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It's Endangered Species Day!

Red Lodge | May 17, 2013 05:00 AM

Today, the third Friday in May, is Endangered Species Day. Passed by a unanimously-supported Senate resolution several years ago, the holiday is intended to encourage us “…to become educated about and aware of threats to species, success stories in species recovery and the opportunity to promote species conservation worldwide.”

The Endangered Species Act (ESA), which is used to protect and to recover vulnerable floras and faunas, was the first comprehensive federal law passed to protect wildlife and habitat and it marks its 40th anniversary this year. When President Nixon signed it into law (after near-unanimous congressional support) he remarked, “"Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed. It is a many-faceted treasure, of value to scholars, scientists and nature lovers alike, and it forms a vital part of the heritage we all share as Americans.”

Spotted owl drawing
Spotted owl, by Endangered Species Day 2013 Youth Art Contest Semi-finalist, Ann C. Sonu.

Since then the ESA has grown into the toughest federal environmental law on the books.  It has prevented the extinction of 99 percent of the species listed since its inception and today watches over over 1,400 U.S. species. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) which, along with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, administers the ESA, 68 percent of listed species whose conditions are known, are stable or improving.

Like any highly effective piece of legislation, the ESA has led a politically polarized existence. No more so than in the West, where grazing, logging, population growth and energy development (including oil and gas, solar and wind) compete with wildlife for public and private land. Opponents to the ESA like to say the law prioritizes the survival of creatures other than humans but it’s the balance between the two which makes it such a dynamic piece of legislation. Through the many phases of listing, including establishing critical habitat, the ESA specifically requires that human economic needs be considered alongside the survival requirements of other species. Infringements imposed on private industry are exceedingly rare.

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The danger of too much screentime, in and out of the woods

Red Lodge | May 14, 2013 12:30 PM

In an Earth Day podcast, new Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell expressed her concern over the growing divide between people and nature. She pointed to “screen time,” and to other distractions that keep kids, in particular, from exploring their outdoor environments and from developing a general curiosity about the natural world.

Children and adolescents now spend half the time outdoors that they spent 20 years ago. Instead they are in front of screen media for an average of 53 hours each week, or roughly 7.5 hours per day. It’s no wonder then that 83 percent of citizens polled earlier this year in six Western states expressed concern that their children are not spending enough time outdoors.

What does our current preference for a Wii tethered to a flat screen over the “Whee!” squealed while swinging from a tree branch mean for our environment? Researchers have concluded there’s a powerful connection between spending time in wild natural spaces before age 11 and thoughts and actions toward the environment in adulthood. That doesn’t mean every child digging in the dirt is a budding John Muir, but that time spent hunting frogs and splashing in streams activates an awareness that makes them more likely to give a scat what happens to the natural world later on.

Collared elk
Elk with GPS collar. Courtesy of Lori Iverson, USFWS.

Even when do we retreat to wild environs, technology is changing the quality of those experiences. Most times I’m fortunate enough to get to Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) I lay eyes upon an elk with a clunky GPS radio necklace.

Often I see visitors hunched over smart phones studying routes while the landscape begs to be read.  Just west of RMNP a drone airplane, operated by the U.S. Geological Survey, recently buzzed above several greater sage grouse breeding grounds. And in south-central Colorado that same unmanned Raven whirred over Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge photographing birds. Such flyovers have become highly sought-after research tools.

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Rants from the hill: Trapping the bees

Michael Branch | May 06, 2013 05:00 AM

“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert, published the first Monday of each month.

Several years ago, at just this time of year, I had to go back East for a few months of work. When I returned home to the Ranting Hill, which I missed mightily while I was away, I noticed plenty of changes. Great horned owls had taken up hunting perches on the peaks of my roof and had pretty well cleaned out the local population of packrats and ground squirrels. My native shrubs had survived, though they were cropped by black-tailed jack rabbits. It was clear from scat and prints that both mule deer and pronghorn had grazed our property regularly. But the most obvious difference was that a thousand honeybees were buzzing around the eaves at the southwest corner of our house. Honeybees are unusual here in the high desert. Although we do have some forage plants, including snowberry, rabbitbrush, a few wild mustards, and several types of Wyethia, we just don’t have enough year-round forage to make this severe desert environment very appealing to your average honeybee. I hadn’t seen a thousand bees total in a decade on the Ranting Hill, so it was clear that something was out of the ordinary.

