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At Katmai National Park, Bears and Humans Too Close for Comfort

Sightseers disturb bear feeding habits, biologists warn, but Park Service shows little willingness to redirect human traffic

One of the most awe-inspiring wildlife spectacles in the world is the scene of brown bears catching salmon at Katmai National Park. During the summer sockeye salmon runs, brown bears congregate on the Brooks River to capture salmon jumping the Brooks River waterfall, and later to feed on carcasses of dead salmon washed downstream after spawning. The annual salmon feast sustains the dense bear population found in Katmai which is home to an estimated 2,200 bears – the largest protected bear population in the world.

Brown Bear fishing Salmon photo by Christoph Strässler, on FlickrBrown Bear fishing Salmon, Katmai National Park

I spent a month exploring Katmai in the late 1970s. Back then I sometimes was the only person watching bears at the falls. Since then, the popularity of this amazing wildlife spectacle has grown exponentially. During the height of the summer tourist season, hundreds of visitors may crowd the river daily hoping to see the bears and salmon. Between the coming and goings of tourists, the float plane landings and barge landings, the Brooks River bears are suffering from the growing human encroachment.

Dr. Barrie Gilbert, emeritus senior scientist at Utah State, and his graduate students have studied the human-bear interactions at Katmai National Park for decades. Their studies document that bears, particularly the most vulnerable bears – those with cubs – alter their behavior to avoid areas with heavy human presence.

The area surrounding Brooks Camp was once a primitive fishing lodge. Over the years the tourist infrastructure has incrementally expanded to include a campground, living quarters for park staff, a visitor center, and landing facilities for float planes – all within prime bear habitat. According to bear biologist Gilbert, there is no other comparable development in prime bear habitat anyplace in the world.

Brown Bear under Viewing Plattform, Brooks Camp, Katmai National Parkphoto by Barrie GilbertBrown Bears and people, Viewing Plattform, Brooks Camp, Katmai National Park

“Human access and close contact with Brooks bears is the most permissively managed of any agency or private viewing site in the world,” Gilbert says. “Over 32 years I have witnessed visitor numbers go from dozens of people per day to over 200 on some days now. Visitor activity anywhere …more

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Lawyer for Environmental Group ‘Interrogated Repeatedly’ at US Border

Environmental activists for Deep Green Resistance in seven states say they have been questioned and harassed by US federal agents at work and at home

This story was produced in partnership with the Guardian.

Deanna Meyer lives on a sprawling 280-acre goat farm south of Boulder, Colorado. She’s been an activist most of her adult life and has recently been involved in a campaign to relocate a prairie dog colony threatened by the development of a shopping mall in Castle Rock.

Photo of Larry HildesLarry Hildes at a protest in 2007.

In October of last year, an agent with the Department of Homeland Security showed up at her mother’s house and later called her, saying he was trying to “head off any injuries or killing of people that could happen by people you know.”

Meyer was one of more than a dozen environmental activists, many of them members of the environmental group Deep Green Resistance, contacted by the FBI, DHS, and state law enforcement investigators in late 2014. In one case they wanted to know if Deep Green Resistance was a front group for another organization involved in violent activity or sabotage.

Now, the activists’ lawyer, Larry Hildes, seems to have been swept up in the investigation himself. On several occasions, Hildes says, he has been detained at border crossings for lengthy interrogations and questioned about Meyer.

The story was first reported in January but, until now, members of Deep Green Resistance had not spoken publicly about the wave of visits, which began with a call to the parents of an activist in Clearwater, Florida, on October 1. Eight members of Deep Green Resistance and two other activists not affiliated with the group who were contacted around the same time have since come forward to the Guardian.

The activists recounted a mix of FBI visits from October to December as agents showed up at their workplaces, their homes, and in some cases contacted their families seeking information about Deep Green Resistance and, in one case, asking a member if she was interested in “forming a liaison.” They were also purportedly interested in activist work surrounding the Keystone XL pipeline.

The sweeping inquiry, which targeted activists in at least seven states, appears to have been an effort to cultivate informants or intimidate activists engaging in a variety of environmental causes.

The FBI declined to comment for this story in a written statement saying the agency is “not permitted to discuss what may or …more

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Earth Island Journal Hits the Road with Neil Young and Promise of the Real

Hang out with us at one of ten upcoming concert dates this month

Like many writers I know, I find that having some tunes playing in the background often helps make the words and sentences come more easily. Usually I go for classical or jazz (I don’t want other people’s words distracting me), but sometimes I opt for rock or country and bluegrass or hip-hop. For some reason, this spring Neil Young’s modern classic After the Gold Rush was in heavy rotation on my turntable while I was writing on topics as diverse as the California drought, ivory smuggling, and wildness in the twenty-first century. The title track, you might remember, includes these indelible lines:

“Look at Mother Nature on the run/
in the nineteen seventies”

Listening to the lyrics again and again made me wonder: If Mother Nature was on the run 40 years ago, what would Neil Young think about the state of the environment today, as climate change impacts the entire biosphere and civilization slams the pedal toward the sixth mass extinction? Maybe, “Look at Mother Nature under the gun/ in the twenty-first century”?

