Researchers don snowshoes and brave freezing temperatures to learn more about the threatened species
Photos and article by Andrew Budziak
Visibility is less than 100 feet. The snow is not only blinding, it’s making it nearly impossible to keep my car on the road. The car in front of me stops, and I realize I’ve driven over what we’re looking for.
Hannah Barron, a wolf researcher and director of Wildlife Conservation Campaigns for Earthroots, steps out of her car. Barron, her research assistant Adrienne Chalaturnyk, and I are the only people for miles. We’re standing on the side of a road near Ontario’s Killarney Provincial Park and I’ve just run over a set of wolf tracks.
“Sorry,” I tell Barron.
“That’s ok,” Barron says. “We probably shouldn’t be driving in this weather anyway.”
The wolf tracks tell us we’re close to what we’re there to document: scat and urine. Ontario’s provincial government is creating a recovery strategy for the Algonquin wolf, known outside the province as the eastern wolf. In 2016, the province declared the Algonquin wolf a distinct canid. Its status was moved to “threatened” which means the province has two years to come up with a recovery strategy for the animal.
I’ve met with Barron and Chalaturnyk as they hunt for DNA samples of wolves in and around Killarney Provincial Park to help better understand their population distribution. Wolf scat and urine provide great DNA samples, and this method of DNA collection is relatively non-invasive when compared to darting or collaring animals.
Barron heads over to the snow bank at the side of the road and starts wiping away the freshly fallen snow.
“If there is urine or scat here, it’s likely just below this recent snow,” she tells me.
The tracks begin in the bush on one side of the road and continue into the woods on the other. There are “No Trespassing” signs on both sides, which means we can’t follow the tracks. Too bad — the wolves did not leave any scat or urine in the banks.
The weather worsens, so we head back to a cabin which Barron and Chalaturnyk have turned into a research station. The …more
With two dams up for relicensing, fish advocates and farmers face off over water use
Few people outside Northern California have heard of the Eel River. But if you’re a wine lover, there’s a good chance you’ve enjoyed its water in the form of a golden chardonnay or a rich red merlot.
The Eel River was once home to one of the largest salmon populations on the West Coast. But for nearly a century, a large share of its flow has been diverted for hydroelectric power and irrigation, helping build Northern California into a world powerhouse of winemaking. Much of the wine produced in Mendocino and Sonoma counties would not exist without that diverted Eel River water.
Photo courtesy of Potter Valley Irrigation District
So it should come as no surprise that the prospect of ending those water diversions is stirring concern across the region.
The water diversions are part of the Potter Valley Project, a 9.2-megawatt hydroelectric facility owned by utility Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E). It includes two dams on the Eel River and a hydroelectric powerhouse in the headwaters of the Russian River.
In a quirk of geography, the two rivers flow past each other only about a mile apart, separated by a ridge. A mile-long tunnel built through the ridge in 1908 diverts Eel River water into the Russian River, which then flows south into Mendocino and Sonoma counties. The Eel turns north and flows through Humboldt County.
The powerhouse was originally built to provide electricity for the town of Ukiah. For about 80 years, it’s been part of PG&E’s vast Northern California energy portfolio.
The Potter Valley Project is up for relicensing with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), a once-in-50-years process that is prompting a hard look at whether the dams still make sense.
A key issue is fish passage. Like so many hydroelectric facilities of its era, the Potter Valley Project was built with no regard for migratory fish. Scott Dam, the largest of the two dams, is a 130ft-high concrete monolith with no fish ladders to allow fish to get around the structure. It was built on the Eel River in 1922, forming Lake Pillsbury about 12 miles upstream from the diversion tunnel.
Scott Dam has cut off salmon and steelhead from more …more
Indigenous communities in one of country's poorest provinces say El Cerrejón is harming health and environment
The sun is rising in the Indigenous reserve Provincial, in the northern Colombian province of La Guajira. The morning silence is broken by a pounding sound, emanating from a nearby mining pit just a few hundred meters from the community.
Photo Ynske Boersma
“That noise continues day and night,” says local Luz Angela Uriana while grinding corn for breakfast. The air is heavy with dust, and smells vaguely of sulphur and burning coal. Smoke plumes rise above the mine. “And when they do their daily coal blast, our houses vibrate like mobile phones.”
