Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Oklahoma senator says he'll block big public lands, water, and wildlife bill

The man who describes himself as the Senate's most conservative member said Wednesday that he'll block a huge bill that would expand protections for wilderness, scenic rivers, wildlife, and marine resources.

Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said in a statement that the provisions in the measure require additional debate and should not be considered during the current lame-duck session of Congress.

"I stand in firm opposition to this package, the contents of which are still uncertain," Inhofe said. "The first step to controlling government spending is for the authorizers to set reasonable and achievable authorization levels. I am perfectly willing to work with my colleagues to advance some of these bills individually, but we need time to examine the changes that have been made since they emerged from the EPW committee, and we must consider their effect on the deficit."

Inhofe was referring to the Senate Environment and Public Works committee, of which he is the ranking minority member.

According to a Nov. 15 report in E&E News, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-NM, planned to ask the chamber to enact a bill that would encompass at least some of 60 natural resources-related measures already approved by Senate committees.

Inhofe's opposition may have been encouraged by the attitude of the ranching industry, which has urged Senate majority leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and minority leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to set the omnibus bill aside.

Incoming Speaker Boehner eliminates House global warming committee

The only Congressional committee exclusively focused on global warming will soon be in the cooler.

A spokesperson for House of Representatives Republican caucus leader John Boehner of Ohio, who is expected to become speaker when the 112th Congress convenes in January, said that the GOP would eliminate the Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming.

"We have pledged to save taxpayers' money by reducing waste and duplication in Congress," Michael Steel said in a statement. "The Select Committee on Global Warming was created by Democrats simply to provide political cover to pass their job-killing national energy tax. It is unnecessary, and taxpayers will not have to fund it in the 112th Congress."

The death of the committee will not mean that the chamber cannot consider legislation touching on the issue or investigate the problem.

Before 2007, when the special panel was created, climate change issues were under the jurisdiction of the Committee on Energy and Commerce and the Committee on Natural Resources.

It is expected that those two panels will regain control over the subject when the new Congress convenes in January.

Nevertheless, the Democratic chair of the select committee lamented its impending death.

"We are not going away because the problems that climate change presents are too dangerous, too urgent, for us to disappear into the abyss of cynicism and lost opportunity," Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said. "We are not going away because China and India and Germany are not going away as competitors for global energy dominance. We are not going away because the national security threats from our continued dependence on foreign oil are not going away."

One Republican even had positive things to say about the panel's work during the 110th and 111th Congresses.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., had opposed its creation but said at the committee's last meeting Wednesday that it had been a useful forum to discuss the issue.

"This hearing will be the last of the select committee," he said. "And while I was initially skeptical of the select committee's mission, it ultimately provided a forum for bipartisan debate, and an opportunity for House Republicans to share a different view on the pressing energy and environment issues that we currently face."

The Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming did more than provide an avenue for debate. Overall, according to Politico, it held more than 75 hearings. They focused on renewable energy, reducing American dependence on oil resources obtained abroad, and the impacts of global warming.

Report: Oil drilling off Atlantic coast, Gulf coast of Florida to be banned

Reuters is reporting today that the Obama administration has decided to ban oil drilling off the Atlantic coast and the Gulf coast of Florida.

The decision, which Reuters says was shared in a briefing to members of Congress, would apply for the five-year period between 2012-2017.

The report also says the administration won't approve leases off the coast of Alaska until 2012.

The Washington Post reports that the next Outer Continental Shelf drilling plan will also prohibit exploration activities off the Pacific coast.

If accurate, the decision to block drilling off the Atlantic coast and Florida's Gulf coast would be a reversal of the policy direction announced by Interior secretary Ken Salazar last spring.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

NOAA: Jan- Oct. period in 2010 warmest across world in recorded history

The ten-month period from Jan. 1 through Oct. 31 experienced the highest average air temperatures for that time of the year, as measured by the combined land and ocean surface technique, since records were started in 1880.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in its monthly State of the Climate report, issued earlier this month, that the average combined land and ocean surface temperature worldwide during that portion of this year was the same as it was in 1998.

The agency also explained that both the average worldwide land surface temperature and the average worldwide ocean surface temperature were the second highest on record for the Jan. 1-Oct. 31 period.

For the month of October itself, the combined average worldwide land and ocean surface temperature was 0.54 degrees Celsius above the historic average and was the eighth-warmest since record-keeping began.

Large areas of the planet were substantially warmer than the norm, including western Alaska, Canada, northeastern Africa, the Middle East, Kazakhstan, and large portions of Russia.

Cooler-than-average locations included most of Europe, a large portion of Australia, and Mongolia.

Precipitation was highly variable around the planet.

The wettest areas during October were Canada's southwestern coast, most of Central America, northern South America, northern Scandinavia, certain areas along Africa's west coast, most of southern and southeastern Asia, southern Japan, parts of Micronesia and the Philippines, and southeastern Australia.

The driest areas were Canada's northwest coast, parts of the southern United States, northern Mexico, Colombia, eastern Peru, and parts of southern India.

In the United States, this October was the eleventh-warmest on record.

The month's average nationwide temperature of 56.9 degrees Fahrenheit was 2.1 degrees higher than the average for October during the years 1901-2000. None of the country's nine climate regions had an average monthly temperature below the norm.

Average precipitation across the country was 0.26 inches lower than the average for the month for the years 1901-2000. However, significant swaths of the nation experienced more dryness than usual, including the Great Plains, Ohio River valley, and the South.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Washington sets critical habitat for polar bear

The icy home of the polar bear received additional legal protection Wednesday as the Obama administration designated nearly 200,000 acres as critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act.

The decision could pose an insurmountable obstacle to additional oil and gas drilling off the Alaska coast, as the designation includes large areas of sea ice.

“This critical habitat designation enables us to work with federal partners to ensure their actions within its boundaries do not harm polar bear populations,” the Interior Department's assistant secretary for fish, wildlife, and parks, Tom Strickland, said in a statement. “Nevertheless, the greatest threat to the polar bear is the melting of its sea ice habitat caused by human-induced climate change. We will continue to work toward comprehensive strategies for the long-term survival of this iconic species.”

Nearly all of the protected acreage is ice on the surface of the Chukshi and Beaufort seas, which are sought-after exploration zones for the oil and gas industry.

The designation means that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will have to decide whether extraction activity would damage the polar bear's habitat or set back its recovery before necessary exploration permits are granted.

About four percent of the lands protected by the decree are used by polar bears for denning and protection from human disturbance.

The administration lowered the amount of protected acreage by about 13,000 square miles from the total proposed in Oct. 2009. FWS also excluded five U.S. Air Force radar stations and two native villages from the area covered by the designation.

Polar bears cannot survive without sea ice. They use it as a platform to hunt seals, to seek mates, and occasionally to build maternity dens in which to raise cubs.

Private lands are not affected by the designation unless the owner seeks a federal permit, plans to use federal funds for a project, or the federal government itself engages in activities on it.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Lame-duck session could include lands bill, report says

During its lame-duck session this month and next the Senate may take up a public lands bill that would create several new national parks, national monuments, wildlife refuges, and wilderness areas.

The prospect of consideration of such an omnibus measure, and its passage, is uncertain.

According to a report in the New York Times, it is not clear that the leadership of the House of Representatives would agree to pass the bill without committee consideration in that chamber.

The package would also have to compete with several other priorities in the Senate.

The bill may also include provisions to improve protection of ocean resources and expand marine research and fisheries protections.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Fish and Wildlife Service releases annual list of candidate species

Five species of plant and animal are new candidates for protection under the Endangered Species Act, according to a notice issued today by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

One species, a mammal native to California called the Palm Springs roundtail ground squirrel, was removed from the list.