Upon closer inspection, the bees were going in and out of a small hole in the eaves where they adjoined the stucco exterior wall. When I called the local extension agent, she immediately asked “Did you spray them yet?” When I replied that I had not she seemed comforted, and then asked “Are they still swarming? That is, are they in a big clump? A swarm of bees can be captured and moved pretty easily.” I explained that instead the bees were flying in and out of the house. “Well, you’re talking structural removal, then. Hopefully you can do a cut out but you might have to do a trap out. Pest control guys are clueless on this stuff, and most beekeepers don’t want the hassle unless they can get an easy score on a swarm. Big Dan’s your man on this.”bees

Next I called Big Dan—apparently a legend among local bee freaks—who asked “Spray yet?” and “Still swarming?” before patiently posing a number of other questions, and finally agreeing to come out that afternoon to try to help me. Now let me admit straightaway that as a desert rat I don’t know diddly about bees or beekeeping. But somehow I pictured Big Dan as a dude who would step down from an F-350 looking like an astronaut in his fancy bee fighting gear. Instead, a tiny, ancient, hatchback Honda civic rolled up, and out of it rose a man who was not only tall and large but also graced with an immense, bushy red beard, and a long braid of red hair trailing down the middle of his back. He was costumed not in studly bee wrangling gear, but rather in sandals, brown cargo shorts, and a brightly tie-dyed T-shirt with a swirl pattern. He wore small, black-rimmed glasses that were so nerdy as to be completely incongruous with his hippyfied look. Big Dan looked like a red-haired version of Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia, but only if Garcia had also been your local librarian. He responded “I’d be honored” when our then-four-year-old daughter asked if she could call him “Dan Dan the Big Bee Man,” and my own thought in that moment was that this guy was a high desert original—just the kind of character I missed so much while I was back East.

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Congress quickly fixes the wrong problem

Mark Trahant | Apr 30, 2013 12:30 PM

Last week was a perfect illustration of the broken structure that is the United States government. Congress cannot pass a budget. It can barely pass a law to pay bills already incurred and owed. And its best “deficit” cutting attempt is the decade-long sequester, across-the-board cuts that hit the wrong programs, at the wrong times, and in the most harmful process.

Yet inconvenience air travelers and the entire Congress (and President Barack Obama) moves faster than Usain Bolt. So a bill is proposed and enacted to lift the sequester giving the Federal Aviation Administration more flexibility in its spending ending the furlough for air traffic controllers. Problem solved.

But for most of the country the sequester continues for another decade. Cuts that make less sense than air traffic delays, such as laying off teachers in more than three-quarters of all school districts, will continue as planned.

Or the sequester cuts to programs that serve American Indians and Alaska natives. In testimony last week to the House, the National Congress of American Indians reported: “For many tribes, a majority of tribal governmental services is financed by federal sources. Tribes lack the tax base and lack parity in tax authority to raise revenue to deliver services. If federal funding is reduced sharply for state and local governments, they may choose between increasing their own taxes and spending for basic services or allowing their services and programs to take the financial hit. On the other hand, many tribes have limited ability to raise substantial new revenue, especially not rapidly enough to cover the reduction in services from the across the board reductions of the FY 2013 sequestration.”

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Two tales of one river

Red Lodge | Apr 25, 2013 11:15 AM

As Earth Day passed with little fanfare this week, news was mixed for the Colorado River.

American Rivers, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy organization, released its annual list of the nation’s most endangered waterways. Half of them are in the West, and the Colorado has the dubious distinction of landing the number one spot. The group points to the pressures drought and over-allocation have put on the fish, wildlife and humans that rely on the Colorado.

Colorado River in the Grand Canyon
Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. Courtesy of the USGS.

It’s not exactly breaking news that there isn’t enough Colorado River water to meet current demand across the basin states, and that if we continue on our current course, meeting future increased demands will be impossible.

Map of Upper and Lower Basin States
Map of Upper and Lower Basin states. Courtesy of the State of Arizona.

Yet this was also the message from a recent Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) report, prepared with the input of the seven Colorado River Basin states, which projects acute water supply and demand imbalances throughout the river basin and adjacent areas over the next 50 years. The river currently provides water to nearly 40 million people and the BOR study says that number could double by 2060. Stir in the expected climatic changes and the shortfall is projected to be greater than 3.2 million acre-feet per year (one AF is what an average household uses annually).

We’re not likely to have to wait that long before experiencing serious problems, however; the report says there’s potential for “critical imbalances” as early as 2025. Considering that several large cities, 5.5 million acres of farmland, and at least 22 federally-recognized tribes rely on Colorado River water for drinking, irrigation and power generation, as well as 11 national parks, seven national wildlife refuges and four national recreation areas, finding solutions should be of paramount importance.

