With Drilling ANWR a Go, Polar Bears Will Suffer

14 Sep

On September 12, just hours after the House of Representatives voted to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) from drilling, the Department of the Interior announced its final plans for leasing ANWR’s sensitive coastal plain for oil and gas exploitation. Lease sales will take place before the end of 2019.

Efforts to circumvent and undermine protections for polar bears by administration officials can be traced back to at least 2008, all in an effort to drill in our country’s last unspoiled wilderness.

How Drilling ANWR Threatens Polar Bears

Above is a map of polar bear denning sites in ANWR, compared to the area DOI plans to lease for oil and gas drilling. As you can see, the proposed drilling areas encompass known denning areas. These maps were created by DOI

According to DOI’s plan for ANWR development, it intends to, “lease the entire program area.” 

Oil and gas exploration requires locating resource deposits and identifying drilling sites using seismic surveying. That process involves sending high pressure vibrations into the ground, at 135 foot intervals, across the entire region. To conduct that process, teams of 150 to 160 workers living in mobile camps must move heavy equipment over virtually every inch of the survey area using 90,000-pound trucks. And that process must occur in the winter, when the frozen ground can support the weight of those vehicles; the same time in which the bears are giving birth to cubs and raising them in dens through the first three months of their lives. 

The seismic surveys themselves are known to disturb the bears, as is the rest of the industrial activity required by the process. The trucks used are heavy enough that they can break through the snow, and destroy polar bear dens. 

“Even if mother bears are able to escape being crushed as a vehicle drives over a den, it is highly unlikely that cubs could do so,” reads a study Polar Bears International (PBI) conducted on the impacts of seismic surveys. It goes on to estimate a 25 percent chance that at least one polar bear will be crushed to death in one season of seismic surveys in ANWR. 

The larger disturbance all that described activity will have on polar bear behavior is more widespread. The same PBI study explains that polar bear cubs are unable to survive outside of dens for the first three months of their lives, and that seismic survey activity can cause mothers to abandon their dens before that period is up, leaving cubs to die. Areas in which disturbance caused by the surveys is significant enough to disrupt denning bears encompass 97 percent of ANWR’s coastal plain. “It is virtually certain that most undetected polar bears in their dens will be disturbed at some level,” finds the study. 

DOI’s ANWR drilling plan does include some attempts to mitigate impact to polar bears. Aerial surveys will use Forward Looking Infrared Radar to try and identify den sites, and a one-mile exclusion zone will be created around those, in which no survey or drilling activity will be permitted. 

To test the effectiveness of aerial FLIR surveys, PBI conducted multiple test flights over known denning sites, which were in heavy use by bears. This was a best-case scenario for the potential effectiveness of the aerial surveys, yet PBI was only able to detect known dens from the air 50 to 67 percent of the time, depending on the number of flights conducted. The study goes on to describe other limitations of aerial FLIR surveys: the arctic’s frequently bad weather and false positives created by other heat sources under the snow. 

"To boost detections above 50 percent required monumental efforts including multiple flights and close adherence to identified ideal weather conditions," elaborates Dr. Steven Amstrup, chief scientist for Polar Bears International, who conducted the surveys. "Whereas this was possible in a research setting where surveys were flown only over known points, it seems intractable when multiple searches would need to be focused on 3000 kilometers of denning habitat."  

So, given real world conditions, only 50 percent of polar bear denning sites in ANWR would benefit from that one-mile exclusion zone. And, even those bears with protected dens would still end up impacted by other factors as drilling in the refuge progresses. Infrastructure like roads and pipelines would create barriers bears would need to cross between sea ice and denning sites. Increased human activity in the area would put bears at risk from vehicle traffic and human-bear conflict. Oil spills and other major pollution events that could conceivably result from oil and gas exploitation in the area could also threaten both bears and their food source

"Poor cub survival in recent years indicates that females leaving their dens are increasingly in poor physical condition and need to get out to the ice and hunt as quickly as possible," says Amstrup. "The impact of numerous potential barriers or sources of interference with direct passage to the ice can only be worse for already stressed family groups."  

Beauty Shots STOCK CATEGORY
A mother and her cub on sea ice. While it's the loss of its ice that threatens the outright survival of the species, it's how many polar bears we're able to save right now which determines the chance they'll have if we are able to reverse climate change. (Photo: PBI)

Why ANWR’s Bears Matter

Polar bears that den in ANWR are part of the Southern Beaufort Sea (SBS) population—one of 19 total populations in the arctic, and one of only two populations found in the United States. Between 2001 and 2010, the loss of sea ice due to climate change caused the SBS population to plummet 40 percent. The last known count for the SBS population was just 900. 

Cub survival is already at perilously low rates within this population. During a 2004 to 2006 study period, the SBS population was afflicted by a zero percent cub survival rate. That has since improved, but still stands at half the historic rate. PBI estimates that the number of year-old bears in the SBS population could be as low as 54.

“Negative impacts on denning could accelerate the ongoing declining trend in the SBS population and lower the probability that the SBS population can persist,” writes Polar Bears International. Thirty percent of the SBS population dens in ANWR. With the population so close to collapse, every bear there matters. And, PBI has identified that, as sea ice levels continue to fall due to climate change, more and more bears are denning on land. ANWR will only grow more important to the SBS population in the future. 

Couldn’t the bears just go elsewhere? “ANWR is the most important denning site in the United States for polar bears,” explains Amstrup. He says that there’s just no where else as viable for the SBS population. "Piling more stresses onto an already stressed population can only exacerbate that population’s declining status," he continues.

All this is a problem for the survival of the polar bear species as a whole. As I explored at length in this article, the polar bear is directly threatened by climate change. As sea ice in the arctic is lost, so too does the polar bear lose its hunting grounds. If the polar bear is to survive, we must tackle climate change. But we must also keep the species in the best health possible until climate change is addressed, if the bears are to stand a chance of recovery when that happens. The loss of one of only 19 total populations would be a devastating blow to that chance. 

Moms and Cubs STOCK CATEGORY
With the Southern Beaufort Sea population on the verge of collapse, any disturbance to ANWR puts its future at risk. (Photo: PBI)

How This Happened

The Trump administration has had to overcome or circumvent numerous protections for the polar bear in order to open up ANWR’s fragile coastal plain for drilling. 

