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Rare island-dwelling wolf closer to protection in Southeast Alaska

Christi Turner | Apr 03, 2014 10:55 AM

Alaska’s Prince of Wales Island is home to the Alexander Archipelago wolf, an extremely rare subspecies of gray wolf facing a plethora of threats. Environmental groups first petitioned to protect the animal under the Endangered Species Act nearly three years ago. The Fish and Wildlife Service finally announced this week that it will consider a listing – even as the state scrambles to come up with its own plan and head off federal protection.

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The rare Alexander Archipelago wolf is threatened by logging and hunting on Prince of Wales Island. Photo courtesy of Robin Silver.

As few as 100 of the predators roam Prince of Wales, down from a population of about 350 in the 1990s. The third-largest island in the U.S., Prince of Wales is part of the archipelago of forested islands clustered along Southeast Alaska’s narrow mainland. Towering western hemlock, Sitka spruce, western cedar and Alaska cedar up to 800 years old dominate the island’s temperate rainforests, where the wolves make their dens and forage for food. But after more than 60 years of intensive logging, young, dense replacement forests that lack old-growth biodiversity cover as much as half of its land area, threatening the wolf as well as its key food source: Sitka black-tailed deer, who need the food and shelter of the old growth forest to survive the harsh winter. More than 3,000 miles of logging roads crisscross the island, disrupting the natural habitat and giving access to legal and illegal hunters and trappers alike. With deer numbers down, hunters have been killing more wolves to try to restore the deer population; biologists estimate that as many as half of recent wolf deaths have been illegal catches. Now scientists say the whole predator-prey system is on the brink of collapse.

With the Coast Range Mountains and its glaciers to the east, the Fairweather Range to the north and the ocean to the west and south, the Alexander Archipelago wolves have been isolated since the last Ice Age, cut off from their larger, lighter-colored and lighter-coated North American cousins. Only around 1,000 may now exist across the entire archipelago, and their situation is especially dire on Prince of Wales Island, considered a “significant portion” of the wolf’s range, which under the ESA could justify a listing.

But the Fish & Wildlife Service’s recent response to the 2011 petition to consider the Alexander Archipelago wolf for ESA protection, while acknowledging that enough evidence exists to warrant a possible listing, still constitutes simply a strong “maybe.” Wolf advocates are hopeful that a thorough review – the final step in the ESA process – will yield a definitive yes.

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Will Colorado be the next Western state to make it harder to opt out of vaccines?

Emily Guerin | Apr 02, 2014 04:45 PM

Lake City, Colo, feels like a good place to escape the rest of the world. To the south, State Highway 149 winds through the San Juan Mountains over 11,500-foot Slumgullion Pass. You’re more likely to encounter a herd of bighorn sheep licking salt off the road here than an actual traffic jam. To the north, the road meanders in a narrow, often icy canyon alongside the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River. The next town is 60 miles away.

The town’s isolation conveys a sense of immunity to the problems facing much of the urbanized West. Downstream from the second largest natural lake in Colorado, there’s definitely enough water for the town’s 400 residents. And there are hardly any immigration issues, unless you count the Texans who flock here in the summers.

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A woman gets a flu shot. Courtesy Flickr user Lance McCord.

So it’s not surprising that some Lake City residents assume their isolation protects them from diseases like measles, mumps and whooping cough. Nearly 30 percent of the children in the town’s single pre K-12 school aren’t fully vaccinated – almost seven times higher than the statewide rate of 4.3 percent.

Parents are required to vaccinate their kids in order to enroll them in public school or a licensed daycare. But Colorado allows three types of exemptions: medical, religious and personal belief. In Lake City, as elsewhere in the state, the vast majority of non-vaccinated children have personal belief exemptions. A bill in the statehouse in Denver is trying to bring that number down by making it harder to fill out a personal belief exemption form – which currently only requires parents to check a box.

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Dispatch from Mexico: a historic pulse of water to restore the delta

Matt Jenkins | Apr 02, 2014 01:30 PM

Just south of the Mexican border town of Los Algodones, last Thursday dawned with a whipping breeze. Maintenance workers hustled to sweep, shovel dust and repaint the yellow speed bumps in the road alongside Mexico’s main Colorado River dam, named for the patriot José María Morelos, who was executed by Spain in 1815 for his role in the Mexican War of Independence.

The workers were preparing the facility for a wave of Mexican and U.S. dignitaries, who soon arrived to commemorate a landmark international water deal. Since the early 1960s, water has — thanks to an aggressive program of dam building upstream — only occasionally reached the delta at the mouth of the Colorado River. But Minute 319 — an amendment to a U.S.-Mexico water treaty — calls for, among other things, the release of a “pulse flow,” a substantial shot of water to boost the delta’s suffering riparian ecosystem.

