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.