Tag Archives: Endangered Species

Devil’s Hole pupfish losing struggle for survival – News – ReviewJournal.com

A depressing take on the Devils Hole pupfish by Henry Brean in the Las Vegas Review Journal:

Ted Koch, supervisor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Nevada, said this week he doesn’t know whether the tiny fish can be saved.

“I’m worried it may be an emergency,” said Koch, “and I don’t know whether there are enough of them left to still be viable. We’re definitely very concerned.”

I wrote a bit of the background of this piece a couple weeks ago at Pharyngula. Sad all around.

Sign the petition: Grijalva for Interior Secretary

Four years ago Baja Arizona’s Congressional Representative Raul Grijalva was a contender for the incoming Obama Administration’s first Interior Secretary. He was turned down in favor of Ken Salazar. Scuttlebutt has it that Grijava was rejected because he was tough enough on mineral extraction, especially offshore drilling, that he made Obama’s team uncomfortable. Apparently they feared he would place too high a priority on environmental protection, interfere with the mining and fossil fuel extraction industry, and generally make things hard for companies like BP as they drilled in the Gulf of Mexico.

So Salazar got the nod instead. About 15 months later the Deepwater Horizon disaster happened, a disaster that could have been prevented had Interior aggressively enforced common-sense safety regulations.

In the meantime, those of us in the desert protection world were learning that Obama’s Interior Department was quite likely the worst threat to the California desert any Presidential administration had ever been, as a record number of acres of public land were offered up for effective privatization for renewable energy development. Salazar muzzled agencies within his Department, forbidding staff to criticize or oppose even the most egregiously destructive projects, and so industrial projects went in on the margins of National Parks with NPS staff unable to object. Fish and Wildlife staff wrote biological opinions saying no, the fact that you found a hundred times as many tortoises on the construction site as we expected doesn’t make this project a threat to the species.

And that’s not meant to imply that Interior was biased in favor of renewables on public lands. Salazar’s been a good friend to the oil and gas industries as well.

Salazar is likely to step down for Obama’s second term, and the list of possible successors — David Hayes, architect of the desert solar policy; Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal is a Big Wind cheerleader; former Washington governor Chris Gregoire is a fan of welfare ranching on sensitive wildlife habitat — is bleak.

Raul Grijalva is one of the best friends public lands have ever had in Washington. In any sane society he’d be the front-runner for Interior.

A number of grassroots public lands and anti-fracking advocates agree, and have put together a petition urging the White House to appoint Grijalva Interior Secretary. As the petition says;

The selection of the next Interior Secretary is an important moment to place renewed emphasis on some of the most critical issues of our age – climate change, the protection of endangered species and preservation of water and wild lands. As ranking member and former chair of the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, Rep. Grijalva has been an effective leader on conservation and land management issues. His expertise with Native Americans issues, his strong understanding of border issues, his pragmatic conservation ethic, and his wealth of experience in addressing funding challenges make him an exceptional choice. We urge you to select him as our next Interior Secretary because he embraces the urgency of this mission and practical paths toward real-world solutions.

Sign the petition and spread it around.

Google Ads: Biodiversity does not exist

Another data point for arguments that Environmentalism has been redefined as “all about climate change, and never mind habitat destruction, air and water quality, invasive species, or any of those other non-climatey things.” I was attempting to change what kinds of advertising I see via Google Ads, to see if I could make those ads more relevant to my interests. I was offered a pull-down menu listing a whole lot of possible interests, and drilling down to find the interest I find most interesting, I found it interesting that I could not find the interest I find most interesting. Screenshot:

Pull-down menu in which the only category in topic environmentalism is climate change

I wrote a piece for KCET a couple months ago that talks about why this is a problem. Short version: Climate change is one huge facet of the larger problem of biodiversity erosion, and if we focus on climate change to the exclusion of other facets of that larger issue, we do so at our peril. And more importantly, at the peril of the millions of other species on the planet, of which we are but one.

Democrats and mice

GOP Talking Point: “The Stimulus Package includes ludicrous and wasteful porkbarrel spending such as 30 million dollars to help preserve the salt marsh harvest mouse in San Francisco Bay.”

