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Environmental News

"EARTH TALK"

From the Editors of E / The Environmental Magazine

THIS WEEK'S COLUMN

Dear EarthTalk: What was the nature of the agreement just forged between green groups and the U.S. government for wolf protection in the Northern Rockies?
—Peggy Marshall, Boise, ID

Today upwards of 1,600 gray wolves roam the Northern Rocky Mountains, following the re-introduction of 66 animals in 1995 after their forebears were wiped out by hunters and ranchers. Environmental groups recently won a suit to keep Endangered Species Act protections for the wolves in place.

Photo © Thinkstock

This past March, a coalition of 10 conservation groups finally reached a settlement with the U.S. Department of Interior regarding gray wolf recovery and management in the Northern Rockies. The courtroom battle had raged since the Bush administration had announced in January 2009 its decision to take gray wolves—66 of which were reintroduced to the region in 1995 after their forebears were wiped out by hunters and ranchers a century earlier—off of the Endangered Species List.

Today upwards of 1,600 gray wolves roam the six-state region, exceeding wildlife biologists’ expectations by a factor of five. The groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife, sued the Interior Department, contended that taking away federal protections and allowing hunting of the wolves would be no way to encourage their rebound. The effort succeeded and kept the delisting from becoming a reality.
Ranchers have been especially vocal in opposing protection for the wolves, which they say are to blame for increased livestock predation as well as the decline in the region’s elk herds in recent years.

The conservationists’ primary concern had been that certain states where the wolves now range (thanks to reintroduction efforts) did not have large enough wolf populations or sufficient statewide protections to ensure their rebound would continue. Under the new agreement, gray wolves will be delisted in those states that have established suitable protection plans (Idaho and Montana)—so limited hunting will be allowed there—while federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections will remain in place in the other states (Washington, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming) where gray wolf populations are still in jeopardy.

As part of the new deal, the Department of the Interior will conduct rigorous scientific monitoring of wolf populations across the region and solicit an independent scientific review by an expert advisory board after three years to reassess the situation.

Washington, Oregon and Utah only have small populations of gray wolves. Wyoming, however, where the animals are thriving, is a different story. Wildlife biologists were concerned about delisting the animals there as state officials had sought a “predator zone”—where wolves could be shot on sight—covering almost 90 percent of the state. As a result of this concern, gray wolves will remain listed under the ESA in Wyoming, although U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service officials are working with state wildlife biologists to develop a more responsible plan that would allow delisting there as well at some future date.

“The settlement offers a workable solution to the increasingly polarized debate over wolves,” reported the conservation groups in a joint memo, adding that they hope the agreement marks the “beginning of a new era of wolf conservation.” Other groups signing onto the agreement included Cascadia Wildlands, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, the Hells Canyon Preservation Council, the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Oregon Wild and Wildlands Network.

CONTACTS: NRDC; U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service “Gray Wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains”.

 
 

 

Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that only a handful of outdated coal-burning power plants generate a sizable amount of the mercury pollution generated in the United States? If so, is anything being done to clean these sites up or shut them down?
—Frank Pearson, Wichita, KS

The Environmental Defense Fund reports that the top 25 emitters of mercury, a potent neurotoxin and a nasty by-product of coal-fired electricity generation, contribute only eight percent of the U.S. electric supply but account for nearly a third of all mercury emissions by the U.S. electricity sector overall.

Photo © Thinkstock

Our nation’s coal-fired power plants are increasingly being retrofitted with technologies to mitigate the output of various forms of pollution. But a number of bad apples do continue to cause more than their fair share of mercury emissions. This past March the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a leading non-profit, released a report showing that the top 25 emitters of mercury, a potent neurotoxin and a nasty by-product of coal-fired electricity generation, contribute only eight percent of the U.S. electric supply. At the same time, these power plants, which have failed to install readily available pollution controls already widely in use by other plants, account for nearly a third of all mercury emissions by the American electricity sector overall.

The report, “Mercury Alert: Cleaning up Coal Plants for Healthier Lives,” factors in emissions of mercury at power plants across the country in 2009. According to EDF, 20 of the top 25 mercury emitters are located within 50-100 miles of some of the largest metropolitan areas in the nation, including Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, St. Louis and Austin. EDF found that Texas produces the most pollution from coal-fired electricity generation of all the U.S. states. Besides listing the worst mercury polluters, the report also details recent cases of mercury contamination and fish consumption advisories across the country, as well as reported new installations of mercury controls and recently enacted state regulations driving their implementation.

The release of the report was timed to coincide with the announcement by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of more stringent rules regarding emissions of mercury and other air polluters such as arsenic, dioxin and acid gases from individual power plants. EDF hopes that the report will bolster public support for the federal government to crack down on any plants that continue to buck the trend towards greener operations.

“There are widely available, cost-effective and tested technologies to reduce mercury pollution from power plants by more than 90 percent,” reports EDF. Currently only 17 U.S. states regulate mercury air emissions, but the upcoming EPA rule will force plants even in unregulated states to clean up their acts.

Mercury pollution is an ongoing problem around the world. Exposure to mercury in the environment has been linked to a variety of reproductive, cardiovascular and other human health problems. Airborne mercury from electricity plants usually finds its way into waterways and eventually the ocean where it is taken up by successively larger marine life as it works its way up the food chain. The top ocean predators such as tuna and swordfish contain relatively large amounts of mercury in their fatty tissue as a result of eating smaller fish which have in turn eaten even smaller forms of marine life.

Consumers can limit their mercury intake by minimizing our consumption of these larger fish (including albacore canned tuna), but the problem will linger long into the future even if we start to reign in mercury pollution domestically, especially because the cleaner technologies being implemented here may take decades to find their way to power plants in poor and developing countries.

CONTACT: EDF’s “Mercury Alert” Report.

A SYNDICATED COLUMN ONLY ON AMERICAJR.COM

 

 

SEND IN YOUR QUESTIONS...

GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/thisweek/, or e-mail: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php.

 

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