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Category: Rocky Mountain states

Court ruling keeps Yellowstone grizzlies on 'threatened' list

A ruling by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's 2007 decision to remove the "threatened" designation for Yellowstone grizzly bears under the Endangered Species Act
Conservationists won a major battle Tuesday in their campaign to protect Yellowstone grizzly bears when a federal appeals court ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service erred in removing Endangered Species Act protections for "one of the American West's most iconic wild animals."

The ruling by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the wildlife agency's 2007 decision to remove the "threatened" designation for the bears under the Endangered Species Act.

Tuesday's ruling cited climate change as having accelerated a beetle infestation destroying the bears' vital white-bark pine food source. The grizzly is only the second wildlife species, after the polar bear, to earn protection in recognition of harm caused by global warming. Both are considered "threatened."

The three-judge panel embraced conservationists' warnings that the decline in the grizzlies' fodder would likely drive them to forage in more populous areas around the park, increasing incidents of confrontation between humans and the omnivorous bears.

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Christo river wrap gets BLM approval

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-- Carol Williams and Julie Cart

Photo: A grizzly wanders through open brush inside Yellowstone National Park. Credit: James Peaco / Associated Press

Christo river wrap gets BLM approval

Christotrain600
Christo, the controversial artist whose works involve wrapping or hanging fabric over buildings, canyons and even entire islands, has won federal approval for a massive new project in Colorado.

U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and the Bureau of Land Management announced Monday that it had released a Record of Decision approving Christo’s “Over The River,” a temporary art installation. The giant project has encountered serious and organized local resistance but the artist has mitigated several threats to Colorado wildlife.

Several state and local permits are still required.

“Over The River” comprises eight huge, silvery fabric panels spanning 5.9 miles directly above the Arkansas River where it flows through Bighorn Sheep Canyon and the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area. The panels will be deployed at various spots along a 42-mile stretch of the river, which, according to a Colorado State Parks spokesperson, is the most popular commercially rafted river in the United States.

The temporary work of art will be displayed between Salida and Cañon City in southern Colorado, currently scheduled for two consecutive weeks in August 2014. The project is projected to bring in 300,000 to 400,000 visitors and generate $121 million in revenue, according to the BLM.

“This is the most significant milestone yet in completing 'Over The River,' and we can now get to work applying for the few remaining permits that we still need,” Christo said in a statement on the project's website. "We are much closer to finally realizing this work of art that Jeanne-Claude and I first envisioned many years ago. Although our team is still reviewing the [federal approval], I am confident that we can now move forward so we begin construction in the summer of 2012.”

Christo, 76, who is Bulgarian by birth but lives in Paris, and his wife Jeanne-Claude worked as a team on their monumental works. Jeanne-Claude died of a brain aneurysm in 2009. Their “Valley Curtain” project draped a huge orange curtain across a valley in Rifle, Colo., in 1971.

According to Tina Brown, a spokesperson for the BLM, Christo and Jeanne-Claude first began making verbal inquiries about the project in 1996, and then made a formal proposal in 2006. An all-volunteer Colorado group called Rags Over the Arkansas River, or ROAR, sprung up to raise concerns over the effects on threatened wildlife such as bighorn sheep and bald eagles, increased river and road traffic, a potential drain on local emergency services and other issues. With the release of the Record of Decision (ROD) on Monday, the opposition group pointed out that there was still a long road ahead.

“The ROD does not affect the fact that the State Parks Board's decision is illegal under state law,” noted Cathey Young, the ROAR board secretary. “This release from the BLM does not affect the state lawsuit that ROAR has over the Parks Board Memorandum of Agreement. Christo needs both to do his project.”

She added that “ROAR will make a statement at the appropriate time.”

Indeed, “Over The River” still faces several hurdles. Approvals have already been obtained from the Colorado State Parks Board and the Colorado State Land Board, but permits are still outstanding from Fremont and Chaffee counties, the Colorado Department of Transportation and the Colorado State Patrol. ROAR is suing the State Parks Board over an agreement it made with the artist and his OTR Corp., which was set up to build the massive project.

