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The terrifying yet awesome beauty of the gas patch

Jonathan Thompson | Feb 24, 2014 08:40 AM

Contrails feather out across the hard-blue February sky, and the unforgiving light of mid-morning  accentuates the bright reds, oranges, and synthetic blues of the fake flowers at the foot of scattered headstones, mostly engraved with Hispanic names. A Virgen de Guadalupe statue, hands clasped together, miniature rosary and cross hanging from her neck, stares down at the dirt, sun-cracked and blemished by not one blade of grass or weed or leaf, as though this cemetery is both meticulously cared for and utterly ignored, all at once. A constant high roar, or perhaps a hiss, drowns out the sound of my camera’s shutter click, as I’m careful not only to get the shrine in the frame, but also the condenser towers, like giant robot phalli, looming frighteningly close.

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A shrine at St. Mary's Cemetery near Bloomfield, NM, with the Conoco-Phillips San Juan Gas Plant on two sides. Photo by Jonathan Thompson.

Like nearly every other acre of the landscape in this swath of northwestern New Mexico, the St. Mary’s Cemetery has been inundated by the gas patch. Its graves butt up against a big fence, just behind which are the tangle of big pipes and cooling towers that are part of Conoco-Phillips’  San Juan Gas Plant, one of a handful of similar facilities in this neighborhood of beaten down trailers, modest homes and a houseboat beached inexplicably in a plot of sand next to an arroyo.

I look around furtively before shooting another photograph, just in case someone suspects me of being a terrorist scout, casing the joint for a future attack. If questioned, I’ll tell them I’m photographing small graveyards in the region for a cultural project. But what if I were to tell the truth? What would I tell them then?

That I’m looking for glimmering shards of beauty? Here? In the gas patch?

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Stairs wind their way up a tank at the Western Refining facility just above the San Juan River near Bloomfield, NM. Photo by Jonathan Thompson.

Few places are as imbued with the energy economy, and its detritus, as San Juan County, New Mexico. This is not a sudden boomtown like, say, Williston, N.D. It’s been in a chronic state of boom and bust since the 1920s, when oil was discovered nearby. Uranium mines and mills, coal mines and massive power plants and natural gas followed. Workers and wildcatters and corporations came in droves, drilling at least 40,000 holes in the earth over time, some as deep as 14,000 feet, causing the sleepy little farming town of Farmington to balloon into a bustling, sprawling mini-city. The county’s population jumped from 18,000 in 1950 to 53,000 a decade later; today it’s around 130,000.

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Rate of undocumented immigrants winning deportation cases is on the rise, many still detained

Tay Wiles | Feb 22, 2014 05:00 AM

It’s an interesting moment for immigration reform in the United States. The very phrase has come to symbolize the failure of the Obama Administration to push much meaningful change through Congress, since the Senate bill to create a 13-year path to citizenship for undocumented migrants floundered amongst GOP opposition last year. Perhaps it was the federal shutdown that threw reform off the rails. Or maybe Republicans just aren’t ready to stop shooting themselves in the foot by alienating one of the fastest growing minorities in the country.

Though politicians on both sides of the aisle are still demanding to see reform in 2014, it’s unclear how quickly the issue will make a serious comeback. But new data from the Transactional Records Access Clearing House, a research group at Syracuse University, show that an increasing number of unauthorized immigrants are beating deportation charges. Several hundred thousand undocumented people are deported yearly – 368,644 in fiscal year 2013 – for anything from running a stop sign or crossing the border illegally to committing a violent crime.

The rate of these deportation cases that ICE is losing is now higher than at any time in the last 20 years. As the Associated Press reports, over 78 percent of those facing deportation in Phoenix have won their cases this fiscal year, a marked change from 35 percent in fiscal year 2010. Since October 2013, immigration judges have seen 42,816 cases across the country, and allowed nearly 50 percent of those defendants to stay in the U.S. at least temporarily, up from just 24 percent five years ago. California and Oregon show some of the strongest shifts toward leniency. Utah is one of the few states to resist that change, with judges there still more likely to side with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in booting migrants out of the country.

So why has ICE been losing more cases? “We really don’t know,” says Susan Long, a statistician and sociologist with TRAC. “That would be a good question to ask ICE.” (At the time this story was published, ICE had not responded to requests for comment.) Long is wary of drawing conclusions about the reasons. because the trend could be caused by a variety of factors. But one thing’s for sure – she and other researchers were surprised by the numbers.

