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Managing the Wild: Rocky Mountain National Park Turns 100

RMNP managers have learned a thing or two in the first 100 years — here’s a look back, and forward, to the challenges ahead

“It had taken five years of lobbying, debate, conflict, and compromise ... But it happened. On January 26, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill into law. Rocky Mountain National Park was born.”

– Mary Taylor Young, “Rocky Mountain National Park: The First 100 Years”

To look at it, the landscape — a flat, open, riparian meadow — appears easily navigable. But walking across it is comically challenging. In one step the snow supports me, and then suddenly, upon the next step, gives way with a crunch and I'm knee deep in the fluff beneath the icy shell. The snowless patches are hardly better. Clumps of long golden grasses — laid flat by some prior rush of water — make for unsure footing. The 8,300-foot elevation and fierce, frigid wind don't help either. I'm panting and tripping and squinting my way toward an aspen grove in Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP).

 Elk Rocky Mountain National ParkPhoto by Kent Kanouse, on Flickr Elk on Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. Trail Ridge’s above tree line traverse is the engineering centerpiece for Rocky's more than three million annual visitors.

The aspen grove is itself odd — tall, wizened, mature trees clustered by a seeming weed field of shoulder high shoots. It's like grandparents day at an aspen tree daycare, with the middle generation conspicuously absent. One hundred feet or so in any direction there's a tall fence, and beyond that, meadow, roadway, and ancient granite stretching upward into cold January sky.

The absence of the middle generation and the presence of the fence can both be explained with a single word: Elk. This grove sits within an exclosure built to keep the elk out; and without the over-grazing elk, the aspen are thriving. Pre-exclosure it was otherwise: old trees dying, middle trees becoming old, and youngsters being wiped out by an overabundance of hungry elk. The ripple effect of this is a spiraling ecological puzzle in which, without sufficient young aspen, beavers are without sustenance. Without beavers — park populations are down 90% from half a century ago — and the ponds they create, the water table drops, further compromising aspen populations and the migratory birds and butterflies who summer among them. 

Taken individually, the exclosure is a simple human construct addressing a …more

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Obama Seeks Wilderness Designation for Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

If approved by Congress, it would mean exploration for onshore oil is now off limits in the region

President Obama’s Administration moved to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, known as one of the most wild and remote areas in the world. The Department of the Interior announced yesterday the release of a conservation plan that recommends additional protections for the Refuge that asks Congress to designate core areas—including its Coastal Plain—as wilderness, the highest level of protection available to public lands. This is the first time in history that a Wilderness recommendation includes the Refuge’s Coastal Plain as part of its final plan. If passed by Congress, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would become the largest ever wilderness designation since Congress passed the Wilderness Act more than 50 years ago.

Caribou and Brooks Range, Arctic NWRPhoto courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife ServiceIf the proposal is passed, The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would become the largest ever wilderness designation since Congress passed the Wilderness Act more than 50 years ago.

“Designating vast areas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as Wilderness reflects the significance this landscape holds for America and its wildlife,” said Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. “Just like Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of our nation’s crown jewels and we have an obligation to preserve this spectacular place for generations to come.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, based on the best available science, recommends 12.28 million acres for designation as wilderness with four rivers—the Atigun, Hulahula, Kongakut and Marsh Fork Canning—for inclusion into the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. This designation would protect and preserve the refuge, ensuring the land and water would remain unimpaired for use and enjoyment by future generations.

“The Coastal Plain is the wild heart of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which is why Americans from all walks of life have advocated for its protection for more than half a century,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. “This Wilderness recommendation at last recognizes the wonder and importance of the region for Native cultures, wildlife and anyone seeking to experience one of America’s last great wild places.”

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has the most diverse wildlife in the arctic. Caribou, polar bears, gray wolves, and muskoxen, and more than 200 species of birds, 37 land mammal species, eight marine mammal species and 42 species of fish call the Refuge home.

For thousands of years, the Gwich’in people have regarded the Coastal Plain of the Arctic …more

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Anti-Fracking Group Settles Surveillance Lawsuit With Pennsylvania

Deal doesn’t alter the cozy relationship between the energy industry and the state, says group’s founder

A grassroots anti-fracking group wrongfully cited as a terror threat in intelligence bulletins distributed by the Pennsylvania Office of Homeland Security (OHS) in 2010, settled its lawsuit against the state last week. The suit by the Gas Drilling Awareness Coalition (GDAC) stems from the state agency’s efforts to gather intelligence on groups it deemed a threat to Pennsylvania’s critical infrastructure. The terms of the settlement are confidential.

anti-fracking activists wave signs on a bridgePhoto courtesy of GDAC Gas Drilling Awareness Coalition, a group seeking to educate the public about fracking, was swept up in an attempt to root out so-called "eco-terrorism."

