Friday news roundup: more wildfires and lizards


Here’s the High Country News Burning Man story you all have been waiting for. Thousands of scantly clothed artists and gypsies voyage out to the Black Rock Desert in Nevada for a week to build a city, burn a hundred-foot, wooden man and vanish without a trace.  BLM offices in Winnemucca, Nevada, which manage permits for the desert land, increased the event’s capacity by 10,000 people this year to 60,900. The population is expected to drop if and when a feeling of conformity sweeps the crowd.

Western wildfire season kicked into gear this week. Officials raised the national preparedness level to 3 on a scale of five, making more resources available for fighting the flames, including air tankers. The Forest Service has been reamed recently for its lack of leadership in bringing new air tankers online to fight fires. Congress sent a bill to President Obama on Wednesday to speed up the time it takes the Forest Service to contract new tankers. The Forest Service responded by contracting seven new air tankers. Three will come online this year, with the next four taking to the skies by 2013.

Fires in Colorado and New Mexico have already caused large-scale damage. The High Park fire near Fort Collins grew to almost 50,000 acres in a forest of almost 70 percent beetle killed trees. High winds and hot, dry weather helped the fire spread rapidly. At least 30 homes have been destroyed and one 62-year-old woman was killed. In New Mexico, Ruidoso residents and Congressman Steve Pearce have expressed outrage that the Forest Service wasn’t able to contain the 10-acre Little Bear fire before it blew up to over 37,000 acres and destroyed 224 residences.

And it looks like things will only get worse for the Southwest. New research shows the region -- especially Arizona, home to North America's largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest -- is one of the fastest warming in the country. The prospect of hotter, drier weather, which can exacerbate wildfire, is starting to make a lot of people skittish. Western senators proposed doubling the Forest Service’s funding to remove beetle killed trees from forests to reduce fuel buildup. The budget allocation would be attached to the farm bill.

The Southwest just can’t get a break: Experts have discovered the plague is affecting affluent areas of New Mexico. The plague is a bacteria spread through fleabites and airborne pathogens. Researchers believe new housing developments in habitats that support plague-carrying rodents like woodrats and ground squirrels, may be the cause for more reports of people contracting the plague in wealthy neighborhoods.

Yellowstone National Park officials are investigating exactly what happened when a hiker pepper sprayed a female wolf outside her den. The man interpreted the wolf’s warning bark as a growl, sprayed her and then ran for the Yellowstone River. As the wolf’s yelps echoed in his ears, the man jumped in the river, lost his backpack and was recovered by park rangers downstream, who treated him for hypothermia.

An audit found that police in Springdale, the “Gateway to Zion National Park” in southern Utah, illegally targeted foreign tourists for citations. Thousands of dollars in fines have gone undocumented as police made the victims pay cash. The town of Springdale says it has corrected the procedures, which the audit says violates five state statutes and the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. Springdale police say permission to receive cash on the spot was granted by a judge, but the court denies that claim.

And after a long battle between myriad groups in New Mexico and West Texas, the dunes sagebrush lizard will not receive endangered species protection from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Environmental groups were at odds with oil and gas interests in the Permian Basin whose operations disturb the lizard’s habitat. Ranchers in the region also have been removing shinnery oak, a critical habitat for the lizard, to open more land for cattle grazing. But federal officials say the energy industry and ranchers have made good progress in conserving about 95 percent of the lizard’s habitat in New Mexico and greater than 70 percent in West Texas through voluntary conservation agreements. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe told the Associated Press, “It’s not likely to become endangered in the future.”

That’s it for this week’s Roundup. Grab a lemonade and cool off. 

Neil LaRubbio is an intern with High Country News.

Flickr photo provided by Michael Holden.

Fire photo provided by