The changes mean that there are now 251 species of plants and animals on the candidate species list.

Candidates for listing meet the statutory criteria for protection under the ESA but are not added to the roster of endangered and threatened species because the agency's resources are needed to list higher priority species.

FWS can act to conserve candidate species through extension of grants to states, territorial governments, and private entities. In addition, the agency has entered into 110 Candidate Conservation Agreements under which the parties agree to take specific actions, or avoid specific actions, with the aim of reducing the threat to a candidate species' survival.

More than 100 candidate species are managed under Candidate Conservation Agreements.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Feds to take over Idaho wolf management

A television station in Montana reported Thursday that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will take over management of gray wolf populations in southern Idaho.

The report by KECI said that the federal action is in response to Idaho Gov. Butch Otter's decision to abandon state management of the species.

Otter, a Republican, objects to Interior secretary Ken Salazar's decision to forbid a public hunt of gray wolves in the Gem State.

In aletter to Salazar dated Oct. 18, Otter wrote that Idaho has skillfully managed wildlife within its borders, including "your wolves."

Gray wolves north of I-90 in Idaho are protected by the Endangered Species Act. Those south of that highway are not, and it is that population that will now be managed by FWS.

A spokesperson for FWS said Thursday that the agency will investigate all reports of wolf depredation.

Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, photo by Carter Niemeyer.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

LA Times: Northern Rockies pols attack gray wolf protections

The Los Angeles Times has posted an informative article about at least two efforts underway in Congress to prevent protection of northern Rockies gray wolves under the Endangered Species Act.

In 2007 the Bush administration removed gray wolves in Montana and Idaho from the endangered species list. But a federal judge recently held that the decision violated the Endangered Species Act because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service separated populations in Wyoming from those two states for regulatory purposes.

In August Judge Donald Molloy ordered the entire population in the northern Rockies returned to the list.

The original recovery target for gray wolves in the region was 300 individuals. There are now more than 1,700 in the three states.

The bills that either are, or will be, before Congress would, if enacted into law, mark the first time that a federal wildlife agency is ordered by statute to remove a species from the protection of the Endangered Species Act.

Oil and gas industry wants reprieve from greenhouse gas reporting rule

The nation's oil and gas industry has been asking the Obama administration for more lenient treatment under a new regulation that would require reporting of greenhouse gas emissions.

According to a report from Greenwire via Thursday's New York Times, the industry wants an extension of the date on which reporting must begin until 2012 or 2013.

As the regulation now stands, oil and gas exploration and production interests do have to file their first report in spring 2011.

The industry argues that it needs more time to formulate and execute procedures that would apply to the nation's inventory of exploration and production facilities, which number more than 800,000.

Industry lawyers and its lead trade group, the American Petroleum Institute, also say that the Obama administration has underestimated the cost of compliance with the new reporting rule.

States fight each other in litigation surrounding EPA greenhouse gas rules

More than two-thirds of the states have leaped into the various lawsuits challenging the array of greenhouse gas regulations imposed by the Obama administration.

That's according to a report from E&E Publishing, Inc.'s Greenwire.

The divide among the states seems to closely match 2008 voting patterns. Most of the states that have intervened on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency were carried by President Obama, while the bulk of those attacking EPA ended up in Republican John McCain's column.

E&E News has posted a regularly updated special report on its website that provides ongoing information about the slew of lawsuits attacking four greenhouse gas emission-related regulations: the so-called reporting rule, the "endangerment" finding mandated by the U.S. Supreme Court's 2007 decision in Massachusetts v. EPA, the withdrawal of the "Johnson memo," the "auto rule," and the "tailoring rule."

Environmental groups seek intervention in case challenging mountaintop mining rules

A group of environmental organizations based in Appalachia has asked a federal judge to permit them to intervene in a lawsuit that challenges new Environmental Protection Agency regulations aimed at strengthening oversight of mountaintop removal mining.

Mountaintop removal mining involves the use of explosives to remove huge quantities of rock that bury coal seams. The procedure results in the literal destruction of mountains and the filling of streams and river valleys with rock, sediment, and toxic chemicals.

The Obama administration, in a change from the approach of its predecessor, has given EPA a veto power over so-called section 404 permits issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and strengthen cooperation between the two agencies and the Department of Interior.

Section 404 refers to the provision of the federal Clean Water Act that established protection of wetlands from filling. Rivers and streams are included within the coverage of that statutory section.

The administration of former President George W. Bush, in a decision made eight days before his presidency ended, issued a regulation that gave the coal industry wide latitude to blast off the tops of mountains and fill Appalachian streams and hollows with the resulting debris.

The new rules have slowed down permit decisions and, in some cases, caused some permit applications to be denied. They have particularly impacted planned mining operations that would result in "valley fills," which is a nickname for operations that result in the deposit of debris in the watersheds of the region's rivers.

The mining industry opposes the new regulations and, in July, filed a lawsuit attacking them in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.

The lawsuit claims that the new regulations will effectively ban mountaintop removal mining in the major coal states of the east, including Kentucky and West Virginia, and that EPA did not follow the procedures established by federal statute when it imposed the new regulations.

The environmental advocacy organizations, which include the Sierra Club and six local organizations, argue in their motion that a ruling in favor of the mining industry would cause serious harm to their members and the environment because the government might them grant permits of "dubious legality."

Two other lawsuits contesting EPA's new mountaintop mining regulations have also been filed. One was launched by the state of West Virginia earlier this month, while the second is being pursued by a group of Kentucky coal companies.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Federal lawsuit challenges plan to expand Highway 101 through California redwoods region

Environmentalists have asked a federal court to block a controversial plan to straighten and widen a highway through a remote California state park so that large commercial trucks can have a direct route from southern California to Oregon.

The lawsuit alleges that the California Department of Transportation violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act when it approved the project, which will cause the destruction of some old-growth redwood trees in Richardson Grove State Park.

“We are determined not to let this protected grove of old-growth redwoods and the endangered species that depend on them be cut into for the sake of letting a few more over-sized trucks speed through the grove,” Peter Galvin, a spokesperson for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the plaintiffs, said. “Caltrans should scrap this misguided project, which has been opposed by dozens of groups, local business owners, scientists, elected representatives and tens of thousands of concerned citizens.”

Up to 72 old growth trees could be killed as a result of construction activities that cut their roots. CalTrans acknowledged, in an environmental assessment, that "adverse effects to old-growth trees may be a significant impact to this unique natural community.” Nevertheless, the agency determined that the widening and re-alignment of U.S. Highway 101 would have "no significant environmental impact."

Advocates for the road expansion say that increased access for trucks is necessary to improve economic conditions in remote Humboldt County.

The project was proposed in 2007. Smaller commercial trucks can already travel through the state park.

Large commercial trucks, on the other hand, are not permitted within the boundaries of the preserve. They must travel an extra 448 miles to make the trip between the San Francisco Bay area and the northern California town of Eureka. The additional mileage is caused by a detour into Oregon and then a return south.

Richardson Grove State Park provides habitat for a variety of endangered and threatened species, including the northern spotted owl, marbled murrelet, and several runs of salmon and steelhead.

The park is popular with tourists. The old-growth redwoods within its boundaries are among the few protected in the country.

The lawsuit is the second one against the project. A state court challenge was filed in June, alleging that the transportation agency violated California law.

Allen shuts down Gulf spill incident command, gets ready for new job

The National Incident Command for the Gulf of Mexico oil spill was shut down Friday and its leader, retired U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, left his post.

Allen transferred oversight of the ongoing Gulf cleanup to the Coast Guard's New Orleans office, which is headed by Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft.