Courtesy Transactional Records Access Clearing House at Syracuse University.

To begin with, Long had thought that the rate of deportation would have actually gone up thanks to a 2011 federal initiative. The push  to close thousands of pending deportation cases in an effort to trim the massive backlog and prioritize immigrants who truly pose a threat to public safety, led Long to believe that the rate of immigrants able to fight off deportation would go down, not up. In other words, a more focused deportation strategy was supposed to result in fewer court cases but a higher rate of deportation for those that did in fact make it to court.

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For native birds, cities may spread disease while still providing sanctuary

Ben Goldfarb | Feb 20, 2014 11:15 AM

Ours is an increasingly urban nation – over 80 percent of the U.S. population now dwells in cities and towns, a figure that’s only rising. Nowhere is that trend more pronounced than in the West: Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Denver are among the country’s fastest-growing cities. Our metropolitan migration has environmentalists and planners dreaming of efficient high-density housing and a public transportation revolution. But before we wholeheartedly embrace urban living, it’s worth asking what the growth of American cities means for our wildlife.

Two recent studies approach that question in very different ways. The first, published this month in the journal PLOS ONE, suggests that cities could be hazardous to the health of animals dwelling in and around urban areas. To arrive at that conclusion, researchers at Arizona State University trapped house finches – small, crimson-breasted birds native to southwestern deserts – across a range of habitats in the Phoenix area, from the heart of downtown to a park twenty miles outside the city, and examined them for parasites and a disease called avian poxvirus. What they found was troubling: Finches that lived in areas with higher human populations and greater habitat disturbance were more likely to be infected.

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House finches living in areas with larger human populations and greater habitat disturbance are more susceptible to infections. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user nigel.

What explains the urban illness? One possibility, says Kevin McGraw, the study’s senior author, is that bird feeders encourage high population densities and unhygienic conditions that lead to infection. “When you’re around many other members of your species, you’re more likely to get infected,” explains McGraw. “Dirty birdfeeders themselves might also be a route of transmission.” The pollutants, pesticides, and junk food that urban birds encounter may also make the creatures more susceptible to illness by putting stress on their bodies. “Anytime you’re stressed, you could be immunologically compromised,” McGraw says.

Madhusudan Katti, an ecologist at California State University, Fresno who has studied birds throughout the Southwest, proposes a fourth hypothesis. “Because food is readily available in cities, birds that might die in the wild survive,” says Katti. “You can cause an unhealthy population to persist.”

Katti’s own research suggests that the relationship between birds and cities is immensely complicated. To wit: Abert’s towhee is a large sparrow, native to the Sonoran Desert, which ordinarily sticks to riparian corridors. In Phoenix, however, where manmade features like sewage ponds and groundwater recharge basins provide watery habitat, Katti found that the towhee sometimes strays miles from stream channels. “Desert birds take advantage of any water, anywhere,” he says. “Cities create urban oases, which bring in a lot of opportunistic species.”

But those opportunists don’t always flourish. Cities and other human-altered habitats can become ecological traps that lure wildlife with the promise of easy food and shelter, and then suppress reproduction and survival. After all, cities, with their cats and collision-inducing windows, are perilous places for birds, and our well-intended aid may not help. “We attract them with bird feeders, but I wonder about the nutritional value of the food we’re giving them,” says McGraw. “They’re eating the equivalent of bird candy.”

The task for planners and conservationists, then, is to ensure that cities function less like traps and more like oases. Another study, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B last week by researchers affiliated with U.C. Santa Barbara's National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), offers a partial solution to that challenge. The paper, a sweeping analysis of urban plant and bird biodiversity in 147 global cities (including some in the American West like Los Angeles, Tucson and Seattle), found that cities retain a surprisingly rich suite of native species. Sure, urban areas can’t match the diversity of undeveloped landscapes, but they’re not homogenous wastelands of pigeons and starlings, either: the median city contained 112.5 bird species, only 3.5 of which were exotic. (If you don’t think 109 native birds is impressive, try naming 50 in your hometown, and your neighbor’s cockatiel doesn’t count.) “Most people think of cities as concrete jungles that aren’t important for conservation, but they actually support 20 percent of bird species worldwide,” says Myla Aronson, a Rutgers University biologist and lead author.

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The white-winged dove (the animal, not the Stevie Nicks lyric) is among the many Phoenix-area birds that have adapted to urban environments. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user William Herron.
The NCEAS study also demonstrates that if an urban area’s vegetative cover increases, so does its species density. “That’s a message to urban planners about the value of green space,” says Frank Davis, director of NCEAS. “What you plant, the way you design streamside corridors – there are ways to make urban areas more friendly to biodiversity.”

