April 27, 2006

Preserve approves science-based alternative to manage water for wildlife

National Park News
Mojave National Preserve

In response to a California Department of Fish and Game proposal to convert twelve abandoned ranching wells to wildlife waters, the National Park Service (NPS) initiated an environmental assessment in November 2005.

After considering potential impacts and public comments, the NPS has selected a science-based alternative from among several proposals for managing water for wildlife in Mojave National Preserve.

The decision was recorded through the signing of a Finding of No Significant Impact document.

The selection of this alternative means that some abandoned ranching wells will be converted to wildlife watering devices, known as guzzlers, in order to carry out research on the need for additional water sources for wildlife over broad areas. The research will provide sound factual information which will be used to make future management decisions about the need for additional wildlife waters.

In implementing the decision, the National Park Service, in consultation with the California Department of Fish and Game, is soliciting independent research proposals for projects that address the presence or absence of artificial waters and their effect on mule deer and other wildlife.

Research topics may include:

  • -Effects of water developments on wildlife populations, including both game and non-game animals;
  • -Effects of water developments on predators;
  • -Water quality at both artificial and natural water sources;
  • -Effects of water developments on plant communities;
  • -The role of water developments in transmission of diseases.
  • -Mule deer population studies to determine distribution, abundance, health, population genetics and water needs.

Over 130 springs and seeps are spread across Mojave National Preserve. The National Park Service recently initiated a long-term monitoring project to determine how precipitation patterns affect the availability of water for wildlife at these natural water sources by surveying them during the driest part of each year. Over 75% had water during the last survey.

In addition to natural water sources, there are also six existing large-game guzzlers (principally used by desert bighorn sheep) and 119 small-game guzzlers (principally used by quail, chukar and other small wildlife), as well as several dozen currently operating water developments for cattle ranching.

April 21, 2006

Senators Call for Reconsideration of Proposed Changes to Federal Old Road Claims Policy in Wilderness Areas

From YubaNet.com

Citing serious concerns about the negative impact of road development and off-road vehicle use on sensitive desert wilderness areas, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and a group of 5 other Democratic senators are calling on the Administration to reconsider proposed changes to the Department of the Interior's federal policy for old road claims.

Revisions to the federal policy for these claims, known as R.S. 2477, could open up thousands of acres of public lands to paved roads, where dirt roads and tracks in the desert existed before. This could have a dramatic impact on many of the country's national wilderness areas, particularly for the California Mojave Desert.

In a letter to Lynn Scarlett, Acting Secretary of the Interior, Senators Feinstein, Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) called for a serious reconsideration of the proposed policy changes.

Following is the text of the letter sent to Acting Secretary Scarlett:

Dear Secretary Scarlett:

We write to express our deep concern about the Department of the Interior's recently proposed R.S. 2477 policy. This policy is flawed for several reasons.

First, the new policy would risk significant harm to our National Parks, Wildlife Refuges, National Monuments, Wilderness areas, wilderness study areas, proposed wilderness and other special public lands by paving the way for unprecedented road development and damaging off-road vehicle use.

By making it easier for those pressing questionable claims as public highways (such as trails and off-highway vehicle (OHV) tracks) the policy could devastate public treasures like the Mojave National Preserve and other sensitive lands protected by the California Desert Protection Act, the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Denali National Park and Preserve and Dinosaur National Monument, just to name a few.

Second, we strongly disagree with the conclusion that the new policy is required by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals' decision in, SUWA v. BLM, 425 F.3d 735 (10th Cir. 2005), or that, in any event, the court's decision should be applied on a national level. While that decision stated that the Department could undertake non-binding administrative determinations for internal purposes, the decision in no way requires a wide-reaching new policy for sensitive lands (such as National Parks). Nor should the Department necessarily apply the decision outside of the six States in which it is binding. The Department has broad discretion to protect our special places from potentially harmful R.S. 2477 claims, and it should not surrender that discretion lightly.

