U.S. grizzly bears may soon lose protections under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), the Center for Biological Diversity warned this week.
Grizzly bear (Photo: USFWS)
The US Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed removing protections for the bears living in the Yellowstone National Park region and turning over their management over to the states where they reside. At a meeting in Bozeman, MT, last week, a US FWS official reported that service scientists consider the grizzly population in that region to be robust. The US FWS’ scientific report on the bears is expected to be released soon, possibly this month.
Grizzly bear have been listed as “threatened” under the ESA since 1975 in the lower 48 US states.
The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) opposes the delisting of the grizzly, saying that the government has not shown enough evidence that the bears are recovering, and that other studies show the bears are in decline.
Citizens can comment on the proposal to delist the YNP grizzlies by sending an email to the FWS Grizzly Recovery station in Missoula, MT at NCDECS@fws.gov.
“This highly political, fast-tracked plan to drop federal protections for grizzly bears plays Russian roulette with a population that is still imperiled and facing significant new threats,” said Louisa Willcox, a grizzly bear conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. “With the loss of important foods, the world of the Yellowstone grizzly is unraveling. Now is not the time to turn over the keys to management to states that are known to be hostile to large carnivores and plan to renew a grizzly bear hunt.”
The FWS has said their modeling shows the bears number 741 in the Yellowstone National Park and surrounding area, one of several areas defined as grizzly habitat. Grizzlies also reside in Washington state and elsewhere in the upper US Rockies.
Federal officials say the current estimated population reflects growth among the grizzlies.
Willcox, though, called the FWS’ estimates overly optimistic, and criticized the agency for refusing to release hard data charting the bears’ population.
“There’s no way to know if these are paper bears or real bears, because the government has refused to release the taxpayer-funded data and analyses upon which its findings were based,” Willcox said.
The CBD points to a study completed earlier this year that contradicts the FWS’ findings. It suggests that the federal agency bear numbers may be inflated because of incorrect assumptions about how long the female grizzlies reproduce and suppositions that the bear can adequately survive on foods other than their staple trout and pine seeds.
Another study the nonprofit wildlife advocacy cited shows the grizzly population has been declining by 4 percent annually since 2008.
“The government is cherry-picking the data to get the result it needs to justify delisting. In reality, top grizzly researchers say the bear population has likely been in freefall for five years now,” said Willcox. “The hard-fought gains to restore grizzly bears over the past 38 years will be quickly reversed if current declining trends continue — and delisting would push Yellowstone’s magnificent grizzlies back to the brink of extinction.”
Advocates believe that the US FWS wants to delist the grizzlies for many of the same political reasons it delisted the Rocky Mountain gray wolves. Delisting appeases ranchers, who must deal with predation on their herds. It shows that the Obama Administration is pro-rancher, pro-business and pro-hunting, positions perceived to be helpful to Democratic officeholders in the red-leaning Rocky Mountain states.
Idaho and Montana will be allowed to set up hunting seasons for the grizzly, once protections under the ESA are lifted.
America’s wolves got a reprieve this week, though only a tiny one. The US Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it is extending the public comment period on the pending nationwide delisting of the gray wolves from protections under the Endangered Species Act.
That will give wolf advocates more time to protest the delisting, until Dec. 17, in compensation for the loss of comment time during the recent government shutdown. In addition, public hearings on the delisting proposal have been rescheduled for November 19, 20, 22 in Denver, Albuquerque and Sacramento, respectively.
But while the potential wholesale delisting of the gray wolves in the lower 48 states (minus a swath of Arizona and New Mexico) has been pushed back, there’s been no respite for wolves in the rifle scopes of hunters in states where the wolves have already lost federal protections.
Wolves from the famed Lamar Canyon pack in Yellowstone. The pack lost its leader, ’06, last year to a hunter. (Photo: Marc Cooke, Wolves of the Rockies)
Hunting started weeks or months ago in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, where most of the US Rocky Mountain gray wolves live.
So far, (as of Oct. 23) 148 wolves have been killed by trophy hunters in the 2013-2014 season in these three states — 77 in Idaho, 41 in Wyoming and 30 in Montana.
Several additional wolves have been killed as “predators,” shot in territories where shooting wolves on sight is allowed (in most of Wyoming) or in incidents in which the wolves had been shown to be preying on livestock. (In Wyoming, 29 wolves have been killed in incidents labeled “other mortality” and are not counted toward hunting quotas.)
The number of wolves “harvested” will undoubtedly multiply, probably reaching several hundred, as hunting with rifles continues in the states until the season ends in mid-winter, spring or next summer, depending on the region. Trapping seasons, which begin later, will add to the toll.
During last year’s 2012-13 season, 319 wolves were killed by hunting or trapping in Idaho; 225 were killed by hunters or trappers in Montana; 67 were killed in Wyoming in both its hunting and predatory zones. The grand total: 611.
Advocates say this level of hunting is too aggressive, and will wipe out the wolf population, just as over-hunting exterminated the wolves in the middle of the 20th Century across most of the US.
Game management officials say the wolves will regenerate, settling in at lower, but still sustainable population levels, as the packs have pups in the spring.
Indeed, at the end of 2012, an estimated 1,674 wolves, organized in 321 packs, remained in the Northern Rocky Mountain region, a number that suggested the wolves were weathering the hunting that began the previous year, according to the FWS.
“Wolf restoration in the Northern Rocky Mountains (NRM) has been an amazing success thanks to both the resiliency of wolves and the cooperative efforts of Federal, State, and Tribal agencies, conservation groups, and private citizens; including ranchers, sportsmen, and outfitters,” said Gavin G. Shire, public affairs specialist for the FWS.
Regeneration, though, won’t be a given for every pack. Wolves are intensely social, and the hunting is dispersing and disrupting their family structure, say experts.
Earlier this month, Wyoming reported five wolves killed over a few days in one of the state’s hunting regions near Yellowstone National Park, raising alarms that a park pack had been wiped out. Wyoming’s Fish & Game officials have not reported back with information on those shootings. But the nature of that “harvest” suggests that one pack could have been devastated. In such situations, the remaining wolves often fail to survive, let alone breed, after the loss of family members. Biologists warn that the longterm survival of US wolves is imperiled.
A current Move.org petition to keep the wolves protected complains about this problematic aspect of shooting wolves: “The killing has taken place without regard to the fact that wolves mate for life and form strong bonds, raising their young in extended families that cooperate in providing for the whole. . . ”
THE BIG PICTURE
A wolf from the Lamar Canyon pack in Yellowstone. (Photo: Marc Cooke, Wolves of the Rockies)
No one knows exactly how many wolves are left in the U.S. Northern Rockies. Estimates suggest that close to 2,000 wolves were present at the peak of their recovery about 2006-2007, after being reintroduced to the region in the mid-1990s, when gray wolves from Canada were released into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho.
About 12 years later, federal game officials decided that the wolves had regained sufficient numbers to delist the animals and began the required process of gathering information and holding the requisite public hearings .
Conservationists opposed the de-listing, arguing that the wolves were not adequately recovered.
A longterm robust recovery for the wolves would require an ongoing population of “at least 2,000 to 3,000” animals in the upper U.S. Rockies, says EarthJustice’s Doug Honnold. A managing attorney for EarthJustice in San Francisco, Honnold served for two decades in Earthjustice’s Montana office and remains the lead attorney working on behalf of wolf conservation.
Honnold led a coalition of conservation and wildlife advocates that clashed in court with federal officials, who wanted to turn over wolf management to the states.
State and federal officials said that “managing” the wolves down to lower population levels would avert predation on livestock, but still allow several wolf packs to survive.
A wolf in Yellowstone. (Photo: US National Park Service)
Advocates countered that the livestock losses had been relatively small, were often reimbursed and also were the consequence of ranchers grazing cattle and sheep on public lands near wild spaces, where the herds were more vulnerable.
If the ranchers took precautions, like not allowing calving on public grazing leases, the advocates maintained, the wolves would rely on their natural prey of deer and elk.
Some ranchers countered that any predation by wolves was too much; they couldn’t afford it. Many hunters also turned up at public meetings, portraying the newly robust wolf population as a needless nuisance that depressed elk and deer numbers.
Coexistence among all these groups proved elusive.
The back and forth spanned the late Bush years into the Obama Administration, and in the spring of 2011 Congress ordered the delisting of wolves in Montana and Idaho. Wyoming’s wolves were delisted later after state officials made adjustments to a management plan that had been deemed too harsh. The three states took over management of the wolves, set hunting seasons and pledged to keep a population of 300 wolves across the region, which the FWS had set as a sustainable level.
