AmeriScan: December 3, 2002

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Wetlands Conservation Act Reauthorized

WASHINGTON, DC, December 3, 2002 (ENS) - President George W. Bush has signed a bill to reauthorize the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA), a law that helps provide for funds for the protection and restoration of wetlands.

The NAWCA authorizes federal challenge grants to match donations from sportsmen, state wildlife agencies, conservationists and landowners. The bill signed Monday (HR 3908) authorizes the NAWCA for five more years, and doubles the funds available for matching grants.

Since it was first enacted in 1989, NAWCA has helped fund more than 960 wetland conservation projects in all 50 U.S. states, Canada and Mexico. About 8.7 million acres of wildlife habitat have been restored and protected through NAWCA, using more than $462 million in federal grants to encourage $1,300 million in contributions from others.

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President George W. Bush signs the bill reauthorizing the North American Wetlands Conservation Act. (Photo courtesy The White House)
"Today, we're taking important action to conserve North America's wetlands, which will help keep our water clean and help provide habitat for hundreds of species of wildlife," said President Bush during the White House signing ceremony. "Through this legislation, the federal government will continue its partnership with landowners, conservation groups, and states to save and improve millions of acres of wetlands."

Bush said the funds authorized by the law have been used to restore streams and rivers, reestablish native plants and trees, and acquire land that is home to more than a third of America's threatened and endangered species.

Bush emphasized that partnerships with private groups are crucial to the protection of wetlands and other natural areas. He invited John Tomke, president of wetlands and waterfowl conservation group Ducks Unlimited, to attend Monday's signing.

"NAWCA is one of the most effective conservation programs in history," said Tomke. "The program's unique structure encourages partnerships among government agencies, individuals and private organizations like Ducks Unlimited."

"Because about 75 percent of the wetlands are held privately, we need to encourage cooperation with our landowners," added Bush. "This legislation shows that when government and landowners and conservationists and others work together, we can make dramatic progress in preserving the beauty and the quality of our environment."

House Resources Committee chair Representative James Hansen called the reauthorization of the NAWCA "one of the final, high notes of my legislative career." Hansen, the Utah Republican who helped write the legislation and usher it through Congress, announced in January that he would retire at the end of his current term, which ends in January 2003.

"We've lost 95 percent of the wetlands in this country. We are now fighting to save the remaining five percent," Hansen noted. "This reauthorization - with its 50 percent increase in funding - will make the single, biggest difference in our united fight to save the wetlands. This bill is critically important to the survival of millions of waterfowl in the United States, Canada and Mexico. It's supported by every conservation group in the country and, in my opinion, reflects the true spirit of conservationism."

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Scientists Decode Genome of Common Microbe

ROCKVILLE, Maryland, December 3, 2002 (ENS) - A team of U.S. and German researchers has deciphered and analyzed the complete genome of a bacterium that has the potential to be used to clean organic pollutants from soil, and to help promote plant growth and fight plant diseases.

In a successful transatlantic collaboration, scientists at The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) in Rockville, and at four research centers in Germany worked to decode the genome of Pseudomonas putida.

Associate investigator Karen Nelson said the availability of the complete genome sequence of P. putida strain KT2440 will make the organism more useful to scientists who are developing new ways to use it and related microbes to clean up organic pollutants. Nelson led TIGR's component of the sequencing and analysis project along with TIGR president Claire Fraser.

"This genome provides a great model for microorganisms that have tremendous potential in various areas of biotechnology, such as producing natural compounds, remediating polluted habitats, and fighting plant diseases," Nelson said.

P. putida is a fast growing bacterium that is found in most temperate soil and water habitats where oxygen is present. Because the bacterium can colonize the root area of crop plants, researchers are trying to use P. putida strains in bioengineering research to develop biopesticides and plant growth promoters.

The bacterium is also studied because of its diverse metabolism, which is capable of remediating toxic organic pollutants.

Kenneth Timmis, who led the GBF's component of the project, described P. putida as "a nutritional opportunist par excellence" which plays an important role in maintaining environmental quality in soils and is useful in scientific studies.