Democratic Talking Point: “Actually, the stimulus package does not include any ludicrous and wasteful porkbarrel spending to help preserve the salt marsh harvest mouse in San Francisco Bay.”

Responses from progressive bloggers pointing out that protecting the wetland habitat of the salt marsh harvest mouse is neither ludicrous nor wasteful, but is in fact our goddamned moral obligation, are detailed below the fold.

Continue reading

Tortoise alert: letters needed

From the Center for Biological Diversity:

Last year, the Army moved more than 750 tortoises off of pristine desert lands in order to expand its Fort Irwin army base in California’s Mojave desert. Not all tortoises were monitored, but of those that were, more than 90 of them died—many eaten by starving coyotes who had lost their typical prey base of squirrels and rabbits due to epic desert drought. Also, the Army moved healthy tortoises into populations known to have the often-deadly upper respiratory tract disease, against the recommendations of epidemiologists. Because of the high tortoise death toll and legal action by the Center, the Army temporarily suspended the translocation of tortoises in 2008.

Now, the Army and the Bureau of Land Management are rushing to move more tortoises in 2009 in order to rid the expanded Army base of more of their tortoises. The federally threatened desert tortoise population cannot withstand yet another ill-conceived and hastily implemented translocation. Please write to the Army and Bureau of Land Management today asking that they implement a full environmental review process based on a comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement.

The accelerated comment period is a joke. It was announced by press release on the weekend of February 7, set for February 18 — eleven days’ notice.

Take action here.

Using Google Earth, researchers find unmapped Mozambique wilderness

From Birdlife.Org:

<blockquote cite="http://www.birdlife.org/news/news/2009/01/mount_mabu.html

…scientists who recently discovered a hidden forest in Mozambique show the uncharted can still be under our noses. BirdLife were part of a team of scientists who used Google Earth to identify a remote patch of pristine forest. An expedition to the site discovered new species of butterfly and snake, along with seven Globally Threatened birds.

Obama administration reprieves wolf protection

A bit of promising news from the Obama administration after its first full workday:

With a new administration in charge, federal regulators Wednesday promised a second look at a recent decision to drop gray wolves in the Great Lakes and Northern Rocky Mountains from the endangered list.

The Interior Department said it was withdrawing at least temporarily a rule announced last week changing the wolf’s status in both regions. The rule never formally took effect.

More here.


[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QEdcMjcFASA&hl=en&fs=1]

In addition to a brief, wishful-thinking introductory clip of an alleged recent sighting, this video contains all known footage of Thylacinus cynocephalus, the largest predatory marsupial of modern times. The Thylacine, also known as the Tasmanian wolf and the Tasmanian tiger though it was of course neither wolf nor tiger, has been extinct for 72 years. The last one died in Hobart, Tasmania’s zoo in 1936.

Is a fish more important than a tortoise?

In Adam Hochschild’s book The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin, Hochschild describes a conversation with Alexander Vologodsky, a Russian physicist. Vologodsky had noticed an abandoned settlement as a youth in the extreme north of Siberia, and found that the settlement was the remains of a prison labor construction project. Stalin had been looking at a map, noticed a blank spot on the Arctic coast between the mouths of the Yenisei and Ob rivers, and decided he wanted a railroad built connecting the two rivers — across 800 miles of tundra. As Hochschild relates:

“As far as [Vologodsky] can figure out, there was no logical reason to build this long and expensive railroad — particularly in the famine-ridden, ravaged, exhausted USSR of 1948… The Soviet Union is famous for grand public works projects that turn out not to work; but this Arctic railway, said Vologodsky, was ‘the acme of the absurd.’ 

“In the frantic haste to satisfy Stalin’s orders, Vologodsky said, when construction began in 1948, ‘they were laying the tracks at the same time as they were surveying.’ The terrain was a builder’s nightmare: below ground was rock-hard permafrost; on top of this lay six feet of snow in winter, and, in the summer, vast bogs that swallowed up ties, tracks, and equipment. Although the work force of prisoners reached as high as one hundred thousand, in five years they succeeded in laying tracks over little more than half the route.

