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Radar Station on Tiny Indian Island Could Harm Rare Hornbill Population

Conservationists fear India’s new government is ignoring environmental concerns in rush to clear projects

When the new Indian government came to power in May, its focus on speeding up approvals for defense and infrastructure development projects had environmentalists concerned that the administration would ride roughshod over environmental clearances for these projects. Those fears were reinforced last month when the country’s environment minister Prakash Javadekar approved a proposal to set up a radar station on Narcondam Island, a tiny volcanic island in the Bay of Bengal that’s home to the Narcondam hornbill — an endangered bird endemic to the island.

Narcondam hornbill on a tree trunkPhoto by Dr Asad RahmaniNarcondam hornbills are endemic to Narcondam Island. Only about 340 birds are thought to be left on the 2.6 square mile island. No other bird species in India has such a small range.

The proposal by the Indian Coast Guard, aimed at monitoring supposed Chinese presence in the nearby Coco Islands, had been rejected by India’s previous government in 2012, because of concerns about the Narcondam Hornbills (Rhyticeros narcondami). Only about 340 birds are thought to be left on the 2.6 square mile island. In India, no other bird species has such a small range.

Narcondam Island  is part of the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago, which lies east of the Indian peninsula. The island is listed as a wildlife sanctuary and is also on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s ‘tentative’ list of places considered worth designating as a World Heritage Site. Apart from the hornbill, there are several other plant and animal species that are endemic to the island.

The Coast Guard project on the island involves installation of static radar equipment, a power supply station, housing facilities for the staff, and a road through the hornbills’ breeding areas. The National Board of Wildlife — whose approval is required for projects in areas inhabited by protected species — had concluded in 2012 that the hornbill habitat was too vulnerable for such a project. The board’s report stated that the small island was already under pressure from human presence (there is a police outpost in the island) and any additional deployment of personnel would prove detrimental to the threatened hornbill population.

Javadekar has also cleared another controversial defense proposal to build a naval base in the ecologically fragile Western Ghats in the west coast state of Karnataka.

Ever since the Narcondam decision, online birding forums …more

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The Comeback Cat

Jaguars have critical habitat set aside for them in the Southwest. But is it enough for the predator to recover?

Jaguars are returning to a portion of their historic range in the southwestern United States, having surmounted numerous obstacles along the increasingly militarized US-Mexico border. Yet whether this mysterious carnivore will be able to make a full comeback is in doubt as the animal faces continued hostility from many humans.

A Jaguar in a zoo penPhoto by Eric KilbyThe United States Fish and Wildlife Service has designated 760,000 acres of remote backcountry in Arizona and New Mexico as “critical habitat” to allow for the jaguar to expand from its population center in northern Mexico.

In March — under a court order prompted by lawsuits and petitions from conservation organizations — the United States Fish and Wildlife Service designated 760,000 acres (or 1,164 square miles) of remote backcountry in Arizona and New Mexico as “critical habitat” to allow for the jaguar to expand from its population center in northern Mexico.

The jaguar (Panthera onca) is the third largest cat in the world after lions and tigers, recognizable by its golden coat speckled with black rosettes and its impressive roar. The animal once roamed as far north as the Grand Canyon and as far west as Southern California, but was extirpated from the US in the early twentieth century after cattle ranchers appealed to the US Biological Survey (the precursor to the Fish and Wildlife Service) to eliminate the predator, considered a threat to livestock. Much like the wolf, the jaguar was hunted until none were left.

Reports of the jaguar’s return to the United States began in 1996, when two separate cougar hunters reported seeing a jaguar in two different mountain ranges in southern Arizona. A year later, in 1997, the jaguar was officially listed as an endangered species after years of petitioning by Tony Povilitis, a conservationist associated with a group called Life Net Nature. Between 2004 and 2007, researchers at the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in southern Arizona spotted leopards on three occasions.

Povilitis and other conservationists believe that the USFWS has not gone far enough to recover a species that was hunted by the agency’s own precursor in what Povilitis calls “the great kill off.” He says the recovery plan should include all of the jaguar’s former range, including north of Arizona’s Mogollon Rim, an area with plenty of what jaguars require for survival: water, prey, and …more

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A Pledge that Promises to Keep Seeds Free For All to Use

In battle against seed patents, plant breeders and advocates find inspiration in open source software

For years, many of us have kept an eye out for organic and pesticide free vendors at our local farmers markets. Thanks to a new movement hitting the American food scene, we may soon be looking for another important environmental marker: open source seeds. At least, that is the goal of a small but burgeoning group of plant breeders and sustainable farming advocates who hope to add “free seed” to the list of things consumers watch for as they vote with their wallets.

a newly germinated seedlingPhoto courtesy USDAThe Open Source Initiative has released 36 varieties of 14 different vegetables and grains using a new kind ownership agreement known as the “Open Source Seed Pledge.

