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Conservation

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A northern spotted owl pursues a mouse in Deschutes
National Forest in Oregon. (AP photo by Don Ryan)

"Political appointees in the Trump administration relied on faulty science to justify stripping habitat protections for the imperiled northern spotted owl, U.S. wildlife officials said Tuesday as they struck down a rule that would have opened millions of acres of forest in Oregon, Washington and California to potential logging," Matthew Brown and Gillian Flaccus

report

for The Associated Press. "The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reversed a decision made five days before Trump left office to drastically shrink so-called critical habitat for the spotted owl."


The federal government has protected 9.6 million acres of the owl's habitat—old-growth forests—since 2012, but many have blamed the move for hurting rural logging communities in the West. In August 2020, then-Interior Secretary David Bernhardt proposed removing protections for about 2% of the birds' habitat, but "the timber industry said the plan didn't go far enough and called for removal of more than 28%," Brown and Flaccus report.

Northern spotted owl habitat
(American Bird Conservancy)
In January, then-Fish and Wildlife Service Director Aurelia Skipwith "abruptly changed her agency's recommendation and went even further, telling Bernhardt more than one-third of the protected land, or almost 3.5 million acres (1.4 million hectares), should be excluded from protection." She said spotted owls were more threatened by barred owls, and that controlling the predators' numbers would better help. 

Government biologists warned that the changes would trigger the extinction of the species, but Bernhardt and Skipworth dismissed their objections. "Officials said in documents provided to AP that Bernhardt and Skipwith underestimated the threat of extinction and relied on a "faulty interpretation of the science" to reach their decision," Brown and Flaccus report.

However, Bernhardt told the AP in an email that the scientists' "reasonable certainty" of the owls' fate didn't meet the legal threshold for habitat protection. Under the statutory authority established by Congress, the Interior may only protect such areas if a species "will" go extinct, Bernhardt wrote, and suggested that wildlife officials who wish to change that standard should talk to Congress.

Wildlife officials twice delayed the changes after President Biden's inauguration, and the policy was never implemented. But it's one of many Trump administration moves—since struck down—that opened up public lands for drilling, logging and other commercial interests. The administration also tried to weaken protections for the greater sage grouse, declared gray wolves no longer endangered (which may have resulted in overhunting in Wisconsin), and drastically reduced the footprints of two national monuments in Utah that sit atop rich coal seams.

This wasn't the first time Bernhardt undermined government scientists: when he was the deputy secretary, pesticide lobbyists convinced him to block a 2017 FWS study that found that the pesticide chlorypyrifos was so toxic that it threatened the existence of more than 1,200 endangered species.

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Conservation and sustainability has always been front of mind for farmers. And technology is playing an increasing role in helping them care f…

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Lisa Schulte Moore
Lisa Schulte Moore, an Iowa State University professor of natural resource ecology and management, has won a MacArthur Fellowship, sometimes called a "Genius grant." As a 2021 fellow, Schulte Moore will get $625,000 to spend as she pleases to further her study of sustainable agriculture. The MacArthur Foundation website says she'll use those funds to implement "locally relevant approaches to build soil, improve water quality, protect biodiversity, and strengthen the resilience of row-crop agriculture."

At Iowa State, Schulte Moore has "conducted groundbreaking research as a landscape ecologist working closely with farmers to build more sustainable and resilient agricultural systems," says an Iowa State press release. "She pushes the boundaries of her field by incorporating other disciplines traditionally thought of as beyond the scope of ecology – economics, engineering and sociology, for instance – to address critical challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss, water quality and rural depopulation."

A prairie strip on an Iowa farm (Iowa State University photo)
Much of her work addresses integrating native prairie plants into farms to improve production and conserve resources and species. She has been instrumental in the university's Prairie STRIPS program, which aims to protect soil and water while providing narrow bands of habitat for prairie species. "She and her team's research have shown that strips of native prairie in agricultural fields can tremendously reduce soil loss and runoff of nitrogen and phosphorous by having more roots in the ground to hold soil and nutrients in place," Phillip Sitter reports for the Ames Tribune. "Prairie strips are now used on more than 115,000 acres of fields in 14 states, and the conservation practice has been federally recognized as eligible for government financial support by the 2018 Farm Bill."

Schulte Moore said, "I think of my work as putting together a puzzle, and I’m always looking for the missing puzzle piece. Where do I have to go or what do I have to learn to get the next piece? I’ve found that sometimes you have to build and paint the puzzle piece yourself, and that’s part of the fun of science."

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Fireflies at Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina. (Washington Post photo by Travis Dove)

Here's a roundup of stories with rural resonance; if you do or see similar work that should be shared on The Rural Blog, email

heather.chapman@uky.edu

.