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Uranium is no good for the Navajo

Eric Jantz | Apr 23, 2013 05:00 AM

A recent post on the High Country News website advocates the position that the Navajo Nation should eventually drop its 2005 uranium ban so that it can get a better deal on uranium development, which the author, Jonathan Thompson, sees as inevitable. The post holds up the example of the Ute Tribe as an example of how a ban or moratorium on extractive industry can be a useful gambit for increasing tribal revenues when industry comes knocking.

As an attorney representing Navajo communities resisting new uranium mining for the last 15 years, I found HCN’s showcase of this perspective both troubling and disappointing. I also think the fundamental assumptions that underpin the piece are misguided.

Like the Ute Tribe ultimately growing rich off oil and gas production, the article’s author assumes that the Navajo Nation can likewise grow rich off uranium mining. The economic realities don’t support this position. World uranium prices have been depressed for 30 years and there is no end in sight. An upsurge in nuclear power demand might change that, but the trend since the Fukushima disaster has been to move away from nuclear power and toward renewables. Indeed, the only places where nuclear power has even a chance to survive is in countries where there is unwavering state support for the industry, i.e., China, India and Russia. So comparing petroleum to uranium simply isn’t equivalent in economic terms.  Further, uranium’s economic realities, should they come to pass on the Navajo Nation, guarantee significantly more modest economic development gains than the riches promised by the uranium industry.

But the more troubling aspect of the piece is its ahistorical view of uranium on Navajo and failure to acknowledge the reality of tribal sovereignty in the Federal Indian Law context. In the piece, there is an acknowledgement of the devastation that past uranium mining has caused on the Navajo Nation. However, what isn’t acknowledged is the continuing reluctance of the uranium industry to take responsibility for the legacy contamination and the devastation it has caused. Until communities can expect the uranium industry to take the very fundamental step of taking responsibility for its past (and in many cases ongoing) part in the public health nightmare that many Navajos face daily, any discussion of future resource extraction should be off the table.

Additionally, the environmental and public health track record of the uranium industry has not appreciably changed since the last uranium mining boom from the 1950s to the 1980s. Uranium mining is still responsible for contamination of hundreds of millions of gallons of water in Texas, Wyoming and Nebraska and for ongoing public health disasters in those states.

The article also cites the recent Churchrock Chapter resolution endorsing both clean up of past uranium mining waste and new uranium mining as an example of a community choosing economic gain over the long term integrity of their groundwater. However, the Churchrock resolution was a product of grossly overblown economic promises and outright fabrications about the mines’ groundwater impacts. In fact, neither the Chapter nor the Navajo Nation will receive any revenue from one of the mine sites in Churchrock because it is located on private land and not subject to tribal jurisdiction. While communities and tribes have the right to make decisions about their resources, the decisions must be made after free, prior and informed consent, consistent with international law. When the uranium industry refuses to be truthful about the economic benefits and public health impacts, informed consent is impossible.

Finally, the piece rests on the assumption that corporate interests will eventually get to exploit the uranium resource. This prediction may or may not come to pass, but it reinforces the idea that resource exploitation is inevitable and the only choice tribes have. I disagree. This perspective only serves to perpetuate the federal government’s assimilationist and racist policies of the last 250 years in which meaningful tribal sovereignty is always subordinated to corporate interests and resource extraction. It’s time that we support the truly meaningful exercise of tribal sovereignty, which includes the right to choose economic development that is both healthy and consistent with traditional cultural values. Uranium mining is neither.

Eric Jantz is a staff attorney at the New Mexico Environmental Law Center.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

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Real bears get a helping hand from Hollywood

Ben Long | Apr 17, 2013 10:22 AM

It’s a long way from the cold, rainy valleys of northwestern Montana's Cabinet Mountains to the bright lights of Hollywood. But they are both bear country, in very different ways.

Hollywood is about myths — taking old myths and digging them deeper. Grafting on new, odd branches to existing myths.

Doug Seus and his most famous movie bear, Bart.
Doug Seus and his most famous movie bear, Bart.

Hollywood plays to the mythology of bears.  A Hollywood bear did in Brad Pitt in Legends of the Fall and menaced Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin in The Edge. More recently, a Hollywood bear snarled in front of 10 million viewers worldwide, in the opener of Game of Thrones on HBO.

Those Hollywood bears are the product of Doug and Lynn Seus, who have made a career of training grizzly bears for the movies. These bears, with trademarked names like Bart, Honey Bump and Tank, have eaten more Oreo cookies than huckleberries.