Its first success came way back in 2008. Back then, current Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt was working as the department’s solicitor and authored the ruling that listed the polar bear as threatened, rather than endangered. You’ll find a further explanation of those shenanigans here. The short version is that by weaving a complicated legal argument, that the dots between emissions from a specific source of pollution and effects felt by a specific bear or population of bears couldn’t be connected, he prevented a ruling that those emissions endangered the species. 

That served as a proof of concept to changes Bernhardt made to the Endangered Species Act last month. In those, he also added language stating that, to be subject to ESA regulation, a project must impact the entirety of a species’ habitat rather than just parts of it. And he changed the ESA’s definition of “foreseeable future” to preclude the assessment of long term risks an endangered or threatened species might face. 

You can see both those changes at play here. The impact rule opens up critical polar bear habitat for drilling, while the longterm damage that will occur to ANWR is no longer considered by the ESA. 

Before the administration made those changes to the ESA through executive order, another undemocratic process was at work. In the fall of 2017, Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski added a rider to the GOP’s signature overhaul of the federal tax code, mandating that the government begin issuing oil and gas leases in ANWR. Because that bill was filibuster-proof, the rider guaranteed that drilling in ANWR would become law. Even some Republicans opposed it, with 12 House GOP members signing a letter objecting to the rider.

The next step was to create the Environmental Impact Statement dictated by the National Environmental Policy Act. Those mandate a public comment period and are supposed to make the federal agency in question accountable to the public. But that public comment period for ANWR drilling was conducted during the prolonged government shutdown that ran from late 2018 into early 2019. (It did eventually receive a one-month extension post-shutdown.) Meetings with local communities were scheduled during the shutdown, but those rural, dispersed communities in northern Alaska were given minimal notice of the meetings, something DOI blamed on the shutdown. Those community members who did make it questioned the meetings’ legality

Still, public comments did result, and you can find the ones DOI chose to address here. Let’s look at one example:

“Studies demonstrate that being forced to emerge from a den early can have significant survival impacts on cubs post emergence,” writes one commenter, whose name is withheld. “Successful emergence from dens does not mean that denning near development did not have an impact or cause early emergence resulting in reduced cub survival,” they continue, referring to language in what was then merely a proposal that minimized the perceived impacts on polar bear denning sites. 

“Text is accurate as written,” writes DOI, in response. The EIS was completed, and now the only thing standing between ANWR’s polar bears and drilling is time.

These 6 Industries Will Be Hurt by Clean Water Rollback

13 Sep

On September 12, the Trump administration announced final details of its long-planned rollback of the Clean Water Act. Taking us back to pre-1988 levels of protection, the rule opens up 50 percent of stream miles in the lower 48 states and 110 million acres of wetlands to polluters.

This is, of course, billed as a regulatory boon to the oil, gas, mining, and other environmentally-damaging industries. But dirty water doesn’t benefit everyone. Let’s take a look at the industries that will be harmed by these actions. 

Waterfowl Hunting

“Every species of duck, goose, and swan in North America depends on wetlands at some point in its life cycle,” private conservation organization Ducks Unlimited says in a statement. The group is responsible for protecting 14 million acres of wetlands over the last eight decades, work that is now threatened by the Trump administration. 

“Most waterfowl breed in or near small wetland complexes,” continues the statement. “These areas provide essential resources such as nesting sites, nutrition for females and their young, and cover to reduce predation.” It’s these small wetland areas that are most at threat under the new rules. Anything that’s not a major body of water is essentially having its protections stripped. 

“Nearly two out of every three mallards that hunters harvest in the United States are produced in the Prairie Pothole Region,” the organization details. That region will no longer benefit from Clean Water Act protections. “Biologists estimated that loss of the most vulnerable wetlands in the Prairie Pothole Region of North Dakota and South Dakota could result in a 40 percent loss of breeding pairs of waterfowl from that region. If loss of wetlands continues, particularly in the Prairie Pothole Region, shorter waterfowl hunting seasons and smaller bag limits are more likely over the long term.”

Waterfowl hunting is responsible for $3.4 billion in retail sales annually, and 68,000 jobs. 

Recreational Fishing

“Trout and salmon depend on the streams targeted by this proposal,” states Trout Unlimited. “And since water flows downstream, weakening the law will ultimately affect many types of recreational fishing.” 

“The Clean Water Act, and the 2015 Rule, are vital to TU’s mission, and to anglers across the nation. Whether TU is working with farmers to restore small headwater streams in West Virginia, removing acidic pollution caused by abandoned mines in Pennsylvania, or protecting the world-famous salmon-producing, 14,000-jobs-sustaining watershed of Bristol Bay, Alaska, we rely on the Clean Water Act to safeguard our water quality improvements,” the organization wrote in a letter opposing the new regulations

Recreational fishing contributed $115 billion to the United States economy in 2013 and supports 563,000 jobs. 

Commercial Fishing

“In 2016, commercial and recreational saltwater fishing in the United States generated more than $212 billion in sales and contributed $100 billion to the country’s gross domestic product,” states Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross in a press release. “These critical industries supported 1.7 million jobs in communities across the country.”

Seventy-five percent of commercially harvested fish are wetlands-dependent. Even ocean-dwelling fish are part of a food chain that often begins in wetlands. That percentage of the harvest that’s wetlands-dependent grows to 95 if you add shellfish to the calculation.

Brewing

“Beer is mostly water, so the quality of our source water significantly affects our finished product,” members of the craft beer brewing industry write in a letter opposing the new rules. “Compounds present in brewing water can affect pH, color, aroma, and taste. Sulfates make hops taste astringent, while chlorine can create a medicinal off-flavor. The presence of bacteria can spoil a batch of beer. Even small chemical disruptions in our water supply can influence factors like shelf life and foam pattern.”

“Unexpected changes in water quality—due to pollution in our source water, or a change in the treatment process at our local drinking water plant—can threaten our brewing process and our bottom line,” the letter continues. “We need reliable sources of clean water to consistently produce the great beer that is key to our success.”

The craft beer industry contributes $76.2 billion to the American economy each year, supporting more than 500,000 jobs. 

