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Archive for November, 2012

By the end of December, 200 to 250 prairie dogs will be relocated to Broomfield’s Great Western Reservoir Open Space to accommodate the expansion of the city’s Lake Link Trial. The prairie dogs, who are currently living in open space behind Legacy High School, are being moved to allow for a new section of paved trail that will run through the area they currently inhabit. The prairie dogs will be moved by volunteers using non-lethal relocation methods such as humane traps. This particular project, and the policies it implements, demonstrates the city’s prairie dog management policies, and also highlights some of the main issues with current prairie dog conservation methods.

Prairie dog relocation is a contentious issue along the Front Range and throughout Colorado, creating tension between conservationists and landowners. While prairie dogs seem to be everywhere, they actually qualify to be listed as Threatened and Endangered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Of the original prairie dog populations in the United States, only 2% remain today. Relocating prairie dogs is considered a preferred management tool. Extermination incites a negative public reaction, while avoidance is becoming increasingly impossible due to urban expansion and development projects. But although relocation is  typically practiced instead of extermination, the reality is that even relocation will affect prairie dog populations. As few as half of a relocated colony’s residents may survive and establish in the new location. The practice of relocation is far from ideal, and can have detrimental affects on a prairie dog colony. 

Public approval also has a major impact on the policies, strategies, and management of prairie dogs. Despite the negative impact of relocation on declining prairie dog numbers, the general public slightly prefers relocation to extermination, although overall public support of prairie dog conservation efforts is not high. According to the publication City and County of Broomfield Policies for Prairie Dog Conservation and Management, 46% of residents don’t think public and private sectors are responsible for relocating, instead of eradicating, prairie dogs residing in areas slated for development, meaning they will support a development project over the prairie dog relocation effort it might instigate. And while 47% of residents oppose the use of poisoning as a means of prairie dog eradication, 40% support it.

Public support is also dependent on the financial stipulations set for relocation projects, which has led to the implementation of a maximum relocation budget. According to City and County of Broomfield Policies for Prairie Dog Conservation and Management, 60% of residents polled support relocation projects when they are performed by volunteers when possible. In accordance with this study, and due to the benefit of having public support of relocation projects, the city has set a $4,500 per-project budget for prairie dog relocation projects. This budget accounts for heavy volunteer involvement, and does not allow for the use of for-profit entities to perform the relocation efforts.

Further complicating relocations is the fact that prairie dog relocation does not only affect prairie dogs. Many animals depend on the effects of a prairie dog colony in an area. Deer mice and cottontail rabbits benefit from the security a colony provides, while hawks depend on these habitats for hunting. Prairie dogs also help aerate and fertilize the land, which promotes healthy soil and allows grasses and native plants to thrive in the area. Burrowing owls also depend on prairie dog colonies; they use abandoned prairie dog burrows for nesting grounds. In fact, a portion of Broomfield’s $4,500 relocation budget goes to the analysis of a relocation’s impact on local burrowing owl, a species listed as threatened in Colorado by the USFWS and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Any relocation projects scheduled for the owl’s nesting season between April 1 and July 31 must perform a full burrowing owl impact assessment before carrying out the relocation.

Great Western Reservoir Open Space

Finally, the issue is exacerbated when relocation areas are considered. The Great Western Reservoir Open Space (GWROS) is Broomfield’s preferred relocation site. The area contains 124 acres of land suitable for prairie dog habitat, and could house as many as 560 prairie dogs. Other potential relocation sites include Mitchum Open Space, which is considered suitable for small-scale relocations only, and Dry Creek Business Center and Interlocken Open Space Parcel, which are each only two acres in size. GWROS is therefore the city’s best relocation option, boasting native vegetation, pre-established prairie dog colonies, and sufficient space for more colonies. However, the area’s capacity is restricted. The amount of available space left in GWROS will continue to decline until the area reaches its limit, and at that point prairie dog relocation projects will have to find alternative suitable habitats.

Relocation isn’t a perfect solution to prairie dog management. There are spacial, financial, and environmental issues that accompany every relocation effort. However, relocation is the best option we have for now, as urban expansion continues and prairie dog habitats are reduced. And while prairie dogs continue to be viewed as pests by many landowners and contractors, they are in fact a threatened species, and one upon which the entire prairie ecosystem depends. The protection and management of prairie dogs could prove to be a critical tipping point in prairie conservation.