The bears of the Cabinet Mountains look similar but act different. They have no sense of at all for the limelight. I’ve been roaming here 25 years and seldom see more than a scratched up tree or tracks in the trail mud. Small wonder, since the grizzly population of that mountain range was probably below 15 bears before conservation measures began taking hold.

This time of year, what’s left of them Cabinet grizzlies leave their dens in the snowy alpine and go to scrounge the sprouting grass and moldering winterkills of the Yaak, Fisher, Kootenai and Bull River valleys.

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Pipeline paradox

Red Lodge | Apr 15, 2013 12:20 PM

Despite many high-profile protests and acts of civil disobedience focused on the adverse effects of extracting and burning the fossil fuels the Keystone XL pipeline would transport, Americans have curious, if not contradictory, views of climate and the pipeline.

The KXL, if constructed by TransCanada, would move up to 830,000 barrels per day of tar sands (which is 20 percent more greenhouse gas intensive than conventional fuel) 875 miles south from Alberta through three states (Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska). It would then link up with the existing Keystone pipeline which transports oil to Gulf Coast refineries. Last month the U.S. State Department released an updated Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (DSEIS) for the proposed project (after it was denied a Presidential Permit in November 2011) which shows changes to the route and length of the pipeline (comments on the DSEIS are due by April 22).

KXL route map
The revised, proposed route of the KXL pipeline. Courtesy of the U.S. Dept. of State.

A national survey, conducted from March 13 to 17 by the Pew Research Center asked 1,501 adults what they thought about the KXL. The near even split of Democrats, Independents and Republicans are 66 percent in favor of (only 23 percent opposed it and 11 percent didn’t know) building the pipeline.

The same survey asked, “Is there solid evidence the earth is warming?” Sixty-nine percent of those polled answered yes, and 42 percent agreed that it is “caused mostly by human activity” (23 percent said it is caused mostly by natural patterns in the earth’s environment). A Gallup survey done a week earlier looked at 1,022 adults’ views on global warming, but a little differently. The poll showed that 58 percent of Americans worry “a great deal or a fair amount” about it (up from 51 percent who expressed concern about climate change two years ago). A recent Yale and George Mason universities poll showed that a solid majority of Republicans now believe climate change is happening and support action on it.

Considering that most people agree the earth is warming and a majority actively worry about it, it’s quizzical that many Americans support the pipeline. Researchers believe Alberta’s tar sands contain from 360 to 510 billion tons of carbon; that’s equivalent to adding up billions of cars to our highways, and is more than twice the total oil that’s been burned by humans throughout history.

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Feral vs. wild horses

Monica Gokey | Apr 11, 2013 05:00 AM

The question of whether mustangs in the West are feral versus wild is a controversial one; it’s got a knack for appearing in the comment section of many a mustang story. Mustang advocates are adamant the wild horse is a bona fide North American wildlife species – on par with deer, elk, bison and pronghorn. Scientists, ever the party poopers, beg to differ.

Horse evolution is well documented in North America’s fossil record – first as a small dog-sized animal that walked on five toes over 50 million years ago, on to larger equines that bore their weight on single hooves. Horses went extinct on North America some 12,000 years ago – likely due to some cocktail of climate change and overhunting by man – but not before they migrated over the land bridge into Asia (where they further diversified into asses and zebras).

Despite their extinction on North America, horses guaranteed themselves a permanent spot in history when humans domesticated them some 4,000-5,000 years ago on the Asian steppes (possibly earlier). A partnership was born, and equines became a catalyst for human migration (and war).

Once domesticated, horses carried Gengis Khan’s empire into power. They were painted by Egyptians, Romans and Greeks. They bore the weight of the Crusaders on their backs (nobody said being friends with humans was easy). And 500 years ago, Spanish conquistadors couriered horses back to their evolutionary homeland aboard ships. Some escaped and became the seed stock for what would become a burgeoning wild horse population.

But are the horses here today the same animals that left 12,000 years ago? That is, how much did horses change in the 4,000-5,000 years since they were domesticated?

In wild species, nature selects for traits that best equip an animal for survival. But when humans are involved, we select for traits that meet our needs – a practice dubbed selective breeding. A new study in Nature suggests that by domesticating animals (dogs, in this case), we actually cause changes in their genetic hardwiring.

Selective breeding is generally obvious to the naked eye -- no need to zoom-in on genetics. Take a golden retriever for example. Its wild ancestor (by tens of thousands of years) is a wolf. Generation after generation, humans selected for the traits they desired: a caramel-colored coat, a can-do attitude, and an endearing tendency to slobber. Likewise, horses brought to the Americas by Europeans were purposefully sculpted beasts of burden.