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The Colorado River dissolves into the Gulf of California, about 90 miles south of Morelos Dam.

After a long round of speechifying, the U.S. officials would be chauffeured through the Colorado River Delta in what locals referred to, with considerable amusement, as “el convoy” — an armada of five-ton, bulletproof Suburbans seconded from the Tijuana consulate. Yet in spite of all the bureaucratic pomp, the event felt like a week-long beach party.

That party had actually started four days earlier, when the dam keeper — shadowed by a very small dog — made his morning rounds to check that the dam’s equipment was functioning. As the sun lit a statue of José María Morelos, on the north side of the dam, a gaggle of onlookers gathered at the toe of a levee downstream. On the U.S. side of the river, a couple of Border Patrol agents stopped to keep watch.

Just after 8 a.m., with little fanfare, one of the gates on the dam opened. At first, the change was almost imperceptible. Then someone piped up, “There it goes! Right in the middle”: water boiling out from the dam. “Wow,” murmured someone else. A pair of drones, piloted by videographers, buzzed over the crowd. Several of the advisers and environmental professionals who have worked tenaciously to get water back to the Delta — among others, Osvel Hinojosa, Francisco Zamora, Yamilett Carrillo, Jennifer Pitt, Peter Culp and Carlos de la Parra — broke out bottles of champagne for a spontaneous toast. Then they did it again for the cameras.

As more and more water rushed from the dam, the onlookers tightened into a denser and denser group to avoid the rising river. Finally, a local policeman reefed on his whistle and summoned everyone to higher ground.


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Feds and state officials square off on Alaska hunting regulations

Krista Langlois | Apr 01, 2014 05:00 AM

The morning of Friday, February 21 dawned bright and clear in the rolling boreal forest of the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, east of Fairbanks, Alaska. The temperature topped out at eight below zero.

Earlier in the week, a family of 11 wolves known as the Lost Creek pack loped beyond the preserve’s boundaries as they followed the Fortymile caribou herd, their main food source. Unfortunately for the wolves, the caribou herd’s proximity to a road — a rarity in Alaska — also makes it an important food source for local subsistence villages, and for families from Fairbanks and beyond. So to help ensure food security, the state’s governor-appointed Board of Game bolsters the herd’s numbers by killing some of the wolves that prey on caribou calving grounds.

Board chairman Ted Spraker insists that he doesn't hate wolves. “I think wolves are the most exciting animals in Alaska,” he says. Still, Spraker is bound by a 1994 state law requiring Alaska to manage wildlife to support abundant moose, caribou and deer populations for subsistence hunting, often at the expense of predators.

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The Lost Creek wolf pack feeding on a caribou in Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. Photo courtesy NPS wildlife biologist John Burch.

Under former Gov. Tony Knowles — the state’s only Democratic governor since 1990 — predator control efforts like aerial wolf kills effectively ceased. In some places, ungulate populations dropped. “Subsistence opportunities were in shambles,” Spraker recalls. “People in rural parts of the state were suffering.” So in the dozen years since Knowles left office, Alaska has played catch-up, leading to what some conservationists call “a war on wolves and bears” and creating tension between state and federal wildlife officials.

Recently predator control has grown especially lethal. In parts of the state, the Board of Game has authorized the use of artificial light to rouse black bears from their dens and shoot them as they emerge (“spotlighting”), as well as baiting brown bears, increasing bag limits and lengthening the hunting season to months when wolves and coyotes are raising pups. The idea, says Spraker, is to go all-out now so programs can be scaled-back or eliminated once ungulate populations are back up in the future.

Joan Frankevich, Alaska program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, doesn’t particularly care for such practices, but she accepts that the Board has the right to do what it will on Alaska’s 105 million acres of state land. What she does not accept, however, is that the Board has also tried to implement similar regulations in Alaska’s 22 million acres of national preserves. In Alaska, national preserves are dually managed by the National Park Service and state agencies, with the state largely assuming responsibility for wildlife management and hunting. For decades, the arrangement worked smoothly.

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Fracking fuels the post-Recession economy and growth

Jonathan Thompson | Mar 31, 2014 10:00 AM

Oh how a housing bust, a nasty economic downturn and a shale oil and gas boom can change things.

