AmeriScan: January 28, 2003

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Nitrogen Controls Overlook Phosphorus

DURHAM, North Carolina, January 28, 2003 (ENS) - Strategies now used by environmental managers to control excessive nutrients in coastal wetlands may not achieve their intended goals because they focus on just one pollutant, a new study suggests.

The study led by a Duke University scientist suggests that the current emphasis on controlling upstream nitrogen pollution fails to address the impacts on water quality of another potential contaminant: phosphorus.

Pallaoor Venkatesh Sundareshwar, a research associate and instructor at the Duke University Wetland Center, and his co-authors worked in a pristine wetland at the University of South Carolina's Baruch Marine Field Laboratory, where organisms' natural interactions could be studied in the absence of human caused pollution.

Both the phosphorus originating in upstream fertilizer applications, and the nitrogen derived from lawn and agricultural fertilizers or animal livestock operations, can run off the land and flow downstream to shallow wetland estuaries, where they can cause algae blooms and fish kills.

Water managers have emphasized controlling nitrogen because that nutrient can lead to visible algae "blooms" in estuaries, which can turn the water green, Sundareshwar said.

"People tend to be driven by what they see," he explained. "But what we have shown is that's not the whole truth; there is a major response to phosphorus by bacteria, which you can't see."

By treating test plots with measured amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus, and comparing those results with untreated plots, the scientists learned that whereas plants respond to nitrogen fertilization, bacteria in saturated wetland soils respond to phosphorus, not nitrogen.

When nitrogen pollution leads to a surge of algae in coastal waters, subsequent algae die offs release nutrients and carbon that the bacteria use for growth. The dying algae robs the water of oxygen, creating so called dead zones.

Extra phosphorus causes the bacteria to undergo a growth spurt and also consume any available organic matter, Sundareshwar said. In removing the carbon from the organic matter, the bacteria take up oxygen as well.

When coastal waters are over enriched with phosphorus, bacteria can consume all available carbon and remove enough oxygen from the water to harm fish, even if there is no excess nitrogen in the water to cause algae blooms.

"Gone are the days of saying 'nitrogen, that's the only thing,' or 'phosphorus, that's the only thing'," Sundareshwar said. "I'm saying it's high time we start looking at a more integrated approach to coastal management."

The tie between phosphorus supplies and bacterial growth also affects inputs and outputs of nitrogen in a wetland ecosystem, Sundareshwar and his co-authors report.

Among certain "legume" plants such as soybeans that grow on dry land, phosphorus fertilization increases nitrogen fixation by symbiotic bacteria residing in plant roots. These bacteria convert nitrogen from the air to a chemical form that acts as a plant fertilizer.

Fixing that nitrogen is an energy intensive process requiring the symbiotic bacteria to use carbon from their host plants as an energy source.

Sundareshwar's group found that adding extra phosphorus to a pristine coastal wetland can prompt the non-symbiotic bacteria that reside there to "shut down nitrogen fixation instead of promoting it," Sundareshwar said.

The research, coauthored by scientists at the University of South Carolina at Columbia and Coastal Carolina University, appears in the January 24 issue of the journal "Science."

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Corps, Wildlife Service Combine Forces for Water

WASHINGTON, DC, January 28, 2003 (ENS) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have launched a new collaboration aimed at improving the development of America's water resources.

The partnership is also designed to conserve, protect and restore fish and wildlife resources, the two agencies said in a press release.

"We have established this partnership to encourage a spirit of cooperation between our agencies at all levels," said USFWS Director Steve Williams. "We are committed to working together to find solutions to our nation's problems with water and fish and wildlife resources that will benefit the American people."

Under the partnership, the two agencies agreed to provide joint training for their employees, and to assign people from both agencies to interagency developmental projects. The Corps may also provide planning, design and construction services as well as environmental restoration services, hazardous or toxic materials removal, and other engineering or technical assistance.

"We intend to build sustainability into the planning, construction and operation of our water resources projects, and it is critical that we adapt our management of America's rivers to meet the needs of the human and natural communities," said Lt. General Robert Flowers, the Army's Chief of Engineers. "The Fish and Wildlife Service has a great deal of expertise to help us make that possible."

The USFWS may provide environmental management, fish and wildlife resource management and such other services for both Civil Works projects and military installations.

The partnership could potentially improve the Corps' environmental image. The Corps has been plagued by allegations of misuse of funds and a disregard for the environmental consequences of its projects. According to the National Academy of Sciences, the General Accounting Office, and the Army Inspector General, the agency has on many occasions justified its projects to Congress using inaccurate economic and environmental information.

"We have long recognized that fish and wildlife conservation requires equal consideration with our purposes in the development and management of our water resources projects," Flowers said. "By working together [with the USFWS], we can preserve and protect our rich natural heritage."

