Action Report: February/March 2003

How National Wildlife Federation is making a difference

02-01-2003 // Rene Ebersole

Deer Disease Demands Caution
In much of the country, questions are swirling about a puzzling disease striking deer and elk. The name of the malady is "chronic wasting disease" (CWD) and it attacks the brains of infected animals, causing them to grow thin, act abnormally, lose bodily functions and eventually die.

The disease has existed in Colorado and Wyoming for at least 25 years, but was recently found in other states as well. Little is known about CWD, except that it belongs to the same family of ailments as Great Britain's infamous "mad cow disease." That connection has raised concerns about a potential human health threat, despite the fact that there are no known cases of human infection or even proof that the disease can be passed to people. It's also triggered proposals to slaughter wild deer and elk in areas where CWD occurs.

To avoid the needless destruction of thousands of animals, NWF is advocating a cautious, scientifically based response to CWD. "We need to know a lot more about the fundamentals of this disease," says NWF wildlife biologist Steve Torbit. "We can't be ruled by fear."

Occurrences of CWD and other wildlife diseases have sparked recent efforts by agricultural officials to seize wildlife management authority traditionally vested in wildlife experts. If those efforts prevail, conservationists say, the concerns of livestock and ranching interests could triumph over the health of wildlife. To avoid that, NWF recently cosponsored a symposium of the world's leading experts on CWD. The gathering confirmed the need for more research and the funding to pay for it.

Several NWF affiliates are working on CWD-related issues in their respective states, with many focusing on the problem of game ranches where close quarters help to spread the disease. The Montana Wildlife Federation (MWF) sought prohibitions on the shooting of captive elk and deer and the licensing of new game ranches. The Colorado Wildlife Federation participated in the Governor's Task Force on CWD and is collecting money for research, while the Wisconsin and Idaho federations sponsored conferences of their own. And the Indiana Wildlife Federation is currently fighting a legislative proposal to transfer management of captive deer from the state's wildlife agency to its agriculture department. All of NWF's affiliates agree: Keeping wildlife management authority in the hands of wildlife agencies is key. Says MWF's Stan Frasier, "The worst possible scenario for wildlife would be to have agricultural interests in charge."

Maryland Couple Aids Monarch Conservation
Five-year-old Courtney Haberlein froze as Jim Gallion carefully placed a butterfly in her tiny, cupped hands. Silent onlookers inched closer. Within seconds, the colorful monarch danced, into the wind. And the hush of the crowd gave way to cheers. "It felt like the butterfly was tickling me," Courtney exclaimed.

Last September, Courtney Haberlein was one of several thousand people who visited Jim and Teresa Gallion's butterfly house at the Great Frederick Fair in Maryland. The Gallions, both NWF Habitat Stewards, have been hosting the fair's butterfly house for two years. Their goal: "To provide an educational opportunity to kids and adults alike."

In addition to running the butterfly exhibit, the Gallions--like hundreds of other Habitat Stewards--help people in their community create NWF-certified Backyard Wildlife HabitatTM sites. They are also restoring a flood plain near their house, helping to establish a nearby community fitness and nature trail and giving public lectures on native plants and butterfly gardens. The fair provides a chance to see the dynamic duo in action tagging and releasing butterflies as part of a nationwide butterfly monitoring program. Jim describes each release as the climax of months of work: "It's like returning someone's soul back into the winds." For more information about NWF's Habitat StewardsTM Program, visit www.nwf.org/backyardwildlifehabitat.

Home on the Ranch
Biology and history can be fun. That's the lesson 180 young Native American children learned one recent afternoon on Ted Turner's 140,000-acre Bad River Ranch. Hosted by the South Dakota Wildlife Federation (SDWF), an NWF affiliate, the day included explorations in prairie ecology, bird banding, and opportunities for the students to peer, wide-eyed, through spotting scopes at prairie dogs, buffalo and swift fox, which were recently reintroduced to the ranch. A Native American medicine man sang songs and told stories, teaching the students that such animals are a part of their cultural heritage. The students also munched on buffalo barbecue and enjoyed the soft touch of wolf, fox and badger skins. "They immediately draped the pelts over their heads like their ancestors had for hundreds of years before them," says Chris Hesla, executive director of SDWF. "The day was a complete success and the kids loved it."