"Its fascinating biochemistry and physiology, its robustness, rapid growth and ease of handling in the laboratory, and its amenability to genetic analysis and manipulation have resulted in P. putida becoming a laboratory 'workhorse' for research on soil bacteria and bacteria remediated soil processes," Timmis said.

P. putida was designated in 1982 by a National Institutes of Health advisory panel as the first "biosafety" host strain for gene cloning in Gram-negative soil bacteria. The KT2440 strain of P. putida is used by researchers for the analysis and manipulation of genes from soil bacteria.

The genome analysis found that P. putida has a single circular chromosome with almost 6.2 million DNA base pairs. TIGR assistant investigator Ian Paulsen, who explored the correlation of metabolic pathways with membrane transport capability, said P. putida has "lots of novel pathways and transport capabilities to break down aromatic and other unusual compounds."

The genome analysis is published in the journal Environmental Microbiology, which devotes its entire December 2002 issue to articles about P. putida and related Pseudomonas species.

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Suit Challenges Delay of Snowmobile Ban

WASHINGTON, DC, December 3, 2002 (ENS) - A coalition of employee and environmental organizations filed suit today to prevent the Bush Administration from delaying a phase out of snowmobile use in Yellowstone National Park.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) joined the Fund for Animals, the Bluewater Network, Ecology Center, and four individuals in filing the suit in U.S. District Court to block a Bush administration rule, issued November 18, that would prevent changes to snowmobile usage in the Park.

The groups argue that snowmobiles endanger the health of the Yellowstone staff that work at the entrances with huge numbers of entering snowmobiles. For example, through December 27-31 of last year, 4,797 snowmobiles entered the park through the West entrance.

Park employees inhale gasoline fumes while performing their required duties and park rangers have long complained of experiencing nausea, headaches, dizziness and hearing loss when working near snowmobiles. A study completed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) found that the workers were subjected to unacceptable levels of snowmobile pollution and noise.

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Snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park (Photo courtesy National Parks Conservation Association)
Every year, carbon monoxide levels from snowmobile use in Yellowstone have exceeded federal air quality standards.

"The Administration is sacrificing the health of the Yellowstone employees to pander to the snowmobile industry," said Rocky Mountain PEER director Chandra Rosenthal. "PEER believes that the well being of park employees is essential to the well being of the park."

The suit also argues that snowmobiles have adverse impacts on air and water quality and wildlife in Yellowstone, including endangered and threatened species such as grizzly bears, gray wolves, Canada lynx and bald eagles. Thousands of Yellowstone bison have died in recent years after using the groomed trail system - created by using machines to pack 25 foot wide snowroads - to leave the park and enter Montana, where they have been slaughtered by federal and state officials as part of an official policy to prevent the spread of the abortive disease brucellosis to domestic cattle.

"The Bush Administration is mixing 21st century technology with 19th century values, and the results have been devastating for our nation's first and foremost national park," said Michael Markarian, president of The Fund for Animals. "The bison, the very symbol of the National Park Service, whose herds have just now recovered from the massive slaughter of 1994, will continue to be gunned down and sent to slaughter, and Yellowstone will continue to be polluted and degraded, simply to placate the snowmobile industry."

According to National Park Service documents, the 80,000 snowmobiles in Yellowstone each winter produce more total air pollution than the cars and trucks used by the three million other visitors to the park, and the roar of snowmobiles can be heard as much as 95 percent of the time in the park's most popular spots.

The lawsuit also challenges the Park Service's refusal to act on Bluewater Network's 1999 rulemaking petition seeking a ban on snowmobiles and groomed trails in all national parks. Although the Park Service decided in 2000 that snowmobiles have no place in any of the parks, the Bush administration has overturned a decision by the previous administration to bar snowmobiles from Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.

In the last comment period on the proposed snowmobile ban, 80 percent of the 360,000 emails and letters received by the Park Service favored a ban on snowmobiles.

