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    A Massachusetts Town Is Suing Monsanto for Its Cancer-Causing PCBs / TheIntercept · 6 days ago - 18:44 · 7 minutes

Clare Lahey has lived with her husband in the home he grew up in, just up the street from the Housatonic River in the town of Lee, Massachusetts, for nearly five decades. Now, in the twilight of their lives, they’re watching as the same chemicals that have ravaged the health of people living along the river for years are now being dredged and dumped near their home.

Lahey has had bladder cancer twice, 15 years apart; her husband is wracked with illnesses including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease even though he never smoked. She believes that proximity to the river is to blame for their health problems, and she’s not alone: The Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, warns that the river’s PCBs are likely to cause cancer in humans, and a Massachusetts Department of Public Health study on the cancer link is scheduled to be released this year .

“Why don’t we just move away?” Lahey asked. “Well, because he’s 85 and I’m 82, and we want to finish out our lives here.”

Lee is a working-class town in the heart of the Berkshires, a rural region near the New York border known for its scenic beauty. It’s also known, among locals, as a place polluted by PCBs, dangerous industrial chemicals manufactured by Monsanto and used by General Electric in the electric transformers the company manufactured and serviced . GE ran a plant in the county’s largest city, Pittsfield, and dumped PCBs into the local Housatonic River from 1932 to 1977, when Monsanto ceased production. In 1979, the EPA made PCBs illegal.

Trails in the woods of  Woods Pond. This is the area where GE wants to dump PCBs that they will dredge from the river. Apparently, this park will be closed for more than a year while GE bury’s the PCBs. (A group of ATV riders went the wrong way on the road and turned around to get to the ATV trails) Lee, Massachusets

Trails lead through Woods Pond park near the site of the proposed dump site in Lee, Mass. The town has filed a lawsuit against Monsanto as part of an attempt to find an alternative site outside of the region.

Photo: Lori Grinker/Contact Press for The Intercept

After decades of efforts by local and state leaders and federal agencies like the EPA, GE in 2000 began cleaning the river and nearby areas. But the latest round of dredging, expected to begin in the next few years, would put a dump site in Lee. Residents of the town as well as local leaders — including the Housatonic Environmental Action League and the Housatonic River Initiative, who are challenging the plan in the First Circuit Court of Appeals — are resisting the decision.

The town has filed a lawsuit against Monsanto as part of an attempt to find an alternative site outside of the region.

The lawsuit is asking for compensatory and natural resource damages and for a court order “that will require Monsanto to deposit funds awarded by a jury into an escrow account so that Lee has the funds to move the 2,000,000 tons of PCB soil and mud projected to be dumped in Lee to an out of state location.” Lee Select Board chair Bob Jones told The Intercept that the town doesn’t have a specific site in mind, “although there are certainly licensed sites in existence.”

“We’re hoping if we can show that Monsanto produced these toxic items, cancer-causing PCBs, that if we can come up with enough money to have that, we can then leverage GE taking the stuff out of the area and not having a waste dump in the town of Lee,” Jones said. “That’s really what we’re looking for.”

Bayer, the pharmaceutical giant that bought Monsanto in 2018, rejects the lawsuit completely. The company’s director of U.S. external communications, Nicole Hayes, told The Intercept in an emailed comment that Bayer believes the lawsuit “is meritless.”

“There is no legal basis for imposing liability on Monsanto for the lawful sale of PCBs into the stream of commerce more than four decades ago, over which Monsanto had no control,” Hayes said. “Furthermore, Monsanto ceased its lawful production of PCBs more than 45 years ago and never disposed of PCBs in or near the Town.” The lawsuit does not accuse Monsanto of dumping PCBs, only of manufacturing them, and makes clear that GE was the offending party for the chemical disposal.

Despite Monsanto’s claims, a memo published by the Poison Papers project in 2017 shows that the company was aware of the problems posed by PCBs at least as early as 1969, eight years before it stopped producing the chemicals. The memo shows that Monsanto knew that PCBs could have detrimental effects on people’s health and that the evidence for its persistence in the environment was “beyond questioning.” A series of potential solutions was offered, including immediate cessation of PCB production; the company, apparently, chose the “do nothing” option.

Lee isn’t the first municipality to take Monsanto to court over its production of PCBs that other companies later dumped. Similar efforts in Washington state, California, Missouri, and elsewhere have had varied levels of success: Some cases have been settled, some have resulted in the company being ordered to pay restitution, and others have been found in Monsanto’s favor.

“I feel like we have a good chance of winning because this is so clearly unjust,” Lahey said.

Lee, Massachusets

Signs in town advocate against the future PCB dump site in Lee, Mass., on May 21, 2023.

Photo: Lori Grinker/Contact Press for The Intercept

In 2016, the EPA made an agreement with GE and other nearby towns that GE would dredge the river and remove the contaminated soil out of the county. No sooner was the agreement made, Jones said, than GE went to court to change the parameters. That led to a mediated agreement, done in private with representatives from the affected towns — Lee, Pittsfield, Lenox, Great Barrington, and Sheffield — the EPA, GE, and environmental groups including the Berkshire Environmental Action Team, or BEAT, that resulted in the dump site being placed in Lee.

Jones and Lahey are among the Berkshire residents in and outside of Lee who feel that what they see as the secrecy of the process — former Select Board member Patricia Carlino was the town’s representative — did a disservice to the people of the town.

“To mediate, negotiate, and seal a deal without any knowledge or input from the general public is a failure of representative government,” Jones told The Intercept.

The agreement was signed by the Select Board after 18 months of closed-door sessions and without consulting the rest of the town, something that still angers anti-dump residents. Under the agreement with GE and the EPA, Lee will get $25 million from GE in exchange for the dump site. If the town rejects the site, the funding is off the table.

“A PCB dump was imposed on a town of only about 5,500 people, plus or minus, without their knowledge,” Jones said.

Clare Lahey stands in the area between the Eurovia asnd and gravel mining company  the line of  trees at the edges of the GE property.  The tree area is a 50 acre parcel of which 25 will be used by GE to  dump PCBs that they will dredge from the Housatonic River (to the left beyond where we can see), Lee, Massachusets

Clare Lahey stands near the future PCB dump site, an area with porous sand that is close to the Housatonic River, in Lee, Mass., on May 21, 2023.

Photo: Lori Grinker/Contact Press for The Intercept

Jane Winn, BEAT executive director, agrees that Monsanto should be held responsible for its role in producing PCBs. She remembers a time when the river and surrounding wetlands were in far worse shape than they are today, due to the chemical’s corrosive damage. The river used to change color and catch fire, she said.

Despite Winn’s support for the lawsuit, she doesn’t think it’s likely to succeed. Winn, as BEAT executive director, was a signatory to the consent decree putting the dump in Lee. She told The Intercept that while she’d like to see a more permanent remedial solution, “the site they’ve chosen, if it has to be in the Berkshires, is a reasonable site.”

Winn said that the dump in Lee is a “downside” to the cleanup but that the trade-off of having low-level contaminant soil put in the town site is the compromise in order to get to that point. She understands that Lee feels it’s been treated unfairly but urged perspective: “They’re getting more sediment out of the river in Lee because of it.”

There’s some outright local opposition to Lee’s lawsuit. The Berkshire Eagle, in an opinion piece taking issue with Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s written support for the Lee effort, questioned what the next move would be if the dump were stopped and endorsed the site as an imperfect but ultimately necessary solution to the river’s pollution.

“While the dump disproportionately affects Lee (and Lenox Dale), the fate of a comprehensive Housatonic cleanup plan matters to a much broader part of the Berkshire community,” the paper’s editorial board wrote in the unsigned opinion piece. “Whatever the intensity of the understandable hard feelings in Lee, it’s reasonable to ask what the procedural limits of reflexive opposition are here.”

It’s not lost on Jones that the site is in the poorest town of the towns involved in the discussions. “It’s a working-class town,” Jones said. “It was a mill town, but the mills are gone.”

“We’re the ones who have to bear the burden of it,” he added.

The post A Massachusetts Town Is Suing Monsanto for Its Cancer-Causing PCBs appeared first on The Intercept .

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    The “Electrify Everything” Movement’s Consumption Problem / TheIntercept · Monday, 8 May - 19:05 · 11 minutes

In 2019, Thea Riofrancos was splitting her time between researching the social and environmental impacts of lithium mining in Chile and organizing for a rapid energy transition away from fossil fuels in the United States. A political science professor at Providence College and member of the Climate and Community Project, Riofrancos was struck by the contrast: Lithium is essential to the batteries that make electric vehicles and renewable energy work, but mining inflicts its own environmental damage. “Here I am in Chile, in the Atacama Desert, seeing these mining-related harms, and then there I go in the U.S. advocating for a rapid transition. How do I align these two goals?” Riofrancos said. “And is there a way to have a less extractive energy transition?”

When she went looking for research that would help answer that question, she found none, at least not for the transportation sector, which was her area of focus. “I saw forecast after forecast that assumed basically a binary of the future,” she said. “Either we stay with the fossil fuel status quo and the existential crisis that that is causing for the planet and all of its people. Or we transition to an electrified, renewably powered future, but that doesn’t really change anything about how these sectors or economic activities are organized.”