"Response operations will continue under transition plans that have developed with our state and local partners," Allen said in a statement. "Unity of effort must continue to be our common goal. Our commitment to this response and the people of the Gulf of Mexico remains and I am pleased that Rear Admiral Zukunft will continue his dedicated service. This response has been unprecedented in its scope and complexity and we cannot forget the 11 crew members that lost their lives."

Meanwhile, Rand Corp. announced that Allen will join the firm Monday. Allen will be a senior fellow specializing in homeland security, ocean policy, and defense issues. He will work out of the organization's Washington, D.C. office.

Allen retired from the Coast Guard in May. Before assuming his position at the head of the government's response to the oil spill, he was the service's commandant.

Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano complimented Allen on his last day of federal employment.

"The BP oil spill presented unique challenges and required an aggressive, all-of-government approach," Napolitano said. "As the National Incident Commander, Admiral Allen drew on his experience with major response efforts as well as his long career in the Coast Guard to help direct the aggressive efforts to stop the flow of oil from the Macondo well, mitigate the impacts of the spill on vital coastal areas, and hold the responsible party accountable.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Gibbs: Obama will propose separation of agency's royalty collection, energy regulatory functions

President Obama will ask Congress to restructure the Minerals Management Service, separating its royalty-collection function from its regulatory responsibilities.

That's according to White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, who said on Twitter this morning that Interior secretary Ken Salazar will announce the proposal today.

The Department of Interior's former inspector general, Earl Devaney, suggested that MMS' duties be split up since the 2008 ethics scandal involving the agency came to light.

More details to follow.

Senate committee holds hearing on Gulf oil spill, Obama plans to expand off-shore drilling

A Senate committee is scrutinizing the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico this morning, as well as President Obama's plans to expand oil drilling off the nation's coasts.

The Energy and Natural Resources Committee convened at 10 am EDT.

The committee's chairman, New Mexico Democrat Jeff Bingaman, said the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig on April 20 indicates that the country's energy extraction activities are plagued by deep-seeded problems.

“At the heart of this disaster are three interrelated systems – a technological system of materials and equipment, a human system of persons who operated the technological system and a regulatory system," Bingaman said in his opening statement. "These interrelated systems failed in a way that many had said was virtually impossible.”

The committee's ranking Republican member, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, expressed regret about the spill but said oil drilling at sea should be pursued even if the environmental and economic costs are significant.

"Under anyone’s most optimistic scenario, our nation will need a lot of oil for a long time to come," she said.

One early witness defended the federal government's principal regulator of oil firms, the Department of Interior's Minerals Management Service, which has come under attack recently for an approach some critics consider too deferential to industry.

"Even when their own personal lives were disrupted, these people were on the job the next day," the agency's former head of offshore energy extraction regulation, Elmer Danenberger, said in reference to MMS employees work during hurricanes. “And ethics? These people won’t take a doughnut from industry. I know. I’ve tried to set them up."

In 2008 an investigation revealed that MMS employees had accepted financial gifts from the oil industry, engaged in financial self-dealing, and become involved in a sex and drug use scandal involving the companies they help to regulate.

Danenberger also said that the government must rely on the industry to self-regulate.

"There’s no number of volumes that is going to tell the operator precisely what to do in every situation," he said.

Under questioning from Murkowski, another witness said it is too early to say whether the oil spill could have been prevented through use of a device called a "blowout preventer."

"I don’t see that the conditions that this well was drilled into were severe or extreme relative to what the industry drills into," Dr. F.E. Beck, a petroleum engineering professor at Texas A&M University, said. “We’re capable of handling much higher formation pressures than my observation or deduction from the data tells us we encountered."

Beck also said it was not likely that the explosion was the result of a terrorist attack.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Lawsuit over sage grouse decision on the way

The Obama administration will soon face a lawsuit over its decision not to add the greater sage grouse to the list of endangered and threatened species.

According to an Associated Press report, three environmental groups have sent Interior secretary Ken Salazar a notice of intent to file an Endangered Species Act complaint in federal court.

The basis of the lawsuit will be that the agency violated the law when it declared March 5 that the grouse is eligible for listing but precluded due to a shortage of financial and personnel resources.

The Endangered Species Act requires potential plaintiffs to provide 60 days advance notice of its intent to file a complaint in court.

The three environmental groups that signed the letter did not indicate the federal judicial district in which they would file the lawsuit.

Forest Service to try again on planning rule

The Forest Service will make a third attempt to update its rules governing the creation of management plans for national forests and national grasslands after courts rejected two efforts launched during the Bush administration.

According to a report in Monday's Billings Gazette, the agency will seek public input before drafting a rule. That process is a marked departure from the one used by the Forest Service when it issued regulations in 2005 and 2008.

The comments provided to the agency will be used to develop an environmental impact statement.

The Forest Service Land and Resource Management Planning Rule is required by the nation's primary statute governing the Forest Service. It was issued in 1982 and has not been updated since then.

Secretary of agriculture Tom Vilsack said in a speech last summer that "restoration" would be a primary goal of the agency and that the new planning rule would focus on protection of watersheds, the impacts of climate change and wildlife conservation.

"The Forest Service’s forest planning process provides an important venue to integrate forest restoration, climate resilience, watershed protection, wildlife conservation, the need for vibrant local economies, and collaboration into how we manage our National Forests," Vilsack said.

The agency did not appeal the most recent decision rejecting a revised planning rule.

The Bush administration sought, in one of the most controversial aspects of its efforts to revise the planning rule, to eliminate a requirement to maintain "viable populations of existing native and desired non-native vertebrate species
in the planning area."

EPA to delay requirement for carbon dioxide emission permits

Industrial facilities that emit carbon dioxide to the atmosphere will not have to get a permit allowing that pollution until at least next year.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency made that announcement Monday in a statement formally announcing its intention to phase in regulation of carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act.

"This is a common sense plan for phasing in the protections of the Clean Air Act. It gives large facilities the time they need to innovate, governments the time to prepare to cut greenhouse gases, and it ensures that we don't push this problem off to our children and grandchildren," EPA administrator Lisa P. Jackson said.

The statement also indicates that emission limits on motor vehicles are not expected to go into effect before January 2011 at the earliest.

The announcement makes clear that emission limits will come into effect only after the agency promulgates final regulations.

One of those regulations, which would impact the amount of greenhouse gases allowed to be emitted by motor vehicle engines, is expected to be completed in the near future.

Another, aimed at large industrial facilities, is in development. No draft regulation affecting those pollution sources has been released.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that EPA has the authority under the Clean Air Act to impose limits on carbon dioxide pollution of the atmosphere. However, the administration of former President George W. Bush never acted on that court order. The agency, in fall 2008, said it would not regulate carbon dioxide emissions.

The Obama administration announced last year that EPA would begin efforts to limit emission of heat-trapping gases.

Monday's announcement is the last step in EPA's effort to reverse the Bush administration's decision to sidestep the issue.

Carbon dioxide is one of the major greenhouse gases thought to be causing global warming.

President Obama has indicated that he would prefer legislation addressing the issue of greenhouse gas limits, and the U.S. House of Representatives passed an energy bill that would impose a "cap and trade" system of pollution permits last autumn. But that measure is stalled in the U.S. Senate.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

International meeting rejects ban on polar bear trade

Negotiators at an international convention aimed at updating the world's primary wildlife conservation treaty have rejected an American-led effort to ban trade in polar bear skin and other body parts.

Delegates to the 175-member Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species meeting in Qatar were swayed by arguments that the prohibition would hurt the economies of native Arctic cultures and that the hunting of polar bears is not significantly hurting the species.

