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The future of wolverines

DefendersofWildlife | Feb 25, 2013 12:00 AM

By Kylie Paul, Defenders of Wildlife

After more than a decade of legal hand-wringing, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) finally proposed on Feb. 1 to protect wolverines in the lower 48 states as a threatened species. But invoking the Endangered Species Act alone is not going to save wolverines from looming threats on a warming planet.

Scientists believe there are as few as 250 to 300 wolverines across the entire lower 48. Those numbers sound alarmingly low, though wolverines naturally exist in low numbers because they have large home ranges and reproduce slowly. But this small population is facing an even greater challenge: climate change. Wolverines need deep springtime snow for denning – and scientists predict that wolverines will lose 63 percent of their suitable snowy habitat in the lower 48 by 2099. Further, if that remaining habitat becomes too fragmented, then reduced genetic diversity is likely, and the resulting tiny isolated populations will be at risk of disappearing altogether.

So what do we do? With many endangered species there is a clear path to recovery based on addressing immediate threats. For instance, with bald eagles and other birds of prey, banning harmful pesticides like DDT made recovery a reality. For other plants and animals, protecting habitat can provide enough relief to allow species to recover on their own. Not so with the wolverine. The best bet for securing a future for wolverines is to help them reclaim habitat they once occupied, especially where their historic habitat is most likely to persist into the future.

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A new vision for public lands

John Freemuth | Feb 22, 2013 04:15 PM

In 2012, the seemingly endless argument over what level of government ought to be the manager over part of the federal land estate flared up again, led by individuals in Utah and Arizona. In Arizona, in March, the state legislature passed a bill that called for federal land agencies to give up title to roughly 48,000 square miles of federal land by 2015. The bill was vetoed by Arizona governor Jan Brewer for reasons including cost and legal uncertainties, but action did not end.

Proposition 120 was placed on the November ballot for a vote by Arizonans. The proposition called for the federal government to relinquish most non-Native American public land within the state, including Grand Canyon National Park. Specifically, it stated that Arizona “declares its sovereign and exclusive authority and jurisdiction over the air, water, public lands, minerals, wildlife and other natural resources within its boundaries.”  Arguments ranged from those touting state sovereignty and promising to protect “Grand Canyon State Park," through those asserting that federal land ownership was unconstitutional. The proposition failed by a vote of 67.7% to 32.3%.

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Western States Survey says

Red Lodge | Feb 18, 2013 10:55 AM

Colorado College’s 2013 Western States Survey report is out. This year pollsters grilled 2,400 voters in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming on energy, conservation and the role of government in both, and it yielded some fascinating results.

Westerners' views of natural resources and public lands, and the roles they play in our economy and quality of life, figure prominently in the poll.

When asked if national parks, forests, monuments and wildlife areas are an essential part of their state’s economy, 91 percent of those polled agreed that they are, and 7 out of 10 strongly agreed. Three-quarters of those asked also agreed that those resources attract high quality employers and good jobs to their states.

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The state of Indian nations

Mark Trahant | Feb 14, 2013 11:03 AM

National Congress of American Indians President Jefferson Keel began his annual report, State of Indian Nations, with a simple exclamation. “Indian Country is strong!” That statement, he added, is something he hasn’t always been able to say. He then described this as “a moment of real possibility.”

And why not? There is a long list of tribal success stories. Tribes across the country are economic engines creating thousands of jobs. The phrase, “one of the largest employers in the county,” is one that’s repeated often and with good reason. (I see this type of success out my own window, looking at the Shoshone-Bannock Hotel and Event Center on the horizon.)

What’s more, Indian Country has something that the rest of the country is missing: Young people. There are now more people older than 65 in the U.S than people between 18 and 24. However 42 percent of Indian Country is under 25 years old, as Keel noted today. This is a huge advantage, a moment of real possibility.

Except. This advantage is coming at the same time as this massive wave called austerity is hitting.

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Sally Jewell's Adventure of a Lifetime

Ben Long | Feb 11, 2013 09:25 AM

President Obama’s nominee for heading the Department of Interior, Sally Jewell, is noteworthy not for who she is, but for who she is not.