Riofrancos wanted to look at multiple ways to design an electrified future and understand what the costs and impacts of different scenarios might be. So she linked up with other Climate and Community Project researchers and put together a report mapping out four potential pathways to electrification for the transportation sector. Titled “ Achieving Zero Emissions With More Mobility and Less Mining ,” the report concluded that even relatively small, easy-to-achieve shifts like reducing the size of cars and their batteries could deliver big returns: a 42 percent reduction in the amount of lithium needed in the U.S., even if the number of cars on the road and the frequency with which people drive stayed the same.

It’s the sort of thing politicians and electrification advocates need to think through now, when decisions can be made to guide the energy transition in one direction or another. It’s also critical to an underdiscussed component of climate action: demand for products and services and the role energy plays in fulfilling those demands. Which connects right up to another topic that American politicians don’t want to touch with a 10-foot pole: consumption.

Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change put out a report on mitigation of climate risks that included a chapter on demand for the first time in the IPCC’s history. Relying on more than a decade of peer-reviewed research, it concluded that people’s needs — food, shelter, water, transportation — are not always explicitly connected to energy, and even when they are, there are ways to dramatically reduce the amount of energy required to meet them.

That conclusion contradicted several decades of economic theory that suggested that increased energy use and, by extension, increased consumption would always equate to a longer lifespan and improved quality of life. Julia Steinberger, an ecological economist and professor at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, contributed to the demand chapter. “In phases of economies when everybody’s in poverty, there’s a lot of demand that drives production,” she explained. “After a certain point, though, you have an overproductive industry that’s constantly driving productivity and competitiveness. … And the outlet for that is various kinds of over-consumption or things like planned obsolescence. Basically you wind up with products looking for markets.”

Steinberger says we reached that point with fossil fuels years ago. She’s led several peer-reviewed studies that prove it, as have dozens of other economists. “The fossil fuel industry is using this fake narrative of demand-driven production to excuse their activities,” Steinberger said. “But as soon as you look at demand, the story crumbles. Because all we need is services; that’s what there is demand for. We don’t need the energy use itself. So let’s think about how we deliver those services in a more efficient way.”

Steinberger says the link between increased fossil fuel use and increased life expectancy or quality of life has also been disproven. “This idea of the fossil fuel industry as this grubby titan who’s sort of holding up the industrial basis for the rest of us, they love that narrative, but it’s simply not true,” she said. “Fossil fuel use does not contribute significantly to improvements in life expectancy.”

Which is not to say that there isn’t a global energy access problem, or even that fossil fuels have no short-term role to play in addressing it. Yale economist Narasimha Rao argues that we need to see a reduction in consumption in the “Global North” so that we can close the energy gap in the “Global South” without increasing emissions. But so far, all executives and politicians have been willing to talk about is expanding energy development in the Global South. Tackling consumption in the Global North has been painted as radical austerity, “taking our hamburgers,” or a slippery slope to communism.

The IPCC report laid out several straightforward steps countries could take to enable a decrease in energy usage without sacrificing quality of life. Increasing the availability of car-free and electrified transportation, improving energy efficiency, and basic things like not setting the default temperatures on thermostats to excessively cold or warm levels could all move the needle in a big way while delivering reductions in monthly bills, according to the report. “Forty to 70 percent of the 2050 level of projected emissions can be reduced by working on the demand side,” Indian economist Joyashree Roy, the lead author of the IPCC report’s demand chapter, said. “I think we really need to communicate this more. With the substitutes we’re talking about, a new economy is going to grow. Rather than, you know, an old economy.”

Electric vehicle charging stations are pictured in Monterey Park, California on Aug.31, 2022.

Electric vehicle charging stations are pictured in Monterey Park, Calif., on Aug. 31, 2022.

Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

Building a New Economy

The transportation sector is the primary source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., which is why it’s a primary target for decarbonization. And thanks to the availability of both electric vehicles and Inflation Reduction Act-related incentives to purchase them, American consumers are embracing the shift, with EV purchases expected to represent half of all vehicle purchases by 2030.

But that shift will bring with it other environmental impacts related to mineral mining and the land required for large-scale renewable projects to provide the electricity all those cars plug into. Policies that reduce car dependency and encourage the use of mass transit can speed decarbonization, make the energy transition more just, reduce environmental impacts, and ease tensions around increasingly scarce resources. Such policies could also help decarbonization advocates get in front of a burgeoning anti-electrification movement that includes folks like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who is suddenly very concerned about the impact of cobalt mining on children in the Congo.

Policies that reduce the need for mining and land tend to be popular with voters too. They enable things like more public transit options, which consistently polls well with American voters, and rooftop solar, which has broad bipartisan support across the country.

They’re not so popular with entrenched corporate interests, though. The automotive industry, for example, is not only unlikely to get behind measures to reduce car dependency, but it’s also working hard to sell Americans on the largest possible electric vehicles. According to data from the advertising data firm MediaRadar, the top five largest ad budgets for electric vehicles over the last two years were all for SUVs, not the sedans or compacts that run on smaller batteries. Brands with multiple electric car models, including Chevrolet, Nissan, and Volkswagen, spent more than twice as much money advertising their largest models as their more efficient compact models.

Between April 2021 and April 2023, automakers spent more than twice as much advertising large EVs as they spent on smaller, more efficient models. Source: Media Radar

Between April 2021 and April 2023, automakers spent more than twice as much advertising large EVs as they spent on smaller, more efficient models. Source: MediaRadar

Graphic: Amy Westervelt and The Intercept

In the broader energy space, the popularity of rooftop solar protected it so long as panels were expensive and adoption was relatively low. But as the cost and accessibility of rooftop solar has come down, so has utilities’ tolerance of it. In 2013, when manufacturing was increasing and the cost began to drop, the Edison Electric Institute, a trade group representing electrical utilities, put out a white paper cautioning that distributed renewable energy could kick off a “death spiral for utilities.” For years afterward, other industry experts repeated this idea, and utility executives began pushing for policies that would keep rooftop solar small and expensive.

The most recent example was a move by the California Public Utilities Commission to reduce by more than 75 percent the amount utilities pay for excess energy from solar rooftops. That change, driven largely by utilities, went into effect April 15. Even solar advocates had agreed that the state’s net metering policy — the amount of money residents with rooftop solar can earn by selling excess energy back to the utility — needed to be updated. It was written when far fewer residents were installing solar. But few thought the reduction needed to go quite so far.

“It’s not as draconian as the utilities wanted, but it’s still in line with their political agenda,” said David Pomerantz, executive director of the Energy and Policy Institute.

Utilities complained that the change didn’t go far enough, claiming to be advocating on behalf of low-income Californians, not their own investors. “This final decision was a missed opportunity,” Kathy Fairbanks, spokesperson for Affordable Clean Energy for All, a group headed by the state’s investor-owned utilities, said in a statement. “The current solar subsidy program forces low-income families, renters, seniors, and anyone who doesn’t have rooftop solar to bankroll wealthier Californians’ solar systems.”

“We do want to make sure the benefits of rooftop solar are extended to everyone and are equitable,” Pomerantz said. But “I have a really hard time hearing that argument from utilities that are disconnecting their poorest customers’ power over a few dollars owed, and who have historically sited toxic coal plants in poor communities and communities of color, and who continue to advocate for regressive fixed charges.”

Just as public transit wouldn’t eliminate the need for electric vehicles, unfettered rooftop solar wouldn’t eliminate the need for utility-scale solar projects, but it would reduce the number of them required. And given the major issues with permitting, land use, and conservation around grid-scale renewable projects, that means fewer tensions and fewer environmental impacts.

“We should maximize every bit of rooftop solar that we can,” Pomerantz said. “It won’t solve the tensions between utility-scale renewables and conservation, but rooftop solar doesn’t suffer from any of those thorny issues, so every megawatt of it we can deploy could be a thornier utility renewable project that we might not need.”

Utilities make money off large-scale projects, though, so they don’t love the idea of reducing the number of them. Pomerantz said many of the utilities fighting rooftop solar across the country — including Southern Company in the South, Sempra Energy in California, and Duke Energy in the Midwest and Southeast — are misleading in their arguments. “Utilities love to say that their own renewables that they build and own are cheaper than rooftop solar, but it’s a red herring,” he said. “The problem with that argument is that most utilities are not making a choice between distributed and utility-scale renewables, they’re building and running gas plants and coal plants.”

Ultimately, the most efficient, environmentally friendly way to decarbonize might be the path that offers people the most choices. Despite a whole lot of messaging about how much Americans love trucks and coal, poll after poll shows them loving public transit and rooftop solar even more.

“When I look at the transportation system and also my own interaction with it … I experienced a lack of choices, a lack of freedom,” Riofrancos said. “I have lived in places where it was not only not required, but actually more annoying to have a car than to use a bike or bus or a subway or something else. And I now live in a place where the opposite is true. … The vast majority of Americans use cars to get around because they live in contexts where there really is no other option. I don’t blame individuals for those choices, but nor do I see our current transportation system as a paragon of freedom.”