Later the states agreed to manage the wolves, at least initially, to a higher minimum of 150 wolves per state, Shire said, noting that these wolves are merely an extension of a vast, much larger population of about 65,000 wolves ranging across Canada and Alaska.
Wildlife proponents have never liked the 300 number, holding that scientific research shows the wolves need a greater foothold to maintain their biological niche in the rugged mountain ecosystems. A hardy genetic pool requires inter-breeding across packs, and that won’t happen if the wolves are too dispersed, they said.
(Over this same period, wolves were delisted in the northern Great Lakes region, which had been a wolf stronghold, and hunting, and the debate over numbers, began in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan as well.)
Apex predators are needed to sustain other wildlife, even their natural prey, say those who maintain the wolves should be left alone. They hold up even the health of their traditional prey, and exert a ripple effect, as do all animals in the life web, that strengthens their ecosystem.
Thousands of tourists who visit Yellowstone National Park armed only with binoculars also are be cheated, say wolf proponents. Honnold says one economist’s study found that wolf tourism generates $35 million in annual economic activity in and around the park. (In 2011, officials counted 98 wolves living in YNP; in Dec. 2012 the park experienced a shot heard around the wolf fan community when a hunter killed a well-known Yellowstone alpha female known as 06.)
The arguments on behalf of wolves seemed to become less audible, though, as the hunters’ bullets flew, making clear who’d won the latest round in the wolf debate.
Wildlife biologists renewed their pleas on behalf of the wolves earlier this year when the Obama Administration proposed the virtual nationwide delisting..
Sixteen scientists wrote to Interior Secretary Sally Jewel in May to protest that the gray wolf “has barely begun to recover or is absent from significant portions of its former range where substantial suitable habitat remains.”
The new FWS proposed rule to remove gray wolf protections across the board (except for the Mexican gray wolf in Arizona and New Mexico), “fails to consider science identifying extensive suitable habitat in the Pacific Northwest, California, the southern Rocky Mountains and the Northeast,” the scientists wrote.
“It also fails to consider the importance of these areas to the long-term survival and recovery of wolves, or the importance of wolves to the ecosystems of these regions.”
The scientists saw vast suitable territory for US gray wolves, but officialdom did not. The FWS explained on its website that it had “erroneously included” too many areas outside the wolves’ historic range when it first protected the wolves in 1978. That was the rationale for removing virtually all the gray wolves from endangered species status.
In Honnold’s view, though, the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s new plan to kick the wolves off protections came about simply because FWS is “sick and tired” of being ensnared in wolf management issues. It wanted to escape the thorny issues and return all authority to the states.
BIG BAD WOLVES
The wolves, meanwhile, are stuck with the fate that humans elect for them. In addition to dodging bullets, they face another more ephemeral enemy: their bad boy image.
Wolves, historically feared, even reviled, stood in the way of taming the land for agriculture and ranching.
Wolf hate has supported strident anti-wolf policies in the Rocky Mountain states, says Marc Cooke, president of the watchdog and educational group, Wolves of the Rockies (and on Facebook) .
Unfair practices include unlimited wolf hunting in many areas, electronic calling to lure wolves (which some hunters consider unethical) and the failure to provide a hunting buffer near Yellowstone National Park, he says.
“Because of special interest influence and an irrational hatred for wolves we are seeing what is clearly non-science based management of wolves. Make no mistake this is persecution of wolves and other carnivores that call the Rockies their home,” says Cooke, a conservationist and veteran who lives in Missoula.
“Wolves are treated differently from other large keystone predators. Mountain lions and bears all have quotas to control the harvest numbers. Why don’t wolves?” he asks. (The states have some quotas in selected regions.)
Wolves evoke strong feelings among humans, as revealed by the nearly 3,000 public comments online at the government’s website Regulations.gov.
Many of those commenting express their love, awe and admiration for these “beautiful creatures”, cousins of man’s best friend. A perusal of the comments indicates that the vast majority of those writing support keeping protections for gray wolves. A minority of those commenting say the wolves should be delisted and hunted. The comments give the gist of the debate and the flavor of the emotion around this matter. (People can post comments through Dec. 17.)
THOSE IN FAVOR OF KEEPING THE WOLVES PROTECTED SAY:
Wolves are a part of the ecosystem and are needed to keep nature in balance. Several commenters warned against “playing God” with nature, noting that USFWS expertise doesn’t rise to that level.
16 Scientists wrote to oppose the new FWS delisting plan and that should be enough. Several commenters including one behavioral ecologist tried to explain the science: “It is time to quit humoring those that refuse to listen to science. Wolves are an essential part of the escape, and all of their populations must be protected. If you fail to do this, for wolves and our other large carnivores, the US will eventually become a boring mono-culture bound for collapse. Therefore, increase protections for wolves, increase reintroduction of Mexican Grey wolves, and increase the punishments for those that violate US federal laws when they illegally kill endangered species.”
Removing protections and allowing hunting, fails to give the wolves an opportunity to migrate to and repopulate in their natural habitat in the Pacific Northwest, California, Colorado and even in parts of the Northeast, noted some.
The part of the FWS rule that provides for reintroducing the Mexican gray wolf into the Southwest should stay, though it should not designate the Mexican wolves as “non-essential” to this biological region. Wild wolves — only 75 remain in the wild — are essential to bring back this subspecies. (The FWS disagrees, maintaining that the wild population is not essential because Mexican gray wolves in captivity could be used to spur the species forward.)
The wolf hunts a slaughter or a “war on wolves”. “Over 1100 wolves killed [since hunting has been revived] is not a management plan, but another extermination plan,” said one commenter. Said another: “You wouldn’t stand for your dog to have its head chopped off and hung on your mailbox, would you?
THOSE IN FAVOR OF DELISTING THE WOLVES SAY:
Hunting should be allowed for the wolves because they are predators that interfere with livestock and wild herd animals. One hunter summed up for many: “I was hoping that the people pushing the Mexican Wolf program take a lesson from Wisconsin, Wyoming and Alaska: more wolves, less big game animals, less cattle, less horses, less pets and more dissatisfied sportsmen and women. Arizona could use more game animals not less. NO MORE WOLVES.”
·Comments from the pro-hunting side are in the minority at Regulations.gov; though hunters and hunting outfitter and safari groups have been wildly enthused about the advent of wolf hunting in the US West. Their pictures of smiling hunters holding up dead wolves populate the Internet. For some, hunting, tracking and assisting big game hunters is a business.
Over this winter, the US FWS will proceed to collect comments and hold hearings, while groups such as EarthJustice, Wolves of the Rockies and Defenders of Wildlife reengage their members in the cause. Conservationists, ranchers and hunters and anyone who’s interested will be able to weigh in at the comments site and the hearings. But the FWS has decided the gray wolf should be removed from the ESA protections.
“The goal of the ESA is not to recreate the past,” explains Shire. “The goal is to protect species from extinction. Once a species is no longer in danger of extinction (now or in the foreseeable future), our job under the ESA is done. We have far too many species that desperately need help; we cannot afford to continue to invest scarce resources on species that have recovered.”
When, and if, the agency opts to delist the gray wolves, Honnold vows his group will be ready with a sheaf of science reports and legal briefs.
“We’ll meet them in federal court to make sure they [the wolves] stay listed,” he said, “or do our level best to try to accomplish that.”
A gray wolf of the US Rocky Mountains. (Photo: National Park Service)
Wolf bounty hunters in Wyoming may have crippled a wolf pack in Yellowstone National Park, where tourists come to view the wildlife.
According to local reports, hunters killed five wolves in the Wyoming region abutting the park over the last several days. Wyoming game officials will not release details about the wolves killed, but advocates are concerned that they may be from the famous Lamar Valley pack.
Wolf watchers in the Lamar Valley — perhaps the most famous place on Earth to spot a Canis lupus in the wild — fear the worst: that the animals killed were members of the Lamar Canyon Pack. It had 11 members at the end of last year.
One wolf advocate says he sought the identity of the wolves killed in area two from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department but didn’t get any answers.
“They’re hiding behind their statute that says they can only release so much information, which is a bogus excuse,” said Marc Cooke, president of Wolves of the Rockies. “They might as well face the reality that there’s a good possibility that wolves killed were from Yellowstone.”
Last year, the Rocky Mountain gray wolves were delisted in Wyoming as a protected species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The wolves also have been removed from federal protections in Montana and Idaho, the other states with the bulk of the wolf population in the West.
