While We Were Sleeping

Like it or dislike it, the current U.S. political situation is certainly distracting. Every day we are bombarded with news about this scandal or that outrage. Even those of us for whom conservation is our primary concern are diverted by an onslaught of other news—election interference, immigration, civil rights, indecent statements or behavior, and so on. Given the information we’re provided, most people I know think not much has been getting done in Washington this year, with the exception of the tax reform bill. However, many important agency changes and pieces of legislation have passed while most of us have been looking the other way, and from a conservation perspective, the momentum has been entirely regressive.

In no particular order, here is a short list of (anti) environmental legislation in 2017, and, for whatever it’s worth, my opinion as a conservationist and biologist. I have provided a list, by no means exhaustive, of links to relevant articles at the end of this blog.

  1. Revised interpretation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA): on 12/22/17, the House Natural Resources committee voted (as an add-on to a larger bill) to end enforcement of incidental take under the MBTA. Incidental take was defined as the taking or killing of migratory birds, their nests or their eggs, as an incidental byproduct of otherwise lawful activities (i.e., an outcome that was not directly intended). This sounds reasonable, given that it would be ridiculous to prosecute someone for, say, accidentally killing a bird while driving down the road. But when applied to industry, it meant losses of wildlife had to be compensated for financially, if the company in question a) did not have an incidental take permit or b) was considered negligent in taking steps to avoid incidental kills. So for example, the large fines that British Petroleum incurred after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, which went to habitat restoration and wildlife clean-up, were levied under the MBTA. In another, less well known, 2014 case, Duke Energy was fined $1 million for causing the deaths of 14 Golden Eagles and 149 other birds at a Wyoming windfarm. As part of the plea agreement, the company acknowledged that it had constructed the windfarm in a location it knew in advance would cause avian mortality.  Activities that reduce or avoid incidental take include placing netting over oil waste pits, avoiding placement of wind turbines in migratory corridors or known areas of high bird density, and marking powerlines. The MBTA has been used by administrations of both parties to reduce unnecessary bird mortalities. 

Horned Lark caught in exposed oil waste pit. Photo: USFWS.

Critics of using the incidental take portion of the MBTA argue that it’s an overreach of the Act, which was originally passed in 1918 to halt unregulated hunting and trapping. Proponents argue that the enforcement of the MBTA in modern industry results in proactive measures by industry to minimize bird deaths. Now there is no incentive to engage in proactive protective measures.  Energy companies previously worked with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and NGOs to implement species management, commonly known as “best practices”.  The MBTA will now apply to hunting and poaching activities only, which renders it ineffective in the modern age as unlawful incidental take by hunters and poachers is minuscule compared to that by industry.

  1. Repeal of the ban on the pesticide chlorpyrifos: Chlorpyrifos is the most widely used industrial

    Source: EPA archives

    agricultural pesticide, with approximately 6 million pounds broadcast over 10 million acres between 2009 and 2013. Studies published by the National Institutes of Health indicate that the broad-spectrum organophosphate insecticide chlorpyrifos is “toxic” to birds, “extremely toxic” to fish and non-target insects such as bees, and may lead to developmental disabilities in exposed human children. Chlorpyrifos is classified as a neurotoxin by the Centers for Disease Control, and debate over banning it continued for more than a decade as safety levels (for example, what concentration of chlorpyrifos in drinking water could be considered safe) were continually under scrutiny. In 2016 the EPA concluded there was too much uncertainty around whether chlorpyrifos could be considered safe in ANY concentration and the insecticide was scheduled to be banned as of January 2017. In addition to human health concerns, the EPA concluded that chlorpyrifos adversely affects 1778 of the 1835 species (including plants, terrestrial invertebrates and all vertebrate animals) for which toxicity analyses were conducted. It also concluded that the pesticide is likely to affect 97% of all threatened and endangered wildlife, including 100 listed bird species.One of the first actions of the new EPA administrator as of January 2017 was to retract this ban. The current EPA claims that there is not enough direct evidence of the insecticide’s effects on human developmental disorders to warrant a prohibition.

