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Agency Nixes Fracking Leases on Pawnee Tribal Land

Agency Nixes Fracking Leases on Pawnee Tribal Land

The government admits it failed to follow its own rules when approving new oil and gas leases on Pawnee land, part of a broader pattern of agency misconduct.

Walter Echo-Hawk, a member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, discovered in 2015 that the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Bureau of Land Management had approved oil and gas leases on Pawnee land without telling the tribe.

Walter Echo-Hawk, a member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, discovered in 2015 that government agencies had approved oil and gas leases on Pawnee land without telling the tribe.

Photo by Stuart Isett

It was a typical summer day in 2015 when Walter Echo-Hawk, a member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, discovered fracking operations near his home on Pawnee lands about 55 miles west of Tulsa.

After stumbling upon a work crew surveying for a proposed pipeline, Echo-Hawk called the oil company responsible to find out more information. The company stonewalled him. He then contacted several government agencies. Eventually, Echo-Hawk learned the truth: Two years prior, regulators had approved 17 oil and gas leases on Pawnee lands. They didn’t bother to notify the tribe.

Echo-Hawk immediately began mobilizing fellow tribal members to fight the leases. But regulators at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Bureau of Land Management said it was too late. The leases had already been approved. The agencies also claimed the Pawnee couldn’t take them to court because the tribe had failed to ask for reconsideration of those decisions when they were made.

The Pawnee, however, hadn’t been aware of the decisions because the agencies — in violation of their own rules — neglected to notify the tribe in any way.

A Confederate flag hangs from a Crown Oil fracking operation upstream from Echo-Hawk’s home.

A Confederate flag hangs from a Crown Oil fracking operation upstream from Echo-Hawk’s home.
Courtesy of Walter Echo-Hawk

Echo-Hawk was furious that federal agencies were treating Pawnee lands like “an oil and gas fiefdom.” After all, it was hardly the first time the U.S. government had run roughshod over tribal rights. In addition, the Pawnee were already gravely familiar with the threats posed by oil and gas drilling. Over the years, previous operations had left a legacy of contaminated groundwater and illegal wastewater dumping on tribal land.

“We aren’t against oil and gas production, but we are certainly against methods [that] hurt our land base, minerals and water,” wrote W. Bruce Pratt, president of the Pawnee Nation, in a press release.

In addition to water contamination, geologists have linked fracking to a surge in earthquakes, both in Oklahoma and across the country. In 2014, Oklahoma surpassed California as the most seismically active state in the lower 48. Oklahomans historically had felt an average of one or two sizable rumbles per year, but in the last few years, that number jumped to two or three per day.

A man takes photos of damage to a building in downtown Pawnee, Okla., following a 5.6 magnitude earthquake in 2016. Geologists have linked fracking to an uptick in earthquakes.

A man takes photos of damage to a building in downtown Pawnee, Okla., following a 5.6 magnitude earthquake in 2016. Geologists have linked an uptick in earthquakes to fracking.
David Bitton / AP

Despite this threat, government regulators didn’t bother to address the earthquake risk when approving the leases. Nor did they address the impacts of drilling near the Cimarron River, a 698-mile cinnamon- and paprika-colored ribbon of water that supports a native fishery protected under Pawnee tribal law. The government authorized the oil and gas company to suck millions of gallons of water from the Cimarron for fracking. Regulators also approved drilling operations on the river’s floodplain, where a spill of oil or fracking chemicals could contaminate the Cimarron, which tribal members like Echo-Hawk rely on to recharge their domestic water wells.

In 2015, the tribe requested that the agencies issue a moratorium on all new oil and gas approvals on tribal land while concerns about earthquakes and water contamination were addressed. Despite the Nation’s request, and the ongoing earthquakes, regulators continued approving new operations like water withdrawals for drilling on the leases.

“It became apparent that the agencies were not inclined to be accountable to tribal or U.S. law,” says Echo-Hawk. So the Pawnee decided to contact Earthjustice.

In early September 2016, the tribe’s fears about fracking were realized after the most powerful earthquake recorded in Oklahoma history struck the Pawnee area. The jolt was also felt by six neighboring states.

Earthjustice attorney Mike Freeman

Earthjustice attorney Mike Freeman represents the Pawnee in their lawsuit against the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Land Management.
Matt Nager for Earthjustice

“My house is made of brick and stone, and it shook as though it were made of straw,” says Echo-Hawk, whose home was among the many houses and administrative buildings badly damaged in the quake. Since then, several studies, including one from the U.S. Geological Survey, have found evidence linking fracking wastewater injections to earthquakes across the country.

