Two weeks in the West

 

White-tailed prairie dogs are short, stout rodents that burrow in the plains of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Montana. Their numbers have declined - some estimates say by as much as 90 percent - over the years, thanks to habitat loss, oil and gas development, grazing, bubonic plague and wholesale eradication efforts that include shooting and poisoning. In 2002, conservation groups petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the dog as endangered or threatened.

Two years later, Fish and Wildlife biologists agreed that the white-tailed prairie dog should indeed be considered for listing. Then political appointee Julie MacDonald, Interior deputy assistant secretary, attacked the biologists' report with her red pen. She deleted the finding that oil and gas drilling may threaten the prairie dog, and made other changes that completely reversed the scientists' conclusions. As a result, Fish and Wildlife dropped the prairie dog from consideration. MacDonald similarly tinkered with the fates of seven other rare species, preventing them from being listed or shrinking their critical habitat.

But now, those critters will get another a chance. Fish and Wildlife announced July 20 that it will reverse (again) its decision on the white-tailed prairie dog, and consider it for listing - as soon as it has the money. The agency will also review other decisions that MacDonald may have influenced, such as the proposed delisting of the Preble's meadow jumping mouse, as well as critical habitat findings for the arroyo toad, the California red-legged frog, the Canada lynx and the southwestern willow flycatcher.

The review marks the first time that the Department of Interior has officially addressed MacDonald's meddling, which was exposed this spring. Conservationists released a damning paper trail demonstrating that MacDonald-? who was trained as a civil engineer, not a scientist - had "edited" Interior scientists' findings, and an investigation by the department's inspector general verified the claims. MacDonald ultimately resigned for "personal reasons."

Her red pen marked more critters than the eight now being reviewed, including the greater sage grouse, the Gunnison sage grouse and the southwestern bald eagle. But the agency says it won't review its decisions about those species, because it doesn't think MacDonald's fiddling influenced their status.


Fish and Wildlife review or not, the sage grouse faces grave threats from oil and gas development, according to a recently released study by University of Montana researchers. The study, led by Dr. Dave Naugle, found that in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana, a natural gas hot spot, the greater sage grouse population dropped by 84 percent between 1988 and 2005. The current density of well-spacing (80-160 acres), according to the study, is 3 to 6 times greater than the bird can tolerate.

Partly in response to the findings, the Bureau of Land Management held off on leasing some 75,000 acres for oil and gas development in Montana this July in order to more carefully consider the effects of drilling on wildlife.


For the past several weeks, species all over the West have had more pressing problems than some agency official's red pen. A long string of hot dry weather across much of the region has helped fuel a surge of wildfires. As of July 26, fires had burned almost 1 million acres in Idaho, including the 650,000 acres cauterized by the Murphy Complex Fire about 50 miles from Twin Falls. Nevada wildlife officials bemoaned the loss of crucial mule deer and sage grouse habitat as some 500,000 acres burned in that state. Utah continued to get scorched by flames, as did Oregon and California.

In other fire news, the U.S. Forest Service was slapped with six serious safety violations by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration for its conduct on last October's Esperanza Fire in southeastern California, in which five firefighters died. The agency was faulted, but not fined, for sending the firefighters to protect a vacation home that had been classified as "nondefensible."


The heat is killing off homo sapiens in less direct ways as well. Overheated folks are jumping into rivers, canals and lakes, and more than a few have drowned.

The victims range from people just looking to cool off to experienced raft guides. The Arkansas River, a whitewater mecca in central Colorado, has already claimed five rafters, more than during the entire last five years. On the Western Slope of the state, in Mesa County, six people have drowned in canals, ditches and rivers this year. Other killers included the rapids of Westwater Canyon on the Colorado River in Utah; Idaho's Boise and Payette rivers; and Montana's Flathead River and Elmo Lake, as well as a pond near Missoula.

COOLING OFF, POWERING UP

1 Rank of central air conditioning among the most desired features buyers look for when buying a home.

89 Percentage of homes built in 2006 with central air conditioning.

84, 47 Number of U.S. homes, in millions, with air conditioners in 2001 and 1980, respectively.

1 Rank of air conditioners among consumption of electricity use by appliances in U.S. households.

100 Percentage of days between July 1 and July 18 that Boise, Idaho's high temperature exceeded the historical average high.

3 Number of times the record for electricity consumption by Idaho Power customers was broken between July 5 and July 13.

31 Number of days during a 32-day period this summer that Phoenix, Arizona's high temperature exceeded the historical average high for that period.

5 Number of days during that same period that the minimum temperature was above 90 degrees.

300,000 Number of backyard swimming pools in Phoenix.

5 Number of feet of water an uncovered swimming pool loses to evaporation each year in southern Arizona.

High Country News Classifieds
  • PUBLIC LANDS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a candidate with excellent communication skills and a commitment to environmental conservation for the position of Public Lands Program Manager....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Western Slope Conservation Center in Paonia, CO, seeks a dynamic leader who is mission-driven, hardworking, and a creative problem-solver. WSCC is committed to creating...
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    Seeking qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating, implementing and managing land conservation activities,...
  • REGIONAL TRAIL STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with trail maintenance and volunteer engagement...
  • TRAIL CREW MEMBER
    Position Title: Trail Crew Member Position Type: 6 month seasonal position, April 17-October 15, 2023 Location: Field-based; The RFOV office is in Carbondale, CO, and...
  • CEO BUFFALO NATIONS GRASSLANDS ALLIANCE
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
  • IDAHO DIRECTOR - WESTERN WATERSHEDS PROJECT
    Western Watersheds Project seeks an Idaho Director to continue and expand upon WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Idaho, with...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Development Director to join our team in supporting and furthering our mission. This position will create...
  • DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Operations Director to join our team. This position will provide critical organizational and systems support to...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is seeking a leader to join our dynamic team in the long-term protection of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). We...
  • GRASSLAND RESEARCH COORDINATOR
    The Grassland Research Coordinator is a cooperative position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that performs and participates in and coordinates data collection for...
  • HYDROELECTRIC PLANT
    1.3 MW FERC licensed hydroelectric station near Taylorsville CA. Property is 184 deeded acres surrounded by National Forrest.
  • "PROFILES IN COURAGE: STANDING AGAINST THE WYOMING WIND"
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...
  • GRANT WRITER
    JOB DESCRIPTION: This Work involves the responsibility of conducting research in the procurement of Federal, State, County, and private grant funding. Additional responsibilities include identifying...
  • ASPIRE COLORADO SUSTAINABLE BODY AND HOME CARE PRODUCTS
    Go Bulk! Go Natural! Our products are better for you and better for the environment. Say no to single-use plastic. Made in U.S.A., by a...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in the natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.