Seven years ago this spring, the Census Bureau released a flurry of numbers about the economy and growth, which then spawned a bunch of articles about which parts of the country were growing fastest and why. Topping the list were mostly suburban, sun-belt counties with subprime mortgage-related housing booms. Palm Coast, Fla., gained the highest percentage of population between 2000 and 2006. Western counties near the top included Douglas in Colorado, Teton in Idaho, Lyon in Nevada, Washington in Utah and Pinal in Arizona. Forbes summed up the driving forces of the growth boom:

The high cost of urban living, cheaper land in the suburbs and new business opportunities in periphery communities are contributing to this boom. Not surprisingly, many of the most popular counties are in the South and Southwest–warm, business friendly, inexpensive and less populated than the Northeast.

Last week, the newest Census numbers were released, documenting the fastest growing metro areas in the U.S. between 2012 and 2013. The results look a bit different than they did back before the boom. The top five fastest growing counties now are:

1. Williams, N.D. (Unemployment rate: 1 percent)

2. Duchesne, Utah (Unemployment rate: 3.5 percent)

3. Sumter, Fla. (Unemployment rate: 5.4 percent)

4. Stark, N.D. (Unemployment rate: 1.7 percent)

5. Kendall, Tex. (Unemployment rate: 4.7 percent)

The fastest growing metro areas are:

1. The Villages, Fla.

2. Odessa, Tex.

3. Midland, Tex.

4. Fargo, N.D.

5. Bismarck, N.D.

6. Casper, Wyo.

And, finally, the fastest growing micropolitan areas:

1. Williston, N.D.

2. Dickinson, N.D.

3. Heber, Utah

4. Andrews, Tex.

5. Minot, N.D.

6. Vernal, Utah

Now, I don't know what's going on in The Villages in Florida, but I do know that nearly all of the other places listed above are in or near the oil and gas patch. Gone, apparently, are the days when amenity migrants and equity refugees flock to warm climates where houses are sprouting like weeds in the desert. Now people just want jobs. And these days the jobs, like it or not, are in the oil and gas industry.


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Four women joyride the flood that will revive the Colorado River Delta

Sarah Gilman | Mar 28, 2014 05:00 AM

The guides warned us, of course. Or they sort of did.

It was sometime after the river outfitter’s shuttle van had passed through the latticework of gates and fences that guards the steep, hairpinned road to the boat-launch at the base of the Hoover Dam, and possibly right before we realized that we had left our two-burner stove back in Alison’s truck, in the parking lot of a casino hotel towering beigely over an otherwise nearly buildingless swath of desert around Lake Mead.

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Alison demonstrates proper brain-eating amoeba risk mitigation technique.

March 19 had dawned beautiful and bluebird in what we had dubbed Baja, Nevada – a 12-mile stretch of clear turquoise water with intermittent hotsprings through the Black Canyon of the Colorado River, where my three college lady friends and I planned to kayak at a luxuriantly sluggish pace for four days. Green rattlesnakes will chase you, the guides told us as we wound into the steep gorge. Scorpions will roost in your sandals. Brain-eating amoebas will Swiss-cheese your frontal lobes if you’re stupid enough to snort the hotspring water. And in the afternoon and at night, the water level can rise without warning as dam operators let more or less through Hoover’s hydroelectric turbines to feed fluctuating power demands in Arizona, Nevada and California. Make sure your gear is secure, the guides fingerwagged, and your kayaks well-tied overnight. Yes, of course, but the stove? we clamored. The eating of delicious things was, after all, a top priority. The guides exchanged glances. Tight federal security around the dam meant there would be no driving back for it. That left hoofing it out from the first side canyon, about a mile downriver.

Three hours later, Alison and I began the eight-mile roundtrip hike to the freeway and the hotel on the rim, while Sarahlee and Laura held down a campsite and explored an island in the middle of the river. The route was a spectacular scramble along sandy wash bottoms and up boulders and ragged fixed lines. Spring-fed ferns and algae wept down the canyon’s walls and an ankle-deep stream of hot water threaded its middle, curling periodically into deep, sand-bagged pools. By the time we had strapped the cornery bulk of the stove to my back, we were congratulating ourselves on the incredible luck of finding this place, and of finding a way to retrieve this key piece of gear. “Winning!” we called out with fist pumps. This battle cry would become our river-trip refrain, but it didn’t much jive with what had been happening down below.

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Conservationists join animal rights groups to challenge Idaho ag gag law

Christi Turner | Mar 26, 2014 10:55 AM

Idaho’s sweeping new ag gag law, enacted in February, raises so many red flags that the Animal Legal Defense Fund has filed a lawsuit against it, only the second suit of its kind in the nation. But this time, in a new twist on ag gag litigation, the animal rights non-profit is joined by conservation groups, too.

