Jettisoning ‘Best Available Science,’ Trump Admin. Tosses Out Federal Protections for Yellowstone’s Grizzlies

The “ongoing threats the bears face will now be compounded by trophy hunting and lethal removal by trigger-happy state agencies,” says Andrea Santarsiere of the Center for Biological Diversity

 A grizzly bear and cub in Yellowstone. (Photo: wolverine_9_5/flickr/cc)

The Trump administration announced Thursday that the Yellowstone grizzly bear population is losing its endangered species protections—a decision conservation groups say is “flawed and premature” and could make the iconic species the target of trophy hunters.

CNN reports: “The bears received endangered species protection in 1975, when their population was about 136. Today, there are estimated to be 700, more than enough to meet the criteria to be removed from the endangered list, the government said.”

A press statement from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke says that the “population was determined to be recovered because multiple factors indicate it is healthy and will be sustained into the future.”

Andrea Santarsiere, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, doesn’t see it that way. “This outrageously irresponsible decision ignores the best available science,” she said. “Grizzly conservation has made significant strides, but the work to restore these beautiful bears has a long way to go.”

Zack Strong, and advocate for NRDC’s land and wildlife program, echoes that point. Though the numbers have  increased, he writes that the estimated population number represents “far too few individuals to ensure long-term genetic health. Until natural connectivity with the northern grizzly population occurs, scientific studies make clear that a minimum population of closer to 2,000 bears would be needed to maintain long-term genetic diversity.”

Another problem with the rule from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says Strong, is that it “dismisses the potential threat of climate change [… ] such as loss of food sources (like whitebark pine seeds) and shifts in denning time leading to increased conflicts with humans.”

And then there’s the threat bears that wander out of the park’s confines will face.

The New York Times explains:

Under current law, eliminating threatened species protection for the big bear paves the way for Montana, Idaho and Wyoming to take over responsibility from federal managers outside Yellowstone. That means fewer restrictions; states alone will make the call on dealing with nuisance bears—and will probably include a hunting season for grizzlies. Bears within the boundaries of the national park will remain a federal responsibility and will not be hunted, unless they leave Yellowstone.

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According to Santarsiere, that means the “ongoing threats the bears face will now be compounded by trophy hunting and lethal removal by trigger-happy state agencies.”

The rule will be published in the Federal Register and will take effect 30 days after that publication.

It’s likely to face legal challenges.

“The government’s campaign to remove protections provided by the Endangered Species Act overlooked important conservation issues and denied public comment on key points,” said Tim Preso, and attorney with Earthjustice. “We will closely examine this decision, and are prepared to defend the grizzly if necessary,” he said.

Ocean ‘conveyor belt’ brings billions of plastic particles into Arctic waters

The seafloor has become ‘the great reservoir of plastic debris’

By Laura Wright, CBC News <> Posted: Apr 21, 2017 2:06 PM ET Last Updated: Apr 21, 2017 3:11 PM ET

An ocean current is acting as a kind of conveyor belt leading billions of bits of plastic to a dead end in the Arctic, according to new research published in the journal Science Advances.

A team of scientists, led by Andres Cozar from the University of Cadiz in Spain, found hundreds of thousands of tiny pieces of plastic per square kilometre in parts of the Barents and Greenland seas.

Past research has found that there are more than five trillion pieces of plastic in the world’s oceans. About three per cent (or several billion bits) of it ends up in the Arctic.

For this research, Cozar and his team used 17,000 satellite buoys to track the movement of the plastic floating on the surface of the ocean. They were able to see that plastic is carried to the Arctic along an ocean current known as thermohaline circulation, which Cozar refers to as a ‘conveyor belt.’

The plastic comes from as far away as the eastern coast of North America and the northwestern coast of Europe.

Once the plastic gets to the Arctic, it eventually sinks.

Cozar said the combination of the ice sheets and the land masses work as a barrier, preventing the plastic from floating any further.

“The seafloor is the final destination of the floating plastic … it’s the great reservoir of plastic debris,” said Cozar.

Cozar said it would take a few decades for the plastic in the Arctic to form an accumulation zone like the one in the Pacific.

No boundaries in the water

Low populations in the Arctic means that the plastic debris is not local.

“The present data demonstrate that high concentrations of plastic debris extend up to remote Arctic waters, emphasizing the global scale of marine plastic pollution and the role that global oceanic circulation patterns play in the redistribution of these persistent pollutants,” wrote Cozar, the lead author of the paper.

Rachel Obbard, assistant research professor at the Thayer School of Engineering at the University of Dartmouth in Hanover, N.H., found plastics in Arctic ice cores in 2009.

She said that as the oceans warm and the sea ice decreases, these plastic particles will likely get dispersed further and further. Warmer oceans likely mean new shipping routes will open up, which could lead to an increase of plastic in the Arctic, she added.

“It’s a problem that’s going to get worse as the Arctic Ocean becomes more water and less ice,” said Obbard.