Well, looks like I have something of an answer. Last week Neil Young released his latest album, The Monsanto Years, a double-barreled protest album that takes aim at “the thoughtless plundering” of Earth, genetically modified foods, and the power of giant corporations like, you guessed it, Monsanto (and Starbucks, too). Here’s what Rolling Stone had to say about The Monsanto Years:

He’s rarely driven his point home as vehemently as on The Monsanto Years, a jeremiad against the agrochemical behemoth of the title and what he sees as American farming’s Frankenstein future. “From the fields of Nebraska/To the banks of the Ohio/Farmers won’t be free to grow/What they want to grow,” Young sings at one point. If the imagery evokes Woody Guthrie, the righteous rock & roll fire is pure Neil.

This is garage-to-table grousing for a genetically engineered world, a landscape where you’re supposed to see some weeds. Young’s lyrics often sound like advocacy journalism or posts to a Daily Kos comments thread: “When the people of Vermont/Voted to label food with GMOs/So that they could find out what was in/What the farmer grows/Monsanto and Starbucks, through the Grocery/Manufacturers Alliance/They sued the state of Vermont/To overturn the people’s will,” he proclaims on “A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop,” …more

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On the Road: A UC Berkeley Grad Discovers a Wider World while Cycling Cross Country

Environmentalism looks different in different places

A year ago, I was making arrangements with classmates at UC Berkeley to share one graduation gown. Since our commencement ceremonies were held on different days, it seemed wasteful for each of us to buy a gown that we would only wear for one evening. So four of us split the cost and bought a single gown to share among us. For me, this came naturally. I had just earned a degree in environmental science and had spent four years developing composting and recycling initiatives to move the Berkeley campus closer to its goal of Zero Waste by 2020. The reduce-reuse-recycle ethic was instinctive for me.            

Photo of Fracking in WyomingPhoto by Claire Porter View from the plains of southern Montana, a few days' west of Yellowstone National Park.

I felt proud of what I had accomplished, but also burnt out. The things that had felt so important to me — the environment, and specifically, achieving a society that creates zero waste — seemed abstract. During my last few weeks as a student, I halfheartedly interviewed for positions as an environmental consultant and outdoor educator. I left each interview feeling less excited about the position than I should have. A crazy idea kept distracting me: I wanted to bike across the country. I yearned for an adventure. The long bike trip would have to meet two parameters: I would begin pedaling from my front door, and I would carry everything with me that I would need to eat, sleep, and make repairs on my bike. So on June 4, 2014 I left my front door in Walnut Creek, California, packed with my sleeping bag, tent, bike tools, two pairs of clothing and took off to ride to Chicago by myself.

I have been backpacking and bike camping since I was child, but this was my most ambitious trip yet. After a week of pedaling through familiar California territory, and a second week through Oregon, I entered places where my upbringing and education cast me as an outsider. Along the way I would become far more aware and tolerant of the viewpoints of people outside the “Berkeley Bubble” — that is, the rarified space of political liberalism and environmentalist values. My bubble was about to burst.

As I was riding through rural Idaho, I took a break in a small town …more

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After the Frack: Habitat Fragmentation

Fracking-related habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation could have lasting impacts

The use of the unconventional hydraulic fracturing method of oil and gas extraction has expanded energy infrastructure across parts of the nation that were previously untouched by machinery. Pristine forests in Pennsylvania, wide-open prairies in the Dakotas and Texas, and clear-blue streams in Ohio have been forever altered. As fracking operations have spread across the American landscape, these once pristine areas have been converted into fields of pumpjacks and islands of oil and gas Christmas trees. In the wake of this landscape change, animal species have suffered huge losses as their habitats have become fragmented and they have been forced to find a new place to live. Unfortunately, many of these changes may scar the landscape long after extraction activities have ended. 

Photo of Fracking in WyomingPhoto by EcoFlight Researchers believe that fracking-related habitat fragmentation will have long-lasting consequences.

Habitat fragmentation can, of course, happen through natural processes, including floods, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, landslides, tsunamis, hurricanes, and the like. But in the 21st century, habitat fragmentation has more often come from man-made causes. Oil and gas development in particular has sped up this process in several states in the past few years. Constructing well pad, roads, compressor stations, and gathering lines, among other infrastructure, causes serious disturbances to the natural environment. Scientists have estimated that an average drilling and hydraulic fracturing operation and its accompanying infrastructure can span at least 30 acres for a single well pad, creating a giant ecological footprint.

