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Biodiversity: Captive breeding program launched for critically endangered Arizona squirrel

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A Mt. Graham red squirrel, via USFWS.

Less than 300 Mt. Graham red squirrels left in the wild

Staff Report

FRISCO — A rare squirrel that lives only in fire-prone southern Arizona forests may get a new lease on life, as federal and state biologists team up for a captive breeding effort to try and bolster populations.

There are fewer than 300 Mount Graham red squirrels living in the wild. In recent years, their habitat has been devastated by large wildfires. Any new fires could wipe out the population, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Extended drought (especially in the higher-elevation forest types) and outbreaks of forest insects and other tree diseases have also taken a toll. Continue reading

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Good news in the condor recovery effort?

A California condor in flight.

A California condor in flight.

Wildlife officials say a voluntary program to reduce the use of lead hunting ammunition is paying off

Staff Report

FRISCO — There may be some good news in the long-running effort to recover California condor populations from the edge of extinction. Federal biologists say the number of condors treated for lead poisoning dropped dramatically in the past year, as more and more hunters replace their traditional ammunition with a non-lead version

Since condors eat only carrion, they’ve often been exposed to fragments of lead ammo left in the carcasses of killed animals. But an extensive outreach effort by the interagency recovery team may have shifted the tide. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 13 condors were treated for lead exposure between Sept. 1, 2013 and Aug. 31, 2014, down from 28 birds the previous year and from the five-year average of 26.

Condors are the largest land-based birds in North America, with a wingspan of up to 9.5 feet. They once ranged from coast to coast and north to south from Canada to Mexico. By 1982, only 23 condors remained. In 1987, all remaining wild condors were placed into a captive breeding program.

Since 1992, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) began reintroducing captive-bred condors to the wild, the USFWS and its public and private partners have grown the population to 410 birds. In 2008, the Recovery Program reached an important milestone, with more California condors flying free in the wild than in captivity for the first time since the program began.

Biologists have identified lead exposure as one of the biggest challenges for continued recovery, so for the past few years, they’ve focused on winning voluntary cooperation from hunters.

The drop in lead exposure cases was greeted with cautious optimism.
“This is potentially exciting news,” says Chris Parish, project director with The Peregrine Fund. “We’re hopeful that the decreased measurements of lead exposure are a direct result of the hunters’ actions. With continued effort, we may well see a continuing trend of lower lead levels in coming years.”

“When they eat an animal that died after being wounded by a gunshot, or they eat the entrails left in the field after a hunter has cleaned an animal he or she has harvested, they ingest lead fragments. If hunters use non-lead ammunition, the threat of lead exposure is non-existent,” said Keith Day, a regional wildlife biologist with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

To help the birds, the UDWR and the Arizona Game and Fish Department (AGFD) have asked hunters in southern Utah and northern Arizona to use non-lead ammunition. To offset the cost and encourage participation, both agencies have voluntary programs that provide hunters in those areas with a free box of non-lead bullets.

The voluntary response from hunters has been impressive, according to state wildlife officials,

“We’ve operated a lead reduction program in Arizona since 2005,” said Allen Zufelt, condor recovery biologist for the AGFD. “Over the past seven years, more than 80 percent of our hunters have chosen to use non-lead ammunition annually in support of the condor program. Many others have removed entrails, which might have lead fragments in them, from the field after a successful hunt.”

Utah’s non-lead program started in 2010. Having a comparable program in Utah may have tipped the scale in favor of the condors.

Day said 55 percent of those who hunted in the Zion hunting unit (where Utah’s non-lead program is focused) in 2013 used non-lead ammunition or removed entrails from the field if they used lead bullets.

“We anticipate that the number of hunters who participate in the program on the Zion unit will continue to grow,” he says.

Utah hunters can learn more about the state’s lead reduction program—including prizes they can win for participating—at http://wildlife.utah.gov/condors/drawing_2014.pdf.

“Hats off to hunters in both states,” says Greg Sheehan, director of the UDWR. “We’re asking hunters to change a tradition and try something different for the sake of conservation. And they’re stepping to the plate. This type of cooperation is what makes successful wildlife management happen.”

Day and Zufelt say voluntary non-lead programs will continue in Utah and Arizona this fall.

The California condor recovery effort in Utah and Arizona is a cooperative program among federal, state and private partners. Those partners include The Peregrine Fund, the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Arizona Strip Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management, Grand Canyon and Zion national parks, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, and the Kaibab and Dixie national forests.

