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In Search of the Balkan Lynx

An effort to save a critically endangered wildcat is bringing together nations once divided by ethnic conflict

The Balkan Lynx, a subspecies of the Eurasian Lynx, lives predominately in eastern Albania and western Macedonia with smaller populations in Kosovo and Montenegro. Researchers believe there are 35 to 40 individuals remaining mostly in Mavrovo National Park, Macedonia. The Balkan Lynx, classified as critically endangered,  by the International Union on the Conservation of Nature, has been on the brink of extinction for almost a hundred years.

Balkan Lynx in snowPhoto by courtesy of the Balkan Lynx Recovery ProjectA 2015 camera trap photo of a Balkan lynx in Mavrovo National Park, Macedonia.

Ethnic and religious conflicts in Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Albania left thousands dead and millions displaced. In recent years though, with the formation of the Balkan Lynx Recovery Program, the four countries have been cooperating in attempts to ensure the lynx’s survival.

These medium-sized nocturnal wildcats are elusive and shy animals. They might be living near human habitations with people not noticing or being aware of their presence for years. They are individualistic and a territorial species, occupying large tracts of lands. The home range of an adult male lynx usually varies from 100 to 400 square kilometers. Their main prey is roe deer and occasionally chamois and hares. Lynx only move to fresh terrain if these are directly connected to their existing ones, differing from wolves, for example, who will settle into completely new areas. Unbroken stretches of country and plentiful food are preconditions for the survival of lynx.

In 2010, the first lynx was radio-tagged and named Marko. Since then, ecological and environmental agencies in the Balkans have been working together within the Balkan Lynx Recovery Program to monitor the lynx, promote sustainable hunting and game conservation, raise public awareness, and strengthen cooperation in local communities.

Last fall, I took a plane bound for the land of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes with the simple hope of possibly seeing one of these rare felines.

I arrived in Gusinje, Montenegro by a bus from Dubrovnik, Croatia. A lynx had been spotted near Gusinje in the Nacionalni Park Prokletije — a 16,630 hectare national park located in the border region between Montenegro and Albania. I found a group of local hikers that didn’t mind me following them up into the mountains on a regular basis and shared my desire to be one of the few humans to spot a lynx.

Boris (I never knew his last name) was the leader of the hikers, or at least …more

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Searching for Fantastic Beasts

Cryptozoologists explore remote corners of the world looking for evidence of fabled species

Dragons, werewolves, yeti, trolls, and sea serpents — these are just a few of the mythical creatures that cause havoc in 1920s-era New York in the recent film based on JK Rowling’s book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

In Rowling’s fantastical story, the mythical creatures escape from another dimension through a magic briefcase, making their way into our universe. But could there be some realism behind the storyline? After all, there are some people who believe there really are weird and wonderful animals living, unbeknown to western society and mainstream science, in remote places all over the world.

photo of komodo dragonPhoto by Gary Ullah, FlickrThe Komodo dragon, once believed to be a mythical creature, is a large lizard found on several Indonesian islands.

Cryptozoology is the study of hidden animals, and cryptozoologists are the researchers who spend their lives looking for them. Over the last fifteen years, new species of deer, rat, civet, and countless lizards and insects have revealed themselves to mainstream science. Explorers have even found skeletons of tiny hobbit-like humans. Cryptozoologists, however, believe that other, larger creatures, are out there, too.

Could prehistoric marine reptiles exist in lakes all over the Northern Hemisphere? Are leopards and pumas really hiding out in the English countryside? Do huge hounds, far more terrible than any dog or wolf, lurk in the remote North American wilderness? Cryptozoologists say they just might.  

Cryptozoology, however, is not recognized within academia. Where scientists wait for unequivocal evidence to emerge before drawing conclusions, cryptozoologists are prepared to speculate based on anecdotal accounts. Within mainstream fields, the study of hidden animals is often considered fantasy, folklore, mythology, or pseudoscience.

