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Archive for the ‘endangered species’ Category

I wrote this story for Reuters, where it first appeared on November 26, 2010.

In an effort that could help avoid conflicts between wind energy developers and environmentalists, the United States Department of the Interior this week released a map that identifies breeding densities of the imperiled sage-grouse in 11 Western states.

The chicken-sized bird with a white breast and a plumage of brown, black and white feathers is dependent on a sage-brush habitat that also is favored by developers of wind farms in high-wind areas of the Western United States.

“This map and initiative will help advance our collaborative efforts with states and stakeholders to develop smart policy to enhance the sustainability of our sage-grouse populations,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement.  “The final map will give Interior a strong foundation to identify land uses that do not compromise areas that are so critical to the greater sage-grouse.”

Development of all kinds has taken a toll on the ground-dwelling sage-grouse and environmental groups petitioned the federal government to put the bird on the endangered species list. In March, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that protection of the sage-grouse was warranted but that the bird would not be listed due to the need to protect other species first.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Todd Woody

In the New York Times on Wednesday, I follow up my story on solar power plants and desert tortoises:

In an article in The New York Times on Wednesday, I write about how the fortunes of big solar power plants in the desert Southwest can hinge on the way developers handle imperiled wildlife in the path of their projects.

The protected desert tortoise has become the totemic animal for environmentalists fighting to ensure that the huge solar farms don’t eliminate essential habitat for the long-lived reptile and other wildlife, like the bighorn sheep and flat-tailed horned lizard.

The tortoise has been in decline for decades, and the rampant changing of the desert — including the development of casinos, strip malls and subdivisions, and designation of off-road recreational vehicle areas — took its toll long before construction began late last month on the Ivanpah solar power plant, the first large-scale solar thermal project to be break ground in the United States in 20 years.

Still, the solar farms will industrialize the desert on an unparalleled scale. The seven projects already licensed in California will cover 42 square miles with immense mirror arrays.

But as much as some biologists fear that the need to generate electricity without carbon dioxide emissions will harm the desert tortoise, the projects offer an opportunity for intensive research on the critter. That’s because regulations require solar developers to monitor tortoises for three years after they are relocated.

“Certainly the monitoring of the translocated desert tortoises will yield useful research information on the ability of desert tortoises to adapt to new surroundings,” Larry LaPré, a wildlife biologist with the United States Bureau of Land Management, said in an e-mail.

Such data is critical. While environmental regulations and efforts by developers like BrightSource Energy, the builder of the Ivanpah project in Southern California, are tailored to remove the tortoise from harm’s way during construction, the survival of the animals depends on how well they adjust to their new homes.

The track record on tortoise relocations is not encouraging. In 2008, more than 700 tortoises were moved from the Fort Irwin military installation in Southern California so the base could expand. Nearly half the relocated tortoises died within two years from, among other things, predation by coyotes and ravens, according to state records.

Biologists I met recently at the Ivanpah power plant site were far more optimistic about the relocation of 23 tortoises found in the project’s first phase.

“The tortoises at Fort Irwin were moved a lot further than these, and there also was a big problem with predators there,” Peter Woodman, a biologist who worked on the military project, explained as he stood by a holding pen where the Ivanpah tortoises will live until they are moved next spring.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Todd Woody

In The New York Times special Energy report, I write about how the success of large-scale solar power plants being built in the desert Southwest depends on how developers deal with the imperiled desert tortoise and other wildlife:

NIPTON, Calif. — On the construction site of the $2 billion Ivanpah solar power plant here, burly laborers slowly walk around their trucks, dropping to their knees to peer underneath before turning the ignition. Hanging on each rearview mirror is a placard warning workers to “Look under your car for desert tortoise before you drive away!”

Road graders and backhoes crawl along at 10 miles per hour, led by biologists wearing green hard hats who scan for tortoises in a landscape studded with creosote bushes. “Nobody is allowed on the site without a biologist to escort them,” said Mercy Vaughn, the lead biologist for BrightSource Energy, the Oakland, Calif., company that is building the 370-megawatt power plant, the first large-scale solar thermal project to break ground in the United States in two decades.

The imperiled desert tortoise sets the pace here in the desert Southwest, and how developers deal with a host of protected plants and animals has become crucial to getting vast renewable energy projects built. That means hiring scores of biologists, managing the relocation of species and acquiring thousands of acres of replacement habitat.

With seven large solar power plants already approved that would cover 42 square miles of the California desert with huge mirror arrays, solar dishes and towers, environmentalists and regulators have increasingly become concerned about the impact that industrialization of the desert will have on fragile landscapes.

“If wildlife issues are not at the top of a developer’s list, they should be,” said Karen Douglas, the chairwoman of the California Energy Commission, which licenses large solar thermal power plants. “The footprint of these solar projects is unprecedented, and obviously they can impact a range of species.”

