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Odds Favor State Protection for Las Vegas Buckwheat

Almost eight months after the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned Nevada to protect the Las Vegas buckwheat, this Tuesday the State Forester announced public hearings on proposed rules to protect the imperiled plant under state law. The Las Vegas buckwheat, a unique subspecies found only in small areas of Clark and Lincoln counties, has been in dire need of protection for years: Its "badlands" habitat of gypsum-rich soils has been largely lost to unbridled growth in the Las Vegas Valley, and some of the plant's biggest remaining populations are found in areas imminently threatened by residential, commercial, and energy-related development. Other threats to the poor plant include unchecked off-road vehicle use on public lands, mining, climate change, and utility corridor and energy developments.

Besides petitioning for state protection for the Las Vegas buckwheat back in March, in April the Center petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to put the plant on the federal endangered species list. Keep an eye on Endangered Earth Online this December for news about a decision on federal protection.

Read more in the Las Vegas Sun.

Commission Gives Transmission Line Two Thumbs Down

Last Friday, the Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club cleared a major hurdle in our campaign to defeat the Sunrise Powerlink, a controversial transmission line proposed for Southern California, when the state's Public Utilities Commission proposed two decisions opposing the project's current plan. The administrative law judge's proposed decision would totally deny San Diego Gas & Electric's request to build the 150-mile-long transmission line, planned to stretch from the Imperial Valley desert to San Diego and cut across Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, as well as many other protected parks and preserves. This decision, if adopted, will mean a complete victory for the Center, the Sierra Club, and Southern California, halting a project that would ravage species habitat, contribute to global warming, and pose a significant wildfire threat.

An alternative proposed decision would approve the project but deny the route through Anza-Borrego, also adopting a proposal by the Center and Sierra Club to require San Diego Gas & Electric to complete a renewable energy "compliance plan" (the first ever in California). Still, it would allow the construction of a transmission line in a high fire risk area. A final decision on the Sunrise Powerlink is anticipated in December.

Get details from the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Court Rejects Fishy Assaults on Steelhead Protections

Ending two cases with one ruling, last week a federal court judge threw out two attempts to strip Endangered Species Act status from wild steelhead trout in California. In the first case, anti-environment group Pacific Legal Foundation, which represents loggers and water users, asked the court to remove federal protections from five separate California steelhead populations based on the presence of hatchery fish, wrongly asserting that Endangered Species Act decisions should be made according to the numbers of hatchery steelhead produced each year. In the second case, a group of Central Valley irrigators argued that ocean-going Central Valley steelhead shouldn't be protected because, the irrigators said, resident rainbow trout might someday replace extinct steelhead populations. The Center for Biological Diversity intervened in defense of the trout with help from Earthjustice.

The judge's ruling on the first case acknowledges research by National Marine Fisheries experts that says it would be "biologically indefensible" to eliminate protections for endangered salmon and steelhead based on an abundance of hatchery fish. The ruling on the second case supports a statement made by the Center's own Conservation Manager David Hogan: "The science has shown time and time again that even when steelhead and rainbow trout mix with one another, you have to protect steelhead or you won't have any fish at all."

Get more in the Central Valley Business Times.

County Supervisor Tells Marines to Save Off-road Mecca, Ruin Wilderness

If San Bernardino County Supervisor Brad Mitzelfeld has his way, the military's planned expansion of its base in Twentynine Palms, Calif. will completely avoid an off-road vehicle recreation area in favor of dooming two wilderness areas critical for bighorn sheep, rare plants, and other species. Originally, the military planned to expand its training grounds into the Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Area and right up to the edges of the Sheephole Valley and Cadiz Dunes wilderness areas. But Miztelfeld has written a letter to the office of Senator Dianne Feinstein requesting removal of wilderness designation from more than 150,000 acres of the two areas to accommodate the military expansion -- so the off-road area might be spared. The wilderness lands should be sacrificed, Mitzelfeld declares, because they lack "true wilderness values" -- and anyway, he says, San Bernardino County has plenty of wilderness areas already. To Mitzelfeld, revenue created by recreational visits to the Johnson Valley off-road area is apparently way more precious than his county's natural heritage.

