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►  Interior chief urges shrinking 4 national monuments in West

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is recommending that four large national monuments in the West be reduced in size, potentially opening up hundreds of thousand or even millions of acres of land revered for natural beauty and historical significance to mining, logging and other development.

Zinke’s recommendation, revealed in a leaked memo submitted to the White House, prompted an outcry from environmental groups who promised to take the Trump administration to court to block the moves.

The Interior secretary’s plan would scale back two huge Utah monuments — Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante — along with Nevada’s Gold Butte and Oregon’s Cascade-Siskiyou. More logging and other development also would be allowed at three other monuments — two in in New Mexico and one in Maine.

Bears Ears, designated for federal protection by former President Barack Obama, totals 1.3 million acres in southeastern Utah on land that is sacred to Native Americans and home to tens of thousands of archaeological sites, including ancient cliff dwellings. Grand Staircase-Escalante, in southern Utah, includes nearly 1.9 million acres in a sweeping vista larger than the state of Delaware.

Grand Staircase has been a source of ire for local officials and Republican leaders for more than two decades amid complaints that its 1996 designation as a monument by former President Bill Clinton closed off too much land to development.

Cascade-Siskiyou, in southwestern Oregon, protects about 113,000 acres in an area where three mountain ranges converge, while Nevada’s Gold Butte protects nearly 300,000 acres of desert landscapes that feature rock art, sandstone towers and wildlife habitat for bighorn sheep and the threatened Mojave Desert tortoise.

Two marine monuments in the Pacific Ocean also would be reduced under Zinke’s memo, which has not been officially released. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the memo.

Donald Trump ordered the review earlier this year after complaining about a “massive land grab” by Obama and other former presidents.

“It’s gotten worse and worse and worse, and now we’re going to free it up, which is what should have happened in the first place. This should never have happened,” Trump said in ordering the review in April.

National monument designations add protections for lands known for their natural beauty with the goal of preserving them for future generations. The restrictions aren’t as stringent as for national parks, but some policies include limits on mining, timber cutting and recreational activities such as riding off-road vehicles.

No president has tried to eliminate a monument, but some have trimmed and redrawn boundaries 18 times, according to the National Park Service.

Zinke’s recommendations to pare down the four Western monuments — and allow more logging and other development in three other monuments — “represent an unprecedented assault on our parks and public lands” by the Trump administration, said Jamie Williams, president of the Wilderness Society.

“This callous proposal will needlessly punish local, predominantly rural communities that depend on parks and public lands for outdoor recreation, sustainable jobs and economic growth,” Williams said, vowing to challenge in court any actions by the Trump administration to reduce the size of national monuments.

“Zinke claims to follow Teddy Roosevelt, but he’s engineering the largest rollback of public land protection in American history,” said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, another environmental group. “If Teddy were alive today, he’d declare political war on Zinke and Trump.”

Zinke has declined to say whether portions of any monuments under review would be opened up to oil and gas drilling, mining, logging and other industries for which Trump has advocated.

It was not clear from the memo how much energy development would be allowed on the sites recommended for changes, although the memo cites “active timber management” as a goal, as well as increased public access.

A spokeswoman for Zinke referred questions to the White House, which said in a statement that it does not comment on leaked documents.

If Trump adopts the recommendations, it would quiet some of the worst fears of his opponents, who warned that vast public lands and marine areas could be lost to states or private interests.

But significant reductions in the size of the monuments, especially those created by Obama, would mark the latest in a string of actions where Trump has sought to erode his Democratic predecessor’s legacy.

The recommendations cap an unprecedented four-month review based on Trump’s claim that the century-old Antiquities Act had been misused by past presidents to create oversized monuments that hinder energy development, grazing and other uses.

In addition to shrinking the four western monuments, Zinke recommends greater economic activity at Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and Rio Grande del Norte in New Mexico, and Katahdin Woods and Waters in Maine.

►  Literally lousy: Parasite plagues world salmon industry

Salmon have a lousy problem, and the race to solve it is spanning the globe.

A surge of parasitic sea lice is disrupting salmon farms around the world. The tiny lice attach themselves to salmon and feed on them, killing or rendering them unsuitable for dinner tables.

Meanwhile, wholesale prices of salmon are way up, as high as 50 percent last year. That means higher consumer prices for everything from salmon fillets and steaks to more expensive lox on bagels.

The lice are actually tiny crustaceans that have infested salmon farms in the U.S., Canada, Scotland, Norway and Chile, major suppliers of the high-protein, heart-healthy fish. Scientists and fish farmers are working on new ways to control the pests, which Fish Farmer Magazine stated last year costs the global aquaculture industry about $1 billion annually.