Developers underestimate the importance of desert animals at their peril.

The California Energy Commission in October, for instance, approved Tessera Solar’s huge Calico project in Southern California only after the company agreed to slash the project nearly in half to avoid having to relocate most of the 104 tortoises found on the site this year. And the commission’s staff has indicated that it is unlikely to recommend the licensing of Solar Millennium’s 250-megawatt Ridgecrest power plant because of its impact on the desert tortoise and the Mohave ground squirrel.

Late last month, the Quechan Indian Tribe sued the federal government over its approval of a second Tessera power plant, contending that the 709-megawatt Imperial Valley Solar Project would harm the flat-tailed horned lizard, an animal proposed for endangered species protection. It is part of the tribe’s creation story.

As the first big solar thermal power project to undergo licensing in 20 years and the first to begin construction, Ivanpah is being watched closely by environmentalists, regulators and competitors over how it handles wildlife challenges.

BrightSource, which is backed by Google, Morgan Stanley and several oil companies, has signed contracts to deliver 2,610 megawatts of electricity to utilities in the state. It took three years for the project to be licensed by the California Energy Commission as BrightSource and environmental groups tussled over the power plant’s impact on the desert tortoise, bighorn sheep and other species that roam the 3,582-acre site in the Mojave Desert.

BrightSource shrank Ivanpah by 12 percent, reducing the number of desert tortoises that would have to be relocated and avoiding an area of rare plants. The portion of the project that would most affect wildlife was cut by 23 percent.

The energy commission in September licensed Ivanpah over the objections of the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity and other groups that argued it would eliminate high-quality habitat for the tortoise.

“If you put a project in the wrong place and even do some things to reduce its impact, it’s still bad,” said Lisa Belenky, a senior lawyer with the Center for Biological Diversity in San Francisco. “We’re really trying to get companies and regulators focused on lands that have already been disturbed.”

The Ivanpah site is just over the Nevada border, about 40 miles southwest of Las Vegas. The neon glow of two hulking casinos looms in the distance. An incongruous patch of luminescent green marks an 18-hole golf course adjacent to the site.

“Everyone wants to do the right thing, but everyone is concerned because there are so many precedents that are being set since we’re the first ones through the hoop,” Todd Stewart, the Ivanpah project manager, said recently as he stood amid the desert scrub as biologists tracked a tortoise that had been outfitted with a radio transmitter. The orange and brown tortoise, which the biologists said was probably 30 to 40 years old, was about the size of a soccer ball.

By 2014, nearly six square miles of government-owned desert surrounding Mr. Stewart will be covered with 347,000 mirrors, each the dimension of a billboard. The mirrors will focus the sun on a three 459-foot towers topped by water-filled boilers to create steam that will drive turbines to generate electricity.

BrightSource executives take pains to point out that they designed Ivanpah to minimize its disturbance of the desert. Vegetation, for example, will be trimmed rather than plowed as equipment is installed.

Following conditions of its license, the company fielded an army of more than 50 biologists to capture and radio-tag tortoises in the 900-acre first phase of the project and ensure none were harmed as construction began.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Todd Woody

In The New York Times on Thursday, I wrote about the continuing legal battle over placing the American pika, a small mountain-dwelling critter, on state and federal endangered species lists due to climate change threats to the animal’s survival:

In an article in Wednesday’s paper, I wrote about an environmental law firm that persuaded thousands of San Francisco commuters to use their smartphones’ Foursquare application to “check in” at its advertisements in subway stations and raise money to save the American pika, a critter that may be threatened by climate change.

The nonprofit law firm, Earthjustice, scored a victory this week when a San Francisco judge ordered the California Fish and Game Commission to reconsider a decision to deny state endangered species protection to the pika.

A relative of the rabbit, the pika lives on the rocky slopes of alpine ranges in California and throughout the West. Even small increases in temperature prove fatal to the pika, which does not hibernate and maintains a high body heat to survive frigid winters. As temperatures rise in mountainous regions, some scientists have found that pika populations either have vanished at lower elevations or moved to higher ground. The pint-sized mammal is also at risk from melting snow packs, which it relies on to insulate its burrows during long winters.

Earthjustice represents the Center for Biological Diversity in its efforts to have the pika listed as a protected species under state and federal law. After initially finding that a listing may be warranted for the pika, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in February concluded that the species could adapt to climate change.

In California, meanwhile, Earthjustice has been enmeshed in a three-year fight with the state Fish and Game Commission. The commission has twice rejected consideration of the Center for Biological Diversity’s petition to list the pika as a threatened species.

“The record in this case unequivocally demonstrates that the petition failed to include sufficient, if any, scientific information about population trend, population abundance, range, distribution, and degree and immediacy of threat to the pika throughout all or a significant portion of its range in California,” Cecilia L. Dennis, a California deputy attorney general, wrote in a motion filed Sept. 1 that opposed the environmentalists’ effort to re-open the listing proceedings.