All three states now have legalized wolf hunting, with quotas set to try to maintain the wolves at sustainable, but lower population levela. The number of wolves had reached about 2,000-2,200 at the height of their recovery in the region, fostered by their reintroduction to the U.S. in the mid 1990s. Those numbers are now dropping, with the annual hunting in the three states.
Wolf advocates fear that the hunters will kill Yellowstone wolves, a popular attraction, and drive down the wolf populations across the northern Rocky Mountains region, hurting ecosystems that depend on the apex predator.
Most of Wyoming’s 300 or so wolves reside in the Northwest corner of the state, in the area around Yellowstone National Park. While the wolves cannot be hunted in the park, they can be legally shot the minute they step off the park grounds, into Wyoming, Montana or Idaho.
Wyoming has set up two hunting regions in the western third of the state, where an estimated 90 percent of its wolves reside, and has designated the rest of the state as a place where wolves are considered predators and can be shot on sight. Wolves also can be shot on sight in the Southwest corner of the state between March and October, outside of hunting season.
Wyoming explains its rationale toward wolves on the state fish and game website:
Wyoming statute specifies that wolves in Wyoming are designated as Trophy Game Animals in the northwest corner of the state and as Predatory Animals in the rest of the state. The northwest portion of Wyoming has suitable habitat to maintain wolf populations. The rest of Wyoming is largely unsuitable wolf habitat, and wolves in these parts of Wyoming often cause conflicts with livestock.
Update June 7, 2013: It’s official, the FWS has posted a new rule that would remove protections for gray wolves across the country, except for the Southwest’s Mexican wolf, which would be declared an endangered subspecies.
From the news release: “In the Western Great Lakes and Northern Rocky Mountains, the gray wolf has rebounded from the brink of extinction to exceed population targets by as much as 300 percent. Gray wolf populations in the Western Great Lakes and Northern Rocky Mountain Distinct Population Segments were removed from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife in 2011 and 2012. “
From Green Right Now Reports
The second full season of sport hunting took a heavy toll on the U.S. Rocky Mountain Wolves, reducing their population by about one-third, “a level of human-caused mortality that is unprecedented” in the history of the Endangered Species Act, according to wildlife experts.
A billboard installed outside Yellowstone National Park by Predator Defense.org.
At that kill rate, the wolves could soon be a downward spiral threatening their survival, less than 20 years after being reintroduced into the Northern Rocky Mountain states. That’s according to wildlife proponents, who have been speaking out individually and through a professional society as the extent of the damage to wolves becomes clear.
“If this level of mortality continues or even increases, particularly as states consider increasing quotas and season lengths, recent simulation modeling casts serious doubt on the long-term viability of the population,” the American Society of Mammalogists (ASM) wrote in a May letter to incoming U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.
The solution, the group said, would be to slow the hunting and re-institute protections for the wolves across the American West, most parts of which had not yet been re-settled by the wolves before they were delisted from the Endangered Species Act in 2011 (2012 in Wyoming).
After the delisting, the states inhabited by the wolves were allowed to set up hunting seasons on them.
Wolves decline 34 percent in one year
An estimated 1,674 wolves remained alive in the five-state region of the Northwest after the 2012 hunting season, down from the 2,569 wolves that were “known to be alive sometime in 2012,” according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in its 2013 review of the wolf population.
Hunters killed the majority of the wolves and government game officials shot a smaller percentage of the total, killing wolves believed to have preyed on livestock, predominantly in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, the states with the highest concentration of wolves, according to FWS statistics.
The season also saw the loss of some iconic Yellowstone National Park wolves that had been studied and viewed by thousands of tourists. Yellowstone is where the grey wolves were reintroduced in 1994-5, using wolves from Canada. At the time, the gray wolf was virtually extinct in the U.S., except for a long stable population in Northeastern Minnesota and on Isle Royale in Michigan.
The federal government declared the population recovered in 2009, a prelude to their later delisting after court challenges by environmental groups.
Biologists are worried that the wolves may not withstand the onslaught of hunting, which could disrupt the packs ability to breed.
Some experts have said that number is ridiculously low target; the greater Rocky Mountain area in the U.S. could maintain upwards of 2,000 wolves and as many as 7,000 if certain habitats were restored.
The federal government, though, has said a contingent of 450 wolves would be sufficient to survive, intermingle and maintain their genetic viability in the Pacific Northwest.
Biologists have been debating the population goal for years. They successfully helped push the goal up to 450 from the original target of 300. Now, though, they’re worried that wolf goals should be reevaluated in light of vigorous sport hunting and a proposal at the Fish & Wildlife Service to delist the gray wolves in all the U.S. states.
The letter from the mammal society points out that there is still much uninhabited land that’s suitable for gray wolves, especially in Colorado and Utah, and that across the nation only 6 percent of the historic range of the non-Mexican gray wolves is populated with the apex predator.
This year’s past “offtake” of 861 wolves was very high and portends trouble ahead, said Dr. Bradley Bergstrom, a biology professor at Valdosta State University and chair of the ASM conservation committee.
“The prognosis for gray wolves, especially in the Northern Rocky Mountains is uncertain, if they continue to suffer high rates of human-caused mortality, year after year, which is exactly what the states intend,” Bergstrom said.
Hunting impacts ripple through the wolf populations, disrupting even surviving packs, which have lost leaders or breeding adults, he said.
Hunters happy, wildlife experts not so much
Bergstrom points to a 2010 study by Montana State University biologists that predicts the hunting, instead of strengthening the wolf populations as game officials argue, will cause chaos in the highly structured packs and worsen mortality from other causes — creating an “additive” negative effect.
” Using previously published data from 21 North American wolf populations, we related total annual mortality and population growth to annual human offtake. Contrary to current conventional wisdom, there was a strong association between human offtake and total mortality rates across North American wolf populations,” report authors Scott Creel and Jay J. Rotella in their report.
“Human offtake was associated with a strongly additive or super-additive increase in total mortality. Population growth declined as human offtake increased, even at low rates of offtake. Finally, wolf populations declined with harvests substantially lower than the thresholds identified in current state and federal policies ….”
Creel and Rotella are saying the wolves could be easily pushed over the edge by the aggressive hunting quotas and rigorous “controls” imposed by state and federal (Wildlife Services) agents.
Wildlife biologists say wolves are important top predators who help keep ecosystems in balance.
Their research also suggests that the disruption to wolf packs could increase predation on livestock, as surviving younger wolves turn to easier prey.
Most ranchers, though, welcome the wolves’ decline, seeing it as a way to protect their herds. Wolves were blamed for the deaths of 194 cattle and 470 sheep in 2012 across their territory in the Northwest states, according to FWS statistics.
In the interest of keeping predation to a minimum, the states’ management plans aim to unabashedly reduce wolves to a level where they cannot have much effect on livestock, and will be pushed into the outback (or into the interior of Yellowstone National Park), where they can feed on their traditional prey of elk.
Once the wolves are confined to suitable habitat, they can replenish their packs every year with new pups, according to the delisting plan.
From the perspective of hunters, trappers and game management, the recent wolf season was a rousing success. The state of Idaho sold 43,246 hunting tags and trappers bought 526 tags. The trapping season proved to be “very effective,” accounting for more than 33 percent of the harvest total, according to the Idaho management update of January 2013.
With so many tags sold, the hunting appears capable of paying for wolf management, though the report notes that monitoring the wolves will become increasingly difficult as radio-collared wolves are shot and killed.
But the hunters’ success has been disheartening to those who want to see the wolves stay firmly established as apex predators in the Rocky Mountain West, or even retain their presence in Yellowstone, which lost at least two resident wolves who left the protected area only to meet with a human with a gun. The dead wolves included the famous female leader of the Lamar Canyon pack., known as 832F.
These deaths, and the proposed new rule to remove any protections on wolves, led wildlife experts at several universities to also write to the Interior Department, renewing calls to officials to base their decisions on the science, which shows that wolves could rightly populate many wild spaces in the U.S..
“The gray wolf has barely begun to recover or is absent from significant portions of its former range where substantial suitable habitat remains. The Service’s draft rule fails to consider science identifying extensive suitable habitat in the Pacific Northwest, California, the southern Rocky Mountains and the Northeast. It also fails to consider the importance of these areas to the long-term survival and recovery of wolves, or the importance of wolves to the ecosystems of these regions, wrote the professors.
Wildlife groups protest zealous wolf reduction plans
Several other groups have jumped into the fight for fair treatment of the wolves, including the Humane Society of the U.S., which is fighting for a voter referendum to settle calls for wolf hunting in Michigan. (Here’s a blog about why the USHS is getting involved.)