Shortly after, Earthjustice filed a lawsuit against the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Land Management on behalf of the Pawnee Nation, as well as Echo-Hawk and other individual Pawnee members. Earthjustice attorney Mike Freeman says the Pawnee situation illustrates a larger pattern where the federal government violates the law by approving oil and gas projects on tribal lands without telling the affected tribes. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, for example, has used a similar maneuver in recent years in New Mexico, Maine, and on tribal lands in Oklahoma

“Our government has run roughshod over the rights of Native Americans when approving oil and gas development,” Freeman said. “But the law requires federal agencies to respect tribal laws and sovereignty.”

In addition to the federal court lawsuit, Earthjustice asked the Bureau of Indian Affairs to reconsider its leasing decision through a legal mechanism known as an administrative appeal. In May, the agency’s internal review agreed with the tribe’s argument, determining that the Bureau of Indian Affairs violated the law by approving the oil and gas leases without informing tribal members and without examining fracking’s environmental impacts. The agency’s review invalidated three of the leases and declared another 10 expired and therefore no longer in effect.

Only four leases now remain, and the tribe, represented by Earthjustice, is elevating the issue to the national level by bringing the case to the Interior Board of Indian Appeals, a federal review body. At the same time, Earthjustice’s challenge against the Bureau of Land Management’s drilling permit approvals is moving forward in district court.

While some drilling has been approved on the four remaining leases, Freeman said they have the same legal defect as the leases that were already invalidated.  As a result, he is hopeful the federal review board will strike down those four leases as well.

“The bureau has already admitted it violated the law in approving these four leases,” says Freeman. “They can’t now just turn a blind eye to those mistakes.”  

Walter Echo-Hawk

Walter Echo-Hawk
Photo Courtesy of Walter Echo-Hawk

Fracking, Gas, Oil
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Looking to fungi, spiders and other natural insect killers for less toxic alternatives to synthetic pesticides

Mistake NUMBER ONE, 2, 3,4,,,? Thinking that humans know enough to outsmart nature’s means of dealing with imbalance of systems. Article_Biopesticides_Main2.jpg

In the 1940s, scientists discovered the insect-killing properties of synthetic chemical compounds, including DDT, chlordane and lindane. Such products were cheap to produce and very effective at protecting crops and fighting insect-borne disease. But by the 1960s, it was apparent that these chemicals which can persist in nature long after initial use were accumulating in the environment. Whats more, many were harmful to birds, fish, reptiles and mammals.

Much of this came to light through Rachel Carsons revelatory book Silent Spring, published in 1962, but scientists already had begun to look for less toxic pest control alternatives. Researchers at University of California, Berkeley, and University of California, Riverside, defined in 1959 the principles of what would later be called integrated pest management (IPM) an environmentally sensitive approach to controlling insects and other pests that relies on a combination of tools. Today, biopesticides are part of the IPM toolbox.

Biopesticides are pesticides made from substances found in nature that offer a less toxic alternative to man-made chemicals. As a class theyve been used for a long time, but most traditional biopesticides havent been able to compete with synthetic pesticides on cost and effectiveness. Researchers around the world now are working to change that by manipulating chemicals found in plants, animals, bacteria and fungi. Theyre discovering new ways to use natures arsenal to build better biopesticides and so reduce the need for less environmentally friendly pest control.

Niche Market

A lot of the pioneering research around biopesticides focused on insect pheromones chemicals that insects use to communicate with each other says Jim Seiber, a professor emeritus of food science and environmental toxicology at University of California, Davis. The use of these chemicals to alter insect behavior when sprayed on crops or used as bait traps, for example, worked to some extent, but not nearly as well as synthetic insecticides. Most people like instant results,says Seiber. You could spray DDT and see the dead insects out there and count them. You couldnt get those same results with biopesticides.

As a result, biopesticides became a niche market, today accounting for roughly 3 percent of the global annual market for pesticides. There have been a few commercial standouts, though. The popular insecticide spinosad, for instance, was derived from a kind of soil bacteria discovered at an abandoned rum distillery in the 1980s.

pesticides Australian Blue Mountains funnel web spider

Venom from the Australian Blue Mountains funnel spider contain substances that only kill certain insects, giving it promise as a source of an environmentally friendly pesticide. Photo courtesy of Graham M. Nicholson, University of Technology, Sydney

By the 1990s, scientists were documenting increasing problems with synthetics. Some had been used so extensively that insects were evolving resistance. Biochemist Glenn King turned to spiders for a potential solution.

Spiders are professional insect killers,says King, a professor at the University of Queensland, Australia. Venom from spiders, scorpions, snakes and other predatory animals contain a mix of biologically active compounds called peptides. These small molecules kill prey in various ways. Some affect the nervous system. Others injure the cells and damage living tissues in other parts of the body. Some are specific to specific prey animals.

