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Environment

15 Sep 2014
The cactus ferruginous pygmy owl lives in the desert scrub and mesquite woodlands of central and southern Arizona, Texas and Mexico. It is a small bird with swaths of cream-colored feathers, measuring about 7 inches long and weighing a little more than 2 ounces. It eats insects, rodents and lizards, some of them as big as the owls themselves. It nests in the holes woodpeckers leave in cacti and trees. And it has now become an emblem in a fight over the meaning of a five-word phrase that has dogged the 1973 Endangered Species Act the way “waters of the United States” has muddied the Clean Water Act: If a species, like the pygmy owl, is at risk of being lost in “a significant portion of its range,” does it merit protection, even if the same species is holding on elsewhere? Or do the inhabitants of that “significant portion” need…
12 Sep 2014
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Most researchers studying grizzly bears are from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or university ecology departments, not biotechnology companies. Still, Kevin Corbit, a senior scientist at the Southern California-based biotech firm Amgen, spends his days in a lab in Pullman, Wash., analyzing bear blood. He leaves the actual touching of the 700-pound predator to the capable handlers and their trusty anesthesia. Corbit chuckles as he reflects on his work: “I guess it’s not logical to study bears with a biotech job.” Maybe it is logical, though, judging from a study he recently published, in collaboration with Washington State University’s Bear Center. With the goal of developing a better long-term treatment for human obesity, Corbit strayed from the status quo of testing mice and rats, which aren’t great predictors of human response. Instead of trying medications on rodents, he decided to examine the genetics of grizzlies and their metabolism. The…
04 Jul 2014
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I first wrote about Pacific sea stars falling victim to a mysterious disease last fall for High Country News. The starfish are turning into goo and dying, and the aptly-named “starfish wasting syndrome” has not—as scientists hoped—subsided on its own. It’s gotten much, much worse. How much worse, you ask? Well, from the get-go, this iteration of starfish wasting was more widespread and severe than previous outbreaks, which have historically spiked during warm-water El Niño years and then quickly subsided. By the time it was identified late last summer, the disease had already caused localized die-offs of up to 95 percent of ochre sea stars in Santa Cruz, and was spotted as far north as Alaska. Tens of thousands of starfish simply wasted away and died, literally before researchers’ eyes. Yet it seemed for a while that Washington and Oregon would be spared. This May, just a little more than…
24 Jun 2014
Sustainability. It’s a word that often comes up when discussing the Salton Sea—but what does “sustainability” truly mean? On Saturday, May 24, environmental leaders and residents gathered at Second Annual Environmental Health Leadership Summit at Thermal's Desert Mirage High School to learn about the sustainability plan being proposed by the Imperial Irrigation District (IID), as well as many other environmental issues. Bruce Wilcox, environmental manager at the IID, presented the Salton Sea Restoration and Renewable Energy Initiative at the event organized by Comité Civico del Valle and Promotores Comunitarios del Desierto. This initiative seeks to develop more than 1,500 megawatts of geothermal energy, with solar, wind and biofuel projects to follow in phases following the initial geothermal project. According to the IID website, the Salton Sea possesses the largest capacity of geothermal energy in the nation. The agency's leaders believe the initiative would allow for the development of new jobs…
10 Jun 2014
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At night, in the parched pasturelands in the southern reaches of California’s Central Valley, strange constellations glow on the horizon: beacons atop rigs that are drilling for water. Applications to drill new wells skyrocketed after state officials announced in February that, after the third year of pitiful precipitation, no water would be delivered via the concrete rivers of the massive State and Central Valley water projects. In Fresno County between January and April, 226 well-drilling permits were issued, compared to just 69 during the same period last year—prompting some to fear irreparable damage to aquifers. In the daytime, signs planted in desiccated orchards come into view, declaring: “Congress created Dust Bowl” and “Man-made Drought,” expressing the widely believed myth that regulations to protect endangered fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta are responsible for water shortages on Central Valley farms. In February, House Republican David Valadao proposed lifting endangered-species protections and…