In the past two years, the gray wolves of the Upper Midwest, cousins to those in the Rocky Mountains, have lost their endangered species protections, with both Minnesota and Wisconsin inaugurating wolf hunting seasons, and wolf advocates protesting them.
The pro-wolf groups say there’s no need to “harvest” wolves from biosystems that have been stable for decades, such as those in Minnesota and Michigan. Wolf populations have grown there, but the wolves have also dispersed to other regions as wolves do to maintain adequate territory.
Predator Defense, an Oregon non-profit, also advocates giving the gray wolves wider berth. The group argues that top predators — wolves, bear, cougar — should be left to nature to manage, not hunters, because their populations are self-limiting.
This summer, Predator Defense is taking its message to the tourists who flock to Yellowstone National Park, many of whom hope to see a wild wolf, installing billboards outside the park’s entrances.
“Coming Soon: A world without wolves? Stop the Killing!” the billboards, providing fodder for discussion as families wait in line.
“Most Americans have no idea wolves are being slaughtered by trophy hunters and trappers,” said Brooks Fahy, executive director of Predator Defense. “There is no scientific or ethical justification to support the hunting and decimation of wolves or other predator species. In fact, these actions are contrary to the best available science.”
Natural gas is portrayed as the “bridge fuel” that will save the US from uneven electricity supply and prices as we transition off coal and oil on our way toward using renewable biofuels, solar and wind power.
A drilling rig in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo: Green Right Now)
The industry has been positioning natural gas this way for a few years, presenting it as a fossil fuel with a difference – one that burns cleaner in gasoline engines and power generation plants, and helps walk back carbon emissions.
Natural gas does burn cleaner. That’s undeniably helpful. But unfortunately, that’s the beginning and the end of its clean energy story, despite the political fan base that natural gas has acquired.
Politicians from town councils to the White House seem enthralled with natural gas. They claim it’s the clean, cheap (it is at the moment) plentiful magic bullet that can secure America’s energy future and pump life into the doddering economy.
Natural gas has won favor as as a job-creating, local-economy boosting and ever-lastingly domestic energy source. The fact that much of it will get shipped overseas does not deter its fans, who consider that a business bonus.
It’s easy to see why politicians are holding this industry closer than a baby at a campaign rally. First, natural gas companies belong to the powerful oil and gas industry lobbying bloc, which donated nearly $150 million to Congressional lawmakers in 2011. High five and hugs all around there.
Secondly, the natural gas industry does employ a lot of people and argues that it can create 400,000 jobs by developing shale natural gas deposits across the US . Whether that’s a fair or trumped up assessment is material for a different story, this one being focused on the environmental issues that beg consideration.
And the third reason politicians are cuddling up to natural gas? The boom has been a beacon in dark economic times. It offers a simple story line — domestic energy = jobs + energy security — that can win votes. And it makes sense in 30 seconds!
Wind and solar farms make good stories too, if the audience cares about such things. But emergent technology that costs more and needs tiresome infusions of tax credits doesn’t create the same election-year tingle. It sounds pricey, far off and cumbersome. (They kill birds don’t they?) It stirs the passion of geeks but not the masses. And truthfully, it offends our friends in Oil & Gas.
Natural gas, by contrast, is on the ground now, teeming with flanneled crews and billowing out of our gas range burners. It’s been around for a long time and thanks to new fracking techniques, it’s poised to uncover a “Saudi Arabia” of gas deposits beneath US soil.
And yet, all the rah-rah ignores a sinkhole in the road ahead, say critics who’ve formed groups from the Hudson Valley to mountain communities in Colorado that oppose fracking: The extraction of natural gas using modern hydraulic fracturing techniques, despite powerful wishful thinking to the contrary, takes a heavy toll on the environment. It threatens water supplies, consumes acres of fresh water and leaks pollutants into the air.
Natural gas drilling threatens well water and aquifers
Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” to release natural gas from deep shale formations has contaminated water supplies in several locations, from Dimock, Pa., to central Wyoming.
Drawing a direct cause-and-effect conclusion can be tricky, but in the Wyoming and Pennsylvania cases, the types of chemicals found in the water and the timing of the pollution point to nearby gas operations. Residents attested to authorities that their water became undrinkable after nearby drilling commenced.
Drillers disputed these claims. Moreover, they say that responsible companies can drill without harming underground water supplies by improving the wells’ concrete linings, implying that even if mistakes have been made, drilling can move ahead with better safeguards.
This is highly contentious ground. For years, the industry happily bragged that there’d been no confirmed cases of water contamination involving natural gas drilling. Then came the 2010 movie Gasland, which chronicled a backlog of complaints against drillers, and a series of reports by Pro Publica detailing numerous examples of apparent water contamination from nearby gas drilling.
A March 2012 report by Food&Water Watch called Fracking: The New Global Water Crisis, updated the story, reporting that state regulators have flagged hundreds of incidents of environmental contamination by drillers with 451 Marcellus Shale operators cited for 1,544 violations in Pennsylvania alone.
In 2011, the federal EPA officially tiptoed into the water question, concurring with aggrieved residents that well water in Pavilion, Wyo., had been contaminated by benzene and methane from gas drilling operations.
Less than four months later, though, the EPA appears to be losing interest in pursuing water tainted by natural gas drilling.
Last week, the EPA dropped a claim that Range Resources Corp. had contaminated well water in Parker County, near Fort Worth. The EPA won an agreement from Range to test the water in the area of its wells multiple times over the next year, but withdrew its 15-month old order demanding that Range supply two area households with safe drinking water.
The agency also reported in March that its initial tests at Dimock show the water is safe, even though at least 19 families in that community maintain that nearby drilling by Cabot Oil & Gas made their water undrinkable. The families have displayed cloudy water samples drawn from their tap at public events, and demonstrated the flammability of their tap water by igniting lighters next to running faucets — a show-and-tell exposing methane contamination that first achieved notoriety in Gasland.
One Dimock resident, dumbfounded by the EPA’s pronouncement that his water was safe, told Pro Publica:
“I’m sitting here looking at the values I have on my (data) sheet – I’m over the thresholds – and yet they are telling me my water is drinkable,” said Scott Ely, a Dimock resident whose water contains methane at three times the state limit, as well as lithium, a substance that can cause kidney and thyroid disorders. “I’m confused about the whole thing… I’m flabbergasted.”
Is the EPA is trying to wade out of the natural gas/water issue, perhaps in deference to the Obama Administration, which clearly wants to appear fossil fuel-friendly while promoting its “all of the above” domestic energy plan? Time will tell.
Meanwhile, the EPA also said it will review its 2011 conclusion that gas drilling contaminated water at Pavilion, Wyo.. The agency plans to test additional samples from the area gas fields and work with the state, affected native tribes and “a group of stakeholders and experts” to identify how contaminants might be migrating into drinking water.
This additional inquiry seems worthy, but only as long as the “stakeholders” involved can be impartial.
Natural gas consumes water
The natural gas industry may pose an even greater threat to water via its direct consumption of this resource. Fracking gas wells consumes large volumes of freshwater, with each fracked well requiring conservatively 2 to 3 million gallons of water to blast open tight underground gas deposits.
Drillers get their water from many places. They may drill a well, use nearby city water or draw from area lakes for fracking. The industry has responded to concerns about its water footprint by increasing the use of greywater or recycled water it uses.
Even when fracking water is recycled for more fracking, however, the cycle still ends with water that’s been contaminated with the brew of lubricants, sand and chemicals that are mixed with the water to effectively blast open the deep shale gas deposits.
This fracking fluid typically contains dozens of chemicals, such as salt, lead, benzene. Some are toxic and even carcinogenic. (Companies released a list to Congress, but do not routinely report the composition of fracking fluid, which was exempted from disclosure in 2005.)
This water, once its been used to frack open shale deposits, now called “produced water” and laced with additional chemicals from its underground foray, including radioactive ingredients, is disposed of either in above-ground containment facilities or injected into disposal wells. It is largely unrecoverable. The cost to natural water stores is large.To get a crude idea, multiply the 369,000 natural gas wells operating in the top 10 natural gas producing states by 3 million gallons of water each, and the water price of these wells comes into focus: 1.1 trillion gallons. (A figure that’s already outdated, given that more gas wells are added daily.)
In Texas, which experienced a historic drought in 2011 and is predicted to face dry conditions for the coming decade and which tops the list of states with the most gas wells (76,436 in 2009), coal and fracking operations use an estimated 5 percent of the water supply, according to the Houston Chronicle.