So far it has been an uphill struggle that is a threat to a way of life in countries where salmon farming is a part of the culture.

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“Our work has to be quicker than the evolution of the lice,” said Jake Elliott, vice president of Cooke Aquaculture in Blacks Harbour, New Brunswick.

Experts say defeating the lice will take a suite of new and established technology, including older management tools such as pesticides and newer strategies such as breeding for genetic resistance. The innovative solutions in use or development include bathing the salmon in warm water to remove lice and zapping the lice with underwater lasers.

Farmers worldwide consider sea lice the biggest threat to their industry and say the persistent problem is making the fish more expensive to consumers. Farmed salmon was worth nearly $12 billion in 2015, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

The only hope is to develop new methods to control the spread of lice, which are present in the wild, but thrive in the tightly packed ocean pens for fish farming, said Shawn Robinson, a scientist with the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

“There are not enough tools right now to allow the farmer to really effectively deal with it,” Robinson said.

The lice can grow to about the size of a pea and lay thousands of eggs in their brief lifetime. The chance of a louse making its way to a diner’s plate is very small because salmon are checked for lice before being sent to market. But even if one did, eating it wouldn’t pose a health threat.

Atlantic salmon have held their own with sea lice in the wild for centuries, and fish farmers managed them in aquaculture environments for many years. Then, farmers in Canada identified the lice as a problem around 1994, said Jonathan Carr, executive director of research and environment with the Atlantic Salmon Federation.

Feeding fish a pesticide with the active ingredient of emamectin benzoate became the tool of choice to control lice, Carr said. But around 2009, the lice appeared to become resistant to the pesticide, and they have spread globally since.

The industry’s key mistake was reacting when the lice evolved to survive pesticide, Carr said, rather than “getting ahead in the game.”

“The efficacy went away and pressure developed to create new treatments,” said Kris Nicholls, chief operating officer at Cooke, a major player in world salmon farming.

The worldwide supply of salmon fell almost 10 percent last year, with Norway, the largest producer in the world, especially hard hit. In Norway, there are hundreds of times more salmon in aquaculture than in the wild. And the fish potentially can escape their pens with lice attached and introduce them to wild fish.

Norwegian farmers are looking to use new closed-in pens that resemble giant eggs instead of typical mesh pens. Scottish farmers have deployed a device known as a Thermolicer to warm the water and detach the lice from fish. And farmers in North America and Europe are experimenting with using species of “cleaner fish” to coexist with the salmon and eat the lice.

Research about farming salmon along with mussels, which researchers have found will eat larval sea lice, is underway. Underwater drones inhabit the other end of the technological spectrum, zapping lice with lasers to kill them. That technology was developed in Norway and has been used there and in Scotland.

Cooke keeps a brood stock of fish in the hopes of breeding them for desirable traits such as disease resistance. And the company uses a pair of boats capable of pumping 10,000 fish at a time into a hydrogen peroxide bath, which kills most of the lice, although it also can stress and kill some fish.

On the shores of Beaver Harbour, New Brunswick, Cooke engineer Joel Halse stood recently aboard a $4 million vessel containing a series of tubes that send 300 salmon a minute on a winding journey while dousing them with warm water to remove lice.

Halse, who likened it to a “waterslide park” for fish, said the fish farming industry has no choice but to try such innovations.

“The cost to the salmon farming industry from sea lice is huge,” he said. “And having tools to control the population would be huge.”

►  Environmental, outdoor groups vow to fight national monument reductions

Environmental and outdoor recreation groups threatened Monday to sue if Donald Trump adopts Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s leaked proposal to alter nearly a dozen national monuments, while grazing, fishing and other groups welcomed the recommendations.

Zinke’s plan to reduce the size of at least four federally protected areas in the West, while altering management practices at another half-dozen, was obtained and published by The Washington Post on Sunday night. The White House is still reviewing the memorandum, which Zinke submitted in late August after conducting a four-month review of how presidents of both parties have applied the 1906 Antiquities Act since 1996.

The secretary urged Trump to shrink four large monuments on federal land – Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, Nevada’s Gold Butte, and Oregon’s Cascade-Siskiyou – as well as possibly two Pacific Ocean marine monuments, the Pacific Remote Islands and Rose Atoll. He proposed amending the proclamations for 10 monuments, largely to allow for commercial activities restricted in these areas, such as logging, grazing and mining.

Zinke endorsed allowing commercial fishing operators in three marine monuments – the two in the central Pacific Ocean, and one, Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Marine Monument, in the Atlantic.