The idea was that, unlike manmade chemicals, the venom peptides wouldn’t leave residues that could persist in the environment for years, and because they targeted specific types of insects, they wouldn’t harm fish, reptiles, birds or mammals. King discovered a few molecules in the venom of the Australian Blue Mountains funnel web spider that could kill certain insects but wouldnt harm other insects or vertebrates. In 2005, he founded a biotech company called Vestaron to turn these small molecules into biopesticides that farmers could use to protect their crops. The idea was that, unlike man-made chemicals, the venom peptides wouldnt leave residues that could persist in the environment for years, and because they targeted specific types of insects, they wouldnt harm fish, reptiles, birds or mammals. 

In July 2018, Michigan-based Vestaron began selling its first biopesticide derived from these peptides. The product, called Spear-T, kills aphids, mites, thrips and whiteflies common pests of greenhouse-grown veggies and ornamental plants. CEO Anna Rath says Vestaron plans to bring to market a family of peptide-based biopesticides in the next few years for use on field crops, too.

The company is also turning to bacteria to help expand where and how their products might be used, Rath says. It recently inserted a gene for producing a caterpillar-killing peptide derived from spider venom into a protein derived from a bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). When caterpillars chew on leaves that have been sprayed with the product, theyll eat a little of the protein, which pokes tiny holes in their gut, helping to increase the penetration of the insecticidal peptide.

Botanicals and Fungi

Other researchers are working to manipulate chemicals from plants and  fungi to build better biopesticides.

For the past few decades, farmers around the world have employed essential oils, including neem oil an extract from the Asian neem tree as insecticidal botanicals. Essential oils, including neem, break down quickly in nature. This makes them environmentally friendly, but not very effective. Recently, scientists have started to experiment with encapsulating these botanicals in nanoparticles that could help to protect the active compounds from breaking down as quicklyan idea thats been tried successfully with some medicines in the human body.

pesticides neem

Seeds from the Asian neem tree yield an oil that can help protect crops from insect pests. Source: Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Fungi are another particularly promising source of biopesticides. Theyre major disease-causing agents in nature,says Raymond John St. Leger, an entomologist at the University of Maryland. Many have evolved to parasitize specific insect hosts, devising gruesome methods for finishing them off. For instance, some ant fungi turn their hosts into zombies infecting the ants brain and causing it to move to an area conducive to fungal growth before killing it and releasing fungal spores through the top of the ants head.

That natural specificity is a boon, because it means scientists can search for a fungus with a specific host range for instance, one that kills bloodsucking flies but not bees or butterflies, says St. Leger.

But fungi work slowly, so St. Leger and University of Maryland Ph.D. candidate Brian Lovett now are working on ways to genetically modify fungi for a quicker kill. They and other colleagues have inserted venom peptide genes from spiders and scorpions into fungi. Theyve taken their experiment to Africa, where theyre testing its efficacy in aerosol form on malaria-causing mosquitoes in an enclosure specially built to prevent accidental release.

Challenges Remain

Despite the scientific excitement around new biopesticide technologies, most remain untested in the marketplace. When it comes to using in agricultural applications, in the end, all that matters is what farmers think,says King.  

None of the researchers sees biopesticides as a perfect replacement for synthetics, for either farming or public health applications.

“Chemicals are going to continue playing a role for a long time to come,”says St. Leger, who sees the recent innovation in biopesticides as creating more options for pest management, not a single solution. No one product will offer a long-term fix, since pests are constantly evolving resistance. These biopesticides are prone to resistance just like any other pesticide, so if they aren’t used appropriately and rotated with other forms of pest control, they — as synthetics before them — could contribute to harder-to-kill pests.

If history has taught us anything, St. Leger says, it’s that pest management requires constant innovation.

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Holy electric hotrod in a Chevy Camaro

electric camaro

My sister’s boyfriend drove a hotrod car in the late 70s and it was a Camaro. Anytime I hear the word Camaro I remember sitting the back seat on a Texas flag, the music blaring Pink Floyd or Metallica. Today, though Camaro is rejuvenating its image from the gas guzzling and racing days of yore and has surprised fans with a new electric version of its famous car.

While we do not advocate drag racing in the Middle East because it is dangerous, two motors in this new EV make for 700 horsepower and a quarter-mile time of 9 seconds. Get your green motors running. General Motors is making a comeback with its Camaro!

While still a concept car, called the eCOPO after the special Camaros in the late 60s, it looks like a regular Camaro from the outside. But inside is a different electric story. The engines are the same ones from the Daimler electric trucks, made by BorgWarner, and they draw power from an 800-volt battery pack (get parts to make your own concept car here www.bestpartstore.co.uk. This is double the power of a Chevy Volt.

chevy volt car

The battery mass in the concept car is weighted in several units throughout the car giving it a more balanced grip on the road as drivers launch the car into the stratosphere. Maybe this will be the first car to drive on Mars?

“This project exemplifies Chevrolet and General Motors’ commitment to engaging young minds in STEM education,” Russ O’Blenes, the director of performance variants, parts, and motorsports at GM, said in a statement. “It also represents our goal of a world with zero emissions, with the next generation of engineers and scientists who will help us get there.”