Researchers released the first-ever comprehensive study of firefly tourism this year. They found that about 1 million tourists across the globe travel to witness firefly-related phenomena each year. That includes the famous synchronous fireflies in the Great Smoky Mountains; that's been getting increasingly popular for years, but the pandemic may have boosted its popularity even more this year as cooped-up tourists flocked to outdoor spots felt to be safer than indoors. Read more here.

The gorgeous but unwelcome spotted lanternfly
(Associated Press photo by Matt Rourke)

However, in news of less-desirable insects: A boy's bug collection at the Kansas State Fair last week

included a spotted lanternfly, which has triggered a federal investigation. The invasive species has been devastating trees and crops throughout the Mid-Atlantic states for years, but Kansas is more than 850 miles west from its nearest known location.

Read more here

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Few hospitals in Maine, the most rural state by percentage of population, are complying with a federal rule requiring them to publish detailed prices of medical procedures for insured and uninsured patients. Are your local hospitals complying? Read more here.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service administration may restore federal protections for gray wolves in the western U.S. after laws in some states have made it much easier to kill the predators. USFW has begun a year-long biological review to determine if such a step is necessary. Read more here.

In its first meeting last week, the White House Competition Council discussed advancing right-to-repair laws that would bar companies such as John Deere from blocking customers or independent repair shops from fixing tractors and other machinery. President Biden called for the formation of the council in a July order aimed at increasing economic competition. Read more here.

The Agriculture Department "accepted offers for more than 2.5 million acres from agricultural producers and private landowners for enrollment through this year’s Grassland Conservation Reserve Program signup," Ximena Bustillo reports for Politico's Weekly Agriculture. "This is double last year’s enrollment and brings the total acres enrolled across all CRP sign ups in 2021 to more than 5.3 million acres, surpassing USDA’s 4-million-acre goal. Producers and landowners submitted offers for nearly 4 million acres in Grassland CRP, the highest in the signup’s history. The top submitters included Colorado, South Dakota, Nebraska, Montana, and New Mexico." Read more here.

Restaurants and businesses are asking Congress for more pandemic aid, but it could be a long shot since Congress is mostly occupied on hashing out the infrastructure package and a Democratic health-care, education and climate bill. Read more here.

As Republican lawmakers in Ohio work to limit drop boxes and early voting, rural voters in Ohio—and likely elsewhere—said in a poll that they want expanded voting options. Read more here.

Appalachian musicians are tackling the complicated topic of coal—and trying to inspire change—through song. Read more here.

Many rural regions that rely on tourism and drive-through visitors are finding it beneficial to install charging stations for electric vehicles. Read more here.

With 1.4 billion cows on earth, cow waste—from both ends—adds up to become a significant driver of climate change. But scientists in Germany and New Zealand have an innovative solution: potty-trained cows. A German herd has been successfully taught to relieve themselves only in a designated area nicknamed the "MooLoo." Read more here.

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The House Agriculture Committee approved part of President Biden’s $3.5 trillion spending bill Monday, minus Biden's plan to change a tax law that helps farmers keep land in their families.


The price tag of the package is $66 billion. It was to be $94 billion, but some Democrats on the panel balked at approving $28 billion proposed for land conservation and climate mitigation by farmers, saying the package lacked details of just how the money would be spent. Committee Chair David Scott, D-Ga., said he was confident that the conservation-and-climate money would get in later.

The tax issue is “stepped-up basis,” which reduces the capital-gains tax on inherited property. In April, Biden said the proposal would not increase taxes on heirs who keep the family farm running, but farm groups stoutly opposed the idea, and it "became a political lightning rod, potentially endangering passage of the so-called reconciliation bill in the narrowly divided House, and was omitted from the package of tax increases proposed by the Ways and Means Committee to help pay for the bill," reports Chuck Abbott of Successful Farming

The $66 billion expansion of spending on forestry, rural economic development, and agricultural research cleared the committee on a 27-24 party-line vote. It includes $14 billion for treatment of hazardous fuels in national forests and adjoining land; $9 billion for forest restoration; $10 billion to help rural communities and rural electric cooperatives transition to renewable energy; $2.25 billion for the Civilian Climate Corps, similar to the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps.

"Along with finding revenue to offset the cost of the reconciliation bill, the Ways and Means Committee proposed extending the $1-a-gallon biodiesel tax credit and creating a $1.25-a-gallon tax credit for sustainable aviation fuel that reduces emissions by at least 50%," Abbott reports. "It also would provide tax breaks for the purchase of electric vehicles."

For details of the bill or to watch a video of its hearing, click here. A section-by-section analysis of the tax proposals by the Ways and Means Committee is available here.

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Establishing prairies may be a popular conservation practice, but there is some prep work that needs to be done before you welcome those pollinators.

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