Eric Reid, general manager of Seafreeze Shoreside in Narragansett, Rhode Island, said in a statement that the recommendations “make us hopeful that we can recover the areas we have fished sustainably for decades. We are grateful that the voices of fishermen and shore side businesses have finally been heard.“

But Mystic Aquarium senior research scientist Peter Auster, whose institution pushed for heightened protections for an area 130 miles off the southeast coast of Cape Cod, noted that federal catch data shows that landings of mackerel and butterfish – two of the main species targeted by local fisherman near the monument – have risen this year compared with 2016, when the monument was established.

Auster said that to allow trawlers, pots and pot gear in the monument, which spans 4,913 square miles, “will have significant effects on conservation of marine wildlife in the monument.“

Former Interior secretary Sally Jewell, who oversaw several of the monument designations Zinke is proposing to alter, said in an interview Monday that, “the protections that are written into the proclamations are in many cases what he’s tryingto undo, in his recommendations to Trump.

“It’s a monument in name only if all the activities that are identified by Secretary Zinke are allowed to occur,“ she added.

Grazing advocates also welcomed the idea of providing ranchers with more access on five different monuments, including not only Bears Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante and Gold Butte but also the New Mexico monuments Rio Grande Del Norte and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks.

Ethan Lane, who directs the Public Lands Council at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said in an email that, “It sounds like the voices of western communities are finally being heard and the promise to preserve grazing inside monuments might finally be kept by the federal government. This action would be a win for any western community that depends on ranching to stay afloat.“

Utah politicians, who have lobbied Trump since he was elected to revisit several Antiquities Act designations, praised his administration’s push to scale back these areas. Utah Governor Gary Herbert, R, said Thursday that after having talked with Zinke about Grand Staircase-Escalante, which Bill Clinton established in 1996, “I think there’s the possibility of carving it up into smaller monuments, you know, two or three that actually protects the area that needs protection.“

Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch’s spokesman Matt Whitlock said his boss “is grateful for Secretary Zinke’s thorough, fair review that has given Utahns on all sides of the issue a voice in the protection of Utah lands.“

But a broad array of monument supporters, including environmental and outdoor recreation activists, pledged to fight any changes to existing protections in court.

“Trump, Zinke and Herbert are going to come out on the wrong side of history,“ said Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance Legal Director Steve Bloch.

University of Colorado law professor Mark Squillace, an expert in the Antiquities Act, said in an email that Zinke’s proposal raises a host of legal issues given that no president has considered making so many changes to previous designations.

“Decisions to protect certain objects (and not others) involve judgment call that courts have shown an inclination to respect,“ he said. “The significant legal issues aside, if we allow presidents to second guess the judgments of their predecessor there would no end to the mischief that would create.“

Although Zinke has proposed amending all 10 monuments’ proclamations to shift the way they are managed, the majority of the management plans for these monuments have not been finalized because they take between five and six years to complete.

Randi Spivak, public lands program director for the advocacy group Center for Biological Diversity, said any proclamation change “would be subject to challenge” and “any proposed management plan changes will need to formally go through the same legal and administrative processes again, subject to the same administrative appeal and litigation requirements.“

“This process will be very legally vulnerable because it will have to deal with all the scientific, environmental and social conclusions produced during the first round of management plan creation,“ she said. “This would be a massive hurdle for the administration.“


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►  Coopers Rock State Park: More than just a pretty rock face

The view of Cheat River Canyon from the overlook may be the most obvious thing casual visitors think of when they hear “Coopers Rock.”

But the state park is just as popular for activities that aren’t as easily seen.

Every year, while some of the 250,000 visitors are attending weddings on the overlook or holding reunions in the picnic shelters built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression, others are scaling rock formations named Sunset Wall and the Big Blocks.

And other park users are trout fishing in the lake or running through the forest. And some visitors are seeking geocaches, capsules of objects that can be located with GPS coordinates posted on a website such as

Almost every other weekend, regardless of the season, Matt Born of Reedsville puts a line in the water of Coopers Rock’s lake to see where the fish are hiding.

“Sometimes we are packed in there like sheep, elbow to elbow,” Born said. “Other times you have the lake to yourself.

“You have your everyday guys who know their spot and how to rip the trout out of it,” he said. “Then you have the PowerBaiters: both poles out with fancy rod holders just waiting on the bobber that they put on the line to move. Then you have the spoon/spinner people who cast in and out. Everybody has their method of fishing at Coopers Rock and each one of the groups of people is very successful at catching trout and helping others to catch them too.”

Climbers are another group of sportsmen and women who mentor each other in the sport, said Dan Brayack, a climber, trail runner, hunter and beginning mountain biker from Charleston.