Today’s wild horses often exhibit certain breed characteristics: Oregon’s Stinkingwater Herd Management Area (HMA) has a noticeable influence of draft horse; many of Wyoming’s HMAs are notorious for paints. Despite living in the wild, their domestic origins are clear.

One equine geneticist, Dr. Philip Sponenberg of Virginia Tech, points to color as a prominent indicator of mustangs’ domestic origins: wild populations generally have a single color and no white markings, he told me.

In North America, most native fauna are brown (think of deer, elk, bison, etc.). White isn’t an advantageous color in the wild (well, not in North America anyway) – but to humans who adore unique markings, perhaps it’s irresistible. Many mustangs bear white snips, stars or blazes in addition to sporting a variety of coat colors: palomino, sorrel, dun, grulla, chestnut, bay, and so forth.

A lot of mustangs don’t behave entirely like wild animals either (though this varies depending on the HMA). In the Pryor Mountains of Montana, for example, the Bureau of Land Management posts signage asking visitors not to approach the horses – because visitors can approach the horses. That approachability is a non-reversible remnant of domestication.

While science has soundly established that America’s mustangs are feral, not wild – the issue of whether horses are a native species keeps cropping up among mustang advocates.

Dr. Jay Kirkpatrick is one of the few scientists to strike a middle ground on the issue. He calls horses a “reintroduced native species” – but also says that it doesn’t matter which biological category you put them in (feral or wild), their fecundity begs for outside management. Though horses evolved on North America, today their population is no longer naturally controlled. Left alone, modern horse herds can double in size every 4-5 years (where are those darn saber-toothed cats?). Kirkpatrick is a pioneer in wildlife contraception, and has already shown that birth control can be an effective means to control wild horse numbers (read more about his work on Assateague Island).

So does the label really matter?

Some advocates argue it does, feeling that formal designation as a native North American species would entitle mustangs to more stringent protection.

In his HCN feature story, “Nowhere to run,” author Dave Philipps describes mustangs as “technically feral, non-native transplants like hogs or knapweed,” but notes that their relationship to humans and history makes them different than other invasive species.

“Centuries of living alongside people in the West had made [mustangs] an emblem of the wide-open landscapes, and of the grit, defiance and hardiness that Americans still believed defined their nation.”

Even though mustangs are not a native wild species – they are feral – most will agree America’s mustangs are a species of cultural importance, and one that deserves protection as such.

Monica Gokey is finishing a master’s degree in journalism at the University of Montana. She is producing a radio documentary on mustangs in the West, with a focus on the Pryor Mountain mustangs of Montana. In getting to know the horses, Monica has also gotten to know their cohort of people – an equally colorful bunch (she says that fondly).

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

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How can we sustainably fund our national parks?

Red Lodge | Apr 09, 2013 02:30 PM

Given the iconic status of our national parks—the spirited geysers of Yellowstone, striking gravitas of the Statue of Liberty and Kodachrome hollows of the Grand Canyon—it’s hard to imagine a time when their establishment and protection were a hard sell. But a century ago, that’s where park champions found themselves; hawking to Congress and the American people a vision of a network of parks that would safeguard our natural and cultural resources. And sadly, it’s where park supporters find themselves again today.

In the years leading up to the founding of the National Park Service (NPS) in 1916, its proponents puzzled over how to make parks relevant to ordinary Americans and build congressional support for them. Some of the most fervent characters of the day in business, conservation, politics and journalism came together to promote the radical idea of the parks as a source of national pride, spiritual renewal and, significantly, as an economic engine.

National Parks Portfolio
The National Parks Portfolio. Courtesy of the NPS.

They did this with a massive PR blitz. Scores of articles appeared in newspapers and magazines across the country, and more than 350,000 copies of the National Parks Portfolio—filled with romantic depictions, photos and park pamphlets—were sent to libraries and travel bureaus. The strategy was simply to introduce Americans to their land and insist they see it for themselves. And they did. Before 1916, few Americans could name two national parks and, by 1920, visitation exceeded one million (by 1928, it was three million).

In some ways we’re in a better place than we were 100 years ago; our national park units are world-renowned and have been the backdrops for our school trips and family outings for generations. As a result they are also, at least in theory, a broadly supported concept. But, in other ways, the clock has rewound to the dawn of the NPS. Parks face an uncertain future for several reasons: the recent sequestration cuts, a $12 billion maintenance backlog (due in part to the 15 percent drop in NPS funding over the past decade), declining morale of Service employees and the struggle to link youth and minorities to parks.

Much as they did a century ago, park proponents are now asking: who will fight for the integrity of parks and how will they be funded in a sustainable way?

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