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Death of Silicon Valley Grey Foxes Point to Urgent Need for Wildlife Corridors

DNA bottlenecks, inbreeding make animals susceptible to disease, says “Fox Guy”

Bill “Fox Guy” Leikam hopes the most recent chapter in the story of the Silicon Valley urban fox is not the beginning of a tragedy for connecting healthy ecosystems. As reported by the San Jose Mercury News last week, up to 18 urban gray foxes belonging to four different “skulks,” or groups, that Leikam has studied and researched over the last seven years in Palo Alto, California, died last month of canine distemper – a contagious viral infection with no known cure.

photo of a dead foxphoto © Bill LeikamA dead gray fox pup. In December, 18 gray foxes belonging to four different skulks in and around Palo Alto died of canine distemper.

This is the first time in recent memory that local wildlife observers have seen such a big wildlife die-off. “We have 12 fox carcasses and six more that are missing and presumed dead,” Leikam, , founder of the Urban Wildlife Research Project,  told Earth Island Journal. “[December] was like a dark wind carrying the virus as it swept through, taking all of the foxes throughout the region and possibly even up into East Palo Alto. “

The gray fox, a small, tree-climbing member of the canid family, is one of the few wild carnivore species that seems to have successfully adapted to living in and around big cities, though it still faces many threats.  A small population of these urban-dwelling canids, comprising several skulks, have captured the hearts of residents and researchers in California’s Silicon Valley, including Leikam who has been researching their role in the local ecosystem as well as the challenges urban habitats present to grey foxes.

It’s hard to pin down the exact number of foxes living in the South Bay Area. Leikam says they seem to be living in “pockets” and regions from south Redwood City, south through Alviso and up the eastern side of the Bay to at least the southern edge of the Oakland International Airport. They have also been spotted in the foothills of Los Altos, Saratoga, and on south.

photo of Gray fox pup One Eye - Last pic alivephoto © Bill LeikamThe last living image of a pup called One Eye, who too, succumbed to the disease. Animals dying from distemper is not something Leikam ever wants to witness again.

Watching animals die from distemper – especially animals you have studied and protected and know by name – is not something “I …more

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Environmental Bloopers from the Obama Era

Smears, hoaxes, and whoopers on climate and the environment, including a few from the president himself

As the curtain comes down on Barack Obama’s eight years in the White House, most Americans seemed convinced of one of two things: We’re either about to Make America Great Again®, or we’re about to hurtle into an uncertain epoch that I like to call the Idiocene.

photo of President ObamaOfficial White House photo by Pete SouzaThere were some big environmental wins during the Obama years, but there were also some farces and scams when it came to climate and the environment.

But before we turn the page on this administration let’s take a look back at the tall tales, regrettable pronouncements, farces and scams on climate and the environment during the Obama years. Anti-regulatory zealots led the pack, but President Obama contributed a few of his own — starting on his first full day in office:

1) January 2009: The most transparent administration? Not quite.

A day after his inauguration, President Obama signed a memorandum promising: “the most transparent administration in history.”

By May 2016, a different verdict came in. Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan called it “one of the most secretive.” In August 2015, 52 journalism organizations, including the Society of Environmental Journalists, sent an appeal to the White House, asking for an end to restrictions on government employees’ contact with reporters.

2) October 2009: Global warming stops (except it totally doesn’t)

Scientists begin asking questions about why the pace of rising temperatures seems to be defying projections and slowing. Despite the emergence of serious, credible reasons for this — notably that the oceans are working overtime to absorb excess heat — climate deniers have a field day with cherry-picked data.

Even as daily, monthly, and annual warmth records continue to be broken, there’s been “no global warming at all” for nearly two decades in Deniertown.

3) November 2009: War is declared, a slogan is born

In a press release, the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce declares the “War On Coal” is underway.

4) November 2009: Russian hack (no, the other one)

Hackers, believed to be Russian-based, steal thousands of emails from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit. Climate deniers spin a few poorly worded correspondences between scientists into a vast conspiracy to fake climate research.

The faux scandal upends coverage of the Copenhagen climate summit, the scientists are cleared of any wrongdoing by multiple investigations, and the hackers are never caught. But their work foreshadows the 2016 election hack. 

5) January 2010: Moderate Republicans join Endangered Species List

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Lockdown at Trans-Pecos Pipeline Site Consecrates New Indigenous Resistance Camp

West Texas Water Protectors aim to protect Rio Grande, sacred sites

An Indigenous Water Protector and an Alpine, Texas, resident were arrested Saturday morning after locking themselves to pipe-laying equipment at an Energy Transfer Partner (ETP) easement and work site in Presidio County, Texas. The lockdown temporarily halted construction on the company's 143-mile Trans-Pecos pipeline that, if completed, would carry 1.4 billion cubic feet of fracked gas from West Texas to Mexico every day.

Frankie Orona with the Society of Native Nations speaks with Truthout as an Indigenous Water Protector and an Alpine, Texas, resident lock themselves to pipe-laying equipment, temporarily shutting the site down, Saturday, January 7, 2017. (Photo: Garrett Graham)photo by Garrett GrahamFrankie Orona with the Society of Native Nations speaks with Truthout as an Indigenous Water Protector and an Alpine, Texas, resident lock themselves to pipe-laying equipment, temporarily shutting the site down, Saturday, January 7, 2017.