"While we understand that the West Yellowstone community relies heavily on winter snowmobiling, the Park Service has lead it down a dead end road by delaying environmental analysis, reneging on promises made five years ago, and letting politics sway their decisionmaking," said Jim Coefield of the Ecology Center. "Our arguments are not with West Yellowstone, they're with the Park Service and its failure to rise to the challenge years ago and do the right thing: protect Yellowstone's winter environment."

To view the 34 page complaint filed today, click here.

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Nevada Tells Court Yucca Mountain is Unsafe

WASHINGTON, DC, December 3, 2002 (ENS) - In the latest court action challenging the proposed high level nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain, the state of Nevada argued Monday that the site does not meet requirements for containing nuclear waste with its natural features.

In a brief filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, Nevada's lawyers argued that if casks constructed to hold spent nuclear fuel were to fail, it would increase the radiation released at the proposed repository by as much as six times more than allowed under the federal rules governing the site's licensing.

Yucca Mountain, located about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, is the only site being considered as a permanent repository for thousands of tons of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel now stored at power reactors across the country.

But the Nevada court papers charge that the Department of Energy (DOE) has known for more than 14 years that the proposed Yucca Mountain site could not contain radioactivity from high level wastes based on geology alone. The DOE endorsed Yucca Mountain two decades ago, stating that "the host rock with its properties provides the justification for geologic disposal and is the main element in containing the waste within the repository."

However, the DOE had later determined "that up to 20 percent of all water moving through the repository would reach the accessible environment in less than 1,000 years," Nevada charges, noting that that water would carry radioactivity to surrounding communities and natural areas.

The brief, which is more than 50 pages long, also argues that the DOE has "failed to address realistic sabotage scenarios involving spent fuel transport and thus vastly understated the risks and consequences of undertaking thousands of such shipments if Yucca proceeds."

Concerns about possible terrorist attacks on the Yucca Mountain site or on cross country shipments of spent fuel and other high level radioactive waste have increased since the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Nevada's court filing charges, for example, that "DOE did not consider the risk that a warhead exploding inside a spent fuel container could cause fissile nuclear material inside to create a nuclear chain reaction, or 'criticality,' whose consequences would catastrophically exceed the postulated consequences of the relatively tame event described" in the agency's final environmental impact statement.

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Proposed Changes at Dams Could Harm Salmon

PASCO, Washington, December 3, 2002 (ENS) - Proposed changes to federal dam operations on the Columbia and Snake rivers could weaken efforts to save endangered fish, conservation groups warn.

Speaking out before a hearing scheduled to be held today on the proposed changes, the conservationists said the alterations would hinder efforts to recover imperiled salmon and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act. The hearing is one of six that will be held by the Northwest Power Planning Council on proposed amendments to its Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program, which guides the actions of federal dam operators on the Columbia and Snake Rivers.

If adopted, NPPC's amendments would alter dam operations now spelled out in the 10 year federal salmon plan issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service in December 2000. In particular, the Power Council is proposing that federal dam operators abandon flow targets designed to improve the survival of young fish migrating to the ocean, despite data which shows that migrating salmon and steelhead survive better at flows at or above current targets.

Federal dam operators are supposed to release water from the reservoirs in spring and summer to achieve the flow targets, which results in a small decrease in power generation.

"The Power Council claims that flow targets are not warranted, but there is ample scientific evidence that shows otherwise," said Rob Masonis, director of American Rivers' Northwest regional office. "The only problem with the flow targets is the chronic failure of federal dam managers to actually meet them."

During the drought year of 2001, dam operators held back water that the conservation groups say should have been released for fish to increase the output of hydroelectricity. As a result, only four percent of young Snake River steelhead and only 26 percent of Snake River spring Chinook salmon survived the journey past eight federal dams, according to federal scientists.

The 2001 migration was the deadliest since Snake River salmon were listed under the Endangered Species Act.

More flow creates stronger currents that help move young salmon to ocean before their energy reserves are depleted. More flow also helps young salmon avoid predators and improves water quality during hot summer months.