Back in 2010, the OHS hired a private security firm called the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response (ITRR) to draft weekly intelligence bulletins on a number of groups, including environmental organizations. These reports were distributed to state law enforcement agencies and the private energy companies. ITRR’s bulletins identified GDAC, a small, activist group in northeast Pennsylvania, as a potential terrorist threat.

ITRR had borrowed heavily from an August 2010 FBI Bulletin warning that environmental extremism was likely to become a greater threat to the energy industry. Drafted by the FBI’s Domestic Terrorism Analysis Unit and distributed to all field offices, the document states that “environmental extremism will become a greater threat to the energy industry owing to our historical understanding that some environmental extremists have progressed from committing low-level crimes against targets to more significant crimes over time in an effort to further the environmental extremism cause” (Look out for my detailed report on this issue in the upcoming Spring 2015 edition of EIJ). Drawing on the FBI’s assessment ITRR concluded that the “escalating conflict over natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania” could lead to an increase in “environmentalist activity or eco-terrorism.” Thus GDAC, a group seeking to educate the public about fracking, was swept up in an attempt to root out so-called extremist activity.

When the story broke in September 2010, it was widely held that the actions of OHS and ITRR were the result of mismanagement and lack of oversight. The information ITRR provided was dismissed as amateurish and criticized by law enforcement officials who questioned the security firm’s credibility.  In the wake of the scandal that followed, the OHS chief at the time, James Powers, resigned and the state’s contract with ITRR was terminated.

In …more

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Southern California Conservationists Are Tied in a Long Battle With Crayfish

Crustacean invaders are choking out local species, amphibians especially at risk

The invaders began arriving in Southern California half a century ago. They lurk in ponds, slower streams, and creeks in the Santa Monica Mountains, prevailing over all the watershed area. A kind of ubiquitous omnivore, red swamp crayfish (procambarus clarkii) eat anything, ranging from plants to snails to amphibian and insect larvae. Experts say the invaders, originally from South Central United States and northeastern Mexico, could potentially choke out the ecosystem for every other species that calls Los Angeles County’s Malibu Creek home.

Gloved hand holding up a red crayfishPhoto by Yao LiIntroduced to California in the 1960s as bait for sport fishing, red swamp crayfish (procambarus clarkii) eat anything, ranging from plants to snails to amphibian and insect larvae.

Annie Mitoma, a student worker at Pepperdine University's volunteer center, took over the Malibu-based school’s crayfish removal program in the Autumn 2014 semester. During a field trip to Malibu Creek in October, Mitoma and the two other volunteers were accompanied by two technicians from Mountains Restoration Trust (MRT) — an organization founded 30 years ago to protect and restore the Santa Monica mountain area. In July  2014, the trust received $800,000 grant from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife  to eradicate crayfish in Malibu Creek watershed by March 2017.

Within three months, with the help of more than 400 volunteers, Mountains Restoration Trust has removed about 14,400 crayfish from Medea Creek and at least another 3,000 from upper Las Virgenes Creek, both of which are part of the Malibu Creek watershed, said Kyle Troy, one of the technicians. "It is a quite promising beginning,” she said “We hope there are more volunteers come to join us."

Troy put on the waterproof overalls and rubber boots, an outfit that made her look rather like Super Mario, waded into the stream, and picked up a minnow trap set there the day before. Inside were three crayfish, a big one and brick red colored and two small ones in drab grey. She pinched the big one on its back lightly. Its carapace and claws were covered in bumps, and its blue veins were visible under the tail. It feebly waved its narrow and long pincers in the air.

"Female, seven. Male, three. Male, three," she called out as she turned each one over and measured the length by a ruler. Each crayfish's gender could be easily identified …more

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Bobcats Are the Latest Victims of Rat Poison in California

Poisons meant to kill rodents are indiscriminately killing everything else, including birds and animals that prey on them

The recent deaths of three bobcats in Santa Cruz, CA are yet more tragic evidence of the toll rat poison is taking on our wildlife and how it has infiltrated the environment. One of the bobcats still had a young kitten with her, who ran off when Duane Titus, with Wildlife Emergency Services, approached them. The two other bobcats were hit by cars.

Bobcat in the wildPhoto by Dave HarperA wild bobcat in Contra Costa County. Most animals are not exposed to just one poison but a toxic cocktail of several different types of poison.

We know that when predatory animals — like bobcats, mountain lions, and birds of prey — eat poisoned rodents, they often bleed to death or become very ill. We also know that even if rat poison does not kill an animal directly, it can affect their health pretty seriously. Some of the sub-lethal effects include reduced oxygen supply, weakness, anorexia, depression, excessive thirst, liver damage, and increased bruising. The two bobcats that were hit by cars may have been weakened and slowed down due to the presence of anticoagulant poisons in their systems: Recently, several racehorses who had consumed just trace amounts of rat poison died of internal bleeding after exercise.