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Majority of Americans Want More Wilderness

WASHINGTON, DC, January 28, 2003 (ENS) - More than six in 10 Americans do not believe enough wilderness has been protected for future generations, according to a new poll by Zogby International.

The poll, conducted for the Campaign for America's Wilderness, shows strong support for increased wilderness protection across political parties, regions, age groups, ethnic and religious backgrounds.

More than two-thirds of respondents - 71 percent - believe that 10 percent or more of all lands in the United States should be protected as wilderness. When told that in fact only 4.7 percent of the land in the U.S. has been permanently protected, almost two-thirds feel that is "not enough."

A majority of Republicans - 51 percent - said that 4.7 percent is not enough wilderness, as did 70 percent of Independents and 72 percent of Democrats.

"The American people want to see more land preserved as wilderness, and regardless of party or region of the country, they feel very strongly about this," said John Zogby, president and CEO of Zogby International.

The new survey was released as the Bush administration increases pressure to open much of the country's remaining unprotected wildlands to energy exploration. Last week, the Interior Department issued a draft proposal for widespread oil and gas leasing in the northwest part of the nation's largest remaining block of unprotected public land: the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, or Western Arctic Reserve. Leasing this entire area, home to some of America's most unique wildlife and wildlands, would be the largest single onshore offering to industry in the nation's history.

Tens of millions of acres of wildlands across the western states, including Alaska, are at risk from another Bush directive: a rule allowing an archaic mining law to grant private "rights of way" across public wildlands, permitting the bulldozing of a network of roads and highways through now pristine public lands including national parks, forests and wildlife refuges.

"Support for permanent protection for wilderness has never been higher," said Mike Matz, executive director of the Campaign for America's Wilderness, a national initiative to protect the nation's remaining wildlands. "People from all walks of life, from every region of the country, across political and ethnic lines value the solitude and recreational opportunities that wilderness provides. As Americans deal with the threat of terrorism, an impending war, and a troubled economy, our special wild places are clearly more important to us than ever."

The poll of 1,001 likely voters chosen at random nationwide, was conducted January 4-6 as part of a larger poll by Zogby International. The margin of error is +/- 3.2 percent.

The new Zogby numbers are consistent with polling about wilderness issues over the last four years, as compiled by the Campaign for America's Wilderness and released in a report titled "A Mandate to Protect America's Wilderness," available at: http://www.leaveitwild.org

The review, the first of its kind, includes all recent major public opinion findings on wilderness issues by polling firms, the media, and the U.S. Government's National Survey on Recreation and the Environment, coordinated by the U.S. Forest Service.

"The administration and Congress must recognize that support for wilderness is strong and deep," said Matz. "Congress can protect millions of acres of wilderness in states like California, Idaho, Alaska, and Utah, and they can be confident that this is exactly what their constituents want."

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Sea Otters, Abalone May Need Separate Reserves

SEATTLE, Washington, January 28, 2003 (ENS) - Predators and prey, such as sea otters and abalone, may need separate reserves to protect them, a new study suggests.

California's red abalone population is so low that all of the commercial fisheries and all but one of the recreational fisheries are closed. Meanwhile, California's sea otter population is at about 2,000 and is dropping by about one to two percent each year.

While the state has two marine reserves that protect the otters from people, there are none that protect the abalone from otters.

"We conclude that coastal marine protected areas off California cannot enhance abalone fisheries if...they also contain sea otters," said Samantha Fanshawe, who did this work while at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and is now at the United Kingdom's Marine Conservation Society. Fanshawe and her colleagues - Glenn VanBlaricom of the University of Washington in Seattle and Alice Shelly of TerraStat Consulting Group in Seattle - report their findings in the February issue of the journal "Conservation Biology."

To see if reserves can both protect the sea otters and rebuild the red abalone fisheries, the researchers studied red abalone at six sites, four with and two without sea otters. The sites with otters were off Monterey County and the sites without otters were off Sonoma County, and abalone harvesting is prohibited at all six of the sites.

The researchers determined the abundance and size of red abalone at two depth zones: "shallow," about 10 to 15 feet deep, and "deep," about 25 to 33 feet. Sea otters can dive as deep as 330 feet and so can reach abalone on both zones.

Fanshawe and her colleagues found that red abalone were far more abundant at the sites without sea otters: there were about seven times more of the abalone in the "deep" zones, and almost 20 times more in the "shallow" zones. In addition, the abalone were an average of almost two times bigger at the sites without sea otters.

The work shows that "calls for management of marine protected areas for multiple human uses may be ecologically naive, creating unattainable expectations for performance," write Fanshawe and her colleagues. The researchers call instead for single use marine reserves that focus either on ecosystem restoration or on fishery development.

This approach has been adopted in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, where managers have split a former multiple use protected area into smaller areas with goals that are less likely to conflict.