Furthermore, the new policy seems to contradict assurances you made to Congress in 2003 that the Department's R.S. 2477 policies (as expressed in a memorandum of understanding with the State of Utah) would not apply in National Parks, Wildlife Refuges, or Wilderness and Wilderness Study Areas, and that the policy would only allow recognition of rights-of-way of the size and purpose they had in 1976, and would be limited to roads over which four-wheeled vehicles can travel.

Finally, we are concerned that the proposed road maintenance agreement would make it easier for States or counties to perform landscape-changing highway maintenance and construction on public lands, without adequate environmental analysis or protections. It is unclear what role the public will have in providing input and evaluating information used to make administrative determinations and road maintenance agreements that will significantly impact publicly-owned resources.

We strongly urge you to reconsider this ill-advised policy.

April 19, 2006

Middle of Nowhere Is a Center of Conflict

A federal plan allows more recreation and mining in a rugged land of national monuments.

By Julie Cart, Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times

VERMILION CLIFFS NATIONAL MONUMENT, Ariz. — The 3 million acres of federal land in the Arizona Strip have their remote geography to thank for preserving their spectacular red sandstone escarpments, slot canyons, rock art and ruins of ancient pueblos.

One of the last places in the Lower 48 to be mapped, the strip, in the northwestern corner of the state, is today bypassed by major highways and mostly devoid of gas stations, hotels and other visitor services. As a result, more than 12,000 years of human history written on this rugged landscape has remained in place, undisturbed by tourism or development.

That is about to change.

Here at the backdoor of the Grand Canyon, two national monuments, Grand Canyon-Parashant and Vermilion Cliffs, are poised to absorb the effects of the explosive growth from Las Vegas to the west and St. George, Utah, to the north — two of the fastest expanding areas in the nation.

The federal agency that oversees much of the land in the Arizona Strip, the Bureau of Land Management, is preparing a long-range plan for the area that would allow uranium mining and oil and gas exploration across 96% of the lands outside the monuments.

The plan would also permit livestock grazing in the monuments and open 3,000 miles of roads to motorized recreation, including some in the monuments. A 7,100-acre "play area" for dirt bikes and all-terrain vehicles would be established. And although that area would be outside the monuments, it would be next to land set aside to protect a threatened cactus and a Native American petroglyph site.

Critics, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the local County Board of Supervisors, say the agency's plan fails to protect the two monuments with their thousands of historic and cultural sites, and exposes fragile BLM lands to nearly unrestricted livestock grazing and recreational activities.

Others say the proposal won't safeguard rare plants and animals, such as the desert tortoise and 20 species of raptors and other birds, including a colony of California condors reintroduced at Vermilion Cliffs.

"What you have in the Arizona Strip is a kind of sleepy place that has been highlighted with two monuments, but the BLM hasn't really risen to these different challenges," said Martha Hahn, a former BLM administrator with 21 years at the agency. Hahn now works with the conservation group Grand Canyon Trust.

But current BLM officials say the plan, which is four years in the works and won't be finalized for months, is a commendable effort to reconcile the agency's tradition of various uses on public land with its newer mandate to conserve national monuments.

"It's all about finding the right balance between protecting the resource and allowing the public to use the land for grazing and other activities," said Scott Florence, the BLM's district manager for the Arizona Strip.

The Arizona Strip was cut off from its surrounding area by the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River until a ferry was established in 1871, which remained the only river crossing until the first bridge was built 60 years later.

After ancient Pueblo people settled on the mesas and in the canyons, only the intrepid passed through here: Spanish friars in the 18th century, wayward mountain men, scattered trappers and, in the 19th century, Mormon families guiding wagons along the Honeymoon Trail to St. George.

In 2000, President Clinton created the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, at just over 1 million acres, and the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, at nearly 300,000 acres. The BLM manages another 1 1/2 million acres in the area that don't carry the same level of protection.

The presidential proclamations called the monuments geological treasures. The one for Vermillion Cliffs reads: "Full of natural splendor and a sense of solitude, this area remains remote and unspoiled, qualities that are essential to the protection of the scientific and historic objects it contains."