Watersports

“Water quality directly impacts whitewater boaters as they get splashed, flip over, and occasionally swim,” writes American Whitewater, a recreational boating advocacy group. “While all of this is part of the fun, it’s less so if the water that gets into paddler’s mouths, ears, noses, and any cuts is polluted. The issue of protecting water quality is also especially important to boaters because most whitewater rivers and streams can only be descended during higher than normal flows caused by rainfall or during snowmelt. Surface runoff and pollution often spike during these times.”

Watersports support $140 billion in retail spending annually, and 1.2 million jobs. 

Tourism

It’s difficult to estimate the total economic impact clean water brings to the tourism industry each year. But, it can be easy to find instances where dirty water has harmed tourism-dependent economies. In 2014, an algae bloom in Lake Erie caused by agricultural runoff is estimated to have cost businesses in Toledo, Ohio, $3 to $4 million in lost spending—on one weekend alone. The Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico is estimated to have cost Florida $3 billion in lost tourism. A small chemical spill in West Virginia’s Elk River cost the local economy $19 million per day, 24 percent of the region’s total economic output. The Trump administration’s new CWA rules could damage or eliminate the very features that draw tourists to destinations. 


Of course, such a sweeping roll back of Clean Water Act protections won’t just impact the country’s bottom line. The changes could reduce access to clean drinking water for 117 million Americans

Does Bear Spray Work? 

26 Aug

Fact #1: Bear spray is 98 percent effective.

Fact #2: Your odds of being injured by a bear while carrying a firearm are the same as if you’re carrying no defense at all. 

I’ve always taken the scientific studies that arrived at those two conclusions as gospel. And I’ve written articles repeating their findings while arriving at the invariable conclusion that bear spray is better than a firearm when it comes to defending against a bear attack. But you know what? I was wrong. 

“There was no thought of comparing the two [studies], though some do that,” says Tom Smith, who authored both reports, titled the “Efficacy of Bear Deterrent Spray in Alaska” and “Efficacy of Firearms for Bear Deterrence in Alaska.”

Yet many people—including me, obviously—have compared the results of those two studies. And that, according to Smith, was never his intention. 

Entirely Different Methodologies

Read beyond the results of the two studies and you’ll see that, despite similarities in subject matter and titles, they actually cover two very different scenarios. 

The bear-spray study includes 83 incidents spanning from 1985 to 2006 in which the deterrent was employed. Of those incidents, 50 involved brown bears—on 31 occasions, the bear was curious or seeking food, while the remaining 18 cases involved an aggressive bear. There were only nine studied instances where a brown bear charged a human. 

Twenty-four of the people in the bear-spray study were hiking when they encountered a bear. Twenty-one were wildlife officials engaged in bear management. The rest were doing a variety of the usual outdoor activities, including photography and fishing. None were hunting. 

bear-spray-activities
Primary activity of persons involved in bear-spray incidents in Alaska from 1985 to 2006. Note that the second most common activity is preplanned, deliberate hazing by bear-management officials, in which the outcome was predetermined. (“Efficacy of Bear Deterrent Spray in Alaska”)

I asked Smith to clarify the nature of bear-management incidents in which bear spray was used. Was the use of the spray premeditated and intended to alter the behavior of the bears involved? “These were largely intentional hazings, not surprise-encounter-type situations,” he says. 

In contrast, the firearms study “compiled information on bear attacks,” with 269 incidents between 1883 and 2009 selected, notably excluding Alaska’s own Defense of Life and Property (DLP) records, as studied by Sterling Miller in this paper. Smith and his coauthors acknowledge the effect this exclusion had on the study’s findings, writing: “Because bear-inflicted injuries are closely covered by the media, we likely did not miss many records where people were injured…. if more incidents had been made available through the Alaska DLP database, we anticipate that these would have contributed few, if any, additional human injuries.” The study states that including that data would have improved the reported success rates for firearms. 

I asked Smith to explain why the DLP records were excluded from his firearms study, when they seem to so obviously represent a large amount of data on firearms efficacy. “All of the records cited in Miller’s paper were missing from the files, as though they had never been returned after they completed their analysis,” he explains, also noting that state officials denied him access to more recent records, due to privacy concerns. Does Smith think the results would have been different had he gained access to the DLP data? “The main value isn’t in the percentages reported but in taking a look at why firearms failed to protect people,” he says. The point of “Efficacy of Firearms” wasn’t to arrive at a conclusion on whether or not firearms work but, rather, to analyze the reasons why they didn’t—“poor aim, no time to use them, jammed, etc.,” elaborates Smith. 

“Comparing the two studies is like comparing the injury rate for people picking up apples to the injury rate for people picking up live hand grenades,” says Dave Smith, a naturalist who has worked in Yellowstone, Glacier, Denali, and Glacier Bay National Parks and who has authored two books on surviving dangerous encounters with wildlife. It makes no sense to compare bear encounters where bear spray was employed with actual bear attacks, he says. There’s another flaw in the data: incidents in which users were unable to access their bear spray in time were excluded from samples, while users who experienced malfunctions with, or were otherwise unable to employ, their firearms were included, since that was the point of that study. 

Like-for-Like Results

Diving into Tom Smith’s two studies, we can uncover some data similar enough to merit a limited comparison. 

The bear-spray study looked at 14 close encounters with aggressive brown bears. Of those, the spray was successful at stopping the bear’s aggressive behavior in 12 incidents. The firearms study found that 31 of 37 handgun users were successful at defending themselves from an aggressive bear attack. That’s an 85 percent success rate for bear spray, and 84 percent for handguns. 

The bear-spray research included nine brown bear charges where the spray was successful at preventing human injury three times. Alaska’s DLP reports (which primarily involve firearms) from 1986 to 1996 include data on 218 brown bear charges. Those same reports put total human injuries caused by brown bears in DLP incidents at eight, plus two human deaths. If we assume that all ten of those injuries or deaths were a part of those 218 charges (an unlikely but worst-case scenario), then the success rate it finds for firearms in brown bear charges is over 95 percent. 

I asked Tom Smith if it was valid to conclude that the studied effectiveness of bear spray in brown bear charges is just 33 percent. “That’s what you would conclude from that data,” he says, before going on to point out that the sample size is very small. “Importantly, protracted mauling did not occur,” he says. “Whether that’s due to the spray or simply due to the vagaries of bear attacks is an open question.” 