She is a mountaineer, an ultra-marathon runner, a CEO of the outdoor gear giant REI, and a former bank executive and oil company engineer. She appears to be some kind of archetypical uber-woman of the Pacific Northwest, jogging up Mt. Rainier on coffee breaks.

MT Rainier

Jewell’s resume indicates plenty of experience in both components of “ecosystem management." Those interested in “ecosystems” will look toward her years with REI and the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association; those leaning toward “management” will note her careers in the petroleum and banking industries.

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Rants from the Hill: Chicken pastorale

Michael Branch | Feb 04, 2013 05:00 AM

"Rants from the Hill" are Michael Branch's monthly musings on life in the high country of Nevada's western Great Basin desert, published the first Monday of each month.

American folk musician and hillbilly existentialist Greg Brown offers some mid-song patter referring to Pablo Neruda’s wonderful poem “On Weariness” (“Cierto Cansancio”), in which Neruda memorably wrote “I am weary of chickens: / no one knows what they’re thinking, / and they look at us with dry eyes / and consider us unimportant.” Brown first quotes these lines, and then adds that “It’s true . . . they do . . . and we are. But it’s hard to take that from a damn chicken.” I can’t help but agree that I’d rather be looking into the starry sky than into the hollow eyes of a hen when I have a profoundly ennobling epiphany about my cosmic insignificance.

And yet I too have become a keeper of chickens. I should confess that I find the recent popularity of chicken keeping a yuppie fad that I’d rather not be associated with. I’m certainly no yuppie. I’m not young, I’m as far from being urban as I could manage without moving to Alaska, and I’m only professional in the sense intended by Hunter S. Thompson, when he made the insightful observation that “When the going gets tough, the weird turn pro.” This chicken keeping, like most of my follies, is instead the fault of my young daughters, who were sure that raising chickens would be fun because “they’re so fluffy and yellow and cute.” As all fathers of daughters know, “cute” is a four-letter word—a sure sign that trouble is brewing. I explained to the girls that the fuzzy yellow stage of a chicken’s existence lasts about 45 minutes, and is followed by a protracted cohabitation with a feathered beast so vicious and scaly that keeping one is akin to having a pet baby dinosaur. “Baby dinosaur?” exclaimed Caroline, our five-year-old. “That’s cool!”

Caroline with chick
The author's younger daughter with a cute chick.

All fathers of daughters know the futility of resistance to anything deemed cute. So, in early May, we made the momentous trip to the feed store, where the girls chose four yellow fluff balls, whose best quality, I thought, was how incredibly cheap they were. But we also had to buy a big plastic tub to keep them in, and a screen to cover the tub, a bag of shavings and some chick food, and a little water bin, and also a pricey clamp-on heat lamp. The total cost of this outing was something like ten bucks for the chickens and another hundred to accessorize them, a thing-to-its-stuff ratio so disturbing that it reminded me of Barbie dolls—another cute purchase that had left a sizeable dent in my hip. But we brought the birds home and set them up in the garage out of reach of the dogs, and the girls had fun playing with them, not to mention naming them. Hannah named one “Henrietta,” which seemed inevitable, while Caroline insisted on “Eggcellent Chicken” for another. A third was named “Susan Henimore Cooper” for novelist James Fenimore Cooper’s daughter Susan, who wrote Rural Hours, the 1850 paean to the virtues of country living. Finally there was “D. B. Cooperetta,” whose name honored aerial outlaw and folk hero D. B. Cooper, who in 1971 hijacked a Boeing 727, extorted the airline for cash, and then parachuted out into the rainy darkness somewhere over the Pacific Northwest.

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A tale of two rivers

Red Lodge | Jan 31, 2013 09:00 AM

By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearinghouse

Recently I came across a spectacular video on YouTube, posted by the National Park Service (NPS), called “One Day in Yosemite.” It’s the work of 30 filmmakers who fanned out across the park on one day last June. From dawn to sundown and beyond they captured day-in-the-life details of some staff and visitors to Yosemite—a ranger on horseback spreading good will; hang gliders floating into the valley; riverside campers cooking dinner; and a moving segment of a father and son climbing Cathedral Peak. Half Dome is well-represented, including a dizzying segment of a hiker on the infamous cables and several individuals or groups in quiet contemplation of the iconic rock.