Colorado State Parks could not comment on the ongoing lawsuit.

The project’s hefty environmental impact study showed that threats to native wildlife were many and complex. The huge steel cables required to hang the fabric would stretch from bank to bank, for instance, requiring heavy construction to install. Several mitigation measures were required to protect bighorn sheep, which live and breed in the canyon (hence the name), including construction restrictions from April 15 to June 30 every year. Also, OTR agreed to build habitat improvements and water developments to allow the sheep access to water and new habitat, and to create a fund that would continue to look after the sheep for years after the project is dismantled.

Migratory birds and eagles also required modifications to the project. The large cables will be festooned with “avian diverters,” which are colorful sleeves meant to give the birds visual evidence of the cable, for as long as they hang over the valley.

“We’ve heard a lot about traffic and about the bighorn sheep,” said Brown, speaking about the issues encountered by the project. “Those were the two major ones. But working with those cooperating agencies, I think we came up with some good mitigation measures to alleviate those problems.”

OTR is required to work with the state to keeps lanes open on U.S. Highway 50, which runs up the valley, and to develop a boat scheduling system to efficiently handle the expected glut of rafters and kayakers who will want to see the project from the river.

“If you want to get the entire scope of the project, on the river would be the best place to see it,” added Brown. “People driving along the road will be able to experience it, but the rafters and the kayakers will be able to see it in a unique way, and to see the sky up through the fabric.”

The ROAR website lists a host of other issues with the project, including the increase in litter and human waste in the canyon, permanent defacement of the riverbanks and damage from the cable installations, the hindrance of eagles hunting under the fabric, the complete disruption of angling in these prime fishing waters, and negative effects on regular commercial and recreational highway users in the area.

Mitigation measures and the environmental impact report on this project are available online.

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--  Dean Kuipers

Photo: A rendering of “Over the River” as drawn by Christo in 2010. Credit: Christo

'Snowtober' fits U.N. climate change predictions

Snowtober

While the Northeast is still reeling from a surprise October snowstorm that has left more than a million people without power for days, the United Nations is about to release its latest document on adaptation to climate change.

The report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is expected conclude that there is a high probability that man-made greenhouse gases already are causing extreme weather that has cost governments, insurers, businesses and individuals billions of dollars. And it is certain to predict that costs due to extreme weather will rise and some areas of the world will become more perilous places to live.

Federal climate scientists have labeled 2011 as one of the worst in American history for extreme weather, with punishing blizzards, epic flooding, devastating drought and a heat wave that has broiled a huge swath of the country. Weather related losses amounted to more than $35 billion even before the Nor'easter shellacked the East Coast.

Among the more costly events in the U.S. this year was the flooding of the Mississippi River and tributaries due to rapid melting of the Rocky Mountain snowpack and early spring rains. That event, which prompted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to open a Mississippi River spillway and flood more than 4,000 acres in Louisiana, caused billion of dollars in direct damage.

April also spawned 875 tornado reports nationwide, well above the 30-year average for the month of 135. The "super outbreak," as climatologists dubbed it, killed 327 people.

Drought in Texas has caused more than $5.4 billion in damage to the cattle industry alone, driving up beef prices, while wildfires consumed 2 million acres. A heat wave throughout much of the country caused 29 states to issue heat advisories in July. Nationwide, the hot spell was blamed for scores of deaths.

The "Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation" will be released Nov. 18. It builds on the climate change panel's previous assessments of the Earth's climate, and is intended to help governments and policymakers boost preparedness for extreme weather events.

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-- Geoff Mohan

Photo: Children in New Smithville, Pa., make the best of a freak fall snowstorm that cut power to more than 3 million people from Virginia to Maine. Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

Fracking used more diesel fuel than estimated, lawmakers say

Gaswell

Three U.S. House members investigating the use of toxic substances in the fluids injected into natural gas wells have revised their estimate of the amount of diesel fuel used in the practice, known as hydraulic fracturing or "fracking."