The Trouble with Numbers

Thirty-three percent is very far from that 98 percent efficacy rate so widely cited. And it’s an especially problematic number if we accept that firearms can be demonstrated to have a success rate of between a 76 percent (in a worst-case scenario, as presented in “Efficacy of Firearms”) and 96 percent (as is the case in Alaska’s DLP data or that compiled by firearms writer Dean Weingarten). 

Conflating the results of Tom Smith’s two studies has informed everything from public opinion to public policy, and more importantly, the resulting conclusion guides bear-attack survival advice that’s distributed by governments, taught in classes, and marketed by makers of bear spray. If the conclusion that bear spray is more effective than firearms is wrong, then the entire way in which we’ve approached coexisting with the brown bear is also wrong. 

So is it? I think it just presents a more limited conclusion than the one we’ve all chosen to believe, leading to an unfortunately narrow understanding of our relationship with bears. “The appearance that bear spray outperforms firearms was not the focus of our work,” says Tom Smith. “We wanted simply to highlight the pros and cons of each and let individuals decide how they best could stay safe in bear country.”

While “Efficacy of Bear Deterrent Spray” sends a mixed message on the effectiveness of bear spray in aggressive brown bear encounters—and a very bad message about its usefulness during a brown bear charge—it does show that the spray is enormously effective at deterring brown bears when they’re simply curious. Of note here is the conclusion in “Efficacy of Firearms” that “No bears were killed when firearms were not used.” Bear spray gives users a nonlethal way to influence the behavior of a brown bear before it risks human life. 

bear-spray-hazing
Immediate responses of wild and food-conditioned black bears to various aversive conditioning treatments administered at Sequoia National Park, California, 2002–2005 (“Does Aversive Conditioning Reduce Human–Black Bear Conflict?”)

You’ll note throughout this article my careful delineation of results by bear species. That’s because the bear spray’s efficacy was largely studied on brown bears; results on polar bears are largely from use in hazing, while another study found that bear spray isn’t terribly effective on black bears. The 2010 study “Does Aversive Conditioning Reduce Human-Black Bear Conflict?” found that methods like chasing, rock throwing, or shooting black bears with nonlethal rubber shotgun slugs were as effective as, if not more effective than, pepper spray. Conversely, Tom Smith has demonstrated elsewhere that polar bears, often feared as human predators, are the least likely of all three species to engage in conflict with humans

What We Don’t Know Can Hurt Us

In 1998, researchers at the University of Calgary, in Canada, published “Field Use of Capsicum Spray as a Bear Deterrent.” It analyzed 66 field uses of bear spray between 1984 and 1994 and found that, in 15 of 16 close encounters with aggressive brown bears, bear spray was effective in stopping the bear’s unwanted behavior—a 94 percent success rate. But read closer, and it’s apparent that in six of those cases, the bear hung around and continued to act aggressively. In three of those 16 close encounters, the bear attacked the human after being sprayed, despite receiving what the study refers to as, “a substantial dose of spray to the face.” Interpret this data differently, and in a worst-case scenario, the demonstrated effectiveness occurs in seven of the 16 incidents—a 44 percent success rate. This study did not compare these results either to the efficacy of firearms or with no defense method at all. The study did find that the spray was effective in 20 of 20 encounters with curious bears. 

The bottom line is that no study has ever attempted to compare the effectiveness of bear spray to that of firearms. All studies are limited both by the outright rarity of bear attacks and the inability to recreate them in a controlled environment. We’re parsing an incredibly small number of encounters influenced by a huge number of variables, then trying to arrive at definitive conclusions. The best we can do is compare disparate data sets, applying our own subjective criteria to try and arrive at an inadequate conclusion. 

Yet in public opinion, media reports, and public-safety messaging, we have an overwhelming impression that bear spray is the one-stop solution to safely recreating in bear country. Dave Smith calls this, “propaganda” and says he fears that it leads to misinformation and misunderstanding about what it takes to stay safe around bears. 

Tom Smith states, again, that he would note compare the two studies—“Efficacy of Firearms” and “Efficacy of Bear Deterrent Spray”—directly. Yet a press release from Brigham Young University, where he works as an associate professor, did conflate results from the two studies, leading to stories in media outlets like The New York Times that conclude “A rifle apparently doesn’t work as well as a canister of red pepper spray.”

We Need Data-Based Bear-Safety Guidelines

My entire purpose for writing this article is to illustrate that the exaggerated effectiveness of bear spray is getting in the way of more important advice on bear safety. Here in Bozeman, Montana, just north of Yellowstone, it’s common to see people being told to carry bear spray any time they go on a hike, but almost always, the advice stops there. And while the spray may be effective at deterring a curious bear, it cannot be shown to have the ability to effectively stop an actual bear attack. Something more is needed. 

Is that something more a firearm? “If you’re competent, then a firearm is a valuable, time-tested deterrent,” says Tom Smith. He goes on to reference the case of Todd Orr, who was famously mauled twice by the same bear here back in 2016. Despite employing the spray, the bear still managed to attack Orr, then later stalked and attacked him again. “Bears accurately shot don’t have that option,” says Smith. “Game over.”

But user competency is the largest determining factor in the successful use of a firearm. “When a person is competent with firearms—and I mean competent under pressure—it is an effective deterrent I highly recommend,” he says. “Conversely, those with little to no firearm experience shouldn’t rely on a firearm to save them from a close encounter with a bear.”

He recommends getting training if you intend to carry a gun. “However, even that same firearm-competent person would do well to carry bear spray also,” the researcher states. Smith highlights bear spray’s ease of use and portability as the reasons for that, as well as its effectiveness in nonlethal encounters. 

bear-spray-cause
The probable cause for human-bear conflicts in Alaska (“Human-Bear Conflict in Alaska: 1880-2015”)

But any talk of bear spray or firearms tends to get in the way of advice on how to avoid conflict with bears in the first place. It’s Smith’s 2018 study “Human-Bear Conflict in Alaska: 1880–2015” that comes to the most effective, actionable conclusions. It looks at the human variables involved in bear attacks, and from those we can glean some truly eye-opening information. 

bear-spray-visibility
Relationship between habitat visibility and human-bear conflicts in Alaska (“Human-Bear Conflict in Alaska”)

That study found that the kind of habitat in which you encounter a bear is a major determining factor on the likelihood of an attack. “The poorer the visibility, the more likely bears were to engage with people, presumably because of an inability to detect them until very close,” it states. It also notes that human rescuers had a success rate of over 90 percent at terminating maulings and were only mauled themselves in less than 10 percent of those rescues.

bear-spray-groups
Size of groups of people involved in human-bear conflicts in Alaska (“Human-Bear Conflict in Alaska”)

There’s one more surprisingly effective piece of advice that comes from the 2018 study: travel in groups. “The larger the group, the less likely to be involved in a confrontation,” it finds. 