Several recent studies have outlined the serious impacts of habitat fragmentation. One found that habitat fragmentation of forest ecosystems can reduce biodiversity up to 75 percent. (Read more here.) And last year, a study published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment identified habitat fragmentation as one of the long-term impacts of oil and gas investigation. “These changes are happening in our environment and we need to take the opportunity to learn from them so that we minimize future environmental impacts,” said lead author Sara Souther in an interview with Earth Island Journal.

Several species have become high profile victims of fracking-related habitat fragmentation and disturbance. One example is the lesser prairie chicken, which nests in short prairie grasses and in areas devoid of trees. Scientists believe this behavior may reflect a fear that predators such as falcons are lurking in trees. Researchers …more

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Developing Countries Surprise with Ambitious Climate Plans for Paris

Countries were asked to submit their best climate action plans ahead of December climate talks, and pledges announced so far show that developing countries are ready to act

The emerging framework for the global climate agreement under consideration in Paris at the end of the year upends 20 years of thinking about how best to tackle rising greenhouse gas emissions. Gone is the top-down process, as enshrined in the Kyoto Protocol, under which emissions reduction targets were assigned exclusively to the countries that happened to be the world’s biggest emitters in 1992. Instead, under a deal agreed to at the climate talks held in Warsaw, Poland, in 2013, countries were tasked with submitting voluntary domestic climate action plans this year. While the same commitments won’t be asked of every country — developed countries are still expected to do more, sooner — the Paris agreement itself will be applicable to all countries.

Photo of Bonn Climate Change Conference, June 4 2015Photo by UNclimatechange, on Flickr Bonn Climate Change Conference, June 4, 2015. Several developing countries have submitted ambitious climate action plans ahead of the Paris climate talks.

The building blocks of the Paris agreement are the climate actions plans — or “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs) in UN lingo — that lay out steps to be taken after 2020. Developed countries were asked to submit their plans first, by March 31. The United States, European Union, and Switzerland, met the deadline; laggards such as Japan, Canada, and Australia did not. China’s INDC was unveiled on June 30, and as of this writing, 43 countries have submitted INDCsto the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The final deadline for all countries to submit plans is October 1, after which the UNFCCC will prepare a synthesis report, due November 1, to assess whether emissions reductions on offer are sufficient to hold global warming below 2°C.

Among the INDCs submitted thus far are several welcome surprises. While Climate Action Tracker (CAT), an independent scientific analysis produced by four organizations tracking climate action, panned plans submitted by Canada and Russia as “inadequate,” CAT and other independent experts found much worth praising in pledges made by a handful of developing countries now in the vanguard of responsible climate actors.

On March 30, Mexico submitted the first INDC from a developing country. Mexico pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 22 percent and black carbon by 51 percent by 2030, and …more

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In Putin’s Russia, Environmentalists Face Stiff Repression

Russians working to protect the unique Altai ecosystem forced to register as “foreign agents”

Russian aggression in Ukraine during the past year has made many Westerners anxious about Vladimir Putin’s territorial ambitions and his penchant for saber-rattling. While the warfare in Ukraine — along with the Putin government’s crackdown on dissidents like Pussy Riot and its hostility toward gays and lesbians — has received a good deal of attention in the international media, the Russian government’s wholesale repression of civil society organizations, human rights groups, and Indigenous advocates is less well known. Environmentalists have also been targeted by the authoritarian Putin regime. Today in Putin’s Russia, it’s considered almost treasonous to speak out for environmental protection.

Photo of Altai Republic, RussiaPhoto by Serge Bystro, on Flickr Russia’s Foreign Agents law has been used to quash civic engagement

One of the more potent — and insidious — tools of government repression is something called the law “On Foreign Agents,” which went into effect in 2012. This law was nominally established to require Russian non-governmental organizations receiving foreign funding and engaged in “political activity” (only vaguely defined) to register as “foreign agents.” But the mere use of the term “foreign agent” threatens political freedom. In Russian language and history, the term is synonymous with being a treasonous spy; the label alone discredits important work being undertaken by defenders of human, environmental, and Indigenous rights. In Russia’s state-controlled news media, poisonous rhetoric and slurs fill not only the comment sections of articles, but the articles themselves, making it challenging for important topics like environmental justice and human rights to be discussed productively. 

I personally have witnessed how this law has been used to quash civic engagement. I’m the director of The Altai Project, an Earth Island Institute-sponsored project that supports the work of environmental justice and conservation groups in Altai Republic, on Russia’s frontier with China, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan. Since the late 1990s, we have supported successful advocacy against ill-conceived hydroelectric dams, a gas pipeline, and development threats to protected areas and sacred sites, while at the same time promoting renewable energy, sustainable tourism, and thriving Indigenous communities.

In just the last six months, I have seen how Russian authorities have wielded the Foreign Agent Law to target the strongest defenders of Altai’s environment — perhaps as a measure of those groups’ prior successes.

On February 12, the Siberian Environmental Center, a …more

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