Links:

Daily Camera Article

City and County of Broomfield Policies for Prairie Dog Conservation and Management

OSMP

Burrowing Owl

Photo Credit

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Besides creating nationwide tax increases, the impending ‘fiscal cliff’ created by budget cut proposals could have a significant affect on National Park Service land and other environmental groups supported by government funding. The budget cuts will take action on January 1st if Congress and the President cannot reach a new deal by the end of the year.

The New York Times recently published a full-page ad, purchased by the National Parks Conservation Association, bringing to the attention of the publication’s 750,000 Sunday readers what is at stake for the National Parks Service (NPS) should the proposed budget go through. The current proposal would cut the NPS 2013 budget by 8.2%, or $218 million. This could result in a reduction of the park’s 258,000 employees, from law enforcement officers to park rangers. The sequester could also force the closures of public venues such as campgrounds, visitor centers, and interpretation sites. The NPS has stated that the budget deficits they are facing are equal to the closure of 200 national parks.

The fiscal cliff will impact more than the NPS, however, and the effects go far beyond a loss in parks jobs and visitor centers. All environmental agencies funded in part by the government will be subjected to budget cuts, and many of these agencies are necessary for local and national economic growth. The National Forest Service, for example, oversees 193 million acres of protected wilderness. The land protected by the NFS, from forests to grassland prairies, supports hundreds of recreational activities. In fact, NFS land brings in $14.5 billion dollars in recreation each year. From camping and hunting supplies to hiking and climbing gear, activities that take place on forest service land provide tremendous economic boosts to local and national retailers.

The budget cuts will also affect the National Wildlife Refuge System, a network of habitats that help protect endangered species throughout the nation. Anyone who hunts migratory waterfowl on NWRS land must purchase a Federal Duck Stamp, which in turn funds wetland conservation and migratory bird protection. A reduction in staff and resources to the NWRS could result in less hunting, which will reduce the funding being  funneled towards conservation efforts.

This trickle-down effect can be seen in other agencies threatened by the sequester. NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, relies on government funding to conduct research on coastal and oceanic projects, from habitat conservation to weather patterns. NOAA is also one of the main agencies working to restore marine habitats after the BP oil spill, and was involved with tracking and responding to Hurricane Sandy. Budget cuts may force NOAA to lay off employees whose skills and expertise are necessary for national restoration and preservation efforts.

In addition to impacting the NPS, the NWRS, NOAA, and the NFS, these cuts will also heavily impact the Bureau of Land Management, the Department of Energy, the US Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy program, and the Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, among many others. In a nation where all public land is affected by a government agency in one way or another, these budget cuts could dramatically alter open space as we know it. The effects of the sequester will reach far beyond national parks. They will discourage economic progress in the cities surrounding wilderness areas, and could reduce the scientific and technological resources we need to understand storms and other environmentally devastating disasters. These groups, agencies, and systems are part of a necessary network designed to protect our wild places and the animals that depend on them, as well as our homes, our towns, and our local economies.

Links:

Mother Nature Network

How The Fiscal Cliff Threatens America’s National Parks

The Fiscal Cliff and the Environment

Fiscal Cliff Threatens Environmental Protections that Voters Supported

Don’t Let US Parks Go Over ‘Fiscal Cliff’

NPCA Issues New Graphic Depicting Hardships Budget Cuts Would Impose On National Park System

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Eight months after a herd of bison was removed from Yellowstone National Park and introduced to tribal lands, a legal battle over the management of the herd is nearing its end. The dispute began when, just three days after the bison were moved to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in northern Montana, a livestock and property rights collective sued the agencies involved with the transfer, claiming the introduction of bison to public grazing lands, and allowance for bison to leave Yellowstone National Park in the winter, would compromise grazing areas and expose cattle to disease.