Visitors are not allowed to climb at the overlook but there are large boulders where they can climb without ropes. The sport is called bouldering, and it started in the 1980s, according to Brayack, who has published the “Coopers Rock Bouldering Guide.”

“Someone who is not a rock climber, if you’re fairly athletic, you could scramble around on the boulders,” Brayack said. “Even climbing small boulders that aren’t very tall, we do fall, all the time, and we have one piece of equipment that you need to be able to fall and be OK. It’s called a crash pad and it’s basically a couch cushion but more technical. It’s designed for rock climbing.”

Adam Polinski, project coordinator and founding member of the nonprofit Coopers Rock Foundation, who has also written guides to lead climbers on the best routes up the boulders, calls crash pads “the primary safety device other than good judgement.

“It is used into conjunction with somebody spotting you, just like at the gym.”

Coopers Rock’s elevation — 1,200 feet above Morgantown — makes it a cool place to climb in summer, Brayack said, and it has great views.

The rock is special: It’s called gritstone.

“There’s very little gritstone in the United States and the most famous is in Britain,” Polinski said. “It’s kind of a world-famous rock type. Climbers can talk about rock types just like wine connoisseurs talk about the difference between pinot grigio and zinfandel. We’re pretty lucky around here. We have the equivalent of a really cool vintage of rock.”

Coopers Rock isn’t on the scale of Seneca Rocks with its 300-foot climbs or the New River Gorge, Polinski said, but it’s perfect for bouldering.

“It is booming to the point that you might see license plates from any one of six or eight surrounding states,” Polinski said. “People travel from Baltimore and D.C. and spend the weekend because of bouldering. It really has turned into something.”

Trail running is another fairly young sport that is done at Coopers Rock.

“I like using the trails,” said David Hopkinson, president of the Coopers Rock Foundation. “I’m out there taking care of them so I can continue to enjoy them.”

Outdoors enthusiasts who want to buy or sell some recreational equipment can do it at the gear sale during the Celebration of the Outdoors on October 21 in Pavilion No. 2 near the overlook. Half the proceeds go to the seller and half to the Foundation, Hopkinson said.

Admission and many activities are free at the Celebration of the Outdoors. Visitors can try rock climbing and ropes courses. There is usually a raptor exhibit and birdhouse building. A volunteer leads a tree identification hike. Refreshments can be purchased at the state-run snack bar near the overlook.

The Foundation held its annual 10K Stump Jump August 26. Athletes ran a 6.2-mile course from the overlook to the Roadside Trail, then to Laurel Meadows and Rock City, and back to the overlook. It is one of the fundraisers for facilities maintenance and repairs.

Located in Monongalia and Preston counties, Coopers Rock was named for a cooper, a barrel-maker, who was a fugitive. He hid from authorities at the overlook and made and sold barrels to the nearby community, according to Jan Dzierzak, assistant state park superintendent.

The DNR manages the park and WVU leases part of the forest for research.

“There’s a big education component that occurs at Coopers Rock,” Polinski said, adding that elementary, middle and high school students visit too. “I don’t think you see 10,000 school buses there every year but it’s a steady trickle. There are so many things you can learn there, not just tree or bird identification.

“You can study stream dynamics and the macroinvertebrates that live in stream or the emerald ash borer, the current threat to one species of tree in the forest. There are plenty of educational angles.”

►  Idaho hopes to bring stargazers to first U.S. dark sky reserve

Tourists heading to central Idaho will be in the dark if local officials get their way.

The first International Dark Sky Reserve in the United States would fill a chunk of the state’s sparsely populated region that contains night skies so pristine that interstellar dust clouds are visible in the Milky Way.

“We know the night sky has inspired people for many thousands of years,” said John Barentine, program manager at the Tucson, Arizona-based International Dark-Sky Association. “When they are in a space where they can see it, it’s often a very profound experience.”

Supporters say excess artificial light causes sleeping problems for people and disrupts nocturnal wildlife and that a dark sky can solve those problems, boost home values and draw tourists. Opposition to dark sky measures elsewhere in the U.S. have come from the outdoor advertising industry and those against additional government regulations.

Researchers say 80 percent of North Americans live in areas where light pollution blots out the night sky. Central Idaho contains one of the few places in the contiguous United States large enough and dark enough to attain reserve status, Barentine said. Only 11 such reserves exist in the world.

Leaders in the cities of Ketchum and Sun Valley, the tiny mountain town of Stanley, other local and federal officials, and a conservation group have been working for several years to apply this fall to designate 1,400 square miles (3,600 square kilometers) as a reserve. A final decision by the association would come about 10 weeks after the application is submitted.

The association also designates International Dark Sky Parks, with nearly 40 in the U.S. Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve in central Idaho, known as a prime destination among avid stargazers, became one earlier this year.