EPA re-registers drift-prone dicamba. Really?


Farmer in field

On Halloween, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) made a truly scary announcement — the agency decided to continue its registration of Monsanto’s (now merged with Bayer) highly controversial dicamba-based herbicide, Xtendimax. The chemical has damaged millions of acres of farmland over the past two seasons of use, and with this decision, the devastation will continue.

Farmers were outraged at the news, feeling that EPA has seriously failed to protect their businesses from harm.

Well-documented danger

In 2017, over three million acres of soybeans were damaged by dicamba drift. Farmers and farmer support organizations, PAN included, were vocal in opposition to Xtendimax, asking EPA to pull registration of the herbicide before even more damage could occur in the next growing season.

A few states such as Arkansas took action to protect their farmers, by disallowing dicamba applications between April and October 2018. In those places that put protective measures in place, damage was reduced. But EPA didn’t take meaningful action nationally against Xtendimax after the devastating damage of the 2017 season.

In 2018, over one million acres of soybeans were damaged as of mid-July, along with numerous reports of dicamba damage to fruits, vegetables, alfalfa, commercial and residential gardens and thousands of trees. Weed scientists from Iowa to Tennessee agree that the severity of the dicamba drift crisis continues to hit specialty crop and organic farmers, conventional soybean and cotton growers, orchardists, gardeners and rural residents the hardest.

Way too little, too late

In its statement announcing the decision to re-register Xtendimax, EPA indicated it would add several label restrictions, such as prohibiting early morning or evening applications, and spraying 45 days after soybean planting and 60 days after cotton planting. But farmers are very clear that this won’t go far enough to protect vulnerable crops from harm.

Iowa farmer and PAN Board Chair Denise O’Brien shared,

Monsanto has always been determined to keep farmers running on the pesticide treadmill. The reality is we can’t afford another year of Xtend crops. We need more than a few extra hours of protection per day. We need a bold and comprehensive policy solution to this drift pandemic.

The dicamba drift crisis is a direct outcome of the chemical-intensive model of farming that has become the norm for commodity crops. The widespread use of Monsanto’s (Bayer) Roundup created weed resistance, which led to introduction of seeds genetically engineered to resist dicamba, an antiquated, drift-prone herbicide.

PAN senior scientist Marcia Ishii-Eiteman has been tracking the crisis closely:

As farmers and scientists have been saying for years, dicamba simply cannot be kept on fields: it volatilizes, drifts and will continue to cause harm until EPA has the sense and integrity to pull this product from the market.

PAN will continue to work with partners in Iowa and throughout the Midwest to find a solution to the dicamba crisis, and is a co-plaintiff, along with National Family Farm Coalition and others, in a lawsuit challenging EPA’s 2016 decision to register Xtendimax in the first place.

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Insect populations are declining around the world. How worried should we be?


When Susan Weller traveled to Ecuador to study tiger moths in the 1980s, she found plenty of insects. A decade later, Weller, now director of the University of Nebraska State Museum, returned to conduct follow-up research. But the moths she was looking for were gone.

“Just in that time frame, areas I had collected had been transformed. Forests had been taken out. … brand new cities had sprung up. I tried to go back and collect from other historic collecting sites, and those sites no longer existed. They were parking lots,” she says.

Around the globe, scientists are getting hints that all is not well in the world of insects. Increasingly, reports are trickling in of unsettling changes in populations of not only butterflies and bees, but of far less charismatic bugs and beetles as well. Most recently, a research team from the U.S. and Mexico reported a startling decline between 1976 and 2013 in the weight of insects and other arthropods collected at select sites in Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico insect decline graph

Insect populations were far lower in 2011-2013 than in 1976-1977 at surveyed sites in Puerto Rico. Adapted from: Climate-driven declines in arthropod abundance restructure a rainforest food web. Bradford C. Lister, Andres Garcia. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Oct 2018, 201722477; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1722477115. Click to enlarge.

Some have called the apparent trend an insect Armageddon. Although the picture is not in crisp enough focus yet to say if that’s hyperbolic, enough is clear to compel many to call for full-scale efforts to learn more and act as appropriate.

“I would say the insect decline in biomass and diversity is real because we see things repeated across different sites across different groups,” says Weller. “But is it an Armageddon? That part is more difficult to tease out.”

“We do know we have some declines, some very worrisome declines,” echoes David Wagner, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut and author of a chapter on insect biodiversity trends in the 2018 Encyclopedia of the Anthropocene. “The bigger question is, ‘Why?’” he says. “And that’s so very important. You can’t fix something until you understand what the problem is.”

Unsung Heroes

Many people tend to think of animals as large, furry, likeable creatures. In reality, insects are the dominant form of animal life. Close a million species have been described to date — compared with a paltry 5,416 mammals. And depending on who you ask, entomologists suspect there could be two to 30 times as many actually out there.

