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Save the Bees

2 May 2013

Since 2006, discussions and speculations about honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder have been rampant. Reportedly, the disorder has wiped out roughly half of the commercial hives used to pollinate farmer fields.  This is an environmental problem with huge commercial ramifications.  There are many species of fruits and nuts that cannot easily reproduce without the honeybee.  Speculation as to what is causing the disorder has included high fructose corn syrup fed to bees, newer pesticides, and other causes.

On Thursday, the USDA and EPA released a report summarizing the “state of the art” knowledge of the situation and ultimately concludes that this disorder results from a confluence of causes.  Key findings include:

  • A parasitic Varroa mite is a major factor – while beekeepers treat for this, there are resistant mites;
  • Genetic diversity and variation is needed to improve bee thermoregulation and disease and mite resistance;
  • Nutritional opportunities need to be improved – like anyone else, weaker bees are more susceptible to harm from disease and parasites;
  • The report recommends improving forage and a variety of plants to support colony health – even to the point of encouraging innovative land management techniques to maximize available nutritional forage to promote and enhance bee health;
  • Most interestingly, the report recognizes Best Management Practices for bees and pesticide use exist, but notes that they are not widely or systematically followed – this needs to be improved;
  • The report concludes that additional research is needed to determine risks from pesticides.

Hopefully, this is a solid step toward minimizing this disorder.  One thing the report says we can do is plant a variety of flowers to give the surviving bees a healthy environment to feed.

Earth Day at 43 – 43 shades of grey

22 Apr 2013

Earth Day 43 seems to have been lost given the recent events in Boston, Texas and elsewhere.  The environmental news continues to be a mixed bag – with reports of fewer Americans “caring” about the environment but perhaps more “acting” in a “green” way.

We have certainly come a long way from the challenges and problems that led to the first Earth Day –  a 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California; the dead zone in Lake Erie; smog in Los Angeles and elsewhere and burning rivers in the Midwest.

The first Earth Day led to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts.  As the EPA and its state counterparts have continued to regulate, there has been a backlash of business and media outcry which certainly must weigh on the public’s views.

The challenges we face today are far more complicated and, to many, more daunting.  We still have oil spills, but now they are from larger ships and deeper wells.  Lake Erie and many other bodies of water are still challenged by more diffuse and “below the radar” sources of contamination.  While reducing the impacts of asbestos, lead and NOx from our daily lives, and healing the ozone hole, we now face questions regarding greenhouse gasses, impacts from and in China and the developing world, and the challenges and benefits posed by fracking.

As is often the case, once the “low hanging fruit” of black and white are picked, what we are left with is grey and grey isn’t as shocking or engaging as black and white.  The issues are just as important, and in many ways, very high profile, but it’s unlikely that our polarized country would agree on what changes would be best, if any.

How much “collateral damage” is ok?

11 Mar 2013

In 2010, I blogged about one solar company trying to mitigate the impacts of its operations on desert tortoises.  We’ve also previously blogged about turning off night lighting in tall buildings to protect birds and the 2012 Federal guidance adopted to minimize bird strikes from windturbines.  When implementing or developing new technologies, we take wildlife impacts more into account now than we did a hundred years ago. But is it enough?

The Huffington Post recently ran an article about a lawsuit claiming that the Federal government under-estimates these impacts when dealing with “alternative” energy projects.

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires Federal agencies to prepare environmental impact statements (EISs) for “major” Federal actions that significantly impact the environment. NEPA’s requirements are triggered when airports, buildings, military complexes, highways, parkland purchases, permits and other federal activities are proposed.  Environmental Assessments (EAs) and EISs evaluate the likelihood of impacts from alternative courses of action.

NEPA review often reveals possible mitigation measures or problems that can change or even stop a project.  NEPA does not require zero impacts and often requires a balancing of the benefits of a project against the harms (which are considered cumulatively as part of a continuum – taking into account harms possible in the future).  These analyses are often quite speculative and subject to challenge (as has been seen with the recent NEPA review of the Keystone XL Pipeline).