There’s a lot the video gets right, and beautifully, but one aspect not well represented are the hordes of humanity that pack themselves into Yosemite Valley in the summertime. Bumper-to-bumper exhaust-belching traffic, horns honking, people yelping, rushing around and jockeying for the best photos are all part of the scenery. Also not depicted is the hair tearing positions park staff find themselves in an attempt to fulfill their paradoxical mandate, laid out in the Organic Act of 1916: “…to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Yosemite lookout
Yosemite lookout. Courtesy of the National Park Service.

This video intersects interestingly with three additional NPS releases—their latest statistics abstract which covers visitation numbers for all park units in 2011, and two long awaited and highly anticipated management plans. In 2011, 4 million visitors poured through Yosemite’s gates. The report projects that number will continue to climb, to 4.1 million in 2012 and 4.25 in 2013. A look at historical visitation to Yosemite shows it hit 1 million visitors in 1954; 3 million in 1987 and 4 million in 1996. Since Yosemite Valley was added to the national park in 1906, a whopping 170 million people have plumbed its charms.

It’s this position the NPS currently finds itself in while attempting to craft management plans which will take the preservation and enjoyment of the park into the future. Both plans now open for public comment address the fate of the two rivers that transect Yosemite are protected by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968 (WSRA)—the Merced and the Tuolumne.

The Tuolumne River planthe less controversial of the two but still contentious—would spend $65 million over the next 20 years to “protect and enhance river values by restoring ecological conditions at Tuolumne Meadows and by improving conditions that pose risks to water quality, sensitive meadows, archeological sites, scenic vistas and recreational experiences.” This would include adjustments to transportation, lodging, camping, parking, employee housing and concessions along the Tuolumne River corridor. This plan can be commented on through March 18.

The Merced River plan is the hot potato, the result of over a decade of legal wrangling. The proposal is the agency’s third swing at a workable document since 2000, when the Ninth Circuit Court agreed with two groups suing the NPS, saying it had failed to adequately address user capacities. The WSRA requires a management plan to include “specific measurable limits on use,” including land within one-quarter mile of the rivers’ banks. The court said the NPS must “deal with or discuss the maximum number of people that can be received” in a Wild and Scenic River corridor. An attempt to remedy this in a plan released in 2005 again failed. A court-mediated settlement in 2009 directed the NPS to have a Merced River plan in place by July 2013.

Merced River
Merced River and Half Dome. Courtesy of the National Park Service.

The current proposal, which would cost $235 million over the next 15 to 20 years, resulted from 40 public workshops and the input of user-capacity experts. It offers some bold suggestions. All development will be moved away from the Merced and significant restoration of land within 100 feet of the river, including meadow and riparian habitats, will be done. Improving traffic circulation would be a major focus of the preferred alternative and day parking would increase by 5 percent, an addition of 500 parking spaces. Camping inventory will also get a 28 percent boost along the river and 37 percent in Yosemite Valley. The valley’s ice skating rink would be shut down in this scenario, and commercial horseback riding, rafting and bicycle operations would be banned.

The elephant in the room is the plan’s consideration of user capacity. The Merced plan proposes to accommodate 19,900 visitors per day in East Yosemite Valley, which is roughly the daily average in that area in the high season. The NPS offers this number in response to input in which the public overwhelmingly enjoined it to provide more camping and to maintain private vehicle access.

Reaction to this vision of Yosemite’s future has been bleak. Greg Adair, co-founder of Friends of Yosemite Valley, the lead plaintiff in the 2000 lawsuit said, “They have to make their capacity [number] meaningful and not just a receding target.” And John Buckley, executive director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center said of both the Merced and Tuolumne plans: “Overall, our center is disappointed that the park is setting such high levels of user capacity rather than making it a priority in these plans to reduce crowding and congestion… The park's enthusiasm for maximizing visitor use apparently hasn't changed based on the preferred alternatives for these two latest plans.”

Despite all the proposed management plans promise in terms of restoration and impact mitigation for both rivers, the criticism regarding user numbers is legitimate. In 2006, the district court found that the 2005 Revised Merced River Plan failed to address user capacity in accordance with the Ninth Circuit Court’s 2003 opinion. The Ninth Circuit Court also held that since the visitor-use limits in the 2005 plan were based on current capacities, the NPS did not demonstrate how such “limits” would protect and enhance river values. This preferred alternative does not successfully address these longstanding concerns.