“To the best of my knowledge, I have not seen an instance where two or more persons have remained grouped, whether standing their ground or backing from a bear, that the bear made contact,” says Tom Smith. “That seems an important piece of advice.” 

So what’s the conclusion here? To me, this isn’t an argument for or against guns or for or against bear spray. It’s an argument that, despite the presence of deterrents, dealing with an aggressive bear encounter does not involve any sure outcomes. Rather than beginning and ending the conversation with a false statement about bear spray’s efficacy, we should instead acknowledge that recreating safely in bear country requires training and knowledge—not dogma. 

How Trump’s ESA Rollback Threatens Polar Bears

20 Aug

The changes announced Monday to the Endangered Species Act are going to vastly reduce the protections granted to wildlife in this country. But parsing the convoluted legal language is complicated and can result in dry, oversimplified explanations.

I wanted to drive home how harmful these new regulations are going to be and hopefully, in the process, get us all as worked up as we should be about the rampant destruction they’re going to wreak. To do this, I’ve turned to a proven strategy: I picked something cute and cuddly that everyone loves and set out to write about that.

Then things got complicated. 

One of the Trump administration’s most prominent claims about the new regulations is that they won’t alter existing protections for listed species:

“The ESA directs that determinations to add or remove a species from the lists of threatened or endangered species be based solely on the best available scientific and commercial information, and these will remain the only criteria on which listing determinations will be based,” reads one paragraph in the press release announcing the changes. “The regulations retain language stating, ‘The Secretary shall make a [listing] determination solely on the basis of the best scientific and commercial information regarding a species’ status.’”

That secretary is, of course, David Bernhardt, who runs the Department of the Interior and who masterminded the changes to the ESA. But it turns out that he hasn’t always made ESA determinations solely on the basis of scientific information, particularly when it comes to polar bears. You see, between stints working as a lobbyist for the oil and gas industries, Bernhardt also served as the DOI’s solicitor during George W. Bush’s administration. And it was in that role that he wrote the regulations that determined the polar bear’s initial ESA listing as a threatened species in 2008. 

“The polar bear should have been listed as endangered,” says Noah Greenwald, the endangered-species director at the Center for Biological Diversity. The ESA includes two statuses for the animals it protects: threatened and endangered. Threatened species are those at risk of becoming endangered unless action is taken, while endangered species are at risk of going extinct. The ESA offers considerably greater protections to endangered species. 

Greenwald argues that, by any scientific measure, polar bears are at risk of extinction, and that was known when that threatened listing determination was made last decade. I called up Steven Amstrup, chief scientist for Polar Bears International and probably the world’s leading expert on the species, to find out why. 

Steve Amstrup
Amstrup transports one of his research subjects. (Polar Bears International)

“Polar bears rely on sea ice to catch their prey,” says Amstrup. “An ever warming world means ever less sea ice. This is guaranteed by the laws of physics; it’s not something we can escape or wish away.” Amstrup’s research has found that the survival of the species is directly correlated to the presence of sea ice. When that disappears, so will the polar bears. And we’ve known for years that the Arctic could lose its ice by the end of this century

Perhaps more than any other cute, cuddly species, the polar bear is directly endangered by climate change. But listing a species as endangered sets into motion a cascade of legal consequences that require the federal government to immediately and decisively eliminate human-caused threats that species faces.

If the polar bear had been declared endangered, the federal government would have been forced to drastically curb, if not eliminate, greenhouse-gas emissions altogether. That would have destroyed profits in the oil and gas industries, and that would probably have threatened David Bernhardt’s ability to leave his job as solicitor at the DOI and move directly into a lucrative position as the chairman of natural-resources law at a lobbying firm serving the oil and gas industries

So Bernhardt created a loophole. By arguing that it was impossible to connect the dots between emissions from a specific power plant or other emissions source with a direct threat felt by a specific bear or bears, he was able to prevent a ruling that these emissions endangered the species. This loophole exempted greenhouse-gas emissions from regulation under the ESA.

Greenwald describes Bernhardt’s actions on the polar bear listing as a “trial run” for the sweeping new ESA regulations that the secretary announced this week. A new definition of “foreseeable future” seems tailor-made to thwart the assessment of risks posed to species by climate change, and another rule stating that a project must impact the entirety of a species’ habitat, rather than just a small part of it, to be subject to regulation might ease permitting for drilling or other destructive activities within the critical habitat of an endangered or a threatened species. 

Which brings me to what I set out to write about in the first place: the impact these new regulations are going to have on the polar bear’s survival. 

“If we don’t stop the warming of the world, polar bears will go away,” says Amstrup. “But we have to act as if we are going to stop it and protect as many bears as possible until that time.” Amstrup says that while we may currently lack the political will to address climate change and the loss of sea ice it causes, we do at least have the tools to protect polar bear denning sites, which are located on land. In 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated 120 million acres of northern Alaska as critical habitat for polar bears, and thusly, the ESA prevents oil drilling and other disruptive human activities in those areas. But both Greenwald and Amstrup fear these new regulations could change that. 

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A map of polar bear habitat in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (DOI)

If we look at the Trump administration’s plans to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, we can see an overlap between the areas currently designated as critical habitat for the polar bear (above) and the areas in which the administration would like to drill (below). ANWR provides denning habitat for one of two groups of polar bears that live in Alaska—the southern Beaufort Sea population. Amstrup has been studying bears in that area for 30 years and in that time has witnessed a 40 percent decline in their numbers. “These bears are in immediate jeopardy,” he says, before going on to explain that any destruction of their denning areas could cause southern Beaufort Sea bears to disappear entirely.