When it comes to bird protection, an Ann Arbor venture may have come up with a less expensive, more efficient way to predict and more importantly, minimize bird strikes by better measurement.  Omicept uses cameras and computers to observe and identify birds in a potential development site.  Knowing the numbers and types of birds in an area is an important first step to determining how best to avoid them or in determining the likelihood of strikes – particularly of endangered birds.  While this won’t eliminate all collateral damage – it may help minimize it, making NEPA approvals more accurate and, therefore, easier in the future.


Is Climate Change Moving Up The President’s Agenda?

22 Jan 2013

Hurricane Sandy – a harbinger of things to come?

President Obama dedicated a whole paragraph of his second inaugural address to the issue of global climate change.  In part, he said:  “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult.”

Many believe that this is the issue of our time.  Recently, a 60 person Federal Advisory Panel released a draft climate assessment report for public review that made some fairly dire predictions.  For the Midwest, the Panel predicts longer growing and shipping seasons but decreased water quality, more extreme storms, more floods and droughts, and declining lake health.  The World Bank released a similar report last November discussing why a 4 degree C warmer world must be avoided. The World Economic Forum issued a report estimating it would cost at least $700 Billion more to support green growth (but they also estimated $100 Billion per year to adapt to climate change).

While some weak efforts at a nationwide carbon cap and trade program died quickly during the President’s last term, sides seem to be lining up to support a carbon tax or to oppose it. Those in favor, like Tom Friedman – see it as a “two-fer” – both encouraging alternative energies by raising the price of traditional carbon fuels and a source of revenue for deficit reduction.  Those against, argue that “the science isn’t clear” and make the typical anti-tax arguments.   The public seems to want to have those in charge do something – but as usual, are not interested in paying more to avoid the problem.  After last Summer, belief in climate change jumped to 70%  -after Hurricane Sandy, I expect it’s even higher.

The President has been quietly, but steadfastly, working to push toward a carbon-less energy system, we shall see if his February 12 State of the Union outlines the energy “Manhattan Project” his supporters have been calling for and if February brings an approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. The next 45 days may tell the tale of whether his inaugural paragraph was serious or just words.

Saugatuck dune development lawsuit ends… for now.

13 Jun 2012

Well, it’s over…. for now.  Last year, I blogged about an ongoing dispute regarding a large parcel of dunes that a developer wanted to develop in Saugatuck on the west side of the State.  Last fall, the parties reached a resolution but the Judge in the case rejected it (here).  The federal Judge has now approved the end of a long running court battle between Saugatuck Township and Oklahoma energy executive Aubrey McClendon. The case involves the potential development of 300 acres of land McClendon owns that includes significant dunes near Lake Michigan.

McLendon claimed that by adopting a zoning ordinance restricting the development of his parcel, the Township:

  • violated his due process rights by not giving his company, Singapore Dunes LLC, proper notice;
  • violated due process by delegating its powers to a private entity (the group opposing the development);
  • violated equal protection by treating Singapore Dunes differently than others similarly situated; and
  • deprived Singapore Dunes of its property rights by its adoption of a flawed zoning ordinance.

The Judge approved the consent decree between the parties and threw out zoning ordinance, restoring the ordinance in place before the Township’s 2010 change, required the Township to treat Singapore Dunes the way they treat everyone else, prohibited the Township from accepting gifts relating to the Singapore Dunes’ property and specifically barring the Township from requiring two means of access to the property from a public street as long as Singapore Dunes implements reasonable safety measures.

While the Judge approved a consent decree settling the legal case, he did not rule on the settlement agreement – a legally binding contract – the township and the developer signed – but which was not put before the Court by the parties.  Read the judge’s full opinion here.  Under that agreement (a draft of which is found here), the developer has 90 days to apply for a zoning variance to build 100 condos, a marina and a 25 suite hotel. Certainly, the developer will do so – how the Township responds will determine whether the fight will be renewed.

I enjoy visiting Saugatuck with my family – it has a lot of small town charm. Will this development change that? I don’t know. I think the folks in Petoskey near the Bay Harbor development are generally happy to have it in their neighborhood.