That may not seem like much compared with agriculture’s 60 percent water usage. But the state doesn’t have much to spare, and while food is necessary, energy can come from sources that use much less water, such as wind and even solar, which uses water during manufacture but virtually none over decades of operation. Or so goes the environmental argument.
The spent toxic water produced by natural gas drilling is a growing pollution problem, say groups fighting fracking expansion.
“It is really easy to put chemicals into water; it is really hard – and expensive – to get them out again,” writes George de Piro, a New York brewer and supporter of WaterDefense.org. “… Perhaps a century of safe water has made us complacent. Are we willing to risk contamination of life’s most important ingredient for short-term gain?”
According to the EPA, the preferred method of disposing of produced water is to inject it into deep wells, where it is thought to remain unable to contaminate water or air. However, these deep injection wells, and possibly some fracking operations, appear to be causing small earthquakes – and not in a few places. They’ve been reported in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Ohio. The link to drilling has not been proven, but the circumstantial evidence points strongly toward gas operations in the vicinity. This raises a question about whether fracturing disposal wells, or even some of the fracked gas wells that involve long horizontal drill paths, are destabilizing the geology in ways that could cause damage above ground and facilitate chemical leaching underground.
A study due out later this month from a US Geological Survey team reportedly concludes that an uptick in US earthquakes since 2001 is “man-made.”
“With gasoline prices at $4 a gallon, there’s pressure to rush ahead with drilling, but the USGS report is another piece of evidence that shows we have to proceed carefully,” said Dusty Horwitt, Senior Counsel and chief natural resources analyst at Environmental Working Group (EWG). “We can’t afford multi-million-dollar water pollution cleanups or earthquakes that could pose risks to homes and health.”
With 25 to 75 percent of fracking fluid remaining in the ground when a typical modern gas well has been installed, and the rest injected into disposal wells, questioning what happens to these chemicals seem reasonable. Could the chemical fracking cocktail mix with natural fluids, shift, seep and migrate into neighboring rock formations?
“How far and how fast this blend can travel and how it might change chemically, is impossible to know and control,” and could create new pathways for contamination, according to Fracking: The New Global Water Crisis.
Natural gas drilling threatens the air
As if natural gas drilling does not create enough risk around water, some critics see the natural gas boom, with its fracking methods, as an even bigger threat to the atmosphere.
Fracking releases air pollution as VOCs (volatile organic compounds), which contribute to smog, and methane, a greenhouse gas that’s 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Unless drillers meticulously cap their wellheads and use state-of-the-art valves, VOCs and methane escape into the atmosphere during natural gas production.
Fracking protesters in New York (Photo: Owen Crowley)
Slow leaks from equipment have been documented by state regulators, even in Texas, where natural gas critics say the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) has been slow to fine gas operators. The TCEQ has acknowledged that emissions from gas operations contribute to the metro area’s chronic non-attainment status (failure to meet federal standards) for ozone pollution.
A 2011 $1 million study by the city of Fort Worth failed to find a definitive or serious air pollution threat when consultants sampled air near several natural gas pads. But a 2009 study by Cook Children’s Hospital in Fort Worth found that children living in the heavily drilled Barnett Shale region were 6 to 9 times more likely to suffer from asthma than kids in the general population.
Smog is widely understood to be an asthma trigger, along with mold, pollen and pet dander. Was air pollution from extensive gas drilling in Fort Worth aggravating the asthma situation? A paper produced about the same time in Dallas suggests it was.
A 2009 report by Dr. Al Armendariz, then a Southern Methodist University engineering professor and now chief of the EPA Region 6 based in Dallas, found that gas operations were the biggest contributor to smog in the Dallas-Fort Worth region.
“Emissions of smog-forming compounds in 2009 from all oil and gas sources were estimated to be approximately 191 tpd [tons per day] on an annual average, with peak summer emissions of 307 tpd. The portion of those emissions originating from the 5-counties in the D-FW metropolitan area with significant oil and gas production was 165 tpd during the summer.”
Regulation and improved industry safeguards, like better valves and fittings for pipes and tanks, has helped reduce those numbers, but the TCEQ still finds that oil and gas operations in the Dallas/Fort Worth region exceed the pollution from cars. The Downwinders at Risk, a North Texas citizens group fighting for better air quality, reported the latest findings last week:
“This year, again according to the state, all the cars and trucks in DFW will produce 80 tons per day of VOC air pollution. Oil and gas production in DFW will produce 114 tons per day of the same kinds of pollutants – 34 more tons a day than all cars and trucks combined, and the largest emissions by far from any one industry in North Texas.
What if the natural gas bridge is really a roadblock?
Even if these pollution problems could be regulated away or solved with new technology, a question remains: Could the natural gas bridge storyline be a red herring? What if the insistence on natural gas drilling and building compatible infrastructure, what the critics call the Mad Rush to Frack, forestalls the advancement of renewable energy instead of serving as stepping stone?
Nathan Myhrvold, the onetime Microsoft CTO, and Carnegie Institution climate scientist Ken Caldeira argue that that’s exactly what’s happening in a paper published in March. They compare the carbon reductions of different “transition” scenarios that would move the world off carbon-intensive energy, concluding that an immediate jump to renewable energy along with serious conservation measures is the only way to slow climate change by the second half of the 21st Century. (Carbon emissions stay in the atmosphere for 40 years, so today’s rollbacks cannot be felt immediately.)
Why can the pro-drilling forces not see this? Noted environmentalist Bill McKibben muses in a recent article on TomDispatch that oil and gas operators could make good money off new clean energy technologies, while doing the right thing, but their company valuations and shareholder expectations are tied to the fossil fuels in the ground. They deny the toll on their environment, and the role of greenhouse gases in climate change, to keep their personal and corporate economic future secure, while risking the future of the planet, he writes.
“…they’re leveraging us deeper into an unpayable carbon debt — and with each passing day, they’re raking in unimaginable returns. ExxonMobil last week reported its 2011 profits at $41 billion, the second highest of all time. Do you wonder who owns the record? That would be ExxonMobil in 2008 at $45 billion,” McKibben writes, lamenting that “the business models at the center of our economy are in the deepest possible conflict with physics and chemistry.”
Conventional fossil-fuel based companies are willing to trade off global health benefits as basic as clean air and water because they’re “swimming in money,” McKibben says. “Telling the truth about climate change would require pulling away the biggest punchbowl in history, right when the party is in full swing.”
Alternative energy businesses walk into this headwind with little except the argument that their methods are cleaner, more enduring and less polluting. Many have lived alongside natural gas, politely reticent, knowing it is more likely to thwart than facilitate a clean energy future.
Natural gas is a longtime wedge between renewable providers and the utility operators they seek to supply. At a geothermal news conference this week, geothermal entrepreneurs conceded that the current low price for natural gas has complicated negotiations to sell their energy to utilities.
Even in states with quotas for renewable energy – known as Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPSs) – natural gas can plug up power openings, they said, qualifying as a cleaner fuel that helps diversify the grid, even though it’s not remotely renewable.
In some Western states, low-priced natural gas is now “filling up” the diversification requirements, putting downward pressure on renewable development, one geothermal executive explained.
The manufactured image of “clean energy” that the natural gas industry has carefully cultivated helps at the negotiation table. By distinguishing itself from its fossil cousins coal and oil, it can squeeze into a space that might otherwise be reserved for geothermal, solar and wind power initiatives. And it can avoid the label of being a heavy polluter, like coal, or a foreign influence tied to politicial enemies in the Middle East, like oil.
To many, those are good credentials. But increasingly, critics like the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund and the newly formed WaterDefense.org, argue that it places the bar too low; that natural gas still must to be held to account for its environmental footprint, even if it offers certain virtues.
One brighter note for those who wish renewable could achieve similar momentum: The three geothermal executives, reported that many utility executives do see the benefit of signing up for energy that’s truly renewable and can provide round-the-clock power, aka, geothermal power. (Wind and solar providers would argue that paired up, their operations also provide 24/7 coverage.)
Smart utility managers, the executives said, see these renewables as providing a hedge against fossil fuel price volatility.
Perhaps that is what it will take to shift toward a new paradigm, a recognition that natural gas, just like other fossil fuels, is a finite world commodity, subject to a variety of outside influences, which ultimately may not be as reliable, or as firmly local, as wind, solar and geothermal power.
In a first, federal environment officials Thursday scientifically linked underground water pollution with hydraulic fracturing, concluding that contaminants found in central Wyoming were likely caused by the gas drilling process.