Farms Flourish; Wildlife Refuges Run Dry
NWF and nine other conservation organizations recently filed a lawsuit challenging the Bush administration's decision to protect commercial agriculture before wildlife on two Klamath Basin wildlife refuges (see "Troubled Waters"). Tule Lake and Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuges--located on the Oregon-California border--contain some of the last remnants of the hundreds of thousands of acres of wetlands that once existed in the Klamath Basin. Often called the "Everglades of the West," the basin is the heart of the Pacific Flyway, a vital migration corridor for millions of waterfowl. However, it also hosts farming on the Tule Lake and Lower Klamath refuges. Last summer, the Bush administration reversed a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife decision that the annual diversion of 60,000 acre-feet of water from the Klamath River and refuge wetlands for the cultivation of potatoes, onions and alfalfa was harming the refuges. Now commercial agriculture takes precedence over wildlife-even if the refuges' marshes run dry. "The Klamath refuges are some of the crown jewels in our National Wildlife Refuge System," says Jan Hasselman, an attorney with NWF's Seattle office. "These special places should be reserved for the needs of fish and wildlife, not farms."

Waging War Against Aquatic Invaders
New legislation introduced to Congress aims to impede the onslaught of aquatic organisms, such as zebra mussels, sea lampreys and big head carp, wreaking havoc in the nation's waterways. The National Aquatic Invasive Species Act of 2002 would strengthen a former 1996 bill, requiring voluntary guidelines for dealing with aquatic invaders in some states to be mandatory across the nation. Many aquatic invaders infiltrate the country by stowing away in the ballast water of ships. "Once established, they displace native species, impede municipal and industrial water systems and degrade ecosystems," says NWF Legislative Representative Corry Westbrook. "The new bill would require ships to carefully dispose of or treat ballast water, making it harder for aquatic aliens to set up camp." According to recent estimates, invasive species cost the United States at least $138 billion every year. Scientists say they are also to blame for the decline of roughly 42 percent of the nation's endangered and threatened species.

NWF President Crowned "Clean Water Act Hero"
On the 30th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, NWF President Mark Van Putten has been named a national "Clean Water Act Hero" by the Clean Water Network, an alliance of more than a thousand environmental organizations that support the protection of the nation's water bodies and public safety. In 2002, the Network honored 30 people who have used the Clean Water Act to make powerful contributions to the protection and restoration of America's rivers, lakes, wetlands and coastal waters. Van Putten was awarded for his leadership role in ensuring the Great Lakes water-quality standards are the highest in the country and that the nation's fish consumption advisories are designed to truly protect all Americans. "Mark Van Putten's work shows the power of real people taking action to protect and restore the rivers, lakes and coastal waters they love," says Betsy Otto, cochair of the Clean Water Network.

Tune up Those Mowers!
March is national mower tune-up month. You can help clean up the environment and put some extra money back in your pocket during this NWF and Briggs & Stratton Corporation sponsored campaign. Well-tuned mowers generate up to 50 percent less emissions and burn 30 percent fewer gallons of gasoline than their beleaguered counterparts. Learn more at www.tuneupmonth.com.

FROM THE FIELD: Killer Whale Vanishing Act
More than a decade after the Exxon Valdez oil tanker dumped 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound, a unique group of killer whales patrolling the sound's icy waters has declined to dangerously low numbers. Only 20 years ago, the group--known as the AT1 population--contained 22 whales and was one of the most frequently encountered groups of orcas in Prince William Sound. Today, nine are left.

As part of NWF's campaign to protect Prince William Sound, the Federation's Alaska Project Office is leading an alliance of conservation groups in a petition to list the AT1 population as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). An MMPA listing would require the National Marine Fisheries Service to do an environmental impact study to determine why the AT1s are declining-"a really important first step," says NWF Counsel Jim Adams, that could result in measures to protect both the whales and their habitat.