With the Inflation Reduction Act unleashing a wave of incentives for electrified energy and transportation across the country, the United States sits at a key turning point. It can electrify the status quo or use the opportunity of a large-scale energy transition to substantively change systems that haven’t been touched in a hundred years. Letting “the markets” solve climate change without reining in the companies that have been warping those markets for more than a century seems like a shaky foundation for a new economy. Decisions made today could put the country on a very different path and ensure that the Inflation Reduction Act delivers on the emissions cuts it promised, but the window of opportunity is closing.

The post The “Electrify Everything” Movement’s Consumption Problem appeared first on The Intercept .

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    Biden Is Fulfilling Trump’s Cruel Policy on Wild Horses / TheIntercept · Monday, 27 March - 13:00 · 10 minutes

The Biden administration was supposed to have been a reprieve from the Trump years, but for conservationists who want the wild horses of the American West to live long and prosper, this didn’t happen. The anti-horse policies formulated under Donald Trump have been dutifully carried out by his liberal successor.

“We feel betrayed, because we thought this was an administration that really believed in wildlife protections,” Manda Kalimian, president of the wild horse and environmental advocacy group Cana Foundation, told me recently. “For all the hope we placed in Biden, it turns out he’s almost worse than Trump when it comes to wild horses.”

The protections for horses are enshrined in federal law. The 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act mandated that the animals “are to be considered … as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands,” and as such, they “shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death.”

Under Trump in 2018, the Department of the Interior adopted a bold new program for the management of horses that exploited loopholes in the 1971 law. The program, Path Forward, was the brainchild of Republican Rep. Chris Stewart of Utah, a longtime friend of public land livestock grazers who consider horses to be their cows’ competitors on western rangelands.

Path Forward was a wholesale gift to the livestock industry. It directed the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, to expand roundups on federal herd management areas where the animals were alleged to have overpopulated. The benefit to livestock interests was obvious: Cows also use these same management areas, and the fewer horses in them, the better for stock-growers dependent on public forage to fatten their herds.

With Path Forward, the BLM began holding horses in “off-range” facilities in larger numbers than ever before, exposing the animals to rampant disease and extremes of cold and heat. It offered $1,000 a horse to would-be adopters, a much-ballyhooed “adoption incentive.” The agency promised that once the number of horses on the open range had been sufficiently reduced, it would begin widespread fertility control through darting of mares with contraceptives.

By 2020, Congress had fully funded Path Forward, and Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, whom Joe Biden celebrated as the first Native American to hold the post, did not hesitate to implement it. Haaland’s BLM has overseen the largest increase in roundups of wild horses on record. It should be remarked as one of the minor ironies of history that a woman whose appointment was supposed to represent a break from the past has ended up perpetuating a violent and cruel status quo.

“Path to Destruction”

Occasional horse roundups, conducted humanely, are not out of keeping with the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. The legislation stated that when the animals exceed the carrying capacity of management areas, the federal government should step in to regulate their numbers.

The problem is that the BLM has no scientific understanding of the carrying capacity of western rangelands where horses and burros roam free. This was the conclusion of a National Academy of Sciences report in 2013. The NAS investigators found that the BLM had failed to use “scientifically rigorous methods to estimate the population sizes of horses and burros,” failed “to model the effects of management actions on the animals,” and, pivotally, failed “to assess the … use of forage on rangelands.”

When I reported on wild horse controversies for my book on the fate of federal public lands under capitalism, I found that carrying capacity for these persecuted animals was mostly determined by the needs of cattle corporations. In every herd management area, there are cows, and they outnumber horses by orders of magnitude. Allotted the majority of the forage, the cattle do well, and the horses are left to survive on what pittance remains.

The BLM captured and placed in holding facilities some 21,000 horses and burros in 2022.

From the moment the 1971 legislation to protect horses and burros passed, the number of herd management areas, along with the total acreage included in them, has been continually declining. Horses today don’t enjoy full access to the meager acreage federal regulators designate for their survival. Livestock operators dominate even those parcels, while fences bar the horses from moving freely across the landscape. Maltreatment of horses is only one facet of a long historical process in which the BLM has treated wildlife with barely disguised contempt.

None of this appeared to be a consideration when, in 2022, the BLM decided to capture and place in holding facilities some 21,000 horses and burros, nearly twice the number of the last highest capture year, 2012. More horses and burros were rounded up and sent to holding between 2018 and 2022 — a total of 55,000 — than in any four-year period since passage of the 1971 act.

“It’s been year after year of pain and suffering,” Kalimian told me. “So much for the federal law that’s supposed to protect our horses.”

What we’re witnessing today with Path Forward, she said, is “a path to destruction.”

Mustangs recently captured on federal rangeland roam a corral at the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's holding facility north of Reno, in Palomino, Nev., on Sept. 4, 2013.

Mustangs captured on federal rangeland roam a corral at the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s holding facility north of Reno, Nev., on Sept. 4, 2013.

Photo: Scott Sonner/AP

Secretive Holding Facilities

One of the necessary components of the new program is that the BLM had to massively expand its contracts with private holding facilities to accommodate the rise in the number of animals removed from the range. These operators have the option to bar public access and oversight, a sea change from public processing corrals that are open to visitation.

It’s smart PR to hide behind closed doors because capture and transfer into holding can be mortal events for the animals. Take, for example, the 804 burros rounded up in the summer of 2022 in Nevada’s Blue Wing Complex, 60 miles northwest of Reno. Ten died immediately. After the BLM shipped the remaining burros into private holding, 45 more died from “capture stress,” according to records obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests. The BLM will not allow the public to see those burros and check on their conditions in captivity.

Laura Leigh, executive director of Wild Horse Education in Reno, has been fighting the BLM’s wild horse policies for close to two decades. Path Forward, she told me, is only the latest iteration of the agency’s longtime effort to undermine the survival of wild horse herds so that profiteering interests, primarily stock growers and mining companies, are free to seize resources on public lands.

“The smoke-and-mirrors science from the BLM is all to protect cattle grazing.”

The Blue Wing roundup was so badly planned that Leigh joined with Kalimian’s Cana Foundation to file suit in federal court decrying “the antiquated and unscientific” environmental assessment the BLM used to justify the operation. The suit accused the BLM of lacking any long-term management plans for horses and burros in the Blue Wing Complex. “The smoke-and-mirrors science from the BLM is all to protect cattle grazing,” Kalimian told me.

Capture stress can trigger immune system failure, according to Leigh. Horses thrive in family groups, and when those groups are shattered — as they are in every roundup — this causes psychological distress that can lead to physical compromise. Being moved to a pen is a trigger as well. The BLM claims death rates from roundups are around 1 percent, but the true cost, Leigh says, is much higher: Some 12 percent of horses and burros die within six months of capture, according to her team’s research . That’s an estimated 6,000 deaths between 2018 and 2022. Many have perished of disease, though exact numbers are unknown. Equine influenza and streptococcus, ringworm, pigeon fever, papillomavirus, and salmonella have swept through the populations in holding.

Filth and inadequate sanitation are now the norm with the huge influx of animals. The BLM and its private contractors use the same capture alleys and pens repeatedly, without sufficient cleaning, and do not maintain expert staff who can handle sound sanitary practices, according to horse advocates who have investigated holding facilities. A typical boarding barn has a quarantine process for new arrivals; advocates charge that the BLM process, by contrast, allows disease to run rife.

“The BLM is committed to the health, welfare, and safety of all wild horses and burros, including those in BLM and contractor operated off-range facilities,” a spokesperson said in response to questions about the bureau’s sanitation practices. “Assessments are conducted to determine compliance or identify any corrective actions necessary to ensure proper care is provided.”

Unknowing citizens sometimes stumble on these holding sites and are horrified. Such was the experience of Vicki Cameron, a barber in Wheatland, Wyoming, in the state’s eastern high plains. Ten miles outside Wheatland, the BLM contracted with a company called Zimmetal and Welding LLC to operate a for-profit holding facility, the Wheatland Off-Range Corral. The BLM reports that approximately 2,850 animals from multiple states are now in captivity at Wheatland.

“I’m just an ordinary person driving along one day and saw these corrals full of horses,” Cameron said of her discovery of the Wheatland site in December. “This winter has been brutal, with extreme cold, snow, and wind. The corrals are on an open space with no shelter or break from the wind.”

Wheatland is closed to the public, but Cameron has been spying on its operations from nearby hilltops with binoculars. She told me that horses stand in eight inches of manure and muck in midwinter thaw events. Then the temperature drops abruptly, the wind kicks up, and the wind chill plummets to 60 below. “No human could withstand this weather,” Cameron said.