What impacts might rat poison have on a raptor — eagle, hawk, or owl — pursuing prey at high speed? A Cooper’s hawk killed in Berkeley a few years ago by a cat that was barely more than a kitten was probably weakened and downed in the first place, making it possible for such a small cat to catch it. That hawk tested positive for several different rat poisons. Most animals are not exposed to just one poison but a toxic cocktail of several different types of poison.

State and federal regulators have imposed new regulations limiting the types of rat poison that can be purchased over the counter. As of July 2014, Californians can no longer purchase “second generation” rat poisons at hardware and other stores; as of April 1, 2015, no one in the United States will be able to buy them over the counter. But two huge problems remain. Pest control companies and agricultural users were exempted and can still use the very worst poisons.

Regulators have stated that pest control companies use poison “more responsibly” than homeowners. While any …more

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Obama Attacks Republicans’ Climate Denial but Offers No New Green Initiatives

However, the President's State of the Union speech didn't didn't tout his “all of the above” energy strategy either

President Barak Obama insisted forcefully before his newly empowered opposition on Tuesday that he would hold the line against attacks on his domestic and international climate agenda. But even though he called out climate deniers once again, the president offered no concrete sign of new initiatives on the horizon in his remaining two years in power.

President Barak ObamaPhoto by David Souza/ “I’ve heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they’re not scientists,” Obama said. “Well, I’m not a scientist, either.”

After repeatedly using his executive authority to advance climate measures, Obama pivoted in his State of the Union address to making sure that Republicans did not undo what he has sought to accomplish on climate change.

That crucially applies to the international arena, where Obama recommitted America to help lead efforts in forging an international climate deal.

“I will not let this Congress endanger the health of our children by turning back the clock on our efforts,” Obama said. “I am determined to make sure American leadership drives international action,” Obama said.

In the last 18 months, Obama has used his executive authority to introduce the first rules cutting carbon pollution from power plants, a joint US-Chinese emissions cutting deal, a pledge of $3bn to an international climate fund for developing countries and – just last week – new curbs on methane emissions from the oil and gas industry.

As on other high-visibility occasions, Obama used the speech to re-affirm climate change is occurring and to stick it to Republicans for climate denial. That will score Obama points with environmental groups heading into a year that set to culminate with climate talks in Paris.

In June 2013, when rolling out his climate action plan, Obama dismissed climate deniers as members of “the Flat Earth society”.

In Tuesday night’s address, he stepped on the Republicans’ new “I am not a scientist” meme, which casts doubt on climate change while avoiding outright denial.

In one of his best lines of the night, Obama said: “I’ve heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they’re not scientists – that we don’t have enough information to act. Well, I’m not a scientist, either. But you know what? I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and NOAA, and at our major universities.”

Calling out climate deniers – …more

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Canned Hunting and Cub-Petting are Big Business in South Africa

South African government must regulate this growing industry to protect lions from trophy hunters and over-eager tourists

It is difficult to imagine an Africa without one of its most popular and revered creatures, the lion. Known by many as the King of the Jungle, the lion has traversed the wide-open spaces of Africa for centuries, capturing the hearts and imaginations of people around the world. Unfortunately, lions no longer roam as freely as they once did.

 Lion CubPhoto by Tambako The Jaguar, on Flickr Canned hunting and cub-petting are deeply intertwined, part of a cyclical process that turns lions into profit in South Africa.

In the last fifty years alone, approximately 50 percent of Africa’s lions have disappeared. What has happened to them all? In South Africa, many have fallen victim to poachers. Recently, lions have also faced the threat of canned hunting — hunts in which animals are confined in an area from which they cannot escape — to increasingly detrimental effect. 

Not only is canned lion hunting legal in South Africa, it is a flourishing industry, popular especially amongst those who travel from outside the continent to shoot big game for trophy and sport. The industry is so popular, in fact, that in 2012, it generated approximately 807 million South African rand, roughly 70 million US dollars. Canned hunting is not the hunting of wild lions, however, but rather captive ones, and whereas trophy hunters often claim “fair chase” as a key element in their hunting activities, canned hunters simply pay to kill a lion in an enclosure.

The canned hunting industry has thrived in South Africa in large part because it is under-regulated. As Chris Mercer, co-founder of South Africa’s Campaign Against Canned Hunting, put it via email, “[The] government, to protect the canned hunting industry, has adopted a strained and unrealistic definition, based on silly permit conditions.” Essentially, anyone interested in bringing a lion trophy home through a canned hunt can do so, as long as they possess a permit, adhere to symbolic regulations, and have enough money to pay for the experience (some hunters pay as much as $38,000 to kill a lion).

Some hunters and wildlife conservation advocates argue that canned hunting can help conserve threatened species. That for every captive lion killed, a wild lion is saved. The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute suggests that, “establishing captive populations for …more

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