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Climate: Greenhouse gas buildup ‘loads the dice’ for Southwest megadroughts

Odds of 30-year dry spells increase dramatically as global temps rise

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Green bars indicate wet periods, the larger the bar the more unusually wet. In a similar way, yellow indicates dry and droughty periods. The graph stretches from January 1895 on the left to last month on the right, showing how the cycle of droughts alternating with wet years has changed, with dry years becoming more prevalent.

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Tree ring records clearly show that the southwestern U.S. experienced megadroughts long before the anthropogenic global warming era. One such decades-long dry spell may have been a factor in the collapse of the Anasazi civilization at Mesa Verde.

But the steady buildup of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere is loading the dice in favor of another megadrought sooner, rather later, according to scientists with Cornell University, the University of Arizona and U.S. Geological Survey. The chances of a decade-long drought is now at least 50 percent, and there’s a 20 percent to 50 percent chance of a 30-year megadrought.

“For the southwestern U.S., I’m not optimistic about avoiding real megadroughts,” said Toby Ault, Cornell assistant professor of earth and atmospheric sciences and lead author of the paper. “As we add greenhouse gases into the atmosphere – and we haven’t put the brakes on stopping this – we are weighting the dice for megadrought conditions.” Continue reading

Wolves just can’t catch seem to a break in the West

Was public cut out of  Arizona wolf planning process?

Mexican gray wolf. Photo courtesy USFWS.

Mexican gray wolf. Photo courtesy USFWS.

Staff Report

FRISCO — The slowly recovering population of Mexican gray wolves in the Southwest may face even more pressure in coming years, as state officials in Arizona seek to codify a new wolf management plan that could restrict recovery efforts. Continue reading

Grand Canyon National Park eyes bison plan

Roaming buffalo create management challenges

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The buffalo are roaming in Grand Canyon National Park. bberwyn photo.

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — A herd of bison brought to northern Arizona in the early 1900s has moved from a state-run wildlife area into Grand Canyon National Park, and now park rangers want to develop a plan to manage the animals.

Initially, the bison were managed in the House Rock Wildlife Area for big game hunters, but in the late 1990s, the animals have pioneered their way to the top of the Kaibab Plateau and into Grand Canyon National Park.

Resource managers say  combination of public hunt pressure, drought and fire, and reduced forage quality in House Rock Valley during the 1990s may have contributed to the bison moving through Saddle Mountain Wilderness and onto the higher elevations of the Kaibab Plateau. Over the past several years, very few bison have returned to wildlife area. Most now spend a majority of their time inside the park. Continue reading

Biodiversity: Feds propose more jaguar critical habitat

USFWS also seeking comment on a draft economic analysis

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A revised critical habitat designation for jaguars adds lands in Arizona’s Santa Rita Mountains, where a lone jaguar has been photographed several times in recent months.

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Federal biologists have revised a critical habitat proposal for endangered jaguars in the southwest. The updated maps include areas in Arizona’s Santa Rita Mountains where a lone jaguar has been caught on camera several times in the past nine months.

Under the modified U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal, released last week, a total of about 850,000 acres would be designated, including lands around a planned open-pit copper mine. Conservation advocates say the mine could interfere with the cats’ dispersal into North America. They hope the critical habitat designation will prevent approval of the mine.

Along with the updated habitat proposal, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also released a draft economic analysis and draft environmental assessment of the proposed designation.

The economic analysis is a crucial issue relating to the proposed mine, because if the benefits of excluding an area outweigh the benefits of designating it, the agency can exclude an area from critical habitat, unless the exclusions would result in the extinction of the species. Continue reading

Feds map wind, solar energy zones in Arizona

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New plan focuses on previously disturbed sites with few resource conflicts

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — The Obama administration’s push to develop more renewable energy resources reached another milestone this week, as the Interior Department finalized designation of 192,000 acres in Arizona as potentially suitable for utility-scale solar and wind energy development.

Any subsequent proposals for specific solar or wind energy projects will still need to undergo a site-specific environmental review.

According to the Interior Department, the lands identified in Arizona include previously disturbed sites (primarily former agricultural areas) and lands with low resource sensitivity and few environmental conflicts. Federal land managers in Arizona spent three years analyzing  disturbed land and other areas with few known resource conflicts that could accommodate commercial renewable energy projects. Continue reading

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