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Posts Tagged ‘Wildlife’

To understate it a bit, grizzly bears have certainly been in the news a lot this summer in North Idaho. Two widely publicized incidents have left two grizzlies dead, one hunter dead, and more white-hot debate over the very rare large carnivore. If there’s a universal lesson about anything this summer, it might be that human-grizzly interactions are dangerous for humans and grizzlies alike.

After retreating from 99% of their original habitat range, grizzly bears were listed as a threatened species in 1975 in the lower 48 states.  Currently, grizzly bears are found only in a very few distinct areas in the western United States, but they include the Cabinet-Yaak range in North Idaho and northwest Montana, and the Selkirk mountains in North Idaho, northeastern Washington and British Columbia.

The number of bears in our two recovery regions is uncertain, but current estimates number from the several dozens to the several hundreds. To determine more precisely how many there are, a grizzly bear census may be coming to North Idaho next summer. Federal researchers plan to analyze DNA from hair samples captured at some 800 collection sites to be established across the Cabinet-Yaak Mountains in North Idaho and western Montana. Using DNA and mapping tools, researchers will be able to identify individual bears and their location. The 3-year study will cost more than $1.7 million.

A similar study in the region around Glacier National Park discovered more than twice the number of grizzly bears were roaming the area than were previously estimated. For this reason, much of the financial support for the North Idaho study is coming from some seemingly unlikely sources. Boundary County, Idaho and Lincoln County, Montana are chipping in. So too is Revett Minerals, which has mining interests in Troy, Montana, and has proposed the Rock Creek mine in the Montana Cabinet Mountains above Lake Pend Oreille. Why? Because if the study shows that the grizzly bear population is more robust here, then grizzly-related restrictions on mining and timber activities on federal lands eventually might be lifted.

But this research will provide only an initial baseline. Most important to bear recovery efforts will be the trend line over time.  Is the bear population increasing or decreasing? Is the biological genetic diversity of the bear population improving or not? A single census, therefore, is unlikely to prove much about the species’ recovery, regardless of the number of bears found.

Moreover, the one thing that grizzly bear research in North Idaho is already very clear about is that the leading cause of death for grizzly bears in the region is human interaction (PDF). More than 50% of grizzly deaths in the Cabinet-Yaak, and 80% of grizzly deaths in the Selkirks are a direct result of human interaction. Categories of human-caused mortality used by researchers included defense of life, management removal, mistaken identity, poaching, train or automobile collision, and “unknown but human caused” in which bears were shot but researchers could not determine the circumstances of the death or incidences of cut off radio collars where no carcass was discovered.

So, for the safety of the humans and the recovery of the bears, regardless of the outcome of the census, human-bear interactions will still need to be managed very carefully.

 

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Tundra swans are dying again this year. Like they do every year.

Lured to the beautiful lower Coeur d’Alene basin’s waterways and wetlands for rest and food, the birds end up, quite literally, choked on sediments contaminated with lead. The lead, of course, is flushed downstream by flooding from the legacy of mining in the Silver Valley. Each spring runoff season brings a fresh coating of contamination. Each spring migration season brings 150 or more swan carcasses.

According to Idaho Fish and Game, this year’s late spring is causing the swans to stay over longer in the basin, which will likely lead to more mortality.  Lead poisoning is particularly hard on tundra swans because it shuts down their digestive systems, causing them to starve. Some 80% of the lower Coeur d’Alene wetlands are contaminated enough to be lethal to swans. More than 92% of swan deaths in the basin are due to contamination.

Recent data presented to a committee of the Basin Environmental Improvement Project Commission, the agency responsible for monitoring and guiding cleanup efforts, showed that, indeed, January flooding caused widespread contamination.

Typical runoff from the Upper Coeur d’Alene mining districts will deposit sediments with 2000 or 3000 parts per million of lead contamination downstream. In the high water flows from this past January, sediment deposits were more like 5000 parts per million. As the scientists explained, larger flows are moving more particles and bigger particles and thus spreading more contamination.

The most disturbing thing, however, is that the level of contamination that triggers cleanup action in the Basin is 530 parts per million. In other words, in every year, in every flood season, the lower Coeur d’Alene basin is contaminated beyond levels that are safe.

Regulators continue to consider final approval for the cleanup plan for the upper Coeur d’Alene basin, but it might still be years before there’s even a preliminary plan for the lower Coeur d’Alene. Unfortunately, it looks to be another couple of decades before this mess gets cleaned up and birds will be safe.

 

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I’m heading out of town for some mid-winter sunshine (I hope) and the blogging will be light, if at all, this week. Meanwhile, ponder some of this stuff coming out of Washington DC. The House GOP has some truly devastating cuts for environmental protection planned. Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson chairs the subcommittee that will inflict the damage.

Newt Gingrich wants to get rid of the EPA entirely. The House GOP budget proposal does it for him. — NRDC here and here.

The budget cuts funds for grants to state and local entities for clean drinking water and sewer construction projects. — NRDC

The proposed budget would be devastating for species protection efforts. — NRDC (Including wolves)

BLM’s effort to manage wild lands? That’s not happening either. — Idaho Statesman (See also Idaho Reporter on the state legislature’s nullification fetish extending to the BLM.)

 

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KEA member and sometimes volunteer Rich Hurry emailed this account from the federal court hearing yesterday in Missoula regarding the de-listing of wolves under the Endangered Species Act. In his account, Rich, who is very much a wolf advocate, suggests some important lessons for both sides of the debate.