The findings by the Environmental Protection Agency come partway through a separate national study by the agency to determine whether fracking presents a risk to water resources.
“The presence of synthetic compounds such as glycol ethers … and the assortment of other organic components is explained as the result of direct mixing of hydraulic fracturing fluids with ground water in the Pavillion gas field,” the draft report states. “Alternative explanations were carefully considered.”
The agency’s findings could be a turning point in the heated national debate about whether contamination from fracking is happening, and are likely to shape how the country regulates and develops natural gas resources in the Marcellus Shale and across the Eastern Appalachian states.
Some of the findings in the report also directly contradict longstanding arguments by the drilling industry for why the fracking process is safe: that hydrologic pressure would naturally force fluids down, not up; that deep geologic layers provide a watertight barrier preventing the movement of chemicals towards the surface; and that the problems with the cement and steel barriers around gas wells aren’t connected to fracking.
Environmental advocates greeted today’s report with a sense of vindication and seized the opportunity to argue for stronger federal regulation of fracking.
“No one can accurately say that there is ‘no risk’ where fracking is concerned,” wrote Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, on her blog. “This draft report makes obvious that there are many factors at play, any one of which can go wrong. Much stronger rules are needed to ensure that well construction standards are stronger and reduce threats to drinking water.”
A spokesman for EnCana, the gas company that owns the Pavillion wells, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In an email exchange after the EPA released preliminary water test data two weeks ago, the spokesman, Doug Hock, denied that the company’s actions were to blame for the pollution and suggested it was naturally caused.
“Nothing EPA presented suggests anything has changed since August of last year– the science remains inconclusive in terms of data, impact, and source,” Hock wrote. “It is also important to recognize the importance of hydrology and geology with regard to the sampling results in the Pavillion Field. The field consists of gas-bearing zones in the near subsurface, poor general water quality parameters and discontinuous water-bearing zones.”
The EPA’s findings immediately triggered what is sure to become a heated political debate as members of Congress consider afresh proposals to regulate fracking. After a phone call with EPA chief Lisa Jackson this morning, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., told a Senate panel that he found the agency’s report on the Pavillion-area contamination “offensive.” Inhofe’s office had challenged the EPA’s investigation in Wyoming last year, accusing the agency of bias.
Residents began complaining of fouled water near Pavillion in the mid-1990s, and the problems appeared to get worse around 2004. Several residents complained that their well water turned brown shortly after gas wells were fracked nearby, and, for a time, gas companies operating in the area supplied replacement drinking water to residents.
Still, the EPA had not drawn conclusions based on the tests and took pains to separate its groundwater investigation in Wyoming from the national controversy around hydraulic fracturing. Agriculture, drilling, and old pollution from waste pits left by the oil and gas industry were all considered possible causes of the contamination.
In the report released today, the EPA said that pollution from 33 abandoned oil and gas waste pits – which are the subject of a separate cleanup program – are indeed responsible for some degree of shallow groundwater pollution in the area. Those pits may be the source of contamination affecting at least 42 private water wells in Pavillion. But the pits could not be blamed for contamination detected in the water monitoring wells 1,000 feet underground.
That contamination, the agency concluded, had to have been caused by fracking.
The EPA’s findings in Wyoming are specific to the region’s geology; the Pavillion-area gas wells were fracked at shallower depths than many of the wells in the Marcellus shale and elsewhere.
Investigators tested the cement and casing of the gas wells and found what they described as “sporadic bonding” of the cement in areas immediately above where fracking took place. The cement barrier meant to protect the well bore and isolate the chemicals in their intended zone had been weakened and separated from the well, the EPA concluded.
The report also found that hydrologic pressure in the Pavillion area had pushed fluids from deeper geologic layers towards the surface. Those layers were not sufficient to provide a reliable barrier to contaminants moving upward, the report says.
Throughout its investigation in Wyoming, the EPA was hamstrung by a lack of disclosure about exactly what chemicals had been used to frack the wells near Pavillion. EnCana declined to give federal officials a detailed breakdown of every compound used underground. The agency relied instead on more general information supplied by the company to protect workers’ health.
Hock would not say whether EnCana had used 2 BE, one of the first chemicals identified in Pavillion and known to be used in fracking, at its wells in Pavillion. But he was dismissive of its importance in the EPA’s findings. “There was a single detection of 2-BE among all the samples collected in the deep monitoring wells. It was found in one sample by only one of three labs,” he wrote in his reply to ProPublica two weeks ago. “Inconsistency in detection and non-repeatability shouldn’t be construed as fact.”
The EPA’s draft report will undergo a public review and peer review process, and is expected to be finalized by spring.
Texas-based Legacy Resources backed out of a $45 million deal to buy the field near Pavillion, Wyom., from EnCana last week, soon after the Environmental Protection Agency said it had detected cancer-causing benzene at 50 times the level safe for humans and other carcinogenic pollutants during its latest round of sampling.
The cancelled sale could signal difficulty for companies trying to turn over aging gas fields if there are environmental or health concerns related to their operations.
“Although Encana retained responsibility for any outcome resulting from the ongoing groundwater investigation undertaken by EPA, due to the continued attention surrounding the investigation, and uncertainty regarding further development, Legacy is not prepared to go forward with the transaction,” said EnCana spokesman Doug Hock, in an email to ProPublica.
Legacy Resources did not respond to a call requesting comment.
Legacy Resources announced it had agreed to buy EnCana’s Pavillion-area wells, which produce an estimated 13 million cubic feet of gas a day, on Nov. 1. At the time, the company also said it planned to drill new wells in Pavillion to tap the 45 billion cubic feet of gas it believes lies underground.
But the prospects for future development have dimmed.
Residents had long complained of widespread water contamination and alleged that fracking was to blame. EnCana had trucked in replacement drinking water to some residents. The company faced increasing controversy when the EPA announced in late 2009 that it had found hydrocarbon contaminants in residents’ drinking water wells. The agency advised residents not to drink their water and to ventilate their homes when they showered or washed dishes. ProPublica began reporting on concerns about water contamination in Pavillion in 2008.
On Nov. 9 the EPA announced more test results from samples taken in Pavillion, this time from two water monitoring wells drilled to 1,000 feet – far below most drinking water wells in the area. It found benzene, along with acetone, toluene, naphthalene and traces of diesel fuel. It also detected a solvent called 2-Butoxyethanol (2-BE) that is commonly used by the drilling industry to fracture wells. It also can be used for cleanup at well sites.
EnCana has maintained that the pollutants found in Pavillion-area wells occur naturally, and that drilling is not to blame. “Nothing EPA presented suggests anything has changed since August of last year – the science remains inconclusive in terms of data, impact, and source,” Hock wrote to ProPublica.
Hock said that the EPA’s monitoring wells were drilled into a zone known to contain methane gas, and suggested the pollutants would have been expected to be there. He said that the 2-BE was only detected in one sample and could have leached from the plastics used to drill many drinking water and monitoring wells. In previous statements to ProPublica, he has said that the 2-BE might have come from household cleaning agents, which can contain the chemical. Hock did not reply to questions about whether EnCana had used 2-BE in fracking or any other processes in Pavillion.
The agency has so far been careful not to draw conclusions about the cause of the pollution. EPA officials had said they planned to release a detailed report analyzing possible causes of the pollution by the end of November, but now say it will be at least a few more weeks.
Climate change is expected to lead to worsening drought conditions and greater heat extremes, along with myriad health problems. And a new web tool created by the Natural Resources Defense Council lets you see read just how badly your state could be impacted by climate change.
Based on an analysis of weather station data gathered by the National Climatic Data Center and other sources, NRDC’s new “Climate Change Threatens Health” webpage lets users see the effects of climate change at a regional and state level. On the site, you can view local data and maps detailing extreme weather patterns throughout the country, as well as learning about the local climate change vulnerabilities and health problems facing your own community.
For example, the NRDC web tool compares temperature data in each state from 2000 through 2009 to local temperatures from 1961 to 1990. You’ll see that residents of the western United States experienced more days of extreme heat than in previous decades and a frequency of drought conditions from 2000 through 2009.
This extreme heat can lead to heat exhaustion, heat stroke, cardiovascular disease, and kidney disease, while drought can lead to lower crop yields and contaminated drinking water. Many communities do not have plans in place to address these problems.
Among the key findings:
20 states that have experienced the worst extreme heat are: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Massachusetts, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wyoming, as well as the District of Columbia. This means residents in the majority of these states and in D.C. experienced more than two weeks per summer of extreme heat that was worse than in past decades.
