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Know the West

Wildlife in the West: The good, the bad, the in-between

Conservation and wildlife corridors can help, but is it enough?

On April 7, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced that her department would “advance its work on wildlife corridors” by focusing on “conservation and restoration of wildlife corridors and habitat connectivity in a way that supports conservation outcomes.” 

The federal initiative includes $2.5 million in grants for seven states and three tribal nations to fund 13 projects, from increasing climate-resilient habitat for big game on a New Mexico ranch owned by the Pueblo of Sandia, to doing post-fire restoration work in California. There’s also $250,000 to establish a conservation easement on the Twin Eagle Ranch in western Wyoming to avert potential residential development and protect the so-called Path of the Pronghorn, which runs through the area. 

 

The Path of the Pronghorn is a 6,000-year-old, 150-mile-long migration corridor in northwest Wyoming that the iconic ungulates follow north every spring to higher grazing ground in the Tetons and then retrace southward in the fall. The Twin Eagle (née Carney) Ranch sits right in the middle of it, making its conservation a victory for the pronghorn. 

Just two days prior to Haaland’s announcement, however, the corridor suffered a major blow when, as first reported by WyoFile, a federal judge cleared the way for Jonah Energy’s 3,500-well Normally Pressured Lance Field natural gas drilling project to advance on 140,000 acres of mostly public land — smack-dab in the Path of the Pronghorn. When the Bureau of Land Management OK’d the project in 2018, conservation groups sued, saying the agency didn’t properly consider impacts to the pronghorn and greater sage grouse. But on April 5, U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl rejected their challenge. 

Now it appears that even as the pronghorn were guaranteed clear passage through the Twin Eagle Ranch, the groundwork was being laid for an industrialized obstacle course that they’ll have to navigate one day.

The entire back-and-forth epitomizes the good, bad and ugly state of wildlife in the West in the spring of 2022, as setbacks are followed by breakthroughs — and vice versa.   

 

THE GOOD

MONARCH MAKES A COMEBACK?: In spring 2021, it seemed as if the monarch butterfly was doomed. The Xerces Society, which conducts an annual California-centered count, documented a 99% decline in monarch populations since the 1980s, possibly caused by climate change, increased use of the herbicide glyphosate, industrialization and the residential development of farmland. So it was a bit of a welcome surprise this winter when California’s skies fluttered with orange and black wings: Xerces’ Thanksgiving count tallied 250,000 monarchs, compared to just 2,000 the previous year.  

PUPFISH RETURN: Fish biologists were swigging the bubbly (figuratively) after counting a whopping 175 Devils Hole pupfish this spring. That may not sound like much, especially since it constitutes the species’ entire wild population. But it’s the most seen in 22 years at the tiny fish’s tiny habitat, which comprises the upper 80 feet of a water-filled cavern in a detached unit of Death Valley National Park in Nevada. Prior to the 1990s, the Devils Hole pupfish — one of the world’s rarest fishes — consistently numbered about 200, but the population plummeted to less than half that before this recent rebound. 

 

THE BAD

WIND POWER VS. BIRDS: ESI Energy, a subsidiary of renewable energy giant NextEra, has killed at least 150 golden and bald eagles at its wind power facilities in eight states since 2012 without applying for an incidental take — or accidental killing — permit, according to federal prosecutors. The company was fined over $8 million and sentenced to five years’ probation after pleading guilty to nine of those killings in Wyoming and New Mexico. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Water and Power Department has applied

for a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to cover the incidental take of up to two free-flying California condors and two associated eggs or chicks over 30 years at its Pine Tree Wind Farm in the Tehachapi Mountains. The utility is breeding birds in captivity in hopes of replacing the slain vultures. The California condor is North America’s largest land bird, and though it has been brought back from the brink of extinction, it remains imperiled (See story).

GET THE LEAD OUT (OF THE EAGLES): The first study of population-level lead poisoning in bald and golden eagles was published this winter. The news was not good: Of the more than 1,200 eagles sampled, almost half showed evidence of repeated exposure to lead, most likely from ammunition fragments ingested after hunters dress game in the field. Bald eagles are not affected as much because their numbers are climbing at a rapid rate, researchers say. “In contrast, the golden eagle’s population is not as stable, and any additional mortality could tip it towards a decline,” said Brian Millsap, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service national raptor coordinator and co-author of the study.  

PAUCITY OF PINYON JAYS: Pinyon jays — social corvids often  called camp robbers, owing to their tendency to snatch campers’ snacks — are critical components of the Southwest’s piñon-juniper woodlands: They harvest piñon nuts and bury them for later eating, leaving some of the buried seeds to germinate and grow into new piñon trees. Now the birds are disappearing at an alarming rate; over the last five decades, the population has declined by as much as 85%. Suspected culprits include thinning or clearing of piñon woodlands and climate change’s impact on habitat. In April, Defenders of Wildlife petitioned the Biden administration to protect the bird under the Endangered Species Act.

 

THE UGLY

WRANGLING OVER WOLVES: Following the colonial-settler invasion of the Western U.S., local and state governments, ranchers and individuals set out to exterminate the gray wolf. They nearly succeeded, virtually extirpating it from the Lower 48. But federal Endangered

Species Act protections helped bring it back, enough to result in the lifting of federal protections in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, in 2011. Now wolves are being hunted in the Northern Rockies as avidly as they were in the 1800s. In 2019, the Trump administration delisted gray wolves in the remaining states, potentially opening those sparser populations to the same treatment. But a federal judge reversed that decision earlier this year. Mexican wolves have remained protected, and in March, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that the population grew by 5% last year, to reach a total of 196 animals.

SOURCES: U.S. Department of Interior, Jonah Energy, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, USDA, WildEarth Guardians, Xerces Society, U.S. Justice Department, Defenders of Wildlife 

IMAGE CREDITS:  Black bear, Mark Raycroft/Minden Pictures.  Wyoming pronghorn, Shattil & Rozinski/Minden. Monarch, Sean Crane/Minden. Pupfish, Olin Feuerbacher/USFWS. Golden eagle, Chris and Tilde Stuart/Minden. Pinyon jay, Alan Murphy/Minden. Beaver, Mary McDonald/NPL/Minden Pictures. Wolf, John Shaw/Minden. Page design: Luna Anna Archey / HCN

Note: This story was updated to correct an errant image credit.

We welcome reader letters. Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of Sagebrush Empire: How a Remote Utah County Became the Battlefront of American Public Lands. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.