Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Room for Mexican Wolves to Roam

John Horning staff photo 2014
In the late spring of 2004, a pioneering young Mexican wolf and her mate staked out new territory on the western slope of New Mexico’s San Mateo Mountains. The pair, two of the less than 50 Mexican wolves in existence in the wild, preyed on the mountain range’s abundant elk and deer and started a family—the San Mateo Pack—in their new home overlooking the Aldo Leopold Wilderness to the west and the Rio Grande valley to the east.

The only problem for the newly formed San Mateo Pack is that they settled outside an invisible and arbitrary boundary that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service set determining where Mexican wolves may, and may not, live.

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The wolves bothered no one—not even the area’s few ranchers—but still federal wolf bureaucrats trapped and relocated the pair in August 2004 and again in the summer of 2005 to an area within the arbitrary boundaries the government designated as acceptable for Mexican wolves to inhabit. Sadly, one of those translocations caused the death of their young pups.

Wolf scientists knew the boundary was arbitrary and recommended over and over again that the boundary be removed and Mexican wolves be granted the room to roam they need to fully recover as a species.

This January the Service updated its Mexican wolf regulations. Finally heeding the wisdom of wolf ecologists, they removed the old boundary. Incredibly, the Service created another equally arbitrary boundary (although encompassing a larger area) that once again limits where Mexican wolves can live. As a point of reference, no other endangered large carnivore, much less one of the most endangered ones, has a boundary for where it can and cannot live.

That’s why earlier this month WildEarth Guardians, joined by the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance and Friends of Animals, and represented by our own attorneys and the Western Environmental Law Center filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Service to overturn the artificial geographic limits, and many other equally arbitrary and deeply flawed aspects of the new rule governing Mexican wolf recovery in the American Southwest.

While geographic limits undermine wolf conservation the rule’s newly designated artificial cap on the Mexican wolf population really gets my blood to boil. At the 11th hour in the agencies’ multi-year planning process, and with essentially no opportunity for public input, the Service adopted a population cap of 300-325 wolves! At a time when the science is saying we need more wolves in many more places why does the Service continue to come up with half measures based on half-truths?

But the Service’s new Mexican wolf regulations get even worse.
The new rule flagrantly ignores the Endangered Species Act’s requirement that reintroduced, or “experimental” populations, that are “essential” to the species survival in the wild be designated as “essential” rather than the much less protective “non-essential” designation under the Act.

How can the only wild Mexican wolf population not be essential to the species survival in the wild? It’s outrageous!

The Service cynically claims that animals in zoos and breeding facilities somehow ensure the species’ survival even when the Endangered Species Act requires that it make the determination of “essential/non-essential” based on populations in the wild. That’s why, even though thousands of people and dozens of environmental groups asked the agency to consider the benefits of the “essential” designation when it completed its Environmental Impact Statement, it ignored those pleas.

The more protective “essential” designation would mean that some of the biggest threats to the Mexican wolf—such as coyote hunting, trapping, livestock grazing permitted by the U.S. Forest Service and activities carried out by the federal animal damage control agency—would be subject to greater scrutiny.  

Incredibly the original alpha female of the San Mateo Pack is still alive, though her first mate was killed by a government trapper and another was killed by a poacher.
She now roams the Mangas Mountains, with another mate, in the northern portion of the Gila National Forest. 

While the current, politically defined wolf recovery boundary at Interstate-40—a mere 85 miles to her north—may no longer threaten her given her age, it may well endanger her off-spring as they seek to reclaim their historic homelands just as she and her mate once did.

George Santayana, the Spanish philosopher and essayist once said: “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The San Mateo Pack’s story of tragedy, recovery, and resilience is history that we will not forget.

That’s why we’re fighting in court to overturn the artificial geographic boundary, the arbitrary population cap and the “non-essential” designation—and other flaws in the Mexican wolf recovery framework as well. We believe that the foundation for the recovery of the Mexican wolf simply needs to be stronger. With your voice, and ours, we’ll get there.

For the wild,

John Horning
Executive Director
WildEarth Guardians
San Mateo Female Mexican wolf F903 pc MWIFT

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Broke and Broken: The Federal Coal Program

John Horning staff photo 2014
In case you haven’t heard WildEarth Guardians is under attack for our pioneering work to reform our broken federal coal program and keep our publicly owned coal in the ground. What’s surprising is that the attacks are coming from both the left and the right. 

It all started a few weeks ago after we won a precedent-setting legal victory against the U.S. Department of the Interior. The Department brazenly violated one of our nation’s cornerstone environmental laws—the National Environmental Policy Act—by failing to consider the climate implications of expanding the Colowyo coal mine, which is located on public land near the western Colorado town of Craig. Making things worse, the Interior Department never even notified the public of its decision, another major no-no under federal environmental law. 