Scientists say the group's decline has likely been caused by a combination of factors, including exposure to oil during the Exxon Valdez spill. Several of the AT1 whales that were spotted swimming through the spill have since vanished. Prince William Sound has also suffered from rising chemical contaminants, such as DDT and PCBs, and ever-increasing boat traffic noise that might be disrupting the whales' hunting patterns. Yet another factor possibly contributing to the decline of the AT1 whales is a food shortage. Since 1977, the harbor seal population that the AT1s prey upon has mysteriously dropped by more than 80 percent.

According to scientists, the AT1s are a culturally and genetically distinct group. In total, more than 100 killer whales live in Prince William Sound, but the AT1s are the only ones that dine on marine mammals. The others eat fish. Studies show the AT1s have not bred with the fish-eating killer whales for thousands of years. During that time, the group has developed its own culture with unique underwater calls. "It's intrinsically important that we try to maintain this type of diversity," says Adams. "What's more, the AT1 whales might be an indicator of other problems to come.

"It appears that one of the reasons the whales are decreasing is they are being poisoned by PCBs and DDT, dangerous chemicals that are bioaccumulating in the marine mammals they eat," Adams continues. "The whales are not the only creatures in Prince William Sound that eat marine mammals. People do, too. The decline of the AT1s is a red light warning that there may be problems in the sound that can effect the rest of the ecosystem and the people who depend on it."

Counting All Croakers!
In an effort to find out why amphibians are declining in the United States, NWF has joined forces with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in a nationwide frog and toad monitoring program called Frogwatch USA. Created by USGS in 1998, the program currently has some 1,700 citizen volunteers patrolling more than 2,000 registered wetland sites. Volunteers monitor the frogs and toads at their sites by listening for each species' distinctive call and submitting data on-line. "The new partnership between USGS and NWF will enable the program to expand and reach its full potential for amphibian conservation and public education," says Amy Goodstine, Frogwatch USA Coordinator. "Anyone can volunteer; you do not have to be a frog or toad expert. The more frogwatchers we have collecting data, the better."

Repairing Vermont's White River
The riverbanks may be eroding and water temperatures may be warming, but the trout and salmon swimming central Vermont's White River still have a fighting chance thanks to recent efforts by NWF and several partner organizations to restore the river's natural flow. Erosion has become an increasing threat due to the destruction of aquatic and riparian habitat from unchecked development, agriculture and runoff. As part of a larger effort to restore the White River watershed, NWF volunteers and staff members recently stabilized nearly 200 feet of eroding riverbank by, among other things, planting willow cuttings, seeding exposed soils and securing erosion control fabric. "Erosion is a symptom of an unhealthy river," explains Kari Dolan, NWF water resources manager. "We are working to address the root causes of the erosion and designing solutions so the river can function naturally."

No More Bird Wars
NWF and other conservation organizations are fighting against a provision in a pending defense authorization bill that could excuse the military from killing birds protected by the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty during training activities. Such a Department of Defense exemption could allow the unfettered destruction of unlimited numbers of migratory birds, such as hawks and songbirds, and their habitat without a permit from the Secretary of the Interior. "What's more, it would set a dangerous precedent that other agencies and private entities could use to exempt themselves from vital environmental laws," says NWF Senior Counsel John Kostyack. Many lawmakers agree. Congressman John Dingell (D-Mich.)says, "We have fought two World Wars, the Korean War, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf War with this law in place and there is no demonstrated need to exempt the Department of Defense now."

Your Contributions at Work
The battles that NWF wins on the conservation frontlines are made possible by financial support from members and donors like you. Your recent contributions are helping to fund dozens of initiatives, including:

  • $10,000 for NWF's ongoing effort to protect Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Learn more at www.nwf.org/arcticrefuge/.

  • $40,000 for "Whooper Watch," a volunteer whooping crane program that is helping scientists monitor the endangered birds. For more information, visit www.nwf.org/centralplatteriver/.

  • $25,000 for the Alaska Women's Environmental Network, empowering women as the environmental leaders of today.

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