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Prince William Sound Orcas May Warrant Protection

ANCHORAGE, Alaska, January 28, 2003 (ENS) - Officials at the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) say a petition to designate the Prince William Sound population of orcas as depleted may have merit.

NMFS is reviewing a petition to designate the AT-1 killer whale group of Prince William Sound as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The agency received the petition from the National Wildlife Federation on November 13, 2002.

The petition listed genetic, behavioral, ecological and management reasons for designating the AT-1 group as separate from the general group of transient killer whales in the eastern North Pacific. NMFS will conduct a status review of the Prince William Sound killer whales, including whether the AT1 group should be considered a separate stock.

"Regardless of the outcome of the population status review, we are - and have been - concerned about this group of killer whales," said Ron Berg, assistant administrator for NMFS in Alaska.

The AT1 group is now considered part of a larger population of 346 transient killer whales in the eastern North Pacific. Prince William Sound and Kenai Fjords are also home to about 362 resident killer whales.

Resident and transient killer whales have different eating habits, calls and genetics.

The AT-1 group once numbered 22 animals, but now contains just nine whales, including four females. The AT-1 whales have been observed feeding on harbor seals and porpoises in Prince William Sound and Kenai Fjords in Alaska. No new calves have been sighted since 1984.

"There are only nine whales left - they are dying," said attorney Jim Adams of the National Wildlife Federation. "Listing them as a depleted stock is a neccessary first step toward learning why this particular group is dying off and taking steps to protect them from further harm."

The petitioners suggested that a decrease in available prey, the long term chronic effects of contaminants from the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 and long term effects of vessel disturbance are possible factors in the decline of the AT-1 group.

"The poor health of the orcas is a warning sign for the entire Gulf of Alaska food chain," said Michelle Wilson of the Alaska Center for the Environment. "Heavy contaminant loads, increasing underwater vessel noise, and harbor seal decline - all these threats to a population facing extinction require NMFS to take action."

Following the status review of the AT-1 group, the agency will publish its findings. If NMFS finds that the stock is separate and depleted, the agency will consider development of a conservation plan for what would be the newly designated AT-1 stock of killer whales.

NMFS is asking for comments and information about this petition and the status of AT-1 killer whales. The agency is interested in hearing about the identification of AT-1 killer whales as a population stock; the historical or current abundance of this group; factors that may be affecting the group; and conservation measures that may promote their recovery.

Comments may be sent to: Assistant Administrator for Protected Resources, National Marine Fisheries Service, 709 W. 9th St, Juneau, AK 99802-1668, or by fax to: 907-586-7012

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Hikers May Disturb Nesting Owls

TUCSON, Arizona, January 28, 2003 (ENS) - Low impact outdoor activities, like hiking, can still have impacts, including scaring nesting owls off their nests, a new study shows.

The study suggests that hikers visiting some of the canyons where Mexican spotted owls breed can disrupt the owls' behavior in ways that might harm their young.

"We suggest that restrictions on hiking intensity should be considered for canyons with high levels of human activity," write the authors. Elliott Swarthout, who did this work while at the University of Arizona in Tucson and is now at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York, and Robert Steidl of the University of Arizona, report their findings in the February issue of the journal "Conservation Biology."

The threatened Mexican spotted owl lives in coniferous forests in the southwest U.S. and Mexico. In Utah, the birds nest, roost and hunt almost always in steep, narrow canyons. Hiking and other recreational activities along the canyon bottoms are highest from March to October, which overlaps with the owls' breeding season.

To see if hiking affects the owls, Swarthout and Steidl studied 10 nests during the breeding season in Utah's Canyonlands and Capitol Reef National Parks, which had between 400,000 and 650,000 visitors per year during the two-year study period.

The nests were 36 to 223 feet above the canyon bottoms, and the researchers observed the owls during a series of experimental "hiking treatments," in which a hiker passed under a given nest every 15 minutes for four hours during three time periods: early morning, mid-day and evening.

Swarthout and Steidl found that hiking affected the female owls the most. The disturbed females spent almost 60 percent less time on prey handling activities such as feeding their young, and a third less time on daytime maintenance activities such as tending the nest, and preening themselves and their young. Preening is important to birds' health in part because it reduces parasites.

Because female Mexican spotted owls provide almost all of the parental care, these behavioral changes could harm their young. Fewer than a third of the young survive in the best of circumstances, and getting less food and other kinds of care could make them even more vulnerable.

The experimental hiking level in this study is higher than the actual hiking levels in most of southern Utah's canyons. However, several of the canyons where the owls live have more than 50 visitors per day, which is close to the experimental hiking level.

In such areas, the researchers recommend protecting owl habitat during the late March to early June nesting season by limiting hiking or establishing buffers around nest sites. The researchers had previously found that 95 percent of owls were not flushed when hikers stayed about 80 feet away.

