Monday, November 3, 2014

Blog dump, part the second

Guys! I am the worst at updating this. I'll do better, I swear.

A few High Country News blogs from the last month:

1. If you spent any time on the internet last week, you probably saw the photos: A giant, roiling mass of 35,000 walrus crowded onto a beach in northwest Alaska. The photos, captured by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, were featured on the BBC, the Associated Press and more Twitter and Facebook feeds than anyone could count.

Most reports — with the exception of a few ultra-conservative sites — decisively linked the record numbers of on-shore walrus to record low sea ice offshore, and overnight, the walrus became an international symbol of climate change. The New York Times called the situation a “walrus crisis,” and NBC News reported that it was a “ very visual sign of what wildlife scientists know and worry about: From the Arctic to Antarctica, some species are having to adapt, or die, in the face of the long-term threat of a warming planet.”

But two walrus experts currently using a National Science Foundation grant to analyze recent, historic and prehistoric walrus samples to piece together the species’ 4,000-year history say that we don’t understand enough about “normal” walrus behavior to know whether the massive haul-out is, in fact, unusual....

2. For all the strides female firefighters have made in the last few decades, wildland firefighting is still, at it’s heart, a men’s club. Only 10 percent of wildland firefighters in the U.S. are women, and across the West, recruitment and retention are ongoing challenges. Yet nowhere is this more evident than in California, where a series of lawsuits meant to get more women onto the front lines have seemingly backfired, leaving women in what some argue are worse straits than before.....

3. If you live in a city, the U.S. Geological Survey has some bad news for you: There’s a good chance your water is contaminated. A USGS study released earlier this month monitored more than 200 streams from 1992 to 2011 and found that the number of urban waterways contaminated with pesticides increased from 53 percent in the 1990s to 90 percent the following decade. Most pollutants were found at levels only harmful to aquatic life like fish, frogs and insects, while the number of streams with contaminant levels that pose a risk to human health actually dropped. Yet new chemicals are still permeating the environment and our understanding of their negative effects is limited.

Still, the USGS study is the country’s most comprehensive assessment of water quality to date, and it does offer some good news — or at least, what passes for good news on the environmental beat.

4. It’s rare that a piece of legislation containing the word “wilderness” stands a chance in Congress these days, so when I was invited to fly over a proposed 37,000-acre parcel in southwest Colorado that could actually make it onto the president’s desk, I jumped at the chance. The fact that it was a crisp, clear autumn morning I would have otherwise spent in front of a computer really had nothing to do with it, I swear....

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Blog dump!

Between moving, traveling, getting engaged and becoming a dog owner, I've been terribly remiss in keeping this thing updated. Here are a few of my latest stories for High Country News:

1. Sweeping new rule for Alaska's predator control: Federal versus state wildlife politics get even hotter.

When Jim Stratton, deputy vice president for the National Parks Conservation Association, heard last week that the National Park Service had announced a sweeping new rule banning the manipulation of predators and prey in Alaska’s national preserves, his reaction was — to put it mildly — unfettered joy. “This is totally exciting news,” he says. “I’ve only been working this for ten years. Game on.”

The reaction of the state Division of Wildlife Conservation? A little more tepid. Director Doug Vincent-Lang sees any attempt by the feds to usurp Alaska’s wildlife management authority as overreach, and this new rule — which maintains hunting rights on Alaska’s 22 million acres of national preserves but bans certain controversial practices — is overreach at its worst: “unfounded and unjust,” he told Alaska Dispatch News.

The proposed rule is currently up for public comments, and will likely be implemented next year. It prohibits the baiting of brown bears, the killing of wolves and coyotes when pups are in tow, and the use of artificial light to kill black bears in their dens. It also pre-emptively prohibits any other practice “with the intent or potential to alter or manipulate natural predator-prey dynamics.” In other words, killing predators to boost ungulate populations will no longer be allowed in Alaska’s national preserves.

To understand just how big this is, it helps to backtrack to 2002, when former Republican governor Frank Murkowski took office...

As always, to read the entire story, just click here. 

Photo courtesy John Burch

2. The nice folks at the National Parks Conservation Association hooked me up with former Alaskan governor Tony Knowles for his take on Alaskan wildlife management and the new rule. Read my interview with him here.

3. Manmade quakes shake the Southwest: Tremors in Colorado and New Mexico linked to coalbed methane extraction.

Colorado, northern New Mexico and even western Kansas felt their beds shake. Historic buildings crumbled and chunks of mountainsides slid onto highways, but no injuries were reported in the 5.3 magnitude quake that the New York Times deemed “the largest natural earthquake in Colorado in more than a century.”

Except that it wasn’t natural at all. A study released Monday in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America confirms what scientists have suspected for years: That the 2011 quake — along with dozens of others in the Raton Basin of Colorado and New Mexico — were caused by a byproduct of coalbed methaneextraction. Other studies have made similar connections in Oklahoma and Ohio, but this is the first to conclusively link oil and gas development with increased earthquake frequency in the Southwest.