The action was the first to be organized by a new Indigenous-led prayer and resistance camp on private land in far west Texas' pristine Big Bend region. The camp is acting in solidarity with the Sacred Stone and Oceti Sakowin camps' historic standoff against the Dakota Access pipeline at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota. The same Dallas-based company is behind both the Trans-Pecos and Dakota Access pipelines.

Jakki Hagans and Mark Glover, the two Water Protectors arrested Saturday, have been working to organize the "Two Rivers" or "La Junta de Los Rios" camp as members of the Society of Native Nations (SNN) and the Big Bend Defense Coalition (BBDC), respectively, during the last several weeks. They were each charged with trespassing and released on $250 bonds that same afternoon.

"It isn't right what [ETP] is doing," Hagans, who is Cherokee, told Truthout as she sat, locked to a sideboom (a machine used to lay pipe) during the frigid morning hours on January 7 before police arrested her and Glover. "It isn't right that they're able to take the land from people. It's not right that they're able to run these pipelines, contaminate the water with their fracking. It's not right that they don't care about the people."

Jakki Hagans speaks with Truthout as she sits, locked to a sideboom, temporarily halting construction on Energy Transfer Partner's Trans-Pecos pipeline in Presidio County near Marfa, Texas, January 7, 2017. (Photo: Garrett Graham)photo by Garrett GrahamJakki Hagans speaks with Truthout as she sits, locked to a sideboom, temporarily halting construction on Energy Transfer Partners' Trans-Pecos pipeline in Presidio …more

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The Maasai, Wildebeest, and a Warming Serengeti

Climate change may pose threat to pastoralist communities, great migration in East Africa

Walking across the plain in the 95 degree Farenheit heat, I marvel that the man beside me, Lekoko Torongei, seems perfectly comfortable in his bright red, woolen robes. Torongei, a 23-year-old Maasai warrior, is giving me and my group of 35 American tourists a tour of his village in northern Tanzania. The sizzling air blurs the huts in the distance, and as we approach, Torongei explains that the Maasai people were originally pastoralists, or nomadic cattle herders who moved throughout the savanna landscape. But now that their rangelands have been dramatically reduced through wildlife preservation efforts and development, his community also has to farm (which is challenging given the overused soils and dry climate of the region), and relies increasingly on revenue from tourists. “The Serengeti is a world famous safari destination, but to the Maasai, this land is home,” Torongei says. 

One of the most famous attractions in the Serengeti is the annual wildebeest migration. Serengeti National Park, which attracts over 90,000 tourists annually, experiences its peak visitor season during the migration. “It is a truly spectacular event … Wildebeest move through the ecosystem in search of green pasture, in a regular pattern,” Torongei says. “This is surely one of the greatest wonders of the natural world.” 

photo of wildebeest Photo by Emma HutchinsonWildebeest drink from a watering hole in the Ngorongoro Crater in northern Tanzania.

The stories of the Maasai and the wildebeest are intricately woven together in this complex and gorgeous ecosystem. Now, climate change is threatening to alter the fundamental nature of the entire Serengeti. 

For more than 300 years after they first settled in East Africa in the 15th century, the Maasai roamed the plains freely, and their lives revolved around their cattle and the changing seasons. The geological nooks and crannies of the Serengeti provided a crucial diversity of resources that fueled their large cattle herds. The Maasai set landscapes ablaze, replenishing the soil of the savanna. The hooves of their cattle mixed the soils, regenerating new grassland that helped the droves of native wildebeest thrive. Young Maasai boys, as part of the process of becoming Maasai warriors, were taught how to care for the cattle and how to protect them from predators.

But in the late 1800s, all of that changed. The Germans arrived, then the British, and they began setting aside land for sport hunting and wildlife preservation. In the name of conservation, the British colonists forcibly removed the Maasai …more

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Green Sprouts in the Canadian Arctic

A unique “Green Igloo” project is helping grow fresh vegetables in a remote Inuit community

Ben Canning, a student at Toronto’s Ryerson University, comes from a farming family in southern Ontario. “As a kid growing up, I thought everybody had access to fresh food,” he says. But this is not the case, he found out, even in Canada. Back in 2013, he heard for the first time how people in the northernmost territory of Nunavut are almost 70 percent food insecure, that is, they don’t always have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food, especially vegetables, to meet their dietary needs.

Brooding Sky Over Resolute hamelt, NunavutPhoto by Derrick MidwinterPeople in the remote Canadian Arctic territory of Nunavut, where the land isn't aerable, suffer from severe food insecurity.

The costs of transporting food to this remote region in the Canadian Arctic, especially fruit and vegetable produce, is high — about two or three times more expensive than in Toronto to the south, and the dropping Canadian dollar only drives costs higher, to C$10 for a head of iceberg lettuce or C$13 for four apples. Food flown or shipped to the far north can also lose nutritive value by the time it gets there. For Canning, the answer to this problem is to grow vegetables in an igloo greenhouse in Najuaat,  a community of about 1,000 people in Nunavut.