It strikes me as sadly ironic that a great deal of money and effort are being spent to slow the decline of pollinators, including the non-native honey bee upon which much of our food pollination depends. Continued use of chlorpyrifos is directly at odds with this effort. Additionally, the sharp population declines of aerial insectivores (for example, swifts and swallows), which are estimated at –90% in Canada and –50% in the U.S., are tied fundamentally to declines in insect populations. Also, if there is even a chance this substance causes developmental disabilities in children, wouldn’t one want to take advantage of the precautionary principle?


  1. H.R. 3117 and S. 1512, the “Transparency and Honesty in Energy Regulations Act of 2017”: I would first note that both the House Resolution and its almost identical Senate bill are proposed legislation, not yet passed. The text of the H.R. 3117 reads as follows: To prohibit the Secretary of Energy, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Secretary of the Interior, and the Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality from considering the social cost of carbon, the social cost of methane, or the social cost of nitrous oxide, in taking any action, and for other purposes. What are “social costs” you might ask (I did)? According to the archived EPA website as of early January 2017 (this webpage has been removed from the official EPA site, though it can still be accessed), the social cost is a measure, in dollars, of the long-term damage done by one ton of the gas in question in a given year. This takes into account loss in net agricultural productivity, human health, increased flood risk, and changes in energy costs (i.e., increased demand for heat and air-conditioning). Basically, the EPA, Department of Energy or Council on Environmental Quality would, by law, have to disregard these costs.

Global temperature anomalies (difference from average) in 2016. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The factors that give me the most pause are net agricultural productivity and human health. In searching for a discussion of the effects of emissions on human health, I found that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has typically focused on the effects of transportation pollution on respiratory health and the myriad health issues that may occur or be exacerbated by emissions, environmental toxins associated with fossil fuel use, and changes in climate. Examples of the latter include increasing allergens, unstable and contaminated water and food supplies leading to gastrointestinal disorders, and altered vector biology (e.g., shifts in population or ecology of disease hosts such as mosquitoes). In regard to agricultural productivity, some of the largest producers in the industry, such as Monsanto and Dow, have taken proactive stances on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. They acknowledge that a) the climate is shifting, b) it is driven by carbon, methane and nitrous oxide emissions, and c) it stands to impact agriculture, possibly dramatically and negatively. So companies with the highest stake in agricultural productivity will take into account the forecasted results of emissions but our regulatory agencies are not supposed to do so?

Any major decision involves canvassing available data, weighing risks and incorporating reasonable projections of results. It is folly to simply refuse to incorporate measures of long-term damage into rulings and regulations created by the very agencies tasked with protecting our resources.

  1. Oil and gas drilling, mining: This topic is almost too big to get into and this article is extremely long already. Also, no matter how many sources I consulted, I could not find one very important fact: a definitive number of how many barrels of oil, cubic feet of natural gas, or quantities of minerals are located on areas currently in production. This of course was an attempt to answer the question: how many more reserves would need to be opened to ensure our needs are met for the long term (which would also be affected by the growth of the renewable energy sector and advances in recycling)? In any case, I have a wildlife conservationist’s resistance to decrees of “opening up more areas to exploration.” Though I drive a car, heat a house, and cook on a stove, I also know that once an area has been opened to drilling, fracking or mining, that area’s ecology is permanently altered. So I would truly like a reasonable answer to the question of how many more habitats—which are of infinite complexity and which our actions almost always tend to damage—we must alter to fulfill our fossil fuel and ore requirements. Here are just a few examples of extraction-re lated legislation from 2017:
  • The coastal plain portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was opened to oil exploration as a rider to the recent tax reform bill. The bill directs that two oil and gas lease sales be held over the next 10 years. The 1.5 million acre area is one of the last intact ecosystems on U.S. soil and is a virtual nursery for about 100 species of migratory birds, as well as the now-famous Porcupine Caribou herd. The “footprint” of oil and gas infrastructure would basically devastate the ecology of the area. Also, some of the numbers don’t really add up; for example, leases would have to be sold for ten times the current lease price on Alaska’s North Slope to net the $100 billion in revenue that is supposed to help offset the projected $1.5 trillion deficit resulting from the tax bill. Also (please see map below), there are literally thousands of acres of unleased ground in the National Petroleum Reserve—closer and more accessible to existing infrastructure.