Lower Yosemite Falls
Lower Yosemite Falls. Courtesy of the National Park Service.

Next year Yosemite celebrates its sesquicentennial, marking 150 years since Yosemite became the first parkland set aside for the public by the federal government. When he signed the legislation in 1864, President Abraham Lincoln said the land was to be preserved “upon the express conditions that the premises shall be held for public use, resort and recreation.” That may be Yosemite’s legacy but it is hard to see how that can be its future, or the future of our other rock star parks (seven out of 10 of the most visited national parks are in the West: Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountain, Olympic, Grand Teton and Zion).

The Merced Wild and Scenic River Plan is open for comment through April 18.

Heather Hansen is an environmental journalist working with the Red Lodge Clearinghouse /Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment at CU Law School, to help raise awareness of natural resource issues.

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Target shooting on public lands: still an issue

Jackie Wheeler | Jan 17, 2013 05:00 AM

So another year has arrived, and yet again we’re mired in a nationwide debate about the role of guns in American society. Let me note right away that this blog post is about guns and public lands, not guns in general. However, some context is in order, and, I think, relevant. As usual, a terrible tragedy has reawakened the controversy, and in addition to the normal, polarized arguments being rehashed, some folks are trying desperately to capture the middle ground before public interest subsides back to its preoccupation with football and the Kardashians. Most recently, former Arizona congresswoman  Gabrielle Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly argued for reform in a widely published op-ed, while also trying to push aside one of the main stereotypes: “Forget the boogeyman of big, bad government coming to dispossess you of your firearms. As a Western woman and a Persian Gulf War combat veteran who have exercised our Second Amendment rights, we don't want to take away your guns any more than we want to give up the two guns we have locked in a safe at home.”

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What's the rush?

Red Lodge | Jan 16, 2013 05:00 AM

By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House

For about a year I’ve been avoiding writing about a potential environmental catastrophe that’s been nagging at me. My hesitation is due primarily to a concern over telling sovereign native tribes what to do. But it’s a new year, and this is a big deal, so I'm wading in:

The 1.5 million-acre Blackfeet Reservation in northwest Montana shares its western border with Glacier National Park (GNP). That border drops from the ragged peaks of the Rocky Mountain Front to where grizzlies, among other species, troll the reservation’s rolling hills and out onto short-grass prairie. The reservation is gifted with huge lakes and hundreds of miles of fishing streams.Rigs on the Blackfeet nation

Nearly a century ago, oil companies first started sniffing  around the area, mostly on the eastern border of the rez. After decades of modest production, interest in tapping the resources there petered out and finally fizzled entirely in the 1980s. But, like so many places across the country, the recent natural gas boom has led the Landman back to the Blackfeet.

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A "tail" of two kitties: jaguars and ocelots on the comeback trail

DefendersofWildlife | Jan 15, 2013 04:55 AM

By Matt Clark, Defenders of Wildlife

Many people are surprised to learn that both jaguars and elusive wild cats known as ocelots are native Arizonans, and still roam the U.S.-Mexico borderlands to this day.  They are even more intrigued to learn there is a breeding population of jaguars only 125 miles south of the border in the Sierra Madre of Mexico, and that ocelots have been recently documented in the Huachuca Mountains near Sierra Vista. The American Southwest is the original home of these two cats and protecting local habitat is vital to assuring they continue to be a part of our natural heritage.

Sadly, jaguars were largely wiped out by hunters during the westward expansion and settlement.  Only 50 years ago in 1963, the last documented female jaguar in the U.S. was shot by a hunter in Arizona’s White Mountains.  In 1971, two young hunters killed a male jaguar near the Santa Cruz River.  Another male jaguar was killed by a hunter in 1986 in the Dos Cabezas Mountains of Arizona.

In 1996, rancher Warner Glenn was led to a jaguar by his hounds while hunting mountain lions in the Peloncillo Mountains along the Arizona-New Mexico border -- and instead of picking up his rifle, he chose to pick up his camera to shoot photos of this magnificent cat. Since that time, several more male jaguars have been documented in southern Arizona.

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