Earth Day at 42 – still meaningful?

20 Apr 2012

A recent study released regarding so-called “millennials” (those born after 1982) found here, reported that these young people considered goals relating to things like money, image, and fame more important than those related to self-acceptance, community, empathy, charity, and, most surprising to me, taking action to help the environment and save energy. Perhaps this is not so surprising given the economic crisis we are still working our way out of, coupled with the technological, Jersey Shore media world our young people find themselves living in.  However, given the emphasis on the environment in our schools and media, it still seems somewhat disturbing.

Given that Earth day is this weekend, there are sure to be a plethora of lists to “do this” or “do this and not that.”   There are lot of things that people  will talk about as win-wins (saving “green” as in money and the environment) – use programmable thermostats; don’t run the water while brushing your teeth (or before taking a shower); take showers not baths; don’t water your lawn mid-day; put a brick in the toilet tank; use a low flow showerhead;  switch to CFL or LED bulbs; use cloth grocery bags; keep your tires inflated, etc.   So, are people doing these things? And after they have done them, what’s next?  But even more importantly, is Earth Day relevant to the next generation of leaders, consumers and manufacturers who are now attending college – or do they just not care?

The images above should resonate with anyone my age, but that “crying Indian” first went on the air in 1971 – one year after the first Earth Day. I suspect that there are many out there who have never seen him and have no clue why he was crying.  Further, the environmental issues that spawned the first Earth Day have receded and have been replaced by far less tangible and even arguable threats.  No one argued about whether or why the Rouge and  Cuyahoga rivers caught fire or that they were a bad thing.  Now, there is far more debate about whether fracking is good or bad (maybe both), whether global climate change is occurring and even moreso over why and so it is far easier for today’s young people to tune out due to the complexity of the issues.

However, given the economy, the scarcity of resources and the economic times in which we live, it is a bit disappointing that we haven’t learned to look how our grandparents lived when they were young – how they “made do” and repaired and sewed, turned lights off (or used natural light) and gardened; not because it was “green” but because that was how they could afford to live and that’s how every generation until then had lived.

It’s only been in the last 65 years that disposability has been the norm.  Do we need to dial down the consumptive aspects of our lives and try to show our teens and college students that we need to live a bit more like the greatest generation did before World War II and a little less like they did after? What do you think?

New guidance to protect birds from windmills

26 Mar 2012

Windmills in southern California - a threat to wildlife?

On Friday, the US Fish and Wildlife Service released an 82 page guidance document designed to minimize harm to birds from wind turbines. I previously posted about a Service decision to allow some golden eagles to be killed incidentally by a wind farm.

The Guidelines are to assist developers in identifying species of concern that may be affected including migratory birds; bats; bald and golden eagles and other birds of prey; prairie and sage grouse; and listed, proposed, or candidate endangered and threatened species.

While a primary concern is collision with turbines and infrastructure, there are also concerns about:

  • Loss and degradation of habitat;
  • Fragmentation of large habitat blocks into smaller segments that may not support sensitive species;
  • Displacement and behavioral changes; and
  • Indirect effects such as increased predator populations or introduction of invasive plants.

The Guidelines use a “tiered approach” to assess potential adverse effects.  During pre-construction tiers (Tiers 1, 2, and 3), developers are to work with the Service to identify, avoid and minimize risks to species of concern. During post-construction tiers (Tiers 4 and 5), developers will assess whether their actions are achieving the goals and, when necessary, take additional steps to reduce impacts.

Subsequent tiers refine and build upon issues raised and efforts undertaken previously. Each tier offers questions to help the developer evaluate the potential risk associated with developing a project at the given location.  This approach enables a developer to abandon or proceed with project development, or to collect additional information, if required. Not every tier must be fully satisfied.

Adherence to the Guidelines is voluntary and does not negate the responsibility to comply with laws and regulations. However, if a violation occurs the Service should consider a developer’s documented efforts to communicate with the Service and adhere to the Guidelines to minimize the consequences. It seems as if there is no “magic bullet” for energy – every option has costs and consequences that must be considered.