Local concerns

Cozar said this is a global problem — even the most environmentally conscious person living in the Arctic can’t escape pollution coming across the globe.

“We think of these polar regions as these very distant, very pristine environments,” said Jennifer Provencher, a post-doctoral researcher at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S. “And increasingly we know that that’s just not true.”

“Most humans live in temperate regions and towards equatorial regions, and yet our pollution is not staying in those kind of geographical bounds — they’re moving beyond into these remote regions.”

The plastic pollution can have a very real impact on food security, said Provencher.

Because of currents, the Canadian Arctic has less plastic than other parts of the Arctic. But migratory birds like fulmars, for example, are known to ingest plastic <> floating in the North Atlantic where they spend their winters.

“When they’re flying back into the Canadian Arctic each spring, they’re bringing that plastic burden with them,” said Provencher.

And the plastic is ingested right up the food chain, which leads to questions about food security and traditional rights, especially in areas where subsistence or traditional hunting is common practice.

Obbard said she was contacted by a teacher in Ulukhaktok, N.W.T., who said people in the remote Arctic community cut ice from the sea and then melt it for drinking water.

“And they have seen microplastics in that ice,” she said.

Efforts to stem the plastic tide are happening, such as the ban on micro-beads in cosmetics, and continual pushes to ban single-use plastic bags.

And Cozar said it’s crucial that waste is managed at the source.

“Because once plastic enters the ocean, its destination and impacts are uncontrollable,” he said.

Russian Conservationists Launch Survey of Elusive Snow Leopard

SAYLYUGEMSKY NATIONAL PARK, Russia — If you fly to the most remote corner of Siberia, drive for nine hours, cross another 60 miles of ice and hills in a sturdy Soviet jeep and climb a mountain, you just may see a snow leopard. Or maybe its footprint.

The endangered snow leopard is one of the most elusive and understudied of all big cats on the planet.

But this may change, thanks to a pioneering survey launched last month that aims to compile an exact headcount of all snow leopards in Siberia, down to the last cub.

Scientists Discover New Way to Research Snow Leopard 2:31

It could be a crucial step in saving the felines, which are threatened by shrinking habitats, poachers’ snares and guns and Asian traditional medicine.

“All of us like cats, of course. But it’s not just a cat, it’s an indication of the health of an ecosystem,” said Dmitry Burenko, director of development at WWF Russia, speaking to NBC News in the Saylyugemsky National Park in the Altai mountains.

If that’s true, the ecosystem of Altai — a Russian republic in southern Siberia — is definitely in trouble.

Its arid, windswept ridges host a population of 200,000 people in an area the size of Indiana. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and one million tourists flock here every year to ride horses, kayak or hike.

Image: Bianca, a female snow leopard
A female snow leopard at a zoo in Krasnoyarsk, Russia. Ilya Naymushin / Reuters

But between winter temperatures of minus 40 degrees, cutting winds and elevation of up to 14,000 feet, it’s an inhospitable place for humans — which is exactly how the snow leopard likes it.

“The leopard favors hard-to-reach areas,” said Alexander Karnaukhov, a leading expert with the World Wildlife Fund Russia.

The big cat is found in 12 countries but there are only an estimated 3,000-6,000 worldwide. The biggest populations are in China and Mongolia. Russia, the northernmost edge of the habitat, is thought to have no more than 60-70.

“No exhaustive surveys are held, and many countries exaggerate their numbers,” Karnaukhov said.

The Science of Poop

Conservationists have been complaining for years about the lack of reliable leopard numbers. Countries use different counting methodologies, including the counting of traces which are easy mixed up with lynx and wolverines, and the figures are never compatible.

The Russian method being tested in the Altai starts with careful computer modeling of potential habitats.

Image: Mountainous region of Altai, Russia
The farmer in this region of Altai told NBC News that he has seen a snow leopard prowling the ridges. Mitya Solovyov / NBC News

Rangers, who know area well, place cameras on game trails. This is far more dangerous than it sounds: The snow leopard prefers the tops of mountain ranges, from which it can see its prey — ibex and argali sheep.

An NBC News crew following a ranger to one camera location had to scramble 700 feet up a frozen mountain river where one misstep would send climbers sliding down to the steppe on the horizon.

The most important part is not pictures, but poop. Leopard excrement collected and placed into “zip bags” on game trails is analyzed for DNA that identifies not only individual leopards but their kinship.

The method is not entirely unique — it is being used in another form to track tigers in India — but Russian scientists hope to perfect it so that it can be used for all snow leopard surveys from China to Tajikistan.

“We’ll hold an international meeting on this method in May, and hope that other countries will adopt it,” WWF’s Karnaukhov said.

Ensnared Cats

Humans have been killing off snow leopards for a century, though not always deliberately.

Climate change affects some habitats and hunting remains a problem, though poaching is low in Russia, said Denis Malikov, deputy director of the Saylyugemsky National Park.

Leopards can also incur the wrath of sheep herders if the