“Today, thinking of this waste of resources and human life, it seems easy to condemn the folly of this railroad. But listening to Vologodsky talk, it occurred to me that in other parts of the world, when such projects reach their aim, we often honor them as great feats of engineering or symbols of national grandeur. The Pyramids, the First Transcontinental Railroad, the Panama Canal. Between these efforts and something like Stalin’s Arctic railway, where do you draw the moral dividing line? It is not always easy.”

The passage has stayed with me since I read it a decade ago. The Arctic Railway, which ended construction on Stalin’s death, is a useful absurdum to which one can reductio a whole lot of development proposals. The tragic story emphasizes the importance of the practice described by the jargony phrase “ground-truthing,” almost always an effective counter to grand development plans decreed by fiat, whether that fiat comes from a dictator or a bureaucracy or — even — a well-meaning environmentalist.

David Brower learned this lesson in the early 1960s when he bargained away the irreplaceable Glen Canyon in a meeting room somewhere, then actually went out and belatedly ground-truthed his act by visiting the place. He had the best of intentions: saving Dinosaur National Monument from a dam. It worked. The Yampa is still free-flowing and beautiful. It was a victory Brower regretted for the rest of his life.

Brower’s lesson seems to have been lost on at least one person charged with preserving his legacy. Last year, the current editor of the Earth Island Journal, Jason Mark, charged dismissively that opposition to opening up desert wilderness to renewable energy project development is NIMBYism, and “fueling climate change.”

“…it’s hard not to think that some local activists have their priorities misplaced. One conservationist told Lewis, ‘No opening of any wilderness areas in this state to any energy corridors ever. Absolutely not.’

“According to Amy Atwood, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity: ‘It’s hard to see which Western constituency could possibly support this.’

“Well, how about a constituency that recognizes that climate change is already dangerously altering Western ecosystems, contributing to droughts, wildfires, and shrinking and shifting habitats?”

We have to destroy the wilderness to save it, Mark would seem to be saying.

Or take renewable energy activist Gar Lipow’s odd rant in comments on a post in the online magazine Grist, responding to desert protection activists concerned about careless “renewable” development:

“Yeah, let’s stay pure.

“Lets burn more coal -cause we can’t put up one acre of mirrors in the desert.

“Let’s drill oil off the coasts of California and Florida because we are too pure to put wind generators offshore where a couple of Senators have to look at them.

“Let 1 in 4 children in Harlem continue to suffer asthma caused by fossil fuels so that we don’t have besmirch the purity of Wolverine and Stopgreenpath. I hope those snowy white garments you wear don’t get stained by splatters from all the people you will trample if you win what you are asking for.”

Lipow’s comment really has it all: the straw-children, the conflation of habitat preservation with scenery, the Cheneyan accusation that the opponents’ environmental concern is a matter of “personal purity,” and a literal “bloody shirt” threat besides. (An explanation of just what effect transmission lines in the desert would have on the diesel exhaust that chokes kids in Harlem? That Lipow does not provide.)

Here’s the thing. The Glen Canyon Dam provides renewable energy too, and yet I don’t see too many “big picture” enviros like Mark and Lipow self-righteously demanding new dams be put up on free-flowing rivers. Big hydro is a cost-effective source of huge amounts of electricity, and new large dams could conceivably replace a significant amount of fossil-fuel-generated power. Why aren’t enviros demanding new dams, and spattering fishermen and river rafters with the figurative blood of their straw victims? Hochschild’s question about drawing lines would seem relevant here. Where, exactly, is the line between a new Glen Canyon Dam on the wild river of your choice, on the one hand, and paving 689,910 times as much desert as Lipow sneers about on the other?

The line, I suggest, is entirely in the minds of people who talk the way the above-quoted environmentalists do. The fact is, reactions like those offered by Mark and Lipow are fueled by a combination of ignorance of, and apathy toward, the actual groundtruthable reality in the desert. As Hochschild put it later in “Unquiet Ghost”:

“We are back again at the issue raised by the finger on the map. I want a railroad, there. Because it’s good for humanity. Or, perhaps, because I want it there.”

Those who would save the planet at the cost of the desert look at maps like this


and this


and put their fingers on the map right on that sunny blank spot. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, it would seem that the functional difference between the Mojave Desert and Glen Canyon is not in the value of the habitat to its wildlife, nor in the efficiency of power generation in each locale, but simply in the fact that most environmentalists don’t give a shit about the Mojave Desert.