Some scientists believe that the polar bear's habitat could shrink by two-thirds in the next several decades as global warming continues. The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration estimated last spring that 30 percent of summer Arctic ice could be gone by mid-century.

There are about 20,000-25,000 polar bears left in the wild.

Data made available by CITES shows that the international trade in polar bear body parts has increased in the last two decades and that, between 1992-2006, more than 31,000 live polar bears, carcasses or body parts were exported to CITES member nations.

Canada, Norway and Greenland were the leading opponents to the American proposal, which would also have prohibited trade in the teeth and claws of the planet's largest terrestrial mammal.

Canada, which is home to about two-thirds of Earth's polar bears, exports the most polar bear skins of any nation in the world.

According to information submitted by that nation to CITES delegates, all of the skins it exports are obtained through subsistence hunting activities.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Tenth Circuit hears arguments in key Roadless Rule case

Nearly a decade after becoming law at the end of former President Bill Clinton's administration, a federal appeals court heard the last, and probably most important, case involving the validity of a federal regulation that blocked road construction or renovation on millions of acres of roadless National Forest land.

The Obama administration defended the rule in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit Wednesday as lawyers for the mining industry and the state of Wyoming argued that it unlawfully designates de-facto wilderness.

The case was heard by circuit judges Stephen H. Anderson, Jerome A. Holmes and Michael R. Murphy.

Anderson was appointed to the court by former President Ronald Reagan. Holmes was appointed by George W. Bush and Murphy by Clinton.

Another appeals court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, has already upheld the rule.

But in 2008 a federal trial judge in Wyoming blocked it from going into effect anywhere in the country, agreeing with industry arguments that former President Bill Clinton cut short procedures and assumed authority only Congress has.

The Tenth Circuit is the only federal appeals court that now has the authority to consider the merits of that decision.

The Roadless Area Conservation Rule affects about 58 million acres of public land. It was finalized shortly before former President George W. Bush was inaugurated in 2001. Bush opposed the rule and his administration suspended it within days of taking office.

Lawyers from the U.S. Department of Justice, which are defending the rule more aggressively than they did during the Bush administration, told three appellate judges in Denver that federal statutes governing the Forest Service give the agency the authority to control development even in areas not formally protected by the Wilderness Act.

The Clinton administration sought public input on the Roadless Area Conservation Rule before finalizing it. More than 1.5 million comments, most favoring the rule, were received.

In 2005 the Bush administration repealed the rule. Instead, it mandated that states petition the Forest Service for protection of roadless federal lands within their borders, with the Forest Service retaining the authority to deny the petitions.

However, the Ninth Circuit, in an Aug. 2009 decision, ruled that the Forest Service had not complied with the National Environmental Policy Act when it imposed this new regulation. It upheld a California trial judge's order requiring the Forest Service to reinstate the Roadless Area Conservation Rule.

However, the geographic scope of the San Francisco-based appeals court's decision was limited to Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, California, Nevada, Hawaii and New Mexico.

Bush's Justice Department did not appeal an earlier, similar ruling by U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimmer preventing the rule from going into effect anywhere in the nation. That decision, issued in 2003, was later overturned by the Tenth Circuit on technical grounds.

In May 2009 President Obama reversed Bush's administrative suspension of the rule and gave secretary of agriculture Tom Vilsack exclusive and sole power to decide what logging and road-building activities can occur in areas that would be subject to the rule. The delegation was for one year but can be renewed annually.

National Forests in Idaho, as well as Alaska's huge Tongass National Forest, are exempt from the Roadless Area Conservation Rule.

Idaho was given a purported exemption by a regulation granting its petition filed under the Bush administration's 2005 rule, while the Bush administration issued in 2003 a regulation exempting the Tongass until a replacement Roadless Area Conservation Rule was adopted.

No court has definitively ruled on the question whether either exemption is valid.

Should the Tenth Circuit affirm Brimmer's decision, the dispute over the Roadless Area Conservation Rule may head for the U.S. Supreme Court.

Yellowstone's famed Druid Peak pack of gray wolves almost gone

Yellowstone's pioneering wolf family, the Druid Peak pack, is down to its last member.

That lone survivor of the famous group of gray wolves, which has been a draw to tourists worldwide and a subject of consistent interest to scientists since re-introduction of the animals to the national park in 1996, might not survive this winter.

“The Druid pack is kaput,” Doug Smith, Yellowstone’s wolf biologist, told the Billings Gazette.

There were still 11 wolves in the pack as late as January.

Then the alpha female was killed in a fight with another pack and the alpha male disappeared. Before doing so, he contracted mange, a disease that can kill animals with compromised immune systems.

Seven other females in the pack have died from mange or after being injured in fights.

When introduced to the nation's oldest national park on Apr. 14, 1996, the Druid Peak pack had five members. It grew to 37 members by 2001, sustained by the ample quantity of elk in its home area on the northwest corner of the park.

By the next year the pack had split up, and by 2005 the number of wolves was down to four adults.

The Druid Peak pack would not be the first to disappear from the Yellowstone ecosystem since re-introduction. At least six others have died out.

But the Druid Peak pack may be one of a kind.

In a first, some of its members were filmed in 2001 in the act of killing a grizzly bear cub.

Then, in 2003, researchers recorded the pack welcoming a new male member, an event never before documented by humans.

Perhaps that illustrious history is a reason that some observers continue to be optimistic about the pack's future.

"I would say they are down and out, but not done yet,” Rick McIntyre, a Yellowstone Wolf Project technician who has worked with the Druid Peak pack since before they were released from cages nearly fifteen years ago, told the Gazette.

The gray wolf was first listed as an endangered species in the United States in 1967. Restoration of the species to its historic range in Yellowstone National Park was mandated by the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

In May 2009 the Fish and Wildlife Service removed the Yellowstone wolves, along with others that made up a distinct group called the Northern Rocky Mountains Distinct Population Segment, from the endangered species list.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Commentary: Colorado wildlife agency shouldn't feel heat over possible presence of wolves in state

Apparently the Colorado Division of Wildlife is feeling pressure over wolves, although there has not yet been any confirmation that a pack of wolves has taken up residence on the Western Slope.

A story in today's Los Angeles Times highlights the entirely expected lobbying hitting the agencies from all sides.

Some ranchers apparently remain convinced that they cannot shield livestock from being eaten by the predators without killing them, while others naturally argue that there are non-lethal ways to protect cows and sheep.

Some callers, the Times reports, have felt the need to accuse the owner of land where some wolf scat has allegedly been found of perpetrating a hoax.

Lost in the argument, of course, is that it's not clear whether rancher Paul R. Vahldiek Jr. has discovered actual evidence of wolves on his land near De Beque.

According to the article, Vahldiek has requested a DNA test on the scat found amidst aspens at his High Lonesome Ranch. Results aren't expected for several months.

Wolves are still an endangered species in Colorado.

Whatever those tests reveal, it is disheartening to learn that wildlife officers continue to be pestered to kill an animal that is far more woven into the fabric of the American west than livestock. Cattle and sheep are part of the landscape, yes, but their existence in this region should not come at the expense of a misguided effort to kill endangered wolves, especially when non-lethal alternatives are readily available.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Colorado general assembly clears measure to increase renewable energy requirement

The Colorado state senate gave final approval Friday to a bill that would dramatically increase the amount of renewable energy that must be generated by investor-owned utilities.

HB 1001, which would increase the percentage of a utility's total power production from renewable sources to 30 percent by the year 2020, is now on the way to Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter.

Colorado voters approved in 2004 an initiative that requires investor-owned utilities, and rural electric cooperatives that don't opt out of the requirement, to produce 10 percent of their power from renewable sources.