As might be expected, many cryptozoologists disagree. “I’ve read thousands of accounts, spoken to hundreds of eyewitnesses and I’m telling you, these creatures are really out there,’ says Richard Freeman director with the Centre for Fortean Zoology in the United Kingdom, an organization that studies, researches, and looks for unknown animals.

Freeman’s first expedition as a cryptozoologist, in 2001, was to find a giant snake said to inhabit the inland waterways of East Asia. Locals called it the Naga. “It was up to sixty feet long, as thick as a barrel with a green and black sheen, according to eyewitnesses,” Freeman says. 

He explains that snakes like this evolved 65 million years ago during the Cretaceous period, and in Australia survived into the ice age. Freeman says that there have been sightings …more

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Tens of Thousands of Snow Geese May Be Dying Along the Pacific Flyway 

Wildlife officials en route have no way to identify live birds exposed to toxic Berkeley Pit water in Montana

Every Halloween, birders gather at Montana’s Freezout Lake, about an hour’s drive from Great Falls. It’s an overwhelming spectacle: Up to 300,000 snow geese gather to rest after a night-long, nonstop flight of at least 400 miles from Alberta or Saskatchewan in Canada. After Freezout, there’s still about 1000 miles left before the  snow geese reach their destination, the Sacramento Wildlife Refuge in California.

Snow geese flyingPhoto by eflon/flickrThis year, the weather tricked tens of thousands of snow geese into delaying their flight south.

This year, the weather tricked tens of thousands of them — autumn was warm out West. They stayed up north a little too long. By the time the snow geese reached Freezout, the lake had lived up to its name. It had iced over. Exhausted and thirsty, the massive flock pressed on until they spotted what looked like a safe refuge. A little past dinnertime on November 28, the tired geese descended through a swirling snowstorm. They landed on the toxic soup that’s slowly filling the largest Superfund site in the United States: Butte, Montana’s Berkeley Pit, a massive hole in the ground that once used to be a copper mine.

The Pit is hard to miss. It’s a mile long, a half mile wide, and 1700 feet deep. The water in the Berkeley Pit covers 700 acres, a surface area about 4/5ths the size of New York City’s Central Park. It’s 900 feet deep, and getting deeper by the day.

Thousands of migrating geese perished in the Pit in the first few hours. Where is the rest of the flock of perhaps 8,000 birds? Did they survive? Did they die nearby, or farther down the Pacific Flyway? Is there a protocol to track critical incidents that might affect birds, animals or humans? How — and how quickly — did people react?

Birdwatching: 24/7, 365

 “Employees tried urgently to keep the birds from landing,” said Mark Thompson, environmental affairs manager for Montana Resources, a company that, since 1985, has mined old tailings for copper and molybdenum, an element that’s used in glass furnace electrodes and in the petroleum industry. “Our manpower was out there all night.” Thompson paused to consider the sheer number of snow geese that overwhelmed their efforts. “The water was covered with white birds.”  For the workers, Thompson said, the battle was personal. They were trying to save the birds, but they also were attempting to fend off another public relations disaster.

It’s not the …more

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EPA Confirms that Fracking Can Contaminate Drinking Water

Agency walks back findings in earlier report, says that hydraulic fracturing can impact water 'under some circumstances'

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has released its widely anticipated final report on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, confirming that the controversial drilling process indeed impacts drinking water "under some circumstances." Notably, the report also removes the EPA's misleading line that fracking has not led to "widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources."

"The report, done at the request of Congress, provides scientific evidence that hydraulic fracturing activities can impact drinking water resources in the United States under some circumstances," the agency stated in a media advisory.

photo of frackingPhoto by WildEarth GuardiansThe EPA's final report on the impacts of hydaulic fraturing on water resources concluded that fracking can, in fact, impact drinking water in the US.

This conclusion is a major reversal from the EPA's June 2015 pro-fracking draft report. That specific "widespread, systemic" line baffled many expertsscientists and landowners who — despite the egregious headlines — saw clear evidence of fracking-related contamination in water samples. Conversely, the EPA's top line encouraged Big Oil and Gas to push for more drilling around the globe.