    From: National Audubon Society webinar on drilling in ANWR, 10 October 2017.


  • The reduction of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments has been an unprecedented undermining of the Antiquities Act. Since its passage by Congress and enactment by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, 16 presidents of both parties have used the Act more than 100 times to bestow protected status on areas of significant natural, cultural or scientific import. Though it has been modified on two occasions (to require Congressional consent for designating or enlarging areas in Wyoming and Alaska), no National Monument has ever been diminished in size until now. Of the 27 monuments immediately targeted for review by the incoming administration in January 2017, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante have been selected for an 85% and 45% reduction, respectively.  Why these monuments specifically? Well, if you sift through the rhetoric both for and against, wherein grazing rights and a broader sense of desire for local control are pitted against Native American cultural significance and the tourism economy brought to both areas, the common baseline is that there are oil, gas, and mineral deposits within the former boundaries of both monuments. Coincidence?
  • In recent news from Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Wilderness Area, the Department of the Interior reinstated a previously-withdrawn mining lease to a Chilean conglomerate and reduced the environmental impact study on its operations to the lowest level assessment. The previous administration had halted the mining project in the watershed due to concerns about the risky sulfide-ore extraction method leading to water contamination; apparently even conservative estimates point towards inevitable contamination of this watershed. 
  1. 30% tariff on imported solar panels: Along with a tariff on washing machines, this tariff was imposed on 1/22/18. The stated purpose is to help American solar panel manufacturers; it came after many months of requests from US-based panel producers Suniva (Chinese majority ownership) and SolarWorld (German-owned) despite strong disapproval by the Solar Energy Industries Association. The Association’s disapproval reflects the engineering and installation components of the industry, with estimates that 20,000–30,000 of the approximately 260,000 jobs in solar array development and installation will be lost because of the increased cost of panels.

U.S. Department of Energy data reported by Forbes magazine.

Arguments for or against job creation aside, from a natural resources conservation perspective, it is absolutely imperative that we incorporate more—not less—clean energy into our grid. Whether you “believe” in climate science or not, solar energy is cleaner from an extraction and production standpoint as well as being relatively emission-free. It also doesn’t carry the potential risks to land, water and wildlife that fossil fuel energy waste and spill incidents do. Higher costs from the imposed tariffs mean that the typical residential consumer, for whom the cost of “going solar” already involved considerable initial outlays, will have a much lower incentive to purchase an array—thus insuring our continued reliance on coal- and gas-fired energy. I would also argue that it sets a precedent based on bias. If one wants to levy tariffs on imported items, there are about 5,000 disposable plastic products in your average Walmart that a tariff could be applied to. To disincentivize the engineering, development and installation of clean energy arrays just moves us one step further away from a coherent long-term conservation strategy.

In the 10 days since the announcement of the tariff, one Chinese solar company announced plans to open a new U.S.-based manufacturing plant in response to the tariff. So maybe in a couple of years we will have our venerated manufacturing jobs and more solar energy too.

  1. Repeal of the Stream Protection Rule: The Stream Protection Rule, which prohibited the dumping of coal-mining waste from mountaintop-removal mining into adjacent valleys and streams, went into effect on January 19, 2017, and was repealed on February 16, 2017. The Rule was based on evidence that mining debris contaminates streams with toxic heavy metals, thus having health impacts on downstream communities. It is estimated that hundreds of miles of streams in the Appalachian region (particularly Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia) have

    A landscape view of mountaintop removal mining. Photo: Science magazine. 

    been buried by mining waste over the past 25 years. The Stream Protection Rule was meant to strengthen the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement’s 1983 stream buffer zone rule, which biologists and health officials in Appalachia have stated is ineffectual and poorly enforced. Many local and national wildlife and human health organizations also disapproved of the 2017 Stream Protection Rule on the grounds that it went nowhere near far enough towards mitigating the damage of mountaintop-removal mining; also, the Rule did not place a complete ban on dumping debris in adjacent valleys, it simply attempted to minimize the scope. There is also evidence indicating that the post-operation restoration efforts undertaken by mining companies do not restore waterways to near-original condition, as is directed by both the Stream Protection Rule and its 1983 predecessor.