Inspired by the concept of open source software, a group of plant scientists and food activists, led by the University of Wisconsin, have launched the Open Source Seed Initiative – a campaign to protect the right of farmers, plant breeders and gardeners to share seeds freely. At a formal event in April, the initiative released 36 varieties of 14 different vegetables and grains using a new kind ownership agreement known as the “Open Source Seed Pledge.” The pledge is designed to keep the new seeds free for anyone to propagate and share for perpetuity.

Essentially, the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) is a response by small-scale farmers, plant breeders, public universities, and nonprofit organizations to the drastic proliferation of seed patenting since the 1980s.

Seeds have typically been part of the Commons – a natural resource shared freely by all. But with the rise of intellectual property rights and patenting, many hybrid seed varieties began to be patented as inventions. Growers these days need to seek permission from the patent holder, usually a big seed company, to use them. Most seed patents today are held by the “Gene Giants” – Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, Bayer, Dow, and BASF. These six companies now control roughly 60 percent of all commercial seeds and restrict farmers and plant breeders from conducting research or breeding with the seeds (and seed traits) that they own.

For smaller scale farmers and breeders, this means that the so-called Gene Giants are patenting traits that many of them have already bred independently or that they may already be using.

“Patenting is being misused by a very narrow range of companies,” explains Jack …more

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EPA Restricts Mine Waste Disposal in Bristol Bay Watershed

A crucial step towards protecting the world’s most prolific salmon fishery

On Friday, the US Environmental Protection Agency released its long-awaited plan for restricting mine waste disposal in Alaska's Bristol Bay watershed — a crucial step towards protecting the world's most prolific wild salmon fishery and the 14,000 hardworking fishermen who depend on it. Alaska Native Tribes and commercial fishermen petitioned the EPA to use its authority to protect the fishery in 2010.

Salmon fishing boats in Bristol BayPhoto by Courtesy Friends of Bristol BaySalmon fishing boats in Bristol Bay. Alaska Native Tribes and commercial fishermen petitioned the EPA to use its authority to protect the fishery in 2010.

"It's been a long time coming," said Luki Akelkok, chairman of Nunamta Aulukestai, an association of ten Native Tribes and corporations, in a press statement.

The EPA has authority under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to restrict mine waste disposal that will harm important fisheries. Yet, EPA has used its authority sparingly — only 13 times in the 42-year history of the Clean Water Act. And, never has it been more warranted than now. As Dennis McLerran, Regional Administrator for EPA stated on Friday:

"Bristol Bay is an extraordinary ecosystem that supports an ancient fishing culture and economic powerhouse. The science is clear that mining the Pebble deposit would cause irreversible damage to one of the world's last intact salmon ecosystems."

Just how big would it be? The numbers are staggering. Based on information provided by Northern Dynasty Minerals to investors and the US Securities and Exchange Commission, mining the Pebble deposit is likely to result in:

  • A mine pit nearly as deep as the Grand Canyon.
  • Mine waste that would fill a major football stadium up to 3,900 times.
  • A mining operation that would cover an area larger than Manhattan.

The EPA's announcement has been met with strong and diverse support from Alaska Native Tribes, the commercial fishing industry, jewelers, investors, conservation groups, hunters and anglers.

“We asked the EPA to step in to protect our fishery from the Pebble Mine because the State of Alaska wasn’t listening to us,” said Kim Williams, executive director of Nunamta Aulukestai. “The future of our people and 14,000 jobs are at risk. We’re glad the EPA is doing its job.”

“Thousands of jobs in Bristol Bay rely on a healthy fishery, said …more

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In Review: Snowpiercer

No, it’s not another climate change dystopia flick. It’s the first geoengineering dystopia flick

The end of the world won’t be prophesied by the feverish nightmares of the Book of Revelations, but instead by the apocalyptic fantasias of Hollywood.

Movie directors just can’t seem to get enough of crafting stylish dystopias. Doomsday is its own genre by now and, as New Yorker film critic David Denby quips: “In movies, the death of a single person is still a tragedy; the death of the human race is entertainment.” Or, at least, a convenient backdrop. A screenwriter or director rubs out humanity and voilà — a perfect blank slate for crafting the kind of action-packed, outsized morality tales that can fill a theater.

Snowpiercer movie posterSnowpiercer goes far beyond sci-fi into the realm of straight-up allegory.

The apocalypse used to arrive in a couple of predictable forms — nuclear war, plagues, zombies. In the last decade or so, a new scourge has appeared: planetary environmental devastation, usually in the guise global climate change. The first of this dystopian sub-genre was the soporific Kevin Costner vehicle Waterworld, a kind of Mad Max on the high seas. The next big climate change feature didn’t appear for close to a decade later, when Roland Emmerich unveiled The Day After Tomorrow, his 2004 blockbuster about the heroics of a climatologist played by Dennis Quaid. While The Day After Tomorrow was burdened by a slew of predictable action scenes (a wolf-pack chase, a couple of literal iceberg cliffhangers), it distinguished itself by its effort to sketch some science (however exaggerated) and its edge of irony. Climate change, we were told, would destroy civilization, not in a blast of heat, but with the hammer of a blizzard. 