The thing is, even if enviros don’t ground-truth their decisions about the Mojave Desert, the developers do, lest they sink their own metaphorical railroad ties in bogs. As a result, there are other, more useful maps of the areas proposed for solar development. Here’s a fragment of one, obtained from this site (hat tip to Larry Hogue):


That’s 1.3 square miles of the Ivanpah Valley, about a third of the planned Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System. The developers hired someone to walk every square foot of their project site to note what would be displaced. Those little colored dots, which turn out to be numbers if you look closely, are tortoise-related sites. The brown and black numbers mark burrows or other sign. The green numbers are places where live tortoises were found by the surveyors. The red numbers mark the location of found carcasses. Four times as many carcasses as live torts seen, in part because dead tortoises aren’t as good at hiding as live ones, and in part because tortoises are dying off from a contagious respiratory infection and heightened predation and general habitat disruption.

By law, all live tortoises on a site to be developed must be relocated to intact habitat. The two dozen live tortoises found on the Ivanpah SEGS site will need to be moved uphill, toward Clark Mountain. There they’d rub elbows with a whole lot more tortoises relocated from the immediately adjacent Ivanpah Airport. One problem with tortoise relocation is that it spreads that respiratory disease. Another is that disoriented tortoises, relocated away from a territory they may have known for decades, are easy prey for coyotes, a fact that shut down the US Army’s relocation program at Fort Irwin last year. (The proposal for Ivanpah SEGS tortoise relocation uses the same target tortoise density as Fort Irwin’s plan.)

That’s just one of several threatened species on the site, and we’re only discussing one big solar thermal site in dozens proposed in the American desert. And yet any hesitation desert habitat advocates express to scraping away the soil, denuding habitat, and building massive industrial facilities to generate solar thermal power is criticized as obstructionist. Meanwhile, big hydroelectric, which also offers a theoretically carbon-neutral source of electrical power, is opposed by those same critics simply because it destroys habitat,  with neither hemming nor hawing about regrettable sacrifice and cost-benefit and dire emergencies and wheezing fourth-graders.

Which raises the question: why is a fish more valuable than a tortoise? Before we put our fingers on the map and say “there,” I’d like to hear an answer to that.

Ken Salazar: bad for endangered species?

More distressing information on Ken Salazar, Obama’s pick for Interior Secretary, from the Western Watersheds Project:

While Colorado’s Attorney General, in 1999, Salazar threatened a lawsuit against the Department of the Interior if the Service listed the black-tailed prairie dog under the ESA. Rather than respecting the ESA’s requirement that listing decisions are to be based solely on science, Salazar and his co-authors complained about potential impacts “to [Colorado’s] citizens” of protecting the prairie dog from extinction. Earlier this month, even the Bush administration admitted that the black-tailed prairie dog might require ESA protection.

While Colorado’s U.S. Senator, Salazar continued to be very clear that he would not back ESA listings if they affect agribusiness. But many of the state’s vanishing species, including the black-tailed prairie dog, mountain plover, Gunnison’s prairie dog, lesser prairie-chicken, and others, are threatened by agribusiness. Nationally, agriculture is a leading threat to imperiled plants and animals. We fear that they would remain unprotected under an Interior Secretary Salazar, given his deference to agriculture and his lack of zeal on ESA enforcement.

If appointed as Interior Secretary, Salazar would be the final word on ESA listings. Approximately 300 species await listing as formal candidates or species proposed for listing. The Bush administration has slowed the listing program down to a glacial pace, with only 8 species listings per year. We are hoping the incoming Interior Secretary will tackle this backlog of endangered but as yet unprotected species by seriously ramping up the listing program. We are not confident that Salazar possesses the will for this important work.

Obama and Extinction

There is more to protecting the environment than mitigating climate change.

You wouldn’t know that just from listening to the campaign speeches we’ve all heard over the last few months. The one environmental topic that ever got brought up was climate change. Reducing our dependence on oil, supporting renewable energy, pushing for emissions standards and hybrid tech, energy conservation, that kind of thing. All of them laudable goals, all of them crucial.