This particular legislation reduces me to rather infantile simplicity in my opinion as an ecologist, which is: seriously? Burying streams and valleys in waste laced with toxic metals after removing a mountaintop is something that’s OK?

  1. The Endangered Species Act: I’m not sure I can add much to the Center for Biological Diversity’s list of proposed legislation in the House and Senate that seeks to weaken endangered species protections and recovery efforts (63 proposed bills in 2017): http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/campaigns/esa_attacks/trumptable.html
    As the conservation and management of declining species is the topic on this list I have the most intimate familiarity with, I could probably write another five pages about the intricacies of attempting, as most state, federal and private land managers try their darnedest to do, to keep every species alive on mere postage stamps of the acreage that historically existed in any ecosystem. Here I will just provide a couple of excerpts from my favorite current bill regarding the ESA:

Senate bill 935:

  • “Interior must submit to Congress a list of all endangered or threatened species. Congress must give its approval by a joint resolution before the list may take effect.” Because US Congressmen have a background in biology and ecology and can provide a critical assessment of the species that require listing?
  • “Owners or lessees of property may apply to Interior for a determination of whether a proposed property use will violate the ESA. The use is deemed compliant if Interior fails to respond within 90 days. The owners and lessees may seek monetary compensation for unfavorable determinations.” This sounds like a great way for the Fish and Wildlife Service and Department of Interior to wind up in court any time they determine the ESA is being violated.
  • “The Bonneville, Southeastern, Southwestern, and Western Area Power Administrations must include in customer monthly billing statements information on the share of costs to the customer incurred as a result of compliance with the ESA”. Transparency is good! However, this sounds like a direct order to anger utility customers about conserving wildlife.
  • “The bill amends the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to remove protections provided under that Act to black vultures and ravens in certain circumstances.” Yes, because the MBTA has not been gutted enough.  

Bald Eagle, the most well-known beneficiary of the Endangered Species Act. Photo: Kyle O’Bryan at Warsaw, MO.


The ongoing argument is that protections for the environment and wildlife thwart industry, the economy and jobs. It appears to me that the majority of fossil fuel and bio-tech corporations, particularly the innovators, have continued to be profitable under the regulations that previously existed, and that a number of regulations that were scheduled to take effect were reasonable protections of land, water and crop resources and wildlife habitat. In many cases, industries exceeded (such as many American automakers under the fuel efficiency standards informally known as the “clean car plan”), or were on track to exceed, the environmental standards that have now been rolled back.

I would submit that it is the job of business to protect the interests of business; it is the job of government to protect the interests of society and citizens. Why are federal agencies not staffed by individuals who would strike a fair compromise between environmental regulation and corporate “rights,” between conservation of natural resources for the good of all and a free-market economic philosophy? I have seen many articles, and heard many folks from both sides of the aisle voice opinions, about the appointments of Scott Pruitt, Rick Perry and Ryan Zinke to head the EPA, Department of Energy and Department of the Interior, respectively. They are well known for their ties to fossil fuel industries and no one can possibly question their strong bias in favor of same. 

Now, I’m sure that every U.S. politician in history has appointed their “friends” to positions of influence whenever possible. I have simply never before seen, in any administration in my lifetime, a group of advisors and cabinet members that was so overtly hostile to the environment and reasonable regulations pertaining to natural resources.