The federal judge who issued the ruling on May 8 gave the Interior Department 120 days to fix its flawed analysis. If not, the mine will be forced to shut down.
That’s when things started heating up and a few residents of Craig began getting vocal. First it was a series of nasty comments on our Facebook page and a few caustic phone calls and e-mails. Then Fox News added fuel to the flame. And then the Craig dissidents started a campaign to boycott our business supporters. 

Their first and highest target: New Belgium Brewing, which along with hundreds of other generous businesses we proudly listed on our website as a measure of our gratitude. In the face of its new critics in Craig, New Belgium made clear that it funded our watershed and river protection work, not the work of our Climate & Energy program. While most of Guardians’ business supporters seem unmoved by the pressure, others deepened their resolve and a handful of now former business supporters simply wilted in the face of pressure. 

And then two weeks ago Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, got heated in an interview on Colorado Public Radio stunningly telling a radio host that our work to keep coal in the ground “has nothing to do with climate change.” 

Clearly we’ve touched a nerve. 

Yet nobody seems willing to show any leadership. Even though the federal coal program is fueling the climate crisis and is wildly out of step with our nation’s carbon reduction goals, President Obama and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell continue to defend the program. They’re doing so even as the coal industry is broke and on the verge of a major financial collapse. 

While our lawsuit is fomenting a very public crisis in the coalfields, the bigger crisis for coal is in the financial markets where one coal mining company after another is moving closer and closer to financial rock bottom. 

For example Tri-State, the owners of the Colowyo mine, reported a $40 million loss on the mine in 2014, their fourth consecutive year in the red, and global coal giants Peabody and Arch coal saw their collective market capitalization shrink from over $2.5 billion in January to less than $800 million last month.  

As coal mining companies exhibit more and more signs of financial stress, it’s important to ask: who gets screwed when they go belly-up? I can promise you it won’t be corporate executives at Peabody or Arch or even smaller companies like Tri-State. It’s coal miners, the environment and the taxpayers that will get the shaft.
Just look at what Patriot Coal, a spin-off of Peabody Coal, did last month. They filed for bankruptcy for the second time in less than five years and the first thing they’ve tried to do is dump their pensions for retirees

Unquestionably the next big financial responsibility these coal companies will try to shed is the more than $3 billion dollars they’ve committed to the federal government to clean up the toxic mess they’ve created at mine sites. If and when they try to default on those bonds I think you know who will be left to deal with the mess—the American taxpayer. 

Given the increasingly grim reality of the federal coal program, what’s needed from our leaders is not more climate denial and empty rhetoric in defense of a dying, financially stressed coal industry. Instead, we need an entirely new vision for the coal that you and I own that prioritizes the global climate imperative of keeping it in the ground. 

And a necessary part of keeping it in the ground is creating effective economic safety nets that help communities, families and individuals transition to the new, more vibrant and sustainable economies of the future. As we move away from coal, we need a plan to ensure former coal-field workers have opportunities for meaningful work.  

If politicians and policymakers won’t lead us, then we will. 

WildEarth Guardians’ bold advocacy is driving real progress to confront the climate crisis and to hold our officials accountable to help coal communities deal with the realities of our changing times.

For the wild,
John Horning
Executive Director
WildEarth Guardians
CO Coal Mining 1 pc WG 
coal mining photo credit: wildearth guardians

Monday, February 10, 2014

Habitat Abundant but Beaver Populations Low in New Mexico Mountains.

WildEarth Guardians has completed a state-funded assessment of potential beaver habitat on federal lands in New Mexico. The model determined that 82% of streams on public lands could support the dam-building ecosystem engineer. And yet surveys in the summer of 2012 found dangerously low numbers of beaver in northern New Mexico’s mountain streams and rivers. Beavers could inhabit more than 2,100 miles of streams on national forests and BLM lands in the state and provide countless benefits. While the assessment did not identify how many of these miles are currently occupied, a survey in the Jemez Mountains to assess the validity of the computer model used to do the assessment did not find beavers at any of 18 stream sites.

(photo credit: Joseph Thomas)

The report is being released just after Senator Tim Keller and Representative Bobby Gonzales introduced a memorial in the 2014 New Mexico legislative session calling on state natural resource agencies to develop joint recommendations on how to proceed with a statewide beaver management plan. Guardians hopes that the assessment will be used to identify and prioritize protection and restoration of streams and wetlands on public lands in New Mexico.