Canning calls the project, which he launched four years ago along with fellow-student Stefany Nieto,“Growing North.” The greenhouse has been built on land provided by a community member, fuelled by thousands of dollars in donations and fostered by entrepreneurial knowhow from Enactus, a group that aims to raise living standards through entrepreneurial action. In the first two years of Growing North, Canning assembled a group of like-minded students to set up the community infrastructure and to construct the geodesic dome, shipped from Colorado but delayed in sea ice for a month.

Green IglooPhoto courtesy of Growing NorthThe 42-foot growing dome, built in modular sections, can handle seven feet of snow and winds up to 110 miles per hour.

The 42-foot growing dome, built in modular sections, can handle seven feet of snow and winds up to 110 miles per hour. In fact, a foot-and-a-half of snow fell during the later-than-planned construction in October 2015. The community donated tools and manpower, a boon when a $65 drill in Toronto costs $450 in Nunavut. Besides weather, the group faced the skepticism toward a white man “fixing” …more

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Chasing the Northern Lights

A trek through the Canadian Yukon to catch a glimpse of the aurora borealis

I’m infatuated with the northern lights, the mysterious glow that intermittently appears at the ends of our Earth. I have lived all my life in sunny California and until recently had never experienced the extreme beauty of the aurora borealis. But when I first saw the lights in Iceland early in 2015, I was hooked. 

My travel mate and I were shocked and amazed at what we saw in the frigid winter skies above Iceland’s Westfjords. We were in complete elation as a very strong aura storm decimated our sense of reality. A month later I found myself in Fairbanks, Alaska bundled up on a dome road – a high elevation road the travels along the spine of large hills – catching an alien looking aurora storm invade the last frontier, again in complete disbelief.  

photo of the aurora over a northern landscapephoto by James StudarusThe aurora borealis in Fairbanks, Alaska.

I soon decided to seek out a new, more involved adventure and chose to head up to the Canada’s expansive Yukon. There's a remote park called Tombstone Territorial Park in the region where the aurora occurs close to 65-degree north latitude, a good latitude at which to view the lights. I decided to trek this time, to haul my food, clothing, and shelter into the far north wilderness for eight days, searching for lights and beauty.

The aurora borealis is magnetically charged plasma shot out of the sun that hits our atmosphere and reacts with the magnetically charged poles. It is a bizarre phenomenon that somehow creates colors beyond belief in the night skies of our polar regions. But it isn’t always predictable or consistent. I equate trying to find the northern lights with attempting to get a seat in a divine theater: Sometimes the universe is kind and lets you in, sometimes you are at the wrong cloudy venue. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association forecasts when the northern lights will most likely occur based on solar flaring. I discovered this information on my adventure to Iceland, and used it again for my trip to the Yukon. I knew the aurora was forecasted for a week straight in late August and early September, and planned my time in Tombstone according. The weather report looked promising – been checking constantly for the last 15 days – and the days were getting shorter and the night skies were growing longer, which would allow the aurora to take hold …more

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No, California’s Forests Aren’t Failing to Regrow After Big Wildfires

New study about low conifer regeneration based on Forest Service's timber stocking based silvicultural standards, lacks context

Recently researchers at UC Davis and the US Forest Service presented a new scientific study that suggested a dire future for forests in California. The study on conifer establishment after wildfires in California found that 43 percent of their study plots did not have conifer regeneration that met Forest Service Stocking Standards, implying that without additional management we may face a future without forests.

black oak saplings in a forest burn area Photo by George WuerthnerA 2015 image of black oak saplings sprouting in a 2013 Rim Fire burn area in Stanislaus National Forest, California.

The findings were viewed with alarm by some, with some news reports suggesting that California’s forests were not regenerating after high severity wildfires.

To be fair, the study was not intended to review all the benefits of high-severity blazes, but what it lacked was context. First, even the authors admitted that the paradigm used to determine conifer regeneration is biased towards timber production. Besides, there are many nuances in interpretation that were only mentioned in the body of the study that few bothered to review. As a result, the report has generated undue concern and panic among the public that the state’s forests may be disappearing.

With regards to context, the authors, for one, choose to focus on the increase of wildfires in the past three decades, arguing that blazes during this period were more severe and extensive than wildfires in the past. They attributed this to fire suppression, past logging, and other forest management practices which they alleged have led to this significant increase in large wildfires. While these factors likely contributed to the observed greater tree density and fuel loads in forests to some degree, the report ignores the influence of past, wetter climatic conditions on limiting wildfire, and the ongoing drought that is likely contributing to greater fire occurrence.

Furthermore, the study made statements like “the frequency, size, and severity of wildfires across much of the western United States are increasing” without providing a time factor. Inreasing, compared to what? That’s important because there is ample paleo and even historic evidence of large high-severity blazes that have occurred in the past. For instance, during the Medieval Warm Spell between 800 to 1200 AD there is evidence for extremely large and continuous wildfires across the western US, including in California.

Even more recently there was significant climate variation that influenced wildfire behavior and spread. Between the 1940s and 1980s, for instance, the overall …more

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