But Greg Loarie, an attorney with Earthjustice, which is based in Oakland, Calif., argued that the Center for Biological Diversity offered more than ample evidence that a listing might be warranted for the pika, which would lead to a full investigation of the species’ status.

In court filings, Mr. Loarie said that the commission failed to properly consider new scientific evidence that his client presented in 2009 after Judge Peter Busch of the San Francisco Superior Court ordered the commission to reconsider the petition on the ground that it had used the wrong legal standard to reach its decision.

“As the expert agency charged with protecting California’s wildlife, the commission’s role is to evaluate the substance of the scientific evidence that it receives in support of and against a listing petition,” Mr. Loarie wrote in a brief.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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In a story in Wednesday’s New York Times, I write about how Earthjustice, a non-profit law firm, ran a successful successful fundraising campaign to help the climate change-endangered American pika by using Foursquare and location-based advertising:

SAN FRANCISCO

IN a city passionate about the environment and technology, commuters are using their smartphones to check in at a popular social networking service to help keep a critter threatened by climate change from checking out.

“What does it take to help save the endangered pika? About 20 seconds,” read ads from Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm, that line San Francisco transit stations and feature the cute rabbitlike American pika in its Sierra Nevada mountain redoubt. “Check in now at Foursquare at ‘Earthjustice ad.’ Every time you check in, an Earthjustice donor will donate $10 to protect endangered species.”

Foursquare, a rapidly growing social network, lets people use their mobile phones to announce their location to friends. When they arrive at a restaurant, bar or another site, they “check in” and can broadcast their whereabouts through other social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.

The Earthjustice campaign appears to be among the first to let people check in at a physical billboard, a tactic that has proved successful for the firm and could be attractive to other advertisers, according to industry analysts and Foursquare executives.

“Tying in location allows the advertiser to see which particular ads are more successful at prompting responses,” said Noah Elkin, a mobile marketing analyst at eMarketer, a New York research firm. “Plus, checking in allows each person to share what they think is important about the ad campaign. If they post their check-ins to Facebook and Twitter, you’ve reached a much broader audience.”

Earthjustice’s foray in location-based fund-raising began after the group was offered free ad space to run public service announcements at several Bay Area Rapid Transit stations.

“Foursquare was becoming very popular, especially here in San Francisco, and the BP oil spill had happened not too long before, so it was this perfect storm,” said Ray Wan, the marketing manager for Earthjustice, which is based in Oakland, Calif. “A lot of the time people are standing around BART checking their phones as they wait for their train, so it was a no-brainer to use Foursquare as way to get them to engage with the ads and support our work.”

Earthjustice persuaded one of its donors in the Bay Area, whom Mr. Wan described as “very progressive” but who wished to remain anonymous, to pledge $50,000 toward the experimental campaign.

Human Ideas, a Minneapolis firm, created the wall-size ad featuring the pika, which many biologists consider the animal most at risk in the continental United States from global warming. Earthjustice represents the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group that is fighting to place the pika on state and federal endangered species lists.

The pint-size mammal lives mostly in mountainous areas in the western United States and Canada, and even a small spike in its body temperature is fatal. As temperatures have risen, pika populations have vanished from lower elevations, while other populations have remained stable. In February, federal officials declined to give endangered species status to the pika.

The ad for the pika is just one of three that Human Ideas has created for Earthjustice. Another ad, squeezed between billboards for banks and insurance companies, shows an offshore oil rig and declares, “Use your cellphone to drill the oil industry.” A third ad pictures Lake Tahoe, admonishing commuters, “Don’t just stand there. Stand there and help keep Tahoe’s water clean.”

“We want donor dollars to go to causes that are meaningful to Californians,” said Mr. Wan. “When you’re standing around in this urban environment, all the ads are for Starbucks or banks, so to see the pika staring at you turns your head.”

Commuters have checked in at the ads more than 5,700 times, meeting Earthjustice’s $50,000 fund-raising goal.

Many of those who use Foursquare automatically post their Earthjustice check-ins on their Twitter and Facebook pages, further spreading the group’s message.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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Photo: Lori Eanes.

In a piece I wrote for Yale Environment 360, I interview the new executive director of the Sierra Club, Michael Brune, about what’s next for the green movement in the wake of the defeat of federal climate change legislation:

In March, Michael Brune took over as executive director of the Sierra Club, the oldest and largest environmental organization in the United States. The Sierra Club doesn’t change leaders often — he’s only the sixth executive director in its 118-year history — and in selecting Brune, the group’s board chose to go with a young outsider with a track record of campaigning in the streets and confronting corporations to effect environmental change.