Not only that, but insects are linchpins of the living world, carrying out numerous functions that make life possible.

Insects pollinate a spectrum of plants, including many of those that humans rely on for food. They also are key players in other important jobs including breaking dead things down into the building blocks for new life, controlling weeds and providing raw materials for medicines. And they provide sustenance for a spectrum of other animals — in fact, the Puerto Rico study showed a decline in density of insect-eating frogs, birds and lizards that paralleled the insect nosedive.

dung beetle

Insects such as this dung beetle play a big role in recycling organic matter. Photo © iStockphoto.com/jacobeukman

All told, insects provide at least US$57 billion in services to the U.S. economy each year.

“They’re the unsung heroes of most ecosystems,” says applied entomologist Helen Spafford, who helped write Entomological Society of America’s 2017 position statement on endangered insect species.

Real Problems

It’s unsettling, then, to imagine that insects might be in trouble. But a spectrum of studies, combined with anecdotal evidence, increasingly suggests that things are, in the words of Harper Adams University entomologist Simon Leather, “not how they should be.”

Tiger moth

The garden tiger moth is among numerous species that have seen dramatic population declines in the UK in recent years. Photo © iStockphoto.com | rbiedermann

In the 1990s, reports started cropping up around the world of disappearing pollinators. In 2006, researchers reported dramatic declines in counts of moths attracted to light traps in Great Britain. A 2010 international gathering of firefly experts reported unsettling downward trends. In 2017, scientists reported a decline of more than 75 percent in insect biomass across 63 nature areas in Germany between 1989 and 2016. A 2018 census found an ominous drop in monarch butterflies along the California coast. Anecdotal evidence from Australia earlier this year indicates insect declines there as well.

Worldwide, a 2014 summary of global declines in biodiversity and abundance estimated a 45 percent drop in the abundance of invertebrates, most of which are insects. And many individual species and species groups are declining or even being threatened with extinction, from bumblebees in Europe and the United States to fungus weevils in Africa.

“I think all the indicators point to real problems with insect and invertebrates in decline across the world.” – Scott Black“The vast majority of studies that have come out in the last decade are showing a decline in populations or insect species or biomass, and we’re seeing that consistently whether in Germany or equatorial areas or the United States,” says Scott Black, executive director of the Xerces Society, an invertebrate conservation nonprofit. “I think all the indicators point to real problems with insect and invertebrates in decline across the world.”

Mixed Picture

Although these results are disturbing, they’re not definitive. In some cases, they could indicate issues facing specific insect species or characteristics of specific locations rather than an overarching trend. It’s entirely possible that some don’t even prove a local problem: The paucity of moths attracted to lights, for example, could be a matter of selective pressures that favor individuals that aren’t attracted to light.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of reasons to expect declines. Widespread use of insecticides is one obvious one. Others include habitat loss and degradation; declines in or disappearance of plants or animals that specific insects depend on for food and shelter; displacement by nonnative species; air, water and light pollution; the global spread of insect diseases; climate change; and even, says Wagner, nitrification due to fossil-fuel burning.

infographic about the planet's biodiversity

To date, some 1.7 million species have been formally described. But scientists think we’re only just beginning to understand the extent of life on Earth. Click on the image to learn more about the planet’s biodiversity.

That said, as humanity’s footprint grows, in some places some insect populations are going up. For example, Leather reports increases in recent years in numbers of moths associated with trees in the United Kingdom, where tree planting has been underway. Changing environmental conditions have led to a proliferation of tree-harming insects such as the mountain pine beetle in North America. And nonnative species such as Japanese beetles in the U.S., Asian hornets in Europe and the polyphagous shot hole borer in South Africa tend to show rapid population rises as they invade new territories.

“It’s quite a mixed picture,” Leather says. “Some insects do seem to be in trouble. Other insects aren’t.”

Spafford, who recently left a faculty position with the Department of Plant and Environmental Protection Sciences at the University of Hawaii to pursue graduate work in public administration, is less equivocal.

“There is some good evidence coming out that there are large-scale declines in numbers of insects and insect diversity,” she says. “My short answer is yes, I do think there’s enough evidence now that we really should be concerned.”

What to Do?

Pedro Cardoso of the Finnish Museum of Natural History and colleagues have pinpointed seven impediments that limit our ability to conserve insects and other invertebrates and suggest a variety of strategies, from improved research protocols to better marketing, to overcome them.


First and foremost, many scientists say, we need to get a better handle on what’s currently out there in terms of species and numbers so we have a baseline for measuring change and a notion of what might need protecting.

Scientists are calling for developing a better sense of trends in abundance and diversity through studies that are repeated over time at the same location.“Insects are both exceptionally diverse and poorly known,” says Trond Larsen, director of the Rapid Assessment Program at Conservation International. His organization is trying to do its share by working to assess insect biodiversity in tropical areas around the world — discovering hundreds of species of insects not previously known to science — which then influences the organization’s priorities around conservation.