To be sure, increased green space isn’t a panacea for wildlife health: Although habitat loss has been associated with the spread of animal disease elsewhere in the world, an extra park or two likely won’t prevent birds from crowding around dirty feeders stocked with non-nutritious seed. The presence or absence of high-quality green space habitat, says McGraw, still lies within the “big black box of stress” — meaning it’s a variable that could compromise birds’ immune systems, but, compared to other factors like feeder hygiene, is so complex that it’s hard to directly connect to animal health. “We still don’t understand a great deal about disease dynamics in urban areas,” adds Katti (who’s also one of the authors of the NCEAS study).

When it comes to retaining native species, however, creating green space is still the best tool urban planners have. Los Angeles’ Debs Park, site of a new Audubon nature center, hosts over 140 different avian species, Phoenix is using a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grant to create nesting habitat, and surveys on the green space-rich Berkeley campus suggest that avian diversity hasn’t declined in the last 75 years. “We go to cities and appreciate the language and culture, but there’s another side, and that’s their nature,” says NCEAS’ Davis. “It may be diminished biodiversity, but it’s still native biodiversity, and we can’t give up on trying to restore it.”

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

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Groundbreaking “Sea Ice Atlas” aids Arctic planning and is really cool to boot

Krista Langlois | Feb 19, 2014 01:35 PM

Back in the dark ages of the 1960s, the science of ice forecasting – predicting how much ice will be choking Arctic seas in a given month – was based more on intuition than science. Forecasters relied largely on memory and anecdotal observations, with results about as fallible as you’d expect. Sometimes, the dearth of information caused trouble for forecasters, like the time they sent barges laden with Alaska pipeline materials into the Bering Sea and accidentally trapped them in the ice for days.

Thanks to satellite technology, today’s Arctic-going vessels have a better chance of avoiding such mishaps. But without a solid historical record to contextualize the data, there are still a lot of unknowns. A digital Sea Ice Atlas is out to change that, bringing 160 years' worth of observation together with modern GIS mapping to take forecasting into the 21st century.

With temperatures at record highs and Alaskan sea ice at record lows, activity above the Arctic circle has spiked. Oil, fishing, tourism, military and shipping officials have each expressed the need for a reliable resource to help them navigate not only the ever-shifting northern seas, but also the future of the Arctic itself. Dael Devenport, a National Park Service archeologist, plans to use the atlas to predict coastal erosion and preserve archeological sites at the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve.

Though the atlas was mostly created for people who work in the Arctic, the interactive maps and historical record are free for anyone with an internet connection, and are just plain cool to play around with – especially if you’re in the midst of a mid-winter heat wave and dreaming of snow and ice, as we are at the HCN headquarters in Paonia, Colo.

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$80k a year with a high school diploma: Why it's difficult to replace coal-mining jobs

Emily Guerin | Feb 18, 2014 11:15 AM

On a Saturday in early February, the wooden bleachers at the old middle school in Paonia, Colo. were filled with men in boots, camouflage hats and Carhartt jackets. Most were miners who had recently been laid-off by one of the North Fork Valley’s three coalmines. Stern-faced women sat beside them, some wearing pins that said, “I dig mining!” One man wore a miner’s helmet covered in stickers from the coal company that had just laid him off. Right above the brim he’d stuck his most brazen sticker, which read “Stop the war on coal, fire Obama.”

The Democratic state senator representing the district had called the meeting and lined up a series of speakers to offer advice and encouragement to the out-of-work miners. During a presentation about re-training programs, a miner named Cliff Brewer spoke up.

“I’m all for the re-training programs and I’ve looked into them already, but the fact of the matter is, it does not support our life. A $10/hour job, that’s not enough to keep us here,” he said, to murmurs of agreement from the crowd. “Is there anything that would train a miner to make the kind of money he’s used to making underground?”

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The coal shoveling competition at Paonia, Colo.'s annual Fourth of July celebration. Courtesy Andrew Cullen, HCN Associate Designer.

With a few exceptions, the answer to that question is no. “The city of Montrose (Colo.) hired patrol officers starting at $50,000 a year,” said John Jones, the director of Delta Montrose Technical College, as he touted the school’s law enforcement training program to the miners. “It’s not the kind of wage that a miner makes, but it’s a good living wage.”