That’s because this new statute – designed to prevent people from documenting what goes on in factory farms, like all of the now seven total ag gag laws in the U.S. – is alarmingly broad, according to senior ALDF attorney Matthew Liebman, affecting “virtually any place where there’s any interaction between humans and animals and plants.” The law defines an agricultural facility as “any structure or land, whether privately or publicly owned, leased or operated, that is being used for agricultural production” (emphasis added), and makes it a crime for virtually anyone to film or photograph in such places without express consent. But with such a broad definition, the law could potentially apply not only to factory farms and slaughterhouses like ag gag laws in other states, but also to public parks, restaurants, nursing homes, grocery stores, pet stores, and virtually every public establishment and private residence in Idaho, according to the lawsuit.

The law’s definition of “agricultural production” is also a catch-all, referring to any activity related to the production of food, fiber and fuel, including everything from construction, maintenance, pesticide or herbicide handling, planting, irrigating, harvesting plants, raising or producing, animals, and processing or packaging any agricultural product – and more. Dan Steenson, an attorney for the Idaho Dairymen’s Association (IDA) and author of the statute, is quoted in court documents as saying that the law could even apply to an employee who photographs a non-animal related violation – a blocked fire exit, for example.

But according to Bob Naerebout, executive director of the IDA, "The bill protects farmers and their families from misrepresentation, lies and deceit by individuals that intended to damage what they have worked a lifetime to build.”  The law, he said, does not punish people for reporting illegal, unsafe or unethical activities – a direct contradiction to how ALDF and its 11 co-plaintiffs interpret the statute.

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New national monuments threatened by House attack on Antiquities Act

Ben Goldfarb | Mar 26, 2014 05:00 AM

When President Obama bestowed national monument status upon the Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands — a 1,600-acre stretch of rocky California coast that teems with abalone and sea lions — earlier this month, the reaction was predictable as a high tide at full moon. While conservation groups rejoiced at the presidential protection, House Republicans snarled at what they considered egregious executive overreach. According to congressman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, Obama’s decree was “purely political and undermines sincere efforts to reach consensus on questions of conservation.” To Bishop and his House peers, the monument designation was nothing but a federal land grab.

The designation of the Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands as a national monuments has conservationists celebrating – and Republicans fuming. Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management.

Now Bishop and other Republicans are seeking to restrict the president’s ability to declare national monuments through H.R. 1459, the “Ensuring Public Involvement in the Creation of National Monuments Act,” which will go to the House floor for vote on Wednesday. The bill, which Bishop sponsored back in July, would limit the president to creating one national monument per state in each four-year term and require environmental reviews for all monuments larger than 5,000 acres – gumming up the executive branch’s ability to swiftly conserve lands. The left-leaning Center for American Progress calls H.R. 1459 a de facto “No More National Parks” policy.

The executive power to create monuments derives from the Antiquities Act of 1906, a piece of legislation that’s no stranger to controversy. The Act has been used by every president since Theodore Roosevelt to conserve some 70 million total acres, including many of America’s iconic landscapes, from the Grand Canyon to Death Valley to Utah’s Bryce and Zion. Though those sites are now among our best-loved parks, monument proclamations have often been greeted with congressional fury at the time of their announcement. When Franklin Roosevelt established Jackson Hole National Monument in 1943, Wyoming Sen. Edward Robertson called it a "foul, sneaking, Pearl Harbor blow.” (Bishop’s rhetoric has been mild by comparison – the worst he’s said is that President Obama “punked” the House. Evoking Ashton Kutcher isn’t quite as inflammatory as comparing the POTUS to Emperor Hirohito, but times change.)

Of course, the reason Congress has spent so much effort trying to rescind the Antiquities Act is precisely because it cuts the legislative branch out of the loop. Some might say that makes the Act unconstitutional – hi, Doc Hastings! – but, to others, that’s exactly why it’s indispensable in this era of congressional obstruction. Until it tabbed Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes this winter, Congress hadn’t created a single wilderness area since 2009, and it’s only designated one national park since 2004. If not for President Obama creating monuments at a respectable (albeit not quite Clintonian) pace, the last half-decade would’ve been a near-total wash for public lands protection.

Republicans love to talk about “public involvement” – heck, it’s right there in the name of the bill – but if they were truly paying attention to recent developments in the West, they’d know that the public wants more monuments. New Mexico’s Rio Grande del Norte, designated last April, has been instantly embraced by everyone from ranchers to Taos Pueblo tribal officials, thanks largely to the 300 jobs and $15 million in annual revenues that the monument is expected to generate. (That’s typical: while conservative leaders enjoy grumbling about the cost of maintaining public lands, virtually all parks are powerful economic engines.) Another 2013 monument, in the San Juan Islands, was similarly popular. Meanwhile, designation for Colorado’s Browns Canyon is gaining momentum; check out Iraq War veteran Garett Reppenhagen’s recent op-ed on why public lands protection is about more than just money. (Though, okay, the economic engine thing is nice!)