The state's largest rural electric cooperative, Intermountain Rural Electric Association, opted out of the Amendment 37 mandate.

In 2007 the state's general assembly negated that decision. Legislation enacted into law that year by the Democrat-dominated legislature imposed a floor of ten percent renewable energy on the cooperatives and municipal utilities.

Rural electric cooperatives produce about 23 percent of the Centennial state's electricity, while municipal power providers account for the remaining 18 percent.

Colorado is home to two investor-owned utilities: Excel Energy and Black Hills Electric. Excel, which primarily serves the Denver metropolitan area, produces about 55 percent of the state's electricity.

Black Hills Electric, which primarily serves customers in southeastern Colorado, produces about 4 percent of Colorado's electricity.

The 2007 legislation required investor-owned utilities to raise the percentage of power that must be produced from renewable sources to 20 percent by 2020.

That law, and the bill approved Friday, excuses utilities from meeting the renewable energy standard if doing so would cause electricity rates to rise more than 2 percent in a year.

If Ritter signs the bill as he has indicated he will do, Colorado will have the second-most demanding renewable energy standard in the west.

California requires investor-owned utilities to generate 33 percent of the electricity they sell from renewable sources by 2020.

Excel Corp. had indicated in February that it would support HB 1001.

Feds say sage grouse belongs on list of endangered species but wildlife agency lacks resources

The Obama administration said Friday that the greater sage grouse qualifies for listing as an endangered or threatened species but that the species will not be listed due to financial and personnel constraints.

The greater sage grouse is a flightless bird that was once common throughout the west. Its population has declined by 90 percent, and half of its habitat has been lost, since European settlement of the western United States.

"The sage-grouse’s decline reflects the extent to which open land in the West has been developed in the last century,” U.S. secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said at a news conference. “This development has provided important benefits, but we must find common-sense ways of protecting, restoring, and reconnecting the Western lands that are most important to the species’ survival while responsibly developing much-needed energy resources."

Salazar emphasized that the Obama administration was seeking to balance both traditional uses of public land and the imperative of protecting a species that has been deeply harmed by them.

“This gives us a window of several years to make sure that we assure the twin goals here, which is first making sure that the sage grouse is protected and doesn’t have to be put on the endangered species list and that it doesn’t go extinct," Salazar said. "Second, that we can go forward with the continued use and development of our public lands and that includes energy and grazing."

Environmentalists panned the decision.

"The Fish & Wildlife Service has once again roiled the dice regarding the continued existence of an imperiled species," Rob Mrowka, a spokesperson for the Center for Biological Diversity, said. "The threats to the sage grouse, both from humans and climate change, are immense and demand that stronger protections be granted to the grouse."

The Interior department, which is responsible for managing most of the public land in the west, will continue to work closely with state fish and wildlife agencies on ways to preserve the species, assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks Tom Strickland said.

Hunting of the greater sage grouse will continue to be allowed.

The Interior agency directly responsible for managing most federal land in the west, the Bureau of Land Management, may impose some additional conditions on companies seeking to drill for oil and gas there.

"Certainly we’d be reviewing those applications with a lot more scrutiny in areas where we’ve determined there are sage grouse," BLM director Bob Abbey said.

BLM land in the west constitutes 60 percent of greater sage grouse habitat, and Salazar conceded that scientists think the species is in trouble.

"The scientific studies suggest the long term prognosis for the sage grouse is not good," he said.

But Salazar and Strickland believe that reliance on state agencies, along with some changes in BLM practices, will be enough to keep the species from disappearing.

"Thanks in large measure to the space conservation measures in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and other states, we have seen sage grouse populations at a point where they are relatively stable over the last decade," Salazar said.

The species relies on sagebrush for food and cover, but the extent of sagebrush across the region has markedly declined due to agricultural use of land, herbicide application, grazing, fire, displacement of sagebrush habitat by non-native cheatgrass, and development of powerlines, fences, roads and other human structures and facilities.

Preservation and restoration of the bird's habitat would inevitably impact ranchers and energy developers. Those interests have argued strongly against listing the greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act.

The Obama administration's action indicates that it believes there is no inherent conflict between those uses of public land in the west and recovery of the grouse.

"We think there is plenty of room in the west for energy development, both conventional and renewable, and for sage grouse," Strickland said.

Listing of the greater sage grouse as a threatened or endangered species would force energy developers to avoid actions that could directly harm individual birds.

A listing would also force BLM and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before granting permits necessary for oil and gas extraction activities or grazing to proceed. The federal wildlife agency would be required to impose conditions on those activities that assure the bird's continued survival and recovery.

In December 2007 a federal judge rejected a decision by the administration of former president George W. Bush to keep the greater sage grouse of the list of endangered and threatened species.

A separate species of the bird that is also native to parts of the western U.S., the Gunnison sage grouse, is still under consideration for inclusion on the list of endangered and threatened species.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Report: Texas-based refiners to spend millions on effort to convince voters to kill California global warming law

Texas-based oil interests will spend millions of dollars to gather signatures on petitions aimed at giving voters in California a chance to repeal the Golden State's groundbreaking effort to lower the greenhouse gas impact of fuels burned there.

The Los Angeles Times has a report on the infusion of money by two companies, Tesoro Corp. and Valero Energy Corp., this morning.

Signature-gathering started this week on the petition, which would subject AB 32 to a referendum this November if enough signatures to qualify it for the ballot are gathered.

More than 400,000 valid signatures would have to be obtained by April 24 to get the measure before California voters in the autumn.

Proponents of the referendum want the emission-limiting provisions of AB 32 suspended until the state's unemployment rate drops to 5.5 percent. Right now it exceeds 12 percent.

A recent report concludes that California is likely to experience rising sea levels, higher temperatures, loss of snow accumulation in the Sierra Nevada mountains and more frequent wild fires as global warming proceeds.

Salazar denies administration plans national monument designations

Interior secretary Ken Salazar told a Senate committee Wednesday that the Obama administration is not considering national monument designations in the west.

Salazar's comments follow a two-week long controversy generated by the leak of a memo from an Interior Department employee that specifically mentioned particular areas of public land as places where a national monument declaration could be appropriate.

Included in that memorandum were 14 separate areas of federal land in nine states.

Salazar, under questioning by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-New Mex., said that the Obama administration has no "hidden agenda" to create new preserves, which it can do under the authority of the Antiquities Act of 1906.

"As secretary of the department, I'm interested in finding out what my employees are thinking," Salazar said. "I do think there are a lot of other people out there who have ideas. No one should be too worried that there is a hidden federal agenda because there is not."

Republicans used the leaked memo to argue that President Barack Obama planned the designations without seeking community input or considering the preferences of natural resources extraction industries.

Former President Bill Clinton generated controversy when he declared several national monuments in the west during the 1990s.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Commentary: Washington Post article should encourage re-thinking of ways to prevent nutrient growth in nation's waters

The Washington Post has published an insightful article discussing the huge increase in water pollution caused by livestock and poultry manure over the last few decades.

Yes, manure. About 2.7 trillion pounds of dung is generated by America's farm animals every year. That's about ten times the total amount of fecal material generated by all the humans in the country during a year.

The concentration of farming into gigantic, centralized operations has led to production of far more livestock and chicken dung than can easily or, in some cases, economically be used to fertilize crops. That waste is stored in piles or lagoons, from which it leaches into rivers and streams. According to a 2001 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that surplus accounts for 60 percent of all the nitrogen and 70 percent of all the phosphorus stored in the country's agricultural manure.

That nitrogen and phosphorus causes algal blooms and eutrophication in lakes and streams and is largely responsible for the creation of "dead" zones in the Gulf of Mexico.