But as it turns out, a damning exposé from Marketplace and APM Reports revealed last month that top EPA officials made critical, last-minute alterations to the agency's draft report and corresponding press materials to soft-pedal clear evidence of fracking's ill effects on the environment and public health.

Thomas Burke, EPA deputy assistant administrator and science advisor, discussed the agency's final report released Tuesday.

“There are instances when hyrdofracking has impacted drinking water resources. That's an important conclusion, an important consideration for moving forward," Burke told reporters today, according to The Hill.

Regarding the EPA's contentious "national, systemic conclusion," Burke said, "that's a different question that this study does not have adequate evidence to really make a conclusive, quantified statement."

In the new report, the authors heeded the EPA's independent Science Advisory Board's advice to review the "widespread systemic impacts" line from the June 2015 draft study. The final 1,200-page report omits that line.

"Scientists put that language in the draft report, and scientists made the decision not to include it in the final report based on feedback from the Science Advisory Board and their interpretation of the available science," Burke explained.

The Science Advisory Board also took issue with how the draft report inexplicably omitted three critical fracking-contamination cases — Dimock, Pennsylvania; Parker County, Texas; and Pavillion, Wyoming.

As Pavillion rancher and affected landowner John Fenton testified last year, "When EPA launched its national study of fracking's drinking water …more

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From Grease to Soap: How One Woman Is Repurposing Used Oil

In 4 years, Laura Kneib has recycled some 5 tons of vegetable oil, cardboard, and biodiesel glycerin

Bremerton, Washington resident Laura Kneib is what one might call a “soap scientist.” After all, since 2012, Kneib has been creating scrumptious-smelling soaps using reclaimed vegetable oil — the very same oil that gives French fries that good, greasy flavor.

Laura Kneib standing in front of soap racks in her storePhoto by Seraine PageLaura Kneib surveys the collection of handmade soaps at her store in Bremerton, Washington.

Once the oil is filtered and mixed with lye, rainwater, essential oils and other natural ingredients, Kneib’s soaps smell more like lavender, blackberry, mimosas, cucumber, and more. The ingredients come from a variety of sources — Kneib kayaks Ostrich Bay to find seaweed to dry out and plucks dandelions from her yard — to add beauty and scent to her soap. “It comes from Mother Nature,” she says of her ingredients. “The closer you stick to that lady, the better it is.”

As owner and founder of F.R.O.G. Soap in Bremerton, Kneib caters to those who love natural, chemical-free bath products.

“Every time I make a batch, it’s fascinating,” admits 61-year-old Kneib, who has been making soap since she was a preteen. “It’s incredible using all that oil and a few other things — it’s amazing it creates this soap.”

F.R.O.G. (Soap) isn’t just a cute name; it actually stands for “From Reclaimed Oil and Glycerin.” Kneib’s curiosity got the best of her in a restaurant years ago; she wanted to know just where used cooking oil went. After discovering it ended up in landfills, she felt the urge to do something about it. So she figured out how to turn used vegetable oil into soap. And lip balm. And shampoo. The list goes on.

Her experiments started in her small kitchen and expanded from there. Now Kneib has a brick-and-mortar storefront, a thriving online store, and a need for more soap curing racks. “It’s going out the door faster than I can make it,” says Kneib, who handcrafts the soap in small batches. “People just love it. I love that people love it.”

Even more impressive, perhaps, is the fact that her one-woman shop has recycled nearly five tons of materials like waste vegetable oil, cardboard, and biodiesel glycerin in four years.

In Kitsap County, where Kneib lives and works, local restaurant owners know her well. Even the nonprofit theater up the street has stopped paying to have oil from its restaurant lugged off. The staff just takes it down to Kneib’s shop.