Given the wide and growing imbalance between conservation and energy development on our public lands, it’s vital that Congress preserve the executive’s ability to swiftly protect America’s special places. Though H.R. 1459 would probably be D.O.A. in the Senate, let’s hope it doesn’t even get that far.

Ben Goldfarb is an editorial intern at High Country News. He tweets @bengoldfarb13.

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Drought gives one of the West's thirstiest crops an ironic boost

Tay Wiles | Mar 25, 2014 08:00 AM

“We farmers here in the United States might as well recognize that we are a minority group, and that the prevailing interest of the nation as a whole is no longer agricultural,” wrote Dust Bowl farmer Caroline Henderson in a letter to a friend later published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1936. She lived in the eye of the eight-year drought, in the Oklahoma panhandle, and farmed wheat. She is now credited with creating one of the best written-records of Dust Bowl history. “Hay for the horses and the heifers remaining here cost us $3 per ton, brought by truck from eastern Oklahoma,” she wrote.

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Photograph by Flickr user Art Siegel.

That was a lot of money back then. Hay prices are much higher today – the national average is always over $100. But dire drought conditions in California have driven them way up in recent months, putting dairies and ranchers in a pinch similar to Henderson's. Many livestock producers in the corridor between Bakersfield, Calif., and Merced are buying hay that would normally be under $200 per ton, for as much as $325, and are looking to Pacific Northwest states and as far away as Texas and Colorado for competitive prices. Prices in California have risen by $50 per ton in just the past two months.

In similarly drought-stricken Nevada, where alfalfa accounts for 90 percent of the crops grown, hay producers are preparing for a difficult season for the third year in a row. Some counties’ water supplies are less than half of their normal size. Yet the dry conditions also have a silver lining: High prices have brought much-needed financial relief for producers, according to Jay Davison, an alternative crop specialist with the University of Nevada –even if they’re a nightmare for dairies and livestock producers in California.

“This has been a lifesaver,” he said. Since Nevada hay farmers have struggled with a weaker market in past years, many were in desperate need of improved prices, Davison said. And though alfalfa is a particularly water-intensive crop, the high prices incentivize farmers to grow as much of it as they can – long-term water supply be damned. 

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Hatcheries make for happy anglers, but at what cost to wild fish?

Ben Goldfarb | Mar 21, 2014 05:00 AM

This spring, millions of Americans will snap together rods, tie flies and spinners to monofilament, and, from a boat or streambank, cast to a rising fish. In many places, their quarry will be the born-and-raised products of hatcheries, facilities in which fish are artificially bred for the benefit of anglers. Nevada will stock a million trout in its waters this year; Oregon, 7 million. Washington plans on releasing a remarkably precise 17,140,634 trout and kokanee. A few years ago, California turned nearly 50 million fish loose in its lakes and streams.

Hatcheries have their advantages: According to a 2006 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study, every dollar spent on rainbow trout hatcheries generates around $37 in net economic value. And that’s to say nothing of less tangible gains – the kids, lured to rivers by fat, hatchery-raised trout, who later advocate for watershed conservation. But as scientists uncover the damage that captive-bred fish can inflict on wild ecosystems, it’s becoming clear that, used unwisely, hatcheries can yield more costs than benefits.

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According to Douglas M. Thompson's "The Quest for the Golden Trout," state and federal hatcheries around the U.S. release a combined 150 million trout every year. Photo courtesy of USFWS.

The latest evidence comes from Kristy Bellinger, a PhD candidate at Washington State University. Bellinger bred five separate lineages of cloned rainbow trout, from totally wild trout to fish whose ancestors had been hatchery-raised going back over 100 generations. She placed fish from each lineage in a tank and then startled them into “sprint speed” – the quick burst of movement that fish use to dodge predators and catch food. Typically, big fish are also the strongest and fastest, and Bellinger figured that the hatchery offspring, which had been bred for size for generations, would be the best sprinters.

But that’s not what she found. “As they grew bigger,” she says, “they were slower.” Fish that came from the highly domesticated line – the one descended from 100 hatchery generations – were sluggards; in fact, it was hard to get them to sprint at all. Other, slightly-domesticated lineages didn’t swim as poorly as the hyper-hatchery line, but were still slower than wild trout.

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