Is the Desert Tortoise the New Spotted Owl?

Republicans have a new animal to hate as a liberal mascot: the threatened desert tortoise. Energy entrepreneurs want to put solar plants in the seemingly barren deserts of the southwest, especially on cheap government land. But conservation groups say this is the last hold-out of what they call a charismatic animal that used to all the way to Los Angeles.

Early settlers could have found as many as 1,000 turtles per square mile. That means if you had a football field with endzones, you’d probably find a couple of them. The uselessness of this land is what makes it so wonderful for the tortoises, which have been decimated by cattle grazing, auto accidents, off-roading, an illness caught from released pets,  rattlesnake roundups and just general development. It’s also what seems to infuriate conservatives, who don’t want this animal–which you can barely see because it spends 95% of its life underground–messing up the first decent attempts at massive solar plants.

“If we cannot put solar power plants in the Mojave desert, I don’t know where the hell we can put it,” California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger asked. Heavy equipment would crush the underground dwellers. If you move them, they try to go back to their old home and get eaten by coyotes. The Army tried to move about 1,000 of them when it expanded Fort Irwin and it was a disaster.

So far there isn’t an overall policy, so we’re likely to see these skirmishes  with every one of

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Australians Geared Up For Years to Fight Japanese Whaling; Sunken Vessel Just Ticked Them Off to Do It


,The Australian Government collects photos for a potential court case.

When the Japanese whaling ship Shonan Maru 2 mowed down Sea Shepherd’s Ady Gil they ticked off an already anti-whaling Australia. The incident seems to have pushed Australia to threaten Japan with legal action this week, but Australia has been grinding its teeth and preparing for battle for years after watching Japan flout international whaling rules off its shores. The outcome will turn on Australia’s claim over its nearby waters and which international body has jurisdiction.

This week prime minister Kevin Rudd gave Japan a November deadline to cut its whaling quota to nothing. New Zealand may join the fight, too, it announced Feb. 22. Australia is holding some undoubtedly awkward talks with Japanese diplomats this weekend. Some Australians fear a court case could solidify a lack of Australian control over nearby waters.

Australians says they can head to the International Court of Justice at The Hague or the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Germany to get an injunction against whaling. Japan, meanwhile, plays down the fight as “unfortunate” and threatens to appeal to the International Commission on Whaling. They banned whaling in 1986 but let Japan continue under the fig leaf of “research,” even in an area Australia considers a whale sanctuary.

The first signs Australia had reached its limit were just after the Sea Shepherd’s skirmishes when Bob Brown, head of the Green Party, started pushing for international court action. He called Rudd’s

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Jaguars, Extinct in US, Found Within 30 Miles of Border

A jaguar has been confirmed living–or at least roaming–within 30 miles of the U.S. border with Mexico. The Cougar Network, which tracks big cat sightings, sent out word that the Sky Island Alliance has two photos of jaguars eight days apart about 90 miles north of where everyone thought they lived in Sonora.

Conservation groups like the Northern Jaguar Project,  have worked for years to bring back the big, spotted cat that once ranged as far north as the Grand Canyon across California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and possibly Louisiana.

The find would be significant because last year the last known U.S. jaguar died under circumstances that increasingly look dodgy. Arizona Fish and Game caught Macho B in a trap they said was for bears or cougars. They tranquilized and collared him. Days later the then-sluggish cat was euthanized. The capture and drugs may have hastened his death. Just last month investigators found that the capture was intentional, a possible felony since the jaguar (Panthera onca) is endangered.

Just last month the Fish and Wildlife service reversed a 2006 decision and determined that the jaguar deserves a critical habitat. Even the known population in the Northern Jaguar Preserve, 135 miles south of the border, is cut off by hundreds of miles from the the main population.

The motion-activated game cameras showed the jaguars from different sides, so no one is sure if it’s the same cat, Sergio Avila, an alliance biologist in Tucson, told the Arizona Daily

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Idaho Wolf Activist Cleverly Undermining Wolf Hunting Quota

A Wolf SmilesCourtesy of SigmaEye

Wolf advocate Lynne Stone tried to find a way to get Idaho Fish and Game to count the wolves they shoot for killing livestock towards the hunting total. She knew where officials shot down the alpha female of the Basin Butte pack in November. So she bought a hunting tag ($11) and claimed it has her own, the Times-News of Magic Valley says, hoping it would count towards the region’s total.