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Youth Climate Activists Versus Federal Government

Following recent legal victory, lead plaintiff in novel global warming lawsuit pushing for settlement agreement

At 20 years old, Kelsey Juliana estimates she has spent nearly half her life as an environmental activist, although you can make a case that it has been even longer than that. The year she was born, her parents were involved in one of the most successful campaigns to protect old growth forests in Oregon. As a toddler she attended the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle, and by fourth grade she was organizing her classmates to participate in the first International Day of Climate Activism.

photo of Kelsey JulianaPhoto by Sam BeebeKelsey Juliana, center, with fellow youth climate activists Nelson Kanuk (left) and John Thiebes (right). Juliana is one of several youth plaintiffs, ages 9 to 20, suing the federal government for its inaction on climate change.

Juliana is best known as the lead plaintiff in a suite of novel state and federal lawsuits arguing that the federal government, in contributing to climate change, has violated the constitutional rights of young people to life, liberty, and property, and has failed to protect public trust resources. The plaintiffs, who range in age from 9 to 20, are seeking legally-binding and scientifically valid policies to deal with climate change. Now that a climate denier is set to become president in January, Juliana’s clear-eyed assessment succinctly summarizes what this strategy is all about: “I really do believe this case is our last hope for a climate remedy.”

In early November, Juliana and her 20 co-plaintiffs won a major procedural victory when US District Court Judge Ann Aiken ruled in their favor, finding that the plaintiffs had legal standing to pursue the claim and that their case could proceed to trial.

Aiken rejected attempts by the government and the fossil fuel industry to have the case dismissed, writing in her opinion that, “Exercising my ‘reasonable judgment,’ I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.” In her ruling, she pushed back against the government’s argument that executive and legislative action on climate change would render a ruling for the plaintiffs disrespectful: “There is no contradiction between promising other nations the United States will reduce C02 emissions and a judicial order directing the United States to go beyond its international commitments to more aggressively reduce C02 emissions,” adding that a judgment in favor of the plaintiffs would not express “disrespect for the Executive Branch’s international climate change agreements.”

While Aiken’s …more

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An Economist with an Abiding Commitment to Making the World Better

In Memoriam: Jim Harding — Faith, Hope, and Clarity

In the autumn of 1969 there was a big environmental conference in San Francisco sponsored, if memory serves, by one of the United Nations agencies. A panel at the conference featured high school students who were active in various environmental activities. One was a lad from Cubberly High School in Palo Alto named Jim Harding. After the panel, Harding met David Brower, who had recently been forced out of the Sierra Club and founded Friends of the Earth. Each impressed the other.

Jim HardingPhoto courtesy of David Chatfield Jim Harding at a talk in 1982. Harding was a key player in energy planning everywhere. The recent decision by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company to phase out its last reactor, at Diablo Canyon is a fitting capstone to his decades of activism against nuclear energy.

After high school Harding enrolled at Bowdoin College in Maine, where he studied economics and became interested in the economics of energy production, especially nuclear power. In due course he made it back to the Bay Area and joined the staff of FOE, which was actively campaigning to have nuclear reactors shut down.

As the campaign grew, Harding undertook a column in FOE’s journal Not Man Apart, a twice-monthly, two-page tabloid-newspaper spread called “The Nuclear Blowdown.” It covered economic matters as well as technical issues to do with reactor safety and many other topics. Despite NMA’s relatively small circulation, "The Blowdown" became required reading, both for nuclear boosters and for opponents. At one point, Mark Dowie wrote in Mother Jones that he had snuck into a high-level nuclear meeting and heard any number of people say that they depended on “The Blowdown” to keep them up to date on what the antinuclear movement was thinking and doing.

In 1976, as California voters were considering how to vote on Proposition 15, which would have severely cramped any thought of nuclear expansion, Harding was lured to Sacramento to work for the new California Energy Commission, one of several agencies created during Jerry Brown’s first stint as governor, two others being SolarCal and the Office of Appropriate Technology.

After about three years in state government, Harding returned to FOE and joined Amory Lovins to create the International Project on Soft Energy Paths, “soft” energy being Amory’s description of solar, wind, other renewables, and efficiency and conservation. They published an elegant journal called Soft Energy Notes, which became quite an influential fixture, and conducted research and sponsored conferences for about five …more

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