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Know the West

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.


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.