For endangered species, politics replace science

Prairie dogs are complicated creatures. In addition to confounding property owners by burrowing on land slated for shopping malls or horse pastures, they sometimes defy accepted biological principles. Unlike many social animals, instead of dispersing as they age, prairie dogs stick close to home, preferring to live cooperatively with relatives. In fact, prairie dogs are actually more likely to immigrate after their kin disappear. And at least one prairie dog expert thinks the socially complex animals speak a real language.

It’s not only trees — wildfires imperil water too

The Fourmile Canyon Fire, sparked by a backyard burn west of Boulder, Colorado, in 2010, caused $220 million in damage and destroyed 168 homes. It also scorched nearly a quarter of a watershed that supplies water to the nearby community of Pine Brook Hills. The problems didn’t end there: Long after the blaze was put out, intense rainstorms periodically washed sediment and other particles downstream, disrupting water treatment and forcing the local water district to stop pulling water from Fourmile Creek, leaving it reliant upon water already collected in its reservoir. “The water coming down Fourmile Creek would get so dirty that we simply would shut down moving any water (from the creek),” for days or even weeks, says district manager Robert de Haas. “If we hadn’t built the reservoir” — in 2006 — “we’d have been in big trouble.”

This story first appeared at High Country News.

What Trump’s Supreme Court pick holds for Indian Country

During the Senate hearings that put Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court this year, Democrats made it clear they were leery of his conservative judicial record. Gorsuch was confirmed in April along party lines, and no Western Democrat voted in his favor. But Gorsuch has a strong background in Indian law and a record of recognizing tribal sovereignty and self-determination, and, those concerns notwithstanding, his nomination may well represent a potential positive development on big cases in Indian Country. In a court dominated by East Coast justices, Gorsuch is from the West, the source of many Indian law cases. He grew up in Denver, where he later spent 10 years as a circuit court judge.

Proper fire funding continues to elude Congress

On Sept. 14, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue officially declared that the 2017 fire season was the Forest Service’s most expensive ever, with costs topping $2 billion. Perdue noted that fire suppression, which accounted for just 16 percent of the agency’s budget in 1995, now takes up over 55 percent. “We end up having to hoard all of the money that is intended for fire prevention,” he wrote in a press release, “because we’re afraid we’re going to need it to actually fight fires.”
This story originally appeared at High Country News. The Forest Service’s fire funding is subject to a budget cap based on the average cost of wildfire suppression over the last 10 years.

In New Mexico, demographic shifts have helped job growth

It’s a typical Monday in this dusty New Mexico town 30 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border. In a brightly lit classroom at Deming High School, Francisco Manuel Garcia Ruiz, a math teacher recruited from Spain, speaks in rapid Spanish to a group of sophomores. In a room across campus, Annabelle Carbajal, the district’s migrant student coordinator, looks out at the faces of students whose parents work in the nearby fields, telling them she’s there to help. This story originally appeared at High Country News and is reprinted with permission. This story is part of the State of Change project, produced by High Country News partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network.

National Park Service survey finds widespread harassment

Nearly 40 percent of National Park Service employees experienced some form of harassment over a 12-month period, according to long-awaited survey results released by the agency. The survey assessed sexual harassment, hostile work environment and gender discrimination in the nation’s parks, monuments and recreation areas. About 19 percent of respondents reported gender-based harassment; 10 percent said they encountered sexual harassment; and .95 percent said they experienced sexual assault. Some employees reported harassment based on their race, age or disability as well. About 50 percent of the Park Service’s permanent employees responded to the survey; a second survey, aimed at seasonal employees, is still in the works. On Oct.

Gina McCarthy holds out hope on climate policy

Gina McCarthy was the head of the Environmental Protection Agency under President Barack Obama, starting in July 2013. Under her leadership, the agency undertook an ambitious climate change agenda, curbing emissions from vehicles and working toward the Clean Power Plan, an effort to further cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Many of those regulations are now being undone by her successor, Scott Pruitt, who as attorney general of Oklahoma initiated multiple challenges to EPA regulations. High Country News recently caught up with McCarthy in Lander, Wyoming, as she prepared to address a crowd at the 50th anniversary of the Wyoming Outdoor Council. High Country News: In terms of their impact on Western states and Alaska, what accomplishments at the EPA were you most proud of, and which of these are most threatened by the current administration? Gina McCarthy: Well at this point, I’d say that the current administration is really relooking and reconsidering just about every decision that’s been made under the Obama administration, and I think they’ve made it clear that they want to rethink all the climate efforts.

Coal. Guns. Freedom?

I saw these three words on a little sticker affixed, discordantly, to the window of a car in a small Colorado town. It struck me as funny at first: Coal and guns being elevated to the status of platonic ideals or, even more loftily, the refrain of a bad country song. All it was missing was Jesus, beer and Wrangler butts. A few days later, though, as I sat on a desert promontory overlooking northwestern New Mexico, the sticker didn’t seem so funny. As the sunrise spilled across sagebrush plains and irrigated cornfields, it also illuminated a narrow band of yellow-brown clouds on the horizon.

Trump administration erodes environmental protections

The Trump administration has been steadily undoing environmental protections established by the Obama administration. Rules designed to fight climate change have been especially targeted. Many such efforts are still underway because the Administrative Procedure Act and other laws require agencies to go through a lengthy process to rescind or rewrite a rule. That includes drafting a proposal, weighing costs and benefits, seeking public comment and submitting major rules to the White House Office of Management and Budget for review. Executive orders and other policies are easier to rescind.

Why the Bundy crew keeps winning in court

Last month a Las Vegas jury acquitted two men — Ricky Lovelien of Montana and Steven Stewart of Idaho — for their parts in the 2014 armed standoff between the federal government and supporters of rancher Cliven Bundy. The jury found co-defendants Eric Parker and Scott Drexler not guilty of most charges but deadlocked on some. When it comes to trying the Bundys and their supporters, federal prosecutors now have a terrible record, winning just two convictions after two trials of six defendants in Nevada this year. Last fall, Bundy’s sons Ryan and Ammon Bundy and five others were acquitted for leading an armed takeover of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in early 2016. The recent acquittals in the Nevada case raise big questions for prosecutors.