Bordering the protected communal lands of the Indigenous reserve lies El Cerrejón, one of the world´s biggest open-cast coal mines. The company operating the mine, also named Cerrejón, extracts about one hundred tons of coal a day, with an international coal market share of 3.9 percent in 2016. Since the mine began operating in 1986, Cerrejón has exploited about 13,000 hectares of the 69,000 the company holds in concession. About 100 communities are affected by the mining activities, most Indigenous Wayúu, a smaller portion of African-Colombian descent.
The company, co-owned by mining giants Glencore, Anglo-American, and Billiton-BHP, says it complies with Colombian law and points to its sustainable development programs, such as their reforestation project and the relocations of local communities living close to the mine. But locals say the mining operations have taken a drastic toll on their health and quality of life. And they are fighting back.
In 31 years of operation, the people of Provincial have seen the mine inch closer and closer to their territory, which lies within one of Colombia's most impoverished provinces. Too close, according to locals, who say …more
Carmaker condemned for experiments that involved humans and monkeys breathing toxic car fumes for hours at a time
Volkswagen, the world’s biggest carmaker, is under fire globally from politicians and environmentalists following revelations it commissioned experiments in which monkeys and humans breathed in car fumes for hours at a time.
Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, said there was an urgent need for the company to reveal the true extent of the experiments. “These tests on monkeys or even on humans are not ethically justifiable in any shape or form,” her spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said on Monday. “The indignation of many people is absolutely understandable.”
VW is already under heavy scrutiny over its role in the “dieselgate” scandal, in which the carmaker manipulated tests on about 11 million cars worldwide to make it appear they met air emissions tests, when in reality they exceeded them many times over when used on the road.
The company said on Monday a small internal group had mistakenly pushed for the tests to be carried out and that they did not reflect VW’s ethos. But industry observers said VW’s excuses held little water, as the experiments had been well-documented and the results presented to managers at BMW, Daimler, and VW, all of whom belong to the car lobby institute, the European Research Group of Environment and Health in the Transport Sector (EUGT).
VW’s supervisory board representative and chief controller, Hans Dieter Pötsch, said on Monday he was struggling to understand how the tests had been allowed to be carried out, calling them “in no way understandable.”
Daimler and BMW tried to distance themselves from the tests, stressing that none of their cars had been used in the experiments.
Initially reported in the New York Times, the tests, carried out in May 2015 by the New Mexico-based Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute (LRRI), involved locking 10 Java monkeys in small airtight chambers for four hours at a time. The animals were left to watch cartoons as they breathed in diesel fumes from a VW Beetle. The ultimate aim of the tests was to prove that the pollutant load of nitrogen oxide car emissions from diesel motors had measurably decreased, thanks to modern cleaning technology.
In a second round of tests, the animals …more
Hundreds of the largely Black residents are suing now-shuttered paper plant claiming it released toxic chemicals linked to cancer
From the front seat of his truck, Joe Womack points out the site where the Clotilda, the last known slave ship to enter the US, landed in 1860, 52 years after it outlawed the international slave trade.
Womack, a retired army major who grew up in the area and is now the leader of a local environmental justice group, has parked on a patch of dirt under a stories-high interstate bridge, wedged between a paper mill, oil storage tanks, and an industrial railroad.
Between the tangle of heavy industry, it’s about as close as you can still get to the area where the Clotilda and the 110 kidnapped west Africans aboard are said to have first touched ground — and where the remains of what might in fact be the ship were recently discovered, thanks to unusual weather conditions.
Several years after emancipation many of the Clotilda survivors would return here to start an independent settlement governed by native traditions.
The Clotilda was sponsored by Timothy Meaher, a wealthy Alabama businessman, on a bet that he could evade authorities and successfully land an illegal slave ship (he was caught but never convicted). The landing site, now covered by oil storage tanks, is on land still owned by the Meaher family, along with several other lucrative industrial plots in the area.
Today, this mostly black, low-income community has more than just a unique history as an against-the-odds bolthole of black independence in the Reconstruction south. Residents say they also have a serious industrial pollution and public health problem, and a group of about 1,200 have launched a lawsuit against the owners of a now-shuttered paper plant that was built in 1928 on land that was then owned by A. Meaher Jr.