Despite changes to it in 2002 and 2005 intended to address the problem of stored animal waste, the Clean Water Act is not currently a reliable tool for preventing the toxic pollution that is often caused by these byproducts of modern large-scale agriculture.

It is fine, as far as it goes, to require those who operate "combined feeding operations" to obtain a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit under the Clean Water Act. The problem is that mandate is not enough to stop the continued concentration of livestock into living spaces that are too small. The solution must involve giving farmers and agriculture companies an incentive to "spread the animals out." With less accumulation of manure in few places it will be more realistic to expect that the water pollution impacts of animal waste can be effectively addressed.

Of course, agricultural manure production on an industrial scale does not only affect water quality. It also contributes significantly to air pollution and global warming, as stored waste emits a variety of gases. They include methane, hydrogen sulfide, ammonia and, of course, carbon dioxide.

Therefore, this is an issue that must also be addressed in any effective greenhouse gas reduction strategy.

The public health dictates more attention to the problem, too. Livestock and poultry waste often contains zoonotic pathogens that are dangerous to humans, as well as pharmaceutical compounds such as hormones and antibiotics.

Unfortunately, there does not appear to be much focus on this problem in Congress. And EPA has not been enthusiastic even about making sure the public is aware of it. In 2008 the agency exempted animal waste air pollution discharges from reporting obligations under two federal environmental laws.

Perhaps, since "change" is a theme that apparently continues to resonate with the American public, it's time for leaders in Washington, D.C. to think hard about how to counteract this growing and serious environmental and public health threat.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Feds want more time for sage grouse decision

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has asked a federal judge for some additional time to make a decision about whether to add the greater sage grouse to the list of endangered and threatened species.

The agency's request, which follows the death last weekend of its director, would allow it to hold off on a determination until March 5.

Ruling in a lawsuit filed by Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project, U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill reversed a 2007 decision by the administration of President George W. Bush not to grant the species protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Oil and gas extraction and livestock grazing are the major culprits in the species' decline.

The greater sage grouse (Centrocerus urophasianus), a brown, chicken-sized bird found in most of the Western states, depends on sagebrush for habitat.

The species is known for its unique mating habits, in which males gather in groups called "leks" and strut before gatherings of females. The females then choose partners.

Once common throughout the American west, greater sage grouse have been extirpated from Arizona, New Mexico, Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

U.S. Supreme Court denies review in three closely-watched environmental law cases

The New York Times and Greenwire are reporting that the U.S. Supreme Court has declined the chance to consider several lower court environmental law decisions that have been closely watched by both industry and environmentalists.

The biggest of the three cases involves the question whether farmers must obtain a permit under the federal Clean Water Act to use a pesticide even if they have already gained separate clearance under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act.

A federal appeals court in Cincinnati ruled last year that the U.S. government is obliged to require farmers to obtain both authorizations.

Forty members of Congress had urged the Supreme Court to hear the dispute.

In another case, the Supreme Court denied a request that it consider a case challenging the a decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to designate a wildlife refuge in an area of Texas sought by the city of Dallas for water development.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled in March 2008 that the agency did not violate the National Environmental Policy Act.

Finally, the Court refused to hear a case in which an agricultural corporation sought compensation under the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution for revenue lost when federal officials forced it to destroy, or sell at low prices, eggs suspected of being contaminated with salmonella.

A lower court rejected the farming company's claim that a "regulatory taking" occurred.

A decision by the Supreme Court to decline to review a case, an action technically known as a "denial of certiorari," is not a statement by the Court about its view of the merits of the lower court's opinion.

Obama administration says Sonoran Desert bald eagles don't merit Endangered Species Act protection

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to remove a population of bald eagles native to the deserts of Arizona, a small part of southern California, and the Mexican state of Sonora from the nation's list of endangered and threatened wildlife species.

In an announcement Wednesday the agency said that the Sonoran Desert population of bald eagles is not a "distinct population segment" eligible for protection under the Endangered Species Act and that it will therefore remove the protection of the law currently in place for it.

“We conclude that the best information available does not indicate that persistence in the ecosystem of the Sonoran Desert Area is important to the species as a whole,” the agency said.

The Sonoran Desert population of bald eagles was previously listed as both an endangered and threatened species, along with all other populations of the bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) in the United States.

That status existed until July 9, 2007, when the administration of President George W. Bush removed the bird known around the world as the nation's symbol from the umbrella of the Endangered Species Act.

However, the Fish and Wildlife Service, responding to a court order, continued the Sonoran Desert population's status as a threatened species.

On May 1, 2008 the agency classified the Sonoran Desert population as a distinct population segment and then, later that month, said it would commence a status review for it.

A federal district court in Arizona later gave the Service until Feb. 19, 2010 to complete it.

Environmentalists attacked the agency's proposed move.

"The population is reproductively, geographically, biologically, and behaviorally distinct from all other bald eagle populations, since no other bald eagle population occupies habitat so hot and dry – an adaptation that’s critically important as global warming becomes increasingly problematic for species survival," a statement issued by the Center for Biological Diversity said. "No other population of bald eagles will move in if this population disappears, and that will result in a significant gap in the overall bald-eagle range."

The agency's decision, once finalized, will likely be the subject of a renewed challenge in federal court.

Whether or not the Sonoran Desert population of bald eagles remains listed as a threatened species, it, like all other populations of the bird, remains protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Those federal laws prohibit killing or harming the eagles, their nests, or their eggs.

Fishers march on D.C., demand lenient catch limits

Fishers and their supporters staged a march on the Capitol Wednesday, demanding less stringent catch limits.

The caps, authorized by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, can be imposed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in an effort to meet the law's goal of ending over-fishing.

The regulatory power to limit fishing was added to the nation's primary fishery conservation law in Jan. 2007, when former President George W. Bush signed a bill enacted by a Republican-led Congress.

NOAA, through regional fishery management councils, must establish the science-based "annual catch limits" for species subject to over-harvesting this year.

NOAA recently closed several recreational fisheries under the terms of the law, including the black sea bass fishery in New England and the mid-Atlantic region.

Many participants in the "United We Fish" rally complained that their ability to earn a living on the sea will be unnecessarily restricted, with some arguing that fish populations subject to quotas are plentiful and able to withstand higher take levels.

In addition to expressing opposition to catch limits and fishery closures, protesters also urged enactment of an amendment to the Magnuson-Stevens Act that would ease the 10-year deadline for NOAA to rebuild over-fished stocks.

The current law allows NOAA to extend the deadline in particular cases for biological and other reasons.

NOAA's chief fishery administrator defended the agency's recent actions and the country's principal fishery conservation law, arguing that a continued focus on rebuilding depleted fisheries will enhance fishing opportunities and strengthen local fishery-based economies.

"Ending overfishing is the first step to allowing a fish stock population to rebuild to a level where the stock can be fished sustainably for the long term," Eric Schwaab said in a statement.

Vermont senate votes to force closure of nuclear plant

The Vermont senate voted today to deny the owner of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant the clearance necessary to obtain a license renewal.

Approval of the bill, which came on a 26-4 vote, could lead to the closure of the power plant in 2012.

The Vermont Yankee facility, which became operational in 1972, has since Jan. 7 been experiencing a leak of tritium into nearby groundwater.

Vermont legislators also indicated, during debate on the measure, that they believe officials of Louisiana-based Entergy, which owns Vermont Yankee, misled them during testimony about whether the pipes under the facility could lead tritium.

It is not clear whether the chamber's decision will be either permanent or of significance to the licensing decision, which is committed by federal law to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

When Entergy bought Vermont Yankee from a group of local utilities in 2004 it signed an agreement with Vermont requiring the state to issue a new "certificate of public good" before its federal license could be renewed.

