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Suit Filed Over Arctic Oil Drilling in Alaska

This week, the Center for Biological Diversity and Pacific Environment sued Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne for blasting loopholes the size of polar bears and Pacific walrus in the Marine Mammal Protection Act when it comes to oil drilling in Alaska's Chukchi Sea.

When Kempthorne announced May 15 that the polar bear had been listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, he also infamously argued that the bears merited no new protections, since they were already shielded by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Interior then exempted polar bears from both Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act standards that would bar oil companies from harassing or harming bears -- specifically, giving free rein to oil companies to conduct business worse than usual in the Chukchi Sea for the next five years.       

Among the most unspoiled areas in Alaska's Arctic, the Chukchi Sea is home to most of the world's Pacific walrus and one of only two U.S. polar bear populations. In February, Interior auctioned off 2.7 million acres of the sea to oil companies, with more lease sales planned in 2010 and 2012. Under the administration's new rules, oil companies in the sea have free access to compromise polar bear and walrus habitat with new offshore oil rigs, sonic blasts, hundreds of miles of roads, increased disruptive ship and aircraft activity, and a 40-percent chance of an oil spill. All that in addition to creating more of the greenhouse gas emissions that are melting the animals' sea-ice habitat in the first place.

Read more in this Reuters article and take action by supporting the Polar Bear Seas Protection Act.

Feds Increase Sturgeon Habitat in Idaho

In response to a suit brought by the Center for Biological Diversity and WildWest Institute, this Wednesday the administration increased habitat protections for the Kootenai River sturgeon, a critically endangered fish whose U.S. population is restricted to the Kootenai River in Montana and Idaho. In the 34 years since the completion of Libby Dam, which breaks the river's flows each spring, the Kootenai River white sturgeon hasn't successfully spawned, causing biologists to doubt its chances for survival. Luckily, the courts agreed that more needs to be done, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed to safeguard 18.3 miles of the Kootenai River for the imperiled fish.

Isolated from other sturgeon due to geographic boundaries, the Kootenai River white sturgeon has evolved into a genetically distinct population segment. To reproduce successfully, it needs habitat with strong spring currents and gravel bottoms -- but Libby Dam restricts its access to both. The fish's new protected habitat includes 7.1 additional miles of river in Idaho, nearly all of which boast the pebbly riverbed the fish needs. The designation also sets a clear precept for the Army Corps of Engineers to step up protections for the fish at the dam and the surrounding river.

Read more in the Seattle Post Intelligencer.

Wolverines Need Help Right Here, Right Now

On July 8, the Center for Biological Diversity and nine allies warned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service they would sue to prompt federal protection for the American wolverine, a highly imperiled mammal that's been slighted by the U.S. administration due to the more common occurrence of its Canadian counterpart. Wolverines, the largest members of the weasel family, are famous for their perseverance -- despite being the size of a beagle, they sometimes face off with bears over kills and can fell prey as big as moose. Unfortunately, that can't protect them from human-caused threats like habitat loss, trapping, and intrusion by snowmobiles -- not to mention global warming, which melts the snow they need for key life activities.

The wolverine has a history of being snubbed by our government: Environmental groups petitioned to have the species put on the endangered species list in 2000, but the Fish and Wildlife Service rejected the motion three years later, saying it was "not substantial." A Montana judge disagreed and sentenced the Service to rethink its decision -- only to have the agency dismiss the wolverine yet again, insisting it had no obligations to protect American wolverines because there were wolverines in Canada. Perhaps as few as 500 animals now remain in the United States -- and they're fading fast.

Hear more from the Public News Service, where you can listen to a quote from Center science director Noah Greenwald.

Tiny Mouse Loses Protections to Big Politics in Wyoming

In spite of strong objections by biologists, on July 9 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service withdrew Endangered Species Act protection for Wyoming's population of the beloved Preble's meadow jumping mouse. Although the petite, russet-hued rodent will retain protections in Colorado, its other home state, the Service has claimed it doesn't meet the criteria for protection in Wyoming.

Officially declared threatened in 1998 due to habitat loss and degradation, the mouse has been scientifically proven a unique animal in need of its own federal recognition. But for years, the administration has used flawed science -- specifically, a 2003 study denying the mouse's genetic distinctness -- to insist it didn't merit habitat protections. Since the administration recently admitted that earlier habitat decisions were made wrongfully, under pressure from former Interior Department official Julie MacDonald (infamous for distorting or censoring biologists' findings), it can no longer use genetics as an excuse for removing protections. Instead, the administration has declared that Wyoming jumping mice don't need help because the threats in their state aren't quite as bad as elsewhere. (It should be noted that the mouse's Wyoming streamside habitat just happens to include prime real estate coveted by wealthy developers.)