“There is some astro tourism,” said Ketchum Mayor Nina Jonas, a point driven home last month when thousands descended on the town in the path of the total solar eclipse.

Ketchum officials have applied to become an International Dark Sky Community and join Flagstaff, Arizona, Dripping Springs, Texas, and Beverly Shores, Indiana.

The Idaho city approved a dark sky ordinance requiring residents to install shields on exterior light fixtures to block light from going upward and mandating holiday lighting by businesses and residents be turned off at night.

Becoming a dark sky community could help with the larger reserve status and even lift property values in the already pricey area by keeping the night sky visible. Nearby Sun Valley, a ski resort city, also has a dark sky ordinance, as does Hailey about 12 miles (19 kilometers) to the south.

“It’s nice to look up and see something greater than ourselves,” Jonas said.

The Idaho Conservation League has joined the effort, noting light pollution can adversely affect nocturnal wildlife and people’s sleep rhythms.

“Out of all the types of pollution that ICL is engaged in, I see this as one we can combat in an easier way,” said Dani Mazzota, whose group is coordinating efforts among federal and local entities.

That includes an intensive effort by volunteers taking darkness readings throughout the region. Those readings, combined with satellite measurements, will be some of the information used by the International Dark Sky-Association in its decision.

International Dark Sky Reserves have two main components, Barentine said. The first is a core area dark enough to meet the association’s standards. The second is a buffer area with communities that demonstrate support in protecting the core by limiting light pollution.

The proposed Idaho reserve is mainly land managed by the U.S. Forest Service and contains the wilderness of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.

“We have a preservation and protection mission, and preserving the dark sky and mitigating light pollution is a really good fit for the Sawtooth National Recreation Area,” said ranger Kirk Flannigan.

He said a survey of landowners, livestock grazing permit holders, recreation outfitters, lodges and cabin owners found almost universal support for creating the reserve.

The Forest Service will contribute by putting up informational signs about the dark sky reserve and reducing light pollution from its buildings, Flannigan said. The agency would not mandate actions, and any light mitigation by others in the recreation area would be voluntary.

Stanley, a tiny mountain town within the Sawtooth recreation area, runs mostly on tourism money. Its light pollution measures are voluntary but have been effective, not only because they could mean more tourism, but because locals themselves like to see the night sky, said Steve Botti, city council president.

“I go out most every night and look at it because it’s so dramatic,” he said.


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►  Elk killed in crash as small population settles in

State officials say the vehicle crash that killed two elk along U.S. 119 was bound to happen as the small population grows.

Earlier this week, two of West Virginia’s 24 elk were struck and killed by an ambulance in Logan County.

Randy Kelley, elk project leader for the state Division of Natural Resources, says the two animals were crossing the highway when they were hit around 3 a.m. Monday.

The ambulance’s driver said the elk were on the concrete median and jumped out in front of the vehicle. The ambulance crew was not injured.

In nearby Eastern Kentucky, which has an elk population estimated at 10,000, one or two collisions take place each year.

Kelley says warning signs had been placed on the highway in areas where elk were known to cross.

►  Trump administration works toward renewed drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

The Trump administration is quietly moving to allow energy exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for the first time in more than 30 years, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post, with a draft rule that would lay the groundwork for drilling.

Congress has sole authority to determine whether oil and gas drilling can take place within the refuge’s 19.6 million acres. But seismic studies represent a necessary first step, and Interior Department officials are modifying a 1980s regulation to permit them.

The effort represents a twist in a political fight that has raged for decades. The remote and vast habitat, which serves as the main calving ground for one of North America’s last large caribou herds and a stop for migrating birds from six continents, has served as a rallying cry for environmentalists and some of Alaska’s native tribes. But state politicians and many Republicans in Washington have pressed to extract the billions of barrels of oil lying beneath the refuge’s coastal plain.

Democrats have managed to block them through votes in the Senate and, in one instance in 1995, by a presidential veto.

In an August 11 memo, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acting director James Kurth instructed the agency’s Alaska regional director to update a rule that allowed exploratory drilling between October 1, 1984, and May 31, 1986, by striking those calendar constraints.

Doing so would eliminate an obstacle that was the subject of a court battle as recently as two years ago.

“When finalized, the new regulation will allow for applicants to [submit] requests for approval of new exploration plans,“ Kurth wrote in the memo.

If the rule is finalized after a public comment period, companies would have to bid on conducting the seismic studies. The U.S. Geological Survey estimated in a June 27 memo, obtained by Trustees for Alaska through a federal records request, that this work would cost about $3.6 million.