The state senate's action Wednesday was to deny that new certificate.

It is possible, given that Vermont legislators stand for election this autumn, that a new senate majority more favorably disposed to Vermont Yankee could be installed and reverse today's action.

The NRC appears to be on the verge of granting Entergy a new 20-year operating license for Vermont Yankee. The agency recently granted such a renewal to owners of a plant of similar design located in New Jersey.

Vermont's Republican governor, Jim Douglas, had suggested earlier in the month that his state's legislature should not attempt to intervene in the licensing process. critical of the senate vote.

"We’re not anywhere near where there is concern of that magnitude,” Douglas said at a news conference.

The NRC also told Vermont legislators on Feb. 12 that it does not believe the tritium leak at the plant justifies a closure.

Several senators tried to get the body to send the measure back to committee in order to secure additional study of the economic results of closing Vermont Yankee, but that effort failed.

The plant employs 650 people.

Vermont is the only state in the union that has reserved a right to weigh in on licensure of nuclear power plants.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

NYT article highlights significance of military bases for wildlife habitat

The New York Times has published an excellent story about the importance of the 30 million Department of Defense-owned acres in the U.S. for wildlife. It's worth your time to give it a read.

It is amazing that, not even a decade ago, the Pentagon was seeking exemptions from the reach of the Endangered Species Act. Now, the military is "gung ho" about this aspect of their mission to the tune of spending about $300 million per year on it.

And the armed forces' commitment, while not without controversy or challenges to its primary mission of national security, has also benefited, in many cases, entire ecosystems.

It will be quite interesting to see how the importance of federal military installations for wildlife is continues to be reflected in DoD efforts as more and more of the nation's wildlife becomes stressed due to human economic activities and climate change.

Klamath River pact aims for biggest dam removal project ever

An agreement to resolve long-standing arguments about water in the Klamath River basin of southern Oregon and northern California could lead to the removal of four dams.

The deal, which is spread across two separate legal agreements and which was entered into by about 30 organizations representing fishers, farmers, environmentalists and native Americans, aims to protect the basin's struggling wild salmon populations while assuring a reliable supply of irrigation water and hydropower to farmers.

It was announced at a news conference at the Oregon state capitol in Salem. California Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and U.S. Interior secretary Ken Salazar joined Oregon's Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski for the unveiling.

The Klamath River was dammed more than 100 years ago, mostly to provide hydroelectricity to the rural region. The water backed up in the reservoirs created by the four dams, now owned by PacificCorp, has been diverted for irrigation use by farmers.

If the dams are removed, which under the plan could happen no earlier than 2020, then salmon would have access once again to upstream spawning grounds.

Their disappearance would also reduce pollution in the basin's waters. The stagnant water in the reservoirs created by the dams is toxic as a result of the propensity of algae to breed there.

Before the dams, which include J.C. Boyle, Copco No. 1, Copco No. 2, and Irongate, can be removed, the Interior department will have to certify that restoration of the river to its natural state would restore wild salmon runs and is in the public interest. The secretary of the Interior must make that determination by March 31, 2012.

Additionally, Congress will have to appropriate the funds needed for the project.

The total cost to implement the plan, about $1.5 billion, would be shared among PacificCorp ratepayers, the states of Oregon and California, and the federal government.

The agreement would continue to permit farmers to draw water from the Klamath River. It would also keep the door open for filling of wetlands in the watershed, a provision that some environmentalists argue undermines the agreement's entire goal of salmon recovery and permit continued harm to the basin's famous migratory bird population.

Nor would the pact require farmers or government to reduce the non-point source water pollution entering the river from the large number of farms in the area. Such agricultural pollution is not regulated by the nation's principal water quality protection law.

That polluted water, which contains large amounts of pesticides and nitrates, can kill salmon as far as 100 miles downstream.

The battles over water in the Klamath River basin led, most recently, to controversy in the early years of this decade when federal water managers first reduced irrigation deliveries to farmers and then, after President George W. Bush took office, opened the floodgates to them. That in turn caused one of the largest fish kills in the history of the region.

Historically, the Klamath River basin was the third-most productive breeding area for Pacific salmon. In recent years the stocks of chinook and coho salmon native to the basin have declined precipitously and some of the coho runs have been listed by the U.S. government as endangered species.

Klamath River basin map courtesy U.S. government.

Obama administration says it will try again on salmon plan

The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration says it will take another look at a proposed plan aimed at saving endangered Pacific salmon species of the Columbia River basin.

The announcement, which came Friday, follows a statement by a federal judge hearing a challenge to the plan that it won't likely pass muster under the Endangered Species Act unless provisions allowing for adaptive management are added.

Redden gave NOAA the option of voluntarily agreeing to reconsider the plan before he ruled on the legal challenges to it.

NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco took that offer, but signaled that her agency will not make any significant changes to the plan despite arguments from a number of environmental organizations that it is not likely to bring back the Pacific Northwest's signature species from the brink of extinction.

"The court noted that we do not need to start over from scratch, develop a new jeopardy framework or put at risk the progress made through the regional collaborative process," Lubchenco said in a statement.

The plan before Redden, who sits on the U.S. District Court in Portland, Ore., does not contemplate any significant changes to the dams clustered along the Columbia and Snake rivers.

The dams are widely thought to be the most important contributor to the generally consistent declines in wild salmon stocks native to the watershed during recent decades.

NOAA's plan, which essentially proposes to more closely watch salmon populations in the Columbia and Snake river basins and then implement management strategies to cope with any continued stress facing them, is part of a biological opinion required under the ESA to allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Bonneville Power Administration to continue to operate the Federal Columbia River Hydropower System.

Redden rejected earlier versions of the biological opinion issued during the George W. Bush administration. The Obama administration commenced a review of the 2008 version shortly after taking office last year.

The American Fisheries Society released last week a report concluding that a focus on adaptive management is not likely to bring about the recovery of threatened and endangered Columbia River basin salmon species.

Environmentalists, along with several Pacific Northwest states and some fishing organizations, have pushed the federal government to consider removal or breaching of four dams along the Snake River as a means to assure that goal is reached.

Photo of Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) courtesy of NOAA.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director dies

Samuel Hamilton, the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, died Saturday.

Hamilton, 54, was appointed to lead the agency last September. He led the southeast regional office of the Fish and Wildlife Service for more than 13 years before secretary of the interior Ken Salazar made him chief.

AP: Obama administration to announce Great Lakes restoration plan Sunday

The Obama administration plans to announce Sunday a multi-pronged, $2.2 billion plan to restore the Great Lakes ecosystem, according to a report by the Associated Press.

The goals of the plan include "zero tolerance" for invasive species, cleanup of polluted industrial areas within the watershed of the lakes, wetlands restoration, and protection of water quality in shallow areas of the watershed.

The program will also include provisions aimed at ensuring that progress is monitored.

The Great Lakes region is currently in the midst of an intense political and legal battle over the prospect that Asian carp, which are dangerous to native fish and destructive to water quality, will enter Lake Michigan.

Obama's plan would allocate $58 million to fight the carp invasion this year.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Environmental Groups Want Supreme Court to Intervene in Fish Case

Three environmental groups have asked the U.S. Supreme Court hear a case that aims to blockade non-native fish from Lake Michigan.

The request aims to secure an injunction that would prevent the dangerous Asian carp from entering the Great Lakes through a system of artificial locks and canals.

“We’re asking the court to intervene in an unprecedented crisis that, left unchecked, will impact the livelihoods of all who depend on a healthy Great Lakes,” Lyman Welch, an attorney and manager for the Alliance Water Quality Program, said.