The beaver habitat assessment identifies potential, suitable, and currently occupied habitat. The model, as well as a full-day beaver and wetlands workshop, was the product of a contract with the New Mexico Environment Department. A Wetland Program Development Grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to the New Mexico Environment Department provided funding for the project.

Scientific research shows that beaver play a vital role in increasing river and wetland ecosystem resilience in the face of climate change. The dam-building beaver’s activities create a diversity of habitats and dams trap sediment, create and maintain wetlands, and modify nutrient and decomposition cycles. The presence of dam-building beaver reduces high flows and downstream flooding that can result in destructive erosion, provides more constant summer flows, elevates the water tables and improves riparian habitat. All these activities offer an effective climate change adaptation tool.

Before dam-building beaver populations can be replenished in New Mexico, a systematic and thorough assessment of both potential and suitable habitat and an identification of possible impediments to population recovery are needed. Using GIS technology, we identify all potential, suitable, and occupied dam-building beaver habitats on federal, public lands in New Mexico.  These outputs will facilitate efficient relocation of nuisance beaver and restoration of habitat to re-establish and augment wetlands in the state of New Mexico. Field observations conducted in the Jemez River Watershed within the Santa Fe National Forest (SFNF) and the Valles Caldera National Preserve (VCNP) confirmed that the model performs well but that beaver are presently absent from most suitable habitat on the forest.

New Mexico would benefit from a strategic plan for statewide beaver management designed to capture the full watershed benefits and minimize conflicts with human land uses.  Senator Keller and Representative Gonzales introduced Senate Memorial 4 in the 2014 New Mexico legislative session, which calls on state natural resource agencies to develop joint recommendations on how to proceed with a statewide beaver management plan.

Western states - including Oregon and Utah - recognizing the critical role dam-building beaver have in water management, aquatic ecosystems and wetland maintenance developed statewide beaver management plans. These plans written with diverse stakeholders set in motion strategic and intentional management of beaver to capitalize on their benefits while reducing conflict.

WildEarth Guardians intends to work with state agencies such as the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, Environment Department and the State Forestry Division in the development of a beaver management plan to fully realize beaver and their ecosystem benefits.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Powerful short video promotes the importance of roadless areas

This video is worth a thousand words and then some – and there’s no narration at all in the entire video – it’s a reminder of the power of imagery. Roadfree: It takes just one road to destroy a forest.

The imagery and messages in this short video are a profound reminder of the consequences of development – specifically to wildlife, wild places, and even wild people. 

Yes, this story takes place in a jungle, but the consequences of roadbuilding are universal. This simple, effective short video is an incredible reminder of the connection between the very first road that’s built and all of the destruction that follows. It’s only two minutes long, check it out!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Wildfire, Forest Management and Home Loss: Living in Flammable Places

As sure as the fire season will come, so will the blame be laid. Before the smoke even clears from  fires raging in New Mexico and Colorado people will want to hold someone accountable. So the finger pointing begins.

We all mourn the loss of homes and especially life and are wishing the best for the communities of Ruidoso, NM, Colorado Springs, CO and Ft. Collins, CO this year.

WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity are already taking the blame for the Little Bear Fire in NM. As painful as it is, we tolerate this every year just as regularly as the monsoon rains put out the fires. That blame is often shared with the U.S. Forest Service. Thinning or logging the forests seems to be the most often cited solution to the wildfires. But no amount of logging can change the weather.

We are now witnessing, we hope, a paradigm shift in how people live in fire-prone landscapes, just as we did in the 70s with floodplains. We live in highly flammable forests that we simply cannot fireproof. But we can fireproof homes and structures.

Thinning and logging far into the back country wildlands may or may not have any effect on saving communities in the wildland urban interface (WUI). But with changing climate and recurring droughts of biblical proportion, its a safe bet that expensive thinning and logging will not make a difference under these extreme conditions. In fact, it could make the the fire hazard even worse.

When people build and live in the "fire plain"  who's responsibility is it to protect them? Should taxpayers use the federal treasury for expensive thinning of public forests far from home in an unproven attempt to change fire behavior? Or should homeowners be required to to treat their own landscapes and build with fire resistant materials? A practice known as firewise.

Insurers are taking notice and so should county policy makers examine their building codes. A study by Headwaters Economics shows the potential for more development in fire prone landscapes in the west and what this could cost in fuel management and fire suppression.

There are reasonable voices sometimes drowned out by the finger pointing. Peter Goodman is one and Evelyn Madrid Erhard is another. But others continue to want to lay blame and capitalize politically on the suffering that comes with fire season, including New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez and U.S. Representative Steve Pearce.

