Policy News: May 6

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston. Read the full Policy News here. MINING: COMMITTEE HEARING HIGHLIGHTS INDUSTRY CONCERNS OVER EPA REGS The House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment met May 5 for the first in a series of hearings entitled “EPA Mining Policies: Assault on Appalachian Jobs.” The hearings are in reaction to the Obama administration’s review of coal mining projects and the recent interim Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidance for issuing mountaintop removal permits in Appalachia. The guidance is currently under review of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Of the hearing’s four witnesses, none was opposed to mountaintop removal mining. Coal industry supporters on Capitol Hill believe the guidance, which sets the first-ever numeric standard for water conductivity—which  EPA says measures degradation from mining debris—is a significant departure from previous federal oversight of mountaintop removal mining. The mining technique being targeted by the guidance involves dynamiting mountaintops to expose coal seams and disposing of debris in adjacent valleys. Critics of the guidance assert it amounts to new regulations without having gone through the rulemaking process.  Proponents of the guidance maintain that Appalachian mountaintop removal mining is particularly harmful to both ecosystems and people, while producing only a fraction of America’s overall coal output. ENDANGERED SPECIES: NORTHERN ROCKIES GRAY WOLVES DELISTED, PUBLIC COMMENT OPPORTUNITY FOR GREAT LAKES POPULATIONS On May 4, the US Department of Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) published a final rule to remove gray wolves in Idaho and Montana as well as parts of Oregon, Utah and Washington, from the threatened or endangered list under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The move comes per the direction of language in the recently enacted  appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2011. The wolf delisting provision was championed by of House Interior and Environment Appropriations Chairman Mike Simpson (R-ID) and Sen. John Tester (D-MT). Conservation and scientific groups are concerned that the delisting could pave the way for removal of additional species through legislative means that circumvent—as this one did—the usual delisting process. Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar touted the delisting as “a success story,” comparing the gray wolf to the recovery of the whooping crane, brown pelican and bald eagle. Interior Deputy Secretary David Hayes noted that the agency will continue to apply the ESA’s “post-delisting monitoring requirements” to help ensure the wolf populations continue to flourish under state management. Some, such as Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), claim the delisting language did not go far enough. Hatch is the lead sponsor of S. 249, the American Big Game and...

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Policy News: March 25

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston. Read the full Policy News here. NUCLEAR CRISIS: LAWMAKERS URGE NRC TO RAMP UP, REVIEW PLANT SAFETY STANDARDS The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee convened March 16 for a briefing on the nuclear plant crisis in Japan and its implications for the United States. Congressional Democrats have expressed concerns about the safety of the nation’s nuclear power plants, especially reactors that lie on fault lines and are calling for new reviews.  Lawmakers with nuclear power plants in their states raised concerns that NRC has not yet taken proactive measures to ensure the safety of the U.S. plants that use similar technology as the Fukushima plant. Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) cited examples in Switzerland and Germany where older nuclear plants have temporarily been shut down in the wake of the Japanese disaster to ensure their safety. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko told lawmakers that 23 of the nation’s 104 nuclear reactors use the same General Electric Mark I boiling water containment design as those at the Japanese plant. They stressed that precautions have been taken at each plant to avoid disasters such as the one brought about in Japan from the recent earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Jaczko maintained that NRC plans to conduct a “systematic and methodical review” of the Japanese situation and would apply that to its review of the safety of U.S. reactors. Chairwoman Boxer and Clean Air and Nuclear Safety Subcommittee Chairman Tom Carper (D-DE) issued a letter March 17 to Chairman Jaczko seeking a comprehensive investigation of the NRC’s preparedness for natural disasters. This was coupled with a separate letter from Chairwoman Boxer and Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Diane Feinstein (D-CA) requesting that the NRC conduct a thorough inspection of the San Onfore and Diablo Canyon nuclear plants in California. In the House of Representatives, House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) declared his intention to hold a series of hearings on the nuclear disaster in coming weeks. He also reaffirmed his support for legislative efforts aimed at speeding up the federal approval process for building new nuclear reactors. House Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Edward Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA) sent a letter to the NRC requesting more information on the seismic safety features that are included in nuclear reactors currently in operation in the United States. The letter states “there are eight nuclear reactors located near the New Madrid fault line in the Midwest. There are additionally thirty-one nuclear reactors in the United States that are of the...

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Fear as an ecosystem engineer

This post contributed by Cristina Eisenberg, conservation biologist at Oregon State University Over the past three years I have conducted thirteen hundred focal animal observations on elk in the northern and southern Rocky Mountains. This involves patiently watching one animal at a time for up to twenty minutes and recording its wariness–that is, the amount of time it spends with its head down feeding versus head up, scanning for predators. Prey group size and a host of environmental factors can influence vigilance behavior. My research questions have to do with whether the vigilance of ungulates—such as elk, deer and other hooved animals— varies based on wolf population dynamics or other environmental factors that can influence predation risk. For example, would lone wolves passing through an area occasionally, but not denning there (as is the case with a returning wolf population in the Southern Rocky Mountains) have the same effect as several well-established packs using an area? Do terrain features such as downed wood, which may make it more difficult for an elk to escape a wolf, increase elk wariness? And could fear-based behavior vary by season, age and sex of the animals observed, herd size or human management of wolves? Termed the ecology of fear by ecologist Joel Brown, these predator-driven dynamics can have far-reaching effects on ecosystems via trophic cascades. Trophic cascades are the direct and indirect effects of an apex, or top, predator in a food web. In 1974 in the Aleutian archipelago, Jim Estes and his colleagues found that removing sea otters releases their primary prey, sea urchins, from predation. As sea urchins explode in number, they consume vegetation unsustainably, thereby reducing habitat for other species such as fish. The presence of a predator, such as the wolf, affects prey foraging behavior as prey try to balance the need to detect predators with meeting their  nutritional needs. These behavioral effects have been observed between spiders and their grasshopper prey by Oswald Schmitz and colleagues, as with sea urchins in terrestrial systems: Intensive browsing can lead to herbivores literally eating themselves out of house and home and, consequently, to a loss of biodiversity and ecosystem destabilization. Lacking apex predators to keep ungulates in check, ecosystems can support fewer species, such as birds and butterflies , because the plants that create habitats for these species have been over-browsed. Some predators and their prey naturally fluctuate in population size; this cycling can leave noticeable marks on the landscape. However, scientists are finding that these interactions are complex beyond the typical ebb and flow of predator and prey numbers. Assessing ungulates and large carnivores in the northern hemisphere, conservation biologist...

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Ecosystem snapshot: reassessing the role of wolves in Yellowstone

Yellowstone National Park is home to more than 1,350 species of vascular plants and numerous species of mammals, amphibians, reptiles and birds—not to mention the natural landmarks such as Old Faithful Geyser. Among the inhabitants of Yellowstone is the famous quaking aspen, a deciduous tree that has significantly declined in the park since the 20th Century, due in large part to elk grazing.

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