Built to divert wastewater away from Lake Michigan and into the Illinois River, the city of Chicago's system of rivers and canals creates an aquatic superhighway for the Asian carp and other invasive aquatic species to travel between the Lake Michigan and Mississippi watersheds.

The environmental groups want the two watersheds physically separated and insist that returning them to an approximation of their native status is the only way to protect their ecological health.

"Failure to shut down this invasive species superhighway poses a threat to all U.S. waters," Marc Smith, policy manager with the National Wildlife Federation, said. "If nothing but the short-term half-measures that have been proposed by federal agencies are taken, economic and ecological devastation would only be a matter of time, and time is short."

The request supports Michigan's effort to convince the high court to reopen an eight decade-old case that authorized Chicago to divert water from Lake Michigan to the Illinois River. In that case Illinois' neighboring states objected to the plan.

On Jan. 19 the Supreme Court rejected Michigan’s request for an injunction that would require two locks and waterways leading into Lake Michigan to be blocked.

Asian carp have already populated the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers and their DNA has been found in the Chicago Waterway System and in Lake Michigan’s Calumet Harbor, which is located just outside Chicago.

The body of a single individual of the species was found about 20 miles south of the lake in December.

The fish, which can grow to a length of more than 4 feet and weigh up to 100 pounds, can knock boaters into the water. Each day they consume enough algae to equal 40 percent of their body weight, which causes the food supply for native fish to be placed under severe pressure.

That probable impact has led Michigan and neighboring states to be concerned that invasion of the Great Lakes by Asian carp would gravely harm the region's fishing industry and cause severe damage to water quality.

A species of Asian carp called Cyprinus carpio was first imported to the United States in the nineteenth century. Since then additional species have been introduced in the Mississippi River basin as a means to control algae in catfish farms and domestic aquaculture ponds.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates Chicago's artificial water diversion system, has opposed efforts to impose an ecological separation between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River watershed.

The federal agency and the state of Illinois have argued that closing the locks would result in too much economic loss.

A study released Thursday says that imposing a barricade to Asian carp migration would cost about $70 million per year. The Corps of Engineers previously estimated the annual cost at $190 million.

Michigan Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow and Republican Rep. David Camp have introduced legislation that would force closure of Chicago's system of locks.

President Barack Obama held a meeting on Feb. 8 to discuss the problem with federal environmental policy leaders and Great Lakes state governors. The White House then released a proposal that essentially put off deciding whether to close the locks.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Have wolves returned to Colorado?

This story from the Feb. 5, 2010 issue of High Country News says they may have.

And the Denver Post says that biologists are looking for them.

Gray wolves were extirpated from Colorado in the first half of the 20th century and the last confirmed sighting of an individual in the state was in 1943.

However, since reintroduction of the species to Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s populations of the animal have begun to pop around the Rocky Mountain region.

The gray wolf was listed as an endangered species for more than three decades before the administration of President George W. Bush removed it from the list of those species protected by the Endangered Species Act. Current Interior Secretary Ken Salazar re-affirmed that decision in spring 2009.

Environmentalists have challenged it but, in September 2009, a federal judge ruled that hunting of the species in the northern Rockies could continue.

China releases new water pollution data; annual loads to waterways are four times safe limits

China has released a new report detailing the amount of pollution discharged to its waters, and the results indicate that the country is overwhelming its rivers, lakes and streams with toxins.

According to a report published in today's New York Times, the first-ever Chinese national pollution census shows that, in 2007, the world's most populated country emitted more than 30 million tons of organic pollutants into its waters.

The Times article, quoting a Chinese environmental group leader, says that the annual limit for the country's lakes, rivers and streams is about 7.4 million tons of the organic pollutants that measure chemical oxygen demand.

Nearly half of the pollutants in China's freshwater chemical oxygen demand originate in agricultural operations, the report says.

The new report by the Chinese government also says that water pollution from soot and ammonia nitrogen have increased from previous, less-detailed examinations of the nation's pollution problem and that heavy metal contamination of water, including from mercury and lead, persists.

The World Health Organization estimates that almost 100,000 people in China die each year from water pollution-related causes and that 75 percent of disease in the country results from water quality problems.

A 2007 investigative report by the New York Times indicated that about 500 million Chinese lack access to safe drinking water.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Oil, trucking industry interests sue to block California low-carbon fuel regulations

California's innovative low-carbon fuel regulations, enacted last year in an effort to lower the state's contribution to greenhouse gas pollution of the atmosphere, are the subject of a lawsuit by oil and trucking interests.

The regulations, which were finalized by the state's Air Resources Board last month, require fuel manufacturers to reduce the carbon intensity of their product by 10 percent by 2020.

They require producers to account for indirect use of carbon in fuels, including during the manufacturing or refining processes. That mandate is controversial because, among other impacts, it may force corn farmers producing ethanol to account for the loss of land otherwise available to grow food and for wildlife habitat.

California Air Resources Board chairperson Mary Nichols condemned the litigation, arguing that the regulations will save consumers money, lower fossil fuel use and reduce air pollution.

"Their actions are shameful," Nichols said in a statement. "Instead of fighting us in court, they should be working with us to provide consumers in California and the rest of the nation with the next generation of cleaner fuels."

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit are the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association, American Truckers Association, Center for North American Energy Security, and Consumer Energy Alliance.

A spokesperson for the American Truckers Association told the New York Times that the regulations would raise the cost of fuel and equipment too much.

The litigation is pending in the U.S. District Court in Fresno.

A similar lawsuit was filed in December by the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, California Dairy Campaign, Renewable Fuels Association and other groups, and a private ethanol company has challenged the regulations in California state court.

The complaint filed by the refiners and truckers interests is here.

Friday, February 5, 2010

AP: USFWS denies ESA listing for pika

The Fish and Wildlife Service has refused to list the American pika (Ochotona princeps), a small diurnal herbivore that is found in Western mountains, on the nation's endangered species list.

The Obama administration's decision comes despite ample evidence that the tiny mammal's habitat is disappearing rapidly due to global warming.

The story is here.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Leak at Vermont nuclear plant causes angst about new reactor construction

A leak of radioactive water from a nuclear power plant in New England is causing the industry some worries as a renewed focus on the energy source gains prominence.

According to the Boston Globe, the leak from the Vermont Yankee facility in Vernon, Vermont, about 10 miles from the Massachusetts border, do not pose a threat to the water quality or ecology of the Connecticut river.

The radioactive isotope that leaked, tritium, can cause cancer in humans if consumed in drinking water.

The incident has caused a long-time supporter of the Vermont Yankee facility, the Green Mountain State's governor Jim Douglas, to ask the state legislature to withhold, at least temporarily, support for the facility's re-licensing by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The NRC has extended the permits for 59 nuclear reactors in recent years and is expected to consider whether to extend permits for 37 more during the next several years.

President Obama called for an increase in the country's nuclear power plants during his State of the Union address last week. The NRC has also seen an upsurge, for the first time in decades, in proposals to build new facilities.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Alaska to mount legal challenge to Endangered Species Act

Alaska's legislature is considering a request by the state's attorney general to appropriate $1 million for a lawyer to mount a challenge to the Endangered Species Act.

That's according to a report in the Juneau Empire today.

Alaska officials have repeatedly complained about the application of the ESA within their state, most recently in connection with the polar bear.

The state has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Interior, arguing that the listing of that species as threatened is not justified.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Environmentalists challenge off-road vehicle use plan in Idaho national forests

Environmentalists have sued to block plans for allowing off-road vehicles in the Salmon-Challis National Forest, the largest in the 48 contiguous states, arguing that regulations issued by the USDA Forest Service fail to protect the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.

The Idaho Statesman has a report here.