal plants. The standards are expected to effectively spell the end of newly built coal plants. While Lisa Jackson told reporters that the EPA has no plans to regulate existing sources, that may, nonetheless, come in the future. Since CO2 and other greenhouse gasses are now legally considered pollutants, the EPA is obligated to regulate them. By the time that happens, though, the planet's bound to be quite a few degrees warmer.

Late last January, a tube carrying hot, radioactive water sprang a leak in one of the reactors at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. The plant has since been closed. This week authorities announced the plant will likely remain shut throughout the summer, until serious problems with the equipment can be fixed. For Southern Californians, who suffered blackouts last year, this is bad news. State officials are working on plans for avoiding power outages in the coming months. 

In other nuclear power news, the Department of Energy believes clusterable mini-reactors may be a future power solution. The Department recently announced $450 million dollars are available to support engineering and licensing.

On Animals
A rough winter, hunters and attacks from wolves, bears and mountain lions have been harsh on a major elkherd that migrates annually through Yellowstone National Park. The herd, which 20 years ago was about 20,000 strong, is down to less than 4,200 animals today. In the last year the population has dropped 10 percent, authorities say.

In Washington State, thousands of swans have died after ingesting lead shot, prompting an outcry from environmentalists. A hundred organizations in 35 states are asking the EPA to usher in an era of non-toxic ammunition. 

Also for the birds: The Department of the Interior recently released guidelines for helping wind energy developers to minimize the impact on wildlife, those with wings in particular. The guidelines are voluntary and address site selection, project design and operation. Wind energy is a key part of the Obama administration’s energy plans, said Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Interior. “We’re committed to working with developers to ensure that wind energy projects are build in the right places and operated in the right way.”

On Humans
A new report by Amnesty International, a global watchdog for human rights, details rights violations caused by immigration enforcement in the U.S. Southwest. Federal and state policies have pushed undocumented immigrants into using dangerous routes, increased racial profiling, barred access to education and essential health care (including for children who are U.S. citizens) and targeted immigrant and indigenous communities for discrimination.

Wyoming is a risky place to work. Reports say it lacks a culture of safety and the leadership support to change it. The state 
routinely ranks among the highest in the nation for workforce fatality rates. This year, Wyoming families will lose an estimated 36 fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, sons and daughters. The state legislature passed a bill this month that offers employers yet more grants and safety advice as a means of improving workers safety, but does little to monitor and enforce safety regulations, a move which has drawn criticism from longtime watchers of worker safety in the state.

On tap

Water, a perennial issue out West, travels through a complex infrastructure in sore need of upgrades. From the global water news site, Circle of Blue comes, a photographic slide show cataloging our aging aqueducts, water towers and sewer tunnels. For more on water, see our longstanding water coverage.

And with that, onward to the weekend...

Danielle Venton is an intern at High Country News. 

Images: 1) San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, courtesy of Rian Castillo/Flickr. 2) Installing sewer pipes under the roads of Kearney, Nebraska in 1889. The town economically boomed in the late 1800s due to the railroad, then quickly went bust. Courtesy of the Nebraska State Historical Society/Circle of Blue. 

Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell
Mar 30, 2012 07:11 AM
I keep waiting for HCN to do a story on that elk herd. The 10% decline follows a 25% decline last year and an 80% decline overall since the introduction of the Canadian gray wolf. That herd used to be the largest migrating elk herd in America, now people wonder if it will completely disappear.
Jesse Tigner
Jesse Tigner
Mar 30, 2012 07:59 AM
It’s not the “Canadian” grey wolf that was reintroduced, just the grey wolf. From the central US to the Arctic Circle, it’s the same critter.
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell
Mar 30, 2012 03:55 PM
It all depends Jesse. If it's being reintroduced to New Mexico it's the Mexican Gray Wolf, but if your getting a Canadian Gray Wolf from Canada, that is bigger and heavier, and shipping it here it's simply the gray wolf. Next the Canada Lynx will become????
Jesse Tigner
Jesse Tigner
Mar 30, 2012 11:44 PM
Not quite sure what you mean about the lynx… As far as the wolves go though, we’re not talking about New Mexico, we’re (or at least I was) talking about the GYE which is Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho. In those locations, the wolves are grey wolves and the same grey wolves that live north of the 49th parallel; no geno- or phenotypic differences. The wolves in New Mexico are different, a different subspecies. And, you’re right, they are smaller than those wolves that live in the central US Rockies and north into Canada. My comment was more in response to the often stated misconception that wolves in Canada are somehow different than those from the northern US Rockies. They aren’t. Period.
Bruce Smithhammer
Bruce Smithhammer Subscriber
Mar 31, 2012 08:27 AM
The off-the-cuff comments about the dwindling elk herd leave a lot to be desired, and the link provided doesn't lead to anything.