But for miners accustomed to making – and spending – nearly double that amount, it doesn’t feel like a living wage. The transition can be especially hard for those miners who only have high school diplomas. “I don’t have a college degree and I make 80 grand a year, you tell me another job that’s going to pay me $80,000 a year,” Brewer said when I talked to him after the meeting. “There’s none. I’m going to go where the mines are at and unfortunately that’s not here anymore.”

Miners willing to move may find jobs in coal-producing regions that are still booming, like Wyoming’s Powder River Basin or the Illinois Basin in Western Kentucky. But for those who want to stay put and find new jobs in places like Eastern Kentucky, West Virginia and, at the moment, Paonia, Colo., it can be hard to accept the severe pay cut.

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Terrorists, infrastructure porn and our fragile energy systems

Jonathan Thompson | Feb 17, 2014 08:00 AM

They came shrouded by the early morning darkness near San Jose, Calif., equipped with night-vision goggles, AK-47s and an apparent lust to spill some transformer fluid. They cut some telephone cables and then, according to the Wall Street Journal:

Within half an hour, snipers opened fire on a nearby electrical substation. Shooting for 19 minutes, they surgically knocked out 17 giant transformers that funnel power to Silicon Valley. A minute before a police car arrived, the shooters disappeared into the night.

It’s a dramatic tale, and — as is any story about a group of people shooting into the night with assault rifles — scary, too. The substation was a big one, and the transformers critical pieces of equipment in keeping the electrical grid humming along smoothly. And it doesn’t take a flurry of bullets to put one out of commission and take out power to millions: Simple human error, a branch rubbing against a wire, or a bird landing on or a squirrel chewing on the wrong wire can do that. In this case, grid operators were able to bypass the substation without cutting off power to Silicon Valley. Disaster averted.

TransmissionOutages
Each year, there are more than 1,500 unplanned outages in the Western Grid. Weather is the main cause; vandalism or terrorism are extremely rare. Source: WECC.

When the attack happened last April, it was at first called a random act of vandalism. Then, as premeditation became apparent, it was upgraded to sabotage. Conspiracy theory-leaning websites, meanwhile, insisted it was an act of terror, and that something bigger might be on its way. They weren’t the only ones. Last week, the Wall Street Journal whipped the news media into a frenzy with a report that has former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Jon Wellinghoff saying that it was, indeed, a terror attack, and that it could be a “dress rehearsal” for a much larger action against the grid. That prompted leading Democratic lawmakers to send a letter to FERC, asking it to consider raising security standards on the grid.

Those of you who are regular readers of HCN's Goat Blog might remember my story about the attack shortly after it happened, and about how I thought we shouldn’t worry about terrorists: Climate change, not to mention birds and tree branches and mylar balloons, are a bigger threat to the grid. The new information doesn’t change my mind. With no disrespect to Wellinghoff and all the politicians worried about physical attacks to the grid, I say this: Yes, you should be concerned about the viability of our energy infrastructure. Yes, you should be putting some cash into making it more robust and regulating it more strictly. But, no, terrorism is not the biggest threat. Far from it.

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Owls react to megafire and climate trends in central Colorado

Tay Wiles | Feb 15, 2014 05:00 AM

In the 1980s, when ecologist Brian Linkhart first started digging around in old woodpecker holes in Colorado for flammulated owls – fuzzy, black-eyed creatures weighing just one to two ounces – his research was all about the birds. He wanted to understand if and where the secretive little animals were breeding – questions he pursued purely because the owls fascinated him.

But after decades on the job, the Colorado College professor has turned his attention to what these owls can tell us about larger phenomena, like megafires and climate change.

Flammulated owl, the subject of study for Colorado College professor Brian Linkhart. Photograph by Flickr user Jerry Oldenettel.

Not many people have extensively studied “flams,” as Linkhart calls them, because they’re elusive: The birds are nocturnal and sing for only a short span of time during mating season, and even then quietly. Linkhart has studied flammulated owls longer and more deeply than anyone, which puts his research in a unique spot to evaluate how long-term trends like warming temperatures may impact the owls. It takes decades of observation for those cause-and-effect relationships to exit the speculative realm and come into relief – and that’s exactly what’s happening with Linkhart’s data.

I the early 2000s, he first started seeing Colorado flams breeding earlier in the year than they used to. “That was one of my first clues,” Linkhart says, that the owls were responding to changes in the climate. Then he began to notice fewer offspring and evidence of siblicide in broods. More recently, these changes inspired Linkhart to examine the larger trends that could be causing them.