Up to now, the Arizona Strip has been administered under a 1992 management plan. The proposed plan is the first to take into account the monument designations. Much of the land within the national monuments was intended to be set aside for scientific study, but BLM budgets often fail to make room for expensive scientific analysis. To survey the sites in Grand Canyon-Parashant, for example, would cost $30 million, according to Diana Hawks, who leads the BLM's planning effort.

According to an article in the latest edition of Issues in Science and Technology, published by the National Academies and the University of Texas at Dallas, only 6% of the BLM's 260 million acres in the West have been surveyed for cultural resources. About 263,000 cultural sites have been found, according to the article, but archeologists estimate there are likely to be 4.5 million sites on BLM holdings.

The pattern is repeated here. More than 97% of the land within the monuments has not been surveyed for archeological or paleontological sites, and according to a scientific study conducted last summer, 63% of the sites in Grand Canyon-Parashant are vulnerable to damage by off-road vehicle routes, as are nearly half the sites in the more remote Vermilion Cliffs monument.

"These archeological sites are a nonrenewable resource. Once they are gone, they are gone forever, " said Peter Bungart, a Flagstaff-based archeologist who conducted last year's monument surveys. "The silent history that's on that landscape is important, unless you argue that history is not important."

The BLM's new plan concludes that none of the proposed activities in the monuments would damage resources. But critics contend that the agency can't claim that roads won't damage archeological resources, considering the BLM doesn't even know where all of the sites are.

On a recent tour of Vermilion Cliffs, Rick Moore of the Grand Canyon Trust pointed out many archeological sites near roads, especially vulnerable to vandals. He showed one site atop the Paria Plateau where a road sliced though remnants of an early pueblo, the ruin's low stone walls flanking the dirt road.

The Coconino County Board of Supervisors is particularly concerned about the web of new roads open in the monuments and the other BLM lands.

"We have ample evidence that misuse of the land in these landscapes is sometimes irreparable, and sometimes it ain't gonna be right in your lifetime," Supervisor Carl Taylor said.

Taylor said the prospect of renewed uranium mining has created a rush to stake claims on the western side of the Arizona Strip and that the activity would create even more roads.

According to the EPA, the BLM's plan would open nearly nine times more public land to off-road vehicle use.

The EPA also argued against off-road travel in desert tortoise habitat and recommended that the BLM "eliminate open motorized and mechanized cross-county travel due to substantial impacts from this activity on soils, water resources, cultural resources and wildlife."

Proponents of motorized recreation, on the other hand, fear they will lose some of the freedom they enjoyed before the monuments were created.

"What we're worried about is that traditional routes are going to be closed, somewhat arbitrarily," said Dale Grange of Hurricane, Utah, president of the Tri State ATV Club and the motorized recreation representative at BLM meetings. Grange said motorcycle and ATV rallies in the Arizona Strip draw hundreds of participants. But because of BLM restrictions, organizers have to turn people away.

The BLM's Florence said the management plan for the area, though not perfect, is the result of years of careful, ongoing study.

"We fully expect to make some changes, clarifying what the plan does in term of protecting monument objects," he said. "It needs to be more clear, building in specific details exactly how the monument objects will be protected."

April 11, 2006

Mountain Lion Eradication Without Prior Study Rapped

Park Service at Lake Mead Accedes to "Shoot First" Intervention of Arizona

By: Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER)
Press Release

The National Park Service will allow Arizona game officials to kill as many as ten mountain lions at Lake Mead National Recreation Area this spring without any study of the need for, or the effects of, the action. In a letter released today, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is asking the Park Service to block the mountain lion hunt until basic biological evaluations have been completed.

Citing losses of bighorn sheep, the Arizona Game and Fish Department has arranged for a predator hunter to kill ten mountain lions on the federal lands within the Lake Mead National Recreation Area. While the National Park Service initially "asked" to delay the killing until the state produced some data about lion and bighorn populations in the national recreation area, the federal agency has now dropped its objections to the state removing the cats from federal land.

"This shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later stance is an abdication of the Park Service's responsibility to protect all wildlife within our national parks," stated PEER Board member Frank Buono, the former assistant superintendent at Mojave National Preserve. "Responsible wildlife management requires that both the consequences and the alternatives are assessed before coming in with guns blazing."