Brune, 38, previously ran the Rainforest Action Network, a San Francisco-based group whose slogan is “Environmentalism with Teeth.” With a small staff and modest budget, Rainforest Action has extracted agreements from companies such as Home Depot and Citigroup to abandon environmentally destructive practices.

In moving four blocks from Rainforest Action’s offices to the Sierra Club’s national headquarters, Brune — who started his environmental career as a Greenpeace campaigner — is now leading an organization with 1.3 million members and 400 chapters.

His ascension to one of the top jobs in American environmentalism comes at a turning point for the green movement. The decade’s best shot at imposing a national cap on greenhouse gas emissions has failed in the U.S. Senate, despite years of effort by groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council to forge a coalition with Fortune 500 companies to pass climate change legislation.

“I think we need to a do a very honest and candid reflection on why various iterations of cap and trade legislation have failed,” says Brune, whose soft-spoken manner belies a reputation as a hard-nosed negotiator. “Millions of people have written e-mails, called their senators, demonstrated in the streets, taken actions in a variety of different ways, and still we can’t even get 50 votes, much less 60” in the Senate.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Brune sat down in his office at Sierra Club headquarters with writer Todd Woody to talk about the future of the environmental movement, his plans for the Sierra Club, and the next front in what author author Eric Pooley calls the “climate war.”

Yale Environment 360: With the failure of climate legislation, where does the environmental movement go from here?

Michael Brune: The first thing we need to do is a good assessment of what went wrong. We should not try to do the same thing and expect a different result. We need to rethink what the best way is to build momentum to fight climate change. Just as it was clear that one single bill wasn’t going to stop climate change, it’s also clear that there are many different avenues that we can take.

e360: What would be some of those avenues?

Brune: I think clearly right now focusing on administrative actions, regulatory actions, and perhaps more narrow but stronger legislation that would focus on reducing oil consumption and increasing the inventory of clean energy that is available. There’s a lot that can happen through the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] to protect the public health that Eight years from now we could have a third of the coal fleet replaced with clean energy.” will accelerate a transition away from dirty coal-fired power plants.

The Sierra Club over the past three or four years has been focused on stopping new coal-fired power plants from being built, arguably one of the most effective things we’ve ever done. Along with a broad coalition of grassroots groups, we’ve been able to stop about 131 new coal plants from being built.

That work is going to be evolving over the next several years to not only focus on stopping new plants but on retiring the biggest, oldest coal plants and replacing them with clean energy. So by supporting the EPA’s efforts to protect public health and tighten the controls on particulate matter and air toxins like mercury — there’s a whole series of regulations that are coming down the pike — we feel like we can achieve dramatic reductions and significantly decarbonize the power sector. We feel eight years from now we could have a third of the coal fleet be retired and replaced with clean energy.

You can read the rest of the interview here.

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photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

On Thursday, Yale Environment 360 published a story I wrote about a growing fight over using the U.S. Endangered Species Act to protect wildlife at risk of extinction from climate change:

While a high-profile battle raged over listing the polar bear as a threatened species due to melting Arctic sea ice, U.S. environmentalists were quietly building a case to protect a critter closer to home, one whose existence also seems gravely threatened by a warming world.

A pocket-sized member of the rabbit family with a distinctive squeak and large ears that frame dark eyes and a button nose, the American pika lives on rocky slopes high in alpine mountain ranges from the Sierra Nevada to the Rockies. Sporting a thick gray-brown coat, the pika does not hibernate and so maintains a high internal temperature to survive frigid winters. Because it can’t turn off its heater, the animal can die in the summer if its body temperature increases by as little as 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 F).

As temperatures have risen across the American West, scientists who study the pika have discovered that it is disappearing from lower elevations. In the Sierra Nevada, for instance, biologists at the University of California, Berkeley, found that the pika had moved upslope 500 feet to cooler climes over the past 90 years. Another study determined that nine of 25 pika populations in the Great Basin of Nevada and Utah have vanished over the past century, with surviving pikas migrating up 900 feet. Eventually, the tiny mammal will reach the mountaintop and the end of the line, with nowhere left to go if temperatures continue to climb, according to numerous biologists.

The pika has become an indicator species in more ways than one. It is in the vanguard of a growing number of animals and plants that U.S. environmental groups have petitioned to protect as the Endangered Species Act becomes the latest battleground over global warming.

The effort to put a furry face on the abstract phenomenon of climate change is bringing to a head a simmering issue: As scientific evidence accumulates about global warming’s impact on wildlife, how effective can the Endangered Species Act be in cushioning the blow of climate change on various species? But beyond this issue, an even thornier question looms: Can conservation groups use the act to force the U.S. government to use the legislation’s powerful provisions to mandate greenhouse gas reductions to protect wildlife and their habitat?

You can read the rest of the story here.

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