In the past, management of bison has been restricted to Yellowstone National Park. During winter months, any bison that strayed from park boundaries in search of food were hazed back into the park or killed. The proposed management plan would allow bison to roam outside of park boundaries during the winter, extending the protection of the animals even when they left the park. The plan would also protect the bison introduced to the Fort Peck Reservation from hazing or killing. The collective wants the Fort Peck tribe to purchase the bison, which would classify the bison as livestock and allowing ranchers to take action if they damage property or affect cattle.

Brian Schweitzer, Montana’s governor  has supported the bison management plan, stating the collective is only concerned about increased grazing fees. The bison herds may force ranchers to graze cattle on private lands as public land becomes less available. Permits to graze cattle on private land cost 77 percent more  than public land permits, meaning ranchers could pay $22.00 per head of cattle if bison force their herds onto private lands. “The most vocal opponents are the who’s who of public grazers,” Schweitzer said.

The collective is also concerned about the increased risk of disease. Bison, cattle, and elk are all at risk of contracting a disease known as brucellosis. When contracted, it causes the animals to abort their calves. However, there have been no documented cases of bison spreading the disease to cattle. The five reported cases of brucellosis in cattle in 2007 were found to be caused by elk.

The proposed changed are part of the Interagency Bison Management Plan. According to the plan’s website, the IBMP is a management plan “developed by the National Park Service, USDA-Forest Service, USDA-Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service, Montana Department of Livestock, and Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks”. Final testimony and closing arguments of both the collective and the agencies supporting the IBMP were heard on November 5th. District Judge E. Wayne Phillips has until the end of the year to reach a conclusion.

Thoughts

There are other issues taking place here in addition to disease and grazing conflicts. Proponents of the management plan cite the ecological benefits of bison reintroduction as a critical reason to allow the plan to move forward. Bison once roamed the Great Plains by the millions, but in the 1800s they were killed off in record numbers and suddenly faced near-extinction. In addition to being hunted for their meat and hide, they were also exterminated because of a US government initiative to eliminate the Native American’s main food source, forcing the Indians to flee to Canada or starve. By the turn of the century, bison populations in the US had dropped from an estimated 70 million to less than 2,000.

Bison cannot be re-established on the plains in the numbers they once held, but reintroducing bison in manageable numbers could benefit the ecology of their old habitats. Bison support the growth of prairie grasses in a number of ways. They help aerate and fertilize the land, and grass seeds that stick to their hides are spread about as bison roam. Many species, from insects to prairie dogs to birds of prey, benefit from the ecological impact bison herds have on grassland habitats. And because bison were removed from these habitats by humans, as opposed to natural causes, their reintroduction could improve the biodiversity and quality of land in these areas.

The challenge in this case is ultimately one of land management and land use. Ranchers have expanded grazing areas onto old bison ranges thanks to the absence of bison in the wild. These ranchers have become accustomed to grazing cattle on cheaper, public lands, and are also used to grazing herds of a certain size. Adding bison back to the prairies could increase grazing costs for ranchers, and may also force them to reduce cattle numbers as available grazing areas are slashed to make room for bison.

While a ruling in favor of the collective will have a significant and negative impact on the protection and expansion of bison herds in the US, even a ruling in favor of the IBMP and its supporting agencies will not eliminate contention between ranchers and supporters of bison.

Links:

Defender’s Blog

New York Times

Bozeman Daily Chronicle 

Interagency Bison Management Plan

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Map

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By the end of the month, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) will implement a protection plan designed to prevent unsustainable take levels of false killer whales in Hawaii waters. The agreement settles a lawsuit filed against NMFS by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Turtle Island Restoration Network, represented by Earthjustice. Negotiations in January 2010 led to a federally approved take-reduction proposal, but the Service failed to finalize the protection plan by the December 2011 deadline, per Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) requirements.

False Killer Whales populations in Hawaii are declining due to longline fishing in their range. Each year, longline fishing kills an average of 13 whales from the Hawaii Pelagic Stock–those whales that live 22 or more nautical miles from Hawaii shores. The whales in the Hawaii Insular Stock reside 76 or more nautical miles from shore, and are even more hard-hit by longline fishing. This population is declining at an unsustainable rate–9% annually. This percentage is twice the population’s sustainable rate, and as a result only 150 whales are left in this population. The Fisheries Service has requested that this stock be listed as Endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

The whales, which are actually large dolphins, are affected by longline fishing in two way: they become caught or tangled in the fishing lines and are seriously wounded or, in many cases, they are caught and killed by fisherman. Both of these situations are considered ‘take’ by the MMPA. According to NOAA, MMPA defines ‘take’ as “‘to harass, hunt, capture, or kill, or attempt to harass, hunt, capture, or kill any marine mammal.’ The MMPA prohibits take of marine mammals. Serious injuries and mortalities are considered take.”