The Power Council's recommendations would require that more salmon and steelhead be siphoned from the river and transported around the dams in barges and trucks, a strategy that has failed for more than 25 years.

"The Council's proposal would undermine federal taxpayers' investment in salmon recovery. It will create a larger financial burden on taxpayers by compromising the federal investment in salmon recovery that has been made in the last two decades." said Autumn Hanna, senior policy analyst at Taxpayers for Common Sense. "If the Council can't make common sense decisions for salmon then it's time the council be reformed."

The NPPC estimates that its proposed amendments would produce just 41 additional megawatts of electricity - about .05 percent of Bonneville's total power supply. The Council has suggested that the additional $8 to $11 million in additional revenue this power generates could be split between the cash strapped Bonneville Power Administration and other fish and wildlife conservation programs.

"Trading real water when fish need it most for more hydropower is a disservice to salmon, steelhead, salmon dependent communities, and the citizens of the Northwest," said Pat Ford, executive director of the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition (SOS). "The Council's proposal to slash the already small amount of water for salmon is illegal, scientifically unsound, fiscally wasteful, and contrary to the common-sense wisdom that salmon need water."

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Whooping Cranes Building New Florida Flock

WASHINGTON, DC, December 3, 2002 (ENS) - A second generation of whooping cranes has followed an ultralight aircraft from Wisconsin to Florida as part of efforts to establish a second migratory flock in the U.S.

On November 30, 16 whooping cranes took off from Levy County, Florida, where they had spent the final night of their migration, and flew to their winter home at Chassahowtizka National Wildlife Refuge. The total distance traveled on this migration was 1,204 miles.

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Whooping cranes stand up to five feet tall and are pure white in color with black wing tips and a red crown (Photo courtesy U.S. Geological Survey)
The cranes joined four older birds who returned on their own to Chassahowtizka, after being led there last year by an ultralight. A fifth bird from last year's experimental flock was last reported in Meigs County, Tennessee.

Last year, seven of eight whooping cranes that began the pilot fall migration from the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin made it to Florida. Five of these seven birds survived the winter and made an unassisted, successful spring migration back to Wisconsin.

The whooping crane, named for its loud and penetrating mating call, is one of America's best known and rarest endangered species. The birds live and breed in extensive wetlands, where they feed on crabs, clams, frogs and other aquatic creatures.

The assisted migrations are helping to create a new migratory flock of the endangered birds. The only other migrating wild flock, made up of about 120 birds, now winters at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, where a disaster like a major storm or an oil spill could wipe out the entire flock.

Another, non-migrating flock of about 100 cranes remains year round on the Kissimmee Prairie in central Florida, as part of an ongoing reintroduction study led by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

For more information, visit the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership at: http://www.bringbackthecranes.org

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Wood Cutting May Benefit Rhode Island Reserve

PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island, December 3, 2002 (ENS) - Limited wood cutting will be allowed in the Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in Rhode Island this winter.

The state's Department of Environmental Management (DEM) is accepting bids from individuals for the right to harvest cords of wood on Prudence Island under DEM's home fuelwood program. The agency says that selective woodcutting helps to improve wildlife habitat by stimulating new growth, and by creating den trees and cavity nesting sites, while providing firewood for residents.

The fuelwood program on the reserve is an outgrowth of the home fuelwood program launched by DEM in state management areas in response to the energy crisis of the late 1970s. The program has continued as a popular initiative that benefits the environment as well as the individuals who participate.

The area to be cut is within the DEM managed Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve at the southern end of Prudence Island. The Reserve includes more than half of Prudence Island, most of Patience Island, all of Hope Island, and the surrounding waters out to a depth of 18 feet.

About 4,500 acres of upland, freshwater wetland, inter-tidal habitats, and sub-tidal areas of Narragansett Bay are managed through the reserve.

Roger Greene, manager of the reserve, notes that the wood cutting program helps improve wildlife habitat for many species of wildlife by encouraging a diversity of forest trees, understory, and groundcover plants which, in turn, support a diversity of forest wildlife. But, he adds, it is important that the cutting be done with care.