A Gold Mining Rush

Meanwhile, Path Forward’s vaunted adoption incentive program has gone off the rails. Multiple reputable organizations report that kill-buyers are posing as adopters, pocketing the $1,000 in taxpayer subsidy. The kill-buyers then sell horses and burros into a profitable slaughter pipeline in Mexico and Canada, at the end of which the animals are turned into canned meat for dogs. The BLM has noted that while adopters must pledge not to resell the horses to slaughterhouses, the bureau has no authority to enforce those agreements.

And fertility control has devolved into a second-rate initiative that has only involved a small number of horses, roughly 6 percent of the more than 20,000 captured off the range in 2022 — and an even smaller percentage of those horses allowed to remain on the range. Worse, the BLM has embraced invasive and often dangerous treatments to prevent horses from breeding. The agency, for example, has now proposed using lasers to burn mare’s oviducts, a painful process that causes tubal scarring to prevent conception but comes with serious risk of complications and death.

“Fertility control has turned into a vehicle for just more funding for roundups without regard for the real welfare of the animals,” Leigh said.

This broken system of management has its origin in the BLM’s policy of ever-widening fragmentation of horse habitat. Cattle-growing operations and industrial development on public lands are given priority. Especially worrisome is the breakneck growth in mining on the parcels of public domain reserved for horses, development that has produced more roads and more fences. Mining companies secure water rights on these arid landscapes to supply water-intensive hard-rock exploration, lowering the water table and drying up springs and seeps that horses depend on.

Leigh used to camp in one of the management areas in central Nevada, called the Pancake Complex, where the BLM has fast-tracked the construction of two new gold mines and condemned horse herds to make way for the mining concerns. In a 30-day period in early 2022, the BLM rounded up more than 2,000 horses in the Pancake Complex.

During her most recent visit last autumn, Leigh found new roads on previously unroaded landscapes. There was industrial-scale traffic and the constant noise of machines where previously the Pancake was a place of immense silence. Gone were not only the horses, but also the badger and pronghorn antelope she used to see and the sage grouse that came out at dusk to meet her.

So it goes. The last wild places of the American West are subjugated to money-making interests, and the last inhabitants of those marvelous landscapes are pushed aside.

In her constant and seemingly fruitless rebukes of the BLM for its failure to uphold the 1971 law, Leigh has asked the obvious question: Do we actually care about wild horses? Or are we just pretending to protect the ecosystems where these animals live? If the mandate of the BLM is truly to protect wild horses and burros, as the 1971 legislation tells us it is, the only way to make the program sound is to address the long-ignored issue of habitat preservation — a prospect that seems to be nowhere on the agenda under Joe Biden.

The post Biden Is Fulfilling Trump’s Cruel Policy on Wild Horses appeared first on The Intercept .

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    Lauren Boebert Waved Around Pictures of Dead Babies in Her Call to Gut the Endangered Species Act / TheIntercept · Friday, 24 March - 19:48 · 8 minutes

A congressional hearing to depoliticize the Endangered Species Act kicked off in the most politicized way possible this week, with Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., waving around photos of dead babies before launching into an argument for expansive wolf killing.

“Since we’re talking about the Endangered Species Act, I’m just wondering if my colleagues on the other side would put babies on the endangered species list,” Boebert said, as she flipped through a series of graphic images. “These babies were born in Washington, D.C., full-term. I don’t know, maybe that’s a way we can save some children here in the United States.”

Boebert did not elaborate on the connection she saw between a law passed to protect imperiled wildlife and the viability of the human species, the most widespread mammal on the planet. Nevertheless, the tone for the day was set.

Boebert was on hand Thursday to discuss her “Trust the Science Act,” a proposal for the nationwide removal of federal protections for wolves, before the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Wildlife, and Fisheries. The subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ore., also heard from fellow GOP Reps. Matt Rosendale of Montana, and Harriet Hageman of Wyoming, who have both introduced legislation to remove grizzly bears from the endangered species list in their states.

“This is the first hearing that we will hold on the ESA but certainly not the last,” Bentz said of the landmark environmental law.

The Republican bills would capitalize on a precedent their Democratic counterparts set more than a decade ago: legislatively removing animals from the endangered species list, then barring those removals from judicial review, rather than following the scientific process required by the Endangered Species Act. The proposals are part of wider movement of Republican lawmakers — backed by supporters in the firearms and trophy hunting industry — to liberalize hunting of the West’s most iconic predators.

“While each of these bills is unique, they share the common thread of circumventing the scientific processes currently underway.”

Steve Guertin, a deputy director at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency responsible for enforcing the Endangered Species Act, testified that the proposals “would supersede ongoing scientific analysis being conducted by the service regarding the status of wolf and grizzly bear populations right now.” The agency opposed the measures, Guertin told the lawmakers. “While each of these bills is unique,” he said, “they share the common thread of circumventing the scientific processes currently underway.”

California Rep. Jared Huffman, one of the few Democrats who participated in the hearing, described the day’s agenda as “a hot mess of extreme anti-science, anti-tribe, anti-wildlife bills.”

“The sheer hubris of these bills is impressive,” Huffman said. “The idea that we as members of Congress sitting here in Washington are more qualified than scientists and experts at the top of their field to make delisting decisions for the Endangered Species Act, and then to lock those in by insulating them from judicial review — that is incredibly extreme.”

While many environmentalists would agree, the move was not without precedent. In 2011, Montana Sen. Jon Tester, the lone Democrat in the state’s congressional delegation, attached a rider to a must-pass budget bill that reversed a federal judge’s decision returning wolves to the Endangered Species List and prohibited judicial review. The judge blasted the move as blatantly unconstitutional. Wolf hunting and trapping in the Northern Rockies has been legal ever since.

In the past two years, Republicans in Montana and Idaho passed a series of laws to slash their wolf populations — in Idaho by as much as 90 percent — through the use of bait and snares, aerial hunting, night hunting with thermal goggles, and more. In Montana, Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte abolished wolf hunting quotas altogether on Yellowstone National Park’s northern border in 2021, leading to the deadliest season the park has ever recorded , with nearly a fifth of its wolves eliminated. As Huffman noted, “Some of these states want to ‘manage’ wolves and grizzlies like Buffalo Bill managed bison.”

Boebert’s proposal would turn wolf management over to the states in the rest of the country, while Rosendale’s and Hageman’s bills would add grizzly bears to the mix as well.

A wolf in Yellowstone National Park follows a grizzly bear in early spring, 2005.

A wolf in Yellowstone National Park follows a grizzly bear in early spring in 2005.

Doug Smith/National Park Service via AP

Entering its 50th year of existence, the Endangered Species Act has saved 99 percent of the species afforded its protections and remains one of the most popular laws in the country.

Despite the high popularity, anti-government Republicans have long cast the law as one of the worst things to ever happen to the West. “For far too long, the Endangered Species Act has been weaponized by extremists, extremist environmentalists, to restrict common sense multiple use activities that they disagree with,” Boebert testified.

In 2020, voters in Boebert’s home state passed a historic measure mandating the reintroduction of wolves, which had disappeared from Colorado thanks to a government eradication campaign in the 1940s. The vote was extraordinarily close , with 50.9 percent of voters supporting reintroduction and 49.1 voting against. Supporters were largely based in urban centers on the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains, while the opposition was concentrated where the wolf reintroduction will happen, in Boebert’s district on the western slope.

Despite its name, Boebert’s promotion of the “Trust the Science Act” puts the politics of predator management front and center. “Its [sic] far past time that we removed leftist politics from listing decisions,” she said in unveiling the proposal last year. The bill received enthusiastic support from Safari Club International, a lobbying giant of the trophy hunting community, and the National Rifle Association.

Hageman and Rosendale sounded a similar tone in calling for delisting grizzly bears. “There’s a small handful of members on this committee that actually have grizzly bears in their districts,” Rosendale told his colleagues. “Yet, these bureaucrats and some members of this committee insist on telling Montanans how they should go about their everyday lives by keeping the species listed without ever feeling the impact of this decision.”

In advancing their proposals, the authors of the anti-predator bills often misrepresented basic facts related to wildlife biology and management.

Boebert read a statistic that “from 2002 to present day, approximately 500 people have been attacked by wolves with nearly 30 of these attacks resulting in human deaths.” Though she did not cite a source, Boebert seemed to be drawing from a recent Norwegian Institute for Nature Research report. She neglected to mention that only two of the cases were reported in the U.S. and only one was fatal.

As the report itself noted : “Considering that there are close to 60,000 wolves in North America and 15,000 in Europe, all sharing space with hundreds of millions of people, it is apparent that the risks associated with a wolf attack are above zero, but far too low to calculate.”

Hageman, for her part, repeatedly used the term “Canadian gray wolf” when discussing wolves residing in the Northern Rockies and described them as “non-native.”

The so-called non-native Canadian gray wolf is a feature of a conspiracy theory in which the wolves that were reintroduced to the U.S. in the 1990s were part of a super-large strain of extra ferocious predators deployed by the federal government to destroy the Western way of life. It is not true. The wolves that were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho in 1995 were members of the same species — canis lupus — that the federal government exterminated over the preceding century.