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Where the Trump administration would like to drill for oil in ANWR (DOI)

“The ANWR coastal plane is the single most important denning area for polar bears, it’s the single most important place for mother bears to have their cubs,” Amstrup states. His fear is that the new ESA regulations may allow for drilling there. “With these rules, you could say, ‘Well, polar bears live in the rest of the Arctic, so we don’t need to worry about the bears that are denning here.’ Weakening the terminology would be a way to facilitate getting away with that.”

Amstrup also points out that drilling for oil in ANWR, then burning it, will only serve to further exacerbate climate change and therefore further losses to the sea ice that polar bears are so dependent on. One of the new regulations is a change to the definition of “foreseeable future” as used to assess risks that endangered and threatened species face, to eliminate the inclusion of the climate-change impacts on those decisions. 

Amstrup fears that change could eliminate the ability to add critical-habitat designations for polar bears in the future or prevent a change in their listing status from threatened to endangered as their populations continue decreasing. “Many species, and perhaps polar bears are the best example, are going to see more and more threats due to habitat loss as we look further into the future,” he explains. Yet the ability for the ESA to adapt to those new or changing threats is being removed. 

The most striking thing about my call with Amstrup was that none of this seemed to phase him. He remains optimistic about the future of the polar bear. “It’s really important to point out that their fate is not inevitable,” he says. “If we stop the warming of the world, then we can save polar bears over much of their current range. And in so doing, we’ll benefit the rest of life on earth. We can save polar bears if we act promptly.”

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A polar bear at rest (Polar Bears International)

Greenwald told me that he and the Center for Biological Diversity are planning to sue to the Trump administration over the new ESA regulations. That will join lawsuits being brought by both Massachusetts and California. The hope is that those legal actions will stall implementation of the new regulations long enough that the American people will have the chance to vote Trump and his cabinet out of office in 2020, hopefully installing a government prepared to fight climate change and protect endangered species. 

“We need to ask ourselves: What is the value of maintaining an environment that will support a world our children and grandchildren might choose, rather than one they’re forced to endure?” says Amstrup. “Right now we’re weighing that against a short-term cash value.” Do you want your kids to live in a world with or without polar bears? 

Trump’s Assault on the Endangered Species Act Begins

12 Aug

On Monday, the Trump administration announced the opening salvo in its long-feared attack on the Endangered Species Act. The three-pronged assault is designed to weaken protections for threatened and endangered species, while making it harder to add protections for other animals in the future. 

“These changes crash a bulldozer through the Endangered Species Act’s lifesaving protections for America’s most vulnerable wildlife,” says Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the wildlife advocacy nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity

Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist for the oil and gas industries who last summer authored an op-ed in The Washington Post arguing against the ESA’s effectiveness, is behind the new regulations, which are intended to weaken the ESA in three ways:  

These three changes will have wide-reaching impacts not only to how the ESA is implemented, but also on the protections it provides. 

The regulations also seem to include some dubious science. For example, one rule states that impacts to an endangered species’ critical habitat must be ignored unless those impacts occur across the entire habitat of that species. “This disregards the cumulative death-by-a-thousand-cuts process that is the most common way wildlife declines toward extinction,” says Greenwald. 

There’s also a rule prohibiting foreseeable impacts of climate change from being considered when assessing the threats a species faces. This prevents protections for species impacted by things like sea level rise or melting ice caps. If, for example, polar bears begin to shift their habitats as a result of climate change, this rule would preclude those new ranges from ESA protections. 

But perhaps most troubling is the removal of language that in the past prevented economic impacts from affecting whether or not a species qualified as endangered. This will shift the listing process away from being based solely on science, into one that includes the assessment of short term economic costs. This fundamentally changes the nature of the act from being objective, and science based, to something more political. For the first time, we may ask ourselves, is it too expensive to save a species? “If we make decisions based on short-term economic costs, we’re going to have a whole lot more extinct species,” Drew Caputo, an environmental litigator told The New York Times

It appears as if the three rules will be entered into the federal register individually. Citizens who wish to add their comment to the decisions will need to do so for all three regulations. We will update this article with links to those comment pages once they’re live. 

While far from perfect, the ESA has stood as a bedrock environmental law since Richard Nixon signed it into law in 1973. It’s been 99 percent effective at preventing the extinction of listed species and the law enjoys overwhelming and bipartisan public support

“This action by the Trump administration adds to their ongoing efforts to clear the way for oil and gas development without any regard for the destruction of wildlife and their habitats,” states Raúl Grijalva, chair of the House Natural Resources Committee. “We are in the middle of an extinction crisis, and President Trump is bulldozing the most important tool we have to protect endangered species.”

What Dog Owners Can Do About Ticks

8 Aug

I had a reader named Matt write from Connecticut with a question about tick safety for dogs.  

I’m the proud owner of a seven-month-old yellow Lab. We give her NexGard for fleas and ticks, but after a recent hike, I found a few ticks on her coat. Do you use any kind of spray repellant that you can recommend? 

First, ticks are definitely something you should worry about. Connecticut is the epicenter of the Lyme disease epidemic. Not only can dogs contract the disease but they could bring ticks inside your home, potentially spreading it to humans, too. However, by being proactive, it’s actually pretty straightforward to keep both your pet and family safe. 

NexGard and other oral flea and tick medications are pretty effective at keeping the pests from remaining attached to your dog. That said, fleas and ticks are capable of adapting to the widespread use of these treatments and can develop the ability to resist them over time. Consult your vet and other dog owners in your local area for information on which oral treatments are working best right now. Stay up to date on this information season by season.

Probably the only good thing about Lyme is that the disease is thought to take up to 36 hours to transmit between the tick and its host. Oral treatments might not get them off that fast, but you can. The best defense against ticks on both humans and dogs will always remain regular searches and immediate disposal. 

Doing that every time you get home from hikes, or several times during long outdoor activities, is a good habit to get into in a tick hot zone like Connecticut. To make it easy, I’d set up a tick station in your garage. You’ll need equipment to search for, remove, and safely get rid of the bugs. I suggest a fine-tooth flea comb (different types of dog fur may require different tools), a tick stick or tweezers, and a jar of rubbing alcohol with a secure lid.

After every hike, comb the dog to find ticks, safely remove them, then dispose of them in the alcohol. The tool makes sure you get the tick’s mandibles out of the dog’s skin, and the jar of alcohol gives you a safe place to dispose of the bugs when you find them. Never crush ticks between your fingers; the blood that squirts out could infect you with the diseases they carry. 