Linkhart has found that the earlier breeding cycle has a direct correlation with warmer spring temperatures. Precipitation declines over many years in the Manitou Experimental Forest, one of his study areas in the Pike National Forest southwest of Denver, are likely a factor in the decrease in offspring. Flams usually produce two or three fledglings a year, but over the past 15, Linkhart has seen an average closer to one. With less moisture between January and June, he thinks the shrubs, flowers and vegetation that insects – the owls’ primary food source – depend on, aren’t growing as abundantly as they used to and support fewer insects. That makes for hungrier flams. Increasingly parched summers have also made a major predator, red squirrels, more aggressive. With trees producing fewer seeds for squirrels to eat, the rodents have been pillaging flam nests more often than usual, to feast on eggs.

These temperature and precipitation trends may be a result of the last half-century of climate change, though it’s difficult to prove. Either way, future climate change will no doubt exacerbate the trends.

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Boldt ruling to let Natives manage fisheries is still vastly influential, 40 years later

Christi Turner | Feb 14, 2014 05:00 AM

The Boldt Decision turned 40 this week, marking four decades since tribes of the Pacific Northwest were granted a 50-50 share of salmon and steelhead fisheries and co-manager status over their natural resources. Just this week, Washington state legislators are expected to decide on a bill that would pardon the dozens of activists arrested in the 1960s "fish wars" protests that led to that monumental court decision.

The two-part decision was handed down in 1974 by Judge George Hugo Boldt in U.S. v. Washington, a watershed moment in Native American rights law that laid the groundwork for Native American law across the U.S. and up to the present day.

“It was the Boldt Decision that was the lightning strike,” said Western historian and Native American law expert at the University of Colorado Boulder, Charles Wilkinson, who is now writing a book on the decision’s history and legacy. “It wasn’t just getting a fair share of the fish, but they had the right to act as sovereigns. These tribes really did not have working governments, certainly as far as the outside world was concerned. Afterward they set up courts, environmental codes and crack scientific operations – it gave them confidence.”

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Billy Frank Jr. was a leading figure in the 'fish war' years, as pictured left. Pictured right more recently, as the director of the Northwest Indians Fisheries Commission. Photographs courtesy of NWIFC and Debby Preston.

The decision allowed tribes to work hand-in-hand with the state to co-manage all fishing resources, including those outside of reservations. This became particularly important after fish stocks suffered major collapses in the 1980s, and both Indian and state managers focused on the need to protect fish habitat and support long-term recovery of the once vital fisheries. The Boldt Decision also spurred the creation of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, which supports its 20 member tribes in this role as natural resource co-managers.

Co-management is now firmly established, but in its day Boldt’s ruling was so shocking to non-Native American fishermen that angry protestors branded Boldt a traitor and publically burned his effigy. For Boldt, a political conservative and a fishermen himself, the ruling was simply a strict interpretation of a critical phrase in the 1850s-era treaties that Isaac Stevens, then governor of the Washington Territory, had negotiated with the region’s tribes: “The right of taking fish…is further secured to said Indians, in common with all citizens of the territory.” Boldt interpreted “in common with” to mean a right to half of the harvestable catch – a right that had been systematically denied to the tribes for over a century.

The lasting importance of the Boldt ruling is vast. The so-called “Culverts Case” – filed in 2001 and decided in 2013 – is one of many contemporary cases linked directly to the Boldt. A Washington court ordered the state to repair more than 600 culverts under roads that block the passage of salmon through hundreds of miles of potential habitat, thus violating those same 1850s-era treaty rights. Yet the state has appealed the decision, to the dismay of Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission chairman and “fish wars” forerunner Billy Frank Jr., who called the appeal a disappointment. The appeal argument is set to be heard in court in the fall.

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Of mice and myth: Colorado flood recovery the latest chapter in Preble’s mouse saga

Ben Goldfarb | Feb 13, 2014 07:00 AM

The Preble’s meadow jumping mouse makes for an unlikely villain. It’s an unassuming, nocturnal rodent that spends its life scurrying through streamside brush, gnawing on bugs and seeds. When imperiled, as it often is by owls and foxes, it can leap three feet in the air. Sixty percent of its body length is tail. And, in the minds of some politicians and developers, it stands for everything that’s wrong with American governance.