It also skews the popular notion that fracking alone is responsible for tremors in oil and gas country. U.S. Geological Survey research geophysicist Bill Barnhart, who reviewed the study and has worked in the Raton Basin, emphasizes that the human-induced seismicity there is “completely unrelated” to fracking.

Instead, the culprit is coalbed methane extraction — or, more specifically, the wastewater it produces...

Again, to read the whole thing, click here.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Alaskan cruise ship passengers to get a dose of climate change education

Two big things have happened since John Neary arrived in Alaska's rainy capital city 33 years ago: Juneau's most famous attraction, the Mendenhall Glacier, has receded by more than a mile; and the number of visitors to the glacier has nearly tripled, to 450,000 a year. “On Monday afternoons, the busses are lined up 30 deep,” Neary says. “The place is not suited to the volume of traffic it's receiving.”

The surge can largely be explained by an increase in Alaskan tourism over the last few decades. But visitors have more than doubled in the past 16 years alone, and at least part of that can be attributed to “last chance tourism,” or the flow of people rushing to see at-risk places before they're destroyed by climate change....

Read the rest here:

Grizzlies gain ground

Joe Scott remembers when Washington state banned the transportation of grizzlies back in 1995 — he still keeps a copy of the law by his desk and jokes that he uses it as a dartboard from time to time. “It was very emotional,” he says. “I remember getting red in the face testifying (against the law) in front of the state Senate committee. I lost my temper, and the chair just kind of stared at me wide-eyed.”

Scott, international conservation director for the nonprofit Conservation Northwest, has been passionate about large predators for as long as he can remember. So when state legislators introduced that bill, preventing wildlife officials from bringing in new grizzlies to augment the state’s rapidly dwindling population, Scott was outraged.
To others, though, the idea of bolstering grizzly populations is dangerous — and contentious. A proposal to reintroduce bears to Montana’s Bitterroot Mountains in 2000 spurred death threats, and a biologist who suggested bringing new bears to help the population of Washington’s North Cascades was spat on at a public meeting. Now, under the law that Scott testified against, Washington wildlife managers are encouraged to support grizzlies’ “natural regeneration,” but barred from transplanting or introducing them.

So will grizzlies ever regain a foothold beyond Yellowstone and Glacier national parks?... 

My latest for High Country News, and it's up on our brand new website!

Monday, August 4, 2014

Boreal burning

Rumbling afternoon thundershowers are breaking over the Southwest, bringing gratitude and sweet relief – not that the region needed much relieving this year. Bouts of cool, wet weather throughout early summer helped stave off the conflagrations predicted to erupt after a dry winter, and by mid-July, most areas had already been deluged by a full month’s worth of rainfall. In other words, summer monsoon season has extinguished any lingering fears that 2014 would be a bad fire year.

But as the Southwest collectively inhales the smell of rain falling on dry land, parts of the Northwest and Western Canada are bathed in acrid smoke. Nearly a million acres are burning in Washington and Oregon alone – more than what typically burns over the course of a whole year. Some 12,000 firefighters have been deployed since the fires began earlier this month.

Yet though the deadly combination of drought and summer lightning strikes have led to a particularly severe fire season in eastern Washington and Oregon, some of the West’s biggest blazes are in Canada's Northwest Territories, where the total acreage burned so far this year is six times the 25-year average. In recent years, twice as much Canadian forest has been burning annually as in the 1970s, says University of Alberta wildland fire professor Mike Flannigan, and the northwestern part of the country is experiencing its hottest, driest summer in half a century. “What we are seeing in the Northwest Territories this year is an indicator of what to expect with climate change,” Flannigan says...

To read more about what burning boreal forests mean for the environment, click here


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

More fun with photoshop.

Grasshopper plagues: agricultural nightmare or ecological boon?

In early June, meteorologists at the National Weather Service in Albuquerque, New Mexico, were puzzled: There was a big splotch on the radar that didn’t look like any weather system they’d ever seen. Maybe their software had a bug?

Turns out, the dark green blob hovering over Albuquerque wasn’t a software glitch at all but a giant swarm of grasshoppers. John Garlisch, an agricultural extension agent at New Mexico State University, told Modern Farmer that the state’s dry winter allowed more grasshopper eggs than usual to hatch this spring, and the ongoing drought has caused a dearth of fresh growth on rural rangeland, forcing the swarm to take flight in search of greener pastures. The well-watered gardens of Albuquerque must’ve looked mighty appealing.

By now, the grasshoppers have mostly died of natural causes or been eaten by cats, says forecaster Brent Wachter of the National Weather Service. But this summer’s incident raises the question: As climate change continues to impact weather patterns across the West, will grasshopper swarms big enough to show up on Doppler radar become a more regular concern? And if so, how concerned should we be?

To find out, I called population ecologist Gary Belovsky, who’s been studying grasshoppers in western Montana for 37 years. He's currently researching how climate change affects grasshopper outbreaks. If you’re looking for a simple, straightforward answer, though – something along the lines of “climate change causes drought and drought causes more grasshoppers” – look elsewhere. While drought can indeed increase short-term grasshopper populations, the picture Belovsky paints over the long run is far more complex. ...

... Click here to read the rest.

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