I attended Judge Molloy’s hearing in Missoula, MT yesterday about whether the gray wolf was improperly de-listed from the Endangered Species List by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services.  (For a accurate summary of some of the proceedings, see this article in the Missoulan.)

 First, let me say that listening to the oral arguments presented by both sides of this litigation was very informative and interesting.  Judge Molloy instructed each side to restrict their comments to five aspects of the legality of Fish and Wildlife Services’ de-listing wolves in Montana and Idaho, while keeping them listed in Wyoming. For the most part, each side stuck to this theme.  Most interestingly, the Judge frequently interrupted both sides’ attorneys during their orations to ask questions.  His questions were probing and displayed a deep knowledge of the minute facets of the legal framework surrounding this case.  My take is that he questioned the defendants (US F&WS, Montana, and Idaho) far more aggressively than the plaintiffs, environmental groups represented by Earthjustice

 Several things struck me from sitting in the very first row behind the plaintiff’s attorneys:

 1.  The plaintiffs’ attorneys were extremely knowledgeable about all the subtle nuances and characteristics of this case. It was apparent that they had spent literally weeks poring over every possible source of information about this case. Listening to the secondary attorneys kibitzing among themselves and were seated directly in front of me, they had rehearsed every phrase and legal construction to their satisfaction before EarthJustice’s lead attorney, Doug Honnald, used them in his remarks.  Honnold performed a careful analysis of the exact language of the Endangered Species Act and teased out those words and phrases which supported his case.  He responded positively to the Judge’s inquiries and never was stumped for an answer.

 2.  The defendants appeared less well prepared. Their lead attorney, US Dept of Justice attorney Mike Eitel, who had argued this case at the last hearing in front of Judge Molloy, appeared inarticulate, stumbled on questions, mumbled, and gave a less than inspiring or informative defense of the US F&WS’s actions. He wilted under questioning by the judge and it appeared the judge gave up on pursuing further questions. His co-counsel from Montana, Bob Lane, similarly gave a rambling and barely audible oration, which basically said Montana loves wolves and would never allow their numbers to drop below the federal baseline of 15 breeding pairs and 150 wolves.  Idaho’s solicitor, Steven Strack, was much more polished and gave a much better defense of Idaho’s record regarding wolves.  He was smooth, perhaps because the judge did not ask him any questions. 

 3.  My biggest take away from this experience is how important it is to me (and perhaps other wolf advocates) to become much more knowledgeable in the facts and nuances of all aspects regarding wolves.  I was astonished at how much I, a presumably well-informed consumer of news about wolves, did not know but learned from listening to the oral arguments yesterday.  I think anyone who endeavors to advocate for wolves must go beyond “wolves are nice and good for the environment” to educating themselves on fundamental issues such as:

     a.  Genetic Connectivity between wolf packs in a “distinct population segment“–itself a term with powerful legal ramifications from the ESA.  Become familiar with the various peer studies and research on the rocky mountain gray wolf in particular.  Delve into them to see what’s been demonstrated and what was not said or proved.  Tie this into the listing/de-listing criteria written into the ESA. 

     b.  The history of listing gray wolves, going back to the 1974, when wolves were listed in all states, except for Alaska and Hawaii.  Trace the legal history of congressional actions that amended the ESA.  Trace the house and senate analyses of these bills.  Trace executive office rules and implementations of these listing decisions.  Actually become an expert in the legal history to date of the ESA so that you can argue persuasively for wolves inclusion on it.  Learn why there was disparate treatment between the listing of the great lakes gray wolf versus northern rocky mountain gray wolf.

     c.  Study what appears to be the only legal precedent germane to yesterday’s hearing:  Defenders v. Norton in the 9th Circuit , concerning de-listing toads in a “distinct population segment” which crossed state boundaries of California and Arizona.  The issue was that US F&WS delisted the toad in one state because their habitat was no longer degraded to the point of threatening their survival, while allowing listing to continue in another state, because this state’s habitat had not recovered.  Defendants claimed this provided precedent for delisting wolves in Montana and Idaho, while keeping them listed in Wyoming.  Plaintiffs claimed it did no such thing.  So, one has to “dig into the stacks”, figuratively speaking, and call up that decision and study it for him/her self.  Have a study session among colleagues after all have read and studied it.  Come to our own conclusions.

 To avoid a potential swarm of protesters, I arrived early and was just the second person on-line in front of the courthouse.  Accordingly, I was able to take a seat once I got inside the courtroom in the first row right behind plaintiffs’ counsel.  It was a great place from which to sit and watch the proceedings.

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We were tracking our Twitter feed today, when an interesting item from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game popped up regarding the extended wolf hunting season in the state.  Last week, the Department issued a “reminder” press release noting that hunters who had purchased a wolf tag for the 2009 wolf hunting season would need to purchase another one for 2010 to hunt in the extended season. Plus, the Department reminded, there’s a hunting limit of one wolf per calendar year, so any wolves killed in this 2010 extended season would disqualify a hunter from the 2010 fall season. If there is one, of course. Oh, and don’t forget to renew your hunting license for 2010 too.

Maybe this bureaucratic juggling prompted by the new calendar year is something that comes naturally to wolf hunters.  But it seems to us that this is perhaps an administrative mess of unintended consequences caused by the hasty extension of the wolf season in Idaho. Or maybe it’s just simply a way to sell more tags to boost revenue.  Either way, and regardless of how one feels about the wolf hunt in Idaho, this doesn’t make much logical sense.

By the way, wolves will be the topic for our noon meeting this Thursday at the Iron Horse, as we kick off the 38th consecutive year year of these public informational gatherings.

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