But we’ve heard nothing, during this season, of the mass extinction in progress, though it is possibly — in terms of the sheer number of species eradicated so far —  already the worst one in Earth’s history. (The end-Permian extinction still holds the crown for percentage of species wiped out, but life has gotten more diverse since that one happened 250 million years ago. There are more species to wipe out now.)

Climate change would certainly aggravate that mass extinction. Quite a few threatened species — the one I’ve studied intensively for a decade being just one example — are likely to be done in by warming temperatures.

But stabilizing the climate won’t reverse all the causes of that mass extinction. We could become carbon-neutral overnight. We could ban all fossil-fuel-burning vehicles. We could replace every last incandescent light bulb with LEDs that use 1/100th the power, put photovoltaic panels on every rooftop and sequester thousands of tons of carbon in salt mines and subduction zones. We could get the partial pressure of atmospheric CO2 back down to pre-industrial levels and still lose species after species as the living systems of the world unravel.

John Muir famously said that when you try to pick one thing out by itself, you find it hitched to everything in the universe. There are few ecosystems not already partly affected by changing climate, few environmental issues not closely interwoven with our bad habit of putting carbon in the air. But we could stabilize the climate and still use the chemical pesticides implicated in the frightening die-off of amphibians. We could stabilize the climate and still trawl the ocean floors, a practice roughly equivalent to clearcutting old-growth forests so you can eat the animals that lived there. We could stabilize the climate and still introduce invasive species to wetlands and estuaries and deserts, still plow under mile after square mile of grassland or forest for monocultured organic crops.

If there is a root cause of this extinction, it is habitat destruction: the conversion of more and more of the Earth’s surface area and biological productivity to human use.

And many of the measures proposed to combat climate change would actually accelerate the pace of habitat destruction. In the desert, we’re faced with projects from concentrating solar generating stations — paving the desert with mirrors — to new transmission lines greenwashed as routes for “renewable energy,” to massive windfarms. There’s renewed interest in fish-killing hydroelectric dams. People still seriously study the feasibility of projects like staggeringly large plantations of fast-growing trees or seeding the ocean with iron dust to promote phytoplankton bloom and consequently boost CO2 uptake. Developers promote new “sustainably-designed,” human-scaled, pedestrian-friendly towns built on what was once undeveloped land.

And it seems, to this observer, like an increasing number of putative environmentalists are ready to sacrifice habitat in the name of “green” energy generation. Some cloak their dismissal of habitat protection in concern-trolling over NIMBYism, while others, for instance some of the commenters in this thread over at Pharyngula, pretty much come out and say “we’re facing Peak Oil, and if the bighorn have to go extinct so that we can meet our energy needs, then that’s the way it is.”

What did our President-Elect say about habitat destruction during the campaign? Not a whole lot, at least not during the debates and major speeches.

The Obama-Biden campaign did release an Energy and Environment policy brief, an honestly wonderful document that does address some major habitat-related issues: restoring the Great Lakes, Gulf Coast, and other wetlands; protecting National Parks and National Forests, and rationalizing water use in the arid West, praiseworthy initiatives all.

The document also details plans to protect and restore clean air and water, has an environmental justice plank more far-reaching than Bill Clinton’s, and speaks in support of sustainable agriculture. It’s a great document and I support its implementation in full, as should you.

It’s also a woefully incomplete document.

It mentions the Endangered Species Act not once.

It doesn’t even mention endangered species. The word “endangered” does appear once in the nine-page document, on page eight:

Barack Obama is also an original cosponsor of the [2007] Combat Illegal Logging Act, which would prohibit the importation of illegally harvested wood products.  This would make foreign companies much less likely to engage in massive, illegal deforestation in other countries.  Saving these endangered forests preserves a major source of carbon sequestration.

The Combat Illegal Logging Act is an important law, finally passed this year as an amendment to the Farm Bill, written by a coalition of environmentalists, organized labor, and representatives of the domestic wood products industry, which extends the scope of the Lacey Act to include regulating timber imports. Though there’s argument over its effectiveness, it probably will help protect forests in the Amazon, Siberia and Southeast Asia. It’s also a done deal, and the Obama-Biden campaign document offers no expansion, strengthening, or extension of it, merely reporting a past co-sponsorship of a bill that failed to pass in its original form.

