DNA of wolf declared extinct in wild lives on in Texas pack
By DAVID WARREN
Monday, January 14
DALLAS (AP) — Researchers say a pack of wild canines found frolicking near the beaches of the Texas Gulf Coast carries a substantial amount of red wolf genes, a surprising discovery because the animal was declared extinct in the wild nearly 40 years ago.
The finding has led wildlife biologists and others to develop a new understanding that the red wolf DNA is remarkably resilient after decades of human hunting, loss of habitat and other factors had led the animal to near decimation.
“Overall, it’s incredibly rare to rediscover animals in a region where they were thought to be extinct and it’s even more exciting to show that a piece of an endangered genome has been preserved in the wild,” said Elizabeth Heppenheimer, a Princeton University biologist involved in the research on the pack found on Galveston Island in Texas. The work of the Princeton team was published in the scientific journal Genes.
The genetic analysis found that the Galveston canines appear to be a hybrid of red wolf and coyote, but Heppenheimer cautions that without additional testing, it’s difficult to label the animal.
Ron Sutherland, a North Carolina-based conservation scientist with the Wildlands Network, said it’s exciting to have found “this unique and fascinating medium-sized wolf.” The survival of the red wolf genes “without much help from us for the last 40 years is wonderful news,” said Sutherland, who was not involved in the Princeton study.
The discovery coincides with similar DNA findings in wild canines in southwestern Louisiana and bolsters the hopes of conservationists dismayed by the dwindling number of red wolves in North Carolina that comprised the only known pack in the wild.
The red wolf, which tops out at about 80 pounds (49 kilograms), was once common across a vast region extending from Texas to the south, into the Southeast and up into the Northeast. It was federally classified as endangered in 1967 and declared extinct in the wild in 1980. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the 1970s captured a remnant population in Texas and Louisiana that eventually led to a successful captive breeding program. Those canines in 1986 became part of the experimental wild population in North Carolina. That group has been declining since peaking at an estimated 120 to 130 wolves in 2006. A federal report in April said only about 40 remained.
An additional 200 red wolves live in zoos and wildlife facilities as part of captive breeding programs.
A federal judge in November sided with environmental groups that argued in a lawsuit that efforts by federal authorities to shrink the territory of the wild group in North Carolina were a violation of law. The judge ruled U.S. Fish and Wildlife also violated the Endangered Species Act by authorizing private landowners to kill the canine predators even if they weren’t threatening humans, livestock or pets.
The debate over red wolf protections could take on new dimensions with the discovery on Galveston.
Sutherland said the Galveston canines have effectively quashed a decades-old impression that red wolves were a feckless predator overwhelmed by the numerical superiority of coyotes. He adds that the Galveston group has DNA that can’t be found in the animal’s captive population.
“From a practical conservation biology standpoint, these animals have special DNA and they deserve to be protected,” he said, explaining that conservation easements that restrict development along parts of the Gulf Coast are an essential first step.
A spokesman for U.S. Fish and Wildlife said the agency is unable to comment during the partial government shutdown. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department said in a statement that the Galveston discovery is “interesting,” but “we do not anticipate any regulatory changes or implications in Texas at this time.”
Kim Wheeler, executive director of the North Carolina-based Red Wolf Coalition, cautioned that further study of the Galveston pack is needed.
“We can get excited, but in my mind, we really need to let science do its due diligence to determine what this animal is,” she said, noting that red wolves can evoke strong feelings in people with livestock or who have other concerns with their predatory nature.
Conservationists, meanwhile, say policymakers need to have a greater appreciation for hybrid animals. When the Endangered Species Act was implemented in the 1970s, conventional wisdom was that hybridization between species — such as the wolf and coyote — was rare and to be avoided. But experts say the thinking on that has changed.
“Now we know hybridization is relatively common in natural systems and does not always have negative consequences, but the policy hasn’t quite caught up with this notion,” Heppenheimer said.
Associated Press reporter Jonathan Drew in Raleigh, North Carolina, contributed to this report.
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Developers, not farmers, get biggest hit from wetlands rule
By ELLEN KNICKMEYER
Monday, January 14
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump often points to farmers as among the biggest winners from the administration’s proposed rollback of federal protections for wetlands and waterways across the country.