Second, scientists are calling for developing a better sense of trends in abundance and diversity through studies that are repeated over time at the same location, resampling in areas where baselines were established decades ago.

Threatened by habitat loss, pesticides and more, the rusty patched bumblebee is considered critically endangered in the U.S. Photo courtesy of Tony Ernst, from Flickr, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“We have estimates, but there hasn’t been a full assessment or even identification of all the insect species out there,” Spafford says. “If a place has not been well studied over a long period of time, we don’t really have good data to be able to draw conclusions.”

Where declines are documented, the next important step is to figure out why they’re occurring. Because insects reproduce quickly and can be affected dramatically by shifts in environmental conditions, it can be a challenge to tease out long-term trends from temporary fluctuations in local populations.

“[We need to] identify where it’s happening, the magnitude of change, who exactly is declining and what the causal factors are,” Wagner says. In fact, he’s planning to shift his own research program to focus more on finding historical data sets and repeating surveys to assess changes over time.

Public Role

Meanwhile, conservationists are also calling for boosting awareness of the value of insects in the eyes of everyday people.

monarch butterfly

The plight of the monarch butterfly has been widely reported. But researchers emphasize that we need to pay attention to less charismatic insects as well. Photo © iStockphoto.com | Onfokus

To many of us, insects’ downsides — bites, stings, disease, crop loss — have led to a “good riddance” mentality. We need, advocates say, to recognize the overarching ecological benefits insects offer, and work to protect them in the same way we protect rhinosgrizzlies and backyard birds. Strategies such as providing habitat corridors and “stepping stones” and managing public lands in ecologically friendly ways, for instance, can help relieve other stresses on insects as climate change adds challenges due to changing environmental conditions.

“One thing about insect or invertebrate conservation that’s pretty neat and one of the reasons I’m heartened [is that] anyone can take action,” Black says. “We should be conserving polar bears and Bengal tigers and wolves, and people should fund groups that do that — these charismatic megafauna are really important as well.

“But the neat thing about insects is, anybody can help them. If you have a little yard, if you’re a farmer, if you’re a natural area manager, if you work at a department of transportation, you can work to manage plants for pollinators. We can do this across the landscape and we need to.”

citizen scientists

Volunteer citizen scientists participate in an insect survey at Mount Rainier National Park in the U.S. Photo courtesy of Kevin Bacher, from Flickr, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In the long haul, Spafford sees education as critical. “I think training teachers to better understand the role of insects in systems and such would be really helpful, and then teachers would hopefully share that information with students,” she says. “And then just helping the general public to understand the importance of insects in their daily lives, not just [as] pests but as important service providers.”

Wagner says there is a “huge, huge” role for citizen science to contribute to assessing the status of insects around the world, especially species that are seen as desirable or attractive, which are most likely going to be of interest to (and identifiable by) nonscientists.

Fireflies are among many kinds of insects that volunteers can help monitor and protect. Photo © iStockphoto.com | harmonia101

“It’s clearly one of the largest data generators,” he says. “There’s no way the scientific community can fund studies all the way across the planetary surface and monitor all insects. The only way we can hope to get reasonable data on the poster children type of insects — bees, butterflies, moths, some of the more charismatic species — would be to harness citizen scientists.”

Some such efforts already exist. The Xerces Society lists several citizen scientist opportunitiesincluding tracking bumble bees or dragonflies in North America, counting overwintering monarch butterflies in California, and watching for breeding monarchs in the western U.S. Firefly Watch also welcomes citizen participation in firefly counts.

“If people have the skill set and the time and the passion,” Spafford says, “I think it really could help fill a critical gap.”

Even as further reports of declines emerge, Black emphasizes, so do opportunities for doing something.

“This can be doom and gloom,” he says, “[but] if we can start to curb climate change, we can do everything possible to maintain biodiversity, get out there and plant flowers, stop using pesticides, talk to your parks department and get them to change their practices and plant habitat — if we all work together, I’m hopeful that we can make a real substantial difference.”

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Bayer can’t greenwash away Monsanto’s mess

Big Ag Greenwashing

As the headlines of their corporate misdeeds pile up, the Monsanto name is becoming even more synonymous with shady dealings and the obfuscation of science, all at the expense of public health. Will the company’s recent mega-merger with fellow seed and pesticide giant Bayer erase Monsanto’s track record? Bayer seems to think so, as they made the decision to drop the Monsanto name completely post-merger. But we’re not too worried.

Monsanto in the spotlight

After decades spent dodging regulators and burying scientific findings that could hurt their profits, Monsanto is finally facing their day in court. Or rather, many days in court. Earlier this summer, the company lost the first of more than 4,000 lawsuits brought against their flagship weedkiller Roundup.