There are also steps you can take to minimize the number of ticks in your dog’s environment. There will likely be yard-treatment services available in your area, you can scatter diatomaceous earth across your yard, use tick tubes, and create a barrier of mulch or gravel surrounding your property, which may prevent ticks from invading it. (I’ve written more about those methods here.

So my answer to your question? The most effective thing you’re going to be able to spray on your dog is a permethrin-based solution. That can remain on your dog’s fur for up to six weeks and is proven to be effective. Unlike DEET, which may be harmful to dogs, permethrin is safe for both dogs and humans (but not cats). If I lived somewhere with Lyme disease, that’s what I’d use. 

Have a question for Wes? Ask it on TwitterInstagramFacebook, or e-mail

Speak Up Now to Save Our National Forests

6 Aug

The Trump administration is quietly trying to strip public input from the decision-making process used by the U.S. Forest Service. Doing so would mean that logging companies could clear-cut at many as 4,200 acres at a time, and you wouldn’t know about it until you turned up at your favorite spot to find it decimated. But you have one last chance to stop that from happening. 

“This is a speak-now-or-forever-lose-your-ability-to-have-input situation,” says Sam Evans, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC). The organization has put together an easy tool that will enable you to participate in what’s potentially the last public-comment period about the vast majority of decisions affecting national forests. If the public doesn’t speak up now and stop this proposed logging rule from going forward, it won’t have a chance to weigh in when logging, roads, or even pipelines threaten the lands where they recreate. 

Way back in 1969, Richard Nixon signed into law the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires all federal agencies to begin considering the environmental impacts of any projects they undertake. Part of that is a requirement to solicit public input and look for less impactful alternatives. NEPA is one of the mechanisms that makes federal management of public lands so much more robust and democratic than state management. Everyone with a stake in national-forest management, including local users, has a right to comment. And the agency is supposed to be accountable to those people. 

NEPA quickly became an invaluable tool for the Forest Service, enabling it to make decisions with much more data than it could ever have compiled through its staff alone. As evidenced by the stories contained in the over 2,600 comments left on the proposed rule so far, public comment has enabled the Forest Service to better serve its multiple-use mandate, balancing the needs of logging with conservation and recreation. This is one of those processes where everyone wins. 

But the U.S. Forest Service is chronically underfunded and understaffed—and that was before it became overwhelmed with firefighting costs (which currently account for about half of the agency’s total expenses). As a result, the Forest Service’s decision-making process has slowed to a crawl. During the fiscal years 2014 through 2018, the average time it took the agency to conduct the environmental assessments dictated by NEPA was 687 days. So the Forest Service started looking for loopholes that would allow it to circumvent the law. 

This culminated in an executive order that President Trump signed last year, ordering the Forest Service to use “All applicable categorical exclusions set forth in law or regulation for fire management, restoration, and other management projects in forests, rangelands, and other Federal lands when implementing the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act.” The order also instructs the Forest Service to create new categorical exclusions (CEs) to increase its timber outputs. And that’s exactly what it’s doing with this proposed rule. 

As evidenced by the administration’s proposed 2020 budget for the Forest Service, it’s not actually all that interested in addressing wildfire. That same proposal slashes the total Forest Service budget by $815 million and reduces its firefighting budget by $530 million. The real impact of the executive mandate was to order the Forest Service to find or create CEs it could apply to those other management projects—pretty much any project the agency might want to undertake. 

“This is part of the Trump administration’s agenda to be aggressive with deregulation,” says the SELC’s Evans. “Couched in the language of firefighting, the executive order is actually telling the Forest Service to expand its production of timber.” 

And it turns out there’s one hell of a CE included in this proposed rule. If it’s finalized, commercial timber-harvest activities not in excess of 4,200 acres won’t require an environmental analysis anymore. In the past, any harvest greater than 70 acres required that analysis. Every single harvest has required both public notice and comment. 

I’m sure you can see the problem there. Forty-two hundred acres is a very large area—more than 6.5 square miles. And projects of that size could be stacked near one another, effectively creating a larger impacted zone. 

So in summary: the proposed rule would allow the Forest Service to green-light the clear-cutting of 6.5 square miles of old-growth forest without conducting an environmental analysis, soliciting public input, or notifying the public ahead of time. The proposed rule would allow the Forest Service to construct roads through that 6.5-square-mile area without an environmental analysis, soliciting public input, or notifying the public. It could do the same with pipelines. Heck, as long as a single project doesn’t exceed 6.5 square miles, the Forest Service will pretty much be able to do whatever it wants. 

“National-forest users—hikers, bikers, and wildlife watchers—won’t know what’s coming until the logging trucks show up at their favorite trailheads or until roads and trails are closed,” says Evans. 

But you do have one last chance to demand that your voice is heard. You can find the proposed rule’s comment page here, or use the SELC’s simple commenting tool here. “Our public lands can’t be protected without transparency and accountability, and that’s what the Forest Service is proposing to eliminate,” says Evans. Let’s stop them from doing that.

You have until August 12 to comment

The Arctic Fires Are Making Climate Change Worse

5 Aug

Massive fires burning in the Arctic are releasing so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere right now that they’ll make future conditions even warmer and drier. That will lead to even worse Arctic fires, which will release even more carbon into the atmosphere, which will lead to… well, you get the idea. 

“The magnitude is unprecedented in the 16-year satellite record,” Thomas Smith, a researcher at the London School of Economics, told USA Today. “The fires appear to be farther north than usual, and some appear to have ignited peat soils.”

The warmer, drier conditions are dehydrating vast peat fields across the region. Not only do those represent thousands of years’ worth of stored carbon, but once ignited, they can continue to burn underground, even during Arctic winters, for years and maybe even decades.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, carbon dioxide isn’t the only thing we have to worry about. Particulates released into the atmosphere in smoke from the fires can trap heat, magnifying the effects of a warming climate. When those particulates settle onto snow and ice, they decrease their reflectivity, making them melt faster, contributing to even more warming. 

Those same particulates are harmful to human health. Fires in Siberia have already burned over 46,300 square miles this year, and another 11,500 square miles are currently ablaze. Conditions across the region are apparently so bad that some 900,000 residents have signed a petition calling on the Russian government to declare a state of emergency and attempt to extinguish the fires. Such conditions have even captured the attention of President Trump, who reportedly reached out to Vladimir Putin to offer U.S. aid with fighting the fires.