But under longstanding federal law and rules, farmers and farmland already are exempt from most of the regulatory hurdles on behalf of wetlands that the Trump administration is targeting. Because of that, environmental groups long have argued that builders, oil and gas drillers and other industry owners would be the big winners if the government adopts the pending rollback, making it easier to fill in bogs, creeks and streams for plowing, drilling, mining or building.
Government numbers released last month support that argument.
Real estate developers and those in other business sectors take out substantially more permits than farmers for projects impinging on wetlands, creeks, and streams, and who stand to reap the biggest regulatory and financial relief from the Trump administration’s rollback of wetlands protections.
But Trump and his administration put farmers front and center as beneficiaries of the proposed rollback because of the strong regard Americans historically hold for farming, opponents say. Trump was scheduled to speak Monday to a national farm convention.
“The administration understands good optics in surrounding themselves with farmers,” in proposing the rollback, said Geoff Gisler, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Surrounding themselves with folks that would represent the industries that actually benefit would not be as good an optic.”
Backers “have been really happy to have farmers be the face of it,” said Kenneth Kopocis, the Environmental Protection Agency’s deputy assistant administrator for water under the Obama administration. But the building industry, oil and gas and others with lower profiles in the campaign “are going to be some of the big beneficiaries.”
The more than 300-page financial analysis the administration released last month when it formally proposed the rollback appears to starkly quantify that disparity. Of 248,688 federal permits issued from 2011 to 2015 for work that would deposit dirt or other fill into protected wetlands, streams and shorelines, the federal government on average required home builders and other developers to do some kind of mitigation — pay to restore a wetland elsewhere, generally — an average of 990 times a year, nationwide, according to the government’s analysis.
In all, other industries and agriculture obtained an average of 3,163 such wetlands permits with some kind of extra payment or other mitigation strings attached each year.
Farmers represented just eight of those on average in a year, according to the administration’s figures.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which administers the wetlands protections with the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Association of Home Builders confirmed Friday that developers and other industries, not farmers, have felt the biggest impact from the federal wetlands protections and would get most of the financial breaks under the rollback.
“The residential construction industry does pull more wetlands permits than farmers do,” Liz Thompson, spokeswoman for the National Association of Home Builders, said in an email.
The Trump administration’s pending rollback of wetlands protections “could be a benefit to builders who will see some relief in terms of cost and time. That said, builders will still be regulated and will still be the industry that pulls the largest number of 404 permits which are very costly,” Thompson wrote, referring to the section of the Clean Water Act dealing with the regulatory enforcement and permits.
The administration’s proposal greatly narrows what kind of wetlands and streams fall under federal protection. If it is formally adopts it after a public comment period, it would change how the federal government enforces the landmark 1972 Clean Water Act and scale back a 2015 Obama administration rule on what waterways are protected. Environmental groups say millions of miles of streams and wetlands would lose protection.
Trump signed an order in February 2017 directing the rollback. With farmers as well as homebuilders by his side, Trump called the waterways protections then in force a “massive power grab” targeting “nearly every puddle or every ditch on a farmer’s land.”
The farm bloc has been one of the most loyal to Trump, despite farmers’ complaints that the administration has favored oil and gas producers over corn ethanol farmers, and their worries over a trade war with China.
Acting EPA head Andrew Wheeler surrounded himself with farm bureau representatives and farm-state Congress members in signing the rollback proposal last month.
In Tennessee, Wheeler, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and farm industry leaders from Washington stood in front of tractors and U.S. flags last month to urge farmers to campaign for the rollback.
“The EPA has done its job, now all of us in this room have to help to get this over the finish line,” Zippy Duvall, head of the American Farm Bureau Federation, told the Tennessee farm crowd then.
Farmers who support the rollback call the federal protections of wetlands and creeks a burden, and insist farmers know best how to protect their property.
Environmental groups, public-health organizations and others say it’s impossible to keep the country’s downstream lakes, rivers and water supplies clean unless upstream waters are also regulated federally. The targeted regulations also protect wildlife and their habitats.
The Clean Water Act permits deal with work that would dump dirt or fill into a wetland or waterway. Breaks for farmers long have been written into the law, so that a farmer doesn’t need permits for ordinary ongoing farming that, for instance, sends some soil running off into a wetland.
The American Farm Bureau Federation — one of the most active promoters of the scaling back of the Clean Water Act’s reach — says the 2015 Obama version of the rule could force farmers to pursue costly wetlands permits and mitigation for routine plowing and other farm work.