The public has been paying attention, as Bayer shares plummeted following the court defeat, even though the merger process hadn’t completely wrapped up yet.

And as it turns out, Bayer and Monsanto have actually been on the same page of the industry playbook for years. In fact, Bayer deserves special recognition for their own style of spreading misinformation.

Bayer’s class-act deception

Bayer’s corporate record book definitely isn’t clean. The pharmaceutical and chemical company best known for aspirin has spent time and resources protecting their brand through “greenwashing.” Bayer and many other corporations have perfected this PR strategy, spreading misleading information to promote themselves as champions of sustainability.

Minnesota bee advocates went head-to-head with Bayer’s greenwashing efforts in June, when vigilant organizers noticed that a Pollinator Week event, hosted by local blogger The Faux Martha, was co-sponsored by Bayer’s “Feed a Bee” program.

The event centered on making wildflower boutonnieres and planting flowers to help combat pollinator declines. But Bayer is the leading producer of neonicotinoid pesticides — a key driver of pollinator declines, in addition to other factors like disease and habitat loss. Bayer hosting this pollinator party focused on a problem they’re no doubt contributing to was a prime example of greenwashing.

PAN and partners rallied to expose the event’s corporate sponsorship and shut the event down, sending Bayer a strong message that their “bee-friendly” distraction tactics aren’t welcome in our neighborhood.

Everybody’s doing it

Bayer’s not the only one selling their corporate mismanagement as leadership. A few more top greenwashing offenders:

  • The Safe Fruits and Veggies program claims to help consumers make informed food choices, parroting language that PAN and partners use when talking about the risks of chronic pesticide exposure. Yet their “pesticide residue calculator” is actually a clever spin campaign from various produce industries masquerading as a helpful tool for consumers.
  • After Dow Chemical and DuPont merged in 2017, the company announced a rebrand, unveiling the new name “Corteva Agriscience.” Corteva comes from the words “heart” and “nature,” a supposed homage to the corporation’s commitment to consumer health and well-being. Puh-lease.
  • In the wake of last week’s Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, many are calling on the state to “walk the talk.” California’s economy is still securely tethered to extractive industries, especially oil—which makes any flashy leadership on climate action look a lot like greenwashing.

Greenwashing watchdogs

In a world of low corporate transparency, the burden falls on all of us to recognize dangerous greenwashing campaigns and boldly call them out. Spotting greenwashing takes persistence and a critical eye. Dig deeper into vague advertising claims, and be on the alert for industry-funded research. Ask yourself: does this showy sustainability plan distract from the core purpose of the company? Is an industry selling regulation or enforced cleanup as voluntary? You’ll start seeing greenwashing everywhere.

The good news? We know we’re doing something right when industry starts copying our tactics. Our fearless organizing for a food system that benefits everyone is only building momentum. It’s our job to keep corporations from using that power to boost their profit margins.

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As California Burns, Trump and Zinke Use Catastrophe to Benefit Industry

As California Burns, Trump and Zinke Use Catastrophe to Benefit Industry

The Trump administration and House Republicans are using the fires across the West as an excuse to chip away at bedrock environmental laws.

A car passes through flames on Highway 299 as the Carr Fire burns through Shasta, Calif. U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has falsely suggested that more logging would help prevent the devastating fires raging across the West.

A car passes through flames as the Carr Fire burns in Shasta, California. U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has falsely suggested that more logging would help prevent the devastating fires raging across the West.

Noah Berger / AP

U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke wrote recently that “radical environmentalists would rather see forest and communities burn than see a logger in the woods.” In Zinke’s zero-sum equation, the devastating wildfires in California would stop if those radical environmentalists would let the timber industry cut down more trees.

The truth is that Zinke and House Republicans are using the destruction across the West as an excuse to chip away at bedrock environmental laws created to ensure that science drives decisions about the future of our nation’s forests.

Everyone agrees that we must protect homes and lives from the catastrophic effects of fires, but Zinke’s argument is dangerously oversimplified, cynically disingenuous and downright false. And that’s not the worst part. He also proclaims that climate change has “nothing to do” with these wildfires, even as scientists and firefighting officials unanimously assert that climate change is creating the conditions that allow destructive wildfires to thrive. These types of fires will only grow in intensity and frequency if we do nothing to address climate change.

With increasingly warmer weather, forests are becoming drier and prone to burning throughout the year. Over the past 30 years, climate change has doubled the area affected by forest fires in the western U.S., according to a study that appeared in the 2016 Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences.

This year alone, there were 63 large, uncontained fires in the U.S. in the first week of August, according to the Washington Post.

As Daniel Berlant, assistant deputy director Cal Fire, the state’s fire agency, told the New York Times: “Let’s be clear. It’s our changing climate that is leading to more severe and destructive fires.” 