With oil prices averaging around $50 per barrel, potentially too low to justify a significant investment in drilling in the refuge, it is unclear how much interest companies would have. Some might consider proceeding with those studies to get a better sense of the area’s potential.

The behind-the-scenes push to open up the refuge - often referred to by its acronym, ANWR - comes as longtime drilling proponents occupy key positions at the Interior Department.

Its No. 2 official, David Bernhardt, represented Alaska in its unsuccessful 2014 suit to force then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to allow exploratory drilling there. Joseph Balash, Trump’s nominee to serve as Interior assistant secretary for land and minerals management, asked federal officials to turn a portion of the refuge over to the state when he served as Alaska’s natural resources commissioner. The state’s plan was to offer the land for leasing.

During a stop in Anchorage on May 31, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said he hoped to jump-start energy exploration on Alaska’s North Slope in part by updating resource assessments of the refuge.

“I’m a geologist. Science is a wonderful thing. It helps us understand what is going on deep below the surface of the Earth,“ Zinke said at the time. “We need to use science to update our understanding of the [coastal plain] of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as Congress considers important legislation to responsibly develop there one day.“

The Fish and Wildlife memo notes that the Interior Department asked it “to update the regulations concerning the geological and geophysical exploration” of that coastal area but does not identify who issued the directive.

An Interior officialsaid in an email Friday that the department is “required by law - the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act - to allow for seismic surveys in wildlife refuges across Alaska.“

“Hundreds of seismic surveys have been conducted on Alaska’s north slope - many of them on ANWR’s borders,“ the official added.

Both the Clinton and Obama administrations concluded that the department was legally barred from permitting seismic studies in the refuge. And environmentalists have consistently opposed such activity, which sends shock waves underground. They say it would disturb denning polar bears, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, as well as musk oxen and other Arctic animals.

An increasing number of polar bears are now denning onshore during the winter - when seismic studies would take place - due to diminishing sea ice, and a significant portion of the coastal plain is designated as critical habitat for the bears. The August 11 memo directs the Fish and Wildlife Service’s regional director to conduct an environmental assessment as part of the proposed rule change because the Endangered Species Act requires federal agencies to show that their actions will not jeopardize or adversely modify critical habitat of a listed species.

“The administration is very stealthily trying to move forward with drilling on the Arctic’s coastal plain,“ said Defenders of Wildlife President Jamie Rappaport Clark, who led the Fish and Wildlife Service under President Bill Clinton. “This is a complete about-face from decades of practice.“

Environmental groups would be likely to challenge any decision to conduct seismic work in the refuge in federal court.

Alaska officials have been working for several years to restart seismic studies on the coastal plain. They say the initial ones, conducted in the winters of 1984 and 1985, were done with outdated technology and do not reflect the area’s true potential. The Geological Survey, which reanalyzed that data nearly 15 years later, estimated that 7.7 billion barrels of “technically recoverable oil” lie under the coastal plain.

The June 27 memo, sent to Zinke’s energy policy counselor Vincent DeVito, said the department could either assume the existing seismic data is acceptable, reexamine that data with “state-of-the-art” technology or conduct new studies with modern, 3-D technology.

In an interview Thursday, Alaska Natural Resources Commissioner Andy Mack said that recent oil discoveries near the refuge’s western edge suggest there may be more oil there than federal officials identified three decades ago.

“Alaska’s always had an abiding interest in resource development, particularly in oil,“ Mack said. “We’re not discounting the existing data, but it’s old, and it’s relatively limited.“

The question of whether Interior can restart the seismic work is a subject of legal dispute. The 1980s studies, which took place along 1,400 miles of survey lines and were financed by private oil firms, were aimed at gathering information for a report the interior secretary submitted to Congress in 1987.

In 2001, Interior solicitor John Leshy issued a formal opinion concluding that the 1983 rule was “a time-limited authorization for exploratory activities in the coastal plain.“

Twelve years later, Alaska sought permission from the Fish and Wildlife Service to launch a new exploration program; Obama administration officials rejected the request, and the state sued.

On July 21, 2015, U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason ruled against the state. “Whether the statute authorizes or requires the Secretary to approve additional exploration after the submission of the 1987 report is ambiguous,“ she wrote, but Jewell’s interpretation that she no longer had authority to allow it “is based on a permissible and reasonable construction of the statute.“

Mack said he was not sure whether companies would want to drill in the refuge, but they now are more interested in the potential on land than offshore.

ConocoPhillips, for one, is “actively exploring and focused on new development opportunities” within the neighboring National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, according to spokesman Daren Beaudo. “If ANWR was opened, we’d consider it within our portfolio of opportunities . . . and it would have to compete with other regions for our exploration dollars,“ he said.