One more wolf claimed for the hunting total means one less wolf cold be legally shot. Not so fast, Fish and Game said. They confiscated the wolf and gave Stone a warning. Because hunters enjoy a great deal of legal protection, they had to sell her another tag. (She had asked permission beforehand to use the tag like that and only got unclear answers.)

Stone heads the Boulder White Clouds Council, which wants permanent protection for the area, so she obviously isn’t going to go hunting for real. Stone is so well known in the area and the frequent subject of harassment from anti-wolf activists. Isn’t it derogatory to call them anti-wolf? No, amazingly, that’s what they call themselves. And they vow to eradicate the “Canadian gray wolf” like it was some illegal immigrant taking jobs away from American wolves.

Idaho hunters are about two-thirds of the way to bagging this year’s quota of 220 wolves. The Sawtooth region where this wolf lived has a hunting quota of 55, with 30 already dead and

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Coyotes Trot Around Columbia University; Panic Ensues

Three coyotes were spotted trotting around Columbia University in upper Manhattan this past week. The Ivy League university put out a public safety warning for all students to be on the lookout for the canines. DNAinfo says these sightings were Wednesday; Gawker puts it at Sunday.

Three animals identified as coyotes were observed in front of Lewisohn Hall [116th Street and Broadway] this morning, 911 was contacted and NYPD responded. NYPD spotted one of the animals and confirmed it was a coyote. The one coyote that was seen by NYPD and CUPS went behind the CEPSR build and it is believed exited the campus.An additional sighting by CU facilities was called in approximately 10:00 AM this morning but was not confirmed. All members of the community are advised not to approach these animals.

There’s a bit of a breathless freak-out online, but many New Yorkers have been wiser, pointing out they could help with the rat and pigeon problems. They’ll figure it out and go back to New Jersey or Westchester or wherever they’re from. (Columbia is within a mile or two of five smaller bridges to the Bronx.) They must be pretty unobtrusive to have made it all the way to Columbia–through some of the most densely populated areas in the country–without anybody noticing.

As a wildlife rehabber, I sometimes get calls from New Yorkers about raccoons. The raccoons aren’t in distress; people just assume they must be in some kind of trouble to end up

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Is Freedom Free? Calico Wild Horse Roundup Concludes

Early on in the controversial round up of wild horses in the Calico range north of Reno, NV, a black stallion earned the nickname Freedom when he jumped a fence and escaped. It’s unclear if the Bureau of Land Management caught him, but if he made it so far, he’s all set. The Bureau of Land Management says they’re stopping the roundup at 1,922 mustangs instead of the 2,500 they set out to catch. In the process 30 have died.

It’s not because they’ve had a change of heart. They fought a lawsuit to stop the roundup. They’ve fought activists who want to document the gather. It’s just that the horses have moved off the range–as if they’d caught onto what’s going on.

Craig Downer and Elyse Gardner reported on Freedom’s escape on January 2 in Action for Wild Horses: “the captured band stallion, “Freedom,” valiantly fought for and regained his liberty although he had to leave his family of 8 adult mares and 2 colts. Jumping a 6-foot fence and immediately thereafter breaking through a barbed wire fence and injuring himself, this was an awe-inspiring, do-or-die effort demonstrating the loathing of captivity to a wild horse and his need for freedom.”

When I talked with some horse activists at a Madeleine Pickens event last month, they said they’d heard Freedom had been captured but everyone was appealing to set him free again. I haven’t found anyone who knows for sure. I would like to think he made it and somehow

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Cold Snap–Or At Least Colds–May Push Back Florida Invasives

Right Before He Froze...

Right Before He Froze…,courtesy of Kafe Soleil.

Florida’s cold snap could provide the big check on invasive species biologists have been wanting for decades. We could see less iguanas and pythons–and also fewer more beloved animals such as parrots. Even animals that didn’t die in the cold could die of a cold in coming weeks.

“I expect we’re going to have huge, huge mortality, maybe even in Miami itself,” says Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission invasive species expert Scott Hardin. “Those that didn’t die [from the cold] could easily die of a respiratory infection.”

The Everglades’ infamous python invaders were at least cold-stunned and perhaps hurt worse. Researchers found that 10 of 11 of the giant snakes they tracked weren’t moving, Hardin said. He added that he didn’t have word yet on the giant parrot colonies that live around the state, especially Miami.

Given the hurt the freezing temperatures caused Floridians, Hardin didn’t want to sound too gleeful. But he so clearly was. The non-natives can push out species that naturally belong, and they’ve been running amok for 30-40 years, the last time Florida saw weather this harsh.