Rep. Henry Waxman of Los Angeles, the ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, joined Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) in sending a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency. The letter said two companies had erroneously reported usage of diesel fuel in fracking fluids, which are injected at high pressure into rock formations — usually shale — to create fissures that allow natural gas to be extracted. 

More than 32 million gallons of diesel were used from 2005 to 2009 by 12 companies employing fracking in states including Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Colorado, Wyoming, North Dakota, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, among others.

Oil service companies such as Halliburton have maintained that fracking does not affect drinking water, despite anecdotal evidence in places such as Wyoming that show methane and other chemicals in residential wells near fracking activities.

The amount of diesel under-reported was about 500,000 gallons, the lawmakers said in their letter to the EPA, which pressed the agency for better oversight and more uniform reporting requirements. 

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-- Geoff Mohan

Photo: A natural gas well pad near Rifle, Colo., in the Rocky Mountains. Credit: David Zalubowski / Associated Press 

Aggressive wolf at Yellowstone National Park euthanized

Wolf

Officials at Yellowstone National Park said Wednesday that they euthanized a gray wolf that had lost its fear of humans and had been repeatedly attempting to obtain human food.

Park employees killed the 110-pound male Oct. 8, after months of hazing the animal failed and the wolf continued to approach visitors and staff in the Fishing Bridge area of the park. Officials said the wolf was a member of Mollie’s Pack from the Pelican Valley area, and was estimated to be between 2 and 4 years old.

Wolves and bears that become conditioned to human food are usually difficult to relocate, officials said, because they continue to return to the areas where they found an easy source of food.

Authorities at Yellowstone euthanized a female grizzly earlier this month after it was determined to have been involved in at least one fatal attack on a hiker.

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Photo: A gray wolf on the near Blacktail Pond in Yellowstone National Park in 2006. Credit: Yellowstone National Park.

National Academy of Sciences to study wild-horse roundups

A National Academy of Sciences panel is reviewing federal Wild Horse and Burro Management Program
A National Academy of Sciences panel is set to hear official presentations and public comment to begin its independent review of the federal Wild Horse and Burro Management Program. The first meeting is scheduled for Oct. 27 in Reno.

The Bureau of Land Management last week announced a tentative calendar for its wild-horse and burro roundups.

The roundups are to begin this month and continue through next March in California and several Western states. The BLM is expected to gather about 6,000 animals via helicopter herding. Some of the horses are to be removed from the range; others -- about 2,000 horses -- are to receive a fertility-control vaccine.

The controversial program has drawn criticism from animal-welfare advocates as being unnecessary and harmful to the horses and foals. In response, the BLM has allowed the public to observe the roundups. 

The Reno meeting is to include presentations from BLM officials and wild-horse experts. Among issues the panel is expected to study are horse and burro genetics and the scientific basis for population models.

The BLM estimates that about 33,000 wild horses and 5,500 burros roam BLM-managed range lands in 10 Western states, based on data from February of this year. Wild horses and burros have virtually no natural predators, and their herd sizes can double about every four years. 

Public-lands ranchers complain that the animals compete with livestock for scarce food in the arid West.

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Officials announce schedule for roundups of wild horses, burros

-- Julie Cart

Photo: Two young wild horses play while grazing on the Huffaker Hills near Reno on Jan. 13, 2010. Credit: Andy Barron / Reno Gazette-Journal

Decision postponed, again, on Yellowstone snowmobile rule

Snowmobiles

Once again the National Park Service has punted instead of issuing a final rule regarding the number of snowmobiles it will allow to operate each day in Yellowstone National Park.

Supt. Dan Wenk announced Thursday that the issue required additional analysis and that the park would implement an interim policy of allowing up to 318 commercially guided snowmobiles in the park each day, and 78 commercially guided snowcoaches.

Wenk said that when the winter use season starts Dec. 15, the same rules that have been in place the last two years will still apply. 

He said a final "sustainable" rule is expected before the start of the 2012-13 season. 

The debate over the use of snowmobiles in the nation's oldest park dates to the Clinton administration, when the use of the machines was to be phased out because of concerns about noise, air and sound  pollution, as well as visitor and wildlife safety. That rule was reversed by President George W. Bush.