That’s because the mouse, whose domain stretches from southeastern Wyoming to Colorado’s Front Range, is protected under the legislation that many lawmakers love to hate: the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The critter’s habitat, say biologists, is vanishing, degraded by suburban sprawl, grazing and irrigation diversions. Meanwhile, some state officials claim the rodent isn’t a genetically distinct species, and that protecting the Preble's has cost the American West millions of dollars in foregone development. The only mouse to spend more time in the national spotlight than Preble’s might be Mickey.

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A Preble's meadow jumping mouse lies in torpor, a form of hibernation. Photo courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service.

The latest round of mouse-capades flared up last week, when news broke that the animal’s endangered status could delay federal projects to help the Front Range recover from last fall’s flooding. The reaction was furious – and predictable. “For the federal government to put concerns of a field mouse ahead of Colorado families struggling to recover from the floods is deeply concerning,” State Rep. Jerry Sonnenburg blustered. Rep. Cory Gardner, who told CBS Denver that the rodent-delayed recovery was “absolutely ridiculous,” did Sonnenburg one better: In a letter to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Daniel Ashe, Gardner demanded that FWS waive the Endangered Species Act so that recovery could proceed apace. Twitter amplified the outrage, as Twitter is wont to do.

The sole catalyst for the outrage was an innocuous two-page background paper that the Federal Emergency Management Agency – the primary coordinator of the recovery – distributed to Colorado officials on February 3. In the paper, FEMA warned (rather vaguely) that recovery efforts could harm mouse habitat, that legally required ESA reviews may delay projects, and that local officials who didn’t adhere to environmental laws could lose federal funding. Although it’s a long way from “may cause some delays” to headlines like “Mouse cripples Colorado flood-recovery efforts,” there’s no denying that, to the nearly 2,000 Coloradans who lost their homes, the report likely sounded callous.

But it also wasn’t true, says FWS biologist Craig Hansen. “I’m not sure why that statement was made, but it’s not accurate,” he insists. Hansen says that FWS has so far reviewed five flood recovery projects, such as bridge and culvert replacements, and approved most in a matter of hours. The longest evaluation, he says, has been two days. “No delays have occurred, or will occur,” he says. FEMA public affairs officer Ed Conley corroborates Hansen’s account. “Everything is fine, there have been no delays, the [recovery] money’s flowing,” Conley says.

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Policies and pollinators: How the feds deepen the precipitous decline of monarchs

Krista Langlois | Feb 12, 2014 08:00 AM

The numbers are in from Mexico, and they ain’t pretty. Every fall, monarch butterflies fly thousands of miles from the Great Plains to their winter grounds in central Mexico, where they're scrupulously counted by the World Wildlife Fund. In 1996, the overwintering monarchs blanketed 45 acres of forest. This year, they cover only about 1.6 acres, and the population – already at its lowest ever recorded – has dropped by half again since just last year. Scientists fear that one of North America’s greatest migrations is in its death throes.

The stats were announced Jan. 29 by the Mexican government and the World Wildlife Fund. Blame has been sure and swift. It’s Monsanto’s fault, it’s climate change, it’s shrinking winter habitat. Yet while those are indeed factors, the biggest – and perhaps the easiest to change, relatively speaking – are U.S. government policies like the farm bill signed into law by President Obama last Friday.

Monarch
Policies that encourage the destruction of native grasslands contribute to plummeting monarch butterfly populations. Photo courtesy USFWS Mountain Prairie.

Not that you can call anything about the farm bill “easy.” The $956 billion, 949-page behemoth took three years to craft and covers a veritable Swiss army knife of programs, including agriculture, conservation, rural development, energy, forestry and food stamps. That it passed Congress at all is impressive; that it did so with the support of conservation groups like the World Wildlife Fund and Ducks Unlimited is even more so. Julie Sibbing, senior director of agriculture and forestry programs for the National Wildlife Federation, called the bill “worth the wait.” One provision in particular discourages farmers from plowing up virgin grasslands in Montana, the Dakotas and three other states, with the hope that limiting crop insurance on such fields will discourage sodbusting, thereby preserving native prairie and improving the chances of monarchs. Monarchs only lay their eggs on milkweed plants, which are rapidly disappearing under heavy machinery and herbicides.

Yet though the farm bill offers some protection for grasslands, it also maintains incentives for farmers to plant ever more corn and soybeans – a policy that’s led to a rate of grassland destruction on the northern plains greater than that of Amazonian deforestation. The new bill cuts back on the direct subsidies of the past and replaces them with crop insurance and price guarantees, but critics counter that the end result is essentially the same.

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