Rosendale, meanwhile, focused on the “150 confirmed or probable” claims of grizzly bears eating livestock in Montana and the “hundreds of thousands of dollars lost.” Rosendale left out some key context. According to the Montana Department of Livestock, grizzly bears were responsible for killing 143 of Montana’s more than 2.7 million sheep and cattle in 2022, contributing to a loss of .0052 percent of the state’s livestock. The state paid ranchers $234,378.37 to compensate for those losses.

Rosendale also said Montana’s pivot to heavy-handed wolf hunting was “because the gray wolf population is about 10 times the target population” and “it continues to grow.” The “target population,” as Rosendale framed it, does not exist. In the early 2000s, Montana needed at least 150 wolves to obtain and retain state management authorities under the Endangered Species Act. The number was a minimum, not a target to maintain in perpetuity. As for the continued growth of Montana’s wolf population, biologists broadly agree that those numbers stabilized in recent years, and some of the region’s leading experts have raised concerns that the state may in fact be overestimating its totals.

The Republicans’ most challenging witness was Chris Servheen. For 35 years, Servheen led the U.S. government’s effort recover grizzly bears before retiring in 2016. Until recently, he was the most visible proponent of removing grizzly bears from the endangered species list. As detailed in an Intercept profile in January, the veteran biologist’s views changed with the anti-predator political pivot in the Northern Rockies.

As Servheen reiterated throughout his testimony, the Endangered Species Act is about more than numbers. States must have regulations in place that will ensure continued recovery before assuming management authority over a listed species.

“The adequacy of regulatory mechanisms is just as important as the numbers of animals,” Servheen said, and in the Northern Rockies “the lack of adequate regulatory mechanisms is due to political interference.” He added: “It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to realize that if grizzly bears were delisted by congressional action and turned over to state management, the legislatures and the governors would do the same thing to grizzly bears that they are currently doing to wolves.”

The post Lauren Boebert Waved Around Pictures of Dead Babies in Her Call to Gut the Endangered Species Act appeared first on The Intercept .

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    Chipmakers fight spread of US crackdowns on “forever chemicals” / ArsTechnica · Thursday, 23 March - 13:44

Chips on a wafer

Enlarge / The surface of a semiconductor wafer in the cleanroom at the Tower Semiconductor Ltd. plant in Migdal HaEmek, Israel, on Monday, Feb. 28, 2022. Intel Corp. agreed to acquire Tower Semiconductor for about $5.4 billion, part of Chief Executive Officer Pat Gelsingers push into the outsourced chip-manufacturing business. Photographer: Kobi Wolf/Bloomberg via Getty Images (credit: Kobi Wolf/Bloomberg via Getty Images )

Intel and other semiconductor companies have joined together with industrial materials businesses to fight US clampdowns on “forever chemicals,” substances used in myriad products that are slow to break down in the environment.

The lobbying push from chipmakers broadens the opposition to new rules and bans for the chemicals known as PFAS. The substances have been found in the blood of 97 percent of Americans, according to the US government.

More than 30 US states this year are considering legislation to address PFAS, according to Safer States, an environmental advocacy group. Bills in California and Maine passed in 2022 and 2021, respectively.

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    Biden Moves Forward With Mining Project That Will Obliterate a Sacred Apache Religious Site / TheIntercept · Wednesday, 22 March - 21:41 · 7 minutes

Biden administration attorneys were in court this week to defend a mining project that will obliterate one of the most sacred Apache religious sites in the American Southwest.

In oral arguments Tuesday, the U.S. Forest Service said it was nearing completion of an environmental impact study that will transfer land east of Phoenix, to two of the world’s largest mining companies for the purpose of building of one of the largest copper mines on the planet. The massive project will hinge on the destruction of Chi’chil Biłdagoteel, a mountain otherwise known as Oak Flat, that is sacred to many Native American tribes, particularly the San Carlos Apache, who consider the area among their most holy of sites.

In a nearly two-hour hearing, an 11-judge panel on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena, California, peppered lawyers on both sides of the high-stakes legal fight with an array of complex case law questions raised by the project. Begun nearly two decades ago, the battle for Oak Flat sits at the intersection of Indigenous rights and dispossession, religious liberty, public lands and private sales, and a growing demand for so-called green energy solutions in an era of climate catastrophe.

“As the court is aware, this case is not about an agency action. It’s about an act of Congress, in which Congress considered demands on a piece of property, balanced those interests, and made a decision,” said Joan Pepin, an attorney for the Forest Service, the agency that exchanged the land in a controversial deal nearly a decade ago. “It decided that Oak Flat should be transferred to Resolution Copper so the third-largest copper ore deposit in the world can be mined.”

The legislation in question — the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act — was the product of a proposal then-Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake added to a must-pass defense authorization bill late one night in 2014. The addendum, known as a rider, incurred no congressional debate. Described by the San Carlos Apache as a “ midnight backroom deal ,” the law transferred Oak Flat to Resolution Copper, a British-Australian concern jointly owned by the extractive giants Rio Tinto and BHP, both of which had sought access to the wildly lucrative ore deposit for years.

The project centers on a mountain on the 2,200-acre area known as Oak Flat Campground, part of the Tonto National Forest, that has served as a centerpiece of Apache religious ceremony and cosmology since before settler expansion into the West. To access the ore underneath, Resolution Copper will use a technique known as block cave mining, which over several years will turn the sacred mountain into a two-mile-wide crater deep enough to hide a skyscraper.

Initiation of construction hinges on the publication of an environmental impact study from the Forest Service, which, under the law passed in 2014, starts a 60-day countdown before the transfer of the land from the federal government to the mining company must happen.

“A fine is a substantial burden, but here the government is doing something far worse, not just threatening fines, but authorizing the complete physical destruction of Oak Flat.”

Luke Goodrich, the lead attorney for Apache Stronghold, an Arizona-based nonprofit that brought the lawsuit to stop the transfer, told the panel of judges that the destruction of Oak Flat was a direct and flagrant violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Violation of the statute requires the imposition of a “substantial burden” on a person or group’s ability to practice their faith.

“A fine is a substantial burden, but here the government is doing something far worse,” Goodrich said, “not just threatening fines, but authorizing the complete physical destruction of Oak Flat, barring the Apaches from ever accessing it again and ending their core religious exercises forever.”

In January 2021, five days before leaving office, the administration of President Donald Trump released a study supporting the creation of the Oak Flat mine. Apache Stronghold filed a federal lawsuit seeking a preliminary injunction to stop the project the following month.

Unsuccessful in the attempt, the group then filed an emergency appeal to the 9th Circuit. Six hours before its deadline to respond passed, the Forest Service — by then, in March 2021, under the leadership of President Joe Biden — announced that it was withdrawing the environmental impact study and postponing the land transfer.

A three-judge panel of 9th Circuit dismissed Apache Stronghold’s case in October 2021 but agreed to hear the case again before a full panel last winter. The unusual decision set the stage for Tuesday’s hearing.

While the postponement of the project had given opponents of the mine a moment of respite in the long-running battle, the government’s testimony this week confirmed that the Biden administration is moving forward with a new environmental impact study and stands behind the controversial land swap.

“We said spring,” Pepin told the panel of judges Tuesday. “It could be shading over into early summer by the time that 60-day notice is given, but it is coming out in the near future, so I do believe this case is justiciable.”

While Apache Stronghold’s religious freedom argument has drawn support from an array of faith-based organizations across the country, proponents of the mine argue that the project would bring in 3,700 jobs and add $1 billion each year to Arizona’s economy.

David Debold, an attorney representing extractive industry associations, told the court that a win for the plaintiffs in the case “would erect huge and insurmountable obstacles” to the sale of government land to private entities. “The damage to private enterprise would be profound if the purchaser of federal property could only use that property later as though it were the federal government,” Debold said. “That is the rule that is being argued for here, although not in so many words.”

The judges took the arguments into consideration. The panel has offered no indication when it will rule on the case. Should the judges again rule in favor of the mining companies and the federal government, the plaintiffs are likely to take the case to the Supreme Court.

Following the hearing, defenders of Oak Flat gathered in the rain to debrief and pray. Goodrich, the Apache Stronghold attorney, said there was no disputing the core facts of the case. “This is not a theoretical matter,” he said. “This is a people matter. This is about the people and their freedom: freedom to be Apache, to be Indigenous, to be Americans.”

After the day’s testimony, there was no longer any question where the Biden administration stood. “The government didn’t hold back today,” Goodrich said. “It said it for everyone to hear — everyone in the courtroom to hear, everyone in Indian Country to hear, and everyone in the whole country to hear. The government thinks it has blanket authority to do whatever it wants with the land that it’s taken from Indigenous peoples, even destroying central sacred sites and ending religious exercises forever.”

Wendsler Nosie Sr., former chair and councilmember of the San Carlos Apache and a veteran activist who has spent much of his life fighting the Oak Flat mine, joined in addressing the tribe’s supporters. “This country is a corporate country. It’s not even thinking about our children, the Earth, the things that give us life,” Nosie said. “The corporate world is waiting for this case to finish because they are in line for their exemptions. And if this happens, how we gonna stop that?”