The issue of snowmobiles in the park has been studied for more than a decade, at a cost of more than $10 million.

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-- Julie Cart 

Photo: A bison crosses the road ahead of snowmobilers at Yellowstone National Park in a 2003 photo. Credit: Craig Moore / Associated Press 

Yellowstone park releases report on grizzly attack

Grizzly bear in yellowstone

Officials at Yellowstone National Park on Tuesday released a report on the July 6 mauling by a grizzly that killed Brian Matayoshi, 57, of Torrance. The attack, which authorities described as a "one in 3 million" occurrence, was the first fatal mauling of a park visitor in 25 years.

The investigative record includes audio of the 911 calls that other hikers made seeking help. In one instance, a trauma surgeon who was part of a group of six hikers reported hearing Marylyn Matayoshi calling for help and asked if he should assist. 

The report added few details to what was already known about the incident, which occurred when Matayoshi and his wife, Marylyn, were hiking on the Wapiti Lake trail. The couple had earlier joined others watching a female grizzly and two cubs.

They had walked away from the bears, but when the couple turned to look back, the grizzly sow was charging them, the report said. Matayoshi yelled to his wife to run, and both raced down the trail yelling, according to the report. 

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Rocky Mountain pikas not nearing extinction, study finds

 

Pika 

A team of researchers from the University of Colorado has concluded that pikas, hamster-sized mammals, are doing better than previously believed, finding the population is holding its own in the southern Rocky Mountains.

The study, in the September issue of the journal Ecology, paints a brighter picture for the species than other surveys, notably a study from Nevada's Great Basin earlier this year in which local extinction rates were found to have increased fivefold in the last decade.

In 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service denied endangered species status for the rare creature, in part because there was insufficient data about its habitat and population numbers. Pikas are a member of the rabbit family and live in rocky slopes throughout the Rockies.

But scientists, seeing few of the small animals, have surmised that pikas are abandoning former habitats and moving upslope as temperatures rise.

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-- Julie Cart

Photo: The American pika is highly sensitive to changes in temperature. Credit: U.S. Geological Survey

Grizzly blamed for Yellowstone hiker death

Grizz
Yellowstone National Park rangers are trying to capture a grizzly that they say killed a hiker from Michigan last week, the second fatal bear attack this summer at the famed park, authorities said Monday.

The body of John Wallace, 59, was discovered Friday along a trail near an area of the park known for its high population of bears. An autopsy concluded he died from injuries in a bear attack.

“We know of no witnesses” to the attack, park Supt. Dan Wenk said. “We think we provide visitors with pretty good knowledge and techniques to keep them safe in the backcountry. Unfortunately, in this case, it didn't happen that way.”

Rangers set traps and plan to kill the animal if they can establish through DNA analysis that it was the one that attacked Wallace, Wenk said. He said park officials do not believe the bear was involved in the other mauling this summer several miles away from where Wallace's body was discovered.

In July, a female bear with cubs killed a hiker from Torrance. Officials did not kill the sow grizzly because they concluded it was defending its cubs.

In the latest case, there were no signs of cubs in the area where Wallace was killed. Wallace, of Chassell, Mich., was apparently traveling alone and had pitched a tent in a developed campground sometime Wednesday, park officials said.

Authorities said Wallace likely was killed Wednesday or Thursday during a hike along the Mary Mountain Trail. Rangers also found grizzly tracks and bear droppings near Wallace's body.

The body was discovered in an area of the park that rangers close from March to June because it is considered “high-density” grizzly country.

In the case of Wallace's death, Wenk said there was too little information to know if it was a defensive attack or not. As a result, he said the bear would be killed if it can be positively identified as the culprit.

Despite the killings, Wenk said dangerous encounters remain rare between grizzlies and the more than 3 million people who visit the park each year. The July killing was the first inside the park first since 1986.

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-- Associated Press

Photo: A grizzly crosses a highway near Yellowstone National Park. Credit: David Grubbs / Billings Gazette

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