Read more in the Denver Post.

Reward Offered to Stop Wolf Killings in New Mexico

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the capture of Mexican gray wolf poachers, adding to the $40,000 reward already offered by a coalition of conservation groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity. The agency's pledge comes following the illegal killings of three wolves, all alpha females -- the only wolf females that bear pups.

While the new crackdown on Mexican gray wolf poachers is a decided step forward, the government must put an end to its own legally sanctioned wolf trappings and killings if the wild wolf population is to come close to recovery. Though the population has declined in three of the past four years, just last year the government removed 20 wolves from the wild -- leaving only 52 wolves and three breeding pairs running free. Despite widespread public support for wolf reintroduction in New Mexico and Arizona, Mexican gray wolves are killed more than any other endangered species in the country -- and it's not helping their fragile population recover.

Read our press release.

Oops! Math Fix Shows Extinction Rate 100 Times Worse Than Predicted

Grave news for biodiversity: The time window to save endangered species just got 100 times smaller. Ecologists announced in the journal Nature that extinction rates have been drastically underestimated due to mathematical glitches. When calculating how quickly species go extinct, researchers previously included many factors -- such as premature deaths due to accidents and environmental events like storms and floods -- to ensure that their calculations had the greatest possible accuracy. But there were some pretty important factors that got left by the wayside. In particular, a species' male-to-female ratio and numbers of offspring work as wild cards in populations, causing large and unexpected population swings. When researchers entered these two variables into computer models, the data showed that some species will go extinct as much as 100 times faster than originally predicted.

This news is especially dire considering that species' current estimated extinction rates already tower 100 to 1,000 times above natural rates, with climate change threatening to raise rates even higher by 2100.

Read more in the Guardian.

Arizona Off-roaders to Help Pay for Own Vehicles' Effects

In a logical move to help protect Arizona's public lands, on June 27 Governor Janet Napolitano signed a bill that will place at least some of the financial burden of off-road vehicle effects where it belongs -- with those who help cause the destruction. Senate Bill 1167, first approved by Congress June 23, will charge off-road vehicle users a $23 annual fee to go toward repairing and offsetting environmental damage, maintaining trails, educating off-roaders, and employing off-road vehicle rule enforcement officers.

The bill is a welcome change: Off-road vehicle use has increased dramatically in Arizona since 1998, and reckless off-road vehicle use can trample fragile desert plants, crush small animals, cave in sand burrows, and speed erosion by wearing gullies into the soil. The desert tortoise, flat-tailed horned lizard, loach minnow, and southwestern willow flycatcher are just a few at-risk Arizona species that have suffered from habitat damage caused by off-road vehicles.

Learn more about the bill in the Arizona Capitol Times and check out an overview of the bill itself.

Global Warming May Mean No Girls Allowed for New Zealand Reptile

New Zealand's iconic tuatara, a lizard that once shared the Earth with dinosaurs, boasts a long list of quirky features -- it can hold its breath for up to an hour, can hear without external ears, and has a third eye visible only in hatchlings. But as climate change intensifies, one of the tuatara's eccentricities may work against it: Tuatara eggs incubated at temperatures above 25 degrees Celsius hatch as male, while eggs incubated below that temperature hatch as female.  As temperatures across the globe continue to rise, fewer females will hatch every year -- and that spells trouble not just for all the lonely tuatara males out there, but for the species as a whole.

The lizard may already be losing its ladies: Scientists have noticed an abundance of males in the reptile's North Brother Island population. Some scientists predict that in the future, all tuataras will hatch as males, causing the species to go extinct by 2085. Others believe that the 200-million-year-old reptile can survive, but only if it can change its egg-hatching ways -- and quickly.

Read more at BBC News.

KierĂ¡n Suckling
Executive Director

Photo credits: Preble's meadow jumping mouse courtesy of USFWS; polar bears by Pete Spruance; white sturgeon by Vancouver Aquarium, Wikipedia; wolverine by Zefram, Wikipedia; Mexican gray wolves by Val Halstead, Wolf Haven International; storm by Susan Caplan, USGS; ORV damage by Chris Kassar; tuatara by Samsara, Wikipedia.

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