Nosie’s remarks were followed by comments from his granddaughter, Naelyn Pike. Like her grandfather, Pike has devoted her life to stopping the mine. Among its many sacred attributes, the mountain at Oak Flat is used for coming-of-age ceremonies for young Apache women. Having been one of those young women herself, Pike worried that the space would no longer exist for the generations that come after her.

“This land is sacred. This land is holy. It may not have four walls or a steeple. It may not be a mosque, but this is my religion and my spiritual belief from my ancestors and to the yet to be born,” she said. “We have to fight for those who are not here so that they can go to Oak Flat, and they can pray and be one — because the United States government assured us today that their land is their land and that they can take it away, that they can say what I believe in, and what you believe in, does not matter.”

The post Biden Moves Forward With Mining Project That Will Obliterate a Sacred Apache Religious Site appeared first on The Intercept .

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    How to Save Yellowstone's Wolves / TheIntercept · Tuesday, 28 February - 11:00 · 21 minutes

If you ever plan to dart a wild wolf sprinting over a snow-covered mountain from a low-flying helicopter, there are a few things you need to know. The wolf should be running away, and you should be aiming for the back or butt. Never take a shot at a wolf that’s facing you. The risk of injuring the animal with a dart to the face is too high. Also, a dart shoots hard but it’s not a bullet; you need to loft your shot. Try to keep the chase under a quarter mile. Push a distressed wolf much farther and you’re being cruel. Finally, while you’re leaning out over the helicopter’s landing skids focusing on the wolf, don’t forget the treetops rushing by under your feet. If you get snagged, you’re done.

These were the lessons Doug Smith took home after a trip to the Alaskan outback in 1999. Smith had recently become director of the Yellowstone Wolf Project, the research program that followed the reintroduction of wolves into the national park four years earlier. At the heart of the nascent program was the winter study, when Smith and his team would track packs deep into the park, collect predation data, and fix individual wolves with radio collars.

The study relied heavily on aerial darting. Smith grew up shooting guns but hitting a moving wolf from an aircraft was different challenge. He phoned Layne Adams, a darting pro with the U.S. Biological Survey, who was doing work at Denali National Park, and asked if he could come to Alaska to study his craft. The pair spent a week in the air. Smith vividly remembers the first wolf he darted. It was an evasive alpha female. His first shot missed.

“Take those fucking gloves off!” the pilot shouted into his headset. Smith was wearing flying gloves. He ditched them. Below, the wolf stopped running, took shelter in a patch of brush, and faced the strange object hovering above her. The pilot was shouting at Smith to shoot. Smith was shouting at the pilot to reposition. The wolf took off. Smith can’t recall how many darts he fired, but he knows that the last one hit its mark.

Smith darted six more wolves in Denali that week. Back in Yellowstone, over the next two and half decades, he darted some 600 more. The captures became the backbone of the winter study — today a top contender for the world’s most respected predator research project. Smith spent all year waiting for the snow to come, thinking about what the last winter revealed, obsessing over how to improve. He took those lessons to heart. “I never computed my long-term average, but I was getting down to like 1.2, 1.3 darts per wolf,” he told me recently. “Two days in my career, I fired 10 darts and got 10 wolves.”

When future historians sit down to tell the story of how wolves regained a foothold in the United States after near total annihilation, they will find many names. Few, if any, are likely to surface as often as Doug Smith. For more than a quarter century, Smith was the face of one of the most historic and controversial government conservation initiatives of all time. In November, he retired.

When we met on an overcast morning in Bozeman, Montana, Smith was six weeks into his new post-Yellowstone life. His former colleagues were in the midst of their first winter without him. “It’s the first time since the beginning I wasn’t there to handle capture,” he said. Smith was not yet sure if stepping away was the right call. He wavered sometimes. “It was a very hard decision,” he said. “I’m still doubting it some days.”

Now free from the constraints of federal employment, the veteran biologist offered critical observations on the way wolves are seen, managed, and killed in the Northern Rockies, and the values that treatment reflects. Smith’s exit comes at a tumultuous time for wolves in the Northern Rockies and wildlife more broadly. Last winter, he and his colleagues recorded the deadliest season in Yellowstone history . With 25 wolves killed, more than double the previous record, roughly a fifth of the park’s entire wolf population was lost.

The killing was concentrated on Yellowstone’s northern border, which cuts into southwestern Montana. In the run up to the unprecedented season, a panel of wildlife commissioners appointed by Montana’s first Republican governor in a decade and a half, Greg Gianforte, abolished quotas that had limited the number of wolves that could be killed north of the park.

With its 2023 legislative session now underway, Montana’s new GOP supermajority remains intent on dramatically slashing the state’s wolf population with an array of highly controversial and recently legalized hunting and trapping methods. Many of the West’s most respected wildlife biologists have spoken out at what they see as a politicized wave of “ anti-predator hysteria ” sweeping the region. Meanwhile, mass habitat loss continues to fuel biodiversity loss at a staggering pace , leaving national parks like Yellowstone among the only places on Earth where large predators like wolves are both protected and studied in depth.

“Literally, if you get the wrong wolf at the wrong time, that pack can fall apart.”

In the weeks leading up to his retirement, Smith completed a major paper with more than a dozen biologists from national parks across North America. A decade in the making, the rare, interpark collaboration — titled “ Human-caused mortality triggers pack instability in gray wolves ” and published in “Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment” in January — tackled the question of how wolf hunting outside of national parks impacts the social stability of wolf packs living inside them. The research showed that while wolf populations are remarkably resilient, the loss of a single wolf can be devastating to an individual pack. This was especially true in the case of leaders. “Literally, if you get the wrong wolf at the wrong time, that pack can fall apart,” Smith said. The study also found that despite living in the most protected environs available, wolves in national parks experience “high levels” of human-caused mortality. Last winter, Smith and his colleagues witnessed those effects firsthand at an unprecedented scale.

The paper was a fitting exit for one the country’s most celebrated biologists. The entirety of Smith’s Yellowstone career was bound up in questions of how the outside world shaped the bubble of preservation he signed up to study and protect. Under his tenure, the park’s wolf program became an exemplar of predator preservation and research worldwide. Taking advantage of Yellowstone’s unmatched observational opportunities, Smith oversaw studies detailing how the return of apex predators — not just wolves, but grizzly bears and cougars as well — helped usher in an era of ecological recovery rarely witnessed in the modern world. At the same time, while always keeping an eye on the science and planning for the next winter study, Smith’s work required navigating a social and political minefield. “Cross-boundary management is a bugaboo in wildlife management,” he told me. “Most of the time, people go, ‘They’re not our jurisdiction anymore, so we’re not going to do anything’ — that doesn’t benefit the resource at all.”

The borders invite questions that policymakers generally try to avoid asking.

The boundaries that divide national parks and states are more than a delineation between jurisdictions. Those invisible lines represent different worlds, both for the animals that cross them and for the human institutions on either side. The borders invite questions that policymakers generally try to avoid asking. After two and a half decades on the front line, Smith firmly believes those discussions, uncomfortable though they might be, must happen for wildlife to have any chance of survival. The study, in addition to its scientific revelations, was an attempt to spur those conversations. “That was the other reason we did it,” Smith said. “It was like, ‘Let’s shine a light on this.’ You have to expose painful topics to solve them.”


Doug Smith arrives on horseback to recover a tracking collar off a dead wolf with his team in Yellowstone National Park on Sept. 2, 2015.

Photo: Ronan Donovan/National Geographic

People Riding Around With Guns

Early in Smith’s Yellowstone career, a legendary park ranger named Jerry Mernin offered him a piece of advice he would never forget. “You’re not doing your job. No one gives a shit about your science,” Mernin told him. “What you gotta do is you gotta go in the mountains, on horseback, and talk to the people riding around with guns. That’s conservation.”

Mernin was referring to the outfitting camps that ring Yellowstone’s border, providing guided hunts for paying clients, particularly those in pursuit of elk. Along with livestock interests, the outfitters were among the most vocal opponents of the federal program to repopulate the West with wolves. They didn’t ask for it, they didn’t want it, and they saw the wolves as a threat to their bottom line. Smith could see that Mernin was right. He needed to talk to them. Together, they loaded up their horses and rode out.

Like his winter study, Smith’s visits to the camps became a tradition. As it was with darting, the learning curve was steep. Smith quickly discovered that riding in with a list of points to hammer home never worked. “Literally, you had to go in and just establish contact, a rapport, a relationship,” he said. “Listen more than you talk.” Smith did not expect to uproot deeply held convictions. The goal was subtler, more human. “If you let those guys go, they will go,” he said. “So most of the time, you’re just rapping, and you’re trying to establish that I’m not as bad as they think I am, and even though I’m a government employee, they shouldn’t hate me for that — because they hate the government.”

Nothing was ever perfect, tensions and resentments remained, but bit by bit relationships were built. “I continued that almost until the day I retired,” Smith said. “I would consider it to be one of the more effective conservation efforts that I did in my career.”