But we can rise above the politics of fear and be rational about forest management.Western forests have burned since time immemorial and this natural process is scary. But we do not have a wildfire problem as much as a people in flammable landscapes problem. Yes, there are forest types where the science has shown we should be taking action such as mechanical thinning and prescribed burning to save those forest and their wildlife, but there are also many thousands of square miles of forests that don't need these treatments. Rather than throw scarce tax dollars at those forests, we need to be precise and take actions we know are effective like the firewise program.

In the meantime we are wishing the best for those suffering now at the hands of Mother Nature.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Update: Government Rejects Guardians Bid for Cow Free Caldera

The Director of the Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico has declined our offer of $35,000 to not graze domestic livestock on the Preserve. We were hopeful this year in the aftermath of the largest fire in New Mexico's recorded history that the Preserve would seek to rest the traumatized ecosystems and still get paid.

Disappointingly we got the notification today that they will not accept our money and will run cows again on the Preserve. The Valles Caldera National Preserve is a treasure and we are very lucky to have it in public ownership, but cows grazing this jewel is not appropriate. Especailly after such a large fire, the grasslands and forests need time to recover with out cattle trampling the sensitive soils and grazing down the new growth.

Not only does the Preserve authorize grazing by domestic livestock, but there have been trespass cattle in the Preserve that come in from the surrounding National Forest lands to gorge on the robust, green grasses. The Preserve staff makes a heroic effort to round up and return the offending cattle, but as soon as they turn around there are more. This problem has to be solved with more vigilance and tougher fines on the owners of the trespass cows.

In the meantime, cows, both authorized and unauthorized, will graze in the magnificent valleys of the Valles Caldera National Preserve. WildEarth Guardians and our volunteers will continue to work with the staff and managers to restore degraded ecosystems in the Preserve and ensure cows remain out of the sensitive streams and wildlife habitats. We have several work days coming up to remove barbed wire and other ranching infrastructure that will ensure the least impact from cows. Join us!

Friday, December 16, 2011

A Deal for the Federal Government: $35,000 For ZERO Cows on NM National Preserve

WildEarth Guardians is offering the federal government $35,000 dollars to not graze domestic livestock on the Valles Caldera National Preserve. Sounds like a good deal, right? Well, if past history is an indicator, the money will be refused.
In the aftermath of the largest fire in the state’s recent history, WildEarth Guardians submitted its bid on Thursday the 15th of December for a livestock operation on the Valles Caldera National Preserve that would graze no cows. That is $35,000 to keep the Preserve free of livestock. The focus of the bid is recovery and restoration of the Preserve’s
critical habitats after the Las Conchas fire burned through the National Preserve. WildEarth Guardians has made considerable efforts over the past decade to restore the Preserve’s streamside forests and wildlife habitat and believes the fire’s effects will be beneficial but only with rest from livestock grazing.
By law, the Valles Caldera National Preserve was established to protect and preserve the area's scientific, scenic, geologic, watershed, fish, wildlife, historic, cultural, and recreational values. The Valles Caldera Trust was created to carry out the Preserve's mission and to turn a profit. The Santa-Fe based WildEarth Guardians’ bid could do just that: make money while protecting the Preserve. Guardians believes that the best return on the dollar for the federal government and taxpayers is to accept the $35,000 in return for the privilege to keep cows out of the area and return the streamside habitats to their verdant nature. The group offers its expertise in river restoration to the Preserve in addition to the money.
According to climate models, the Southwest has become, and will continue to become, a drier and warmer place. A symptom of climate change and lingering drought will be larger, more severe fires. Nearly 30,000 acres of the Valles Caldera National Preserve burned this past summer in the Las Conchas Fire. Twenty-five percent of that was in the grasslands in the Preserve's majestic valleys. Grazing domestic livestock places additional stress on already strained hydrological systems, rivers and streams. The Preserve is recovering well by all indications, but returning domestic livestock to the valleys could inhibit recovery.
Cattle have been trespassing into the VCNP for several years as documented by WildEarth Guardians and others. Trespass cows are likely gaining access from the Santa Fe National Forest which borders the Preserve on all four sides. If the VCNP were free of cows under the WildEarth Guardians' plan, the Preserve's staff would have a much easier time identifying and taking possession of trespass cows and fining the owners.
The Valles Caldera National Preserve is a gem in a long string of irreplaceable wild places that run from northern Mexico through the Rockies into Canada. With great foresight, the New Mexico congressional delegation set aside the Preserve as protected federal land. The VCNP serves as the headwaters of the Jemez River, a major tributary of the Rio Grande. This system captures and delivers water to untold numbers of municipal, agricultural, and recreational users downstream.
The valleys and forests of the Preserve are simply too valuable to put at risk with a domestic livestock grazing program.