All but two states had at least one county that experienced more than two weeks of summer days of extreme heat.
About 81 percent of those states most vulnerable to extreme heat do not have heat-health adaptation plans (AL, AK, AZ, CO, CT, DE, DC, HI, ID, KS, MA, MT, NV, NM, TX, UT, WY). This highlights the lack of climate-health preparedness in many locations.
On the positive side, 19 percent (4 of 21) of states in the highest heat-vulnerability group (CA, NH, OR, WA) also have heat preparedness plans. Seven “vulnerable” states have extreme heat climate preparedness plans already in place to help protect their residents’ health (FL, ME, MD, NY, PA, VA, WI).
“Climate change is real and in many cases is already affecting people and natural ecosystems,” Kim Knowlton, senior scientist in NRDC’s health and environment program, said in a statement. “Our analysis will help people across the country find out exactly how climate change affects their state. From the dangers of extreme heat and increased flooding to the spread of ragweed whose pollen causes allergies or mosquitoes that can spread disease, climate change does not discriminate and local communities need to be better prepared.”
Dan Lashof, director of NRDC’s Climate Center, said these threats, aggravated by increased levels of carbon pollution, illustrate the danger of congressional efforts to dismantle the Clean Air Act and its public health protections.
“Climate preparedness should be better funded, and the states that don’t have public health preparedness strategies in their climate adaptation plans definitely need to add those,” Lashof said. “Our maps show this is an ongoing problem, and the health effects of this summer’s heat waves have not even been fully measured yet.”
2009 was a dismal, tragic year for Northern Rockies wolves. They lost all protections under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), were hunted for the first time in Montana and Idaho (and continue to be hunted in Idaho), and were killed by various causes in record numbers. In all, almost one third — one third! — of the Northern Rockies wolf population was killed in 2009.
The good news is that NRDC and other conservation groups have not relented one iota in our fight on behalf on Northern Rockies wolves, and our lawsuit to restore their ESA protections should be ruled upon in 2010.
Here is a recap of 2009 for Canis lupus in the Northern Rockies:
January 14, 2009: Dubya the Decider, wishing to go out with a bang, announced that wolves in Montana and Idaho were being removed from the endangered species list, but wolves in Wyoming would remain listed.
January 20, 2009: Freshly inaugurated President Obama put on hold the wolf delisting rule — and all other last-minute rules and regulations issued by the Bush administration — for further review. Hope was restored, as many assumed the Obama Administration, with its pledged commitment to science, would scrap the premature, scientifically baseless, politically motivated Bush rule on wolves.
March 6, 2009: Hope was crushed, as Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced he was rubber-stamping the Bush rule on wolves and removing ESA protections for wolves in Montana and Idaho, but not Wyoming. (Six months later, a federal judge found that this decision was politically crafted and thus likely illegal.)
May 4, 2009: The delisting rule went into effect, and wolves in Montana and Idaho lost all federal protections under the Endangered Species Act.
June 2, 2009: NRDC and twelve other conservation organizations, represented by Earthjustice, filed a lawsuit to restore ESA protections for wolves in Montana and Idaho.
July 8, 2009: The State of Montana approved the state’s first-ever fair-chase public wolf hunt with a kill quota of 75 wolves — or about 15% of its population.
August 17, 2009: Montana’s neighbor to the west, Idaho, approved its first-ever fair-chase public wolf hunt with a kill quota of 255 wolves — or about 30% of its population. (And neither Montana’s nor Idaho’s quota included any of the wolves killed by government “control” actions, natural mortality, or illegal poaching.)
August 20, 2009: NRDC and the other conservation groups in the delisting lawsuit filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to stop the planned wolf hunts in Montana and Idaho from proceeding.
September 1, 2009: Idaho’s premature wolf hunt opened.
September 8, 2009: U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy denied our motion to stop the wolf hunts in Montana and Idaho, but, on a very bright note, he found that we are likely to win our delisting lawsuit. Specifically, he concluded, “The [U.S. Fish and Wildlife] Service has distinguished a natural population of wolves based on a political line, not the best available science. That, by definition, seems arbitrary and capricious.”
September 15, 2009: Montana’s poorly planned wolf hunt opened only in the backcountry, with the rest of the state scheduled to open on October 25th. The result? Multiple wilderness wolves and wolves from Yellowstone National Park were quickly killed, which the state must have seen coming with the way it structured the hunt.
October 13, 2009: With too many wolves from Yellowstone killed just outside the Park’s boundary (because Montana failed to implement a buffer zone around the Park to protect its famous and important wolves), Montana shut down the wolf hunt north of Yellowstone.
November 16, 2009: Montana’s wolf hunt ends, with 72 wolves killed in the hunt.
December 2009: Two ominous reports about wolves in the Northern Rockies surfaced. The first described how Yellowstone’s wolf population is shrinking and the annual census of the Park’s population is expected to be the lowest in 10 years. The second broke the worrying news that a record number of Northern Rockies wolves — more than 500 — have been killed in 2009 by hunters, government agents, ranchers, poachers, and natural causes. This astronomical level of mortality amounts to almost one third of the last official population estimate.
December 24, 2009: Lynne Stone, a fearless wolf advocate in Idaho, received a scary, threatening e-mail from a wolf hater there. The e-mail simply said, “Merry Cristmas” (spelled without the “h”), and it included a morbid photo:
A wolf shot in Idaho
Heading into 2010, this disturbing photo and sinister e-mail (sent the night of Christmas Eve) remind us of what wolves are up against in the West — and why NRDC’s work on behalf of Northern Rockies wolves is more important than ever.
On January 28, 2010, the last brief in our wolf lawsuit will be filed. Following a hearing in federal court, Judge Molloy will decide whether the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated the Endangered Species Act when it removed ESA protections from wolves in Montana and Idaho earlier this year. Hopefully he concludes that the ESA was violated and restores ESA protections for those states’ wolves.
After a deadly 2009, let’s hope 2010 is a better year for wolves in the Northern Rockies — with less killing, less spinning of the facts by government bureaucrats, and less politically driven decision-making. Let’s hope wolves . . . can be wolves.
Happy New Year. Howl.
(Reposted with permission from the Natural Resources Defense Council. Skoglund is a wildlife advocate based in Livingston, Montana You can read his blog and learn more about wildlife at the NRDC website.)
At least three of Idaho’s wolves have been killed as hunting commenced this week under the first authorized sport wolf hunt in the lower 48 states.
But while the hunt has attracted sportspeople, it has repelled others. A Lewiston-area man who killed the first wolf on opening day told the local media that he has received numerous calls of protest.
Robert Millage, a real estate agent, says he’s been called a “wolf murderer, a fat redneck and other names” in some 50 phone calls and hundreds of e-mails, according to the Lewiston Tribune. (To see a picture of the young wolf Millage killed view the story on Lewiston’s KLEW-TV.)
Idaho’s wolf season began on Tuesday, putting up to 220 (the maximum allowed kill) of the state’s estimated 1,000 wolves in jeopardy.
This hunting season follow nearly two decades of wolf restoration in the region. The Rocky Mountain Wolf population was restored in the US in the mid-1990s with the introduction of gray wolves from Canada to try to replace US wolves, which were annihilated over decades of hunting and defensive shooting by ranchers. The restoration seeded the predators in the Yellowstone National Park area and allowed them to grow while under the protection of the Endangered Species Act.
When their numbers reached what the US government said was a sustainable level — there are about 1,500 to 1,600 wolves in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming — the wolves were “delisted” from the ESA, allowing the states to take over their management.
But many environmentalists say that the Idaho wolves — as well as a smaller population of several hundred in Montana, where the hunt begins Sept. 15 — have not reached levels that can be maintained.
“The heavy-handed wolf hunt beginning today in Idaho, together with the hunt planned to begin September 15th in Montana, puts the recovery of the Northern Rockies population of wolves at risk and demonstrates precisely the kind of irresponsible state management that should have precluded taking the wolf off the endangered species list at this point in time,” said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife in a statement issued on Tuesday.
Added Suzanne Stone, a wolf expert for Defenders: “Today’s hunt undermines decades of tremendous support, time and investment from the American public, federal, tribal and state wildlife agencies, and threatens one of the most successful wildlife restorations in history.”
Defenders, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Earthjustice and other groups have petitioned a federal court in Montana to stop the state hunts and reinstate federal protection for the wolves.
Friends of Animals, meanwhile, has urged those opposed to the wolf hunts to fight back — with a boycott of Idaho potatoes.