The omission of any mention, in the Obama-Biden campaign’s environmental policy document of the US’s keystone species-and habitat-protection law is disappointing in the extreme, but it doesn’t mean the President-Elect hasn’t gone on record as regards ESA. In a March, 2006 letter to a constituent who wrote to support strengthening the ESA, Obama replied:

“The goal of the Endangered Species Act of 1973 is to conserve and protect both the species that are threatened or in danger of extinction and the ecosystems upon which they depend. It currently protects more than 1,200 animal and plant species, of which approximately 25 are found in Illinois. The law can become controversial, however, when projects that may conflict with the ecosystem of species listed as threatened or endangered are proposed in a particular area.

I strongly support the goals of the Endangered Species Act, which has paved the way for a number of species — such as the bald eagle — to return from the brink of extinction. However, during the past 30 years the Endangered Species Act has not always worked perfectly. With all of its accomplishments, we have learned not only what works, but also what is ineffective. Consequently, the Endangered Species Act needs to be updated and improved. And that means moving past rigid ideological positions so that we can reach consensus on the right solutions.

This concord-flavored language may appear reasonable at first reading, but there is nothing in those paragraphs that would be out of place in a speech by former Representative Richard Pombo of California, the worst enemy the ESA ever had. The law becomes controversial when actually enforced against developers of the kind of projects that prompted the passage of the law in the first place, and we must therefore “improve” the Act so that all voices and interests are reflected, not just those of the rigidly ideological wildlife biologists with their non-economically based scientific study and data and such. Language like this has been used to cover over every single weakening of the ESA since its inception, from the development of the Habitat Conservation Plan and Multiple Species Conservation Plan compromises, to the erosion of the Critical Habitat process, and the Executive Branch decisions to impede the listing process.

It’s the wildlife biology equivalent of the creationists’ “Teach the Controversy” line: an apparent compromise that cedes ground in only one direction, and not the direction we want.

The environmental website Grist reports that in the landmark issue of northwestern salmon protection, a dire extinction crisis if ever there was one, Obama has pledged to make sure the interests of agriculture were represented in any solution. It is the interests of agriculture that have put the salmon in the vulnerable position they currently enjoy: federally subsidized dams and diversions for crop irrigation have devastated salmon populations by destroying their spawning habitat.

On the other hand, says Grist, in the public discussion these last weeks of the lame duck Bush administration’s eleventh-hour attacks on ESA, the President-Elect vowed to “fight to maintain the strong protections of the Endangered Species Act and undo this proposal from President Bush.”

The Obama administration’s actual policy toward ESA will likely be determined, to a significant extent, by his Cabinet picks. ESA is mainly administered by the Fish and Wildlife Service, part of the Interior Department, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a division of the Department of Commerce. The President-Elect’s choices for the Interior and Commerce Secretary positions will signal his intent toward the law, if any, and give us a taste of what lies in store for endangered species in the US over the next four years. Clinton-era FWS director Jamie Rappaport Clark has been mentioned as a possible Interior Secretary, and though she’s publicly criticized Bush’s interference with wildlife science, she also presided over the implementation of the ruinous Safe Harbor program, a weakening of ESA under which landowners can disrupt endangered species habitat all they want if those species weren’t found on the property until after the paperwork is done. Montana governor Brian Schweitzer, a promoter of Big Coal and a gut-level libertarian, is another often mentioned as a likely nominee. We’d be better off with Clark, who would at least make wingnuts’ heads explode: she’s currently employed by Defenders of Wildlife, and probably wouldn’t be worse than Bruce Babbit was.

Whichever way Obama goes with his Cabinet picks, we need to start pushing him now to strengthen the Endangered Species Act, the single most useful tool we have to slow down the extinction crisis in the US. The Center for Biological Diversity, probably the most effective (and not coincidentally most uncompromising) organization working on endangered species issues, has spent the last eight years suing the Bush administration to force it to obey the ESA, and they’ve adopted a tone of cautious optimism as regards working with Obama’s administration. You should sign up for their online activist bulletins and join them or donate or both..