Since then, Hollywood’s eco-apocalypses have come hard and fast. Pixar’s Wall-E was all about an adorable robot tasked with cleaning up a trashed Earth. The Hunger Games takes place in an austerity landscape created by some vague environmental dislocation that occurred in the near-past. In last year’s Elysium, Matt Damon battles to get himself off an Earth that’s become a dusty wasteland. And don’t forget Avatar. The ugly humans were hell bent on razing the wonders of the forest-moon Pandora because they had already ruined our home planet.

You can now add to the list Snowpiercer, the hotly talented Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s fable about environmental hubris and social injustice. Snowpiercer is a potent — if …more

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Court Bars Paved Serengeti Highway, But Concerns Remain

Tanzania still plans to upgrade existing dirt track to gravel, which could lead to increased traffic through the park

Last month, the East African Court of Justice (EACJ) ruled against the Tanzanian government’s plans to build a paved commercial highway across the Serengeti National Park calling the proposal “unlawful.”  This is a victory for sure, but big questions still remain about the fate of unique ecosystem.

Dirt road in the middle of the SeregetiPhoto by Roberto Maldeno A dirt road in the Serengeti. Scientists have warned that constructing a paved road through this unique ecosystem would devastate the iconic World Heritage Site.

The ruling is limited in that it only banned a northern, asphalt (bitumen) road from the park. Tanzania still plans to upgrade the existing seasonal dirt track to gravel, even though it lies in a designated wilderness zone where public traffic is not allowed. But for now, the ruling has stopped a project that Serengeti Watch and scientists warned would devastate an iconic World Heritage Site and its annual wildebeest migration.

The court’s ruling was the result of a lawsuit filed in 2010 by the African Network for Animal Welfare (ANAW), a Kenya-based nonprofit. Serengeti Watch, an Earth Island project that I founded, provided legal funding for the lawsuit. (The intergovernmental court settles disputes between the republics of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi.)

"This was not a win for ANAW, not for our lawyer, Saitabao Ole Kanchory, not for Serengeti Watch, not for our expert witness John Kuloba, but for the millions of animals in the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem,” ANAW's executive director Jophat Ngonyo, said after the court announced its ruling. “It is a win for nature and God's creation. Nature has won today."

The Serengeti ecosystem includes Kenya’s Masai Mara Reserve, the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area, and adjacent reserves such as Loliondo, Maswa, Ikorongo, and Grumeti. The nearly 10,000 square-mile protected area is about three times the size of Yellowstone National Park. The park’s most famous feature is the Great Migration — the largest land mammal migration on Earth. Each year more than 2 million animals – wildebeest, zebras, antelopes, and other herbivores – make a long journey from the eastern plains through central Serengeti and northward to the Masai Mara in search of water and fresh grasses and then return in a yearly cycle that’s been going on for thousands of years. The Serengeti is one of the very few reserves left on …more

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Denton Council Washes Hands of Fracking Ban Proposal, Now Voters Will Decide in November

Texas city’s marathon public hearing reveals citizens’ outrage, exposes oil & gas industry’s bullying and fear-mongering

I spent eight hours in Denton on Tuesday night at a city council hearing to consider a ban on fracking in city limits, and during that time, I saw the oil and gas industry do what they do best. And that’s not drilling and fracking, folks. It’s bullying, lying, spreading propaganda, and fear mongering. Their behavior and dirty tricks were abysmal and fooled no one who mattered; even the council called them out on it.

a scene from the public hearing at Denton Photo by Jennifer LaneThe good news is that the people of Denton stood up and spoke for their rights to clean air,
quiet neighborhoods, and healthy kids.

The good news is that I also saw the people of Denton, nearly 100 of them, stand up and speak for their rights to clean air, quiet neighborhoods, and healthy kids. The bad news is that the city council listened instead, to the well-heeled industry suits representing oil and gas companies and mineral rights owners who profit from other people’s misery. After, a marathon eight-and-a-half hours of public testimonies, at 3 a.m. on Wednesday morning, the city council voted 5-2 against a ban, sending the question to the ballot measure in November.

Shortly after the vote, here’s what was overheard from one of the industry suits:

“Good. They are taking it to a vote. All we have to do is rent up a bunch of cheap apartments and houses and get people to register to vote using those addresses.”

In the parking lot, I told one industry representative from Austin that they were making promises like a cheating husband. His response: “You aren’t going to get your ban, little lady.”

So there you have it. Just a taste of what is coming to Denton in 2014. Millions will be spent and it will be ugly. The worst thing is that the city council admitted that there is no way the vote will be fair because citizens cannot compete with the millions industry will pump into corrupting the vote.

Some of my favorite moments and random thoughts about the meeting:

Again and again the industry promised to help find solutions to the problems they have created if only given a seat at the table. Again and again, when asked for even one solution, they had nothing, zero, no solutions …more

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