The Sheephole Valley wilderness area provides a necessary passage for bighorn sheep; military expansion into the area would separate populations in nearby mountain ranges, which could lead to inbreeding and reduced genetic diversity. The Cadiz Dunes host an array of plant life, including the rare Borrego milk-vetch. Thankfully, Senator Feinstein has already shown in a statement that opening wilderness areas for military expansion is not on her agenda.

Read more in the Press-Enterprise.

Emissions Limit Proposed for California Industrial Projects

In a positive move for the global climate, last week California's Air Resources Board issued encouraging proposed guidelines for industrial, commercial, and residential projects under the state's premier environmental protection and land-use law, the California Environmental Quality Act. While the Board held off on setting a specific threshold for residential and commercial projects, it did establish an emissions limit for industrial projects of 7,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year, including emissions from industrial operations, electricity purchases, and water use.

Matt Vespa, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, says the state's threshold appears to be predicated on actually avoiding climate change catastrophe -- instead of just complying with California's emissions target for 2020. The Center, which sued the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution District over its California Environmental Quality Act thresholds, is waging an ongoing campaign to reduce the state's emissions under the law.

Read more in ClimateWire.

Tasmanian Devil Could Die Out in 20 Years

Thanks to a terrible epidemic of an infectious facial cancer, the remaining population of endangered Tasmanian devils has been cut in half in just 10 years -- and the species could go extinct in 20 more. The disease, first reported in 1996, is spread through face-to-face contact, a key part of devil interaction; devils are more prone to the infectious cancer because of their extremely low levels of genetic diversity and a chromosomal mutation known only in carnivorous mammals.

Luckily, Australian zoologist Jeremy Austin is piloting a national project to help save the Tasmanian devil, which will establish a conservation program for the animal and work to suppress the cancer. In case a vaccine isn't available before wild Tasmanian devils die out, scientists have suggested a breeding program using the 500-plus disease-free devils in Australian zoos and wildlife parks. The animals themselves are coping with the disease by breeding earlier than usual, before the disease strikes -- which is usually at the age of two.

Get details from FOX News.

Extinct Monk Seal Removed From Endangered Species List

Last week, the final bell tragically tolled for the Caribbean monk seal when the National Marine Fisheries Service removed its Endangered Species Act protections -- not because it recovered, but because it's extinct. Last sighted in 1952, the seal was put on the federal endangered species list in 1967 in the hope it would be rediscovered, but to no avail. The species' spiral toward extinction began as far back as 1494, when Columbus noted it was easy prey for hunters seeking food, blubber, and skins.

The Caribbean monk seal is the first seal species to go extinct solely due to human causes -- but if we're not careful, it won't be the last. The endangered Hawaiian and Mediterranean monk seals are both dwindling fast due to global warming, sea-level rise, and other factors. The Center for Biological Diversity is currently working to gain more protected habitat for the Hawaiian monk seal.

Read the Federal Register notice on the seal's removal from the list and learn more about the Hawaiian monk seal.

Mice-cloners Closer to Resurrecting Extinct Species?

Speaking of all this extinction, a recent study by a team of Japanese scientists shows that healthy mice can be cloned from long-dead, frozen mice's brain cells, raising hopes that the team's technique could help not only preserve endangered species -- but even bring back extinct creatures from their frozen remains. The cloning process itself is complicated, but a key point is that this is the first time animals have been cloned from frozen tissue without the use of chemicals that might protect cells from damage. That means that potentially, any old carcass thrown in a freezer could have cloning potential, making it easy for institutions like zoos to preserve the genes of resident endangered species. Scientists say it also means that extinct animals that have been frozen in permafrost, like the woolly mammoth, might one day be brought back to life -- really.

Remember: Biotechnology has nothing to do with true conservation -- endangered species need to be saved in nature, along with their habitat, which is why we have the Endangered Species Act. Still, you can't beat cloning using frozen mouse brain cells for an interesting conversation topic.

Get details from New Scientist.

KierĂ¡n Suckling
Executive Director

Photo credits: Las Vegas buckwheat by Rob Mrowka; Anza-Borrego Desert State Park (c) David Corby; steelhead trout courtesy of National Park Service; Sheephole Valley Wilderness courtesy of Bureau of Land Management; coal-fired power plant by Phillip J. Redman, USGS; Tasmanian devil (c) Wayne McLean; Caribbean monk seal courtesy of New York Zoological Society; mouse by Rasbak, Wikipedia.

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