For example - "a harsh winter?" We did not have a harsh winter in the GYE. It was, in fact, much milder than the previous several.

It also cites "hunters" as a factor. How so, exactly? Elk hunting is not allowed in Yellowstone. Were more elk taken outside the park boundaries than normal in the last several years?

I understand that these are just "lite" news clips, but they don't still need to be sourced, and rooted in fact?

And Jesse is absolutely correct - the hype about the "Canadian Gray Wolf" being some sort of "super wolf" that is different than the normal gray wolf once found throughout the Rockies is psuedoscience that gets repeated in certain circles until it unfortunately just gets accepted as fact. Regardless of how one feels about the wolf issue, lets at least get the biological facts straight, so that we're all talking about the same thing.
Stephanie Paige Ogburn
Stephanie Paige Ogburn Subscriber
Mar 31, 2012 01:35 PM
Hi Bruce, Sorry that link was broken. It was working when we posted the blog. I added a new link to the same story, one by the Associated Press. I was a little puzzled by the reference to a hard winter as well, but that was in the original story, and AP is usually a reliable source. I'll poke around and if I learn we should make a correction, I will make a note of it.


Stephanie P Ogburn, online editor.
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell
Mar 31, 2012 01:58 PM
Bruce, Stephanie, I believe the reference to the harsh winter is for the winter 2010/2011. The count then was in January if memory serves me, "winter" for elk mortality is until the snow is gone. So for the purposes of this count "last year" would include all of post count from January 2011 which as we remember was an unusually deep snow year. Seems like June outside today.

About sub species.. Marian's Pomeranian named Daisy is the same species, and Marian calls Daisy a "beast", but surely there must be a way to differentiate between all subspecies of canis lupus? I like Canadian wolf because it's the name of the subspecies where they imported the wolves from and it lends that invasive species due to man messing with nature kind of feel to the whole discussion.

Back to gardening.
Bruce Smithhammer
Bruce Smithhammer Subscriber
Mar 31, 2012 03:31 PM
Thanks, Stephanie.

Robb Cadwell said: "....but surely there must be a way to differentiate between all subspecies of canis lupus?"

Surely, many people would like to, but it hasn't proven to be that easy. The nature of sub-species definition is hotly debated in regards to many species, not just wolves. Depending on who you talk to (by which I mean taxonomists, not laymen at the coffee shop) there are over 20 sub-species of wolf, or as little as four, or none at all. Complicating this is the fact that wolf packs are highly mobile, which means their genes are also highly mobile, and highly mobile genes make things much more complicated. In addition, wolf territories overlap, making the whole idea of being able to draw neat lines between the wolves in one region, and those in another, to the degree that they are truly different sub-species, to be tricky at best. Variations in size and color of the Gray Wolf, throughout its entire range, further blur the process of sub-speciation.

Lately (within the last several decades), scientists have been tending more and more toward the conclusion that many of the previously identifies sub-species of Gray Wolf lack the differentiators necessary to be truly classified as distinct sub-species (search for the findings of mammologist Richard Nowak for starters).

All of which starts to cast serious doubt on the frequently-touted idea that the "Mackenzie Valley Wolf," also called the "Canadian Timber Wolf," is truly as genetically (or territorially) distinct as many claim from its southern cousin, sometimes defined as the "Southern Rocky Mountains wolf." Many recent studies (such as Nowak's) suggest that both are merely variations of a much more broadly-defined sub-species, which is really all the same wolf that ranges/ranged from Alaska to the southern Rockies, and that variations are the result of local environmental factors and food availability, not actual genetic differences. It's probably worth mentioning here that the average weight of the 188 wolves killed in the 2009 Idaho wolf hunt (supposedly non-native, "huge and aggressive Canadian Wolves") was actually less than 100lbs...

Note that I haven't taken a personal position on the contentious "wolf issue" in any of this. I'm just pointing out that the notion of a completely different, separate, non-native sub-species of "Canadian Gray Wolf" being introduced into the GYE is something you hear frequently being repeated (until it starts to sound like an absolute truism), but in fact it's really quite suspect and highly debatable when you separate opinion and agenda from the science of it.
Roni Sylvester
Roni Sylvester
Apr 02, 2012 04:58 PM
Don't forget - Lord Christopher Monckton addresses the Colorado General Assembly, April 11th - 1:00 p.m.