“It’s just really a nightmare for farmers to have to navigate,” said Don Parrish, the senior director of regulatory relations at the agriculture trade group. “It can cost them the use of the land, generally they have to stop using their land” if they run afoul of it.
“If you could see me, I’d be laughing” at that claim, Kopocis, the lead Obama water official behind the 2015 rule, said by phone Sunday. “Every single exemption or exclusion that agriculture had” was preserved in the Obama administration’s 2015 work on the wetlands rule, he said.
In an email, Cindy Barger, an Army Corps of Engineers official involved in the proposed regulatory change, confirmed that the rules targeted by the Trump administration had kept the regulatory relief for farmers.
Compared to other industries, as wetlands protections currently stand, “the agricultural industry has less economic exposure because of the permit exemptions,” Barger said. The gain for farmers would be the Trump administration’s attempt to streamline definition of protected wetlands, meaning farmers wouldn’t have to consult experts to know if an area is protected, she said.
John Flesher contributed from Traverse City, Michigan.
Industry wary of alternatives tries to protect a word: meat
By GRANT SCHULTE
Monday, January 14
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — More than four months after Missouri became the first U.S. state to regulate the term “meat” on product labels, Nebraska’s powerful farm groups are pushing for similar protection from veggie burgers, tofu dogs and other items that look and taste like real meat.
Nebraska lawmakers will consider a bill this year defining meat as “any edible portion of any livestock or poultry, carcass, or part thereof” and excluding “lab-grown or insect or plant-based food products.” It would make it a crime to advertise or sell something “as meat that is not derived from poultry or livestock.”
Similar measures aimed at meat alternatives are pending in Tennessee, Virginia and Wyoming. They come amid a debate over what to call products that are being developed using the emerging science of meat grown by culturing cells in a lab. Supporters of the science are embracing the term “clean meat” — language the conventional meat industry strongly opposes.
The issue strikes a particularly strong chord in Nebraska, one of the nation’s top states for livestock production, where cars roll down the interstate with “Beef State” license plates and the governor each year proclaims May as “Beef Month.”
Farm groups have found an unusual ally in state Sen. Carol Blood, a city-dwelling vegetarian from the Omaha suburb of Bellevue. Blood, who grew up on a farm, said she introduced the measure because agriculture is Nebraska’s largest industry and needs to be protected for the good of the whole state.
“I’m not bringing this bill to tell people what they can and can’t eat,” she said. “All I’m asking for is truth in advertising. It’s clear that meat comes from livestock, and livestock is our livelihood in Nebraska.”
Nebraska led the nation in commercial red meat production in 2017 and had the most feed cows as of last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Livestock and livestock product sales generated an estimated $12.1 billion for the state’s economy in 2016, according to the USDA’s most recent available data.
The measure is certain to face resistance from food producers that sell plant-based alternatives, as well as those working to bring lab-grown meat to market. Critics say the bill infringes on the free-speech rights of companies that produce vegetarian alternatives to real meat.
The Good Food Institute, the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, the Animal Legal Defense Fund and plant-based food company Tofurkey have filed a federal lawsuit challenging the Missouri law . They argue the law unfairly stifles competition.
The Nebraska bill “would censor food labels and create consumer confusion where there is none,” said Jessica Almy, director of policy for the Washington-based Good Food Institute. “You can’t censor speech just to promote one industry’s financial success.”
Supporters of the Nebraska measure say they want to ensure people aren’t misled about what they’re eating.
Blood said she proposed the measure after seeing two women in a grocery store who couldn’t tell whether a product contained meat or a substitute. She said her proposal wouldn’t require inspections of product labels, as Missouri’s law does.
“I don’t want to be the meat police,” she said.
Under the Nebraska bill, violations would bring a misdemeanor charge punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
“Consumers have a right to know what they’re buying,” said John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union. “That’s the case whether it’s a vegetarian product or not. There ought to be clear, honest and accurate labeling, and then let the marketplace make the choices.”
Hansen said his group’s livestock producers are particularly concerned about whether consumers will be able to differentiate between meat grown in the lab and farm-grown beef, pork and chicken.
Pete McClymont, executive vice president for the group Nebraska Cattlemen, said his organization’s concern rises partly from the growth of products labeled as almond and soy milk, which have become an increasingly popular alternative to cow’s milk. McClymont said his group still needs to review specific details of the Nebraska proposal, but will push for any law that protects the state’s livestock producers.
“When I go out and speak to our membership, this is right near the top of what people are passionate about,” he said.
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