The European Union’s atmosphere monitoring service calculates that fires above the Arctic Circle emitted 50 megatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in June alone (a month before what used to be the start of the typical fire season). That figure is equivalent to Sweden’s total emissions for an entire year, and it’s more than what was released by June fires in the Arctic between 2010 and 2018 combined.  In July, the fires emitted 79 megatons of carbon dioxide; double the previous record for a single month, which was set back in 2004. 

“It is unusual to see fires of this scale and duration at such high latitudes in June,” writes the E.U.’s wildfire expert, Mark Parrington. “But temperatures in the Arctic have been increasing at a much faster rate than the global average and warmer conditions encourage fires to grow and persist once they have been ignited.”

This year’s Arctic megafires are exceeding predictions. A study conducted in 2012 warned that up to 3,220 square miles could burn in Alaska each year by 2099. As of July 31, already 3,690 square miles have burned, and we’re only partway through the state's fire season.

Scientists estimate that the Arctic contains fully 50 percent of the planet’s soil carbon, which these fires are now releasing into the atmosphere. The fear of climate scientists is that, if enough carbon is released, it could create a tipping point whereby we transition from a slow increase in global temperatures to a fast one, prompting disastrous results. 

Do these fires herald that moment? There’s disagreement in the scientific community. One researcher was prepared to use that phrase in an interview with Gizmodo. But Thomas Smith warned against doing so. “A tipping point would suggest that the situation is irreversible, which is not the case,” he told the website. Smith suggests that the term “positive feedback cycle” could be more apt.

Regardless of the terminology, everyone seems to be able to agree on one thing: these fires are only going to get worse. 

An F-18 Just Crashed in Death Valley National Park

1 Aug

An F-18 fighter jet belonging to the Navy crashed in Death Valley National Park on Wednesday morning, according to military and park service sources. The Navy says it dispatched a search and rescue helicopter to the site at 10 A.M. The pilot’s status is currently unknown. The NPS says visitors may have been injured in the crash.

Reports suggest the incident occurred near the Father Crowley Overlook, on the west side of the park. The area is commonly referred to as Star Wars Canyon, and is a popular lookout where visitors can watch military planes performing low-altitude training manuevers. The crash occurred just below the overlook’s parking lot, according to the automotive site The Drive. The overlook is currently closed. 

The aircraft belonged to the VFA-151 Vigilantes based at the Naval Air Station in Lemoore, California, according to the site.  

Multiple sources are reporting that civilian injuries are minor. We will update this article as the story develops. 

The Turmoil at the BLM Is Threatening Public Lands

30 Jul

Update: On July 29 Interior Secretary David Bernhardt reportedly signed an order appointing Pendley acting Director of the BLM. 

Running federal agencies without a formal command structure has becoming something of a hallmark of the Trump administration. Doing so seems intended to circumvent congressional oversight and to hide decision-making processes from the public. It also tends to allow an unprecedented amount of industry influence over public policy. That could be a particular problem at the Bureau of Land Management, as the result may be the removal of “public from public lands

The BLM manages its lands under the principle of multiple use. This balances the needs of extraction and agriculture industries with those of conservationists and recreationists, allowing all of those groups to coexist in an arrangement that protects our natural resources for the benefit of future generations. This mandate works for everyone involved, and, combined with the rest of America’s public lands, creates a system that generates hundreds of billions of dollars in economic output, effectively paying for itself, while balancing the needs of all users. 

But William Perry Pendley, who may currently be running the BLM, has long argued against not only that principal of multiple use; he’s also stated that he wants to remove public interest from management decisions and has argued that all federal land should be sold to private interests. 

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The BLM updated its org chart with Pendley at its top, but issued no announcement on the subject and is not responding to any press inquiries. (BLM)

Sometime in the last two weeks, Pendley ascended to the top of the BLM’s org chart, where he know bears the title of deputy director of Policy and Programs. Until last year, Pendley ran a law firm in Colorado called the Mountain States Legal Foundation, which advocates for the transfer of federal lands to states. Land transfer, as the movement is known, argues that states should take control of public lands within their borders.

It’s a concept that on its surface sounds like a common sense local-management arrangement that would work in benefit of the people who live near these places. In actuality, it’s often a front intended to conceal mechanisms that would force the sale of the land after its transfer to the states, while removing public input from its management. “The Founding Fathers intended all lands owned by the federal government to be sold,” Pendley wrote in an opinion piece for The National Review in 2016.

“The fox is in the hen house,” says Land Tawney, the President and CEO of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, an advocacy group for public lands. “In no shape or form should someone who wants to dismantle our public lands system be appointed as the lead of the nation’s largest public land management agency.”

There are mechanisms in place to keep someone like Pendley from being handed the reins to the largest land management agency in the country. The head of the BLM is supposed to be nominated by the President, confirmed by the Senate, and accountable to the public. But that agency has gone without an official director since Trump took office. Pendley had ascended to the current top of the BLM, a position he shares with Michael Nedd, another deputy director. This happened after a temporary order from Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt expired, leaving the position of acting director empty. 

This surreptitious shift in management comes at the same time that the BLM has begun plans to move its offices and staff from Washington D.C. to Grand Junction, Colorado. The move is being billed as an attempt to move the agency closer to the lands it manages. But it’s decried by others as an attempt to move day-to-day decision making at the agency away from federal oversight. “If I wanted to dismantle an agency, this would be my playbook,” former BLM Deputy Director Steve Ellis told The Washington Post

These moves also appear to be timed with Congress’s August recess, preventing lawmakers from keeping pace. Raul Grijalva, the Democratic head of the House Natural Resources Committee, plans to hold hearings on the BLM’s relocation once Congress returns in September. 

“Putting BLM headquarters down the road from Secretary Bernhardt’s home town just makes it easier for special interests to walk in the door demanding favors without congressional oversight or accountability,” Grijalva says. “The BLM officials based in Washington are here to work directly with Congress and their federal colleagues, and that function is going to take a permanent hit if this move goes forward. The agency will lose a lot of good people because of this move, and I suspect that’s the administration’s real goal here.”