Raised in rural northeastern Ohio on a horse camp that his parents ran, Smith began working with wolves as a teenager. He earned his Ph.D. studying under the legends of the field, old-school biologists whose groundbreaking insights were the product of handwritten notes compiled while trudging through deep snow in remote places. Among his mentors was L. David Mech. In an email, Mech, who is considered by many to be the most authoritative wolf expert in the world, described Smith’s predation studies in Yellowstone as “the most intensive and extensive wolf-prey system ever scientifically investigated.”


Framed photographs show Doug Smith with wolves in Yellowstone that he helped protect during his long career.

Photo: Max Lowe for The Intercept

Smith lived for the science, but he also recognized that the most important decisions in wildlife management happen outside the realms of biology and ecology.

In 2011, facing a precarious vote in the upcoming midterm elections, Montana’s lone Democratic senator, Jon Tester, attached a rider to a must-pass budget bill reversing a federal judge’s order returning wolves in the Northern Rockies to the Endangered Species List. The move was unheard of — Congress had never intervened to remove an animal from the endangered species list before — and led to state authorization of wolf hunting and trapping seasons. The following year, Smith and his colleagues released a report unlike anything they had published before, documenting the then-unprecedented loss of 12 wolves to hunting and trapping, many just over the edge of the park’s boundary lines.

Smith understood well that the goal of the Endangered Species Act was delisting, and that delisting meant state management, and state management meant hunting. Still, there were elements to the way the states structured their approach that he found ethically unsettling. Smith was a lifelong hunter, using elk and deer to fill his fridge. The meat was the “resource value” of the animal he killed. A wolf’s resource value was ostensibly its pelt, and yet Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho — then and now — started their seasons during the transition from summer to fall, when wolves’ pelts were at their least valuable. “You’re killing for a full two months for what?” Smith asked, before answering his own question. “Hatred.”

Kira and Doug drawing blood

Doug Smith and Kira Cassidy begin drawing blood on three captured wolves from the Junction Butte Pack in Yellowstone National Park on Dec. 15, 2014.

Photo: Ronan Donovan/National Geographic

Boundary Lines

Following the deadly 2012 season, wolf advocates lobbied for hunting quotas north of Yellowstone. While most of the park’s boundaries lie in remote areas, well-removed from human settlement, Yellowstone’s iconic northern entrance is in the unincorporated community of Gardiner, Montana, where open access to wildlife moving out of the park is readily available. The region is but a tiny sliver of Montana. Still, opponents of wolf hunting quotas on Yellowstone’s boundary line argued that the park was pushing out its border and asked, with great frustration, where do you draw the line?

For Smith, it was the wrong question. Hard boundary lines didn’t make sense for wildlife in general and for wolves in Yellowstone specifically. The wolves spent 96 percent of their time in the park, with much of that time in Wyoming — meaning that killing those wolves to reduce Montana’s wolf population made little sense. There was limited livestock ranching in the pocket of Montana that the park pushed up against, and the state routinely reported healthy elk populations in the area. That meant two of the most common arguments for heavy wolf killing — livestock and elk protection — were shaky at best. Finally, because the wolves were born and raised in a national park, they grew up with little reason to fear humans watching them from a distance. This habituation raised serious ethical questions about the shooting of a wolf that stood 100 feet north of a line that it didn’t know existed by humans who it didn’t see as a danger. As an alternative, hunters and trappers in Montana still had access to the rest of the fourth largest state in the country, where they could stalk wolves that actually knew they were being pursued.

“They’re tolerant of having people watching, and so you can’t have an arbitrary line on a landscape — go from that, complete protection, to no protection,” Smith said. It was matter of fair chase , an ethical principle undergirding the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, a set of pillars revered by many hunters around the world. In a fair chase hunt, “an animal knows you’re after it,” Smith said. “You’re not riding a four-wheeler chasing it down. You’re not using walkie talkies to trap it. Those are all fair chase measures. This is one of them.”

In place of a hard line, Smith and others advocated for a zone of protection that gradually faded into the broader state management regime. For many, it was the economics of Yellowstone’s wolf program that served as the strongest argument for such an approach: According to an economic study published in 2022, wolf watching alone in Yellowstone generates $82 million a year in local ecotourism dollars.

Though he wouldn’t disagree with the value of ecotourism, Smith’s arguments tended to reflect his dual identity as a scientist and public servant. With the wolf reintroduction, Yellowstone, and by extension the broader public, gained an incomparable asset, allowing for deeper insights into the innerworkings of one of the last great ecosystems of North America. If there were ever an example of a National Park Service initiative achieving its mission of preservation and public access, it was the Yellowstone Wolf Project. “I believe in the mission,” Smith said. “I would argue — and I know the world does not work this way — don’t do a job unless you believe it.”

In his day-to-day work over the years, Smith routinely met with people whose opinions on that mission ranged from unaccommodating to outright hostile. For Kira Cassidy, who began her Yellowstone wolf career in 2008, it was Smith’s earnest interest in seeking out those conversations that made him indispensable. “For being such a science-focused person, he also has a very beautiful, philosophical way of looking at the human condition and human relationships with wildlife,” she said. “He’s not argumentative, but he’s convincing in what he believes.”

Gradually, through years of negotiations among an array of stakeholders, the number of wolves that could be killed in the two districts north of Yellowstone was pared down to one each. At the same time, statewide in Montana, wolf regulations were kept permissive, and hundreds of individual animals were hunted or trapped every year. Smith wasn’t an enthusiastic fan of the state’s wolf hunt, but he understood it as part of the complex world of trade-offs in which the Yellowstone Wolf Project was situated.

“That’s the give and take we need in our society,” he said. “The whole point here is reasonability, compromise,” he added. “I don’t think we’re being unreasonable by saying, ‘Look, you can kill them, you just can’t kill them all.’”


Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks veterinarian Jennifer Ramsey weighs a dead wolf that was shot in the Tom Minor Basin by a ranch manager who felt the wolf was a threat to the horses on May 14, 2015.

Photo: Ronan Donovan/National Geographic

Mind Your Own Business

In 2016, the research into how human hunting affects wolves in national parks began to gather momentum. After a successful project with an Alaska-based biologist in Denali National Park, Smith and Cassidy began kicking around the idea of bringing in collaborators from around the continent. Eventually, they assembled a wide-ranging team of wolf researchers from Denali, Grand Teton, and Voyageurs national parks, as well as the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve in remote eastern Alaska.

In addition to hunting, the biologists included vehicle strikes, poaching, lethal control by government agencies, and rare incidents of death during research capture in their analysis. With data stretching back to the 1980s, they had an extraordinary wealth of information to pull from. While Cassidy delved into the nitty-gritty of the research, Smith navigated the complexities of wrangling multiple national parks in a study that was inherently controversial.

“It was tough,” he said. “A lot of people were like, ‘Leave it alone. When they leave the park, they’re none of your business.’” To Smith, that response was premature. The research had not been done to determine the extent of the issue, so who was to say whether it was the business of national parks or not? “I’m OK with not doing anything,” Smith said. “But don’t you want the information to know?”

No adjustment to the status quo after reviewing data was one thing. “I’m actually OK with that,” he said. “But that’s different than ‘We don’t know, and everything’s fine.’”

As it turned out, everything was not fine. In August 2021, Montana eliminated the hunting quotas north of Yellowstone entirely. In the months that followed, the wolf project recorded an unprecedented 480 percent increase in mortality compared to previous seasons. Smith and Cassidy watched in real time as patterns they had traced for years emerged again and again across the park’s Northern Range.

The hunters would arrive at dawn or dusk, often with assault rifles, at known lookout points on the park’s border. They used predator calls to draw wolves over the line and often left the carcasses where they fell. Just as data coming in from parks around the country indicated, larger packs fared better in the face of the heavy human killing. Smaller packs did not.

The Phantom Lake Pack was a stark example. The pack was relatively small and traditionally held its ground on the northernmost edge of the park. Seven of its members were killed in two months. “We think that one of the first wolves that they lost during the hunting season was probably their breeding female,” Cassidy said. “They seemed to crumble after that.” With the Phantom Lake wolves gone, Yellowstone’s largest pack moved in. Though the Junction Butte Pack lost eight wolves to the hunt after taking the newly available territory, most of were pups or yearlings, and the pack had gone into the season with nearly 30 members. The pack persisted.

Most illustrative of all was the Eight Mile Pack. Unlike other packs in the park, the wolves were elusive and seemed to consciously avoid humans. Cassidy attributed the evasiveness to the seasoned alpha female that had led the pack for five years: “It seemed like for years she knew exactly how to avoid human-caused mortalities.” The wolf did not, however, appear to understand traps and was caught and killed late in the season. “Within 48 hours after the alpha female was trapped, the pack got up and traveled all the way until Lamar Valley,” Cassidy said. The journey was nearly 40 miles. “We have never recorded them doing that,” she said. “It seemed to be in reaction to this pretty severe disruption.”