Yet Pavel Molchanov, an energy analyst at Raymond James & Associates, predicted “very little interest” in drilling in the refuge for the foreseeable future.

“The number of companies that would be open to a meaningful bet on ANWR we could realistically count on one hand, and that would be generous,“ Molchanov said.


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►  National Zoo’s Sumatran tiger cub will grow up with another cub in San Diego

It almost seems like a Disney-made movie - two Sumatran tiger cubs from different mothers will grow up together as brothers.

The two nameless tiger cubs - one from the National Zoo and the other at the San Diego Zoo - were born within a week of each other in July, and both do not have mothers to take care of them. And in a tale of zoo partnership - and a lot of luck - the two cubs will be placed together at the San Diego Zoo, grow up together and learn to become tigers together, according to animal experts.

Craig Saffoe, curator of Great Cats at the National Zoo, described the matching of the two young cubs as similar to seeing a shooting star.

“It is a one-in-a-million shot that it would have worked out this way,“ Saffoe said. He said he expects the two cubs to learn to “rough and tumble” together and learn how to approach other tigers.

On Monday, the 2-month-old, roughly-15-pound tiger cub left the National Zoo in Washington. He was flown in the cabin of a Southwest Airlines nonstop flight out of Baltimore-Washington airport by zookeepers to join his new, surrogate brother cub at the San Diego Zoo.

The San Diego cub was brought to the zoo there after it was confiscated earlier in the summer at the Mexican border.

The D.C. tiger cub was born July 11. At first, his 8-year-old mother Damai cared for him and allowed him to nurse.

But that changed.

When the cub was 19 days old, zookeepers noticed he was losing weight when he should have been steadily gaining. And Damai started to show she may have been in pain or have troubles in nursing.

Saffoe said at times Damai would groom her cub and play as normal. But when he moved to her belly, she would “vocalize aggressively.“ At times, she would roll over or push him away with her hind feet. This behavior gradually became more frequent.

Even after a hands-on exam of the cub and a visual exam of Damai, zookeepers couldn’t figure out an “obvious medical cause” for the mother tiger’s behavior. She was treated at one point with antibiotics, and things seemed normal until she began to act out aggressively again toward her cub.

Damai’s nursing of the cub was never consistent. So zookeepers started to bottle feed formula to the cub.

“It was really a roller coaster,“ Saffoe said of the mother-cub relationship over the last few months.

“She was a great mom caring for him, but something happened,“ he said.

Zookeepers aren’t exactly sure what caused Damai to shun her cub. Damai successfully raised two other cubs in 2013. Experts think it could possibly be mastitis or a lack of milk. By the end of August, zookeepers believed the mother tiger was in an estrus cycle, and her milk supply had likely dried up.

Damai then had a change in appetite and started to respond vocally to “male tigers’ solicitations,“ zookeepers said. But when her cub wanted to socialize with her, she started to growl, bark and bite at her cub.

The D.C. cub never went on display to visitors. And after an incident in early September when Damai sat on a bench and growled when the cub came near, zookeepers decided to separate the two.

“That’s not how a mom should treat her offspring,“ said Saffoe.

Zookeepers took more care of the cub, concerned it would lose too much weight, and eventually increased his feedings.

Then coincidence - or maybe luck - struck.

Great cat experts and zookeepers at the National Zoo had been emailing with colleagues at the San Diego Zoo on other feline-related matters and mentioned the troubles with their tiger cub. They found out that the San Diego Zoo had recently received a tiger cub that had been confiscated in August at the Mexican border.

An 18-year-old man had the tiger cub on the front passenger-side floor of a 2017 Chevy Camaro when authorities stopped him. He told officials he planned to keep it as a pet. Tigers can grow to weigh 400 to 500 pounds.

Keepers of the California cub told the San Diego Union-Tribune he was active and chewing on toys like a puppy. His favorite stuffed animal is a giraffe that he reportedly cuddles with. The San Diego cub was likely already raised by humans, officials said, as it is comfortable being fed with a bottle and had an easy transition to going on display at the zoo.

The San Diego Zoo estimates that its cub was born within a week of the one at the National Zoo - based on weight, size, actions, etc.

Zookeepers hope putting the two tiger cubs together will benefit both, as they will grow up and learn how to be tigers together rather than being raised more by humans. Because of legal restrictions, the National Zoo said, the San Diego cub is not allowed to leave California.

“It’s incredible timing,“ Saffoe said. “They’ll grow up as siblings and learn to be tigers together.“ Once tigers reach about 1 to 1 1/2 years old they become solitary animals.