“As long as Idaho is in the business of killing wolves, the nature-respecting public should stop buying potatoes there,” said FOA president Priscilla Feral, explaining that consumers could look for potatoes grown in Maine, Colorado, North Dakota, Oregon, Washington and other states.
This federal government has been taking steps for the past several years to remove the wolves from protection and has been stopped at least twice by court injunctions when environmentalists intervened. Those groups have argued that the wolf population should be at least 2,000, if not more, to be sustainable.
Wyoming, the only other US state where the wolves live in the wild, has not been allowed to institute a federal hunt. The US Fish and Wildlife Service was worried that Wyoming’s preliminary hunting plan was malicious.
As state hunting agencies add sport hunting to their menu of wolf control measures, it is worth noting that wolves already are subject to legal lethal measures when they interfere with livestock.
In 2008, 153 wolves were confirmed to have died in Idaho. Agency control and “legal landowner take in response to wolf-livestock depredation” accounted for 108 deaths, according to a detailed report by the Idaho Fish and Game Department. Other human causes (including illegal take) accounted for 23 deaths; 18 wolves died of unknown causes, and 4 wolves died of natural causes.
Also during 2008 calendar year, 96 cattle, 218 sheep, 12 dogs, and 1 horse foal were classified by
Idaho game officials as confirmed wolf kills; 32 cattle, 46 sheep, and 1 dog were considered probable kills by wolves.
The report contains numerous maps and charts, suggesting that the Idaho wolves, are well tracked. It also shows that the number of breeding wolf pairs declined slightly in 2008, before the hunts were authorized.
(Photos: Gray wolf, Idaho Fish and Game Department; Game official with wolf pup, USFWS.)
It would almost be easier to spot a Rocky Mountain Gray Wolf than to follow the legal wrangling around these once-endangered, recently delisted and soon-to-be-hunted predators.
A quick recap: After a few years of back and forth with environmentalists who argued that the wolves needed continued federal protection, the Bush Administration delisted the animals – took them off the Endangered Species List – in 2008. Enviros sued and a federal court agreed that delisting was premature and that the 1,500 or so wolves in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming were not at sustainable levels. The wolves were restored to endangered status.
But…the Bush Administration continued to refine its case, and again de-listed the wolves. This came as a parting shot in January 2009.
Enter the Obama Administration. Enviro groups anticipated that the new liberal leadership in Washington would restore the Rocky Mountain wolves to protected status (put them back on the Endangered Species list). Instead, the case of the wolves became an apparent sacrificial lamb to ranchers and conservatives who have a checkered history with the predators, blaming them for cattle and lamb losses.
And so, the Rocky Mountain Gray Wolves, having gone extinct in the U.S. during the mid-20th Century because of over-hunting (they were reintroduced in Yellowstone in the 1990s) remained delisted — and eligible as big game.
The hunting begins next week in Idaho and Sept. 15 in Montana and conservationists are back in court trying to stop the blood-letting.
Environmental groups asked a federal judge to stop the planned hunts in Idaho and Montana, arguing that the wolf populations will be irretrievably damaged by the hunting, jeopardizing their ability to breed, connect between packs and sustain their numbers.
“At a point when we are so close to having a truly restored wolf population, the state of Idaho is going to issue an unlimited number of wolf tags to eliminate 30 percent of the state’s wolf population,” said Louisa Willcox, a senior wildlife advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a statement.
“As a top predator, these creatures are vital to the health of the northern Rockies ecosystem, but many of the ecological improvements that we’ve seen as a result of their reintroduction to the region will be imperiled by the Idaho and Montana hunts. While we are not against hunting, we are against conducting them prematurely, and in such a reckless and counterproductive manner.”
Idaho has authorized the killing of 220 wolves in a wolf hunt opening Sept. 1. State officials say the hunt will help them manage the state’s estimated 1,000 wolves and “learn how public hunting fits into managing wolves”.
But environmentalists say the sport shootings will wipe out one-third of the states wolf population, which they estimate at about 875 wolves (as of December 2008).
Montana will be allowing hunters to take 75 wolves, starting Sept. 15, or about 15 percent of the state’s population.
The groups opposed to the wolf hunting include Earthjustice, Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club, the NRDC and the Center for Biological Diversity.
The Humane Society of the United States also has registered a complaint, with this statement from Jonathan Lovvorn, vice president and chief counsel for animal protection litigation:
“The recent announcements by the states of Idaho and Montana to institute hunts to significantly reduce the population of gray wolves in the Northern Rockies makes clear that the federal government’s decision to turn management of wolves over to these states is premature, and unlikely to ensure their survival. The federal government’s efforts to strip wolves of all federal protection have been repeatedly struck down by the courts, and this latest rule is no more likely to succeed than the previous failed attempts.”
The federal government has argued that its restoration plan always called for the eventual return to state management of the predators. Environmentalists, however, say that the feds have set target wolf population levels too low. They point out that traffic accidents and legal shootings by ranchers will add to the toll of wolf deaths, threatening the species’ survival in the US. (Canada’s populations are much larger.)
Idaho has argued that it will try to manage the wolves to remain at a population of around 500, which enviros still say is too low.
The environmental groups also believe that the hunting is ill-timed, coming after a hard winter that claimed many wolves in the Yellowstone National Park where there was a 27 percent decline in the wolf population, the largest since they were reintroduced to the area.
They fear that the low maintenance numbers mandated by the US Fish & Wildlife Service will impede the wolves’ ability to inter-breed across packs and remain genetically vigorous.
Ironically, the state deemed most inhospitable to the wolves, Wyoming, will not be arranging a gray wolf hunt this fall. The wolves are still under federal protection in Wyoming because a federal court has ruled that Wyoming’s hostile wolf-management scheme leaves wolves in “serious jeopardy.”
The USFWS has said that a state-by-state approach to delisting wolves was not permitted under the Endangered Species Act, but the federal government reversed its position.
Exxon-Mobil Corporation, the world’s largest publicly traded oil and gas company, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Denver to violating the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) in five states during the past five years, the Justice Department announced.
The company has agreed to pay fines and community service payments totaling $600,000 and will implement an environmental compliance plan over the next three years aimed at preventing bird deaths on the company’s facilities in the affected states. According to papers filed in court, the company has already spent over $2.5 million to begin implementation of the plan.
The charges stem from the deaths of approximately 85 protected birds, including waterfowl, hawks and owls, at Exxon-Mobil drilling and production facilities in Colorado, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas between 2004 and 2009. According to the charges and other information presented in court, most of the birds died after exposure to hydrocarbons in uncovered natural gas well reserve pits and waste water storage facilities at Exxon-Mobil sites in Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
The company has entered into a plea agreement with the government, calling for guilty pleas to the five charges and a sentence of $400,000 in fines and $200,000 in community service payments. The fines will be deposited into the federally administered North American Wetlands Conservation Fund. The community service payments will be made to a non-profit waterfowl rehabilitation foundation in Colorado and the congressionally chartered National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, designated for waterfowl preservation work in each of the affected states. During a three-year probationary period, Exxon-Mobil also must implement an “environmental compliance plan” designed to keep birds from coming into contact with oily waters at its facilities in the five affected states.
“The environmental compliance plan that Exxon-Mobil has agreed to in this multi-district plea agreement is an important step in protecting migratory birds in these five states,” John C. Cruden, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, said in a statement.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act, enacted in 1918, implements this country’s commitments under avian protection treaties with Great Britain (for Canada), Mexico, Japan and Russia. The Act creates a misdemeanor criminal sanction for the unpermitted taking of listed species by any means and in any manner regardless of fault. The maximum penalty for a corporate taking under the MBTA is $15,000, or twice the gross gain or loss resulting from the offense, and five years probation. The birds killed in the five cases include ducks, grebes, ibis, passerines, shorebirds, owls, martin and a hawk. None of these species is listed as endangered or threatened under federal law.
Migratory birds often land on open wastewater ponds at oil and gas facilities and become coated with, or ingest, fatal amounts of hydrocarbons discharged into the water during drilling or production operations. Such killings can be prevented by scrubbing the water of contaminants before discharge, removing the ponds, placing an obstruction such as netting or plastic “bird balls” over the water to prevent contact, or installing commercially-manufactured electronic hazing devices which detect incoming flights of migratory birds and deploy noise and lights to scare them away from the area. Exxon-Mobil’s environmental compliance plan will employ these techniques, tailored to each facility, to prevent future mortality.
The cases were investigated by Special Agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and are being prosecuted by Senior Trial Attorney Robert S. Anderson of the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section and Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Carey of the District of Colorado.