Climate change isn’t the only culprit. Historic firefighting practices, increased grazing and commercial logging also have created the conditions for increasingly devastating wildfires. In many Western forests, naturally occurring wildfires every five, 10 or 20 years historically helped to clear debris on the forest floor and make room for stronger, healthier growth. However, in the late 19th century, government agencies adopted a policy of complete fire suppression – and the fuel that is feeding today’s fires has been building up for a century.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke arrives at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing.
Jacquelyn Martin / AP

Livestock grazing on public lands has also reduced the frequency of the low-intensity fires that helped keep the forest strong 150 years ago. Without grasses and ground vegetation left to fuel such fires, forests now burn only when there is a significant buildup of woody debris, which leads to more severe fires.

At the same time, commercial logging operations have removed the largest and most fire-resistant trees. These trees are replaced by dense groups of younger trees that act as fire ladders, providing fuel for fire to burn intensely and travel high up into the forest canopy.

Established wildfire risk reduction strategies that include encouraging “defensible space” and prescribed burning and thinning that selectively removes smaller trees and brush have helped to counter these impacts–especially in forested areas near communities, which are known as the Wildland-Urban Interface. One recent study in Colorado’s San Juan National Forest showed that selective thinning and burning helps to restore the forest back to its natural state and reduce the severity of fires. However, these wildfire risk reduction strategies rely on public funds, which are in short supply these days.

Zinke’s preferred strategy is not about being selective. Instead, it involves bowing to special interests and clearcutting large swaths of trees, following the false logic that aggressively eliminating trees means fewer trees to burn. Clearcutting also happens to be the way that the timber industry turns a profit.

Zinke has been espousing this argument as Congress negotiates the 2018 Farm Bill, which funds our nation’s food security, nutrition and conservation programs. The House version of this bill includes provisions that would exempt large-scale logging in our national forests from environmental review and public input while reducing Endangered Species Act consultation requirements.

If these proposals were to make it into the final bill, they would change the way that our national forests are currently managed, pushing aside science and public input to push forward timber industry interests above the interests of communities, recreation and ecology. Provisions in the House bill that aim to fast-track commercial logging and road building could increase fire risk and create additional dangers for surrounding communities, such as erosion and mudslides.

Zinke’s false assertion that large-scale logging is our best fire prevention strategy hasn’t been the only attempt by the Trump administration to use the deadly California wildfires to misinform the American public. Last week, President Trump tweeted incorrectly that firefighters faced a shortage of water in what appeared to be an effort to insert himself into debates over how best to allocate the state’s water.

All of this is nothing new for Zinke and the Trump administration, which continues to wage an all-out campaign to subvert science and deny the existence of climate change. For the tens of thousands of people forced to evacuate their homes, and the many firefighters who are risking their lives, climate change is very real. They are counting on us to fight for wildfire risk reduction strategies that address the real reasons these fires are burning – before it’s too late. 

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Court to EPA: Chlorpyrifos ban is on!

Happy kids

As of Thursday morning, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has 60 days to finalize its ban of the neurotoxic pesticide chlorpyrifos.

This was the ruling of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on August 9. The judges determined that EPA broke the law by allowing continued use of the pesticide despite scientific evidence linking it to harmful impacts on children’s developing brains.

“Children, farmworkers, rural families and science are all huge winners today,” said PAN’s executive director Kristin Schafer in a press statement responding to the court ruling. “Sadly, under this administration it takes judges to force our public agencies to stand up to corporate interests and do their jobs.”

The decision was in response to years-long litigation brought by PAN, NRDC, Earthjustice and other farmworker and environmental health organizations.

Bad for children, farmworkers & families

Chlorpyrifos is a widely used and highly-volatile neurotoxic chemical that study after study has shown is harming the development of children’s brains. When mothers are exposed during pregnancy, their children are at higher risk of having lower IQs, developmental delays and autism.

In fall 2016, EPA’s own scientists published a follow-up assessment of health risks that found that, through their diet, infants were being exposed to the pesticide at levels 140 times what could be considered safe.

In the same assessment, the scientists also found that farmworkers were exposed at unsafe levels in the field — the chemical routinely sickens workers and sends them to the hospital.

A long time coming

EPA scientists put forward a proposal in late 2015 to withdraw all uses of chlorpyrifos on food crops. But in a controversial about-face in March 2017, former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt called the science on chlorpyrifos “unresolved,” and said agency experts will continue thinking about it until at least 2022. This announcement came just weeks after meeting with executives from Dow Agrochemical (now Corteva Agriscience), which makes the pesticide.

This win highlights the importance of the courts under an administration that is consistently prioritizing corporate interests over public health. In the months since Pruitt’s reversal of the decision to ban chlorpyrifos, policy momentum at the state-level in the absence of national action has also been encouraging — Hawai’i recently banned the pesticide in the state, and California scientists recently listed it as an air contaminant and developmental toxicant.

EPA, the court has ruled. You have 60 days.

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