As the biologists suspected, numbers alone failed to tell the full story of what happened inside packs when humans killed wolves. The process of confirming their hypothesis, however, was painfully grim. “This is the kind of study you don’t want to see succeed,” Smith said. “It relies on dead wolves being killed by people.”

The hunt marked the worst year of Smith’s career. It wasn’t just the loss of the individual wolves or the scientific setbacks, though both were brutal; it was also the damage done to the project of compromise and moderation in which he had invested so much time and effort.

Smith spent last summer working to convince the governor’s wildlife commissioners of the unique value of the Yellowstone’s wolf program and the important role quotas played in helping the Park Service achieve its mission. In August, at a hearing to establish this year’s regulations, he thanked the commissioners for hearing him out. In the end, the commissioners — some of whom had been prepared to begin another season with no quotas in place — agreed to a park proposal of a six wolf limit. Smith was sent to deliver the proposal. Following his remarks, a woman whispered to him that he had let the wolf advocates down. “That caused me to flinch,” he said.

At that point, the subject of retirement was already on his mind. Smith would be 62 soon, the age at which he and his wife had agreed to discuss a potential change in direction. Following the hearing, the couple took a canoe trip around Yellowstone Lake. The quotas may have been reinstated, but laws aiming to slash wolf populations in Montana and Idaho were still on the books. Smith knew that his words carried weight in the Northern Rockies. He thought hard on whether he should stick it out a little longer.


Doug Smith at home in Bozeman, Mont., on Feb. 22, 2023.

Photo: Max Lowe for The Intercept

Though he managed to hold onto his flying and winter study captures until the very end, the fieldwork and research that gave him purpose had been subsumed in recent years. “I had become a supervisor and administrator and a bureaucrat,” Smith said. “More and more of my job became keeping the show on the road, and less and less biology, ecology.” As he and his wife took in Yellowstone’s late summer beauty, Smith decided the time had come. Three months later, he retired.

“This is really the first time in 44 years I haven’t had my finger on the button,” Smith told me. “And you know, that’s hard. I’m still thinking about what that looks like.”

Just as the loss of a longtime leader can disrupt the most experienced pack, the loss of Doug Smith rattled Yellowstone’s tight-knit core of wolf researchers. “It was hard for us to even bring up really,” Cassidy said. The park’s 55th winter study was just gearing up and the project had lost its most seasoned darter: counting Smith, there were only two.

Smith was uneasy when their paper finally published. The concluding paragraphs called for a “renewed interest in interagency collaboration … defined by compromise and based on science.” To the layperson, the language would appear inoffensive, but Smith knew it would ruffle feathers. He worried he’d be seen as coaching his former colleagues from the sidelines. That was not his intent. As usual, he was looking to start a conversation. “I think it’s critical,” he said. Smith is not done with wolves — far from it. He’s itching to get back in the field, somewhere new perhaps. “Credit is not what I’m after,” he said. After a lifetime of studying wolves — and people — he still has questions. He’d like to find some answers. “I’m interested,” he said. “That’s what I’m after.”

The post How to Save Yellowstone’s Wolves appeared first on The Intercept .

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    The Four Horsemen of Inflation / TheIntercept · Saturday, 18 February - 12:00 · 6 minutes

What caused the big surge in inflation over the past few years? The mass mind of U.S. elites is currently in the process of deciding on the “answer.” The scare quotes are necessary because U.S. elites largely exist in an elaborate hermetically sealed fantasy world — swapping self-flattering tales with one another in New York Times columns and at their dreary dinner parties and at their only slightly less-dreary orgies until they settle on various stories about the world. These stories often have the disadvantage of being 180 degrees the opposite of reality. But they always have the advantage of telling powerful people that they are super nice and deserve more money.

Meanwhile, a recent paper by Thomas Ferguson and Servaas Storm from the Institute for New Economic Thinking looks at the inflation question without any parties, orgies, etc. It has the advantage of focusing on the real world. However, it has the key disadvantage — at least in terms of breaking into the fortified minds of the people who run America — of telling them that they aren’t nice and deserve less money.

One unsettling conclusion of Ferguson and Storm is that some recent inflation can be attributed to climate change. This is extremely bad news. First of all, that’s a problem that’s not just not going away, but also will only intensify. Secondly, it’s easy to imagine a future in which right-wing parties across the world point to severe bouts of inflation as a reason to put them in power, where they will prevent any action on global warming, thereby worsening inflation, on and on in a vicious circle.

The answer to the current inflation question boils down to whether it happened thanks to a demand shock (a sudden increase in demand), a supply shock (a sudden decrease in supply), or some combination of both.

The story currently congealing on America’s op-ed pages is that it was a demand shock, caused by the government and the Democrats. In particular, the American Rescue Plan Act passed in March 2021 simply made regular people too rich and therefore free to spend with reckless abandon. Larry Summers, secretary of the Treasury during the Clinton administration and director of the White House National Economic Council under Barack Obama, issued this warning as the ARP was being written:

In normal times, a family of four with a pretax income of $1,000 a week would take home about $22,000 over the next six months. Under the Biden proposal, if the breadwinner were laid off, the family’s income over the next six months would likely exceed $30,000.

The “can you imagine” tone here is notable. Regular families taking home $30,000 in after-tax income in just six months! Clearly, normal humans making a bit more money violates the laws of economics and hence invites punishment from the inflation gods. (Summers is listed at his speaker’s bureau as being available to explain all this for a fee of “$100,000 or more.”) The only answer to a problem created by the government giving people too much money is for the Federal Reserve to bludgeon the economy until the unemployment rate goes up — thereby taking the money back from all the nurses and firefighters who flew too close to the sun of prosperity.

Ferguson and Storm strongly disagree. They point out that “almost 90 percent of cumulative pandemic relief expenditure” occurred by June 2021. In fact, by the second quarter of 2021, the combined tax and spending policies at all government levels — local, state, and national — were actually subtracting demand from the economy. Yet inflation didn’t pick up until the second half of 2021 and didn’t truly get going until 2022.

Thus government aid to regular folks does not appear to have created a demand shock, in which everyone took their checks and began spending them on goods and services the economy couldn’t produce.

But, Ferguson and Storm argue, there in fact was a demand shock — just not demand from working people. From the first quarter of 2020 to the first quarter of 2022, they note, aggregate personal wealth in the U.S. went up by $26.1 trillion, mostly due to a skyrocketing stock market. Forty percent of this accrued to the top 1 percent, with another 33.4 percent going to the next 9 percent — meaning that about three-quarters of the increase went to the top 10th of Americans. And in late 2021, Ferguson and Storm write, “affluent Americans came out in force and started spending.” The economy could not in fact generate enough supply for what the rich wanted to buy. But the best solution for this kind of lopsided demand would have been progressive consumption taxes rather than broadly slowing the economy via the Fed.

Then Ferguson and Storm detail four supply shocks — i.e., problems that would have generated inflation even if the government had never sent any relief to regular people.

One was higher energy prices, largely caused by the war in Ukraine. Another was higher corporate profit margins. A third was the shrinking of the workforce due to Covid-19, as Americans were killed or disabled by it, retired to avoid it, or were forced to quit to take care of children as child care became all but impossible to find.

Finally, there were higher prices for imports, caused by, among other factors, “the [Ukraine] war and climate disasters.” Regarding the climate, they point to reports by Swiss Re, one of the world’s largest reinsurers — that is, the companies that provide insurance for insurance companies. They are the final financial backstop in case of disasters and hence are keenly concerned about the costs of climate change.

Swiss Re estimates that total economic losses from natural catastrophes in 2021 and 2022 were $292 billion and $260 billion, respectively — far higher than the $207 billion average over the previous 10 years. There is currently a “trend of a 5–7% average annual increase over the past decade” in insured losses. One Swiss Re paper quotes an executive with the title “head of catastrophe perils” as stating that global warming is one of the “key factors at play.” Climate change, the company writes, “poses the biggest long-term risk to the global economy.”

Ferguson and Storm explain that while they “are cautious about extrapolating recent studies pointing to exceptionally high rates of losses from natural causes during the pandemic years … [t]he very hot temperatures of 2022 in particular are a warning.”

Their extensive rational examination of the past ends with rational suggestions of what to do going forward. They ominously describe the world as facing “a future of ramified supply shocks,” explaining that “the brave new world of supply shocks is likely here to stay for an indefinite period.”

This means that we need to focus on the reality underlying financial machinations rather than financial machinations themselves. For example, there should be a renewed push to stamp out Covid-19 and prepare for future pandemics. All efforts should be made for international cooperation rather than allowing the Ukraine war to be a harbinger of the future.

And because disease and wars will both flourish in a warmer world, we’ve definitely got to do everything possible to stop climate change.

In other words, if Ferguson and Storm are right, controlling inflation will require governments in the U.S. and elsewhere to be nimble, sophisticated, and willing to ignore their own elites — an extremely tall order. But if we want to avoid enormous suffering and reactionary politics, that will be what’s required. A first step will have to be regular people ignoring their elites and investigating these complicated subjects for themselves — and we could all do a lot worse than starting here .

The post The Four Horsemen of Inflation appeared first on The Intercept .