A few of the more vulnerable native animals were also hurt by the wintry blast. Hundreds of sea turtles were rescued, but hundreds more found dead, according to Hardin. The state did get to tag and collect information on lots of endangered green turtles.

Florida got a record count of manatees (5,067) because they’re easier to see when they’re crowded around

Keep reading Cold Snap–Or At Least Colds–May Push Back Florida Invasives

Are Undescended Horse Testicles Getting in the Way of a Sanctuary?

A big difference in the two leading plans for 33,000 wild horses now held by the federal government is whether mares and geldings may mix. The issue may come down to undescended horse testicles. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s plan wouldn’t let geldings mix with mares, who would also be on birth control. Madeleine Pickens’ plan would let the geldings run free and form normal social groups.

There are plenty of other things that divide the plans–location, price, management–but whether the wild horses get to live in their natural herds is a big sticking point for horse advocates. Suzanne Roy, program director for In Defense of Animals, calls it the “the Sala-Zoo plan.” “Most people can drive half an hour or 10 minutes to see horses,” she says. “These horses are wild in name only.” What makes these horses special is the wild, natural lives they lead, she says.

I asked Madeleine Pickens whether geldings at her proposed Mustang Monument would be able to mix. “They’d be able to roam freely and form bachelor bands,” she said.

BLM spokesman Tom Gorey told me this week that they would have to keep the sexes segregated because you “can’t take a chance that the gelding might not have worked. There is always a possibility.”

Say what? I was always amazed when dog people would ask if my obviously neutered male dog Jolly was neutered. The testicles are either intact or removed. Either way, it’s highly visible.

But Gorey referred me to

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China Says It Has Only 50 Wild Tigers Left

China’s own wildlife officials estimate that only 50 tigers survive within its borders, Xinhua News reports. And those shockingly low numbers include four subspecies. The World Wildlife Fund figures they’ll go extinct within 30 years, an estimate which seems optimistic. The IUCN range maps show that tigers are doing much better outside China, sometimes just outside its borders.

China’s State Forestry Administration (SFA) says only 20 Siberian tigers remain in China’s northeast, 20 Bengal tigers in Tibet, and 10 Indochinese tigers in the southwest. And you can pretty much forget about the South China tiger. Zhu Chunquan, conservation director of biodiversity at WWF China, told AFP: “After the late 1970s, there has been no concrete evidence to show that there are any left.”

Siberian Tiger (Pantera tigris ssp. altaic) : endangered (20 in China)

What’s weird here is that there’s a Siberian Tiger Breeding Center in Harbin, capital of northeast China’s Heilongjiang Province, that brags that it’s bred 1,000 cats (some pictured here).

The center combines breeding and tourism, but has come under fire for animal cruelty. Specifically, it got in trouble for feeding the tigers live cows and sheep. That wouldn’t be bad if they were training tigers to hunt in the wild, but the videos show it’s more to make a buck off tourists. The bigger the animal killed, the more the tourist pays. Tourists on this video paid $60 (1,500 renminbi) to see a sheep slaughtered, not splurging $180 to witness a cow

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South Enjoys Cold Spell’s Bird Bonanza; Northern Birders Screwed

Winter bird and wildlife watching leans heavily on cold pushing animals into places they can eat or just keep warm. Eagles fly south to find unfrozen rivers. Manatees (and sometimes turtles) huddle around hot springs and power plants. This super harsh weather, then, is especially bountiful for wildlife watchers–as long as you’re in an area just warm enough. That’s why the south, despite cold weather, is having a great season for wildlife watching while northerners have to bear trifling numbers of animals.

The eagle-watching festivals going on around the country illustrate the trend. Anthony Lawrence, director of recreation at Kentucky Dam State Resort Park says the trees are practically dripping eagles. “They’re landing two by two on the ice and basically ice fishing, which you never see,” he says. Same deal over in Alabama. Patti Donnelan, naturalist at Lake Guntersville, says all the known nests are active. “It seem to be a good year,” she says. Up north, it’s a bit slower. They’ve seen fewer birds this year in Keokuk, Iowa. (Though, as the midwest’s biggest concentration, they’ve got hundreds to spare.)

But it goes beyond eagles. Up in Canada the scarcity of birds showed up in the Christmas Bird Count. “”I had a total of 14 individual birds,” one biologist told the CBC. “Normally I’d have a couple of thousand of birds by that time.” Birders around Ottawa also blamed a cyclical lack of seeds.

So many factors go into how many birds are found in counts, it’s hard to just blame a cold spell. Anecdotally,

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