“People born after 1945 seem to be dying before the age of 65,” said Womack, who grew up during the mid-century heydey of the International Paper plant that drew thousands of workers here but also, according to residents, spewed ash across the town.
The lawsuit claims International Paper …more
Innovative army program aims to restore country's war-torn landscapes, safeguard drinking water supply
Camouflaged soldiers move through the dense fog of Colombia’s Páramo de Sumapaz, a high-altitude wetland overlooking the capital, Bogotá. Although this wetland has been the site of years of intense fighting between government and rebel forces, the soldiers posted here are not engaged in military action — they’re gardening.
Photo courtesy of Batallón de Alta Montaña Número 1
The soldiers in the Páramo de Sumapaz belong to Colombia’s First High Mountain Battalion (BAM, for its Spanish name). Trained to hunt their opponents over a hostile high-altitude environment of perpetual fog and sub-freezing temperatures, they are now engaged in building greenhouses, nursery plots, and laboratories. Their mission is the cultivation of the furry, cactus-like frailejón (fry-lay-HONE). This rare and endangered plant is key to ensuring Colombia’s main source of fresh water. And it is disappearing.
“The loss of frailejones might cause the collapse of the páramo ecosystem, with huge consequences for the human populations relying on its ecosystem services,” said Dr. Mauricio Diazgranados, one of Colombia’s foremost frailejón experts and the research leader at the Natural Capital and Plant Health Department at the Kew Royal Botanical Gardens in the United Kingdom.
Diazgranados does not exaggerate the region’s importance. Roughly 70 percent of Colombia’s population gets their water from the páramos, where the frailejón is a “keystone species,” meaning that the other plants and animals of its ecosystem depend upon it for their own survival. Humans too, are dependent on this native plant: In the perpetually foggy páramos, the frailejón traps tremendous amounts of fog on its downy surface. The fog sticks to the frailejóns’ skin as water droplets, which fall to the ground when they grow sufficiently heavy. The accumulated water flows into the lakes and rivers that act as reservoirs for both drinking water and hydroelectricity for most of the country.
Researchers have identified several causes for the decline of the frailejón, among them warming temperatures, longer and drier days, increased pest populations, expanded agricultural use of the páramos, and Colombia’s civil war, which ended in 2016.
Photo by Forest Ray
Of the above threats, all but the war can be tied directly to climate change. Rising …more
Three-year voyage of the Hōkūleʻa, a giant Polynesian sailing canoe, spread Indigenous knowledge and concern for Earth’s future
In the summer of 2017, after a three-year voyage, spanning more than 40,000 nautical miles with stops in 23 countries and territories, the Hōkūleʻa — a giant Polynesian sailing canoe — returned home to the shores of Honolulu, Hawaii. Moments before her arrival, a misty rain — considered a Hawaiian blessing — fell, but the clouds parted as the 62-foot long vessel powered by two red sails glided into the harbor near Magic Island Beach in Oahu, surrounded by a flotilla of escort canoes, kayaks, and surfboards.
Along the shoreline, tens of thousands of spectators gathered to cheer the Hōkūleʻa’s return, waving Hawaiian flags and snapping photos of the awe-inspiring canoe. As the crew disembarked, a group of Hawaiian men in traditional dress chanted and performed the ancient Hawaiian spear-throwing Kāli‘i Rite.
The purpose of this epic trip — decades in the making — was to pass along traditional Polynesian sailing and navigation knowledge to a younger generation and to bring attention to the idea of building a sustainable future for the Earth using local solutions that blend Indigenous wisdom with other best practices.
Navigation by Nature
The Hōkūleʻa is a replica of an ancient Polynesian voyaging canoe. It has no motor and uses sails and a large paddle for steering, which requires several people to handle. The 62-feet-long and 20-feet-wide vessel was originally built in 1975 by founding members of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, a Hawaii-based group that seeks to perpetuate the art and science of traditional Polynesian voyaging, for a one-time voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti.
One motivation for that first trip was to show that Polynesians settled the Pacific islands through intentional voyaging and to counter the idea propagated by Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl of Kon Tiki fame that they descended from South Americans rather than Asians.
Photo by Polynesian Voyaging Society/ Nāʻālehu Anthony
During that first voyage, the crew navigated without any handheld instruments — including watches — just as their ancestors did long ago. “Everything that you use to keep yourself oriented and on track is provided by …more