However, many canyons are so narrow that buffers of this size would preclude hiking in them.

Swarthout and Steidl's work is being used to help establish recreational guidelines around Mexican spotted owl territories on federal lands in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

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Whooping Crane Refuge Grows by 245 Acres

ROCKPORT, Texas, January 28, 2003 (ENS) - Aransas National Wildlife Refuge - home to the bulk of the world's endangered whooping cranes - will grow by 245 acres, thanks to a donation by the Nature Conservancy of Texas.

The conservation group announced last week that it has purchased 245 acres of the Johnson Ranch on St. Charles Bay near Goose Island State Park. The land - a winter home for whooping cranes - will be donated to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Nature Conservancy officials said.

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge provides critical habitat for the whooping cranes, which number only about 200 in the wild, the Conservancy noted.

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The donated parcel has been a winter home for a pair of whooping cranes for the past three decades. (Photo The Nature Conservancy)
"We are very excited about the acquisition, because this parcel is very important to the protection of critical habitat for the endangered whooping crane," said Tom Stehn, whooping crane coordinator for the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. "The Johnson Ranch is a very important area of whooping crane habitat, and has supported a pair of the endangered birds for the past 30 years. This acquisition is a wonderful step taken toward ensuring that this land is protected in perpetuity."

Owned by Al and Diane Johnson, the Johnson Ranch is known for its bed and breakfast, called the Crane House, where visitors can observe the pair of wintering whooping cranes that visit the ranch each year to raise their young. The 245 acres is adjacent to the Lamar Unit of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

The whooping crane habitat will become part of the wildlife refuge, while the Johnsons will continue to own the remainder of the ranch, including the Crane House.

"When we purchased this property several years ago, we knew it was extremely important to preserve the wetlands for the whooping cranes," Al Johnson said. "We didn't know how to do this. After doing some research, we contacted The Nature Conservancy in Corpus Christi."

"After working with Carter Smith and Rod Miller at The Nature Conservancy, we were relieved to discover the Conservancy wanted the same things we did," added Diane Johnson. "We are delighted to now know this precious natural habitat will be preserved for the future."

The whooping cranes on the newly purchased property range from the marshlands on the Johnson Ranch to parts of the Lamar Unit of the wildlife refuge. The Lamar Unit was created a decade ago, when The Nature Conservancy purchased about 800 acres and conveyed it to the refuge.

"Al and Diane Johnson deserve special credit as stewards of this land, managing it to encourage the cranes to continue to make it their winter home," said Carter Smith, the South Texas program manager for The Nature Conservancy of Texas. "Their stewardship has helped keep the marshlands favored by the whooping cranes healthy and productive, and the Crane House provides an excellent example of profitable land use that is compatible with wildlife conservation."

The parcel of the Johnson Ranch that will be donated to the wildlife refuge also provides habitat for sandhill cranes, reddish egrets and other wading birds, waterfowl and shorebirds, as well as the blue crabs essential to the whooping cranes' diet, Smith noted.

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Agency Considers Ways to Help Aplomado Falcon

WASHINGTON, DC, January 28, 2003 (ENS) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is considering ways to reestablish the endangered northern aplomado falcon into New Mexico and Arizona.

The agency will hold five meetings in February to gather information and develop a list of alternative conservation strategies that will be analyzed in an Environmental Assessment, a document a federal agency must prepare before taking any action. The assessment evaluates alternative conservation strategies based on issues that have been identified through scoping meetings.

Until the mid twentieth century, the northern aplomado falcon was common in Texas along the Rio Grande and in southern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona. Some falcons, assumed to be birds that have moved north from Mexico, have been seen in New Mexico off and on since the 1970s.

In the spring of 2002, a pair of falcons in southern New Mexico hatched young for the first time in 49 years. No Arizona sightings have been recorded since the 1940s.

The aplomado falcon's preferred habitat is open terrain with scattered trees or shrubs. The bird hunts for prey in the short or grazed grasses.

The falcon's recovery plan calls for reestablishing the bird into its historic range. The Endangered Species Act allows for great flexibility in recovering species, including steps such as private landowner agreements that protect property owners who take steps to protect species from future penalties if species are harmed.

Reintroduced populations may also be classified as experimental, waiving some protecting regulations. Reintroduction efforts have been underway in south and west Texas since 1993. As a result, there are now 37 established pairs that have fledged more than 92 young. Releases are conducted on 1.4 million acres of private lands with the permission of the landowners.

The full range of recovery options for the northern aplomado falcon will be discussed in more detail at the meetings during the informational sessions. One meeting will be held in Arizona, on February 3 at the Little Theater at Cochise College in Douglas.

Four meetings have been scheduled in New Mexico:

All meetings begin at 5 pm with an informational session followed by a scoping meeting from 7 to 9 pm.