Sumatran tigers are critically endangered animals. There are roughly 65 Sumatran tigers in zoos throughout North America. And in the wild, there are only about 200 to 400 that live on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

The D.C. tiger will some day become part of a breeding program to try to save the Sumatran tiger species. The San Diego tiger, because of its unknown genetic history, cannot be bred and will at some point be sent to a sanctuary.

“Our first choice would be to have mom take care of this guy,“ Saffoe said of the D.C. tiger cub. But there’s “no normal at a zoo.“

So, he said, “this is the next best scenario.“

The D.C. tiger’s journey to San Diego can be followed on Instagram under the hashtag #TigerStory.

►  Phones help crabbers retrieve gear before it kills whales

Fisherman Jake Bunch leans over the side of the fishing boat “Sadie K,” spears his catch, and reels it aboard: an abandoned crab pot, dangling one limp lasagna noodle of kelp and dozens of feet of rope, just the kind of fishing gear that has been snaring an increasing number of whales off U.S. coasts.

Confirmed counts of humpbacks, blue and other endangered or threatened species of whale entangled by the ropes, buoys and anchors of fishing gear hit a record 50 on the East Coast last year, and tied the record on the West Coast at 48, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The accidental entanglements can gouge whales’ flesh and mouth, weaken the animals, drown them, or kill them painfully, over months.

This year, Bunch is one of small number of commercial fishermen out of Half Moon Bay, south of San Francisco, and five other ports up and down California who headed to sea again after the West Coast’s Dungeness crab season ended this summer.

The California fishermen are part of a new effort using their cellphones’ GPS and new software pinpointing areas where lost or abandoned crabbing gear has been spotted. They retrieve the gear for a payment — at Half Moon Bay, it’s $65 per pot —before the fishing ropes can snag a whale.

Especially stormy weather this year has meant more wayward crabbing gear than usual, Bunch said recently on a gray late-summer morning at sea.

“Makes it all the more important to pick it up,” he says.

Bunch spots the algae-blackened buoy of his first derelict crab pot of the day just after a humpback surfaces near the Sadie K.

Leaning out the window of his boat’s cabin, Bunch uses his phone to snap a picture of the spot, capturing its location via the GPS setting. Then he hauls in the crab pot, the size and shape of a giant truck tire, and removes the owner’s tag inside that California mandates. He tosses the lone live crab inside the pot back into the water — it’s the offseason.

The crab gear goes back to Bunch’s port, which charges the original owners $100 for returning the lost gear — a bargain, compared to the $250 a new pot costs.

California fishermen and port officials working with the Nature Conservancy environmental group developed the program, designed to be affordable and easy enough for ports to manage on their own.

West Coast fishermen annually lose thousands of pots for Dungeness crabs, which are a staple of Thanksgiving dinners and community crab feeds across California.

Dungeness bring in tens of millions of dollars in revenue in a good year. But they also are the single-largest identifiable source of fishing gear entangling whales on the West Coast. Crab pots and the lines can get carried away by waves or by vessels that accidentally snag them. Sometimes fishermen abandon their pots or lose them.

On the East Coast, meanwhile, lobster traps and gillnets are among the culprits in whale entanglements.

On both coasts, fishermen and others regularly join missions to cut free whales found tangled in gear. Last July, a Canadian fisherman was killed while rescuing an Atlantic right whale snagged by lines.

Clearly, “taking gear off the whales is not the solution to the problem. At all,” said Justin Viezbicke, who tracks West Coast entanglements for NOAA federal fisheries. The answer is “prevent these things from happening in the future.”

Off the West Coast, changes in ocean temperatures in recent years mean fishermen and whales increasingly have found themselves in the same waters.

The surge in whale entanglements has fueled tensions in California between commercial fishing operators eager to show they are trying to tackle the problems and some conservationists.

Some environmental groups say the state should put in place more mandatory protection measures, such as blocking fishermen from especially important waters for whales.

One group, the Center for Biological Diversity, filed notice this summer that it plans to sue California for allegedly not doing enough to keep the Dungeness crab fishery from killing protected whale species.

“We’ve been hearing for years now from both the state of California and fishermen that they care about the problem and want to address it,” said Kristen Monsell, a staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.

“But nothing has changed other than more whales are getting tangled off our coast and dying painful, tragic deaths,” Monsell said.

On this morning, Bunch quickly reels in nine derelict crab pots in fewer than two hours.

Back at Half Moon Bay port, Lisa Damrosch, executive director of the local seafood marketing association, has taken in about 450 recovered crab pots so far this year, stacking them behind a fence to return them to their owners before the crucial holiday season for Dungeness crab.

“No one wants to entangle a single whale,” Damrosch said. But “the best fishermen in the world are going to lose a pot.”

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