Two weeks in the West

  • Sage grouse

  • One of the Project 28 mobile sensor towers near Arivaca, Arizona

  • A close-up of a mobile sensors electronic hardware


When it comes time to court the ladies, male greater sage grouse puff up their chests, displaying bright yellow air sacs, and fan their tail feathers like a peacock. 

But former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Interior Julie MacDonald apparently had no taste for crazy mating rituals or, for that matter, wildlife in general. She did her best to keep the grouse and several other species from being protected under the Endangered Species Act, red-penning scientific documents that supported the listings. MacDonald's long gone (apparently she had no taste for investigations by Interior's inspector general, either), and her decisions are coming back to bite the current administration. In early December, Federal District Court of Idaho Judge B. Lynn Winmill slammed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for its "tainted" 2005 decision not to list the grouse, saying it failed to use the best science. He ordered the agency to reconsider the listing, sans the meddling of folks like MacDonald. 

The decision rippled across the West, with some speculating that an endangered listing could impact sagebrush landscapes and economies, much as the spotted owl's listing affected the Northwest by hurting old-growth logging. A sage grouse listing could hinder oil and gas drilling, exurban sprawl and grazing. The mere possibility of listing has been known to bring out the green in everyone, from ranchers to energy executives; if they can do enough voluntarily to protect the grouse, they may be able to convince the feds to forego onerous regulations protecting the bird. 

And protection of any sort would be good news for the grouse, as well as for hunters and for gourmands: Rumor has it the bird is delicious, especially when roasted with figs, chambourcin wine and mushrooms. 

A white-tailed prairie dog may be less appetizing as a meal, but a MacDonald-era decision to not list the rodent will also be reconsidered, along with six other similar decisions. The Fish and Wildlife Service didn't even need a judge to make it rethink these rulings, but the agency also isn't ready to act anytime soon: The prairie dogs will have to wait until 2009 to again be considered for listing, and even then it will happen only "if funding is available," according to the agency. Fifty-eight species have been listed during the current administration, compared to 522 under Clinton. 

Also in the Interior-second-thoughts department: Fran Mainella, National Park Service director during the first six years of the Bush administration, has expressed doubts about a plan to up the number of snowmobiles allowed in Yellowstone National Park. Mainella has been credited - or blamed - with pushing recreation over conservation in the parks, and presided over administration efforts to get more sleds into the park before resigning last year. Recently, however, Mainella declared herself a signatory of a letter from former NPS directors that bashes the Park Service's plan to allow up to 720 sleds per day in the park. 

Californians can keep the faucets flowing for a while. Water users in the Colorado River states ratified a new plan that dictates how the river's water will be allocated among Arizona, Nevada and California should drought continue. California won't have to cut water use from the river until Lake Mead drops another 80 feet below its current paltry levels, and Bureau of Reclamation models predict that won't happen for at least 20 years, if ever. Other climate scientists believe Lake Mead could be "operationally empty" as soon as 2020. Unless more Westerners stay married, that is: More than 600 billion gallons of water and 734 billion kilowatt hours of electricity would have been saved in 2005 alone had no one gotten divorced that year, according to a Michigan State University study on the environmental impacts of broken marriages. 

And in other news: Evel Knievel, a native of Butte, Mont., died, not from crashing his motorcycle, but from diabetes at the age of 69. A Salt Lake City physician told an audience that breathing the city's polluted air is like smoking five cigarettes a day and causes 2,000 premature deaths on the Wasatch Front each year. Utah residents are the most depressed in the nation. Mitt Romney defended his religion, Mormonism, in a speech in Texas. "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind," he said. And, an archaeologist in New Mexico found evidence that prehistoric Pueblo Indians made beer from corn.

Cyber border

 Down on the southern edge of Arizona, a series of towers stick up randomly from the mesquite, watching everything that passes by. The towers, equipped with motion sensors and cameras and radar, make up a "virtual fence" that is part of the Department of Homeland Security's recent push to secure the border. The project, called SBInet, calls for outfitting agents with technologies like satellite phones and laptops in addition to the virtual fence. But the road to hi-tech security has been riddled with setbacks, and the cost of the project - estimated at $7.6 billion - has come under fire. 

 roject 28, designed to virtually fence 28 miles of the Mexican border south of Tucson, is months behind schedule, and the price tag is $600,000 more than expected. It was slated to go online in June, but it was stymied by software glitches. Boeing, the company that designed the fence, just recently delivered an updated version, which the Border Patrol is now testing. 


 2,000 - miles of border the U.S. shares with Mexico. 

 151 - miles of physical border fence currently in place. 

 219 - miles of physical fence Customs and Border Protection plans to add to the Southwest border by the end of 2008. 

73 - miles of physical fence built this year. 

 2,400 - length, in feet, of a tunnel under the border near San Diego that was discovered in 2006. 

 $1.2 million - average cost per mile of physical border fence built by government workers in 2007. 

 $4 million - average cost per mile of physical border fence built by outside contractors in 2007. 

$650 million - CBP's original estimate for the cost of expanding the border fence. 

 $890 million - current expected cost of expanding the border fence, using contractors. 

 387 - miles of the Southwest border that CBP plans to monitor with virtual fence technology by the end of 2008.

 28 - miles of the Arizona-Mexico border covered by "Project 28," the first portion of virtual fence, which is still not operational. 

 6 - number of months Project 28 is behind schedule. 

 $20.66 million - amount the federal government is paying Boeing Corp. to complete Project 28. 

 378,000 - number of apprehensions of illegal border crossers in the Tucson Sector in FY 2007.

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