Links:

Environmental News Network

NOAA False Killer Whale Fact Page

NOAA Protected Resources Division: False Killer Whales

Photo Credit

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The Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks Department has closed three bald eagle nesting areas in order to increase the chances of eagles nesting there. The Kolb and Weiser properties, as well as the Coal Creek area near Marshall Lake, will remain closed until July 31 or until it is determined that the areas can be reopened without disturbing nesting eagles.

Eagles begin seeking out nesting areas in early November, when the mating season begins.

Last year, three eagle nests were reported on Boulder County Parks and Open Space (POS) land. Those three nests yielded seven total fledglings: two each for two nests, and three fledglings for the third nest. Another pair of eagles was observed attempting to establish a nest just outside of POS property.

The closures are aimed at reducing human’s impact on nesting eagles. According to an independent report published by Boulder County Open Space, human activity near nesting zones can cause a loss of 85% of nests in the area. Human interaction can have several effects on nesting raptors, including visual and auditory disturbances. These disturbances, whether from, for example, the noise and proximity of rock climbers, are likely to keep raptors away from nests for prolonged periods of time. This may increase energy expenditures among adults due to “avoidance flights”, decrease feedings among fledglings, temperature disruptions in eggs, or in some cases, total desertion of a nest.

Links:

Daily Camera Announcement

Boulder County Parks and Open Space Wildlife Program Annual Report 2011

Recommendations for protecting raptors from human disturbance: a review 

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A leopard is responsible for killing at least 15 people Nepal in the last fifteen months, prompting local authorities to issue a reward for the animal in hopes of putting an end to the killings.

The leopard is primarily attacking villagers who reside in remote areas in Western Nepal. The leopard’s victims have been mostly children under the age of ten; four have been children older than ten, and one victim was a 29 year old woman. The  latest victim was a four year old boy, whose remains were found one kilometer from his village.

Kamal Prasad Kharel, the police chief of the Baitadi district where the attacks have occurred, says that one leopard is likely responsible for all the attacks, and at most two leopards are to blame. Maheshwor Dhakal, an ecologist at the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation in Kathmandu, agrees, stating that if more than two animals were behind the attacs, the number of attacks would be much higher. He cites the high salt content in human blood as one reason why a leopard who attacks a human will not readily return to hunting its natural prey. “Since human blood has more salt than animal blood, once wild animals get the taste of salty blood they do not like other animals like deer,” he said.

The reward, which amounts to Rs. 25,000 (or roughly $300), has been offered for anyone who captures or kills the leopard. Local village residents with guns and armed police forces have begun hunting for the leopard.

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The ecological concern behind this management strategy is the potential for excessive leopard killings. The panic caused by the attacks, and the unregulated reward system in place, creates an incentive for locals to hunt leopards aggressively. Local residents and police forces do not possess the ability to correctly identify the suspected leopard over other leopards in the area, and therefore there is a high likelihood that leopards not responsible for the attacks will be killed.

Furthermore, the hyperbolic reporting of the attacks in US and UK media outlets has increased the perception of hysteria and is potentially intended to encourage first-world readers to support the administration’s decision to offer a reward for the leopard. Both the CNN and Daily mail articles linked below begin with the sentence “A ferocious leopard may have killed 15 people in Nepal…” The use of sensationalism in these articles creates the impression that this particular leopard is a ‘man-eating beast’. Neither article cites potential environmental reasons why the leopard may have resorted to hunting humans, nor do they discuss the impact of the reward system on local leopard populations.

Although the leopard is not listed as endangered in Nepal, it is listed as a Status II, meaning it is “not yet threatened, but (…) could become endangered if trade is not controlled.”

Links:

Daily Mail Article

CNN Article

Forestry Nepal

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