Among the questions that have not been addressed at Lake Mead are:

  • How many mountain lions there are on the Arizona side of Lake Mead and whether killing ten cats would wipe out the entire population in the area;
  • Arizona sells permits to hunt bighorn sheep but has not studied whether it makes more sense to sell fewer permits rather than kill mountain lions; and
  • The bighorn herd at Lake Mead numbers approximately 1,000 and serves as a stocking reserve, supplying some 300 sheep over the past decade for other areas. Game officials claim mountain lions have killed seven sheep but it is not known if that is an excessive level of predation or what level of predation is prudent for this 1,000 sheep population.

Another issue is the deference of the National Park Service to a state claim of jurisdiction of wildlife on federal lands. Lake Mead is a unit of the national park system, governed by rules and laws requiring it to conserve wildlife and forbidding it from managing animals to increase the populations of hunt-able species, even in those parks where Congress has authorized hunting.

"The National Park Service cannot allow a state to manage the recreation area and its wildlife in a way that is at odds with the standards that govern the national park system," Buono added. "First, the Park Service supinely allows Arizona to set the take limits for bighorn sheep without consequence to the hunted species, and now the Park Service wants to be an onlooker while the state comes forward to kill lions as the remedy to the problem it may have created by promoting over-hunting."

Last year, the Park Service proposed a highly controversial rewrite of its Management Policies that would, among other things, subject park wildlife to state hunting regulations. This rewrite, however, is in limbo as a wholesale leadership shift is occurring within the Park Service's parent agency, the Department of Interior.

April 7, 2006

Plan to kill mountain lions at Lake Mead draws protests


LAS VEGAS (AP) - Environmentalists are protesting plans to kill 10 or more mountain lions on the Arizona side of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, to prevent them from preying on desert bighorn sheep.

The plan calls for catching and killing individual mountain lions until a recent spate of sheep kills is reduced, said Jim deVos, research branch chief for the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

"Not every lion is killing sheep," said deVos, who said a start date had not been set for the program. "We're trying to focus on known kills and trying to remove that lion that is killing sheep."

Daniel Patterson, desert ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Ariz., called the culling plan a mistake.

"Lions are scarce," Patterson said. "We don't need to be killing mountain lions to protect the bighorn. We don't need single-species management, we need ecosystem management."

DeVos said the number of sheep in the region has dropped in recent years, partly because drought has reduced the population of mule deer - a more common mountain lion prey.

At least seven bighorn have been killed by mountain lions this year in the Hoover Dam area on the Arizona side of the Colorado River and Lake Mead, where deVos said about 1,000 bighorn sheep remain.

The area sheep population serves as a source for the reintroduction of bighorn sheep throughout the Southwest, including Colorado, Utah and Texas, deVos said.

Frank Buono, a 33-year veteran of the National Park Service and a national board member of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said culling mountain lions should be a last resort after public discussion and an environmental assessment.

Buono, a former assistant superintendent at the park service's Mojave National Preserve in California, criticized the park service for letting Arizona develop the plan.

Roxanne Dey, park service spokeswoman at Lake Mead, said her agency cedes most authority over hunting and wildlife management in the area to Arizona and Nevada. Both states allow limited hunting of bighorn sheep.

The desert bighorn sheep is Nevada's state animal. More than 5,400 live in mountain ranges across the southern, central and western parts of the state.

"When Congress created the park, that was part of the legislation, that the park could not interfere with hunting," Dey said.

Buono and Patterson suggested that bighorn hunting was propelling the plan to kill mountain lions. DeVos disagreed.

"In the entire state of Arizona, we sell less than a hundred sheep permits," deVos said. "This is not a lucrative business. It's not about money. We lose money on the sheep management program."

DeVos noted a sheep and mountain lion management plan was created last year. He rejected arguments that the state and federal agencies should have a potentially lengthy series of public hearings on the culling plan.

"If we wait, what do we risk? Time is of the essence," he said. "We feel the loss of 50 (percent) to 60 percent of this sheep population is a critical issue."