A total of seven lots have been marked by DEM foresters and contain between two and 4.25 cords per lot. Only marked trees within these lots can be cut and no other trees or shrubs can be cut or damaged in the process.

The right to cut the marked trees on the reserve will be awarded on a competitive per lot bid basis. The lots are available for viewing, and information and bid forms can be obtained at the reserve, 55 South Reserve Drive, Prudence Island, 02872, or by calling the reserve office at: 401-683-6780.

Bids will be opened at 11 am on December 18 at the reserve headquarters on the island.

Bidders and any of their woodcutter helpers involved with the program must be present at the bid opening, at which there will be an informative presentation about the goals of the wildlife enhancement program at the reserve, the types of habitats being created, and the kinds of animals that would use them.

Each successful bidder will be required to enter into a simple agreement that will cover the rules of the cutting operation. They will have up to seven days to pay for the wood, and cutting may begin after full payment has been received.

Cutting must be completed and all wood removed from the lots, by February 1, 2003, weather permitting.

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Brown Recluses Get Undeserved Bad Rap

RIVERSIDE, California, December 3, 2002 (ENS) - Brown recluse spiders, considered one of the most dangerous arachnids in North America, often live in harmony with people, new research suggests.

The study by Rick Vetter, staff research associate in the department of entomology at the University of California at Riverside and an expert on spiders, focused on 2,055 brown recluse spiders collected in a Kansas home of a family of four. Despite the abundance of spiders, no one in the family received bites from the arachnids.

Throughout the United States, however, physicians often diagnose patients as having been bitten by brown recluses, even when no brown recluses are known to exist in their states. The study suggest that doctors are overdiagnosing brown recluse bites in areas where the spiders are not native.

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A brown recluse female from Missouri. (Photo by Rick Vetter, courtesy UC Riverside)
"In areas lacking brown recluses, doctors routinely make bite diagnoses," said Vetter. "If brown recluse spiders were truly responsible for these wounds as doctors claim, then, brown recluse spiders should be readily found in these areas."

Yet many people in both the medical community and the general public remain convinced that brown recluses are common throughout the United States, and are also biting people.

In 1990 in South Carolina, for example, 940 physicians reported 478 brown recluse bites. In 2000 in Florida, 95 brown recluse bites were reported from the 21 counties under the jurisdiction of the Tampa Poison Control Center.

Spider experts who have worked for years in these regions and have collected thousands of spiders have never found recluses, and homeowners have yet to submit a local brown recluse to them for verification.

Vetter himself has verified less than 10 brown recluse specimens in California, but has been informed of 120 California bite diagnoses in the last three years.

Vetter and coauthor Diane Barger report their findings in a paper published in the November 2002 issue of the "Journal of Medical Entomology." Barger collected 2,055 brown recluse spiders from June to November 2001 in her 19th century built home in Lenexa, Kansas, and shipped them to Vetter for verification.

"If a family like the Bargers could live in a home with thousands of potentially poisonous spiders and not be bitten," said Vetter, "how many thousands and millions of brown recluses would have to live in South Carolina, Florida and California for bite diagnoses there to be correct?"

The authors suggest that the actual causes of these wounds may be infections, insect bites, diabetes or bed sores. Some of the conditions misdiagnosed as brown recluse bites, such as lyme disease, anthrax and necrotizing bacteria, can be fatal if they are not treated in time.

Vetter noted that the finding of one brown recluse in an area where they are not native often results in a newspaper story that starts a wave of arachnophobia, spider stompings and recluse bite diagnoses.

"The public reaction to only one spider is far out of proportion to the actual threat the spiders pose," Vetter said. "Until you can reliably find dozens of brown recluses in an area, there is no reason to consider them as being responsible for skin lesions."

"The medical community is overdiagnosing the affliction," concluded Vetter. "It comes down to the simple premise that in order to have brown recluse spider bites, you must first have lots of brown recluse spiders."