06 Jun 2014
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Wayne Hare’s 11 years as a backcountry ranger included stints at Rocky Mountain and Canyonlands national parks and, most recently, at the Grand Junction, Colo., field office of the Bureau of Land Management. Hare grew up on a dairy farm in New Hampshire, where, he says, “As far as I knew, we were about the only black family in the state.” His father took the kids hiking, camping and biking, giving his son a love of the outdoors that would shape his life. Four years in the Marines were followed by two decades at a big computer corporation; then Hare went to work for Outward Bound in Massachusetts and directed outdoor programs at Dartmouth College. Whenever he led students through the woods, he was struck by what he didn’t see—“other brown people.” So he began writing about non-white Western adventurers and working with the National Park Service to create programs…
03 Jun 2014
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In 2010, Ed Hendrycks, a research assistant at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, was examining his museum’s collection of caprellids with José Guerra-Garcia, a researcher visiting from Seville, when the Spanish scientist noticed an unusual specimen. One of the caprellids—tiny crustaceans whose slender, translucent bodies have earned them the nickname “ghost shrimp” or “skeleton shrimp”—didn’t look like the others in the collection. To a layperson, the odd creature, smaller than a grain of rice, would have been indistinguishable from other members of its genus, Liropus. But to the scientists’ trained eyes, the tiny projections jutting off the animal’s body segments made it distinct. Furthermore, while past species of Liropus had been found in Mediterranean, Japanese and African waters, this one came from Santa Catalina Island, 20 miles southwest of Los Angeles. A diver had collected the specimens in the 1970s, in a submerged cave 30 feet below the…
09 May 2014
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In 2013, New Belgium Brewing, the Fort Collins, Colo.-based purveyor of libations like Fat Tire and Ranger, whipped up exactly 792,292 barrels of beer. Considering each barrel is capable of filling somewhere in the range of 60 six-packs, that production made for plenty of happy drinkers (including, on more than one occasion, yours truly). But New Belgium also satisfied non-human consumers, too, by selling 64 million pounds of “spent grain”—the ingredients left behind after the brewing process—to beef and dairy farmers, who feed the porridge-like substance to their cows. “For hundreds of years, brewers have had this great symbiosis with farmers,” says Bryan Simpson, New Belgium’s director of media relations. “It’s a very elegant system.” While many operations give away their used grains, selling the stuff can be a lucrative sideline: Spent grain goes for about $50 per ton nationwide, and total annual sales add up to around $160 million…
06 May 2014
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Last spring, Joshua trees put on a magnificent show in the Mojave Desert: Nearly all at once, nearly all of them bloomed, sprouting dense bouquets of waxy, creamy-green flowers from their Seussian tufts of spiky leaves. The bloom was so sweeping and abundant—and such a contrast to the typical pattern, where only a small number of trees bloom in any given year—that it was called “a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon.” This spring, the bloom was far less flowery, and yet standing among the giant yuccas in late March, in the Tikaboo Valley north of Las Vegas, U.S. Geological Survey ecologist Todd Esque still had the sense he was witnessing something historic. This, he suspects, is the leading edge of the entire species—“leading,” because the trees appear to be marching in the same direction in which the climate that suits them is marching, with an old, established population of Joshua trees flinging out…
05 May 2014
The Salton Sea—the picturesque historical landmark located at the southeastern edge of Coachella Valley—is receding. Will it survive? Or will it dry up and become a massive generator of harmful dust emissions—posing a serious threat to public health and the local economy? This simple and important question has been debated for more than 20 years now, and was the driving force behind the creation of the Salton Sea Authority (saltonsea.ca.gov), a joint-powers agency chartered by the state of California in 1993 to ensure the preservation and beneficial uses of the Salton Sea. The SSA is composed of two representatives from each of five member agencies: the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla tribe, Riverside County, Imperial County, the Coachella Valley Water District and the Imperial Irrigation District. This still-unanswered question spurred Gov. Jerry Brown to recently sign Assembly Bill 71. According to the Legislative Counsel’s Digest, “This bill would authorize the authority…