It is the job of decision makers, whether private or public, to assess and incorporate all available data into their decision-making process. For the federal government to conveniently ignore not just current scientific data, but historical evidence of the unwanted fruits of unregulated pollution, is irresponsible to say the least. Do we really want another Cayuhoga River on fire? Another Deepwater Horizon? Another DDT-style crisis? For the federal government to suppress findings, or halt research that it does not want to hear the results of, is extremely disturbing. The utter lack of desire to conserve our natural resources and wildlife is also a spiritual blow to everyone that values anything of nature—from the basics of clean food and drinking water to the opportunity to interact with wildlife by fishing, hunting, taking photographs, or simply being present in an undisturbed place.

One of the most common arguments about federal environmental regulations is that they constitute overreach, and that the states should be left to protect lands and wildlife. Having worked in many states, all I can say is, if every state were Missouri that would be fine. We have a non-political Conservation Commission, a stable source of funding thanks to our two conservation sales taxes, and two state agencies (the Departments of Conservation and Natural Resources) with a solid history of science-based management. Many states would not have the funding, or the apolitical policy steering, to conserve water, land, plants and animals as Missouri does. And without regulatory oversight, it would be a “race to the bottom” of which state can sell its natural resources the fastest.

[Unfortunately, even in the ecologist’s utopia of Missouri we are experiencing some dysfunction currently. In 2016, the Missouri legislature removed the requirement that four of the seven seats on the Missouri Clean Water Commission be reserved for members of the general public. The CWC is part of the Department of Natural Resources regulatory processes, voting on matters such as permits for large-scale livestock feeding operations that affect local watersheds and water tables. Thanks to three recent appointments, the CWC now consists of a majority that represents industrial agricultural interests, and which most recently voted in favor of two “factory farms” despite local opposition].


When it comes to politics, I claim no party. I vote for candidates based on their conduct and policy platforms, not based on party affiliation. If pressed, I would say that I am a “Theodore Roosevelt conservative.” TR was a champion of natural resource conservation, and he recognized more than 100 years ago that strong protection of this country’s resources, which belong to people now living and those not yet born, is critical. He warned—in 1905! —against the enormous influence corporations could have on public policy. It seems to me that Mr. Roosevelt’s foresight was exacting, and as a conservationist I wish more than anything that we had heeded his words. In closing, I would just like to say that I have been a biologist and conservationist for almost 20 years, and for me and others in the field the amount of environmental destruction that we witness almost daily has been disheartening and overwhelming. But I never in my wildest dreams believed it would be done so willfully.

For further reading, here is a list of a few articles accessed between January 15 and 30, 2018.

MBTA: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/five-things-know-about-recently-changes-migratory-bird-act-180967646/. There are links to various articles on case details.

Chlorpyrifos: https://www.factcheck.org/2017/04/the-facts-on-chlorpyrifos/

On H.R. 3117 and S. 1512 and related social costs of emissions:

Tariff on solar panels:

Stream Protection Rule:

There are also literally hundreds of peer-reviewed journal articles on the effects of coal-mining on wildlife and plant communities if you search scholar.google.com.

Oil and natural gas extraction, ANWR, ore mining:

American automakers exceeding fuel efficiency standards (which have been repealed):

Author’s post-script (as if this article wasn’t already long enough): As I performed research for this article, I felt that chasing some of the information was like going down the infamous rabbit hole. I came upon many federal government websites for which the original article was still available, but there would be a message at the top that said things like “this website is being archived for historical purposes and is no longer being maintained or updated” or “this initiative is no longer funded and the information on this website is no longer being reviewed or updated.” Examples of this include the Centers for Disease Control Healthy Community Design Initiative, a Department of Justice webpage on State-Federal Cooperation in Environmental Enforcement, the Department of Energy’s Clean Energy Investment Center (now known as the Energy Investor Center), NASA’s Exploring the Environment environmental education project, and many EPA pages. I find this ominous.

PBS has an article on this topic: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/as-climate-change-fades-from-government-sites-a-struggle-to-archive-data/
Mother Jones has a fairly comprehensive list of websites that have had certain environmental science topics changed, removed or redirected: https://www.motherjones.com/environment/2017/12/2017-was-a-big-year-for-scrubbing-science-from-government-websites-heres-the-list/


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